Work Matters! Workers Matter! Unions Matter!Dr. Nicholas Partyka I Labor Issues I Analysis I June 16th, 2015
I, like many Americans, am often quite lazy about dinner. I give scant attention to meal planning, and find myself regularly making a trip to the supermarket to obtain the necessaries for that evening's meal. Also, like many Americans, I am a fan of broccoli. So, one of my most common dinner expedients is to purchase frozen broccoli. Steamed until soft, and topped with lemon juice, salt, and pepper, broccoli makes a tasty side dish. Behind that frozen bag of broccoli, as well as the array of other frozen pre-cut veggies and pre-sliced fresh fruit, are workers. Most of us don't see workers when we look at a bag of frozen broccoli, or a plastic container of pre-cut fruit, but that is what we should see. Workers are what we should see behind all the goods that we consume. Our consumption habits, and predilection for convenience have costs, costs that must be paid by someone. Under capitalism, the costs of our convenience and comfort, not to mention our luxury, are shouldered by workers. These costs are put on workers in the form of unfair, unsafe, abusive workplace practices. In the case of supermarket suppliers, workers in their processing factories endure conditions not unfamiliar to factory workers of prior epochs. At the end, or bottom, of the supermarket supply chain are workers who face low pay, few to no benefits, overly demanding schedules, contingent and precarious employment conditions, few to no protections from management abuse, physically demanding work, and work that is highly monotonous and repetitive.
Low-wage workers bear the costs of our convenience in similar ways in many different industries. From hotel maids, to home cleaning services, to fast-food and restaurant workers, to warehouse workers, all bear the costs of our standard of living, by having theirs degraded. Many of us, myself included, are keen on online shopping because of its convenience. Like many others, I buy many things from Amazon.com, and mostly because I can find them cheaper there. Behind the nice packages we receive in the mail are the warehouse workers, who suffer physically demanding work, long hours, and low pay so that we can get cheaper products delivered right to our doorstep. The same can be said of the parcel handling and delivery workers employed by large firms like UPS, FedEx, or DHL. For products ranging from electronics, to textiles, to jewelry, to agriculture, the bottom rung of the supply chain is typically occupied by workers who are forced to bear horrendous working conditions; in more instances than most of us are prepared to acknowledge, this often includes outright slavery, as well as the many less direct forms of slavery and un-free labor. The furor created by the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh exposed to the world the predominance of unsafe, unhealthy, and abusive working conditions and practices in the world's garment industry.
Work matters because workers matter. The way people work, and under what conditions is one of the most salient determinant of many other significant aspects of an individual's quality of life. In another essay for the Hampton Institute, I reviewed some empirical research results about how the labor process, and a worker's place within it, can shape important aspects of an individual's character. This work, by Melvin Kohn & Carmi Schooler et al, demonstrated a clear causal link between lack of, what they term, occupational self-direction at work and workers' intellectual abilities, leisure time preferences, as well as components of their values and social orientations. This is extremely important because workers live two lives, one at home and another at work. The ways workers are transformed by their work spillover into their lives at home, and thus impact on the entire family, beyond just how income level affects a families' prospects and opportunities. Indeed, many parents attempt to pass on their values and orientations to their children, some even think this the quintessence of parenting, and so the ways in which workers vales and social orientations are changed, for better or worse, will impact on workers' children. Work matters because it can contribute to and encourage real human development, or it can stultify and repress it. Work matters, because workers matter, and because their eudiamonistic flourishing matters.
The Neo-Liberal Revolution
This is not the place for a full intellectual history of neo-liberalism. Instead, I can offer only a brief sketch of its evolution and core tenets. In generalizing, one must inevitably simplify, and in simplifying one cannot do justice to the full reality of the historical subject. But, in order to be brief one must generalize. To present a narrative that unfolds over decades, one must generalize. Many different historical, political, and social trends and events contributed to the rise of neo-liberalism from the fringes of economic thinking, into its present position as the discipline's orthodoxy. Unfortunately, I cannot discuss them all here, in a way that does justice to each.
In the wake of the tumult and dislocation caused by the Great Depression, economic policy elites in politics and academia turned to the ideas of John Maynard Keynes for prescriptions to cure the economic malady gripping the nation; indeed the world. In the main, he advised governments to spend more and save less, at least in the short-run. The more they spent, the more workers would earn, the more workers earned, the more works could spend. As increasing numbers of workers have increasingly more money to spend, this would stimulate increased output and growth, by raising aggregate demand. This is how nations could escape the liquidity trap that had ensnared them. Realizing that, because in a market economy income is expenditure and vice versa, Keynes realized that the multiplier effects of increasing the incomes of the numerically enormous number of workers without incomes, or with very low incomes, could lift a nation out of depression.
A consensus emerged among policy elites in politics and academia that the economy needed to be managed so as to minimize the disastrous consequences of the periodic recurrence of boom and bust cycles that had characterized capitalist market economies for more than a century. In practice, this meant applying counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policies as best as technocrats were able. When the economy was observed to be trending down, heading toward recession, the government would act so as to keep the level of aggregate demand stable, at the very least, if not growing. The main problem with this system is that economic data is not available in real-time. And especially in the years before computers, even more behind reality than the data today. Thus, by the time data was collected, collated, distributed to appropriate persons, is digested by them, et cetera, the "facts on the ground" will have changed; potentially in a way that will interact detrimentally with the policy designed as a remedy.
In the 1970s, this policy consensus began to break down. From academia, Milton Friedman and his Chicago School, led the assault on the Keynesian policy orthodoxy. Part of the success of Friedman's ideas can be attributed, as Eric Helleiner describes, to the resurgence of global finance.  As finance capital came again to a position of dominance it needed a theoretical apparatus to justify itself. This is precisely what Freidman's ideas offered. The core tenets of this economic ideology were, i) privatization of state assets and functions, ii) deep cuts to funding for or elimination of social welfare programs, and iii) de-regulation of industry. Though this ideology appealed to all on the supply-side, it was finance capital, as it ascended to the status of "masters of the universe" in the 1980s, that took the lead in advancing and legitimizing neo-liberalism as an ideology. As Naomi Klein puts it,
"A large part of the appeal of Chicago School economics was that, at a time when radical-left ideas about workers' power were gaining ground around the world, it provided a way to defend the interests of owners that was just as radical and was infused with its own claims to idealism." 
In the US, the rise of neo-liberalism, and its transformation of society, began in earnest in the 1980s. After conducting "experiments", largely in South America, the "Chicago Boys'" policy ideas were ready to be tried out at home. Some scholars place emphasis on the dual rise of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, and Ronald Reagan in the US as the signal of the turn to neo-liberalism in politics. Monica Prasad focuses attention on some of Reagan's early legislation on tax policy. In addition to busting the air-traffic controllers union, thus tilting the balance decisively in favor of capital in the labour market, Reagan initiated a tax cut which began to re-distribute income upward, to the wealthy. This was the kind of policy that neo-liberalism called for, because the wealthiest, the supply-side, created jobs, and thus drove economic growth. This is, as one can see, the opposite of the Keynesian analysis of the drivers of economic growth. The record of the "achievements" of Presidents from Reagan up to Obama reads as a list of items on the neo-liberal policy agenda. Since the 1980s, the US, much like many other developed countries, has seen a pronounced trend toward the de-regulation of industry, toward the lowering of tax rates on the rich and on corporations, toward the elimination of as much as possible of the ceaselessly excoriated "welfare state".
In the 1990s the most visible face of neo-liberalism was much discussed rise of "globalization", arguably culminating in the founding of the WTO. This movement of globalization, which had been picking up speed since the 1980s, focused on eliminating barriers to trade between nations. In most cases, these trade deals, as is the case with NAFTA, were used as tools by capital to gain leverage on labor unions, and undermine their strength. The de-industrialization of the US is explained almost entirely by the opening up of cheap sources of labour in the global South by so-called "free trade" agreements. De-regulation is thus incentivized all around, since regulations only add to costs, and thus reduce the competitiveness of one's domestic labor force.
The most salient results of the neo-liberal revolution have been, at least as regards the working-class, rising economic and social inequality, large-scale de-industrialization, widespread out-sourcing of employment, increased labor-market polarization, stagnant - if not declining- real-wages, and growth of low-wage sectors. Clearly, many of these phenomena are at the same time products themselves, of political action and economic incentive, and conditions of other phenomena. For example, as globalization proceeded jobs were outsourced, and manufacturing re-located. This helped undermine some of the strongest labor unions, by exposing those sectors of the US domestic economy to low-wage foreign competition. The loss of strength of unions has contributed to the ability of employers to impose low wages on workers in many sectors. Low wages prevent many working-class persons from having their voices heard politically, which results in the continued dominance of that field by elites, who then tailor policies to their benefit, which reinforces the political disenfranchisement of workers, and so on.
The Decline of Unions
It would hardly be controversial these days to say that the labor movement in America is in a precarious state. The decline in membership in unions has translated to a large extent to weakening of not only the political power of unions, but also their ability to protect workers, and even to successfully organize workers who want to join a union. At present, in the US a mere 11% of workers are members of a union, and thus possessing the important protections that membership provides. The picture changes somewhat if one divides workers between the public and private sectors. What one finds is a drastic disparity between these two groups. As of 2014, the private sector unionization rate stood at a paltry6.6%, while the rate in the public sector was 35.7%. In the public sector the US has a unionization rate as high as or higher than most of the major European countries (with the exception of the Scandinavian nations), while in the private sector the US rate is far below any. Our neighbor the north, for example, has a total unionization rate more than double that of the US.
Though often targeted by right-wing media figures and politicians as drivers of the ideological agenda of the mainstream left, and this latter as a result of being one of its largest funding bases, this is largely a canard. It may be true that labor unions contribute numerically large sums of money to political campaigns, at least as relative to typical incomes these days. When compared to the pools of dark money floating around, the contributions that labor groups make, pale in comparison. Labor unions have much more money to contribute to political campaigns than do most ordinary people, this much is true, and they do contribute much. But, at the same time, they, like others, have political goals they want to advance. However, as compared to just one of the largest donors on the conservative side, e.g. the much reviled Koch brothers, unions are outspent by more than two to one. Also, as compared to other major donors for the Democratic Party, notably Wall Street, unions and labor groups are still outspent, but only slightly. This would mean that Big Business has as much sway over the ideological orientation of the current US mainstream 'left" party as Big Labor.
Moreover, even under nominally Democratic administrations the federal government has been increasingly less supportive of unions, and of worker organizing generally. Since Ronald Reagan busted the Air Traffic controllers' union, the federal government has increasingly abandoned workers and their interests. Over the same period the federal government has also acted in many ways to directly weaken the position of workers, and reduce their capacity to successfully organize, and has thus contributed to the decline in unions. Via trade deals like NAFTA, and international commitments made under the GATT, and the WTO, American workers were increasingly exposed to "international competition", i.e. the greatly increased mobility of capital relative to labor. The result of "globalization" was the relocation of much of the first-world's industrial and manufacturing work to Asia, and the global South. This transformation undermined the position of those sectors of the US economy in which unions were more established. This erosion of the position of the most powerful labor unions quite naturally translated directly into a loss of power for less well-established unions. Moreover, changes in governmental support and oversight made attempts to organize new workers in new workplaces increasingly difficult. This latter was mainly a result of employers gaining, through lackadaisical regulation and oversight, a freer hand to impede workers' efforts to organize collectively.
Unions face considerable challenges today at every point in the process of trying to organize workers to assert their collective power. Starting at the very top, the US Supreme Court is composed of a majority of conservative justices, and they routinely rule against workers. One need only look to some recent decisions to detect the pattern of anti-worker sentiment from the court. The court ruled against Amazon's warehouse workers claims of wage theft, it also ruled against a class action by female Wal-Mart employees alleging discrimination. Despite making a favorable ruling in a recent pregnancy discrimination case involving UPS, the court has demonstrated a pattern of anti-worker, and anti-union rulings. From both houses of the US Congress comes support for new international free trade pacts, like the TPP and TTIP, which portend only to continue to erode the standard of living for US workers, just as previous international "free trade" agreements have. Also at the Federal level, the NLRB has been an inconsistent friend to workers. While some recent rulings have gone in favor of workers and unions, the NLRB has been ineffective at preventing the large-scale union-busting activities of employers.
From state Legislatures and Governor's Mansions have come much anti-union legislation. The most striking recent example of this is Scott Walker's 2011 attack on Wisconsin's public sector workers. Wisconsin, however, is not alone in preventing public employees from bargaining collectively; in Georgia, North & South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, for example, public officials are legally prohibited from bargaining with any union representatives. Even more than actual legislation, from state Legislatures and Governors comes much anti-union rhetoric, and activity. Great recent examples of this are the attempted unionization votes atVolkswagen and Boeing plants in South Carolina. The generally hostile political environment, replete with anti-union propaganda funded by conservative political groups and politicians, contributed much to the union's defeat in the Volkswagen plant, even though the company pledged neutrality, and is likely to do the same with the vote at Boeing.
On a national level, one of the biggest challenges facing labor unions is the spread of so-called " right to work " legislation. Like most conservative legislation, these bills are sold as doing one thing, when in fact, their real effect is something else entirely. Right-wingers have pitched voter I.D. laws as about combating voter fraud - nevermind that this problem does not exist - when in reality they are ill disguised attempts to disenfranchise the poor, especially people of color. Likewise, right to work laws are pitched as though they are protecting workers, and increasing employment, when in fact their point is to undermine the position of unions.
The overwhelming defeat of workers' unions in the private sector over the last few decades is why now the main thrust of the neo-liberal assault has been focused on public sector workers. In the extreme, these attacks have aimed at, and successfully eliminated, workers' right to collectively bargain; see the events in Wisconsin in 2011 mentioned above. In most cases the attacks are aimed at rolling back benefits, or reducing employment security, or both; see the Chicago teachers union strike in 2012. The story has been the same in municipalities across the US. Budget problems, caused by the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, or, as in the case of Detroit (symbolic of so many other cities) by decades of de-industrialization, neglect, and poverty, have been responded to, in the main, by foisting the costs onto workers. While the banks, and other institutions, that caused the crisis were bailed out, the costs of this were shifted onto government workers, among others, in the form of reductions in salaries, benefits, and pensions. As it turned out after the crisis, the problem was not reckless speculation, and blinding cupidity by the individuals and institutions at the apex of the US, and indeed the global, financial system. Rather, the problem was greedy government workers, and their unions, which had been overly coddled for far too long, leeching off tax-payers by demanding exorbitant salaries, benefits, and pensions.
It is in no way a coincidence that the same historical period during which the social and political power of organized labor decreased markedly, overlaps with the period during which workers' wages have been stagnant and benefits significantly eroded. It is also in no way a coincidence that this decline in union strength begins just as neo-liberalism as an ideology become the dominant view in the discipline of economics, and some its adherents rose to prominent political positions. With academic and political elites trumpeting the virtues of "free market" solutions to societies' problems, neo-liberal policy prescriptions began to be implemented, and thus began reshaping economies and societies across the globe. Undermining the strength of organized labor was one of the outcomes achieved by these policies, and very much by design.
The Low-Wage Workers' Revolt
On April 15th, as some were scrambling to file their tax returns at the last-minute, fast-food workers, among others, took to the streets to demand a living wage, and the dignity that comes with it. Organized by the Fight for $15 movement, these protests, demonstrations, strikes, walk-outs, and other actions, demonstrated the deepening desperation and frustration of low-wage workers with the social and economic conditions their poverty wages force them to bear. Having been pushed to the limit of their endurance these workers are organizing and demonstrating with increasingly fervor in support of their demands for a $15 minimum wage, and a union, to help protect them from employer abuse.
From fast-food and other restaurant workers, to home-healthcare workers, to retail workers, to domestic workers, low-wage workers face a range of related social and workplace issues that unite in their political and economic struggles. These include the shared experiences of social exclusion, and political disenfranchisement, that comes with extremely low wages, as well as the commonality of workplace experiences. At home, these workers face the challenges of trying to provide an adequate standard of living for themselves and for their children on the meager wages their long, tiring hours produce. At work, these workers face flexible scheduling practices, including'on-call' forms of scheduling, unsafe and unhealthy workplaces and workplace practices, forced overtime, discrimination, and employer abuse.
What has helped provoke this reaction from low-wage employees, especially those in the fast-food industry? A long-standing trend towards services over manufacturing as the main source employment in the economy, the shift of manufacturing to the global South, decline of state support for unions, and labor market polarization have all contributed to fomenting this outburst of worker militance. As neo-liberalism rose to become the orthodox position in economics, and its precepts came to re-shape economies, these latter trends converged, producing much social dislocation, the costs of which were almost universally foisted onto labor instead of capital. As the kinds of manufacturing jobs that used to make up the post-war American "middle class" were out-sourced, and the macro-economy shifted even more heavily toward services as the main driver of employment and economic growth, there emerged a growing polarization between the upper and lower ends of the labour market.
The later emergence of the "information economy", with the attendant development and rapid growth of computer technology and the internet, exacerbated this trend even further. Some of the main products, which are now so ubiquitous and mundane, have furthered the trend toward automation, and indeed opened it up into others. Some good examples of this are automated phone systems, computerized accounting and clerical software, and automated teller machines. In the main, the developments brought about the computer revolution have reduced the need for labor on many fronts by replacing human labor with machine or computer labor. This has significantly eroded that category of stable and long-term, if not necessarily exceedingly well-paid, employment that used to be composed of clerical, accounting, data storage, and other such activities that most firms require for the running of their day to day business operations. By throwing more labor onto the labor market at a time when macro-economic forces were moving large sectors of employment abroad, this trend toward automation helped fuel increasing competition for the kinds of jobs that were now available. In the wake of both the collapse of the "Dot Com Bubble" in 2000, and of the housing market and credit system in 2008, large groups of workers were rendered obsolete and forced to re-enter the labor market, which had drastically changed from when they began their careers. The emergence of the housing and securities bubbles after the dot com crash helped ease the transition for some of these workers, but after the 2008 collapse no new bubbles formed to re-inflate asset prices and keep the house of cards intact.
The situation contemporary workers face is a labor market which is experiencing employment growth only in the high-end segments and the low-end segments. Workers increasingly face a labor market where the few opportunities available are in low-skill low-wage jobs that do not enable one to live in a dignified way, or high-skill and high-salary jobs that pay very well, enough to live with a great many "middle class" comforts. This polarization of the labor market has manifested in several worrisome trends. One can note first the change in demographic composition of the low-wage, especially fast-food, labor force. One can also look to the increasing incidence of college graduates workingoutside their fields of study, and often in jobs that do not require college education, and pay low wages.
A further challenge to workers in the labor market is the rise of long-term unemployment, and of so-called discouraged workers, in the working-age population. This development has dramatically altered the landscape of the labor market in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. So much so that now 29% of all unemployed persons in the US are considered long-term unemployed, meaning that they have been out of work for twenty-seven consecutive weeks or more. Even though the numbers of long-term unemployed have been dropping, they remain persistently high. Making things worse, even those long-term unemployed workers who do manage to find new employment often find their new jobs paying less, sometimes much less, than their old jobs. Compounding this problem is the fact that wages, which had been declining over decades, have remained stagnant for most workers since the Great Recession began.
Even though the U3 unemployment rate is at its lowest since the onset of the Great Recession, this fails to give an adequate picture of the state of the labor market. Indeed, the problems with the U3 measure of unemployment are well-known, and yet still it is the U3 rate that is the headline number. The current U6 rate, 10.4%, which includes the underemployed and discouraged workers, is more than double the U3 rate. Much of the reason for the drop in the unemployment rate over the course of the 'recovery' from the Great Recession is the decline of labor force participation, and rise in discouraged workers, that is, people who stop looking for work because they don't think they are any jobs out there for them. According to one recent study, if these "missing workers" were added to the unemployment tally, the rate would be 7.1%, instead of 5.1%.
As social welfare programs have been cut or eliminated by neo-liberal reforms, working-class families and individuals have had to rely more and more on their wage-based incomes to provide everything necessary for a good life. Increasingly, combined with stagnant, or declining, real-wages for most, the loss of value of the minimum wage, working class families and individuals find that they cannot provide the things they need to life decent lives, and or to give such a life to their children. One can see this in the number of low-wage workers who depend on government subsidies, e.g. food stamps, in order to make ends meet; and in many case to continue to not be able to make ends meet. Wal-Mart, for example, the trend setter in the retail industry, was estimated to cost US taxpayers $6.2 Billion annually in welfare-related subsidies to its workers. The fast-food sector, one of the major employers of low-wage workers, was estimated to cost US taxpayers $7 Billion annually.
This is all part of the neo-liberal programme. As tax codes were 'reformed' so as to lighten the burden on the top earners, as it was thought they alone could create economic growth, and they came to have even more political clout, they were thus able to push their 'reform' agenda against social welfare programs. In most cases the programs were eviscerated, for example see the transition from AFDC to TANF in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, or defunded, see the current right-wing led effort to cut funding from SNAP. With one hand, neo-liberalism shifted the tax burden heavily onto workers and the poor, and with the other hand, lowered wages to the point that employees require assistance from government programs, to which employers and other elites are contributing less and less. The capitalists thus gain twice over, through the savings that accrue from paying poverty-level wages to workers, and through the increased amount of income they retain from paying less in taxes.
This movement of workers' resistance is spreading beyond the traditional occupational sectors one associates with low wages. The ranks of the Precariat have spread into academia, as adjunct employment has come to predominate more and more, as universities increasingly adapt to the larger social, political, and economic milieu of neo-liberalism. Under pressure to keep up in the college arms race, as well as keep administrators' salaries high, colleges have increasingly utilized lower-paid, temporary, "adjunct" professors to teach courses. The logic behind this is simple, adjuncts can be paid much much less, for the same work, they are eligible for few, if any, benefits, and can be replaced easily. Graduate students hungry for teaching experience make an easy pool of adjuncts to recruit from. Also, the increasing over-abundance of PhDs means colleges are increasingly able to offer less generous employment terms given the tightness in the academic labor market, even when they do hire professors for tenure-track positions. This growing precariousness of their situation has led adjunct professors at many colleges to attempt to unionize. The academic proletariat has come to share some of the experiences of the regular proletariat, especially as regards the number of adjuncts receiving food stamps, and or other government assistance.
Some critics, especially those against raising the minimum wage, like to argue that the low-wages in some industries is a function of the low level of skill required for that job, and that workers who want to get paid more should get an education, since the new "information economy" rewards education. Underlying this, and similar, arguments is an out-moded view of who low-wage employees are. This is especially the case with fast-food workers. Many view these jobs as "entry-level, as a gateway for young and inexperienced, and thus low-skilled, workers to get into the labor market and start their career climb. This often unconscious stereotype of the fast-food worker as a teenager, working there temporarily colors many people's perceptions of what kind of wages are due to these workers. Many would see those workers' "failure to advance" up the wage ladder as evidence of their lack of skill, and thus that they deserve the wages they receive. This, however, runs contrary to the demographic trends among the fast-food labor force. This labor force is now older, indeed, 36% of workers are now between ages 25-54, while another 30% is between 20-24. So, while the fast-food sector does employ young people, they no longer dominate the labor force of the industry. A fast-food job, for many individuals, is not a short-term stepping, or summer vacation employment. Increasingly it is adults, increasingly often now with children, who depends on their wages for subsistence, and who are likely to remain in this position.
Within the context of a capitalist economy, labor unions represent workers' best means of collective self-defense against the abuses and depredations of capitalist employers. Until such a time as the capitalist form of economy has been surpassed, labor unions will be essential to protecting the interests of workers, both within particular workplaces as well as within the political arena. This is why one of the most encouraging features of the Fight for $15 movement is the demand for a union in addition to raising the minimum wage. The lack of ability to collectively organize is without a doubt a large part of the reason low-wage workers have had to endure so much hardship. It is only by asserting their power though collective organization that workers will be able to confront the power of capital, again, both within particular workplaces, but also in the political arena.
Unions matter not only because they can provide workers the collective power to demand and win concessions from employers, but also because the internal life of labor unions can be an important site of democratic education. Unions can be the seed of workplace relationships, but also larger social, relationships that will characterize a new post-capitalist society. Only by practicing real democracy can workers learn the kinds of skills and abilities that are emblematic of informed, engaged, and active citizens, the kinds of citizens that make for a vibrant and flourishing democratic political culture. This is essence of Michael Lebowitz's concern for, what he calls, "real human development". The types of character traits that will help make persons into engaged and effective democratic citizens must be inculcated in people, that is, citizens must be created. When unions' internal life operates according to a robust participatory conception of democracy, it can serve as a school for exactly the types of characters that make for the kinds of citizens a future flourishing democracy must have.
Unions matter because they work, because collective organization does provide workers with the power to fight for and win better treatment. The pressure applied by the recurrent waves of protests, strikes, walk-outs, and other actions organized by the fight for $15 movement was, without a doubt, a main factor in the decision of leading firms in several large industries to raise their base wage. Just this year, industry giants and leading employers of low-wage employees, Wal-Mart,Target, and McDonald's all announced they would be raising their minimum wage. Though these moves are largely symbolic, especially in the case of McDonald's, they do show that the revolt of the low-wage workers is seen a real threat. The continued militance from fast-food workers, among other low-wage workers, will bring additional pressure on employers to raise wages, as well on municipalities to follow the lead of Seattle, and most recently Los Angeles, and pass $15 minimum wage laws.
Unions matter because it is only by collective organization, and its deployment toward advancing a militant pro-worker agenda, that workers have won the few concessions they have been able to win. Since the dawn of industrialization, and the wage-worker, the kind of generous, philanthropic entrepreneur, like Robert Owen, has been quite few and far between. For the most part, workers have had to struggle, to fight, and often to die, in order to achieve what little dignity they have been able to win at work. Features of the labor market that many today take entirely for granted, were important victories for organized labor movements. The eight hour work day, the forty hour work week, pensions, health insurance, workplace health and safety standards, protection for arbitrary termination, protections from abuse and harassment by management, to name a few. Unfortunately, in a capitalist dominated "democracy", all of these concessions, however important, are always vulnerable to repeal. In fact, over the course of the many decades since the New Deal, when many of the most significant labor protections were codified into law in the US, all of these concessions have been attacked, with many rolled back, or even eliminated.
Unions matter, because short of abolishing the capitalist form of economy, they are essential for the working-class to exert its influence in the "democratic" political arena. If there is any hope of reforming a democratic political system conjoined to a capitalist market economy, it will require significant amounts of regulation and rigorous vigilance in upholding them. This can only come from the state. The state, however, will only enact and vigorously enforce these necessary regulations if it is compelled to do so. A strong and well-organized labor movement can supply the political force to compel their government to enforce the stringent kinds of environmental and labor protections that can attempt to check some of the many abuses workers face. If there is any hope at all of resisting the undue influence of things like "dark money" in the political system, it will again be a strong and well-organized, but above all militant, labor movement that can supply the political and economic force to enact appropriate legislation, and then enforce these laws. Attempting to operate a political democracy in conjunction with a capitalist market economy will always require an extreme amount of unity, vigilance, vision, and militance on the part of the working-class, to both achieve political power and enact necessary changes, and then to maintain these policies over the long-term.
 For excellent examples of this reality see, Newsome, Kirsty, Paul Thompson, & Johanna Commander. "The Forgotten Factories". Work Matters . Ed. Sharon C. Bolton & Maeve Houlihan. Pelgrave McMillan, (2009): 145-162. Also see, Mulholland, Kate. "Life on the Supermarket Floor". Work Matters. Ed. Sharon C. Bolton & Maeve Houlihan. Pelgrave McMillan (2009): 162-180.
 See Kohn, Melvin, & Carmi Schooler et al. Work and Personality. Ablex Publishing: 1983. Also see Kohn, Melvin. Class and Conformity. (1969). 2nd Ed. University of Chicago Press: 1977.
 Helleiner, Eric. States & The Re-Emergence of Global Finance: From Bretton Woods to the 1990s. 1994. Cornell University Press: 1996.
 Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine. Picador, (2007): 63.
 Prasad, Monica. The Politics of Free Markets. The University of Chicago Press: 2006.
 Lebowitz, Michael. The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development. Monthly Review Press, (2010): 47-65.