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The Future of Work: A Future Like the Past

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

“All along the shore, come in.” This was the call to the men sleeping rough on the beach and keen for work on the docks. On the Waterfront and Cinderella Man capture the indignity of this employment process. The hiring manager played favorites, while turning back communists, union organizers, and anyone else he didn’t like. This was the 1920s and '30s, and those who later formed the Longshore Unions began as a casual labor force, treated with indifference, disrespect, and greed by their temporary employers. It is to that world we are returning. Casual labor, part-time and seasonal employment, jobs without benefits or rights—this appears to be the future of the post-industrial societies.

Margaret Levi is the director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and professor of political science at Stanford University. Her most recent books are In the Interest of Others, co-authored with John Ahlquist, and the multi-authored Labor Standards in International Supply Chains.


Those who held the old industrial jobs had a significant advantage over today’s workers. They came together on the factory floor or worked together as they shifted cargo. But that kind of manufacturing has largely disappeared in the United States and other highly developed economies. Technological change makes the once bustling ports a site with no workers except the occasional engineer required to fix the machines and those invisibly on computers in offices directing the flow of cargo. The new industries tend to separate rather than congregate workers. Moreover, in the past, employees celebrated being working class. Today’s employees tend to be outside class categories. They are often better educated, but even those with low skills seem more individualistic in their attitudes and more libertarian in their politics.

Today’s workers are an increasingly complex category. Some sit together in large spaces and gather regularly in the lunch and meeting rooms. Think Google or Uber. Some work in teams to create a product. Think Apple or Microsoft. But many have little or no actual contact with each other. Think Uber drivers or the “Turkers’’ of Amazon who browse online to find work a computer still can't do. Many of the new tech and transportation companies define a lot of their workers as independent contractors or temporary employees hired through an employment agency. The workers thus have few rights; there are limits on collective bargaining and even access to benefits provided to others doing comparable jobs. And when jobs reduce face-to-face interactions and interdependencies among the employees, trust and solidarity, the stuff of effective organizing, is harder to achieve.

The inability of workers to express voice has significant consequences for the nature of our societies. Political parties and elected officials are likely to be less and less responsive to workers who neither mobilize in labor organizations nor vote. We have already witnessed, in numerous sectors, a decline in occupational health and safety, health-care benefits, and social insurance. We are witnessing an increase in inequality and insecure employment. Employers now have more power over their workforce. While some may argue that this enables the companies to be more efficient and wealth enhancing, there is far more evidence that unconstrained employer power leads to job dissatisfaction, lowers productivity, and passes off to the society the costs of care of those who work multiple jobs or none at all.

Some potential solutions exist. Unions, such as the Teamsters, intimidated employers with a combination of leapfrog tactics (refusing to drop off or load goods for those who refused to recognize their union) and thuggery. The latter tactic was always illegal and is not to be advocated, and the former requires imaginative new strategies. Class actions are one means for individuals to represent a larger set of workers, and there are lawyers willing to take on, even instigate, such cases. State legislation and courts defined home health-care workers in California as employees of government and thus entitled to union rights and employment benefits. Transforming on-site marketplaces into digital hiring halls, where employers must come to find workers and where the workers control the supply of labor, is another way to go. Again, how to do this in the world of the gig economy, where so many are stitching together part-time jobs, is not obvious.

But the real power of workers is—and always has been—the threat of strikes, of withholding labor. And here the future is most grim. The capacity to strike, at least peacefully strike, declines in the U.S. as one state after another adopts “Right to Work Laws”—that is, laws that restrict the ability of unions to collect the dues that support their negotiation of contracts, their lobbying, and their general organizational capacity. Such legislation has passed even in states once as progressive and union-friendly as Wisconsin and Michigan. To re-gain voice, employees must find new bases for common identity and action, and this requires new ideas, leadership, and strategies. Where those will come from remains unclear and uncertain.

The decline of labor unions means that most traditional workers have lost their voice and requires new workers to find novel forms of voice. How will the workers of the future join to express their economic and political needs/demands? The first step is forging a collective identity, of recognizing a “community of fate” in which their futures are entwined and they are motivated to act on each other’s behalf. Creating such a “community of fate” might be the hardest problem of all.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.