By Robert Hodge

Winner of the 2021 Working Now and Then Undergraduate Scholarship

Many challenges facing workers’ rights today may become worse in the future. Our economy is becoming more centralized, creating ever-larger companies with greater and greater power to challenge the rights of their workers. Union representation has been in decline for decades. App-based and ‘gig’ employment have caused the reclassification of many workers as independent contractors, stripping from them many of the workplace protections currently enshrined in law. 

Large companies have come to dominate many segments of our economy. Beyond the obvious companies such as Wal-mart and Amazon, mergers and acquisitions that once would have been denied are increasingly being approved, consolidating large portions of the marketplace into fewer and larger companies. These larger companies are wielding their power to fight unionization efforts and to lobby to roll back worker protections. 

As this trend continues, large companies will continue to wield greater and greater amounts of power. An example of this trend is to be found in the story of Bell Telephone. In the early 1980s Bell telephone was found to be a monopoly, and split into eight regional companies. However, since then five of these have re-merged to become the current AT&T, creating a juggernaut of a company larger than the original Bell Telephone that dominates much of the communications industry in the United States and has even expanded beyond communications into other industries such as entertainment. 

The types and scale of the mergers and acquisitions that have allowed this to happen would not have even been considered for approval 50 years ago, yet have become commonplace today. As companies combine, consolidate, and become larger, their influence and leverage over the laws that protect workers’ rights will exert increasing pressure to restrict workers’ rights. 

Union representation has been in decline for decades. Labor law is in a constant state of flux; the trend has been for some time now for the NLRB to suppress the rights of workers by making guidelines and rulings ever more restrictive on unions and more favorable to employers. Legal attacks to enact ‘right to work’ and other efforts backed by corporate interests continue to erode union strength and power. This weakening of unions may eventually reduce labor relations to a system where individual workers have no options for collective actions against increasingly larger and larger companies. As the power and money wielded by large corporate interests increase, this trend may be accelerated. 

Another attack on worker rights has come in the form of the push for companies to classify workers as independent contractors, thereby bypassing many of the rights and protections they would otherwise be entitled to. This has been happening for some time but has been accelerated by the move to gig and app-based employment. Well-funded technology companies that depend on a business model that treats those who do the work as disposable independent contractors without the legal protections of an employer-employee relationship are using their legal teams and resources to enlarge and expand the definition of ‘independent contractor’. If they succeed, this toehold of an exemption to worker rights will be expanded to cover more and more workers. 

These factors may combine to form a perfect storm. Larger and more profitable corporations are able to fund more think tanks, lobbyists, and political action groups that can exert considerable pressure on our legislators and our judicial system to suppress workers’ rights. The laws and rulings that result from this weaken unions. More employers classify workers as independent contractors, denying them the right to unionize using our current legal framework. Unions are growing weaker and less able to resist these pressures. Corporate power and profits increase. These small steps can form a vicious circle. 

And yet, perhaps the biggest challenge facing workers’ rights isn’t any of these external influences. These are symptoms; not the problem. All of these challenges, as fearsome as they may seem may be countered by consistent collective action by workers. The challenge workers face is to stand up and fight rather than sit down and take it. Everyone needs to eat. Everyone needs to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their family. The pressure to take a dime rather than fight for the chance at the dollar you are due is the struggle of the working man. 

The biggest challenge facing workers’ rights in the future is the challenge we workers face to take up the fight for workers’ rights. 

Reflections from Charles Joseph

Workplace protections continue to deteriorate as more and more workers lose access to legal rights. For example, independent contractors fall outside many employment laws. Some state and local governments offer protections, like New York’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act. Still, this patchwork approach leaves many workers out. If you’re dealing with retaliation or sexual harassment at work, your employment classification should not determine whether you have rights. Robert Hodge makes a strong case that workers need to come together if they want to protect their rights.

Robert Hodge currently attends Eastern Gateway Community College, where he is majoring in labor studies. In the fall, Hodge will attend the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Hodge plans to use his degree to become a labor representative.

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience in employment law. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $120 million for clients.

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