What’s the role of organized labor when employers need workers less and less in order to create profit? That’s the question at the heart of Unions Renewed: Building Power in an Age of Finance. In the readable new book published by Polity, authors Alice Martin and Annie Quick describe the pervasive influence of financial actors across Western economies, turning firms of all kinds into unproductive rent seekers and speculators, and the consequences for workers and communities. Yet Martin and Quick are heartened by a union resurgence, and stress the need for organized labor to look beyond mere wage-bargaining in order to build power under financial capitalism. 

Private-equity managers asset-strip employers. Corporate debt-service sipho resources for the financial sector. Manufacturers transition to consumer credit agencies. Outsourcing, stock buybacks, interest-rate swaps — Unions Renewed surveys the many arcane mechanisms by which employers make money without producing anything, benefiting if not the bosses then distant investors, usually both. It is a world where workers unwittingly buoy union-busting firms through their pensions, thereby “colluding with their own subjugation.” Rooted in the deregulatory and anti-labor policies endemic to neoliberalism, Martin and Quick summarize, the employers’ share of national income has been outstripping that of workers for decades. 

The authors put it bluntly: Traditional wage-bargaining wasn’t built for this kind of capitalism. 

In 2018, according to Unions Renewed, more workers went on strike in the US than in any year since the mid-1980s. Martin and Quick argue the reviving union movement needs new tactics and demands to affect change under financialization’s “economic dictatorship”: Identify the real financial interests underlying workplace decisions. Mobilize “the whole bargaining unit,” including outsourced workers. “Bargain or the common good,” or recognize how workers have interests inside and outside the workplace. The Chicago teacher’s strike of 2019, a central example, was about wages as well as city gentrification policies and Wall Street predation. 

Martin and Quick don’t talk about the arts, mostly drawing examples from manufacturing, retail, healthcare, and education. But the story they tell meaningfully maps onto US cultural institutions. 

Museums, long-starved of direct government support, have embraced debt-financing expansions and speculative endowment investing. Some pay millions in interest annually to bondholders (Whitney Museum of American Art), others pay millions annually to outside investment management firms (Philadelphia Museum of Art). In other words, museums in an age of finance do more for their big donors than just launder reputations, as activists have framed campaigns against Warren Kanders, the Sacklers, and Tom Gores. They’ve become significant sources of fees, returns, and investment capital for the financial and real-estate sectors from which collector-trustee wealth overwhelmingly derives. 

Through the lens of Unions Renewed, museums’ esoteric investment strategies — which privilege financial over other forms of expertise in leadership positions — probably help explain why they’ve become sites of pronounced inequality and racial stratification — issues centered in recent union campaigns at the New Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Frye Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and other institutions. In order to organize against financial capitalism as it manifests at these institutions, though, the unions will first need to overcome what Quick and Martin call the “information imbalance” disadvantaging workers. Museum officials, this journalist can attest, are reluctant to detail endowment investments, even though those decisions can affect staff not only as wage-earners, but also as members of the surrounding community.  

Unions Renewed is not a guide to bread-and-butter workplace organizing. It has no tips for combating “union avoidance” law firms or sclerotic union leadership. (Its passing references to internal union capacity-building draw on the work of Jane McAlevey.) It reads like a call for the reawakening labor movement to demand everything, and see unions as vehicles for structural change inside and outside of the workplace. In this, it is also keyed to the moment in the arts: Upstart museum unionists are demanding more than a living wage, aiming instead to wrest power from executives and trustees and dramatically transform institutions themselves. 

Unions Renewed: Building Power in an Age of Finance by Alice Martin and Annie Quick is published by Polity and available on Bookshop.

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