This Labor Day, many of us will relax with a cold one as we barbecue with family and friends. It will be a nice break from all the hustle and bustle. Few of us, however, will think about the history of the labor movement that helped build the American middle class and give us the weekend and Labor Day. Perhaps we should turn our thoughts to some of those important things while the grill does its job.
At about 7% density in the private sector, unions are dying. Top-notch econometric analyses, such as those developed by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, have shown a clear causal relationship between dropping union membership and increasing economic inequality, signals of a dying American middle class (Unions, Norms, and the Rise in U.S. Wage Inequality, 76 Amer. Sociological Rev. 513 (2011)). As a result of ever-growing inequality, good wages, pensions, health care, and vacation time are becoming extinct.
Education, the great equalizer, has also seen better days. Compared to other developed nations, our public schools are no longer competitive. Higher education is too expensive. Graduates drown in debt and, yes, in unemployment.
The education crisis has also hit law schools—my “industry”—perhaps compelling Barack Obama to recently suggest that law school be trimmed down to two years from its current three.
On the bright side, there are ways in which prospective law students are attempting to lower the value of their education through collective action—the same type of action that built labor and the middle class. They are using websites, such as lawschoolnumbers.com, to publish profiles that include their LSAT and grade information, the schools to which they are applying, the offers and rejections that they receive, and their financial aid packages. All applicants can compare their performance against similarly situated applicants. They also get free coaching on how to write appeals letters from websites such as top-law-schools.com. As a result of this collective information sharing, applicants are crafting stronger appeals letters to admissions and financial aid offices. Snippets of information that I have received suggest that the appeals letters are becoming more frequent. They also seem to be helping the applicants get more money and reduce their debt load.
Most public discussions regarding how to improve difficult social problems—such as providing quality and affordable health care, improving and making education more accessible, disabling unfair credit practices, etc.—hinge on asking what new government rules should govern these areas or, on the conservative side, whether regulations themselves may be the problem. However, little is said about how we can solve many of these problems by better empowering the people who are most affected by them.
As a labor lawyer, my inclination is to try to find solutions to social problems through collective self-help. Recently, Professor Harry Arthurs suggested that labor lawyers think about ways that we can extend the method of labor law to other social groups that face economic subordination. This idea makes sense to me. For example, if law school applicants are proactively reducing their education costs by mobilizing collective resources, why shouldn’t law support this self-help in the manner that labor law purports to support employee collective action in the workplace? Why don’t we take the collective-blogger-activist model up a notch and require that institutions of higher education bargain in good faith with organized students seeking to get better financial aid deals?
This Labor Day, perhaps we should think about how collective action, self-help and citizen participation can help resolve the difficult social questions of our time. This “third way” of thinking, which is also very American, can prove politically effective as well as technically sound.
By all means, open that cold one and fire up the grill. Our great-grandparents fought for it. But what will we do to help others fight to improve our lot for the generations ahead?