And those negotiations could take many forms. They could be with industry associations representing the top employers for an industrywide contract. Or they could be with government regulators, who could be pressed to establish standards for pay or benefits or working conditions. Or they could be with banks and financiers or ratings agencies or consumer groups, any of which could be pressed not to do business with companies that failed to meet certain minimum standards. Union negotiators could get their leverage from the threat of disruptive industrywide strikes, from the clout that comes from political organizing and by marshalling of public and consumer opinion at a time of heightened concern about economic inequality.
The Service Employees International Union showed how this could be done years ago with its successful Janitors for Justice campaign in cities across the country, in which owners of large office buildings were coerced, largely through political pressure and public opinion, to sign contracts with union locals.
In New York City, the Taxi Workers Alliance has used the threat of strikes by independent cab drivers to win rules changes from the taxi commission and better arrangements with vehicle owners.
In Los Angeles, day laborers are trying to create a modern version of the old hiring hall, offering a reliable source of experienced workers in exchange for higher pay and modest benefits.
And in Chicago, the Service Employees International Union has been experimenting with trying to organize retail and fast-food workers citywide as an alternative to traditional organizing campaigns.
It was there, at the bottom of the economic ladder, that the union movement got its start.
It was there, at the grass-roots level with sit-ins and boycotts and general strikes, that the union movement first got its power.
It was there, with industrywide organizing, that the union movement first got its toehold in the garment factories, the steel mills and the coal mines.
And it is there, I suspect — not defending $35-an-hour jobs for auto workers or $100,000 pensions for retired prison guards — that the union movement will have to return for its revival.