In the aftermath of a divisive U.S. presidential election that seems to mark the tail end of the 20th Century, I’m reminded of the daughters of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The “Mill Girls” of Lowell, Mass., made up 75% of all textile workers in the U.S. In the 1830s, they took jobs to put their brothers through college and feed their families. These young women, starting to work at age 15, were the fabric of their community’s economic production. It was the close-knit nature of their sisterhood that became what we now know as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO.
Labor has traditionally organized people in a common cause like union representation. Most of us have had to sell our labor for capital that someone else owns, giving us an incentive to work for common workplace standards. But that traditional labor-for-capital model has been joined by another driver of