This past year was a big one for working peoples’ lives. The job market started to tighten, prompting pay increases even at near-minimum wage employers such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. The income floor also rose, with minimum-wage increases from New York to Los Angeles to Portland, Maine, while fair scheduling and paid leave campaigns – newly popular with corporations themselves – got underway across the country as well. The Obama administration continued its spate of executive and regulatory actions strengthening protections for workers. The country became half right-to-work, but some old unions won back much of what they’d lost during the recession, and some new ones emerged where none had existed before.

So what’s in store for 2016? Here are a few themes to watch:


This is probably the biggest question facing the economy today, with some reason for concern that the great recession did enough damage, especially to the earnings of young people, that they might never recover to the point where they can attain all the accoutrements of adulthood – house, kids, 401(k) – that their parents enjoyed. The answer depends on a lot of things, among them the rate of job growth, how much more productive workers get and whether they regain enough bargaining power to demand a larger share of what they produce.


Despite the panoply of proposals pushed by both Democrats and Republicans, odds are that no serious labor and employment law will get made in Congress this election year. But that’s not really where the action is anyway. Labor unions and community groups racked up several victories last year, and have picked most of their new state, county and municipal targets for 2016. They have crafted proposals to raise minimum wages, mandate that employers provide paid leave and require more shared control over worker schedules. Meanwhile, since whomever each party nominates for president will strongly disagree with the other on these issues, expect them to be fully hashed out in debates and on the stump all the way through November.


One of the biggest projects the labor movement took on this year was defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal that unions believe will depress wages and send jobs to places with lower labor standards, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Despite some early success, they failed to deny the president the power to conclude the agreement, which Congress could now vote on as soon as Feb. 4. Even if the legislation is pushed back until after the election, which appears likely, unions and their allies might have a hard time killing it for good.


Although unions now represent a tiny share of the private-sector workforce, they’re still sitting at about 35 percent of government employees. That could change, rapidly, if the Supreme Court rules against them in Friedrichs vs. The California Teachers Association, which concerns the question of whether the “fair share” payments that workers must make whether they join the union or not are a violation of free speech. If the court decides that they are, no government worker will have to pay dues of any kind, creating a “free rider” problem that could send the unions into a tailspin and change the political landscape, especially in states where they’re still a strong voice for public services.


Will new growth in the labor movement flourish or die on the vine? The year 2015 saw a number of improbable organizing victories in the new economy. Unions went from having almost zero presence in digital media to winning elections at Vice, Salon, Gawker, Al Jazeera America, Guardian America – and very nearly the Huffington Post. The push to organize university adjunct professors and dramatically raise their pay gained steam. Through a broad campaign that highlighted technology’s role in rising inequality, Teamsters in the Bay Area organized many of the bus drivers who shuttle Facebook and Google employees from San Francisco to corporate campuses down the valley.

All of those wins potentially open up avenues for labor’s future growth at a time when unions are still hemorrhaging members in traditional labor bastions such as Michigan and Indiana – and may yet lose more, if states like West Virginia and Missouri go right-to-work as well. But it’s still a very fluid situation, and long-term success will depend on sustained momentum through 2016.


The practice of classifying workers as independent contractors for additional flexibility and freedom from employment obligations has been a problem for decades. But 2015 was the year it broke into the popular consciousness, with icons of the on-demand economy facing what they consider an existential threat: lawsuits, which could prompt courts to decide that those who found work through Uber, Handy and other app-based service platforms are employees rather than independent contractors. That would force the fast-growing sector to rethink its business model.


On the topic of employment relationships: Over the past few years, the Service Employees International Union has been systematically filing labor complaints against McDonald’s franchisees, charging that the corporate flagship is a “joint employer” and should be equally liable for any labor violations. The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel agreed, and bundled all those complaints into a big case that will see arguments starting in January. The situation grew a lot more friendly to the union back in August, when the board embraced a more expansive definition of what it means to be a joint employer, striking fear in the hearts of franchisors and other companies that use contractors everywhere. If the Service Employees International Union wins, the plan is to use the threat of future labor cases to force the global company to recognize a union of cooks and cashiers – still an unlikely prospect, to be sure, but one with potentially massive implications if successful.