Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reinventing Unions

  UdThanks to Dennis Nolan for sending a link to this New York Times article Unions’ Past May Hold Key to Their Future.  The article points out that unions were extraordinarily weak in the early 1930s, but reinvented themselves and came roaring back a decade later.  Perhaps they can pull off a repeat performance.  Here's the article's take-away:

But if the prospects look grim for the unions of America’s industrial era, the precedent of the 1930s — when workers organized in droves — offers perhaps a hint of a path for organized labor as the economy works its way forward from the Great Recession, a role that perhaps better fits the nation’s corporate makeup.

The future labor movement may have to give up organizing work site by work site. Its biggest political fight in the last few years — pushing a law to make it easier to organize a workplace — may be irrelevant. And fighting to create new barriers to foreign competition is probably a lost cause. Instead of negotiating for their members only, unions might do better pulling for better wages and conditions for all workers.

Some scholars, like the economist Richard B. Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggest the labor movement could take a page from the AARP’s playbook and become a lobbying group. German-like worker councils could discuss workplace issues with management, without negotiating over pay.

Maybe unions don’t have to entirely give up collective bargaining but broaden it. A model might be the alliance between the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the Domestic Workers Alliance of New York City to push for a bill of rights for nonunionized nannies and maids.

In any event, 80 years from now, labor organizations will probably look as different as our current unions look when compared with the guilds of 80 years ago. Today’s strongest unions — of autoworkers and airline pilots — could easily be the weakest, decimated by international competition. Unions may well be strongest in hospitals, hotels and other businesses not exposed to international trade.

But are these reinventions or abdications?

rb

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Comments

"Become a lobbying group"?!?!?!

That's too funny.

Posted by: James Young | Jul 18, 2012 6:20:18 AM

What's the Led Zeppelin piece? The song remains the same. To get a feel for how cyclical (and not different) this all is take a gander at Harry L. Watson's LIBERTY AND POWER re unions (yes unions) in Jacksonian America, see especially 188-193. The upshot: worker organization and opposition doesn't go away. Never has. Never will. (How could it?) But you really have to know enough actual workers to understand that simple truth. (And a bit of history doesn't hurt).

Posted by: Michael Duff | Jul 19, 2012 6:22:00 AM

I think this article largely gets the reason for the decline in unionization wrong. As I tweeted at the author, there's been a vast amount of research showing that increasing employer opposition is a main cause, which is completely ignored in the article. Instead he focuses on globalization and technology - a convenient way to ignore class issues. As Richard Freeman's research [http://www.sharedprosperity.org/bp182/bp182.pdf] shows, a majority of non-union workers want to be unionized. You can blame globalization or technology for their frustrated desires, as much as the author may want to.

Posted by: Kris Warner | Jul 19, 2012 8:24:45 AM

"You can blame globalization or technology for their frustrated desires, as much as the author may want to."

I meant to write "you can't"...

Posted by: Kris Warner | Jul 19, 2012 8:26:46 AM

I think opposition and globalization are connected. Employers have more incentive to oppose when the threat of outsourcing is omnipresent. As a worker I might be prepared to endure much privation and hardship in the course of a strike. But now as a worker I know that things can't get that far because - except in the case of certain relatively immovable industries - the company will just up and run away. Of course, once I realize that the company is going to up and run away in any event (which is the argument that I made as an organizer in the 80s - and I was right), the dynamic changes a bit. These days I find myself wondering how much of the legal hiring downturn can be connected to the outsourcing of legal work. The army of the unemployed is becoming increasingly interesting. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls . . ."

Posted by: Michael Duff | Jul 19, 2012 1:33:39 PM

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