Category Archives: Future of Unions

Two Roads Forward for Labor: The AFL-CIO’s New Agenda

Source: Nelson Lichtenstein, Dissent, Winter 2014

…. [T]here are two roads that lead toward a genuine revival of the American trade union movement. And when I say “revival” I mean not just a larger set of unions with more members, but rather a labor bloc, social and demographic, that is on the offensive, setting the economic and social agenda on multiple fronts so that employers and politicians find that concessions to or solidarity with the unions seem the most practical and common-sense policy, if only because they will ensure their own prosperity and survival….

How the Rise of Women in Labor Could Save the Movement

Source: Bryce Covert, Nation, January 10, 2014

A new wave of female labor leaders are winning by thinking big. … These women are bringing new ideas and strategies to labor organizing, many of which are borrowed from the women’s movement—like making the connection between what workers face on the job and what they’re dealing with at home. They don’t only target corporate bosses, but bring together a variety of stakeholders within communities to fight for change in the workplace and beyond. And they’re bringing an influx of new members to the movement by reaching out to primarily female workforces that have often been excluded. Most importantly, for a movement accustomed to a steady erosion of power: they’re winning….

How U.S. Labor Laws Have Divided Public and Private Sector Workers and Undermined Union Clout

Source: Alexis N. Walker, Cornell University, Scholars Strategy Network, Basic Facts, October 2013

Labor unions in the United States have declined sharply from their high point in the mid – 20th century. In 1953, nearly a third of private sector workers were members of union s, but now it is less than seven percent. In politics, labor leaders still have a seat at the table, but enjoy much less clout. The one area where organized labor remains strong is in the public sector. More than a third of public employees are enrolled in unions and public sector unionists now outnumber those in the private sector.

How has America arrived at a point where “Big Labor” and blue collar unionists are largely a thing of the past, while white collar government employees are the new face of organized labor? Much of the answer lies in the bifurcated nature of modern U.S. labor laws….

Inequality of Wealth and the Role of Unions

Source: Jack Heyman, CounterPunch, Weekend Edition January 3-5, 2014

….The U.S. is the most unequal of all advanced industrialized countries because the political system here has shaped the economy in ways that have led to powerlessness of the working class. In short, both political parties, Democrats and Republicans, represent the same capitalist class interests. There is no mass party that represents the working class. Unions have the power to reshape the wealth gap between rich and poor to some extent by negotiating decent contracts and striking to achieve that, if necessary. But they’re not doing that. In countries like Spain, France, Greece and South Korea, unions have been fighting back and even organizing general strikes. But in the U.S., the trade union bureaucracy has cowered in the face of attacks against workers and, indeed, continues to support the twin party system….

Are Young Workers the Future of Labor?

Source: James Cersonsky, In These Times, Working ITT blog, December 11, 2013

…While the AFL-CIO has had constituency groups for women, workers of color, and LGBT workers for decades, only recently has organized labor treated young workers as a distinct category. In 2010, the the federation launched a caucus for 35-and-younger members, Next Up, a network of 20-plus groups within regional councils and state federations that provide space for affinity and issue advocacy. And at this year’s AFL-CIO convention, young workers, like workers of color, figured more prominently than ever before. In the name of “empower[ing] the next generation of labor leaders to challenge, inspire, build and organize around issues that directly affect their generation,” the federation unanimously passed a resolution calling for the tripling of young worker groups over the next four years….

…To discuss what’s next, In These Times spoke with Tahir Duckett, 30, the AFL-CIO’s National Young Worker Coordinator; Eric Clinton, 32, a former Disney World employee, a leader of Florida Young Workers, and president of Unite Here Local 362 in Orlando; Jessica Hayssen, 36, the head of the AFL-CIO-affiliated Minnesota Young Workers; and Austin Thompson, 27, the founder and lead organizer of SEIU Millennials. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation….


Source: OnLabor, 2013

On Labor is a blog by Benjamin Sachs (a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School) and Jack Goldsmith (the Henry L. Shattuck Professor at Harvard Law School) devoted to workers, unions, and their politics. We interpret our subject broadly to include the current crisis in the traditional union movement (why union decline is happening and what it means for our society); the new and contested forms of worker organization that are filling the labor union gap; how work ought to be structured and managed; how workers ought to be represented and compensated; and the appropriate role of government – all three branches – in each of these issues.

Is U.S. Public Sector Labor Relations in the Midst of a Transformation?

Source: Harry C. Katz, ILRReview, Vol. 66 No. 5, October 2013
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
In this article the author assesses whether a fundamental transformation is underway in public sector (state and local government) labor relations in the United States by revisiting the arguments made by the author and Kochan and McKersie (1986) regarding the transformation of labor relations in the private sector. The author argues that the economic pressures that led to a transformation of private sector labor relations starting in the 1980s have not played a comparable role in recent developments in the public sector because of the political nature of labor relations in that sector. Other insights are drawn from a comparison of recent developments with events that occurred during the mid-1970s, an earlier taxpayer revolt era. The author concludes that a fundamental transformation in public sector labor relations has not occurred, attributable to some degree to the limited decline in public employee union membership and the fact that a majority of the public has favorable attitudes toward public sector employees and union collective bargaining rights. Factors that might lead to such a transformation in the future are highlighted.

Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Neutrality Agreements

Source: Jenny Brown, Labor Notes, November 13, 2013

Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether “neutrality agreements” are really just a bribe from the employer, and therefore illegal.
See also:
Scalia’s chance to smash unions: The huge under-the-radar case A Supreme Court case being argued Wednesday could take away a tactic that’s kept unions alive
Josh Eidelson, Salon, November 13, 2013

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on an under-the-radar case that could deal a major blow to already embattled U.S. unions. As Harvard labor law professor Benjamin Sachs told the New York Times, the case now facing Antonin Scalia and company could be “the most significant labor case in a generation.” The case, Unite Here Local 355 v. Mulhall, involves the constitutionality of “card check neutrality agreements” between unions and companies they’re trying to organize. ….. “Because essentially all successful union organizing campaigns today are conducted” under “alternative ground rules,” professor Sachs wrote Tuesday, “the case could effectively outlaw union organizing (at, at least, outlaw effective union organizing).”

Supreme Court Enters the Union Battles
Source: Noah Feldman, Bloomberg, November 12, 2013

Fights over forming unions are hardball — which is why the decision process is more heavily regulated than almost any other act of association in American life. One popular technique favored by unions is to promise management something in exchange for a promise to stay neutral and even allow organizers access to the workplace. Now a federal appeals court has essentially banned these neutrality agreements, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments to decide whether a side deal between a union and management is a form of illegal bribery or just part of the game. …But even if neutrality agreements are not an option, unions won’t simply go away. Instead, they’ll employ the pressure tactics legally available to them, including picketing. In short, unions will try to impose costs on management in the hopes of coercing employers to back down. The two sides just won’t be able to negotiate a deal ex ante — before the unionization fight takes place. Some employers might therefore actually prefer to have the option of signing a neutrality agreement that would spare them the cost of union efforts and buy them something in return, such as Unite Here’s support of a gambling initiative. The case can’t really be resolved on legal language alone. Sure, a neutrality agreement has “value” to the union — that’s why it’s part of the negotiation. So the company probably wins on literal meaning divorced from context. And yes, the Taft-Hartley Act probably had in mind more ordinary forms of bribery, like Cadillac cars, when it prohibited “delivery” of “a thing of value.” So the union should win on original legislative intent. Each side therefore has a plausible statutory argument. …

Teachers on the Offensive: A Strategy for Transforming the Educational Reform Debate

Source: Amy B. Dean, New Labor Forum, Vol. 22 no. 3, September 2013
(subscription required)

Public school teachers are under attack. The assault being waged by the so-called education reform movement—embraced by both millionaire conservatives and neoliberal Democrats—is more than a skirmish affecting a single profession. Rather, it is a struggle with great consequences for the survival of the U.S. labor movement, the future of the middle class, and the fate of American democracy—a system that relies on quality public schools for its sustenance….

…The bigger issue for teachers is the need to showcase their vision. Whatever tactics they embrace at a given time, the goals must be clear. And, to take the offensive in the education debate, three goals are essential: first, repositioning teachers as champions of quality public education; second, reclaiming the right of teachers to define and maintain standards of excellence for their profession; and third, breaking with the traditional labor movement approach to politics, both locally and nationally.

The point in exploring a strategy built around these three objectives is not to second-guess those who have persevered amid austerity budgets and well-funded ideological campaigns against teachers’ unions. Rather, it is to hold up some of the best practices from around the country—cases in which unions have been able to reshape discussions of both classroom standards and public policy—and to suggest that they can be brought together as a comprehensive framework for guiding action. …

The Light and the Dark: Taking Stock of the Year in Labor

Source: Ari Paul, New Labor Forum, Vol. 22 no. 3, September 2013
(subscription required)

…It is all but certain that traditional labor is in store for more pain, whether it comes in the form of new antiunion legislation at the state level or simply a widening of the gap between what corporations and unions can spend to influence electoral politics.

But the lessons from the fast food strikers or the Chicago teachers is not so much how a union can campaign against an employer, but how it can promote broad political demands for this economic landscape, demands that may include universal basic income or real health care reform, as well as demands to restrain the financial sector, like reviving the Glass–Steagall Act, which would separate commercial and investment banking. It should not be that only marginal institutions like the Industrial Workers of the World are campaigning for a shortened workday, something that has not happened in more than a century.

Standing in the way of this is an unwillingness to change and the provincialism of specialized unions. At a meeting of labor journalists in New York this spring, in response to the question of why unions have been unable to fund new think tanks or media organizations to counter antiunion institutions, several people responded that labor leaders “don’t speak the same language”; they are constrained by serving their members directly and thus unable to settle on any kind of grander agenda. The building trades, retail, and public sectors are just too different from each other, the logic went, so they are unable to put aside differences and collaborate on long-term projects.

To put it bluntly, this is nothing more than the narcissism of small differences. The reluctance of older labor leaders, lulled into complacency by their hefty salaries and access to Democratic Party officials, to break from tradition will only make next year’s report card for labor more dismal than this year’s. Or, hopefully, the energy and imagination on display in Chicago and elsewhere spreads. …