Category Archives: Future of Unions

The Strike: A Contemporary Lesson from Labor History or a Historical Artifact?

Source: Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 37 no. 4, December 2012
(subscription required)

Articles include:

Labor’s Economic Weapons: Learning from Labor History by Joe Burns
This article argues that trade unionism has deviated from fundamentals of trade union economics. For the first 150 years of trade unionism in the United States, union strategy centered on two objectives: (1) standardizing wages across entire labor and/or product markets and (2) developing a strike capable of halting production or otherwise impacting the operations of the employers…

It’s Not Whether to Strike, It’s How to Win a Strike by Steven Ashby
The author addresses the big question labor continues to debate: how can the labor movement resist the corporate onslaught?… The author suggests that only one ingredient is missing. Striking, we are told, will put labor back on the path to victory. Labor used to know this, we hear, as the strike was labor’s primary weapon in its “first 150 years.” There are several problems with this thesis..

Context Matters More: A Response to Joe Burns by Joseph A. McCartin
…While other labor analysts focus on declining union density figures, the spread of right-to-work laws, the failure of labor law reform, or the rollback of public-sector collective bargaining in states like Michigan as the most revealing measures of labor’s current weakness, Burns puts his finger on a deeper problem. Organized labor’s very survival depends on coming to terms with the trends he outlines here….Arguably, the difficulties unions face in organizing workers today stem more from their inability to strike and bargain effectively than from increased employer opposition to organizing….

Response: Confronting Unjust Labor Law is Key by Joe Burns
Joseph McCartin makes an important point in noting that legal restrictions are not the main determinant of the level of strike activity. McCartin’s points on the other factors leading to the decline of strike activity are well taken. However, for reasons explained below, that does not mean that legal rules do not matter…

Can Co-ops Save Unions?

Source: Rebecca Burns, In These Times, April 25, 2013

Labor-cooperative partnerships may herald a new strategy for labor–if they can get off the ground….The labor movement at large hasn’t reprised the 1930s-era tactic of occupying factories in order to regain a foothold in existing workplaces. But a growing number of unions, led by the United Steelworkers (USW), are exploring creation of new worker-owned cooperatives as a strategy for contending with the offshoring of U.S. jobs. Like the workers who formed New Era Windows, USW began experimenting with cooperatives partly out of necessity—as job losses mounted amidst the financial crisis, “there seemed to be an opening to consider how we might create a better model, because everything was falling apart,” says Rob Witherell, USW’s cooperative strategist. USW decided to partner with Mondragon, Spain’s famous group of cooperatives, to create a template for union co-ops. Now, USW is helping launch several pilot projects, including a green laundry in Pittsburgh that could replace some of the 100-plus jobs lost when an industrial laundry in the area closed several years ago. Members of United Food and Commercial Workers are currently employed in an urban farming cooperative in Cincinnati, with more projects planned under the behest of the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative….
Related:
Can Unions and Cooperatives Join Forces? An Interview With United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard
Source: Amy B. Dean, Talking Union blog, June 3, 2013
United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard talks to Amy Dean about the challenges and opportunities of a new labor model: the union co-op.

The Crisis of US Trade Unionism and What Needs to be Done

Source: Victor G. Devinatz, Labor Law Journal, Vol. 64 no. 1, Spring 2013
(subscription required)

…This paper will proceed in the following manner. The first section will briefly discuss the explosive growth of industrial unionism during the New Deal era before, in the second section, examining and analyzing the trade union movement’s use of business unionism and political action during labor’s “Golden Ear” which covers the period from 1945-1975. The third section will detail the unraveling of business unionism circa 1977 to 1995 while the fourth section will discuss the Sweeney administration’s and the CTW’s implementation of a type of social movement unionism in response to the failure of business unionism. The penultimate section will outline an alternative mode of trade unionism which must be implemented to transcend the current form of social movement unionism in place if there is to be a chance at revitalizing the US trade union movement. The final section will conclude the paper…

Election 2012 : Is a Second Term a Second Chance for Labor?

Source: Gordon Lafer, New Labor Forum, Vol. 22 no. 1, Winter 2013
(subscription required)

…So what can the election tell us about the voters, the parties, and the way forward for labor?…Why can’t the Democrats be the party we wish they were? The simple answer is that they are too dependent on big money….I do not believe anyone in the labor movement has a master plan for victory, and this is not one.
But the combination of polls, votes, and experience points to several steps unions can take to help move politics forward in 2013 and beyond.
Focus on the States
Put Workplace Organizing at the Center of Our Political Operation
Recruit Members to Serve as Public Ambassadors
Campaign against the Corporate Lobbies
Run Proactive Ballot Initiatives
Encourage Occupy

How Can Labor Be Saved?

Source: Josh Eidelson, Nation, February 13, 2013

The past two years have seen sparks of surprising vitality—from the mass uprising in Wisconsin, to the Chicago teachers’ walkout, to the strike wave now roiling Walmart. But the big picture is bleak: our fastest-growing industries are virtually union-free. Strikes by workers are losing ground to lockouts. Concessionary contracts are rampant. The government’s New Deal–era promise to protect the right to organize has become a cruel joke. In politics, as at the bargaining table, unions are mostly playing defense.

When labor declines, our economy and our politics tilt ever further toward the rich. The Democratic Party becomes even less accountable to the working class. Progressive coalitions are stripped of crucial infrastructure and grassroots firepower. Corporate power goes unchecked. Productivity gains flow to the 1 percent. And Americans become ever more subject to the whims of managers: coerced to donate to a boss’s favorite candidate, forced to work while sick, or fired for defending an “ethnic” haircut on Facebook.

How can labor turn this dire situation around?

Forum participants include:
Kate Bronfenbrenner: ”Unions: Put Organizing First
Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit: ”Make Organizing a Civil Right
Suresh Naidu and Dorian T. Warren: ”What Labor Can Learn From the Obama Campaign
Larry Cohen: ”Build a Democracy Movement
Bhairavi Desai: ”Become a Movement of All Workers
Maria Elena Durazo: ”Time for Labor to Mobilize Immigrants
Karen GJ Lewis: ”Fight for the Whole Society

How Two-Tier Union Contracts Became Labor’s Undoing

Source: Louis Uchitelle, Nation, February 5, 2013

…In response to persistent demands from employers for lower labor costs, some of the nation’s most prominent unions—instead of protesting or striking—have agreed to reduce the pay of newly hired workers as long as the wages of existing employees go untouched. And the new hires themselves have abstained from open protest, instead preferring the lower tier to no work at all, or to work that pays even less than a union-negotiated lower tier. …

Time for Democrats to Pay Their Dues

Source: James Thindwa, In These Times, February 6, 2013

For too long organized labor has failed to ask the Dems, ‘Which side are you on?’…Democratic leaders who think their party can survive without labor are grossly mistaken. Who will turn out the base—MoveOn.org?…The fact is, the success of the American labor movement has always depended upon a welcoming policy environment facilitated by an allied political party. While many forces are contributing to labor’s decline, we can no longer ignore a central one: The once-reliable Democratic Party has abandoned the cause. However, the party remains heavily dependent on labor for financial and organizational infrastructure….

Alt-Labor

Source: Josh Eidelson, American Prospect, January 29, 2013

Nonunion workers’ groups are gathering strength across the country. But will they ever make the kind of impact that traditional labor once did? … His fellow demonstrators—a few co-workers and a couple of dozen staffers and activists from the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)—picked up the chant, Occupy-style.…. The ROC is a labor group. But it’s not a union. It represents a new face of the U.S. labor movement—an often-ignored, little-understood array of groups organizing workers without the union label. … Why are alt-labor groups like the ROC proliferating? To begin with, unions are in crisis. Over the past 20 years, private-sector unionization has plummeted to just 7 percent. … There’s another reason for the rise of alt-labor: For an increasing number of U.S. workers, unions are not even an option. Labor law denies union rights to increasingly significant sectors of the workforce, including so-called independent contractors and domestic workers, whose numbers are expected to double as baby boomers enter elder care. …The question, as alt-workers’ groups further expand their efforts outside of labor-friendly cities like New York, is how much they can accomplish for American workers. If unions continue to decline, can these groups ever hope to accomplish what old labor once did—substantially improving working conditions on a mass scale and helping to build a new middle class? …
Related:
After spontaneous strike to protest wage issues, Latino textile workers’ partnership with community organization and union leads to victory
Source: Arise Chicage, Talking Union blog, Posted on February 2, 2013

Viewpoint: The Decline of Unions Is Your Problem Too

Source: Eric Liu, Time, January 29, 2013

…First, the fact is that when unions are stronger the economy as a whole does better. Unions restore demand to an economy by raising wages for their members and putting more purchasing power to work, enabling more hiring. On the flip side, when labor is weak and capital unconstrained, corporations hoard, hiring slows, and inequality deepens. Thus we have today both record highs in corporate profits and record lows in wages.

Second, unions lift wages for non-union members too by creating a higher prevailing wage. Even if you aren’t a member your pay is influenced by the strength or weakness of organized labor. The presence of unions sets off a wage race to the top. Their absence sets off a race to the bottom.

Unfortunately, the relegation of organized labor to tiny minority status and the fact that the public sector is the last remaining stronghold for unions have led many Americans to see them as special interests seeking special privileges, often on the taxpayer’s dime. This thinking is as upside-down as our economy.

This country has gotten to today’s level of inequality because, ironically, those who work for a living think like atomized individuals while those who hire for a living organize collectively to rig policy in their favor. Today’s 97-year low is the result of decades of efforts to squeeze unions and disperse their power….