Category Archives: Future of Unions

In Their Own Words: Insurgents and the Limits of Reform in Organized Labor

Source: Jane LaTour, WorkingUSA, Volume 16, Issue 2, June 2013
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
The legacy of union labor lawyer and rank-and-file democracy advocate Burton H. Hall carries on, now more than 20 years after his death. Hall represented dissidents who sought to expand representation and democracy in their unions. To break the bureaucratic stranglehold over unions, Hall advocated and promoted efforts at insurgency and insurrection. While we assess the last 22 years of neoliberal and financial reforms that have broken working class unions, Hall’s advocacy reminds us that unions’ own failure to promote rank-and-file activism and democracy is also responsible for the decline in unions. Active and militant workers struggling within working class organizations is essential to resist the capitalist assault that has eroded wage standards, working class, and communities.

Next Up: The Promise of AFL–CIO-Affiliated Young Worker Groups

Source: Monica Bielski Boris, Jeff Grabelsky, Ken Margolies and David Reynolds, WorkingUSA, Volume 16, Issue 2, June 2013
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
In recent years, the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL–CIO) has attempted to spur and support the development of young worker organizations as a way of engaging more young people in the labor movement. One result has been the growth of young worker groups affiliated with local AFL–CIO bodies. This article summarizes the findings of our team of researchers who worked with the AFL–CIO to document and evaluate the most developed of these new young worker organizations. We explore the activities and character of these groups, the distinct contribution that they make to revive the American labor movement, and the challenges they face in continuing to grow and to spur similar groups across the country.

Beyond the Right: Anti-Unionism and Reform

Source: Chad Pearson, LaborOnline blog, June 11, 2013

A clear-eyed assessment of current attacks against organized labor reveal that the “right”—the Republican Party and its electoral, financial, and ideological supporters—is not the exclusive source of labor’s problem. This is certainly the case in the public sector. School teachers throughout the nation, for instance, are currently facing numerous challenges from politicians, and Democrats have been especially problematic….

…We can also point to examples of anti-union activities on the part of “progressive” managers in the private sector. While a number of scholars have deepened our understanding of the high level of exploitation and intimidation experienced by Wal-Mart workers, we do not need to look far to find evidence of worker abuse and union-busting at some of the nation’s more civilized workplaces, including Costco and Whole Foods. Indeed, managers at these companies, including individuals who have strongly endorsed Democratic Party politicians, have repeatedly demonstrated a mastery of the craft of union-avoidance. In 2009, both Costco and Whole Foods lobbied against the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)…

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

Source: Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 37 no. 4, December 2012
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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