Reimagining Collective Rights in the Workplace
Catherine L. Fisk
…. A group of eminent and rising scholars were invited to address fundamental questions: What are the alternatives to the Wagner Act model of majority unions, workplace collective bargaining, and the current regime of social welfare provision on which it depends? What institutional structures could be created to provide dignity, opportunity, and protection to work? Rather than focusing on the current regime, the authors were challenged to explore alternatives and not to take anything for granted, including the existing divisions between or structures of labor law and employment law.
The articles explore a variety of alternative legal and social regimes based in existing practice in the United States—including the hybrid union-community worker organizations like Our Walmart and Fast Food Forward, sector-based worker groups like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Occupy initiatives, workers’ centers, national progressive organizations like the National Employment Law Project, and community organizations like the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. Some are based on comparative studies, examining possibilities of creating in the United States institutional structures that show promise elsewhere in the world. Some generalize from careful studies of particular campaigns or organizations, with an eye toward scaling up successful efforts. Some examine different legal regimes—the First Amendment freedom of assembly clause, for example—and some examine different forms of representation and institutional structures, including worker centers. Some explore feasible legal strategies to address the marginalization of unauthorized migrant workers. Others propose legal reforms to invigorate private membership organizations that protect the interests of people at work, such as by reducing restrictions on the collection of voluntary political contributions through payroll deduction and liberating unions from some of the restrictions imposed by state right-to-work legislation. …
….The articles in this symposium collectively argue three important propositions. First, collective activism will be crucial to any revitalization of labor. Labor law reform should aspire to enable the organizing that is essential to effective collective activism. Each of the papers proposes a different way that law can either facilitate such organizing and activism or avoid thwarting it. Second, and related, institutional design matters a great deal to whether worker activism will occur and, if it does occur, whether it will be effective in improving working conditions. Third, legal rules should be crafted to facilitate collective worker action by making worker collectives sustainable and scalable institutions; by giving them crucial roles in existing legal regimes to empower worker voice in many important legal and political forums; by leveraging power at the local, state, and national level; and by thwarting efforts to use legal doctrines like preemption or legal bureaucracies like criminal justice to eviscerate organizing gains.
The third step of the argument is where the authors strike out on four different but intersecting paths. The paths are: (1) empowering collectives, especially at the local level; (2) creating mechanisms to enhance leverage through local, national, and international frameworks; (3) improving access to information to enhance worker power; and (4) strengthening the institutional power of unions by protecting the ability of unions and worker collectives to fund their operations. The first two of these offer macro perspectives on how law facilitates and thwarts worker activism. The third and fourth examine the ways that law creates (or destroys) the institutional frameworks that empower workers to act collectively in organizing, in negotiating and administering agreements over conditions of employment, and in political action. ….
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