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Why Unions Are Like Typewriters

In the 21st century, unions have become outdated, weak and self-serving. But we have an opportunity to build a new labor movement, in which unions can again become a voice for workers.
 
 
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From the mid-1930s to about the mid-'70s, U.S. unions prospered because of several favorable forces. During the Depression, workers were incensed by abysmal working conditions and poor pay. After World War II, they were agitated by a sense of postwar entitlement in the context of the great wealth they were creating. Workers were restless and militant -- their struggles were seen as universally beneficial, and they enjoyed broad public support.

Capitalists believed that unions were preferable to a working class oriented toward Soviet socialism. (Had there been no Soviet Union, would anything like the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 have passed in the first place?) It's forgotten now, but before, during and after WWII, the political environment gave some latitude to "socialist" ideas, governments and organizations.

Throughout this period, mass production was creating a need for mass consumption. Capital had its own reasons for increasing the purchasing power of workers. It was a period of "primitive consumer accumulation." Industrial production was concentrated -- making the strike a very powerful weapon.

Beginning in the 1960s, civil rights, feminist and anti-war movements generated a different kind of social struggle, shifting energy away from the labor movement, but also dominating the attention of labor's natural enemies. Unions were more or less left alone.

But by the end of the 1970s, those conditions were no longer in play. Socialism was in rapid decline. Workers had achieved much of the prosperity and respect they sought, as well as the contentment that comes with it. Credit cards and other forms of consumer debt replaced unions as the main means of getting homes, cars, TVs and other "stuff" of the middle-class. Increased work time and low prices also offset falling wages.

Capital had become highly mobile. Unions were increasingly perceived as special interests whose gains came at the expense of other workers or the general public. Multiple production sites, replacement workers and other factors undermined the power of strikes. Visionary union leaders gave way to pragmatic union bureaucrats with significant institutional interests to defend. Union growth took a back seat to defending previously won gains. And when organizing was attempted, employer opposition that had previously been ineffective was replaced with opposition that to this day, prevents or defeats organizing drive after organizing drive.

Meeting New Challenges

The 20th-century labor movement has every reason to be proud of its achievements. But the new century presents workers with a radically different set of challenges -- and opportunities. Can a new labor movement take us to an even better place? Absolutely.

We now have the opportunity to build a movement for a radical new idea -- democracy in the workplace. In the process, unions can be reinvented, either by changing existing unions or starting new ones. That's exactly what the coal miners, autoworkers and steelworkers did with their own "new" economy at a comparable point in the 20th century.

Because unions in the 20th century experienced significant growth and power, an illusion was born: that workers had won the struggle for rights. But despite the successes of recent worker demonstrations -- such as the Flint sit-down -- workplace rights have yet to be won in the US.

It has taken decades for most unions to realize that the 1935 Wagner Act is actually not the Magna Carta of workplace democracy. As is now obvious, in the hands of dedicated anti-union employers, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is at least as effective at preventing unions as permitting them.

A Voice For Workers

In the global economy of capitalist hegemony, a workplace without some form of guaranteed worker representation is like a city without a city council. Citizens don't have to fight tooth and nail to create city councils -- it's assumed that every city has an elected body. So it should be in the workplace.

What might this look like? Existing workplace democracy models include the co-determination that is the law of the land in Germany and the "Team Act" arrangements proposed in Congress in response to the 1994 Dunlop Commission report. (The Dunlop Commission was appointed by President Clinton to look into the state of labor-management relations. Its recommendations were rejected by organized labor.)

American unions are already engaged in redefining and repositioning themselves as a voice for workers. One example: the member growth strategies and political maneuvers currently being used by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The rhetoric of SEIU supports organizing over politics. But what SEIU says and what SEIU does are quite different. Almost all of SEIU's high-profile growth spurts have come from leveraging governors and other elected leaders -- not from the mobilization of incensed workers.

What's not widely known is that those deals entail drastic restrictions on what unions of home childcare or healthcare workers can achieve economically. The following is from SEIU-drafted "enabling" legislation in Illinois: "Personal care attendants and personal assistants shall not be covered by the state Employees Group Insurance Act of 1971."

(Translation: they aren't eligible for health care coverage.)

SEIU lawyers drafted this, too: "The State shall not be considered to be the employer of personal care attendants and personal assistants for any purpose not specifically provided for in this amendatory act included but not limited to ... statutory retirement or health insurance benefits."

(Translation: you aren't in the health care plan and never will be. And, by the way, you can't ever be in the state retirement system, either.)

Is it better for workers to have some form of organization than none, especially if they are legally defined and "atomized" as "independent contractors?" Absolutely. In a time of union decline, does it improve the long-term prospect of once again becoming powerful enough to win economic gains? Probably. Is it anything close to what 20th-century unions delivered in economic gains for their members? No, it isn't.

In the industrial sector, what's sometimes known as "high-road" agreements between employers and unions have much in common with these semi-public sector arrangements. They represent an evolution toward Japanese-style "enterprise unions," in which unionized workers and employers are on the same team -- workers identify with the success of employers.

These agreements have much to recommend them. But they are creations of defensive necessity. For the workers they cover, they bring a degree of democracy to the workplace in practice, but they are not a substitute for genuine workplace rights.

Rather, they are accommodations to the profound difference between what was possible during the 20th-century fight between capitalism and socialism, and what can be achieved now. The fight between capitalism and socialism is over -- and, to borrow a phrase from "Iron Chef," capitalism reigns supreme.

Adapting to a New Reality

Can existing unions adapt to this reality? Only if they can conquer a tangle of contradictions.

Number one: unions are handicapped in advocating the principle of democracy because unions themselves are not especially democratic. Virtually every U.S. union is a one-party state, and has been for decades. It's true that unions have conventions, elections and votes by the membership on various issues. So did the Soviet Union. It's one thing to have the mechanics of democracy. It's quite another to have its soul and culture.

When unions operated primarily as instruments of economic power, one-party states might have been tolerable, or even necessary. (Instead of seeing the world as permanently defined by the class conflict between labor and capital, unions offered a world shaped by a perpetual economic struggle between employees and employers.)

But the antipathy toward debate, dissent, a culture of openness, new ideas, and multiple centers of power that obtain even in a two-party system has been costly. As in the Soviet Union, the lack of robust democracy has restricted the ability of unions to adapt and innovate in the face of major economic and political change. It also helps explain why the current debate over labor's future is so hidebound, and dominated by the views of a handful of white men. (Full disclosure: as a union bureaucrat for many years, and a white guy to boot, I defended the one-party state argument. I was wrong.)

Resistance to democracy is a factor in virtually every aspect of union decline. It underlies the inability of unions to address the issues that workers now face as opposed to those they confronted back in the day.

Lower-income workers today need unions for the same reasons that autoworkers initially needed the UAW -- to deliver them from poverty into the middle-class. Unions that are appealing to poor workers, many of whom are immigrants, do seem to be having more success than those trying to organize higher-wage workers.

This is especially true in sectors of the economy where employers cannot move the work to foreign low-wage havens. You can't send a Los Angeles office building to Mexico City every night to be cleaned. (The unions that have aligned with the "Change To Win" coalition operate in the most U.S. bound economic sectors.)

For higher wage workers, however -- especially those in stable economic sectors -- the pressing economic issues of the day are less about wages, more about debt and time management. Workers put in more hours, take fewer vacations, and often hold multiple jobs. And more family members must work in order to keep the economic unit afloat.

And many still sink. More people filed for bankruptcy last year -- when it was still "legal" for ordinary people -- than filed for divorce.

But unions have little to say about these problems. Why aren't union organizers staked out at the bankruptcy courts? Who is mobilizing the collective power of those ruined by debt?

The Typewriter Problem

Where are union resources deployed? To be fair, many dedicated unionists are at workplaces trying to organize workers under extremely difficult circumstances. But far more are camped out in the corridors of Congress or at polling places on Election Day, advocating what seem to most workers to be pie-in-the-sky ideas about health care for all, or trade agreements offering foreign workers effective labor rights that we don't even have here.

Still others are involved with committee meetings and focus groups about why the union message isn't connecting. They console themselves with polls that prove workers want unions. And many workers do want unions -- but not enough. Furthermore, in most organizing drives these days, there is genuine rank and file opposition to forming a union.

Why? The short answer is that for too many workers, the unions that are out there flunk a simple cost-benefit test. At best they are seen as outdated, like typewriters; at worst they are seen as weak and self-serving.

But the "typewriter" problem is more serious. How are unions like typewriters? Unions remain wedded to an exclusively employer-based model in a time when there is hardly a single worker under 30 who expects to have the same employer five years from now, let alone when they retire. They cling as well to a "zero-sum" world view that "sells" the value of the union as directly proportional to the oppressiveness of the employer. Consequently, if employers aren't perceived as abusive, unions have defined themselves as having little to offer.

Membership Blues

Also utterly outdated are most unions' ideas about membership service. With a few exceptions, union officials treat their members as they always have, mostly as a monolithic unit. Union communication is a one-way street.

If there is any change at all, it has been about "modernizing" the techniques that are used to try to persuade union members to vote or lobby for the issues chosen by leadership. Enormous resources are devoted to moving the union-member presidential vote for the Democratic candidate from 66 to 67 percent. (Here's a radical idea -- why not encourage those members who are self-defined Republicans or independents to form their own caucus within their union?)

For manufacturers, e-tailers and service providers, "customer satisfaction" is a critical and moving target. For them, quality is a mantra. They benchmark. They test, solicit feedback, innovate, research and develop. They change.

Consequently, as citizens and consumers, union members expect to be courted, listened to and treated as individuals. But that is a million miles from union culture. Union officials give a great deal of thought to what they want members to do. Except in collective bargaining, they give almost none to what the members want the leaders to do.

Yet there are many ways that unions could respond to members who may have a wide variety of needs when it comes to what they want from their union. For example, union members see themselves as consumers as much as employees -- maybe more. As such, they want deals and discounts as much as any other consumer. So why not use the purchasing power of the combined membership more effectively? (Some of this is done, but it's done haphazardly and for the wrong reasons, and it's badly marketed.)

Failure to adapt to the culture of competition that is most familiar to workers is itself a problem. Instead of tearing up the AFL-CIO because it's ineffective at preventing competition between unions and ensuring big union jurisdictional monopolies, why not adopt "market-driven" policies that encourage unions to compete for the membership loyalty of unorganized workers? Isn't having a choice -- or at least the appearance of choice -- what workers expect when it comes to other important decisions in their lives?

This list could go on, but the basic alternative is clear. Unions can continue fighting about how best to get things back to the way they used to be. Or unions can fight for a better future for us all.

Frank Joyce is a journalist and labor communications consultant. He is writing a book on reinventing unions.