The Brilliance of Labor


Admit it. Many of you think labor unions are dinosaurs, lumbering beasts with pea-sized brains stumbling along waiting for extinction in a world passing them by. God knows, union leaders have done stupid things at times, but what strikes me is the sustained innovation and intelligence by unions over the last decade or so, barely noticed by the media or even fellow progressive activists.

So on this Labor Day, this is my celebration not of the justice of the labor cause, but of the brilliance of those fighting and often winning against long odds in the modern economy.

What's Been Won: Just surviving in the fact of political and corporate assaults by a rightwing that wants to kill off labor is an underestimated victory. I remember in the early 90s when talk of the death of the labor movement started and many analysts confidently predicted that union workers would make up less than 5% of the workforce. If you look at this table, labor has seen some steady erosion in the percentage of works organized since the early 90s -- although even that stabilized a bit last year -- but the actual number of workers unionized has largely stabilized around 16 million members in the last decade.

With total annual budgets from dues of $5-6 billion per year and with hundreds of billions od dollars in union-connected pension and health funds, unions remain the only institution that combines more resources that pretty much all other progressive groups combined with a mass membership. Which is why they have faced bad laws, hostile courts, and anti-union political and corporate attacks-- and their holding onto to nearly 16 million members is a testament to the innovative tactics and strategies they have developed over the years.

And what were those strategies?

Card Check to Replace a Hostile NLRB: As federal labor law and the National Labor Relations Board largely abandoned protecting workers, leaading to over 20,000 workers being fired each year for trying to organize unions, labor leaders realized in the last decades that they needed to emphasize new ways to strengthen the freedom of workers to form unions without depending on the NLRB. The tool was pressuring companies to agree to have independent groups - church leaders or private arbitration groups - measure whether a majority of workers had requested having a union brought into the workplace. (See these resources at American Rights At Work for more on how card check works).

The results have been dramatic. In an early signature campaign reviving the fortunes of the union movement, janitors began organizing around the country, largely using card check to win. In Los Angeles, for example, a union local where once 5000 workers were organized collapsed down to just 1800 members by the mid-0-s. But with the support of community allies, they used dramatic street protests to pressure janitorial companies to recognize the union and raise wages and benefits in the industry. Now, over 25,000 building service workers are organized in California alone. Similarly, hotel unions in Las Vegas would use card check to expand a local to over 50,000 members in that city alone.

And in the high-tech world, traditional telephone-based unions used card check to make inroads into new industries like cell phones. The Communication Workers of America has organized over 39,000 cell phone workers at Cingular Wireless, many of them workers in the US South. After initial resistance, this campaign has even forged a partnership with SBC (now AT&T) that has helped workers and management pursue win-win gains in the workplace, rather than the hostility bred of constant union busting and outsourcing in so many industries.

Corporate Campaigns: Beyond traditional "street heat", unions have begun wielding economic resources they control, such as union pension funds, as part of the tools to pressure companies to agree to card check agreements. William Greider in this Nation article describes many of the tactics used by labor, from proxy fights to shareholder lawsuits, to put pressure on management, but one of my favorite descriptions of this work is by an anti-union consultant who explains to companies in this piece what they face. The author describes the combination of boycotts, pension actions and other publicity actions as a coordinated strategy that brilliantly turns former financial allies against corporate management:

These tactics are not meant to get banks or consumers or regulators to redefine their self-interest. Rather, they encourage these constituency groups to act selectively in their own self-interest. The campaign tries to create a business environment in which that self-interest actually promotes the goals of the unions and anti-corporate groups. Thus, the company’s essential supporters become de facto allies of its opponents. This is a very sophisticated organizing strategy.
Signficantly, business recognizes the effectiveness and sophistication of current labor leaders often far more than many other progressives.

Mobilizing Customers: As part of such corporate campaigns, unions have long used simple consumer boycotts to pressure companies, but now they are becoming even more sophisticate in organizing consumers before a conflict to preemptively pressure companies before a conflict even begins. A brilliant recent example is the Informed Meetings Exchange, a project of UNITE-HERE where a broad range of academic, political and religious organizations have signed onto an organization that will advise them on which hotels to stay at for large organizational conferences-- the lifeblood of many hotels. By providing experise to help these groups get a better deal at conference hotels, the union will also be in a position to steer those groups away from hostile hotels and towards those less likely to disrupt a conference with a strike or lockout. As John Stephens, Executive Director of the American Studies Association and Board Chair of INMEX, stated:
"Subscribers will use INMEX to help them make more informed decisions about where and how they spend their highly coveted meetings and conventions dollars. With this type of transparency and information exchange, all of us can ensure that the dollars we spend have a positive impact on hotel workers lives and the communities they live in."
It's a nice summary of how progressives can work with labor to strengthen the whole movement.

Use of Local and State Politics: Getting little help from the federal government, unions have found ways to mobilize locally to support new union campaigns. The "living wage" campaignthat demanded that private workers paid for with public money receive a decent wage is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of politics. More specifically, the campaign to organize the hundreds of thousands of home health care workers -- those paid by governments to care for the sick and disabled in their homes -- has been a key success for unions in recent years. This piece describes the successful campaign in California, where workers previously treated as "independent contractors" with no right to form a union were converted into employees of newly created public authorities and then unionized, most dramatically in Los Angeles in 1999 when 74,000 home care workers voted to form a local union, the largest union vote in decades, which has been accompanied by tens of thousands of other home care workers unionizing. Similarly, tens of thousands of child care workers have also unionized in recent years.

Organizing Globally: Part of the success of the union movement has been matching global outsourcing by the business community with global organizing of its own. This is a still a tough challenge, but unions are increasingly making inroads. Unions increasingly draw on help from overseas, as the chemical workers union did a few years ago in Alabama-- taking on Imerys, one of the largest global minerals companies in the heart of the anti-union South. Mobilizing help from the 20 million-strong International Chemical Energy, Mining and General Workers Unions (ICEM), the workers were able to pressure the company to recognize the union.

And instead of just bemoaning corporate outsourcing, unions are increasingly organizing the outsourcers themselves. For example, three large multinational firms -- Sodexho, Aramark and Compass -- subcontract work from other firms to do everything from food service to laundry work to janitorial services, employing 300,000 workers in the US and 1.1 million globally. Unions are forging global alliances with European and counterparts in other countries to demand global agreements with those companies. And they are succeeding with all three companies signing card check agreements to allow organizing of their employees.

Conclusion: These strategies by labor don't often get a lot of play in the mainstream media, but on this Labor Day, I thought it was a good time to celebrate the sophistication and persistence of US workers and their labor leaders in taking on the challenges of the new economy and actually winning where many people had already written the labor movement's obituary.

So Solidarity Forever everyone.

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