Open Source Unionism

Joel Rogers and Richard B. Freeman have a plan to restore the American labor movement:

Under open-source unionism … unions would welcome members even before they achieved majority status, and stick with them as they fought for it–maybe for a very long time. These “pre-majority” workers would presumably pay reduced dues in the absence of the benefits of collective bargaining, but would otherwise be normal union members. They would gain some of the bread-and-butter benefits of traditional unionism–advice and support on their legal rights, bargaining over wages and working conditions if feasible, protection of pension holdings, political representation, career guidance, access to training and so on. And even in minority positions, they might gain a collective contract for union members, or grow to the point of being able to force a wall-to-wall agreement for all workers in the unit. But under OSU, such an agreement, which is traditionally the singular goal of organizing, would not be the defining criterion for achieving or losing membership. Joining the labor movement would be something you did for a long time, not just an organizational relationship you entered into with a third party upon taking some particular job, to expire when that job expired or changed.

OSU would engage a range of workers in different states of organization rather than discrete majorities of workers in collective-bargaining agreements. There would be traditional employer-specific unions, but there would likely be more cross-employer professional sorts of union formations and more geographically defined ones. Within any of these boundaries, the goal of OSU would not be collective bargaining per se but broader worker influence over the terms and conditions of work and working life. Because OSU unions would typically have less clout inside firms or with particular employers, they would probably be more concerned than traditional unionism with the political and policy environment surrounding their employers and employment settings. They would be more open to alliance with nonlabor forces–community forces of various kinds, constituencies organized around interests not best expressed through work or even class (here think environmental, feminist, diversity or work/family concerns)–that might support them in this work. As a result, labor as a whole would likely have a more pronounced “social” face with OSU than it has today.

That article was first published nine years ago, but it’s well worth revisiting post-Wisconsin; especially given that the non-organized workforce is shockingly ripe for open-source unionization. As University of Oregon’s Gordon Lafer writes, “For nearly three decades, opinion polls have consistently shown that roughly one-third of non-union workers wish they had a union in their workplace. If creating a union simply followed the will of workers, an additional 40 million Americans would have union representation.”

Is the movement really going to leave those 40 million workers twisting in the wind just because most of them work in places where a vote to unionize would probably fail? Union members from non-union shops — called direct affiliation members — still pay dues, and they can educate their coworkers, loved ones and neighbors about workers’ rights and labor issues. Throwing the doors open to direct affiliation members could very well be the first step to majority representation in workplaces where that was once inconceivable.

It’s worth a shot, anyway. With private sector union density at 6.9 percent and falling, it’s not like the movement has a whole lot to lose.

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One Response

  1. 40 million American workers want a union until actually faced with the choice and they learn how American unions operate. There’s only one reason for the decline of unions — the world of difference between the reality a union and the hype.

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