Archive for the ‘Organized Labor’ Category

Globalizing Labor’s Struggle
August 9, 2011

Those of you with so much as a casual interest in labor issues have no doubt heard about the recent unionization of IKEA factory workers in Danville, VA. It was a big victory for organized labor, especially considering the unfavorable conditions in which it occurred — Virginia is a right-to-work state, and you might have noticed that things are not going super great for unions as a whole in the United States.

Fortunately IKEA has considerable interests in its motherland of Sweden, a labor stronghold. Josh Eidelson writes:

While workers were organizing for a union in Danville, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) labor federation, of which IAM is an affiliate, was working to pin responsibility for Virginia anti-union tactics on Ikea headquarters in Europe. Ikea workers and supporters engaged in global solidarity actions, including thousands of phone calls and emails and an informational picket line in Australia. The workers’ struggle in Virginia for the benefits that are assumed in Sweden drew repeated Swedish media coverage, including a segment on the country’s top-rated news show.

Street says that pressure paid off in the months before the union vote, as Ikea corporate concluded that protecting their brand in Europe required getting Jackson Lewis to scale back its anti-union tactics in Virginia.


The Swedish example also strengthened workers’ sense of what was possible in Virginia. In the month before the election, a leader of Sweden’s Ikea manufacturing union flew to Danville and met with workers to describe the wages, benefits and respect they had won. BWI also organized to send the 335 Danville workers messages of support from workers around the world, including hand-written letters and videos.

If American labor is ever going to get back on its feet, it needs more of this. Multinational corporations may be extraordinarily powerful, but they’re also vulnerable to pressure on their international holdings. Americans trying to organize in the shadow of a global behemoth, take note: odds are that company is also trying to preserve its bottom line in some much more heavily unionized country.


Unions, Today
August 1, 2011

Replying to an earlier post, Erik Kain writes

In some sense, Ned is making the pity-charity liberalism case here. Using monetary policy and a wicked-good social safety net to ensure that everyone is well-enough off to avoid being mired in poverty and focus on growing the economy sounds like Will Wilkinson or Matt Yglesias. I think Ned’s notion of a sort of positive labor scarcity is pretty compelling, though. Rather than create barriers to entry into the labor pool, create incentives for parents to stay home with their kids and for people to start small businesses, become artists, and so forth. I think something like single-payer healthcare would vastly increase the ability of working Americans to take risks like starting up a business or pursuing a creative career, for instance.

I’m less certain Ned is making the case for increased union density. After all, if markets are free and we have decent growth, and the state is doing the hard work of freeing workers from domination by employers (which, in the American context, would be largely freeing us from employer-based health insurance at least at first) then what is the real compelling need for more unions? If we have something like a negative income tax or a wage subsidy in place for low-income workers, what is the compelling case to have more union density – especially if we work to end corporate welfare and democratize the markets, taking the advantage away from the big corporations and giving it back to a more competitive, fluid and diverse market of innovators and start-ups.

The case for unions is pretty straightforward: we have the economic system we have. Sure, I can imagine a world in which the global economy runs on co-ops, labor scarcity is high enough that even workers in non-co-ops have significant bargaining power, and the unemployed are protected from destitution by a state-mandated guaranteed minimum income. If I woke up and found myself in that world, I’d never sing “Solidarity Forever” again. The work of labor unions would seem to be over, and their continued existence would be either (at best) extraneous or (at worst) a destabilizing force that would place an unnecessary burden on the already cowed forces of capital.

But that world is a fantasy. I might as well write a post meditating on what the replicators from Star Trek will mean for trade unions. Those kinds of posts are cute and all, but they have nothing to do with why I want increased union density on this planet. Which is why, though I have generally warm feelings about this paragraph from Erik, it feels incomplete:

I’m not 100% sure how workers ought to organize in today’s economy to be honest, but I think it’s going to need to go far beyond simply organizing the existing workplace. Workers and citizens should try to – quite literally – take back the means of production, not through violent revolution, but through new technology, open-source manufacturing, and the potential of worker cooperatives.

Look, I think co-ops are great. Open source manufacturing sounds pretty intriguing, too. But these tools aren’t available to everyone. For the non-entrepreneurs, labor unions are a crucial leveraging tool we can use in this economy to combat worker domination. Granted, they are not what they once were. Granted, many of them are flawed institutions. But for those who are at the mercy of their employers, organizing remains the best way to take matters into their own hands.

(By the way: If you want to see what a whole co-op economy looks like, watch this hour-long documentary on the Mondragon experiment.)

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Labor Scarcity and Social Democracy
July 28, 2011

One thing I like about Erik Kain’s blogging is that he’s not afraid to change his mind, and he always has a compelling reason for doing so. That’s why I’ve liked watching his brief fling and subsequent breakup with union solidarity: both his support and his criticism is valuable for organized labor advocates. And it’s why I’ve spent the past week or so thinking about this post and especially this part:

Organized labor creates a labor cartel, restricting the supply of jobs and wages and limiting the opportunities of non-union workers. The argument against this is essentially ‘a rising tide lifts all ships’. Non-union workers, the argument goes, benefit from the competitive wages at union firms. I think this is true to some degree, but I think it’s also true that in order to create a system wherein organized labor has clout, artificial labor scarcity has to be created. To do that you have to limit the number of slots. This was traditionally done by excluding women and minorities from many jobs. In other countries it has been politically feasible to push full-employment policies. I doubt that it is either politically or culturally feasible in this country.

Artificially limiting the number of slots by excluding otherwise capable candidates is one thing. Institutional racism and sexism are the most obviously horrible ways to do this, but even the less retrograde alternatives — such as imposing overly burdensome certification requirements on newcomers — are pretty unpalatable. So Erik and I agree there.

On the other hand, full employment sounds pretty great. And while Erik’s probably right that there’s no politically feasible way to bring about full employment right now, that strikes me as an argument for, not against, supporting and building up organized labor. If we think full employment is a good thing, and we recognize that unions have a strong interest in encouraging the policy, why not strengthen their hand in that debate?

But that’s just setting myself up for the obvious response from labor critics: If arbitrarily excluding otherwise qualified workers from the workforce — and if full employment is, at best, a distant pipe dream — then there’s no mechanism for creating the scarcity of labor that would make unions relevant. So why even bother with them? Why not just accept organized labor’s inevitable demise?

Because Erik’s left out some other important ways we can create labor scarcity. Trying to boost employment through good monetary policy is one, as Matt Yglesias has repeatedly pointed out. Yesterday Peter Frase made another proposal: lower the cost of being unemployed through a better social safety net. If people are guaranteed some minimum level of income, and if they don’t have to worry about losing their health care coverage, then many of them will voluntarily opt out of the labor supply. Some might become freelancers, artisans, or small businesspeople. Others might choose to raise their kids while a spouse brings home the bacon. Either way, that’s a solution that allows non-union labor to pursue their own interests without competing against union workers for the same jobs.

Granted, expanding the social safety net on the federal level sounds pretty implausible right now. But that doesn’t mean good things can’t happen on the state level — recall that Vermont just recently became the first state to institute a single-payer health care system. Recall also that in regions where unions still have some clout, they can lobby for social welfare expansion. There’s little that can be done on the federal level for now, but local strongholds of both organized labor and general social democracy could have a positive ripple effect.

If you broadly favor one or the other — the social safety net or organized labor — it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to exclude the other from your agenda. Clearly, we need to reconceptualize and refine both: that’s why I’ve used this space to push for open source unionism and address the welfare state’s “shameful revelation” problem. But institutional problems don’t negate first principle moral imperatives. Certainly not when those institutions can be reformed.

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Open Source Unionism
July 27, 2011

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.

Worker-Wonk Synergy
July 12, 2011

Earlier today I tweeted to Mac McClelland’s reporting on the abysmal working conditions at one Ohio warehouse and @MacMcClelland piece makes the case for why we need organized labor.”

Matt Yglesias replied, “It seems more like an argument about why we need full employment.” Later he elaborated in a post:

A strong labor union would certainly improve conditions at this warehouse around the margin. But there’s a real limit here, since the threat of the company losing its contracts and everyone ending up unemployed is going to be extremely severe. The real issue here is that instead of workers threatening to leave this crappy job and get a better one, people are clamoring to work at this warehouse. This is one small glance at why I keep urging progressives to start caring about monetary policy more. Nobody considers themselves a monetary policy activist. But if you’re interested in labor and working conditions, you’ve got to be interested in full employment. Full employment gives workers meaningful leverage. Mass unemployment gives it all to the bosses. In strict dollars and cents terms, I think everyone is better off with prosperity than with sluggish growth. But in terms of power, mass unemployment is a boon to bosses.

Sure, no disagreement there. No reason why a story can’t have two morals! Personally, I’m of the mind that both monetary policy and labor issues are drastically underserved by the progressive community.

It’s just a shame that the Federal Reserve is so reluctant to engage in the sort of practices that Matt says would help lead to full employment. If only there was some network of political coalitions out there that could somehow mobilize workers to lobby for fiscal expansion.

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The Sum of Organized Labor’s Parts
June 29, 2011

Starbucks Ueno

Image via Wikipedia

Playing off what I was talking about yesterday, this sounds like a sensible way to rejigger traditional labor tactics for the modern economy:

But forget about the past. What can the new I.W.W. tell us about organizing? The Starbucks campaign builds upon 2 key tenets of the old I.W.W. with great relevance to the present. First, it organizes industry wide. Understanding that one shop within the larger Starbucks empire has little meaning, the I.W.W. seeks to build solidarity between workplaces in order to build solidarity and gain additional power.

Second, the Wobblies focus heavily on worker education. One of the real weaknesses of the modern labor movement is a lack of emphasis on educating workers about their own workplace, how unions fit into a larger economic and social justice world, and building workplace democracy. The I.W.W. model is better than the AFL-CIO on all these fronts. Here there is real potential for unions outside the AFL-CIO structure to build quality organizations. The I.W.W. is rebuilding worker education centers and emphasizing larger ideas of workplace justice in its Starbucks campaign.

What most interests me here is the emphasis on worker education, particularly regarding those “larger ideas.” Yesterday I argued that unions need to pitch their indispensability as instruments of procedural justice in the workplace. The good folks at the I.W.W. seem to be thinking along similar, if not identical, lines.

As well they should. This is the stuff of movements, no? If local unions restrict their vision to local issues without articulating a broader philosophy of workers’ rights, then there is no “labor movement.” You’ve just got a bunch of unions all doing their own thing.

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Taking Unions Out of the Workplace
June 28, 2011

In These Times’ Joe Burns:

Like SEIU, an increasing number of union activists and theorists are looking to center union strategy far from the workplace. Rather than relying on the traditional union tactics of organizing, collective bargaining and political action, many trade unionists are instead focusing on protests against corporate targets and community organizing. Such actions get members into the streets to directly confront corporate profiteers and allow unions to organize around broad-based themes.

But as commentator Randy Shaw notes, the idea that building “some new and amorphous ‘mass organization’ that will help elect and then pressure pro-union politicians reflects a strategy that has already failed, and ignores that union power is based much more on the success of workplace organizing.”

But the bigger problem with this plan is philosophical, not strategic. Moving organized labor’s focus from the workplace would be a bad idea even if doing so produced better policy outcomes. That’s because labor, unlike most other grassroots political movements, is not simply valuable insofar as it can achieve desirable policy goals; it is valuable in of itself as a workplace-based system of democratic governance by which workers can check employer domination.

Because this point is so rarely acknowledged, organized labor’s value is often underestimated even by members of the nominal left. So you have people do things like point out that union X supports undesirable policy Y, and let that single, context-free example serve as an implicit criticism of the entire labor movement. One union’s endorsement of a distasteful policy doesn’t obviate the fact that, without unions (much less the freedom to organize unions), workers are left at the mercy of their employers’ whims, no matter how unjust. To suggest that X’s support of Y somehow negates these broader concerns is a bit like using one state legislature’s passage of a bad bill as an argument for absolute monarchy.

To shift organized labor’s center of gravity away from the workplace would be to tacitly surrender to the specious X-Y argument. It would effectively serve as a renunciation of the core values that make unions necessary and good. Instead, unions should be doing exactly the opposite: not transforming themselves into a subsidiaries of, but forcefully restating the case for worker self-governance.

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