Political Animal

Blog

September 15, 2013 11:46 AM Labor unions are essential — and also in deep decline. Could a new model for unions bring labor back?

By Kathleen Geier

Via Mark Thoma’s invaluable site Economist’s View comes this very interesting piece. It’s a transcript of economist Joseph Stiglitz’s recent address to the AFL-CIO convention. The language is wonderfully clear and straightforward, and it lays out the basic facts about inequality in America and the terrible turn our economy has taken since the crash of ‘08. I particularly appreciated this point, about how inequality is not something that just “happened” because of technological or global forces we couldn’t control, but rather, that it’s something we created politically:

We created this inequality—chose it, really—with laws that weakened unions, that eroded our minimum wage to the lowest level, in real terms, since the 1950s, with laws that allowed CEO’s to take a bigger slice of the corporate pie, bankruptcy laws that put Wall Street’s toxic innovations ahead of workers. We made it nearly impossible for student debt to be forgiven. We underinvested in education. We taxed gamblers in the stock market at lower rates than workers, and encouraged investment overseas rather than at home.

Stiglitz argues that unions play a crucial role in creating a more just and functional economy:

It will only happen if workers come together. If they organize. If they unite to fight for what they know is right, , in each and every workplace, in each and every community, and in each and every state capital and in Washington. We have to restore not only democracy to Washington, but to the workplace.
It will only happen when workers realize that they own much of our country’s capital, through the pension funds, but that we have allowed this capital to be managed in ways that exploit workers and consumers alike.

[Snip]

The challenge facing you has seldom been greater. You are still a small fraction of America. But you are the largest group representing the vast majority of Americans who work hard and play by the rules. .
You must get others to join you, to work with you, to organize with you, to fight with you. It is only you who can raise the voice of ordinary Americans, and demand what you have worked so hard for.

What he says here, about the crucial role played by unions in the political process, as a “countervailing power” that represents the economics interests of ordinary Americans, was a point I made yesterday in my Walmart post. The problem, of course, is that though unions are vitally important to the health of our economy and our democracy, their power is waning. Every year, union density decreases, and labor law makes it organizing new workers very difficult. For decades, labor and its allies have been attempting to pass labor law reform that would eliminate legal obstacles to organizing drives, but those reforms never seem to get anywhere.

To get around this, some people have suggested alternatives to traditional unions. Mark Thoma links to this recent New York Times op-ed, by law professor Benjamin I. Sachs, which suggests one of these models:

But what if we unbundle the union and allow workers to organize politically without also organizing for collective bargaining? If we shift our aim away from reviving collective bargaining and toward enabling political organizing by underrepresented groups, we would allow workers to organize “political unions” even when they don’t want to organize collective bargaining ones.
It’s more straightforward than it sounds. The key is that we would make the workplace available as a site for political organization. While the law would continue to protect workers’ right to organize traditional unions, it would also protect workers’ right to organize strictly political ones.
Employers would be prohibited from retaliating against their employees who organized politically, and if the workers did form a political union, they would be entitled — as traditional unions are — to use voluntary payroll deductions to finance their activities. But these political unions would be prohibited from collective bargaining, and no worker would ever be required to pay dues to a political union — or to be represented by one — unless she chose to be.

The chief advantage I see with this kind of model is that employers would be less likely to oppose this kind of organizing. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t oppose it at all. I’m sure many still would, especially if workers were organizing around goals that would directly impact the workplace, like a higher minimum wage or paid sick or parental leave.

The disadvantages would be several. Collective bargaining is a huge incentive for workers to organize, because it holds out the promise that they could negotiate with their employer to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions. Take away that right, and the direct, tangible benefit bargaining bestows on workers, and many of them may not feel especially motivated to organize.

The biggest drawback of all, though, is that I don’t see what would make this kind of legislation any easier to get through Congress than card check or any other type of labor law reform has been. Republicans know full well that workers are not bloody likely to be organizing politically so that they can elect more Republicans. So they’re not apt to support it. And unless you have a highly unusual situation of a Democratic president, Democratic House, and filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, I don’t see why this legislation would be more likely to become law than any other iteration of labor law we’ve seen over the years has been.

Still, my mind is open and I’d like to hear more. The old union model clearly isn’t working any more, and the current system needs some shaking up — badly. That’s why unions have been trying things like the one-day strikes and worker walk-outs at Walmart and fast food places. I applaud them for that. The union movement desperately needs fresh approaches and innovative ideas. But I’m not sure that separating the political and collective bargaining functions of unions is a viable solution to labor’s woes.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

(You may use HTML tags for style)

comments powered by Disqus