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January 05, 2005

Organizing Requires Breaking the Law

I was looking over proposals at the new AFL-CIO union strategies for change web site and I came across the American Federation of Teacher's proposal, Inclusive Strategies for Labor’s Renewal. It's pretty good, if generally less ambitious than the SEIU proposal, but one section in particular struck me as cutting to the core of what unions need to do.

Instead of depending on existing unions to organize tough targets, such as Wal-Mart, which may be beyond the capability of any one union, the AFL-CIO should consider marshalling resources to start independent unions, much as new unions like the Autoworkers and Steelworkers were chartered to take on the new industrial giants in the 1930s.

But the kicker to the argument is the hidden benefit to having independent new unions do the organizing: they have little to lose, so they can be much more aggressive in ignoring the legal straightjacket of labor law (see p. 19):

Similarly, organizing in new areas such as high tech, insurance and banking, public and private sector employers in the South and West, manufacturing transplants, etc., may require creating new unions from scratch and even adopting unconventional tactics unencumbered by the restraints of current labor law. Existing unions have much to risk and lose through the purposeful violation of Taft-Hartley (secondary boycotts and shutdowns, sit-down strikes, etc.); organizing committees of start-up unions with no accumulated treasuries or bricks and mortar might enjoy greater strategic and tactical flexibility and would have substantially less to lose through the smart and strategic use of unconventional approaches where appropriate. The AFL-CIO could explore the legal and financial avenues for building institutional firewalls for donor unions (or for the AFL-CIO as a donor organization) that would be responsible for providing money, logistical assistance, long-term loaned staff and other help without the expectation of an organizational quid pro quo.
This is a deep point that goes to the core of the challenge facing labor.

The union movement can't succeed by obeying the law.

The law after the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act was designed to strangle and kill new organizing. NLRB elections have become a graveyard of delays. Union leaders face jail and their unions bankruptcy if they allow wildcat strikes or secondary boycotts.

But new independent organizations could shoot the moon, taking actions that no established unions could responsibly do. As the paragraphs above indicate, transferring resources to such independent unions might get tricky, but recognizing that the labor movement needs organizing vehicles that can be bolder in challenging the legal restraints on unions is a welcome addition to the debate on the future of unionism in this country.

Posted by Nathan at January 5, 2005 06:57 AM