« More on Killing TAA Training Funds | Main | Greider on State Pension Fund Power »

February 10, 2005

Is Organizing Enough?

Over at the the American Constitution Society blog, Prof. Katherine Stone has a guest post that argues that, after ten years of John Sweeney promising that new organizing would save the labor movement, continuing falling labor membership proves the "organize-or-bust strategy has failed."

Instead, Stone argues that labor is failing because it ignores the needs of workers in the new economy where long-term tenure is uncommon. Unions' commitment to seniority systems and other traditional union rules therefore make unions less appealing. "Because union practices are out of step with the new workplace, employers resist unions more fiercely than ever."

I think this has the problem backwards. It's precisely because unions are weaker that long-term employment is disappearing.

There was nothing inherent in the "old economy" that called for long-term employment. In fact, as scholar Sanford Jacoby documented in his book, Employing Bureaucracy, turnover in the old industrial workplace was far higher than today before unions made managers change their practices. In fact, the "old economy" of the first decades of the 20th century was incredibly unstable, with frequent layoffs and arbitrary dismissals a staple of daily life for workers. Before World War I, it was not uncommon for firms to have turnover rates in excess of 300%, meaning that the workforce could turnover three times in a year. Some stability in industries was created as unions boomed in strength during World War I, but with the decline in unions during the 1920s, turnover and instability in the workplace increased.

It was the strength of unions in the 1930s and 1940s that created the model of long-term employment, a reality that was not the product of industrial work itself but of the strength of unions. Even non-union companies committed themselves to long-term employment as a strategy to keep union organizers out; as long as the threat of unionization was strong, they had to try to match conditions in the union sectors.

Yes, there are no doubt important differences in the economy today compared to industrial workplaces, but there is actually little reason for greater job turnover. Someone can make a career at Microsoft as easily as at General Motors. No, the difference is the weakness of unions.

The Need for More Organizing: So if it is not changes per se in the economy that is the problem, what is it? The fact that companies are operating on a global basis, while unions are largely national is at least one problem, but that returns us to the need for better organizing strategies. And while Prof. Stone argues that "organizing or bust" has failed, the hard reality is that it hasn't been tried. A few unions like SEIU are devoting a significant percentage of their dues to new organizing, but most unions just plain don't do it.

I can't tell you the numbers spent on organizing-- which is part of the problem since those numbers would be easy to find in a union movement committed to organizing, but here are the numbers of what would be happening if unions were spending 30% of their income on organizing. To do a back of the envelope calculation, there are 15.7 million union members with average union dues of about $400 per year or a total of $6.3 billion in income by unions each year. If 30% were spent on organizing, that would $1.89 billion. Assuming it takes $100,000 to keep an organizer out in the field with wages and equipment, that would yield 18,900 organizers in workplaces across the country. But they aren't out there, because unions aren't spending the money they need to. If unions had 20,000 organizers on the ground, they might be making headway on union density. But they don't so they aren't.

A union like SEIU has successfully organized janitors in an industry with little job security and lots of turnover -- exactly the conditions Prof. Stone argues has doomed unions -- because they have devoted the resources needed to make the organizing successful. Yes, SEIU has been creative, but it also comes down to spending the resources needed to win.

I wish the union movement had really adopted an "organize or bust" strategy. They desperately need to do so. But the last thing unions should do is abandon their commitment to job security, one of the things that make unions so attractive that workers are still willing to risk being fired to get them in their workplace. Yes, unions need to appeal to part-time workers and, yes, they need to creatively adapt to industries where workers now are floating between multiple employers. But workers are not just looking for unemployment and training money between jobs, they are looking for job protection and the chance to be promoted in their own firm.

Unions need to change their strategies, but that change requires more money spent on organizing and a more global reach to match the global reach of their corporate opponents. I'm awfully old-fashioned, but it all comes down to the old union motto: "Organize, Organize, Organize!"

Posted by Nathan at February 10, 2005 03:37 PM