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February 11, 2005

More on Why Organizing is Enough

Prof Stone has responded to my critique of her argument that organizing is not enough to revive the union movement. [A quick disclaimer; I learned labor law from Prof. Stone as a law student and everything I know about the evils of individual arbitration I learned from her.]

She first argues that the revival of unions in the 1930s was based on recognizing that organizing unions around craft skils was insufficient and that unions needed to organize around an employer-centered model of industrial unions. This flows into her argument that as craft unions were appropriate to one era and industrial unions were appropriate to another so a new kind of "boundaryless" union is appropriate to a boundaryless workplace.

The problem with this progressive view of economic history is that craft unions were NEVER appropriate for most workers, and other union leaders from the Knights of Labor in the 19th century to the Mineworkers and IWW in the 20th condemned the model as too limiting.

The reason industrial unionism had problems before the 1930s -- although it had great success in the mining and garment industries -- is that the AFL leadership refused to put enough resources into organizing the unorganized. They disdained unskilled workers and didn't think it worth the energy or money.

So the change in the 1930s was not in the economy itself but in the rise of a CIO organization -- created by the two main industrial-based unions, the United Mine Workers and Amalgamated Garment Workers -- which demonstrated in a few years that the devotion of mass resources to organizing could yield rapid organizing results.

There is nothing so new in the economy that the industrial unionism that was appropriate in the 19th century and in the 1930s shouldn't be needed and possible today.

Employer versus Multi-Employer Unionism: Yes, legal changes in the 1930s helped organizing then, but it was actually those legal changes that encouraged "employer-centered" unions tied to individual workplaces rather than industry-wide employment and security mechanisms as Stone emphasizes would be useful. The National Labor Relations Act only requires bargaining between an employer and its own employees. Unlike in other countries, there is no requirement that employers negotiate as a group with employees across an industry-- exactly the kinds of negotiations that could dispense with security in a single employer in favor of broader forms of benefit portability.

If most unions had their choice, they would demand multi-employer pension and health care systems. Some unions sucessfully do so and those pension and health care benefits are the stronger for it, but there are many elements in the legal landscape that make such multi-employer deals hard to negotiate and enforce today. That "younger workers have no intention of staying with their firms for life" is nothing new either." Younger workers have always been mobile in the United States, with ambitions to move on common throughout our history. But just cause and seniority provisions assure an employee that they leave when THEY want to leave, not when the employer wants to clear them out to hand their job to more docile and lower-paid alternatives.

What to Organize: As to the point that the most successful organizing has happened in the service sectors less affected by foreign competition, that's true. Which is a good argument for focusing lots of initial organizing dollars in those sectors. With tens of millions of construction, retail, health care, education, and other services unorganized, that is enough union organizing work to keep everyone busy for years with the proper investment of resources.

For manufactuirng and other service sectors subject to foreign competition, the need is for global organizing, so that wherever employers relocate work, they will face demands for worker empowerment and democratic negotiations over the work conditions. No doubt some work will continue to go overseas, but it should only be because of true economic efficiencies, not because an employer faces weaker unions in one country rather than another.

Yes, unions should encourage maximum participation, including by workers in between employment and in sectors not yet organized. And yes, they should combine organizing with a social vision of public services that makes transition between jobs easier. But the need for that social unionist vision is not tied to changes in the economy; it existed in the Knights of Labor and other groups in the 19th century and in progressive industrial unions throughout the 20th century.

But it can only be attained with greater organizational strength and more union members. And that will take more organizing as a precondition. Organizing, organizing, organizing is the first step to achieving anything else.

Posted by Nathan at February 11, 2005 03:27 PM