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September 05, 2005

What Unions are Doing Right

While Labor Day is rightly overshadowed by the tragedy in New Orleans, I still want to peek out from the sometime gloom of handwringing over the fate of Labor to highlight what's going right with the labor movement.  

I'm teaching a class on labor at Bard College this semester and I commemorated Labor Day with an assignment to watch the heart-breaking movie AMERICAN DREAM about the P-9 meatpackers strike and read sections of Thomas Geoghegan's WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON, both reminders from the early 1990s of how really dark prospects for labor looked back then.

People will ask me why I'm so optimistic for the future given that the overall percentage of the workforce in union is declining, but the difference now than then is that back then almost nothing was working and a lot of people were predicting the complete disappearance of the labor movement by now.

It didn't happen. And it's because a lot of great organizers across the labor movement changed what they were doing and won some significant fights.   Good criticism is essentially for reviving and strengthening us, but so is pointing out what's going well and replicating that.  So that's what this post will do and feel free to add your own examples in comments. The UAW:  The fact that General Motors is begging the Auto Workers to pay a bit more for their health care is a testament to the union's success in taking care of their members better than almost any large union in the history of the world.  And where many other previously strong unions got outmaneuvered by employers, the UAW pulled off some amazingly smart strikes, using the automaker's own "just-in-time" inventory systems to paralyze their whole operations with small local strikes, both to preserve strong benefits for existing workers and put pressure on suppliers to allow UAW organizers in under neutrality agreements.  See here, here and here.

Communication Workers at IBM:  A lot of folks talk about the strategy of organizing in a company without waiting to get a majority recognized in a union.  But CWA organized Alliance@IBM to mobilize IMB workers and was one of the first voices to raise alarms about companies underfunding pension plans and screwing workers through gambits like "cash benefit" conversions.  See their site here.

SEIU and HERE have created a joint project to organize the giant service contract companies, Sodexho, Compass and Aramark, and have used innovative global alliances to pressure the three companies to sign neutrality agreements.  This project is poised to potentially organize the tens of thousands of employees that these three companies employ in the United States.

AFSCME's Anti-Privatization Organizing has highlighted the fact that public employees often can beat private contractors in efficiency and challenged the conservative anti-government message across the country.  They've created a whole range of "power tools" to fight privatization, from effective messaging to local ordinances that expose the costs of contracting out for both workers and the community.

CWA at Cingular Wireless:  Using a strong bargaining relationship with SBC telecommuncations, CWA successfully bargained for card check agreements that adds tens of thousands of wireless workers to the union rolls.  See here.

I'll add a few more to this list later, but I'd love to see others added in comments.

Posted by Nathan at September 5, 2005 08:29 AM