Needed: A New Unionism

In Mother Jones (of all places), Kevin Drum has posted an interesting argument about the need for private sector unions to concentrate on wages and benefits rather than work rules.  This alone is an example of pretty creative thinking for laborites, but it still misses the mark.

Unionism in the private sector is not just down; it’s almost out. Membership has been falling steadily for half a century and is now circling the drain, with membership at 6.9% of the workforce. In 1953 it was 36%.

This disastrous decline has been partly masked by the simultaneous growth of unions in the public sector. While private unions sank, public ones climbed from near-zero in the 1950’s to around 36%, where it has held steady since 1980. Decline has also been disguised by the growing political power of the union movement, as its electoral organizing skills have improved even as membership organizing has languished.

Why the decline? Why have private sector workers stopped joining unions?

The unions have a ready answer: it’s too hard to organize because employers cheat. They scare and intimidate and fire workers who try to organize.

Undoubtedly true, in too many cases. Union-busting consultants have a bag of anti-union tricks that can certainly make certification elections hard to win.

But that just begs the question. Why only now? Didn’t employers know these tricks during all the years unions were growing? Didn’t Henry Ford know how to intimidate workers? Didn’t the steel companies? Didn’t construction firms? Coal-mine operators? The Mohawk Valley Formula for union-busting dates back to 1936.

So why are so many unions now stymied by employer opposition?

Other possible explanations for union decline abound. Many heavily unionized manufacturing and textile industries have moved jobs overseas in search of lower costs.

But other industries that are largely homebound have not been organized in their place.

And in fact many newer industries (high-tech, for instance) are often fairly good employers, offering decent benefits and workplace flexibility in a conscious effort to attract a happy, productive, and non-union workforce.

Private sector unions may be short of members, but not of excuses.

One industry in particular looks like it ought to be a prime target for union organizers, no matter what: big-box retail. Walmart pays low wages and low benefits. Walmart can’t move its stores to China (they’ll open new ones there, but not close down ones here). Walmart workers are the very folks unions where created to help. So why aren’t they organized? You guessed it – because Walmart management is anti-union.

Walmart: One company, 1.4 million unorganized, low-paid, benefitless workers spread across America. And what has been labor’s response, after a few unsuccessful campaigns?

“STOP WALMART!” Boycott Walmart! Shop at their competitors, like Target and Costco (both mostly non-union). And of course, pass the laughably-titled “Employee Free Choice Act”, so in case we get cards (one way or another), we can bypass the election process with its secret-ballot nonsense.

While EFCA didn’t pass,  the NLRB has finally taken steps to facilitate speedier elections.  But I fear that, despite employer concerns, this will only call labor’s bluff.  Will unions now be able to organize Walmart? What do you think?

If unions could get past their anger, resentment, and frustration, they might ask: “What would it take to organize Walmart stores, or their counterparts like Costco, Target, and the rest?”

The answer is a tough one. It will take a new type of unionism, one we haven’t invented yet. One with no reliance on retro New-Deal Solidarity nostalgia. A unionism without a blue-state ethos. One that doesn’t make the Democratic Party the centerpiece of all its hopes and dreams. One that works to get workers better pay and benefits, not to serve a political party.  Indeed, a union that doesn’t take sides in political elections or culture war battles.

When unions bother to try talking to Walmart workers, are they liable to find eager volunteers for the next Obama campaign?  Will they emphasize their resolutions on unlimited abortion or gay marriage? Will they describe their eager lobbying for higher taxes?  Will they tell the workers how much of their efforts (and dues) will go to defeat Republicans everywhere?

Unions nostalgic for the 1930’s should re-examine the real history of the CIO.

A century ago, Henry Ford had a great idea: if he could make cars cheaper, he could sell more of them. Then he figured out how to make them cheaper. And he sold more.

Then, visionary union leaders had another great idea: if they could invent new unions that would be relevant to the new auto workers, they could help the workers and build the union movement.

So they did it. And America was better for both. In slightly simplistic terms, it is thanks to Henry Ford and the UAW that workers could afford to buy cars.

Sam Walton rediscovered Henry Ford’s idea, and has remade American society as a result. Some find Sam’s creation as distasteful and unaesthetic as the automobile itself, but a lot of Americans seem to like lower prices and broader selection. Walmart is here to stay.

But where are the union visionaries who can see their way to the future? If labor can’t figure out how to organize businesses like Walmart, they can kiss the private sector good bye. For those who think unions play a necessary role in our society, the consequences are worth contemplating.

The outlook? Not good. Not good.

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1 Response to “Needed: A New Unionism”


  1. 1 Charles chapman October 16, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    In the early 1960’s the then President of Northeastern University in Bodton, defeated a faculty unionization effort-by fighting dirty. And was so proud of his achievement that he wrote a book about how to beat a faculty his way. Cops of his book are in college and university libraries all over the country, often in the reference section.N. U, in those days admitted almost anyone with a body temperature over 90 degrees F, and ‘retained’them so long as their family’s ability to pay indicated they could come up with the next tuition payment. Then they flunkrd them out, boasting of this fact as proof of their ‘selectivity’. Despite the end of enrollment pressures when the draft-and the possibility of a quick trip to the war zone for college drop-out, NUhas prospered over the years, its physical plant has grown to city proportions while its bureaucracies growth would please the SCIU!And you can fairly say that their prosperity was built on the backs ofmiddleclass freshmen and the parent’s worth! One faculty member suggests the key to profitability was accepting the largest possible number of freshmen, draining them dry and then flunking them out to save the expence involved in providing their Sophomore year programs!Some faculty report the were pressured to move on the excess numbers!


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