Maybe, Big Labor, aren’t they that in you?
Labor activists see “pro-union” as synonymous with “pro-worker” and celebrate workers as stubborn fighters when they vote one way and manipulated pawns when they vote the other. But faith in workers to understand and defend their own interests should be the first principle of anyone claiming to represent them.
None of this suggests that big business is right. Business leaders and their political allies have applauded the decline in private sector organization and prefer an economic arrangement in which the prerogatives of management are unchecked. In this reflection, “pro-business” and “pro-market” are synonymous, and unions have little role to play as long as working conditions are tolerable. This overlooks the vital role of organized labor in a well-functioning market economy.
The only group that clearly understands the insanity in both perspectives is that of the workers themselves. Workers have shown that they do not like the hyper-adversarialism and political activism that American unions bring into their workplaces, but that they are keen to gain more representation, voice and support. that they cannot obtain individually. What they want and need is common ground that neither side offers.
Research has confirmed this. In a landmark 1994 survey, Harvard Professor Richard Freeman and University of Wisconsin Professor Joel Rogers asked more than 2,400 non-management workers whether they would prefer to be represented by an organization that “management cooperates with to discuss problems, but did not have the power to make decisions “or by one” who had more power, but management opposed it. ” The workers preferred cooperation to a contradictory position of 63% to 22%, a result which was valid even among active union members.
In 2017, MIT professor Thomas Kochan conducted a similar investigation and found that interest in joining a union had increased and workers wanted a wide range of services that a union could provide, including: collective bargaining; health, unemployment and training benefits; legal assistance; contribution to work processes; and representation in management decision making. In the long menu of options, the two that stood out as making workers less likely to become members are precisely those who seem to excite union activists the most: politics and strikes.
Rather than celebrating the Amazon workers’ decision as a corporate vindication or condemning it (and, by implication, the workers) as perhaps not in their best interests, we should recognize it for the tragedy that ‘she is. We know that workers would like to have organizations capable of representing them effectively. We know Amazon is one of America’s most aggressive employers when it comes to push the envelope on work practices. And yet our country’s labor law system and our existing unions cannot come close to delivering anything acceptable.
Business leaders are also absent. They naturally resist letting Big Labor in. But if they think they can maintain the status quo of minimal workers’ power, stagnant wages and growing inequalities indefinitely, they are sorely mistaken. The end result will be higher taxes, more regulation, poorer consumers and an unstable political system. Beyond providing the foundations for healthy capitalism, strong worker representation can also lead to higher productivity, better training, and the true partnership necessary for a company’s long-term success.
Fortunately, our dysfunctional system is not the only one. On the contrary, the American idea of a union as something that organizes workplace by workplace in the face of hostility from employers, from Sally Field as Norma Rae standing on the table with her scribbled sign in her hand that says “UNION” is something of an outlier. In most Western democracies, the models are quite different, with unions serving workers across an entire industry who join and pay dues voluntarily for the benefits offered. At the company level, companies often have collaborative arrangements such as “works councils” which give workers a meaningful role in setting policy and managing operations.
One such model is the ‘Ghent System’, the most popular in northern Europe, which assigns the responsibility of providing unemployment insurance to unions – funded by the workers themselves as well as by employers and the government. Likewise, unions in many countries, and even some in the United States, are heavily involved in workforce training systems, which tend to increase the level and quality of training provided. US companies complaining about the shortage of qualified candidates should consider the benefits of empowering workers to play a greater role in creating a talent pool.
Another model is “sectoral bargaining”, in which unions representing all workers in an industry negotiate with occupational groups representing all employers in an industry. Rather than Amazon fighting tooth and nail against a union that could put it at a disadvantage over Walmart, a union of warehouse workers and an association of retailers could work to reach an agreement on terms of employment that would apply. to everybody. Amazon and Walmart would both be determined to treat their employees well and, rather than competing with each other over who could cut costs the most, they could focus more on increasing productivity and innovation to serve customers well. .
The most important first step in finding a better system is simply to allow innovation to happen. Currently, the national labor relations law prohibits formal cooperation between management and workers, such as works councils, outside the boundaries of traditional unions; Congress should revise the law to remove this provision. Likewise, the NLRA is known to be aggressive in preventing states from deviating from its national framework, while antitrust law makes industry coordination suspect and labor laws leave too few open questions for parties to resolve. . Congress should create exemptions.
Meaningful labor reform is more likely to start on the right than on the left. The Democratic Party remains dependent on political and financial support from Big Labor and seems destined to duplicate the failed model. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are abandoning their corporate allegiance and paying much more attention to the concerns of workers. They are also beginning to envision the many ways in which a vibrant trade union movement could help advance their core values: expanding prosperity through the marketplace rather than relying on redistribution, positioning parties to govern workplaces themselves instead. than to rely on regulation, and rebuild a vital social institution system that can strengthen communities and strengthen solidarity.
Experimentation could start in one place – for example, a red state governor bringing together a professional group and a workers’ organization to negotiate a new system of benefits and training; in one sector – say, the odd-job economy; or on an issue – for example, minimum wage. Congress, or even a state legislature, could help by offering funding and other incentives for labor-management relations that provide workers with real representation and valuable services, reversing the current dynamic where companies consider presence. of a union as a terrible fate. Ultimately, it will require management and union representatives to recognize the status quo as unsustainable and make the leap to something new.
A Ghent-style approach to providing health care benefits is a limited, market-based government approach that could reduce the pressure for government-sponsored options like Medicare-for-All. Sectoral bargaining could raise the specter of ‘corporatism’ or ‘crony capitalism’ throwing sand into the gears of the economy, but putting workers and management on an equal footing to set their own pay scales should be preferable to a national fight for $ 15.
The Republican Party has already begun to rethink some of the outdated orthodoxies of free market fundamentalism that have gone largely unchallenged since the Reagan era, and at the same time, its coalition has started to expand. In a virtuous cycle, the growth of a multi-ethnic, working-class conservative base pushes political leaders further towards worker concern, which in turn accelerates coalition transformation. Skepticism will rightly persist about the sclerotic unions our country’s labor law offered during the Great Depression, but the Chamber of Commerce’s preference to end the discussion there could give way. room for enthusiasm for reforms that would serve workers and the economy well.
Bessemer workers found themselves caught between Big Business and Big Labor. At the polls, however, they may soon have the option of voting for something else.