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get to Stephen Lerner's essay, Reviving
Full Service Unionism
Thomas A. Kochan
I agree with Stephen Lerner that current labor law doesn't work and traditional organizing strategies won't reverse the long term decline in union membership or influence. I also agree that to rebuild, the labor movement must demonstrate it can win improvements in workers' economic conditions and to do this it must adopt more principled and aggressive strategies.
But Lerner's strategy of organizing industries within and across communities
through use of civil disobedience will appeal to and provide effective representation
for only a subset of the labor force, namely those workers in industries with
local or regional product markets and those with employers they deeply distrust
The key to such broad-based appeal is to recognize that the diversity of today's economy and employment arrangements creates a corresponding need for a variety of organizing and representational strategies and services. This "full service unionism" would start by making a lifetime commitment to workers: to represent them throughout their careers, regardless of their industry, occupation, or labor market status. Where it can gain majority status, collective bargaining would continue to be a mainstay of labor's strategy. But most workers want and need more from their representatives. The majority of workers also want a direct voice in workplace decisions that affect how they do their jobs, safety and health conditions, and other day-to-day interactions. Unions have considerable experience and some success in promoting employee participation in unionized settings. These instances should be widely publicized and unions should be the most visible champions for workers striving to gain a direct voice in workplace affairs.
To have a voice in the basic decisions that affect long term employment and income security, unions need to gain a direct role in corporate governance and investment decisions through various avenues, such as board representation and employee stock ownership plans. Unions need to develop a clear position on the role of workers as stakeholders in American corporations who both share the risks and contribute to corporate performance, and thereby earn a right to participate in governance decisions and share equitably in the organization's returns.
For an increasing number of workers (and for most workers at different points over their career cycle), provision of labor market services (job information, referral and placement, retraining, etc.) and portable benefit and pension coverage will be critical. Successful representation in these settings means going beyond a representational model that depends on gaining majority status in a defined bargaining unit in return for exclusive representation rights.
Making full service unionism a reality will require a comprehensive overhaul of labor law. Labor's approach to reform must, however, also be driven by a forward-looking strategy and vision that includes but goes beyond patching up the demonstrated weaknesses in the law governing organizing and the right to strike. This approach to labor law reform did not work when the Democrats held a majority in Congress because labor law reform was characterized as a technical battle between two special interest groups rather than something the majority of the American public cared about or understood, or even understood why they should care. The next battle over labor law must be highly public, broad-based, and the changes proposed must be ones that capture the interest of the majority of workers (voters). Labor cannot do all this alone. It must build and sustain a broad-based coalition of progressive women's and civil rights organizations, professional societies, academics who share labor's values, and employers willing to engage in true partnerships.
But labor cannot wait for the day political or legislative change becomes a possibility. In the meantime (whether the "meantime" is until January 1997, or sometime into the next century), labor needs to take its program to the American people, experiment with a broad array of alternatives for organizing and representing workers, learn from the successes and failures of these experiments, and create and publicize its record as a forward-looking, innovative, and powerful body.
So as part of a portfolio of strategies and approaches, targeting specific industries and localities for organizing, using civil disobedience if necessary, and projecting a militant image is sensible. As the only or even the primary approach, it will cut the labor movement off from precisely those workers and members of society it needs the most.