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Pope, Bruno, and Kellman make two very critical points in their essay: first, that labor law fails to protect workers’ rights to organize and obtain access to collective bargaining; and second, that efforts to fix the law are doomed to fail for lack of political support. Even if enacted, modifications along the lines proposed in the past are not likely lead to a union revival. Much more fundamental changes will be needed in both labor policy and labor strategies to restore worker voice and bargaining power. But the authors’ proposal—mobilizing the working class to engage in strikes—is too limited. A new narrative that resonates with a broader cross-section of the workforce and the public will be needed.
The time is right to make the case that worker rights are human rights.
I agree with the authors that labor must be reformed into a rights-based movement. The time is right to take the case to the American public that worker rights are human rights. That in essence is the message of the Fight for Fifteen, for example. It could also be a powerful narrative for supporting immigrants who are being victimized and stereotyped as criminals, and for supporting women at a time when issues of sexual harassment, unequal pay, and need for paid leave and fair scheduling practices are once again gaining national attention.
But would bringing back strikes work as well today as in the past and would strikes as traditionally carried out in the United States appeal to the full spectrum of workers unions need to reach? Strikes and public protests are clearly useful for gaining attention and building solidarity among diverse groups. But at best they have to be used selectively and carefully and they are only one tool in what has to be an expanded kit.
Today’s protests or strikes derive their power less from the ability to impose direct costs on an employer and more on the ability to engage external allies—customers, the media, community members—in support of the objectives and values workers are striking for. Consider, for example, the recent strike of Harvard University dining workers for a living wage and affordable health insurance. It was the solidarity students displayed by marching with workers and joining their protests, as well as pressure from alumni groups, that led Harvard to agree to the workers’ demands. Or consider the 2014 strike of Market Basket employees and executives. That strike resonated with a wide array of allies—most of all customers who joined by boycotting Market Basket stores, but also the media, local politicians, church groups, and academics. All of these banded together with employees, who were protesting to save a company that historically provided good jobs, good customer service, an ethos threatened by shareholders who were determined to extract more of the income for themselves. After six weeks the company’s board of directors relented; the employees, and the CEO they supported, had “saved the Market Basket” they valued so highly. Without those broader coalition partners neither strike would have been successful.
We need a new social contract for labor that encompasses human rights, fairness, and a commitment to contribute to a better economy and society for all.
But rather than limiting the possible options to only strikes, we should ask what additional sources of power are available for labor to develop. Many other possibilities arise when one thinks in terms of a knowledge economy. Labor organizations—broadly defined to include professional associations, networks that mobilize independent contractors, and alumni of educational institutions—should become the go-to sources for workers to acquire and maintain skills that can serve as sources of power, not only when they are entering the labor market but throughout their careers. But this will require that labor makes a life-long commitment to workers, not a commitment that ends if a worker gets laid off or leaves a union job. Membership in these labor organizations should not depend on gaining employer recognition for collective bargaining as proscribed under existing labor law. Labor organizations could become full-service providers of labor market services workers need to find good jobs, move from bad to good employers, and keep their skills updated as technology in their occupations changes.
Unions already know how to do this: they are the leading suppliers of apprenticeships in the building trades, performing arts, utilities, health care, and a growing number of other industries. Building on their experience by expanding the number and range of occupations; extending training and retraining services beyond the entry level to a life-long career model; and opening the doors to more women and minorities would all build on this experience in ways that serve the needs of the workforce and the economy.
Workers with marketable skills can also leave bad employers and move to good ones. That is, exit and mobility can be key sources of power. Consider for example some emerging developments among ride service workers. Right now Uber and Lyft are using their control over information to squeeze more revenue out of their drivers. But competitors such as Juno in New York and Fasten in Boston and Austin are coming into this market using the same technologies but offering drivers better pay and treatment. Organizations that are now emerging as intermediaries in this industry—such as Sherpashare, the Taxi Workers Alliance, and the Independent Drivers Guild—could use the information they have to help drivers move from Uber to better-paying alternatives. This is a way of using information and mobility as sources of power.
Labor organizations should become the go-to sources for workers to acquire and maintain skills throughout their careers.
Labor also needs to learn from its mistakes. Too often in the past it has provided lukewarm support for labor management partnerships such as the ones started at car manufacturer Saturn and carried forward at Kaiser Permanente, a large health care consortium based in California. Both demonstrated their value: their members have had a voice in driving improvements in productivity, quality, and customer service (i.e., supporting high-productivity customer service business strategies) while achieving and maintaining industry-leading wages and benefits. But Saturn died because it lost support from both the top leaders of the UAW and General Motors. Kaiser Permanente labor management partnership continues but is not championed by AFL-CIO leaders because of internal splits within the federation’s executive council. A key lesson is that labor needs to champion and support these partnerships if it wants to grow and expand them.
Unions could go a step further by pursuing other models for representing all employees in a firm—production, professional, and managerial workers alike—in consultative bodies such as works councils similar to those found in Europe. The UAW tried to put such a body in place at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, but that attempt failed. More efforts along these lines are worth pursuing.
Pope, Bruno, and Kellman also support minority union organizing, a strategy that does not wait for majority votes for exclusive representation. Indeed that is the essence of efforts underway to provide information to employees of Walmart and other retail outlets about their rights. What stands out in that effort is the creative use of a smartphone app called Workit that allows Walmart employees to crowdsource information about their workplace rights. The tool allows Walmart employees to in effect unite without undergoing the formal process of unionization. It remains to be seen whether this experimental way of organizing proves sustainable, captures the interests and support of a large enough number of Walmart employees, and actually is successful at improving their conditions. However, it represents a kind of fresh thinking and use of technology as a source of worker power that deserves broad support.
My prescription for restoring worker voice and bargaining power would be something like this: search for new sources of power that complement strikes and protests; and recognize that society is thirsty for a unifying narrative that will uplift all groups together. I often refer to that much-needed narrative as a new social contract, to capture the sense that we need a vision for labor that encompasses human rights, fairness, and a commitment to contribute to a better economy and society for all. The next generation labor movement needs to pursue strategies that build power in ways that fit with today’s economy and workforce aspirations. We need not only knowledge, skills, and opportunities to contribute to solving big problems, but also employers who respect workers and compete on the basis of high productivity, good customer service, and good jobs.
And yes, “trust but keep your powder dry” still applies. Partnerships with willing employers are sustainable only if there is an understanding that the alternative is labor’s willingness and ability to draw on more traditional sources of power to protect and advance member interests. These more traditional pressure tactics will need to be used in dealing with employers who oppose the efforts of workers to gain representation or who choose to keep unions or professional associations at arm’s length.
Thomas Kochan is the Co-Director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research and the George M. Bunker Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the co-author of Shaping the Future of Work: A Handbook for Action and a New Social Contract.
Unions are being strangled by laws that block workers from organizing, striking, and acting in solidarity. Becoming a rights-based movement is the only way to save labor.
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