Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Unique CTUL-Target Partnership: Filling a Vacuum

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a roundtable event sponsored by the Workers Lab that focused on the CTUL-Target partnership. CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha which translates to The Center of Workers United in Struggle) is a Minneapolis worker center that, to quote from its own mission statement, “organizes low-wage workers from across the Twin Cities to develop leadership and educate one another to build power and lead the struggle for fair wages, better working conditions, basic respect, and a voice in our workplaces.” Worker centers have emerged in many cities over the past decade to try to improve working conditions outside the parameters of traditional labor law and traditional labor unionism, particularly for workers who fall in gray areas of labor law. For example, the cleaning of retail stores is commonly contracted out to third-party contractors so it is difficult to establish a collective bargaining relationship with the retail chain because technically the janitors do not work for the retailer.

As the result of a fortuitous set of factors, CTUL and Target have formed a unique worker center-corporate partnership that is highlighted by the development and adoption of Target’s Responsible Contractor Policy. There are many aspects of this story worth telling, and CTUL’s website has a lot of information. At a high level, I think it’s a fascinating model. It’s not abdication to the vagaries of the market or one side or the other finding a way to dictate its agenda. It’s not a central authority trying to find one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, it’s a way of creating dialogue among the parties most affected, finding common interests, and striking a balance on challenging issues for which they have conflicting goals. In other words, it’s a new institutional way to create what I’ve called “Employment with a Human Face” by balancing central employer and employee objectives (such as efficiency, equity, and voice).

As I listened to representatives of CTUL, Target, and TakeAction Minnesota describe their roles in this partnership, two things struck me. One, to have a successful partnership requires not just shifting power so that low-paid, immigrant and minority workers have some influence, but it also requires shifting mental models and mindsets. For this to be a productive partnership, Target had to shift from a defensive posture that saw CTUL’s criticism of abusive working conditions by Target’s janitorial services contractors as an attack, to an opportunity for listening, understanding, and ultimately, valuable community engagement. And CTUL had to be willing to adopt a partnership rather than conflictual mindset, too. As I’ve often written and taught about, ideas are important.

The other broad theme that struck me comes down to one word: vacuum. By contracting out its janitorial work, Target had essentially created a legal vacuum where it’s difficult for workers to effectively enforce their legal rights—the avoidance of wage theft, the presence of a safe workplace and workers’ compensation coverage, and the ability to unionize if desired. CTUL essentially filled this vacuum and shifted Target’s terrain of compliance. Because of the vacuum, Target didn’t have a traditional legal compliance concern and could ignore the janitor’s plight, but CTUL raised the specter of negative publicity for Target. So while lawsuits were perhaps not a concern (the traditional focus of corporate “compliance”), harms to the corporate brand became a concern. And Target responded. But this was prompted by a legal vacuum that in simpler times would have been filled by the enforcement of employment and labor law.

Another aspect to this vacuum was connected to remarks by TakeAction Minnesota, a community organizing coalition of progressive organizations. TakeAction Minnesota said that it had learned from CTUL that transformational shifts aren’t about a single issue win or just getting to the table, they are about shifting power, dealing directly with employers, getting a deal with enforcement mechanisms, and recognizing that there won’t be agreement on every single issue. Wait a minute, this is classic industrial relations thinking, and labor law promotes labor unions for exactly these reasons. But for whatever reason, unions are unable to be successful in certain sectors. A vacuum has been created, and it was striking to me that without even realizing the parallel, TakeAction Minnesota was highlighting exactly what unions used to do. In the areas of the economy with such vacuums, new organizations like CTUL and new partnerships like the one with Target are needed in order to create employment with a human face, and to create employment relationships that are WIN-WIN-WIN: relationships that serve workers and their families (win #1), organizations (win #2), and society (win #3).

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Soul and Scope of Labor Union Strategies

The faculty organizing drive at the University of Minnesota has heated up with the recent launch of a website for faculty opposing the drive. The presence of an organizing drive anywhere naturally raises questions of what will a union do for the workers, and more broadly, how will they do it. Indeed, the traditional collection of union strategies is under great pressure to change in the 21st century, and the labor movement has been debating and experimenting with alternatives.

Unfortunately, these debates often confuse different dimensions of union strategies. The traditional collection of union strategies combines a workplace focus with passive rank and file participation. Alternative strategies can change only one, or both, of these dimensions. To understand these debates more clearly, then, it is important to clearly distinguish between what I call the scope and the soul of employee representation (see table below). The scope of representation describes the breadth of the representation activities—in particular, whether union activity is concentrated in the workplace or in the broader political and social arenas. A business unionism focus on collective bargaining is a workplace scope of representation; an alternative approach embracing community and social activism represents a broader social scope. The soul of representation captures how the representation is pursued or delivered, especially regarding the extent of rank and file participation. The rank and file are passive in the servicing model; alternative strategies seek to instead actively engage the rank and file in union activities.

The upper-left quadrant is where U.S. unions have traditionally been. Staying within a workplace focus (left-hand column) but moving away from a servicing approach in which union members passively consume union services yields a set of alternatives I have labeled "employee empowerment unionism." Rather than establishing standardized outcomes, such as tying wages to jobs or layoffs to seniority, employee empowerment unionism establishes the framework of procedures in which workers are then empowered to determine their own outcomes. Consider union strategies in professional sports. These unions focus less on negotiating specific outcomes and instead have established the parameters within which individual players negotiate their own salaries. These parameters include minimum standards and provisions for resolving disputes. A similar model is used for actors and might also be appropriate for college professors, doctors, and other occupations. Union involvement in establishing standards for a team to select new members or a team leader is another example in which the union’s role is not negotiating outcomes, but negotiating processes for empowering individual employees. As yet another example, the clerical workers union at Harvard University bargained for a problem-solving system that replaces a traditional grievance procedure with a framework that empowers employees to resolve their own workplace problems.

Some see labor unions as more than workplace mechanisms for winning economic gains; rather, unions are viewed as integral participants in a community’s and country’s civic and political activities. In the format of the table, the scope of representation is the broader social and political arena. The pursuit of equity and voice is not limited to negotiating favorable contract language governing the rules of the workplace, but extends to broader concerns of social justice throughout society. But what’s often overlooked is that even within social unionism, what I call the soul can be union leaders with passive rank and file participation, or it can be active union member participation. Union support for political candidates or lobbying for minimum wage increases without grassroots participation are examples of social unionism with a largely passive rank and file. In contrast, "social movement unionism" embraces labor unions as part of a broader social movement of community, social, and political activist groups that relies on active grassroots participation and mobilization. Organizer Jane McAlevey prefers the label “whole-worker organizing” because it seeks to integrate rather than separate out work issues from the rest of a person’s life and thereby “seeks to engage ‘whole workers’ in the betterment of their lives” (Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, 2012, p. 14).

Within each of the quadrants of the table, there are a variety of specific goals, objectives, and strategies that could be pursued. So unions and the workers they represent, or who are seeking representation, have lots of choices. In thinking about these choices, it's useful to distinguish between the soul and scope of representation.

Note: For the faculty organizing drive at the University of Minnesota, here are links to the websites of the supporters, those who oppose the drive, and the administration.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Working with Purpose…Not Just for the Productive

In April I had the pleasure of meeting Arthur Woods (@ArthurWoods), a co-founder of Imperative, who was in Minneapolis to speak at a couple of our events, including our annual HR Tomorrow conference. Imperative emphasizes working with purpose—creating a measure of purpose, identifying the importance of purpose, and helping companies facilitate purpose. In his presentation, Arthur eloquently articulated the meaning of purpose (“Purpose is something that we gain daily from relationships, doing something greater than ourselves, and from personal and professional growth”), and documented the value and importance of purposeful workers.

At the end of this stimulating and important presentation I commented that the only thing missing from his presentation was a picture of Karl Marx. It’s common to popularly associate Marx with communism, but first and foremost Marx was a profound social theorist of work whose concern with workers’ suffering led him to seek a more humane society. He thought that the commodification of work under capitalism leads to the loss of one’s essential humanness, a loss that Marx labeled “alienation.” In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx identified four ways in which workers are alienated under capitalism:
  1. Individuals are divorced from the product of their labor—the business owns and controls what the workers produce.
  2. Since business owners control how things are made, workers surrender control of their actions to someone else.
  3. Creative work is seen as an essential feature of being human so #1 and #2 deprive humans of their essential nature.
  4. Because people relate to each other through their work, they are alienated from each other.
If we set aside the fact that Marx’s alienation is inherent in capitalism and is not a subjective feeling of job dissatisfaction or a result of  undesirable job characteristics, in important ways the dimensions of alienation match Imperative’s emphasis on the importance of relationships, autonomy, and personal meaning in work. I think this is important because it reinforces the gravity of these issues, even if there are important differences. 

Imperative’s business case for organizations to embrace the importance of working with purpose is that purposeful workers are better workers. Since it is a business enterprise itself, I understand why Imperative makes this case. But there is an unsettling conundrum here in which the deep, non-instrumental importance of work is being justified on instrumental grounds. This seemingly implies that in cases where purposeful workers are not more productive, then imbuing work with greater meaning isn’t something important to pursue. Or that only purposeful workers are worthy of efforts to improve their working conditions. This is analogous to the problem with justifying corporate diversity programs solely by the business case (then these programs become subjected to the vagaries of executives’ perceptions of which employees, if any, are a source of competitive advantage, rather than diversity being seen as important for human reasons). From an industrial relations perspective in which labor is more than a commodity, the improvement of work (and diversity) is an important imperative for all workers, even when it doesn’t improve productivity or other instrumental outcomes.

Returning to Marx’s alienation, I raised this connection with Arthur as a way to emphasize that these are longstanding concerns in the world of work (so bravo!), and there have been numerous movements between Marx and now to try to give work and workers deeper meaning and respect (for example, the field of industrial relations). By bringing new data and case studies to the issue, I hope that Imperative can successfully expand upon earlier movements to embrace of the deep importance of work, which is also a goal of my book The Thought of Work. This is a deeply important issue, and a longstanding one. Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem to be on our side.

Happy May Day!