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.

No comments:

Post a Comment