Sunday, March 01, 2009

Hybrid Unionism: Dead End or Fertile Future?

Excerpt from a recent article by Herman Benson published in Dissent Magazine


SOME YEARS ago, when it became obvious that the labor movement was in trouble, when membership figures were dropping, academics came up with novel ideas to provide some measure of protection for unorganized workers. Only one suggestion was rooted in unionism as we know it. That was the idea first advanced by Clyde Summers, popularized by Alan Hyde and others, and most recently revived at book length by Charles Morris in The Blue Eagle at Work.

They urged that, where workers had chosen no exclusive bargaining agent, unions demand that employers recognize them as the bargaining agent for their own members. They argued persuasively that the National Labor Relations Act makes such a demand legal and binding upon employers. This so-called “minority unionism” was viewed as the entering wedge toward full union recognition. Nine international unions have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to promulgate a new regulation that would require employers to bargain with minority unions where no union has won exclusive bargaining rights.

Others also supplied imaginative alternatives to halt the decline. Perhaps ethnic identity could somehow replace class solidarity. Or, why shouldn’t workers be permitted to choose other institutions—law firms, for example—to represent them? Another idea was that if unions can’t overcome employer hostility to outside unions, why not relax the restrictions on management-supported forms of company union representation? Still another: if, in the face of employer hostility, unions are unable to enroll masses of workers at their workplace, why not serve workers directly, not only with problems on their job but with their whole range of individual miseries—legal, compensation, unemployment insurance, housing, and so on. These proposals sought to bestow upon workers the blessings of collective bargaining or other services that they were too weak to win on their own. What they had in common was the notion that, because traditional unionism was obsolete it had to be replaced by some other form of representation or be transformed into a social service or settlement house type of operation. For more than two hundred years, the basic principle that distinguished unionism from all philanthropic means of lifting the downtrodden has been that workers must act for themselves in their own interest and not rely on forms of charity. That principle would erode under the new systems.

Then John Sweeney rose to the top of the AFL-CIO in 1995, promising a return to the days of honor and glory. Years passed, nothing much changed, labor’s decline continued. Promising another new beginning, Andy Stern led his own Service Employees International Union and a consortium of fellow-traveling unions out of the AFL-CIO into a rival federation, Change to Win. He sounded a trumpet call to organize the unorganized, especially the oppressed minorities, the low-paid unskilled, and the super-exploited immigrants. Then, he shook up the labor establishment with running ideas of the month: Organize new millions; abandon old-style confrontational unionism; look to hedge fund managers; cooperate with responsible employers to rebuild the American economy; don’t annoy them with individual grievances; denounce Wal-Mart as a greedy exploiter; stand with it and other big employers for health care for all Americans; merge locals into massive entities and draft their officers and staff into a disciplined cadre to increase union “density”; denounce employers who will not cooperate but treat gently those who do; seek common ground with China and its state-controlled labor organizations to assist workers of the world. Stern won credit for instigating a debate on fundamental issues, even though those issues have never been clearly defined. It was an ideological mishmash, but a challenging and provocative one, and it made him into a media celebrity as the labor leader of the future.

We no longer need academic theorists to create substitutes for unionism. Stern has preempted the field with his own idea of a new kind of unionism. He looks not toward the old-fashioned method of organizing and inspiring workers in a battle for union recognition, but to employers’ cooperation, even their active assistance, in fashioning the modern, and bigger, labor movement. The bigger the employer, the better.

Stern’s twenty-first-century model is not exactly a variety of company unionism, because a real union, not an employer, is the initiating force. But neither is it unionism as we have known it, because it is constructed jointly with employers. Stern is right in one crucial respect. It is a new approach. He is convinced that it is the key to labor’s bright future. Will it, like many hybrids, prove sterile?


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