Academic journal article St. John's Law Review

Strategy for Labor Revisited

Academic journal article St. John's Law Review

Strategy for Labor Revisited

Article excerpt

[EDITOR'S NOTE: What follows is an unofficial transcript of an off-the-record conversation among three of the labor movement's leading strategists. The meeting was convened by C, or "cooperationist," who had been for over ten years the president of a local union, part of a major industrial union, representing 3,000 employees who had been hired to staffa new manufacturing plant in a Southern town ("Newplant"). Newplant had been widely touted as a breakthrough in U.S. labor-management relations because it was consciously designed to promote greater participation of production and maintenance workers in business decisions. In bitterly contested local elections last year, C was voted out of office and now serves in a staffcapacity at the AFL-CI0. A, or "adversarialist," a longstanding friend of C, is the research director of another industrial union. A was very active in the Students for A Democratic Society in the 1960s, and after graduating from Antioch College, began his career as a labor organizer, working for a succession of unions that had been active in the McGovern-Kucinich wing of the Democratic Party. S, or "stay the course," is the highly respected chief of stafffor a national union representing government workers. Section headings and citations are supplied by the editor and do not appear in the original transcript.]


C: We are discussing tonight what if anything could or be should be done about the decline of unions in private companies. We now represent less than eight percent of private workers;1 and we have not yet hit bottom. This has to change if we are going to speak for all working people, to be a social movement in the true sense and not just another interest group.

I know we all agree there is a problem, although I suspect we are not going to agree on solutions. It might be useful, at the outset, if we stated our initial positions on how we view the problem and where we think the solution(s) might be.

Let me start.

We've just spent a king's ransom on reelecting Obama and stymeing the Republican-Tea Party assault, not to mention tens of thousands of hours of manpower simply getting out the vote. For the first two years of the first Obama administration, we had a Democratic Congress and President; only the Senate and the White House for the last two years, where we now stand for another four. Last time around, we pushed hard to pass into law the Employee Free Choice Act2-to get bargaining authority on the basis of card-checks and a first-time contract through arbitration-and these Democrats even though they had sixty votes could not break a threatened filibuster or even force a real debate on the floor. This has happened before. We broke the bank electing Clinton and a Democratic Congress in 1992 and what did we end up with-a study commission and the FMLA! At the end of the day, what is a Democratic administration likely to do? We will never get the changes-card-check certification, repeal of the secondary-boycott and hot-cargo prohibitions, and outlawing of permanent replacements of economic strikers-that might really make a difference.

Even if magic occurred, and we could get a Canadian-style package over the hump of a likely filibuster, even this kind of labor law reform cannot reverse our decline in private companies. The Canadian unions have secured into law the AFL-CIO wish list, and their unionization rate in private companies keeps dropping.3 Sure, we can slow it down with better laws, but we cannot reverse the trend without a change in what we do, in what we are about.

We need to go back to basics. Over the course of our history, labor has been viewed by employers and much of the larger society as a net cost-adding institution. We produce value for our members-giving them a voice, providing integrity to an insidethe- firm grievance procedure, establishing portable benefits, and so on. Sometimes we prod managers to improve productivity as a means of paying for wage and hour improvements. …

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