18 Dec. 2014 | Comments (0)
Flip through issues of Harvard Business Review from the 1950s or 1960s, and you’ll see a steady drumbeat of articles on labor relations. But search Google today, and our top hit on unions is from 20 years ago — John Hoerr’s still-interesting “What Should Unions Do?”
America’s public sector has also found new issues to focus on – as Roger Martin has persuasively argued, Democrats now care about the interests of shareholders and investors, and Republicans about top-tier talent.
So I called up Lowell Turner, professor of International and Comparative Labor and Director of the Worker Institute at Cornell, to ask him how labor might adapt to regain its influence. What I learned was that the labor movement in the United States is already adapting — though those changes still fly below the national radar. Through strategic alliances and city- and state-level initiatives, America’s labor movement is already being reborn.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
First, a clarifying question. In America, we often treat “unions” and “the labor movement” as synonymous. Are they?
The labor movement is broader. Once upon a time, the labor movement was basically just unions, but today in addition to traditional unions – like the member unions of the AFL-CIO – there’s what people call the alt labor movement, which is things like the National Guestworker Alliance, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United, the fast food worker strikes, the Wal-mart workers groups, and hundreds of worker-centers around the country. Today, these parts of the labor movement are increasingly working together.
So is it fair to say, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that the death of the labor movement has been greatly exaggerated?
Yeah, if you’re using a word like “death.” But it has been a long decline for unions over the last thirty years. Unions have declined seriously in both membership and influence.
The primary reasons for the decline are weak labor laws and employer opposition. But I’m not trying to absolve unions from responsibility. Unions did not adapt as well as they could. They were afraid to innovate, and they got away from being a real labor movement to being business unions administering contracts. They held on to their ways too long. But increasingly unions today understand that and are innovating.
That said, there are still 15 million union members out there, and traditional unions are still influential in certain locations. So the labor movement might be weaker in a southern, right-to-work state, but it’s still very much alive in the state of New York, in California, and in some other big states that really matter to the economy.
A lot of the conversation about the decline of unions portrays it as inevitable: the result of globalization, digitization, and so on. If that were true, you’d think they would be on the decline throughout the world. Are they?
It is true that unions are under pressure everywhere. It is also true that employers are going global faster than unions can – although unions are increasingly global, too. But even in that context, Sweden still has 80 percent union density. Almost everyone joins one — it’s essentially automatic. And Sweden’s unions are powerful forces both in the economy and in society.
There are also larger countries where unions are still strong. Germany is an example. Their unions have declined in membership, but they are still a major influence. And Germany is even more integrated into the global economy than the U.S. is – they have higher exports per capita. So Germany also kills the argument that unions and high wages wreck competitiveness.
What is it about German unions that make them more powerful than American unions?
There are a number of factors. There are strong institutional supports in government that protect unions; unions use comprehensive collective bargaining – in other words, they negotiate for whole sectors, not at the firm level; and most importantly there is a system of codetermination anchored in law, which means that workers are represented on company boards and through works-councils. It’s an entrenched, legally supported partnership model.
Now, they do slug it out sometimes. There are occasionally strikes. It’s not a love-in. But when there is adversarial bargaining, they work it out fairly quickly.
It seems like part of the reason we don’t have that sort of system in America, though, is because relatively speaking, we are a center-right country. Is some sort of social change needed before the labor movement can really regain traction?
Think of it this way: who is going to push for that social change? We aren’t going to get fundamental social change without a revitalization of an innovative labor movement. Look at the minimum wage campaigns happening now at the state and city level. That’s not happening out of the blue. That’s being driven by an alliance of traditional unions and the alt labor movement and their community allies. And that’s what generates social change.
And realizing they need to be part of a broader push for social change, labor is looking for alliances with other groups. For example, on September 21 there will be a climate march in New York City to demand better policies, and 60 state and local unions have signed on to that. This is new. It’s become a main priority to build alliances with worker centers, immigrant rights groups, environmental groups, and so on. They’re taking a labor movement and turning it into a broader social movement.
Now it’s just beginning, and I can’t predict the future. But there are possibilities here.
It seems like part of the problem for labor is getting more working people to see themselves as potentially involved. You mentioned that Sweden’s workforce is 80% union – so obviously, it’s easy for workers there to see themselves as potential union members. Does America’s labor movement need to broaden its base of potential customers, essentially — convince people like me to join, say, a magazine editors’ union? Is it partly about broadening the focus to include higher skill, or higher wage workers?
Well, a lot of it is focused on lower wage, lower skill jobs because that’s so much of America’s work force. I mean, Wal-mart is our biggest employer. So a lot of the focus has to be pushing up the low end. But the other part of the focus has to be expanding the middle.
Would that help, do you think, with the resentment we so often see when there’s, say, a teachers’ strike, and the reaction is, “Why are they complaining? Their benefits are better than mine! They have job security! They’re better paid and they get more vacation!”
So many workers get less than they should – it’s unfortunately easy to play them off each other. But that’s where the labor movement has a responsibility to bring people together and say, “It’s not that teachers are getting too much – it’s that you’re not getting enough. So let’s get you more.”
Are there any historical parallels that might indicate what would really jumpstart a stronger labor movement? I think a lot of people were surprised that the 2008 financial crisis really didn’t seem to have much of an impact, the way the Great Depression did.
No one could have predicted what would happen in the 1930s – the rise of mass production and the spread of unionism to the point where we we had 35% of workers belonging to unions by the 1950s.
The circumstances are ripe for change right now. But [organizing] is more difficult than it was then. It’s a more fragmented labor market. You don’t have the big factories where organizers could come in and unionize the whole shop in one go. We’re not going to have another New Deal, and American employers have many tactics today to keep their workforces nonunion.
Then, after the crash of 2008, instead of galvanizing people, what it really did was scare people. So many people were thrown out of work or lost their houses, and even the people who didn’t felt insecure. A Wal-mart employee mentions the word “union” and he’s at risk of getting fired. So really the challenge is about mobilizing enough broad collective interest that it breaks down that fear, so that people can stand up and be counted.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 08/29/2014.
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