1.12.2005

Labor Unions: A Cornerstone of Progressive Populism or Corrupt Beyond Repair?

So the Mighty Steelworkers are gobbling up the Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union. Seems like a good deal from the outside, no? After all, creating the largest manufacturing union in the country would seem to conform with Andy Stern's world view.

[Background info:
NYT article on the merger.
Andy Stern's world view.
Full disclosure: I used to work for Stern, as I was an organizer for SEIU. My last campaign was a dog fight with the Steelworker's ugly stepchild of a union, CHEU.]

A fellow editor suggested that we start a discussion on labor issues, so this is my attempt to get the ball rolling.

Personally, I'm troubled by the corruption that abounds in most unions: Tons of money is spent on overhead and political contributions and unions either spend too much money on servicing their members or too much money organizing new members. (SEIU falls into the latter category; most of their money and resources are spent convincing people to join their union and then they leave most members without adequate support staff to help them bargain their contracts and uphold them.)

And then there's a problem with the fact that most traditional union sectors of the economy are going overseas. As more and more people have white collar employment, unions appear to be less relevant to our society. I personally disagree with that assessment. I think the most powerful unions in the country are government employee unions. They set the gold standard for healthcare, pensions, and time off. Unfortunately, they can also create an environment where it is very difficult to fire someone who isn't doing their job. But, ultimately it's management's responsibility to negotiate a contract that offers clear disciplinary guidelines and it's management's job to enforce the work ethic.

I've had some really interesting life experience with unions. My father ran to be president of his union local (he's a government employee) and my mother is in management (for the same agency). And the stuff I saw while I was a union organizer was heartbreaking (when we lost) and inspiring (when we won). Ultimately, I think the only way to create a worker's movement in this country that is truly progressive and populist is for workers themselves to organize. I think unions have something important to offer America, but I'm just not sure if the leadership of any of the major unions is truly willing to give up control of the movement to the masses.

One final note: I don't think electronic organizing is the future cornerstone of union organizing. Employers spend too much money on fighting unions. The only way to build relationships that last with workers is to meet them face to face and explain how they can better their own lives by forming their own union.