Wednesday, July 27, 2005

What happened to the great blue collar bulldog?

I’m a little late on this piece. I wanted to write it yesterday, but I am battling a head cold and therefore my entire brain is clogged. Not to mention, I spend the whole day fighting off the toxic effects of the Nyquil that I took to sleep the night before. That stuff is evil. It wrangles your brain much like a cowboy hog-tying a calf.

I have been thinking a lot over the last week about the future of organized labor. As many of you know, the AFL-CIO has been holding their national convention in Chicago this week. It was to be a grand celebration of their 50th anniversary of the reunification of the old American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The grand union, which until days ago had 13 million members, dubbed the event a celebration “Building New Strength & Good Jobs for Working Families”.

I think it is fair to say that the event hit a few snags. I splinter group calling itself the Change to Win Coalition has decided to split off from the umbrella organization. This coalition includes the Teamsters, the SEIU, the UFCW, the Laborers, UNITE HERE, the Carpenters, and the UFW. I case you have not noticed yet, labor organizers love alphabet soup. The Teamsters and SEIU are two of the AFL-CIO larger unions. All combined they hold 35% of the total membership so this is a fairly major shockwave that has hit organized labor.

Some say there is political infighting and the splinter group has split because they failed to remove John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO from power. I am not a labor insider so I will not speculate on internal power struggles. What they are saying is that they are splitting over a difference in ideology and focus. These differences include how the organization should focus its resources. The AFL-CIO wants to use dues to increase political advocacy efforts. This includes lobbying efforts and campaign contributions.

The Change to Win Coalition would prefer to focus on union development. They are strongly advocating going out and recruiting new membership. Union membership has consistently dropped over the last thirty years. In 1973, 24% of all workers were members of a labor union. In 2004 that number had fallen to to 12.5% (according to a Trinity University study, 2005). The Coalition seeks to reverse that trend.

This is obviously not the time, nor the place to solve the problems of protecting American workers (or workers everywhere for that matter). I am, quite simply, not qualified for the job. The point I hope to get across is that many labor unions have lost focus on their rather clear mission. Adam Smith, in his famous treatise, The Wealth of Nations succinctly posited why labor organizations are inevitably. He stated:

“We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate…

“[When workers combine,] masters… never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combinations of servants, labourers, and journeymen.”

In essense, the role of the labor union is to unite workers the way Chambers of Commerce, like many other organizations, unite business leaders. I live in Hawaii. Calling Hawaii a pro-labor state is an gigantic understatement. I do not have a problem with that per say, but I do have a problem with union leaders on the cover of Hawaii business magazines in suits looking rather, well, corporate, for lack of a better word. I do not doubt that these organization do sincerely want to help workers, but they need to take a step back a consider if this approach is an effective long-term strategy. I am not a union member, but if I was, I would look at these leaders in suits try to appease and pacify business critics and wonder; “what do these suits know of my concerns”.

Why should labor want to appease or make themselves more pallatable to business? In my opinion, labor should be the rock, the counter-weight to big business. They should be the great blue collar force that is in businesses face making it clear that mistreating employees will hurt the bottom line.

I believe the Change to Win Coalition has it absolutely right. They want more members. I think labor morale is at an all time low when the environment for workers is at its worst point in the post-World War II era. This is a recipe for disaster. There are so many challenges that are being faced. Rising health care costs, globalization and cheap foreign labor (particularly in China and India), increased technology and worker efficiency translating to fewer jobs, and many others are direct challenges that labor needs to focus on.

These challenges require a new paradigm of thinking, but unions are stuck in a plantation philosophy (to borrow a term from Hawaii). This notion will be greatly offensive to many labor advocates and decendents of plantation workers, as if I am belittling the challenges faced by migrant workers in Hawaii and California and many other states. I intend only to point out that the challenges are new and very, very different. They require new thinking. Unions have not yet adapted. They need to move to make changes or risk total and utter irrelevancy.

Perhaps there are lessons to be derived from how unions in other countries address challenges. In France, for instance, when fishermen are unhappy they dump several tuns of fish on the streets of Paris (aided by unionized truckers), blocking intersections. This in turn snarls Parisian traffic, bringing to city to a stand still. If this happened in the United States sympathy for the fishermen would evaporate. But in France, they have not forgotten the ideals of the French Revolution, “liberte, egalite, and fraternite”. It is fraternite that unites the French people behind the strikers.

That solidarity does not exist in the United States. It is something that we need to resurrect (did it ever exist here?) or the gap between the owners and the workers will continue to widen until we will have a hostile environment and angry workers seeking what Mao called “permanent revolution”. I would rather not live in a communist nation, I believe a true capitalist society with corporate social responsibility is preferable, but that is up to labor and business. I am just an innocent bystander, observing the wheels in motion.

1 comment:

Eric the Papa said...

Well thought out. People need to combine to promote their interest otherwise they will be exploited. There are smart unions and dumb ones just like every other organization.