Union Conundrum: Short Term Needs versus Long Term Success

Labor Organizing
The St. Louis CIO's campaign for unemployment benefits in the 1940s

New Orleans  Eduardo Porter’s “Economic Scene” column in the New York Times is fast becoming a favorite read for me.  He actually seems to care about people, including working and low income people.  Probably not long for this world at the paper, but worth showing some love.

In today’s column he looked at the deterioration of labor unions and strained mightily to find some optimism in the fact that unions have been in the doldrums before (about a 100 years ago) and managed to comeback by reinventing themselves to match the changes in corporate and industrial organization so that they could grow and set labor standards.  Astutely he recognizes that the change in corporate organization today with informalization, subcontracting, globalization, and service sector domination could force unions to “give up organizing work site by work site.”  That’s probably not true.  Some unions will always and only stick to such a model, just as some unions never changed (and in some cases died) because of their failure to adapt seventy years ago.  It is true though, as I have frequently argued in the case of Walmart and so many of the major nonunion employers of tens of thousands of workers that have arisen in the last thirty years, that one has to organize company-wide because site-by-site work will never catch up to the size of the enterprise.

Porter cites the alliance between organized labor and a workers’ association that produced legislative breakthroughs for domestic workers in New York State  as a potential new model.  He could have said the same thing about our accomplishments in winning living wage measures and protections for home care and childcare workers.  The domestic workers accomplishment is huge, but it is not a solution for unions because the membership and growth has not yet followed the political achievement in the way that home care and childcare membership added more than a half-million members to organized unions.

Whatever organizing model, unions are still first and foremost membership organizations, so any new strategy that allows growth and success has to increase membership and the dues have to be adequate to sustain the organization and allow it to grow.  So far this has been the conundrum for moving more aggressively to a new “majority unionism” model.  These are long term, patient investment strategies, and unions as membership organizations are political as well as economic institutions and short term success is still more valued even though the very survival of unions is now at risk and the resources necessary for a turnaround are diminishing.

On the pilot we are now putting together in Toronto and that many are experimenting with in other settings in the United States, there can only be success if there is direct membership recruitment and dues payment to support the workers’ associations that will lead a new workers’ movement.  The existing institutional union structure increasingly seems so stuck in the cage of its history and current practice that it may not be able to change.  If that is proven to be the case as seems more and more likely, Porter is right in general though perhaps not in specific, and though he does not say this, I will, it points to the fact that it may be new organizations that have to lead the revival and restructuring of the existing labor movement again, just as it was the CIO and the new unions of the UAW and others that broke the patterns last time.