We Need More People’s History Museums!

Manchester      “The Organizer” was screening at the Friends Meeting House today, and the members and leaders of the newly organized ACORN branch in Manchester were working, so I had the opportunity to not only visit, but also observe and work from the People’s History Museum and The Left Bank café and bar.  What a great way to tell the story of people’s struggles for democracy in civic life and a voice in the workplace and political space.

Fittingly, the museum is located in the Spinningfield district, named for all of the spinning mills that heralded the Industrial Revolution virtually birthed in Manchester.  Additionally, signaling the working-class roots that made Manchester wealthy and imprinted the politics for years, the museum is retrofitted into an old pump house along the river with some remnants of its former life still visible. The museum was supported by labor unions in the United Kingdom, but also the European Union, national arts councils, and, importantly the Manchester City Council, but don’t think that diluted the message of the museum:  this is people’s history.

The museum had many, many strengths.  Viewers were encouraged to participate.  Pushing buttons meant hearing historic speeches by politicians of all stripes, union leaders, and others.  At one-point yellow police tape was on the floor and when I walked across the entryway and picket line chanting greeted me as it if I had cross the line during a strike, making the experience very realistic and dramatic.  Speckled throughout in various time periods visitors were encouraged to open suitcases to see what people might have being carrying or wearing at the time, or visitors could try on hats that union leaders and managers might have worn. Visitors could open cubbyholes to see whole exhibits.  Very smart!

The museum was also aided tremendously by dramatic visuals.  Sweeping and intricate banners made by early trades group for their meetings and demonstrations were as creative as tapestries we saw only days earlier in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.  Posters for demonstrations or political rallies both modern and one-hundred or more years old were fascinating and forceful.  The sections on the suffragette movement and the fight to win the vote for women in England were outstanding, especially the separate pride in Mrs. Pankhurst from Manchester, as they called their native daughter and key leader of the fight.

The development of political struggles from the Levellers and Chartists to the Communist and radical elements as well as the more mainstream Labour Party were well documented.  One amazing illustration on a wall running from floor to ceiling several stories up showed a timeline of British history and the various movements, strikes, demonstrations, and repression that marked the time to either victory or defeat.

Workers, women, and various voices were celebrated everywhere here, as well.  Critically, the museum was not simply about organizations, winners and losers, but the importance of struggle itself.  The People’s History Museum’s motto tellingly was: “There have always been ideas worth fighting for.”













Post-Janus Paths: Representation Compensation without Subsidies

Denver       National union strategists and lawyers have doubtlessly been proposing endless alternatives to blunt the impact of the long awaited Janus v. AFSCME verdict of the Supreme Court eliminating the ability for unions in more than twenty states to collect servicing fees from public sector nonmembers for collective bargaining and other functions.  The fruits of such labor are already visible in the action by state legislatures in New Jersey and California to mandate workplace access at orientations for union representatives to meet new workers and give them the opportunity to enroll new members.   In a select number of states where unions continue to have density and public employees have the ear of lawmakers we are likely to see other initiatives.

Some professors have advanced a notion that public authorities directly reimburse unions for collective bargaining functions performed by nonmembers.  Their well-intentioned argument is that there are public policy benefits achieved in preventing workplace conflict and public disruption through a functional bargaining regime that seeks compromise and agreement rather than forcing conflict.  These benefits inure to the public and the workforce, both those that pay union dues to pay for this work and those workers who can now refuse to make such payments, therefore the public authority should offset such losses by providing resources to the unions to do their jobs.

There is a certain logic there, but it can’t be a good idea for governments to subsidize independent unions.  The notion is not unique.  In France for example major union federations are directly subsidized by the government based on their percentage of workforce representation.  Predictably it has led to lower union dues and a decreased emphasis in enrolling workers as union members.  Additionally, in a system that rewards a percentage of membership in a non-exclusive bargaining system, labor is divided as larger federations try to squeeze out smaller unions in order to block their subsidies and viability.  All of this may maintain a status quo, but none of it is necessarily in the best interests of workers.

On the other hand, a more practical policy, and one more politically viable in the American context particularly, might be the system practiced by labor courts and their adjudicators using France as an example again.  At their discretion labor judges make awards of varying amounts to unions representing workers on disputes before the court that are found to have merit which can range from several hundred euros to several thousand depending on the complexity of the case and the judge’s decision much in the way lawyers are awarded fees.  An independent objective party rather than the government itself is subsidizing representation costs of unions on meritorious cases when the workers prevail.  Grievance handling is more expensive for most unions than collective bargaining and labor courts with such discretion would hold arbitrary public and private employers accountable while offsetting the costs of unions to provide this service with both public and workplace benefits.  The EEOC and the DOL in the United States operates similarly in regard to lawyers’ fees, why not union representation?

Unions face a huge organizing problem now that is all our own, but in bargaining and representation new adaptations might be practicable and win wide support in some areas in the post-Janus world.