Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reading Room: A Proposal to American Labor

Remember the reading tradition in US union history? Reading Rooms in hiring halls. Samuel Gompers' cigar rollers voting to have a member on the clock read great books to them as they worked.

Why not an online reading room right here? Hence, another topic area signaled by
Reading Room in the post title. I've been reading on four articles and was going to post links on all of them in this post but changed my mind. Instead, they will come one at a time, substantially excerpted, although I hope you will take the time click through and read each in its entirety. Now for the exercise in ellipisization

A Proposal to American Labor, by Richard B. Freeman & Joel Rogers, appearing in The Nation, June 24, 2002. discusses Open Source Unionism, its history, structure and current application. I was struck by the article's timeliness and relevance to our immediate concerns - and look forward to reading what you think. Please use the comment function to share your thoughts and reactions.

During [peak periods of union organization] ... another union formation... "minority" or "members only" unions, ... offered representation to workers without a demonstrated pro-union majority at their worksite. Such nonmajority unions were critical to organizing new sectors of American industry, providing a union presence in the workplace well before an employer recognized a collective-bargaining unit....

After World War II, however, unions effectively abandoned both "direct affiliation" and "minority unionism" as common practices....We believe his self-imposed limit on the meaning of membership today poses an unnecessary barrier to union influence and growth, and it should be reconsidered.... Today as in the past, nontraditional members in nonmajority settings can give labor an immense boost.... Adding nonmajority or otherwise nontraditional workers to union membership need not, moreover, conflict with the goal of traditional majorities-only organizing....

Opening up to these new members would entail some administrative challenges. Many unionists will worry about the cost...[b]ut the economics of the Internet have changed this cost equation in fundamental ways. At essentially zero marginal cost, unions can communicate with an ever-expanding number of new members, and they can deliver all manner of services to them through the Internet.

A labor movement that embraced this vision--taking its own historical lessons with diversified membership seriously and relying more heavily on the Internet in membership communication and servicing--would be practicing what we call "open-source unionism" (OSU).... [T]raditional unionism and strategies for advancing it are not succeeding....The failure is by no means because workers reject unionism. American unions operate under a labor law that is the least favorable to collective worker action in the developed world....Admitting all this, however, tells us little about what labor should do....To break the spiral, unions need more bodies and more broad public support. It seems very unlikely that unions can achieve the necessary scale and recognition through traditional... organizing alone.... What is needed is a larger transformation in strategy....

[C]ontrast the proposed open-source union model ... with the existing one. Under the current model, workers typically become union members only when unions gain majority support at a particular workplace. This makes the union the exclusive representative of those workers for purposes of collective bargaining.... Unions usually abandon workers who are unsuccessful in their fight to achieve majority status, and they are uninterested in workers who have no plausible near-term chance of such success. Under open-source unionism, by contrast, unions would welcome members even before they achieved majority status, and stick with them as they fought for it....

But under OSU [open source unionizism], such an agreement, which is traditionally the singular goal of organizing, would not be the defining criterion for achieving or losing membership. Joining the labor movement would be something you did for a long time, not just an organizational relationship you entered into with a third party upon taking some particular job, to expire when that job expired or changed....

Approximately 100 million private-sector American workers [as of 2002] -- including 91 percent of the total--have no collective representation at work.... [but] most workers want some organization--ranging from unions to workplace committees of various forms--speaking to their everyday concerns at work... Many union and business leaders believe that pro-union workers without a workplace majority have no collective rights--that they exist in a sort of legal black hole devoid of the protections our national labor laws afford concerted activity. That is not the case.

The Technology
A longstanding objection to more open-ended and diverse union membership is that with relatively low density in any given place, the members would be too costly to service: The economics of servicing require a collective-bargaining agreement and the accompanying dues and union security. But here we think the Internet is changing the economics of membership servicing in fundamental ways.

The Internet reduces to near-zero the marginal cost of providing information, advice and some direct services to members. And Net usage in America is approaching 80 percent of households or workplaces. What this means is that unions can be continuously communicating with even a vast membership, at a cost that is basically independent of the number of members. Servicing and coordination of a mass labor movement, drawing on membership more varied and dispersed than present membership, is economically feasible today in a way it was not just a few years ago.

The Opportunity
If unions were to combine open membership, minority representation and low-cost, Net-based servicing and coordination--perhaps including more "direct affiliation" of new worker organizations to the national AFL-CIO, or regional bodies, or existing internationals--we believe that over the long run they would expand membership substantially. They would also enjoy immediate gains in labor's public image and political effectiveness.... [T]he open-source idea is eminently scalable. It can start small. And it can start in part of the movement. Labor, like other progressive organizations, sometimes acts as if it cannot coordinate on anything until it agrees on everything. That is not necessary here....

What we need in America today is a labor movement that workers can join easily, without going to war with their employers; a labor movement that welcomes support anywhere it finds it, and is able to crystallize what is now diffuse support into real membership and shared action; and a movement that will offer support anywhere workers are struggling to build power. "Open-source unionism" describes the structure and ambitions of a labor movement that seeks to do these things--"The new union movement, we come from everywhere." It has a nice ring, doesn't it?

No comments:

Post a Comment