Reviving Labor

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“What Are Scholars Telling the U.S. Labor Movement to Do?” by Bruce Nissen, in Labor History (May 2003), Taylor & Francis Ltd., Rankine Rd., Basingstoke RG24 8PR, United Kingdom; “An Immodest Proposal: Remodeling the House of Labor” by Stephen Lerner, in New Labor Forum (Summer 2003), 25 W. 43rd St., 19th fl., New York, N.Y. 10036.

To get back on its feet after decades of decline, should organized labor: (a) adopt “value-added unionism” or (b) embrace “social movement unionism”? Answer: “b,” says Nissen, director of research at the Center for Labor Research and Studies, Florida International University. Lerner, director of building services for the Service Employees International Union, doesn’t disagree, but offers yet another prescription: Labor should (c) start thinking big and restructure itself.

Advocates of value-added unionism urge unions to stop being their old adversarial selves and actively work to help employers meet their business goals, exerting influence within corporate management. The partnership between Harley-Davidson and its two main unions is an oft-cited example of the win-win situation that can result. But value-added unionism has “limited applicability,” says Nissen, because few corporations are willing to give unions a role in management.

Nissen sees more promise in social movement unionism, in which unions make their cause part of a larger struggle for social justice and against corporate domination and greed, seeking allies and inspiration in civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and other movements. The approach works best with low-wage labor forces, particularly those with mainly nonwhite or female workers. His own union’s “Justice for Janitors” campaigns and its successful drive to organize 10,000 home health-care workers in Califor­nia are good models. It may be hard to sustain the militancy and channel it into stable collective-bargaining relationships with employers, Nissen observes, but labor’s chief need today is simply to grow.

Labor has the resources to grow, but its balkanized structure is an obstacle, says Lerner. The AFL-CIO, which operates by consensus, is divided into 66 amalgamated international unions with multiple overlapping jurisdictions. And most of the unions have powerful autonomous locals in each state and city. All told, the AFL-CIO includes some 13 million workers. For labor—which now represents a mere 9 percent of the private work force—to get larger and stronger, says Lerner, the organizational structure must be changed, so that there are only 10 to 15 unions, all focused on dominating particular industries, labor markets, and sectors of the economy.

“By focusing workers on changing conditions in an industry, not just fighting their individual employer, unions start to create the conditions that allow unions to win.”

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