Pro-Labor Voices Call For a Revolution in Union Thinking

A great number of commentators have taken to the pro-labor press to present a way forward for unions after the 2016 elections. Their assessments of the current situation are remarkably candid.

David Rolf is the president of the SEIU local in Seattle. He writes in OnLabor:

Wagons will be circled. Drawbridges will be raised. Poorly thought-out union mergers will be negotiated and inked, primarily to protect union staff and officers from declining budgets. We will once again be called to stand with mainly uninspiring Democrats (and a few inspiring ones) in the 2018 and 2020 elections, each of which we will call “the most important election of our lifetime.” Meanwhile our numbers will continue to shrink and our power continue to wane.

…As nearly everyone outside the institutional labor movement has already known for years, our old unions and our old system of collective bargaining aren’t coming back. The question is, rather, whether it will be replaced by something, or by nothing at all. If unions merely escalate our prior commitments, we will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on defense in the next four years and still not maintain today’s failed status quo: we’ll be weaker then than now.

…The next labor movement won’t consist of unions as we currently know them in the U.S. It won’t be based on contract bargaining at the enterprise level or exclusive representation. It must be based on a value proposition to incentivize voluntary membership (as well as other revenue sources). It must have the power to impact workers lives economically. And it must be able to scale and touch millions of American workers.

Jacobin carries an interview with Rand Wilson, a volunteer coordinator of “Labor for Bernie.” He says:

The labor movement leadership was so invested in the status quo of the Democratic Party that they didn’t understand the moment we were in. And as the Sanders campaign began to manifest itself in a very robust way, they had to circle their ranks, and try to hold the ground for Hillary.

…Clearly, if you listen to Trump and Hillary, you come away thinking, “She’s got a program, she’s more intelligent, better qualified,” but a lot of people in this country just didn’t hear it that way. She had no credibility. One would hope that labor leaders would be more in touch, but they’re so bought into the system, and they get so caught up in this inside-the-beltway culture. Part of the problem is that the lack of democracy in many unions means that we get stuck with people in office for decades getting six-figure salaries and comfortable perks. Maybe that’s what leads to losing touch with what’s happening with members on the ground.

And in Salon, reporter Bob Hennelly writes:

For too long labor unions have been perceived as protectors of the status quo who look out for their most senior members, even if it means cutting rotten deals for their new hires that are most often young people. In too many workplaces in America this has created a two-tier system where the legacy union worker makes $25 an hour and the new hires make $9.10 cents. That was my recent experience in a New Jersey supermarket where I was a member of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1245. I was blown away when I looked up the six-figure salary the head of that union local made, even as the bulk of the union workers were making pathetic wages based on scheduling that was based on whimsy of management.

Wanting the old to step aside for the young is not a new sentiment, but it’s interesting that all three of these commentators are part of that older generation.

Will unions adapt? I’m notoriously skeptical, but I come by it honestly. I’ve been reading about internal union reform since I started this gig – take a gander at the 1997 Kamber report – and I can’t say I’ve seen any transformation. Perhaps this time will be different.