Value Proposition

DS Wright with some valuable commentary on major union leaders wanting to retire Scabby the Rat because it doesn’t fit their “value proposition.

A sad and familiar refrain among the now fading trade unions – foregoing confrontation for illusory accommodation. There is perhaps no dumber talking point than that of the “value proposition” or the idea that union labor is of higher quality therefore brings more value to a job than non-union. First, there’s flimsy evidence to support that being true and second, no one cares anyway.

Labor unions, especially trade unions, were not developed because of a lack of job training, they were developed to ensure fair compensation for workers. The “value proposition” makes no sense for an employer or developer – they care about profits, that’s their value proposition. If globalization has proven anything it is that cheaper unskilled labor is considered more valuable to capital than more expensive skilled labor (see Walmart for details). Which makes complete sense – the honor is in the dollar. Even if, for some odd reason, there was higher quality and less cost overruns with union labor why the hell would management care if they have to pay more than the difference in wages and benefits?

This accommodation strategy is essentially Third Way economics, pretending labor unions are somehow both good for Capital and Labor – news flash: they aren’t. That’s why Capital has been trying and succeeding at crushing Labor for the past 30 years. They don’t want to pay higher wages and provide benefits they want to cut those costs so they can have higher profits.

Playing Capital’s value game hasn’t been working for Labor so far. Maybe it was Scabby’s idea to leave the AFL-CIO, rats know how to leave sinking ships.

You can certainly debate the efficacy of an inflatable rat. It might be a bad, or at least lazy, tactic. But that’s not really the point here. The larger question gets at the failure of union leadership to understand why the labor movement became successful and what creates a culture where the risks of an organizing campaign are acceptable to workers.

The ability to talk and negotiate with employers is important. But it only matters if you have an organization that actually organizes workers. Fundamentally, if you think that making nice with CEOs is more important than organizing culture or building workplace solidarity, you don’t understand why the labor movement succeeded. I know these labor leaders have been active for decades and so maybe deserve a break, but they’ve overseen the collapse of organized labor. Much of that isn’t their fault. But then there’s parroting corporate speak, prioritizing the boardroom over the shop floor, and trivializing workplace culture and solidarity. When you do these things, you aren’t creating a movement that will exist in 10 years.

34 comments on this post.
  1. Linnaeus:

    Interestingly (or not), “value proposition” was the language Rick Snyder used when trying to make the (disingenuous, in my view) argument that the new right-to-work legislation that he signed was not anti-labor.

  2. FlipYrWhig:

    I missed the earlier thread on this, so maybe this came up already, but I thought the reasoning behind dropping the rat was not because management would like it better that way but because they thought it was making workers think of the union as a bunch of goofballs. In that case it would be less “here’s how we can be nicer to management” and more “here’s how we can be taken seriously.” That’s the risk of street theater as a protest tactic–it might stop sympathetic people from wanting to join the protest. It could still be a bad decision, of course. I’m not the union organizer (though there’s one in the family).

  3. FlipYrWhig:

    The bad decision in that last part was supposed to refer to stopping using the rat, in case it wasn’t clear.

  4. Vance Maverick:

    Are you talking about workers taking the union seriously, or “we” being “taken seriously” by third parties? There’s a sort of slippage in your first comment….

  5. FlipYrWhig:

    I can be even simpler about this, actually: is it possible that the union decided that an inflatable rat was counterproductive in organizing the workplace — rather than that it was antagonizing management?

  6. Chad:

    Labor and Capital are, by definition, opposed. The labor movement succeeded because it understood that and understood that it was at war. That may sound unpleasant, but laborers didn’t start the war, capitalists did by working laborers’ children to death in 12-hour factory shifts.

  7. FlipYrWhig:

    Yeah, I’m not expressing myself well. It seems to me that a possibility Erik isn’t considering is this: maybe the union thinks workers would join up if the union stopped using street theater. That the rat is bad for organizing, not that it’s bad for management.

  8. Erik Loomis:

    I am extremely skeptical. It might be bad street theater. I don’t have strong opinions on this. But this is part of a decades-long pattern among many labor leaders to denigrate workplace culture in exchange for boardroom negotiations. In any cases, people don’t join or not join unions because of street theater. The value of street theater in the labor context is largely to rally an already organized workforce in a situation where they feel beaten down.

  9. Erik Loomis:

    12 hours? Are you some kind of reformer?!!!? The 14-16 hour work day is proper for the working children of the world. What else are they going to do, drink?

  10. Linnaeus:

    Luxury.

  11. Jeremy:

    According to Mike Elk’s reporting, the two tweets from Sean McGarvey, President of the AFL-CIO Building and Trades Department read:
    “Meeting with our Presidents and state councils. Issued a call to retire the inflatable rat. It does not reflect our new value proposition.”
    “The rat symbolizes intimidation tactics of 30 years ago. We want to engage owners re: our value proposition not threaten them.”

    There are several quotes from union members that say they had no input or foreknowledge of the idea. It seems to be part of the strategy that the union acknowledges on its webpage: “We will prove to contractors and owners that a partnership with North America’s Building Trades Unions is the best investment they will ever make.”

  12. FlipYrWhig:

    Fair enough. I’m transposing this whole discussion to something like Occupy, or the anti Iraq War protests, where it certainly seemed to be the case that there were lots of people who shared the goals and the spirit of the protesters but didn’t want to join in — because the presence of hipsters, hippies, drummers, puppets, etc., made them feel like it wasn’t for People Like Them. So I can imagine a focus group of workers saying that they didn’t want to be involved in the union because the union used puppets. But if that’s not how people think when it comes to labor, never mind.

  13. FlipYrWhig:

    I can reconcile those statements with my half-baked idea — they would mean something like “we’re serious and up to date, not doing the same old stunts… So join us because we’re looking out for you!” But I don’t know very much about the specific background.

  14. Erik Loomis:

    Occupy and organized labor are such different beasts. The reality is, and I don’t think many Occupy people really recognize this, is that effective organizing happens in a heavily structured environment with one-on-one contact around pretty specific messages.

    Scabby the Rat is not that. But that’s because it reflects the desperation many union members face in keeping their jobs and retaining union representation. An inflatable rat isn’t intended to organize anyone. It’s purpose is to bring humor to a horrible situation and make people’s lives a little lighter, if not better.

  15. LosGatosCA:

    Labor should be able to articulate a ‘value proposition’ all right, for the workers, not management. As in here are your current conditions, wages, and benefits and here are the conditions, wages, benefits you can attain when you are organized. The difference is the value proposition for joining the union.

    Recognizing and working with unions is simply a compliance issue for a corporation, like paying or avoiding taxes. Employers don’t want to pay employees anymore than they want to pay taxes. Try telling a profit maximizing corporate manager there is a ‘value proposition’ in higher taxes. Any union person that thinks the employer is buying their value proposition is fooling himself.

    When I worked at GE I could see the ‘value proposition’ of the multiple unions that represented portions of the workforce – allow management to divide and conquer by pitting them against each other.

  16. DocAmazing:

    Ah, it’s a trip down Memory Lane Kirkland.

  17. Hob:

    But none of those statements say anything at all about looking out for you, if “you” = a worker. The first one is a vague reference to a “value proposition.” The second one makes it clear that the “value proposition” is a carrot to be offered to management. And the third one is, again, about convincing management that we’re looking out for them.

    I like your half-baked idea all right as something a union might say, but I think you’re working way too hard to imagine that that is what they’re saying.

  18. Jeff Olson:

    Maybe Eric and the other sharp knives at LGM can explain why and how the Bar Association is not a union under RTW legislation – with its compulsory membership to be able to work or practice, fees, membership, continuing education requirements, licensing and certification, exams and law school req. etc, etc. are not a more onerous burden on the workforce than contractual benefits and obligations through a ‘closed shop.’ Seems to me that under RTW, anyone ought to be able to ‘practice law’ without being forced to join the union.

  19. Jameson Quinn:

    When I were a wee lad, we had to work to make up ridiculous satire. We couldn’t just cite actual sweatshop working conditions and have it sound like satire.

  20. Larry:

    I don’t see how the AFL can spin this as any other way other then kowtowing to the boss. Any campaign I’ve worked on where we’ve used the rat, the rat came after months and months of organizing the membership, the community, and other allies. When it got to the point of using the rat for either an informational picket, or a strike picket, or as part of an inside/pressure campaign, our workers and allies were so organized that having what amounts to a giant balloon toy wouldn’t of stopped them from supporting.

    If a union isn’t getting support from their members or allies because they use a rat, the rat isn’t the problem, per se, it’s that they cant/dont want to put the time in to develop strong worksite leaders and have personal, one-on-one conversations with members and allies.

  21. Bruce Vail:

    I think you are missing Erik’s point. It’s not the rat that is important and worth comment, it is the statement that the head of AFL-CIO BCTD made about how the organization means to present a “value proposition” to employers i.e. that it embraces cooperation and compromise with employers rather than militancy and confrontation.

    Scabby is getting a lot of attention but its a tempest in a teapot. ‘Value proposition’ is merely a new phrase for an attitude that has long been a feature of BCTD. I haven’t followed McGarvey’s career that closely, but I don’t see any difference between him and his predecessors.

  22. FlipYrWhig:

    You’re probably right. It’s a bit like the “Sista Souljah” technique of chiding extremism on your own side to play to the middle, crossed with that proverb about how you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

    I still do wonder, though, if the target of communications like these is to some extent “the middle” of (unorganized) workers. People who might roll their eyes at an inflatable rat but still want workplace representation. That’d be akin to what Democratic party triangulators were trying to do in the 1990s: sure, one part was about reassuring business interests; but another part was about reassuring voters that they were a safe option, not a bunch of hippies and militants.

    But, again, I don’t want to be making false parallels, so I defer to on-the-ground labor folks.

  23. FlipYrWhig:

    Thanks for this — it responds to some of my idle thoughts above.

  24. DrDick:

    As Erik says upthread, the rat is not an organizing tactic, but is deployed as part of labor actions among already organized workers. One major purpose is public shaming of management and scab workers. As the quote above says, the union leaders are only concerned with not offending or threatening management. Frankly they ought to be terrorizing management to forestall the kinds of rampant abuses which currently characterize the American workplace.

  25. rea:

    Because the bar is organized by the state, although it is to some degree self-governing.

  26. rea:

    In utopia, a properly functioning union/management relationship is adversarial to some degree but not hostile, with managment seeing that well-compensated, contented workers are to its advantage, the union recognizing that the company needs to succeed in order to compensate them properly, and both sides recognizing their interests in problem-solving without strikes or violence.

    Unfortunately, the major thing wrong with our economy nowdays is that management doesn’t look beyond the short-term bottom line and their own compensation. “Corporatism” is something of a misnomer, because the 1% routinely abuses the corporations in their charge. And labor bashing is very attractive to a management focused on the short term, and on looking like they are doing something to justfy their huge compensation packages.

  27. FlipYrWhig:

    Yes, I realize that it’s not “an organizing tactic,” but my (speculative) point was that the union leaders may have been thinking that a less confrontational or prankish approach might be more appealing _to un-organized workers_.

    It’s the difference between saying “Hey, management, we’re retiring the rat as a sign that we want to cooperate” and “Hey, workers, we’re retiring the rat as a sign that we’re not the same old union anymore (so look at our ‘value proposition’ and think about getting involved).”

    (Actually, it reminds me rhetorically of what the blogosphere calls “hippie-punching.” Are they punching hippies to appeal to people who roll their eyes at hippies, or are they punching hippies to impress their bosses?)

    From a left perspective that’s a slim difference, but it has parallels in other liberal/left conversations — which I know more about than this one — which also may be why I’m reading something into the tweets that other people aren’t perceiving.

    None of which is to say that I think retiring the rat is a smart move. That I have no idea about.

  28. FlipYrWhig:

    Is a “value proposition” the same thing as what used to be called a “mission statement”?

  29. DrDick:

    However, the union leadership’s actual statements are clearly of the “Hey, management, we’re retiring the rat as a sign that we want to cooperate” category. There is simply no evidence of any other motivation for this act.

  30. Uncle Kvetch:

    In utopia, a properly functioning union/management relationship is adversarial to some degree but not hostile, with managment seeing that well-compensated, contented workers are to its advantage, the union recognizing that the company needs to succeed in order to compensate them properly, and both sides recognizing their interests in problem-solving without strikes or violence.

    To my understanding, this was pretty much the model that underlay the postwar “economic miracle” in then-West Germany, and it may still hold sway in present-day Germany. It’s “utopian” by US standards, certainly, but not unthinkable.

  31. mark f:

    I remember being sent, on a few Saturdays on which my mother didn’t feel like dealing with me, with my father to work. A few times it was actual work. A few other times it was showing up to various non-union job sites to yell at people and cheer the rat.

  32. wengler:

    Meh. The rat is awesome and the people rejoice when they see it.

  33. Just Dropping By:

    It might be bad street theater.

    Is there any other kind of street theater?

  34. Colin Day:

    Because the ABA is a licensing organization, not a union? The license is a requirement to work as a lawyer, not to work for some particular company.

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