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Bad Ideas for Organized Labor


Thomas Kochan of MIT has 4 ideas to make labor relevant again.

Let’s go through each individually.

1. The development of a national on-line workplace survey that workers can use to rate employers as places to work, and then publish the results widely on an easily accessible smart phone app. Ranking the quality of employers in an industry and region would provide workers a new source of power — one that is more widely accessible and more productive than a strike.

A smartphone app on good companies to work for. A Yelp for employers. OK, whatever. Big deal. Do it if you want. How this makes one iota of difference in even the most optimistic scenario is beyond me.

Kochan seems to also believe that unions use strikes as an everyday method that provide workers a source of power. This is mostly incorrect. Workers rarely strike in the 21st century. And when they do, it’s often a sign of desperation and a last-ditch effort to hold onto their jobs. There’s the occasional exception like the Chicago Teachers’ Union. But it’s the exception that proves the rule–it gets talked about so much because it was such a rare unqualified victory and expression of workplace power today.

2. The best employers and worker organizations could do what Kaiser Permanente and its union coalition are doing — build partnerships that nurture employee engagement. Workers respond well to these partnerships — despite some traditionalist union leaders who argue that all employers are manipulators who can’t be trusted. Workers know better. They can tell good supervisors, managers, and employers from bad ones.

Most unions are more than happy to work with employers and have been since the 1950s. And when you create these partnerships, who holds the power on the shop floor? The employer, unless you have an enforcement mechanism. I was literally just writing a paragraph yesterday for my book about sawmill workers in the 1970s complaining that they totally bought into workplace safety programs and then were shocked that the employer saw it as window-dressing and didn’t actually implement any of the recommendations. Sure, workers can tell good supervisors and managers from bad ones–but in this economy, what choice do they have if they get unlucky? Quit? Complain to their union? At least for Kochan, even if they did complain, the union’s job evidently is to be good friends with the company.

3. New lifetime membership models could be created to help members navigate the 7 to10 job transitions they will likely make over the course of their careers, and provide them with education and training to keep skills marketable. Employers might view them not as adversaries but as preferred suppliers of talent — at least as good as current temp agencies and other recruitment channels.

First, employers will always view unions as adversaries. Kochan knows this. When has an employer ever been like, sure bring in the union! That actually has happened, but it’s exceedingly rare (usually today it is European companies investing in the US who are used to working with organized labor). Notice two other things here. First, Kochan is completely accepting the 7-10 job transitions of the modern economy. That has happened precisely because capital mobility has made worker stability uncertain. He doesn’t question the root causes at all. Second, with union density so light, how is it supposed to help workers through these job transitions? If each job was in the same industry and it is 1952 and every steel plant is represented through the USWA, then sure. But if that were the case, workers wouldn’t have 7-10 jobs in their life. They’d have 1 or 2.

I mean, if employers want to welcome unions into all workplaces, I’d be happy to try this out!

4. Using social media, community organizing, and political pressure, unions should expose employers who exploit immigrants and other low wage workers. Violating basic labor standards or treating workers poorly would become a national disgrace that would force American employers to establish codes of conduct similar to what multinationals like Nike and Apple have had to do in response to exposes of abuse of contractors overseas.

You mean like they already do. I can tell you for certain that UNITE-HERE has never ever thought of that before. Certainly not in their Hyatt Hurts campaign! But like the media or politicians care about employers who violate basic labor standards. When did that create “a national disgrace?” The grape boycott in the 60s and 70s? Maybe the sweatshop stuff 15 years ago.

Or wait, I just can’t turn on the news without seeing more coverage of Hyatt’s terrible treatment of their workers! Give me a break.

Kochan places all the onus on organized labor and none on employers and does not seem to recognize the underlying conditions that have made union representation so difficult. He also effectively ignores what unions actually do and don’t do.

So I hope no one sees these ideas as a workable model to rebuild organized labor.

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  • William Berry

    Erik: You are absolutely correct in your evaluation of this Kochan crap.

    I have been active in the USW for more than thirty years; shop steward, negotiating committee, safety committee, president of my local union (early 2000s; USW Amalgamated 7686), and have worked in campaigns for pro-labor Democratic candidates. I have seen this stuff a thousand times in one guise or another, sometimes pushed by weak sister union officers, usually Republicans, even including whole unions, like the Carpenters.

    Hard-core unionists call it “co-operationism”. The spread and rise in influence of this garbage in the face of the Reagan assault on workers’ rights was one of the worst disasters in labor history and a major contributing factor in the decline of organized labor. We are still reeling.

    • Yeah, I know a lot of these ideas, especially about cooperation, have a real following in some unions, particularly the building trades. And while I know the challenges organized labor faces are huge, I just have trouble seeing how any unionist can delude themselves into believing these are good ideas.

      • Notice how we never see these calls for cooperationism appear in Forbes, IBD, Money, or on CNBC.

        Cooperationism can work, if both sides are on board, but with a management culture as hostile as the actual, existing one we have in the US, calling on unions to embrace it is naive.

        • I would only argue that cooperationism can only work if you have an independent enforcement mechanism with consequences for ignoring.

          • Linnaeus

            I was thinking something similar. The problem with cooperationism is that it would require some willingness on the part of the employer to share power with its workers, and that rarely if ever happens voluntarily. And even if that did happen, you’d still need some mechanism to prevent arbitrary changes on the part of the employer. Funny, then, why a union might see quaint notions like a CBA as still being necessary.

          • And relative balance of power. Cooperationism works fairly well in Scandinavia and Germany, but in part that’s because the law mandates a balance of power by mandating worker participation on company boards (for example), and because unions are big enough that the “third face” of their economic power gives employers real incentives to cooperate in good faith, because conflict is bad for business.

            • Fake Irishman

              Right: And how do we get those legal mandates? — we organize to the point where we make enough politicians pay attention to us (and not take us for granted after mobilizing us once every four years.)

    • djangermats

      I keep reading ‘Kochan’ as ‘Kochian’

  • Sly

    Still, under the current conditions, to survive, unions need to embrace revolutionary change.

    For some reason, a return to an more timid form of business unionism and the creation of RateMyBoss.com do not strike me as examples of revolutionary change.

    • +1000

    • Ian

      embrace revolutionary change

      Seize control of the means of production?

      • DrDick

        Bring on the clogs, torches, and guillotines!

        • cpinva

          i was thinking pitchforks would be a nice addition. i really think what this guy is suggesting, is that unions, for the good of humanity, should just bend over, and drop their pants/raise their skirts, and take one, for the, um, well, beats the fuck out of me who for. because none of this drivel will have one iota of a positive impact for labor.

          he either knows this, and maybe just wrote it to get published, somewhere, anywhere, or he doesn’t, and should be immediately stuffed in a maintenance closet, so as to not pollute the atmosphere again with his nonsense.

  • Kochnan is indulging in libertarian utopianism, where the relationship between a worker and an employer is something like Person A selling an orange to Person B in a classical “perfect market.”

    If we assume perfect labor mobility, that I-Phone app would be great. If we had some ham, we could make a ham sandwich. If we had some bread.

    The other bit of market-fetishist utopianism is in #2’s assumption that managers 1) have the same interest as the firm as a whole and 2) take an enlightened self interest approach to dealing with workers, without the desire to assert power over them interfering.

    • Good points, especially the 2nd.

    • Gareth Wilson

      Most unionised workers in the US work for a government, right? So their managers are government bureaucrats, and it might be “utopianism” to expect them to behave that way, but not exactly market fetishism.

      • Since the topic is this piece, which seems to be about non-government employees, where the larger proportion of unionized workers work is irrelevant. But we’ve been incorporating market fetishism into government for quite some time.

        • djangermats

          USPS employees probably have a thing or two to say about it.

        • Gareth Wilson

          Kochan only talks about “employers” – he doesn’t distinguish between public and private sector. Granted, he is talking about reversing a fall in unionisation, which is more relevant to the private sector.

    • cpinva

      if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass when it hopped.

      manager’s, as a whole, have even less interest in the firm, as the average hourly worker, with the sole exception being, how can they get a bigger bonus this year, while doing as litte actual work as possible?

      middle-management, having been as fucked over as labor, for the past 40 years, without even a semblance of a union to offer some protection, are long since past the “loyalty to the firm” phase. they’ll do whatever they have to, to whoever they have to, with zero compunction, for as long as they can get away with it, to survive and thrive. their greatest competition isn’t the company in taiwan, making cheaper widgets, it’s fred, the guy two cubicles over, angling for your job. fred is unconstrained by laws, ethics or fear of damaging the company, in his zeal to fuck you over. because of fred, you’re far less likely to propose anything that might have a possible negative aspect to it, because you will be seen as a danger to the company’s share price. so the company continues its swirl down the commode.

      • Hogan

        At least until the crash, it was more like “what spectacular innovative thing can I do to put on my resume when I apply for my next job in 3-5 years, and how can I postpone the catastrophioc failure of my spectacular innovative thing (or at least not get blamed for it) until I’m safely in my next gig, coming up with a new spectacular innovative thing?” Or maybe that’s more an upper-middle management thing.

  • dp

    What a maroon.

    • Fake Irishman

      It is kind of Chicago-school, isn’t it?

      • DrDick

        JfL upthread nails it. Libertarian utopian delusions.

    • Bruce Vail

      I don’t why we would expect anything better from a guy who is a professor at the Albert Sloan School of Management.

      Then again, nobody probably actually knows who Sloan was.

  • DocAmazing

    The best employers and worker organizations could do what Kaiser Permanente and its union coalition are doing — build partnerships that nurture employee engagement.

    That’s one of the reasons for the SEIU/United Healthcare Workers-National Union of Healthcare Workers split. Andy Stern was so keen to have a good working relationship with hospital management that he alienated a whole bunch of the membership of the local. Sleazy hospital CEOs speak very fondly of Andy Stern.

    • Hob

      SEIU rant mode on…

      I worked as a public-sector nurse in California during Stern’s tenure, and that crap drove me absolutely nuts, especially after our local got dissolved and absorbed into a huge unit run by people with no particular knowledge of what our jobs and concerns were. We still had some good shop stewards (Stern hadn’t yet started his plan to replace them with a toll-free help line), but management basically just laughed in their faces when they brought up grievances, knowing the union was not going to back them up. The attitude from above during contract negotiations was basically “Look, we got you a raise, just shut up about all this other stuff.”

      It was particularly galling because if I’d just been less attached to working in public-sector jobs that happened to be SEIU’s turf, I could’ve been represented by CNA, a really effective activist union that was largely responsible for what few legal safeguards we did have on working conditions (which SEIU is now actively trying to undo).

      • I know there are strident defenders of Stern, but it’s really hard for me. Replacing shop stewards with a 1-800 number might be the worst idea in the history of American labor.

        • cpinva

          out of curiousity, how much did mr. stern make?

          • Hob

            $300-320K including benefits, according to this.

  • Murc

    A smartphone app on good companies to work for. A Yelp for employers. OK, whatever. Big deal. Do it if you want. How this makes one iota of difference in even the most optimistic scenario is beyond me.

    Kochan isn’t thinking big enough here.

    There are a million different resources yelling, nay, screaming at me to give me advice on what to with any capital I might have on hand. If I want to read about investing or what the hot new growth industry is or a million other things that would be awesome if I had twenty grand or more just lying around, I can reach out and put my hand on a ton of different magazines, web sites, and entire freakin’ TV channels. (JFL mentions Forbes, Money, CNBC upthread.)

    Except that I don’t have any capital. I just have my labor. Maybe I’d like to read about which companies nuture their entry-level employees and prefer to train you well and promote from within, and which see them as replaceable cogs. Maybe I’d like advice on how to get deal with management in circumstances where simply quitting isn’t an option. If I’m looking at job postings, maybe I’d like yelp-equivalent to tell me which of these solicitations are real, and which are looking to take advantage of me.

    Hell, you know what I’d love? A place where workers can go and, anonymously, post their company, job position, and what they’re being paid. Most places actually forbid you from discussing what your compensation is (and for some bizarre reason, workers have bought into this; I once had a co-worker tell me I’d insulted him because I asked what he was making) and enforce this stringently. It would be great to know just how bad you’re being screwed in comparison to other workers, especially if you can use that to get’em to do something about it.

    Kochan is thinking small.

    • djangermats

      I’m pretty sure this website exists? I will try and remember the name.

      Idk if it had a smartphone app.

    • Hob

      There’s glassdoor.com, though I get the impression that it focuses mostly on tech and management jobs.

      • JL

        Yep, I’ve used Glassdoor in my job searches (techie who is now a PhD student in computer science). I used it to read employee reviews of companies (I also wrote a couple), prepare for interviews (you can write up detailed descriptions of the interview process at a company), look up how much people in certain jobs were paid at certain companies, and look at what certain jobs were paid in general in my region. And I’ve used the information about salaries that I found there, for negotiation purposes and the like. I’ve known other women in CS who didn’t realize for years that they were being paid less than the men.

        I didn’t realize that it only really had tech and management jobs (as I haven’t been looking for others on there).

        • Hob

          It’s not only, but I think that’s where it’s caught on the most, so there are more anonymous contributors for those jobs & therefore more useful info.

    • cpinva

      oh, oh, i can answer those questions!


      “Maybe I’d like to read about which companies nuture their entry-level employees and prefer to train you well and promote from within”

      they all expect you to have an advanced degree, and 20 years experience, and be thrilled to work for them, at an entry-level salary.

      all of them.

      “and which see them as replaceable cogs.”

      it doesn’t matter what you do (except a CEO of course, because there are only two or three people qualified for that job), they can go down to the street, and quickly/easily replace you, with any random passer by. you’re quick replacement will do three times the work, in a quarter of the time, for half what they’re paying you. and won’t bitch about being expected to mow the supervisor’s lawn on saturdays.

      any other questions i can help you out with? oh, yes, the name of the website: http://www.you‘refucked.com

  • If we’re talking apps, one thing that’s always bugged me is that there isn’t a bar-code-scanning app that tells you if something is union-made and suggests a union alternative if it’s not. They have these apps for anti-sweatshop groups and pro-environment groups, but different unions maintain their own, separate lists of union goods and non-union goods.

    While we’re at it, how about a real Amazon.com-for-union-stuff rather than the AFL-CIO’s dire e-store? Imagine how much easier it would be to get people to buy union for a Super Bowl party, for example, if they could just order all their supplies union from one location.

    • JL

      Huh. I might actually take a crack at the barcode scanning app (for Android anyway – I’m working two extra part-time jobs already to supplement my PhD stipend so that we can pay the bills, and I’m not going to pay Apple money for the privilege of being allowed to improve iOS). It’s not exactly going to be on the front burner – see previous comment about two extra jobs plus full-time PhD-ing – and I haven’t written a barcode scanner before, but this is something I could potentially do.

    • JL

      So, having made a quick start on this, it looks like the limiting factor is not going to be the technical side of things, but obtaining the relevant barcodes (I just emailed the UAW asking if there’s a way I can get these for their products). Any tips on this from anyone here would be appreciated.

      • dcdcdc


        A few years later…Thanks for your attempt to move forward! Any luck?

  • Matt_L

    Dr. Loomis, the world needs more labor history and labor historians like you. Thanks for this post.

  • Dave

    They may be crap ideas in isolation, but so is standing around shouting about how great it would be if everything was different, while your membership shrinks, your legal rights are taken away, and the employers just punch you in the face every time you try a confrontation.

    What’s YOUR new model for organising labor that you have any evidence might actually work in the current political, social and cultural conditions of the USA? And for christ’s sake don’t say something stupid about ‘revolution’, because the other side really do have more guns than you, and they really aren’t afraid to use them.

    • cpinva

      not just in isolation,

      “They may be crap ideas in isolation”

      but collectively and in general.

      it’s an old, tried and true model, actually.

      What’s YOUR new model for organising labor that you have any evidence might actually work in the current political, social and cultural conditions of the USA?

      basic organizing, like in the bad old days, of the gilded-age, when things were very similar to what they are now. first thing to do is amend the Internal Revenue Code, and the import tariffs. make it more profitable, for manufacturing to make their products in the USA, by planting a hefty tarif on those produced elsewhere, by the company, and imported. also, disallow, as tax deductible expenses, the cost of shifting jobs overseas, when the product of those jobs is planned to be sold in the US

      second, get rid of “deferral” of tax, on foreign sourced profits, not repatriated to the US. our tax system is a world-wide system, recognizing income made anywhere in the world, and making it subject to US tax, with exceptions. eliminate those exceptions. the only “deferral” allowed, would be on the earnings used to increase production/employment, in the US.

      these actions will force those companies to increase employment in the US, thus pumping more money into the economy, increasing demand, and increasing employment in other sectors, along with increasing tax revenues. yes, other countries will scream (as will the sh’s), but since the target is those products that were destined for domestic consumption to begin with, not products destined for export, they’ll have little legitimate basis for a complaint. it will also force them to actually do something themselves, about their own economies, as opposed to expecting the US to do it for them. no doubt, their citizens will ultimately be pleased by this.

      the sh’s, management and lobbyists will have screaming shitfits. tough, the country doesn’t operate solely for their benefit, it operates for the benefit of all of us. if their not going to do their part willingly, and, in fact,are going to screw everyone else over, for their profits, then it behooves the rest of us to screw them back, in self-defense.

      it’s the only way to be sure.

      by forcing companies to either in-source jobs, back to the US, or pay hefty tarifs

      • cpinva

        damn, i really, really, really wish there was an edit function on this site!

  • arguingwithsignposts

    I notice this in other areas, especially the ed. reform movement, now moving up into higher ed, and it’s something I think should be called techno-triumphalism or something. That all our problems would be solved if we just threw more code at it. Or, alternately, I’ve built some kind of business based on the Internet, therefore, you should listen to me about how to solve centuries-old real world conflicts. It’s the fount of TED, Davos, Aspen and Thomas Friedman, to be sure.

    • JL

      There is definitely a strain of thought among techies, more prevalent in some subcultures than others (I’ve noticed it more among the Silicon Valley folks than the Boston ones, for instance), that thinks that basically every problem reduces to a technical problem and software entrepreneurs and engineers are the people who REALLY change the world.

      There are also a lot of techies who make fun of this mindset. But the fact that it’s widespread enough for lots of people in the field to notice and mock says something.

      • Hob

        I think it’s so widespread partly because it’s got a lot of fans in the non-tech world who recognize the political usefulness of that mindset. That is, when the popular idea of “modern” is “shiny things on the Internet”— and when the makers of those shiny things are some of the only people who are still doing reasonably well these days— it’s easy to argue for whatever shady business practice or anti-regulatory effort you’re in favor of by saying “This is the modern way, and if you’ll just let us make everything more modern, you’ll all get to live in a nicer world like the Google campus.” The fight in San Francisco over regulating Internet-based car services is an example— the “we live in a new world! your old laws were for telephone people!” rhetoric deliberately obscures the legal and social issues that really don’t have anything to do with technology.

        Of course this kind of thing is hardly new, there was similar “what’s modern = what’s good for business = what’s good” talk throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but I think what’s new is the development of this large subculture of people who see their own specific craft as so central to progress. Did young professionals who worked at phone companies or railroads in the past didn’t personally identify with the futurist-libertarian rhetoric of the time in quite the same way? My guess is no. Software people are maybe more likely to feel like the center of the universe because there’s an inherent “yay, I learned how to do magic!” aspect to the craft, which is often learned young. But they’re also getting a lot of reinforcement in this from the rah-rah stuff they hear from the press and politicians.

        • Hob

          Of course, “…didn’t personally identify…” should be “personally identify”; my copyeditor is fired.

  • Hizzhoner

    The one idea I’ve been mentally nurturing for a number of years is that the future of Unions hangs on controlling the means of training and education of the industrial/production-based workforce.

    We currently rely on tax funds to maintain technical and trade schools and the current tax-cutting frenzy has severely limited funding which, in turn, cuts down on the ability to train a workforce in the so-called skills gap to fill available jobs.

    What if the Unions controlled those schools? What if employers could not obtain laborers with the CERTIFIED technical skills as well as “soft skills”( showing up on time, ability to get along with fellow workers, basic courtesies, etc) that they are complaining about lacking today? If business was close to sole-sourced on the Unions for skilled persons, then wages, benefits and stability MIGHT follow.

    The idea is still half-baked….needs to cook a lot more.

  • Marek

    Well said, Erik. Has there ever been anything useful on that cognoscenti website?

  • Patrick Pine

    One of the primary factors that hurt unions was the loss of the ability to have ‘secondary’ boycotts. The UFW under Cesar Chavez used the grape boycott as a key means of influencing the public. After the use of the secondary boycott was made illegal, there was a huge decline in the UFW and other unions ability to mobilize public opinion.

    There are some businesses with management that recognizes how to manage effectively with unions, a minority to be sure, but there are companies who long ago realized that working cooperatively with a union can actually make their jobs easier and their business more successful. Granted that there are unions with leaders who have been ineffective, but anytime you have organizations you will have a few great leaders and a few bad ones with most somewhere in the middle.

    The problem is that the most extreme anti unionists seem to have used our political system to demonize unions and to use the law to make it very difficult for unions to function.

  • Kochan got his ass handed to him recently when he pedaled this crap to the Labor Students at the Harvard Trade Union Program.
    He and his fact-free belief that the goodness of the business community will concede power to the worker because . . . . . only flies with those who still believe in trickle down.
    So why’s Kochan working at MIT and nobody hears from Barry Bluestone who could explain simple economics and the virtuous cycle to anyone with a pulse in the course of half a hour and have it make deep and lasting sense?

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