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.

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