Unions need makeover to evolve, grow

For most of us, Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer. Union leaders hope it also marks the end of labor’s endless summer of membership decline. We’re seeing signs of a strategic shift that threatens to reshape the political and economic landscape.

“The trends are clear and devastating: union membership is down by 1.9 million people since 2000. Union density [the share of the workforce belonging to a union] is down by more than half since 1980.”

That’s from August’s AFL-CIO report on outreach and engagement, prepared for the organization’s quadrennial convention in Los Angeles next week. It cites political consequences, “…our share of the electorate is down 30% since 2000.”

In 2012, just 11.3 percent of the workforce belonged to a union, a 97-year low. In the private sector, the share was 6.6 percent. While at 36 percent membership is higher among government workers, the trend lines descend, reflecting cutbacks in big blue states like New York and Illinois and collective bargaining reforms in several states.

Private sector membership decline doesn’t simply reflect industrial change. Economist James Sherk says that between 2010 and 2012 non-union manufacturing grew 6.5 percent, while unionized manufacturing employment dropped 4.7 percent.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in March, “To be blunt, our basic system of workplace representation is … failing miserably…”

To stem the decline, he proposes “to open membership to anyone who wants to join and build a dynamic new workers’ movement — one that working men and women can join without having to go through the trial by fire of an NLRB election.”

Well, yes, elections can be a problem. And collective bargaining, which requires workplace approval, remains the goal. But “at least initially,” Trumka says, new forms of membership may not include it.

The pre-convention report contains language that seems lifted from the annual report of any number of mainstream Protestant churches, Masonic lodges, or the Republican Party. It cites the need to “reach out to engage young people and mentor new leaders … become more diverse.”

In another establishment staple, the report says labor needs “to improve its internal and external communications” because unions are “poorly understood by the public and many union members.”

It’s not me. It’s that you don’t understand me.

A big part of what Josh Eidelson calls the “alt-labor” movement involved so-called worker centers. These are groups that operate “outside the tortured paradigm of the National Labor Relations Act,” according to the AFL-CIO report. There’s no single model for their activities, though they borrow liberally from Saul Alinsky’s “rules for radicals” playbook last seen in Occupiers’ backpacks.

Think of these groups as labor organizers unconstrained by the NLRA. Groups like the Restaurant Opportunities Center, OUR Walmart, and others have experienced rapid growth in recent years. They’re nimble, networked and union funded.

Groups affiliated with the SEIU led the recent spate of fast food fights across the country. In a recent article at Salon, Eidelson, a former union organizer, reports that SEIU leaders are looking at two strategic paths for tackling the industry. One involves pressuring major corporations for labor concessions. The second, which seems more likely to prevail, takes the form of a national battle for local “living wage” laws, including statewide ballot measures in 2014.

Retail and hospitality employment continues to grow, making the sector enticing for union organizers. These are jobs that stay put, can’t be outsourced or off-shored. On the other hand, the workers often don’t stay put. For most, these are entry-level, transitional or supplemental jobs, not easily unionized.

Yet labor’s willing to gamble. And top Democrats are paying attention. Gov. Inslee gave striking fast workers a sympathetic tweet out last week. Seattle’s mayoral candidates have similarly shown support. Washington is union-friendly, with the nation’s highest minimum wage and fourth highest union density. For the activists, that’s not enough. Workplace action will intensify here, with agitation increasingly coming from the outside. Most businesses embrace workplace dignity, open communication, and competitive compensation. Personnel policies are tailored to the environment.

The alt-labor strategy, however, would place employers and workers in the same inflexible box, one designed for a union label and imposed by political referendum. It’s a strategy designed — let me recast Trumka’s words — to fail miserably.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is rsdavis@simeonpartners.com

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