Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Labor's Uncertain Future

Over at The Nation I found an edited excerpt of editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and CUNY professor Dr. Peter Kwong discussing labor's role in the progressive movement with SEIU head Andy Stern. (You can read the full transcript here.) What's interesting and scary and refreshing all at once is Stern's honesty about what unions of the industrialized world need to do to fare better in the global economy: he doesn't really know.
The world labor movement,in the First World countries, are just in shock, because all the things we used to do that might have worked--collective bargaining, one country politics--aren't working anymore. Multinational corporations and other institutions are making the rules, not countries as much. Even the president can't stop globalization of the economy. People in other countries are sort of beginning to feel that the rules of the game they played by were supposed to bring them wealth and it hasn't worked. I'm not sure they've figured out what the substitute is for it yet.

But they've bought the American model. They've bought the World Bank, they've bought cutting the services, and they ended up still poor. What's happened in America is people are getting poorer and poorer. I wonder when we're going to realize that it doesn't all work.

With transportation and capitol moving so quickly, there are no more borders. Even the people who promoted the free trade agreements are in shock that they didn't work.

I think people are at a loss. I admit I'm at a loss.
Yet, despite all the hand-wringing, Stern's being a bit coy. He has a plan for reform and it could be one that works. After labor lost the November election, Stern proposed a radical reformation of the AFL-CIO house. Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect explained it well:
Stern knew that labor’s effort for Kerry had come up short not due to deficiencies in its political program, but in good part because there simply aren’t enough union members anymore to turn an election. And so Stern called for rebating half of the affiliates’ dues payments to the AFL-CIO back to the member unions so they could increase their organizing -- a move that would greatly reduce, of course, the size of the federation’s staff and the scope of its work.

Labor’s plight was so dire, Stern argued, that it no longer had the luxury of funding many projects outside organizing and politics. Nor could the movement afford to have multiple unions fighting over the few relatively organizable employers while vast sectors of the economy were never approached by unions at all. To that end, he called for consolidating the federation’s 58 member unions -- most of them too small to embark on serious organizing -- down to roughly 20, each with a clear responsibility for a defined sector of the economy.

It was a huge proposal, but for a time it almost got lost in the surrounding hubbub. The SEIU was already aligned with UNITE-HERE (the clothing and hotel workers union), the Laborers, and the Carpenters. These four unions had shifted resources into organizing and had expressed frustration that the AFL-CIO had been unable to get other unions to follow suit. But Stern’s proposal came as a surprise to his allies, as did his announcement to the press at the meeting’s conclusion that the SEIU was establishing a committee to look at the implications of leaving the federation if it didn’t embrace these changes.
Union members are now only 12% of the workforce, so Stern and his allies' proposal looks necessary if labor ever wants to replenish the well of their socio-economic power.

Stern makes another interesting point in the discussion that I don't hear out of labor often, but needs to be said more and more. Work structures shift. In America they have shifted toward the service sector, which Stern and his SEIU have been enormously successful in organizing. (The SEIU has more members than any other affiliate of the AFL-CIO.) The thing is to follow those economic trends and fashion good jobs out of currently low-wage service jobs. As Stern commented:
We should appreciate that Wal-Mart retail worker's jobs in this country are not inherently low wage jobs. They're no more low wage than autoworkers' jobs once were, and no less skilled than mine workers' jobs once were. They're just not union jobs right now.
Besides, you can't outsource service sector jobs; they're location specific.

Workers in the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy may be out of luck as globalization makes it cheaper and cheaper to manufacture and assemble goods overseas. The goal of the labor movement should be to ensure people losing good paying, unionized manufacturing positions can make a lateral leap to good paying, service sector jobs. It looks like that's Stern's appraisal as well, let's hope the rest of the AFL-CIO jumps on board.