Sunday, June 27, 2004
Ramblings about rumblings in the labor movement
Even though Meyerson depicts Stern as being awkwardly in opposition to current AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (who, Meyerson notes, was Stern's mentor) I think that overstates the case. Sweeney's main theme has been that locals and internationals need to rededicate themselves to organizing. This call to action has been heeded almost religiously by the service sector unions (HERE and UNITE along with SEIU) and a better way to interpret Stern's critique is as an extension (perhaps unwelcome) of Sweeney's vision.
Now, I'm all for effective organizing but there are a couple of things about Stern's plan that give me pause. Most crucially I worry that as unions grow larger they become more hierarchical and less responsive to the needs of rank and file workers. This, by the way, gets at one of the deep tensions of the labor movement. If the point of having a union is to increase worker democracy, then large institutions are problematic. On the other hand, Stern is right that larger unions will have an easier time of winning material concessions from management.
This brings me to the other concern. The reason, it seems to me, that having lots of small unions is a less effective tool for winning material gains is that those small unions don't work together effectively. I'm talking here about solidarity, of course. If the labor movement worked the way that it should then any company that had a problem with any union would have a problem with every union. That's the way it has got to be.
But there are all sorts of barriers, some legal some boiling down to what philosophers like to call coordination problems. For one thing, lots of states have labor laws that outlaw sympathy strikes. Another problem is that those who refuse to cross picket lines can pay a price but get no benefit. This also means that the most active unions are going to be asking for help over and over again -- which from a certain point of view, invites resentment.
The point here is that the real need is for labor solidarity and so our attention ought to be on the real barriers to that need. I'm not saying that the virtue of labor solidarity can't be built back up, but it's got to be done from the ground up. It has to be based in the idea that 'we're all in this together' but that kind of attitude can only be sustained, I think, by a truly radical labor movement. We should be worried about whether this country would support that kind of movement.
But, and this gets me back to Stern's proposal, merely consolidating unions doesn't address these problems. In order to get back to a more radical movement the members of unions have got to be radicalized. This will be difficult, but there's a proven way to do it - organize. If this is right, then Stern's proposal starts to look like an attempt to manufacture solidarity without doing the hard work of organizing. Ultimately, I think that will be counter-productive. What you'll end up with are large organizations that, when it comes down to it, have only shallow commitments from their members.
A word in Stern's defense. He is committed to organizing. What he is driven by, I think, is the knowledge that organizing costs money. Large unions will have more money for organizing than the small organizations do. And, due to economies of scale, the whole pie will be larger. He's got a good point, and I guess my only answer is that unions ought to look at how they spend their money and find a way to spend more of it on organizing. Again, that's going to require talking to the rank and file and convincing them that it's in the union's interest to reallocate its funds. It's a pickle.