October 11, 2005

Losing Hearts & Minds or Lack of Political Power

Many progressives, liberals and unionists would probably say that our problems stem from lack of political power. But our lack of power has its roots in something even more important and that is our inability to capture the hearts and minds of the people. Strategy is important, tactics are important but fundamental to all of this is having answers to peoples problems that make sense and are easy to understand.

Recently I had a conversation with a Professor who asked my opinion of what has been happening in the labor movement. I responded by telling him that I think our main problem is that we are coming up with answers to the question 'what do unions need to do to increase membership?' rather than asking the question 'what do workers need in today's economy?'.

Answers to the first question can lead an institution to do many things, even come up with strategies to  increase membership, while at the same time having little or no impact on the daily lives of workers. I think labor unions on both sides of the Change to Win/AFL-CIO split are essentially only looking out for what is in the best interest of their particular institution. To be sure these unionists (on both sides) do believe that what they are doing is ultimately in the best interests of their membership but they are viewing the terrain through the lens of the existing institution.

The second question is much more difficult to grapple with. While the unions in Change to Win have been making a big deal about how bold a move it was to leave the AFL-CIO in reality, major unions have been moving in and out of the AFL-CIO throughout the 50 years of its existence. A move which was truly bold would be one that fundamentally reorients and alters the institution. Such a change could only occur if unions asked "what do workers in today's economy need?"

But it is not only unions which are losing the battle, it is the entire progressive project. An article in today's NY Times highlights the problem:

Liberal Hopes Ebb in Post-Storm Poverty Debate (NY Times-Free)

As Hurricane Katrina put the issue of poverty onto the national agenda, many liberal advocates wondered whether the floods offered a glimmer of opportunity. The issues they most cared about - health care, housing, jobs, race - were suddenly staples of the news, with President Bush pledged to "bold action."

But what looked like a chance to talk up new programs is fast becoming a scramble to save the old ones.

Conservatives have already used the storm for causes of their own, like suspending requirements that federal contractors have affirmative action plans and pay locally prevailing wages. And with federal costs for rebuilding the Gulf Coast estimated at up to $200 billion, Congressional Republican leaders are pushing for spending cuts, with programs like Medicaid and food stamps especially vulnerable.

Once again the conservative agenda wins. It is not only because they have political power but it is also because the progressive agenda is just not capturing the hearts and minds of people. The best progressives have to offer is "saving the old agenda."

And many of us still don't get it:

"We've had a stunning reversal in just a few weeks," said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. "We've gone from a situation in which we might have a long-overdue debate on deep poverty to the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that low-income people will be asked to bear the costs. I would find it unimaginable if it wasn't actually happening."

The most important clue in this article is the following and hopefully our arrogance doesn't cause us to miss it:

"This is not the time to expand the programs that were failing anyway," said Stuart M. Butler, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and advocacy group influential on Capitol Hill.

While the right has proposed alternatives including tax-free zones for businesses and school vouchers for students, Mr. Butler said, "the left has just talked up the old paradigm: 'let's expand what's failed before.' "

There is a real sense among people that yesterday's solutions are just not up to today's task which leaves them open to new or different methods of treating what ails. Our problem is that the right wing has not only out-strategized us, but more importantly they are the ones providing a vision, providing alternatives and providing answers.

A typical response from many in the left is epitomized in the following paragraph:

Doubt about the effectiveness of some programs is only one factor shaping the current antipoverty debate. Another is political muscle: poor people do not make campaign contributions. Many do not even vote.

It seems to me this is more of an assumption than fact. The effects of Katrina and Rita affect people across the board. Sure, the experience of the poor was much worse because their lives were endangered, but the economic destruction and the eventual reconstruction affects an entire swath of the population even beyond the state's borders. The problem has nothing to do with whether or not poor people vote in large enough numbers or not(did they ever?), it is whether people are excited and convinced that there are solutions worth fighting for. The right has given new solutions and visions that are exciting more people, the left has only responded with trying to defend old institutions that no longer inspire.

A case in point is when Bush did away with labor and wage protections after Katrina. How many people, even in labor, knew or cared? There is almost a complicit silence that yes maybe it is better that these rules are relaxed. If even the core base which has benefited by these regulations are left uninspired how do we expect the broader population to care? Or maybe prevailing wage laws never affected enough people in Louisiana so defending them never entered people's minds? (We cannot just blame people here, it seems more and more unions themselves are looking out only for their particular union's interest).

As long as progressives spend their energy defending 20th century institutions and unionists ask themselves how to strengthen their institutions we will be one step behind. That doesn't mean we throw away our principles and the moral foundation of our project but that we reorient them towards a 21st century economy.

October 11, 2005 in Current Affairs, Economy and Unions, Labor Movement Debates, Politics and Unions | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 30, 2005

Blue Collar White Collar

Today's WSJ has an article discussing the founding of the Change to Win Federation and organizing white collar workers:

What Color is Your Collar
(WSJ Subscription required)

This week several unions broke away from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Federation. Disappointed with decades of dwindling union power, Change's leaders are targeting oppressed stockboys at Home Depot and those quick-footed Federal Express guys zooming through neighborhoods.

Change to Win, which sounds too much like Eat to Win, Play to Win, Born to Win and all those other self-help books at Borders, is shopping in the wrong place. They may have a better chance signing up white-collar recruits. Today's fastest-growing and most powerful unions include members who generally drive SUVs to air-conditioned government offices or suburban schools. Indeed, on Tuesday this newspaper described worried and grouchy engineers, hypnotists and podiatrists organizing, presumably against "the Man."

Wait a minute, isn't the whole purposes of unions to protect workers who are too poor or uneducated to protect themselves? Not necessarily. Globalization and technology have made the workplace less secure for everybody and fuzzed up the line separating white and blue collars.

My father encouraged his children to study a profession. Why? "Because, no matter the job market, you'll always be able to hang up a shingle," he assured us. But in today's market, the shingle is no guarantee. And besides, most doctors and lawyers don't have the physical skill to actually hang something on a wall without bludgeoning their fingers. White-collar workers, like aardvarks, often lack opposable thumbs.

In my youth, future white-collar wearers took college-prep courses while other kids were lumped into vocational programs, where they welded and drilled. We learned how to solve those pesky word problems involving cars speeding away from Cleveland at 62 miles an hour with half-tanks of gas. They actually learned how to make those cars go.

Forget revenge of the nerds. These days it's revenge of the electrician, the mechanic and the plumber: Blue collars aren't what they used to be. General Motors may advertise Mr. Goodwrench, but a good mechanic must master computer diagnostics. Go over to the waiting room at the Mercedes dealer and you'll see white-collar America at the mercy of blue-collar. I might be able to forecast the future path of the euro-to-yen ratio, but you think I can replace the catalytic converter under the hood of my car? Say, where'd they hide the hood latch, anyway?....(click above link for rest of article)

September 30, 2005 in Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 28, 2005

Change to Win Federation

Here are links to two articles on the founding of the CTW Federation. I have been at the meetings and will post some of my own thoughts later.

Breakaway Unions Start New Federation (NY Times Free Registration Required)

The Second Front - Harold Meyerson (free)

September 28, 2005 in Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 27, 2005

Union Decline

There is an interesting discussion on Union Decline happening here.

September 27, 2005 in Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Business Press on Union Dissidents

BusinessWeek magazine is featuring an article on the dissident unions which left the AFL-CIO and are holding their founding conference today in St Louis. Here is a link:

Labor's New Face, New Tactics

September 27, 2005 in Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 26, 2005

Dissident Unions Meet This Week

Jonathan Tasini at Working Life will be blogging this week from the dissident unions' founding convention.

Here is a link to a mainstream news account of the upcoming convention:

Dissident Unions Get Organized (ChicagoSunTimes-Free)

September 26, 2005 in Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 20, 2005

On the No Raid Agreement

Yesterday, Tasini's Working Life blog broke the news that SEIU and AFSCME have reached a no raid agreement. Today the mainstream media, including the Washington Post, has picked up the story.

While some see this agreement as a sign that the recent split in the AFL-CIO will not have the negative consequence of competitive fights between unions I am not as optimistic. After all Russia and Germany agreed not to raid one another and we saw what happened there.

I am biased towards an economic analysis which would suggest that if the proper incentives are in place then unions raiding each other is a likely outcome. Even when all these unions were together in the AFL-CIO there was plenty of raiding and fighting going on, the incentive scheme hasn't changed and I would argue the recent has only increased the attractiveness of raiding. Despite whatever paper agreements are reached in the interim.

I hope I am wrong.

September 20, 2005 in Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 18, 2005

Meyerson on UNITE-HERE Secession from AFL-CIO

One More Secession (Harold Meyerson Zmag Free)


In interviews Wednesday with the Prospect, both UNITE- HERE General President Bruce Raynor and the union's hotel-division president, John Wilhelm, spoke with a bit more specificity than the Change to Win leaders have previously about the new labor formation that will emerge in St. Louis. The unions in the new grouping, Raynor said, 'are in a position to organize nonunion workers in retail, hospitality, transportation, food processing, constructions, and health care.' In addition to what the unions do individually, and in partnerships with one another on specific campaigns, they will 'create a strategic organizing center as part of the new federation, not just to help us on existing campaigns but to initiate and run centralized campaigns itself.' In this, the new grouping is partly modeled on the old CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), in which the central organization planned and carried out the unionization campaigns in such industries as auto and steel. This model, however, did not survive the CIO's merger with the AFL (American Federation of Labor) in 1955.


Seventy-five percent of the budget of the new formation, says Wilhelm, will go to organizing. 'My hope and my expectation is that this will have an instigating effect. The CIO had conventions and resolutions and political programs, but the only reason people remember it is that it organized millions of people. The conditions for organizing are clearly different now than they were then, but if we're going to have a middle- class economy, retail has to be organized, and no one union can do that by itself. That would be a prime example of what the new federation needs to instigate.'


The new federation, Wilhelm cautions, won't have the resources for tasks of the magnitude of organizing America's retail sector, though he hopes it can get the ball rolling. 'The per-capita dues [that member unions will pay to the new federation] will be lower than the AFL-CIO's per caps. The difference will be used to fund enhanced organizing campaigns in our own unions, or in specific joint campaigns.'


September 18, 2005 in Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 14, 2005


UNITE-HERE Leaves AFL-CIO Over Dispute (Washington Post)

September 14, 2005 in Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 08, 2005

Korean Unions "Change to Win"

Two major Korean unions are taking steps to become one union.

From The Chosun Ilbo (free)

Two Major Labor Unions To Become One Feb. 2006
             Korea's two major labor unions are looking into ways to integrate and kick off an era of so-called "one country, one union" by February next year to strengthen their voice and to prevent division among workers.

In order to successfully form an integrated-union, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions first plan to establish a negotiating body this month, which will carry out a joint campaign for laborers. Representatives of the unions say not all members agree with the integration at the moment.

Analysts note that once the two unions merge and become larger, they would demand significant changes in the labor-management relationship.

September 8, 2005 in Comparative Labor Relations, Labor Movement Debates | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack