walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Feed
Features
Reviews
Podcast
The Legacy Labor Movement Has Lost Its Way

If, like many Americans, you have left your land-line phone to gather dust while you explore the joys of wireless technology, you may be unaware that a major strike is now underway across the Eastern Seaboard. Indeed, the strike of 45,000 Verizon land-line technicians has received relatively little attention in the press, even from the usual boosters of union power against evil corporations. Megan McArdle has an interesting take on the situation:

Margins seem to be improving in the wireline business, thanks to FIOS; people will pay much more for a high-speed internet connection than they will for a telephone.  But landline subscriptions continue to fall, and last I heard, the company had decided not to expand its FIOS network into new cities after it finishes the current rollout.  Most of the profits the people on the picket line keep referring to come from the booming wireless business, which is a non-union joint venture.
In other words, while profits have recovered since 2008, the striking workers aren’t generating those profits.  In fact, the legacy network of copper wires they service is rapidly turning into a cost center rather than a source of profits.  They’re essentially asking that the firm divert money from the wireless business to beef up pay and benefits for the union workers even as the number of subscribers they have to service is falling.  It’s not really surprising that management is saying no.

Heading forward, this is likely to become an increasingly common phenomenon. Private-sector unionization rates have fallen dramatically over the past fifty years, and the sectors in which unions remain strong tend to be older legacy industries rather than the modern ones that drive economic growth. More, unions often preserve the benefits of older workers at the cost of “second tier” benefits for new ones — pretty much ensuring their death in the not so distant future.

Unions can strike over land lines, but they have no power over internet or cell phones. The past few years have seen unions scramble to cling to power in the industries where they have it — this may not matter if the industries themselves disappear.

If unions are going to survive — and there are good reasons why workers should band together — they are going to have to re-invent themselves.  Suppose unions thought about ways to add value, or supported worker training that actually worked?  Suppose union representatives tried to think about how a union could add value for an employer and built strategies around that?  Suppose unions were more like worker associations that didn’t so much try to keep workers employed at one firm forever but acted as career advisers/facilitators/managers who helped workers navigate the economic shoals, shift to new careers and perhaps ultimately set up as independent small businesses on their own?

American workers could use some help; if the legacy labor movement can’t provide that — and thirty years of ineffective flailing about suggests strongly that it can’t — someone else needs to figure out how.

The economy has changed but workers still have important interests and unmet needs and there are many problems that people can solve better in groups and associations rather than on their own.  There is a huge opportunity here for original and creative approaches to an important social need; idealistic young people who care about workers need to get out of the failing legacy labor movement and start something new.

Features Icon
Features
show comments
  • matt

    Why would anyone – under any circumstances link or quote mcmegan???? (Unless of course, its about himalayan salt or preindustrial female cooking roles). One word mr read. Innumerate.

  • http://www.heartland.org BrunoBehrend

    I’ve never understood why unions don’t make a play to actually take ownership of their companies. If they’re so smart and moral, let them buy and run the companies they work for.

    How’s that for a new strategy. Let them grow by employing more people in their successful businesses.

  • Luke Lea

    “American workers could use some help; if the legacy labor movement can’t provide that — and thirty years of ineffective flailing about suggests strongly that it can’t — someone else needs to figure out how.”

    My poor Daddy would be spinning in his grave if he knew how far organized labor has fallen. He’s the Yankee in our family, who moved down South to Chattanoog to go to prep school when his father died, and subsequently married my mother at the start of the Depression. They were both public school teachers, and when the lay-offs began, Daddy organized a local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the first in the South, maybe the first, I don’t know.

    Anyway, he had such a good time that he went into the labor movement full-time, first for the International Lady Garment Workers, then at the local level as head of the Central Labor Council in Chattanooga. During that period he met Estes Kefaufer, who was a conservative at the time, and completely turned him around on the labor issue; they became life-lomg friends and political allies (I still have the silver cup Estes gave my parents when I was born).

    By the 1940’s Chattanooga was a union town and one of the dirtiest cities in America: foundries, boiler makers, TNT plants, steel, Dupont, etc.. My parents loved the political game — were devoted to FDR — never communists, in fact fought them — and Americans for Democratic Action (I can remember Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., coming to a party at our house. When elections rolled around the long-boxes of file cards came out and they organized every last precinct in the city — and they won, every time. Daddy was considered one of the most powerful men in town even 30 years later, when he had been gone for twenty years, such was his reputation.

    Later he headed the Tennessee Federation of Labor in Nashville, then finished his career in D.C. working for Meany, in charge of organizing state and local central bodies and their political action committees across the country.

    What’s the point here? My father was an educated man from an educated family. He had a “Harvard” accent in our family lore, was organized, persevering, conscientious. , honest, a man of his word: In other words a Yankee. He used to joke that most of his “brothers” in the movement were Catholics and Jews. But they were all talented and smart with a sense of humor. And they loved politics.

    As Charles Murray pointed out, working Americans don’t have that kind of representation anymore. The collective bargaining concept may be flawed — I think it is, especially for public employees — but in an imperfect world it was better than nothing. Looking ahead I’d like to see a national labor party dedicated to working families the same way the Republican party in the past has been dedicated to business. It may be a new party. It may take over the Democratic Party. Or — who knows? — it may take over the Republican Party!

    So desperate are the times that I might even vote for Palin. At least she knows that world.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/lukelea2/thesoftpath Luke Lea

    “American workers could use some help; if the legacy labor movement can’t provide that — and thirty years of ineffective flailing about suggests strongly that it can’t — someone else needs to figure out how.”

    My poor Daddy would be spinning in his grave if he knew how far organized labor has fallen. He’s the Yankee in our family, who moved down South to Chattanoog to go to prep school when his father died, and subsequently married my mother at the start of the Depression. They were both public school teachers, and when the lay-offs began, Daddy organized a local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the first in the South, maybe the first, I don’t know.

    Anyway, he had such a good time that he went into the labor movement full-time, first for the International Lady Garment Workers, then at the local level as head of the Central Labor Council in Chattanooga. During that period he met Estes Kefaufer, who was a conservative at the time, and completely turned him around on the labor issue; they became life-lomg friends and political allies (I still have the silver cup Estes gave my parents when I was born).

    By the 1940’s Chattanooga was a union town and one of the dirtiest cities in America: foundries, boiler makers, TNT plants, steel, Dupont, etc.. My parents loved the political game — were devoted to FDR — never communists, in fact fought them — and Americans for Democratic Action (I can remember Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., coming to a party at our house. When elections rolled around the long-boxes of file cards came out and they organized every last precinct in the city — and they won, every time. Daddy was considered one of the most powerful men in town even 30 years later, when he had been gone for twenty years, such was his reputation.

    Later he headed the Tennessee Federation of Labor in Nashville, then finished his career in D.C. working for Meany, in charge of organizing state and local central bodies and their political action committees across the country.

    What’s the point here? My father was an educated man from an educated family. He had a “Harvard” accent in our family lore, was organized, persevering, conscientious. , honest, a man of his word: In other words a Yankee. He used to joke that most of his “brothers” in the movement were Catholics and Jews. But they were all talented and smart with a sense of humor. And they loved politics.

    As Charles Murray pointed out, working Americans don’t have that kind of representation anymore. The collective bargaining concept may be flawed — I think it is, especially for public employees — but in an imperfect world it was better than nothing. Looking ahead I’d like to see a national labor party dedicated to working families the same way the Republican party in the past has been dedicated to business. It may be a new party. It may take over the Democratic Party. Or — who knows? — it may take over the Republican Party!

    So desperate are the times that I might even consider voting for Palin. At least she knows that world of physical work.

  • http://none Gern

    I throw this out there… I see today’s modern temp agencies (ie. Manpower) as the new kind of “union.” I have been watching my friend be a member/employee of a temp agency this past three years and they offer him health insurance, benefits, and job switching opportunities. He has worked for two different tech companies that last three years, but he gets his paycheck and benefits from the temp agency. The temp employee is paying dues “indirectly” because the agency gets a commission or cut from the employer and then passes the remaining wage to the temp employee. I would like to see the temp agency model expand into agencies that offer job opportunities, skill training, resume building etc.

  • Thrasymachus

    I think the successor to unions (if indeed one ever emerges) is more likely to evolve out of professional associations and certification-providing entities than from temp agencies. Their income is sourced from the ultimate employer, so their incentives all direct them to drive as hard a bargain as possible *against* the labor pool… that’s how a temp agency creates value.

    A professional association, on the other hand, is funded by its members… its incentives run the other way, towards setting minimum benefits and compensation for workers who if certifies or who belong to it. The the trick, of course, is for those associations to find a way to provide enough added value to make it worthwhile for employers to pay their premium… or, in the alternative, to either lock up enough of the talent or gain enough credibility in the marketplace that *not* using their people is seen as the riskier play. For instance, if it became legal tomorrow for anyone who wanted to practice medicine, the vast majority of patients who could even remotely afford to would go with members of the American Medical Association, every time.

  • Corlyss

    It might be an instructive project to take a look at unions and their collapse in context of the fate of large scale organized crime in this country. I have long believed unions, like the Democratic party, are vectors for organized crime, if not the criminal organizations themselves. I have a vague sense that the two have a common trend line, and since they have been intermingled for over a century, maybe there’s a correlation there worth exploring.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2014 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service