Labor

Organized Labor Discovers the Joys of Voluntary Association

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I've ruffled a few feathers in the past by opposing "right to work" laws that further insert the state into relations between employees and employers by governing agreements between businesses and unions and forbidding closed, union-only shops. Decade after decade, politicians put their thumbs on one side of the scale or the other, and these laws are just a move in their eternal game of "I'm really your friend." But organized labor has struggled in recent years to adapt to changing times. Less then seven percent, and dropping, of private sector workers choose to join a union. Now comes word that labor is adapting tactics that pretty much anybody who isn't viscerally opposed to unions should applaud. They call it alt-labor, but you may know it as voluntary association and free speech.

Writes Robert VerBruggen at RealClearPolicy:

Unions have been in decline for years in the private sector, and now they're losing major political battles in the public sector, too. So, labor groups are trying a new strategy: Instead of going through the normal channels to win workplace elections and represent laborers officially, they are cobbling together as many participants as they can to stage strikes, hold protests, wage public-pressure campaigns, organize boycotts, and file lawsuits against employers. We saw this, for example, in the recent "$15 an hour" fast-food strikes, and in last year's Black Friday protests at Walmart.

VerBruggen points out that these alt-labor groups give up the legal advantages the government has granted formally organized labor unions over the years—compelled membership after successful workplace votes, in some states, as well as mandatory collective bargaining—in order to work flexibly and with a variety of new tactics.

Josh Eidelson describes some of those tactics at The American Prospect:

Twenty years ago, when Rutgers labor professor Janice Fine first set out to count the nonunion groups that were organizing and mobilizing workers, she found just five in the entire country. Today, her tally stands at 214. These groups organize farmworkers and fashion models. They go by names like "workers' centers" and "workers' alliances." Some are rooted in the immigrant-rights movement as much as the labor movement. Lacking the ability to engage in collective bargaining or enforce union contracts, these alternative labor groups rely on an overlapping set of other tactics to reform their industries. The ROC teaches workers their rights and also restaurant skills; advises and publicizes model employers; and helps organize protests like the ones at Capital Grille, making customers aware of what goes on behind the dining room. The ROC also lobbies state and local lawmakers for reforms and helps workers take legal action when all else fails.

So… Less reliance on government-backed coercion, more demonstrations, public relations, and shaming. That is a big step in a positive direction. It's a necessary step, too, with unions representing only 6.6 percent of private sector workers and 35.9 percent of public sector workers. The old model no longer works. Let's hear it for the older model of public debate and economic pressure.

VerBruggen concedes that many critics of unions may still not like what the new labor groups have to say, but that's life. They have the right to say it, and to a greater extent than in recent memory, they're trying to achieve their goals through non-coercive means.

The main problem with unions is not that they agitate for better wages and conditions and say bad things about corporations. It's not even that they sometimes break the law and need to be sanctioned for it. The problem is that for decades the government has been giving these organizations special legal privileges, severely limiting freedom of contract both for businesses and for workers who don't support unions.

The newest element of the labor movement is one that eschews most of these privileges, instead relying on basic constitutional freedoms to achieve its goals. Union critics should see that as a victory.

Good for them.

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37 responses to “Organized Labor Discovers the Joys of Voluntary Association

  1. The main problem with unions is not that they agitate for better wages and conditions and say bad things about corporations. It’s not even that they sometimes break the law and need to be sanctioned for it. The problem is that for decades the government has been giving these organizations special legal privileges, severely limiting freedom of contract both for businesses and for workers who don’t support unions.

    This is exactly right.

    1. And don’t forget that a Public Sector Union’s love isn’t like a square’s love.

  2. How do “educating workers about their *rights*” and filing lawsuits constitute Less reliance on government-backed coercion?

    1. It depends on what the rights and lawsuits are about. If they are talking about contract rights or enforcement, or anti-fraud actions, then I do not see a problem with it (though I am rather dubious this makes up the bulk of what is going on).

  3. Closed shops harmed the union movement in this country. If you have a closed shop, the union doesn’t have to give a fuck about the welfare of each individual worker. If the company screws you over, big deal. The next guy they hire has to join the union. So the union doesn’t care. But if it is a right to work state, there is no guarantee that the next guy will join the union. So the union is going to defend you personally and has an interest in making sure you are satisfied with being a member.

    What closed shop did was allow the Democratic Party to turn unions into cash boxes looting the union dues to support Democratic causes while really not worrying about the interests of the worker. Right to work makes for better unions. But it also makes them necessarily less instruments of the Democratic Party. So of course the Dems hate right to work.

    1. a closed shop is also very effective at enforcing conformity. Just try to be the guy who works a bit harder, who produces at a higher rate, etc. Unions kill individual initiative, sacrificing it at the altar of the hive.

      1. They do if it is a closed shop. If it is a closed shop, everyone is just a stream dues and nothing more.

      2. Wouldn’t the problems you and John note be ones that any exclusive deal would run a risk of?

        1. I may not understand your question. My point is that a closed shop enforces performance norms among members. Anyone deemed an overachiever is brought back in line. Can’t have that worker making the rest look bad.

          1. I do not disagree, I am only noting that such would be a risk in any exclusive deal (where entity A agrees only to work with entity B). Entities still make such deals because, I guess, at times other factors (certainty or uniformity) might be desired.

    2. While unions are very much the lapdogs of the Democratic party, individual union members are, in healthy numbers, Conservative and becoming more so. I outed myself as a Conservative when I first came to work here and ever since I’ve been amazed at how many Conservative union workers there are. Unfortunately, as long as union bosses determine who goes out on a job call and who doesn’t Conservative union members will still keep their heads down even in this Right to Work state.

      1. Union workers are often, and traditionally, working class white men who are unsurprisingly less than thrilled with liberal policies such as affirmative action, higher taxes, gun control, etcetera.

      2. to buttress your point, a good many people in WI fled the public unions when membership was no longer compulsory.

      3. This is something that’s often pointed out as a difference between the USA and pretty much the entire rest of the world.

  4. Instead of going through the normal channels to win workplace elections and represent laborers officially, they are cobbling together as many participants as they can to stage strikes, hold protests, wage public-pressure campaigns, organize boycotts, and file lawsuits against employers.

    Losing badly under the set of rules they created, they turn to “guerrilla tactics”. Fine, as long as employers are free to fire them, and file counter suits.

  5. These groups organize farmworkers and fashion models.

    If these are joint meeetings, I imagine it’s not hard getting the farm workers to attend.

  6. Exactly what part of the NLRA has been repealed that leads Tucille to think that unions are eschewing most of it’s priviledges?

    Anything other than pure freedom of contract rights for all sides means unions still have the government’s thumb on the scale in their favor.

  7. Real test will be if these voluntary unions turn to coercion and government involvement if their voluntary methods fail. No one likes losing.

  8. boycotts? strikes? those are terrorist tactics that hurt innocent parties!

  9. Bring on the robot scabs!

  10. -The old model no longer works. Let’s hear it for the older model

    I think this is correct, but in a different sense. As I understand it the old model, to the extent it was legitimate and not gang coercion, was that unions would represent groups of highly skilled workers. That seems to me to be something that could work at times without government coercion. Take pro-sports. While playing pro sports may be nearly every man’s dream, there are not that many very elite level athletes. Whenever there is a strike in professional sports there will be literally thousands of people interested in being replacement labor. But the product of pro-sports is not men playing sports, but the very best men playing sports. In ‘scab seasons’ the games are less interesting. As long as a significant number of such men ‘hold the line’ I can see them exacting significant concessions from employers.

    Unionizing less skilled labor seems rightly doomed to failure if there is no government coercion or impediments to movement of labor.

    1. there is one differnce between sports and the typical labor union – the employer, in this case the team, can fire or trade a player for a number of reasons. Much tougher in the typical union shop.

      1. Also sports is odd in another way. The player sunion is a cartel of players. But the league is also cartel, one of teams. It’s two cartels negotiating.

        This would be like if all fast food restraunts joined a cartel and set labor condidations to be worse than wat the market equilibrium would otherwise be, and then agree to not compete with one another. In such a case, I can see why a labor union is good in order to counter the cartel with another cartel.

        But in almost every industry, different firms have to compete for labor. If one sucks, its workers leave for the next one. Sports unions are pretty much an oddity.

    2. The strange thing is, unions basically *are* cartels – something which is illegal in every other part of business.

      Imagine if oil companies (or any other set of businesses, large or small) ‘unionized’ and said they would only sell their labor at a price well above market clearing.

  11. California’s coercion stems from ‘prevailing wages’. All public sector contracts have to include a statement of compliance to prevailing wages. To get a private construction permit through the red tape all medium and large scale projects contracts will have the same. This prevents mom and pop contractors from undercutting union contractors. I grok the problem, in principle, but I’ve never met a pipe fitter or electrician, union or not, who doesn’t like this. This is class warfare. The people who actually know how to do something don’t want their wages stamped to ground by lawyers and money managers.

  12. Anyone deemed an overachiever is brought back in line. Can’t have that worker making the rest look bad.

    Exactly. Union work rules are designed to squelch any sort of initiative or innovation.

    1. It’s not 1975, TLPB. In the year 2013 an electrician (IBEW or not) will not work or eat if he doesn’t have initiative. You don’t hire sparky to be innovate. The exception to this is government hangouts like the LADWP.

  13. Can someone explain something to me? Why do unions seem to operate inevitably from a “pressure group” model. It strikes me that there’s no reason a union couldn’t just as easily thrive through a training and marketing model that gives their members a relative advantage against non-union competition. To some extent, that seems to be the model predominant in the skilled trades. In that case, I wouldn’t imagine that there wouldn’t be employers happy to pay a premium with an organized partner and labor provider, or even certify themselves through union membership.

    1. Because the ‘training/marketing’ model requires the acceptance of *competition*. Unions are business (despite what they try to tell you) and no large business passes up an opportunity to put up barriers to entry.

      The ‘coercion’ model means that the union doesn’t have to *innovate* or increase efficiency – they can keep doing the same shit, pulling in large amounts of money while giving shit service because, where’re you gonna go? All the jobs in your field are closed shop. Shut up and pay your dues or starve.

  14. So, basically, unions have been stripped of a lot of their *power* (and are losing more) so now they actually have to do stuff the members *want*, instead of whatever’s best for the union.

    They are also losing the power to manufacture grievances against management – now the *member* get to decide if management is mistreating them and what, if anything, its worth doing about it rather than the union getting to simply proclaim that the workers are being mistreated and the union is going to take care of it for you.

    Fucking markets, how do they work?

  15. Got a friend of mine – a heavy equipment operator (basically a glorified truck driver). Did some work for his company on a (government) job in CA. He had to join the union, who took out almost $700 of his $1,800 a week paycheck. What benefit did *he* get from the union? Nothing.

    Still, I suppose $1,100 is better than nothing – company had no work in AZ at the time.

  16. (basically a glorified truck driver)

    Give me the keys to an 18 wheeler and say goodbye to every lamp post and telephone pole in your neighborhood.

    1. I just think the term HEO is churching it up, like calling janitors ‘sanitation engineers’.

      1. HEO=Heavy Equipment Operator

        There’s been some push-back on that. Engineers want their BS degree certified by getting payed more than technicians and operators. There really is such a thing as a sanitation engineer, as in someone who knows how a wastewater digester works. (Only one tiny bone from the ear will survive the process, in case you have unwanted dead body on your hands.) The HEO term probably comes from contract negotiations. If you want me to operate that forklift, as well as taking out the trash, you’ll have to pay me more. There’s nothing terribly wrong about that, as far as I can see.

  17. I’ve ruffled a few feathers in the past by opposing “right to work” laws that further insert the state into relations between employees and employers by governing agreements between businesses and unions and forbidding closed, union-only shops

    Begging the question.

    the entire point of contention is whether or not “right to work” does, in fact, further increase or decrease the amount of … umm … insertion.

    1. “right to work” laws . . . further insert the state into relations between employees and employers . . in the sense that school vouchers further insert the government into the business of education.

  18. I’ve ruffled a few feathers in the past by opposing “right to work” laws that further insert the state into relations between employees and employers by governing agreements between businesses and unions and forbidding closed, union-only shops

    This is a union talking point.

    Right to work laws don’t insert the state further, they remove avenues for state-based coercion.

    Right to work laws make unions false claim on the ownership of labor back into something unsupported by law.

    Thus, RTW laws REMOVE the state from relations between employers and employess by forcing out union mandates that are backed by the force of law.

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