Thursday, March 08, 2007

Options (and Way Too Many Questions) on Unionization

crossposted at Progressive Historians

Because Ragey asked for an update, here is an issue I'm struggling with in writing the conclusion to my chapter four, and to the dissertation. A more informative update shortly!

This morning, I received an H-net e-mail that had the following phrase in the subject: "Non-Union Forms of Employee Representation." Because of the labor history class, I've been thinking about such things. U.S. union membership is perilously low and unions are troubled by a persistent association of corruption with unionism, a culture that prizes the individual over the collective, and the nature of U.S. capitalism.

The primary question on my mind is, are unions still viable vehicles for employee representation? Neither Sweeney's 1995 ascension to AFL-CIO leadership nor all the promises of change-to-come have sparked mass organization. Is it time for a new dominant form of organization?

A recurrent critique I've read/heard of unions attributes much of union membership decline to exclusionary practices. From the early years of exclusion based on race, gender, and skill-levels to the AFL-CIO's current uncertainty over whether or not to organize undocumented immigrants, organized labor in the U.S. has always seemed to "miss" significant numbers of laborers. In Hard Work, Fantasia and Voss noted that at the moment U.S. labor was becoming more diverse (because of immigration at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century), organized labor, with its focus on craft unionism and its racist policies was becoming more exclusionary.

Unions are also critiqued for their lack of "broadness" in at least two ways. First, they focused almost exclusively on workplace issues and were hesitant to take the lead in the social justice struggles of some of their more marginalized members. Even in unions known for such activities--notably UCAPAWA, its later incarnation, the Food, Tobacco, and Allied Workers, and the UAW--officials often withdrew support or dispersed "radicals." Within the poultry industry, when a coalition of civil rights and labor organizations formed the Committee for Justice in Mississippi to fight for workers' rights, the ICWU "pulled the rug out from under the coalition."* Secondly, they have never been able to formulate a "plan" for class-based struggle or foster class-consciousness--from some studies, it would appear that union leaders, like most Americans were/are loathe to even acknowledge the existence of a poor working class. As my professor says, if asked, all Americans claim middle class status.

While I tend to agree with the criticisms outlined above, I also see the validity in the arguments of scholars who assert that exclusion and the narrow focus of unions have not been top-down phenomena. In other words, workers have prioritized parts of their identities over their economic class and have often not wanted a broader-based movement or a movement that transcended these identies. Alan Draper wrote of the white southern union men who viciously attacked union leaders who pushed for civil rights. Women, according to Dorothy Sue Cobble, feared the loss of autonomy and focus on issues relevant to them if they joined with men in union locals. F. Ray Marshall (and more recent works) recorded a similar hesitance on the part of black unionists. Herbert Hill wrote that the AFL from its inception, with Samuel Gompers as president, was virulently anti-Asian, thus it is no wonder that Chinese, Japanese, and initially, Filipino cannery workers organized themselves based on other (e.g. ethnic, community) forms of solidarity.** I do not mean that the reasons for segregation and union exclusion are acceptable to me, but how marginalized workers coped--by fashioning something uniquely their own--is admirable.

There are also the reasons for union decline that I do not fully engage--the disappearance of heavily unionized jobs, the effects of technology, and globalization (i.e. capital's mobility vs. labor's relative lack of mobility) and the reasons I have mentioned before--the power of employers, the failure of the U.S. government to intervene on workers' behalf. All together, these create a pretty dismal picture for unions. Can they be reinvigorated and learn to effectively use grassroots techniques? Will the Employee Free Choice Act be enough? Can unions effectively reach a diverse workforce?

Of course, if the answers are no, my next question would have to be, what does organized labor without unions look like? I, for one, cannot fully imagine it. I interviewed the executive secretary of the Georgia Poultry Justice Alliance for my dissertation, and while she was proud of the work the PJAs have done, she insisted that unions were still the best options for employees who wanted to engage in collective action to improve their working conditions and quality of life. And workers' committees and the like seem to be a product of an anti-union nation.

What are the alternatives? Do we need them?

*See Vicki Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950 on how Latinas were pushed out of union leadership; Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, "Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement ," Journal of American History, 75, no. 3: 786-811 and Ken Lawrence and Anne Braden, "The Long Struggle," Southern Exposure, November/December 1983: 85-89. Marion Crain and Ken Matheny maintain that unions marginalized themselves by helping shaping labor law in a way that "social justice issues were severed from class issues," Labor's Identity Crisis, California Law Review, 89, no.6 (2001): 1767-1846.
**Hill, "Anti-Oriental Agitation and the Rise of Working-Class Racism," Society, 10 (January/February 1973); Chris Friday, Organizing Asian American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870-1942.


landismom said...

Great post. I think the major question that I have right now is how traditional unions will expand to include non-traditional workforces. There is some past precedent in unions like the ILGWU, who had worker centers, but also traditional bargaining units in factories in NYC. I think that model is pretty dependent on geographic density, though.

elle said...

thank you; your comment reminded me that i forgot to mention th Change to Win coalition...

Gwyneth Bolton said...

My perspective as someone with very limited knowledge of labor history is we need them still. But we need them to be flexible and adaptable to the changing times and the changing "bodies" of people the claim to serve...


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