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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Let’s Back Up

By Bradford Plumer
Before talking about how unions can appeal to a younger generation of technical and professional workers, I want to revisit the question of why they should do so. Let me rephrase that: How much effort should organized labor really spend reaching out to the professionals that Grossfeld describes — professionals who are already skeptical about unions — given that resources are finite and there are many other battles to fight? We can all agree that the workers themselves would benefit from better representation of some sort. But what does labor get out of the deal? And what would it have to give up?
On the face of things, white-collar workers seem terribly important to the future of organized labor. After all, the AFL-CIO estimates that a little over half of its members are “white-collar”. And in 2003, the organization published a report noting that 30 percent of all new members were professionals — “the fastest growing occupational group within the federation.” So this looks like the backbone of labor, right? Won’t unions wither and die unless they can learn to appeal to the professional class?
Well, hold on. The trouble is that “white-collar worker” is a rather vague and overly sweeping term. Looking at the AFL-CIO’s report more closely, it seems the vast bulk of new “white-collar” union members were actually teachers, health-care workers, and telecommunications workers organized by the CWA. In other words, the AFL-CIO seems to be making most of its headway among groups that have traditionally backed labor quite enthusiastically — rather than the young college-educated professionals in, say, Silicon Valley that Grossfeld appears to be targeting.
Now, granted, just because organized labor hasn’t depended on young professionals in the past doesn’t mean they won’t have to in the future. But a few years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics put out a handy table: “Occupations with the largest job growth, 2004-2014.” Despite all the talk we hear about “the new economy”, here are the jobs that will grow most significantly in the coming decade: Retail salespersons, registered nurses, home health aides, food servers, janitors, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives. Again, these are all fields in which labor unions are already working hard to bolster their presence. Now my impression is that the main obstacles to organizing drives in these areas — that is, efforts to organize janitors and retail clerks and nurses — have been ruthless opposition by employers, rather than skepticism about unions among the workers themselves.
So to my eye, one could almost say the following: Look, organized labor has made the bulk of its recent gains by focusing on the sorts of workers who have traditionally been very receptive to unions — and it has ample reason to continue doing so well into the future. Yes, it would be nice if more college-educated engineers and technicians and so on joined unions, but if they’re going to make a fuss about it, why bend over backwards for them? And while the status quo is nothing to brag about, obviously, unions can grow most effectively by pushing for legislation that curtails employer resistance to organizing — the Employee Free Choice Act, for instance — rather than fretting too much about winning over workers who tend to cast a wary eye at the labor movement.
Of course, that’s not necessarily convincing, either. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t unions do what they’ve long been doing while also trying to reach out to young, college-educated professionals who have very real concerns about workplace security and — as Kusnet nicely illustrates — the quality of their jobs? After all, as Grossfeld mentioned in his original report, too many Democrats in Congress would prefer to buck union influence if they could. Perhaps the only way to nudge them in a more labor-friendly direction — so that bills like the EFCA can actually get signed into law — is for organized labor to make new allies among college-educated workers. Why can’t they do both things at once?
I suppose it all depends on the details. If the idea here is that labor unions simply need to market themselves more effectively to college-educated workers, well, that seems wholly unobjectionable. As Grossfeld points out, this would involve pointing out — rightly — that unions have evolved a great deal from the days of wildcat strikes and bitter clashes with employers, and now often focus on expanding access to health care, creating better child-care options, cushioning the effects of rampant job insecurity, offering employees a voice in the workplace, and so on.
My own anecdotal experience suggests that this strategy can be highly effective. For several years, I was part of a local union comprised of college-educated professionals and white-collar workers. A great many friends and associates my age — I’m 25 — often wondered why on earth our office needed a union. Many of them shared the attitudes described by Grossfeld in his study: They were all sympathetic to labor in theory, but thought that unions often went “too far”, and assumed that most unions either fostered hostility in the office by fighting with the bosses or else hampered flexibility in the workplace by creating too many silly work rules. I would have to explain that, no, no, our union actually gave us an outlet to air our various concerns, and, when the organization faced a severe budget crisis, allowed us to work out a plan with management to avoid painful pay cuts and layoffs. And this was a run-of-the-mill union — our local was part of the UAW, one of the supposed “dinosaurs” of the movement. Once people I talked to realized what unions actually did, they were a great deal more receptive. Better marketing really does work.
Meanwhile, some unions are now taking concrete and often unconventional steps to appeal to white-collar workers. The SEIU has backed Barbara Ehrenreich’s new organization, United Professionals, which provides support for white-collar workers who find themselves either underemployed or hurt by job insecurity. And a few years ago, Grossfeld reported that the CWA helped sponsor Techs Unite, an advocacy group that offers training to IT workers who experience high turnover. These efforts no doubt help attract a number of young technical and professional workers to the ranks of organized labor. The question, as I’ve mentioned above, is how much energy unions should put into these efforts, relative to traditional organizing and political action.
Meanwhile, I’m curious to hear more about Grossfeld’s argument that unions need to create “new structures” to suit the needs of white-collar workers. The CWA has offered some modest steps in this direction with a number of creative endeavors such as Alliance@IBM, which uses the internet to bring IBM employees together. That seems perfectly sound — more unions could probably stand to learn a few tricks from the CWA and SEIU. What about more drastic changes, though? Grossfeld writes: “Democrats ought to showcase new approaches to workplace organization — and the modern labor laws that make them possible.” What, exactly, will this entail?
In the past decade, after all, various scholars and politicians have proposed changes to the labor law ostensibly designed to suit the wants and needs of white-collar workers. In 1997, Republicans in Congress — with the support of New Democratic groups like the DLC — put forward the TEAM Act, which would have allowed businesses to form non-union “teams” of employers and supervisors to address workplace issues. The idea was to create a more flexible sort of bargaining arrangement. So what was the problem? By repealing section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act, the TEAM Act would have opened the door for management-dominated unions, which could be used to thwart organizing drives. Traditional labor groups objected, and Bill Clinton eventually vetoed the bill.
I don’t think anyone in this forum is proposing we resuscitate the TEAM Act. But it does pose a possible conundrum. The GOP sold the bill by declaring that it would “empower employers and employees to act as a team, rather than as adversaries, to advance their common interests.” The DLC sounded a similar note at the time: “Labor law should seek not only to protect workers, but also to empower them to participate in decisions that affect their livelihood and workplaces.” According to Grossfeld’s findings, this is exactly the sort of rhetoric — and potentially, the sort of “new product” — that appeals to college-educated professionals. Nevertheless, it proved radioactive to traditional unions.
So there are several questions here: How can Democrats and organized labor find ways to offer a “new product” that can appeal to college-educated professionals without clashing with the interests of the existing labor movement? Will those two goals ever conflict? Moreover, if Democrats and organized labor are going to talk about new approaches to workplace organization, how can they prevent their rhetoric from being co-opted by opponents of labor — as happened in 1997? And, to return to the question posed at the beginning, how much effort should unions spend chasing after white-collar workers, relative to other strategies?
I certainly don’t know the answers to all of these questions. But I do think they’re worth exploring.

Bradford Plumer is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. His blog can be found here.

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