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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Minding Our P’s and Q’s: Professionals, Portability and Quality

By David Kusnet
Jim Grossfeld is performing a real service by urging the unions, the Democrats, and progressives of all kinds to reach out to technical and professional workers in ways that make sense to this large and fast-growing constituency.
Grossfeld rightly urges the unions and their Democratic allies to understand that professional and technical workers want new kinds of supports — from education and training to portable health and pension benefits — to make their way in a churning economy. He’s also right on target when he urges organizers to transcend the stereotypes that unions are confrontational, resistant to change, oriented only to blue-collar and low-wage workers, and uninterested in partnering with management.
These points are well-taken, but it’s been a long time since they represented “apostasy” for organizers from the most successful unions or strategists for Democratic candidates who don’t remember Labor Day rallies in Cadillac Square. Are today’s unions unattractive to professional and technical workers because labor preaches class struggle, while white-collar workers are aligned with management and adverse to conflict of any kind? It’s not that simple any more, and professional and technical workers’ attitudes are evolving in complex and fascinating ways. So here’s a slightly different analysis — call it Apostasy 2.0:
Almost everything Grossfeld writes about white-collar workers is true — and so are some other things. In an uncertain economy, growing numbers of professional and technical workers are indeed concluding that they need some stable institutions on their side, from employee organizations to programs providing health insurance, continuing education, and retirement security. But there’s also something else at work: The idealistic concerns that used to make professionals identify with management now are pushing many of them in different directions. Professionals, technicians, and skilled workers of all kinds have always been dedicated to doing the best work for the people they serve. As long as the demands of their employers, the standards of their occupations, and the needs of the public all appeared to be in harmony, professional and technical workers were reluctant to challenge management. If they organized, it was as members of their occupations, not as adversaries to their employers.
But now, just as job security is becoming problematic, so is quality work. Doctors and nurses find their professional judgments are second-guessed by hospital administrators with corporate mentalities. Newspaper reporters are told to avoid in-depth stories. Software writers are required to rush their products to completion. Tenured professors are being replaced by part-time faculty.
These threats to professionalism are making professionals more open to organizing, to challenging management, and (as recent election results revealed) to supporting contemporary forms of populism. Historically, professional and technical workers are most likely to unionize when they believe that the quality of their work, as well as the security of their jobs, salaries and benefits, all are in jeopardy. Since the 1960s, teachers concerned with unmanageable class sizes, social workers upset with swollen caseloads, and other beleaguered public employees organized unions and even struck, often with slogans like “Teachers want what children need.” Nurses and other health care workers have organized against threats to patient care, as well as their own pay and benefits. More recently, engineers and information technology workers have begun to organize — and the engineers and technicians at Boeing even staged a successful 40-day strike — over professional issues as well as economic concerns.
As this recent experience suggests, professional and technical workers build organizations that address their aspirations for doing quality work, as well as navigating the new economy. Both concerns are crucial, and unions and Democrats should take note.
First, as Grossfeld correctly emphasizes, unions should emphasize and enhance their efforts to assist workers who are moving from job to job and need to learn new skills, acquire new credentials, and maintain their health insurance and retirement security. As William Safire, of all people, once advised me, unions and Democrats should use the word “security” less and “portability” more.
As they retool their services as well as their sound-bites, unions can look to many models: The craft unions pioneered apprenticeship, skill upgrading, and credentialing for skilled construction workers, as well as multi-employer pension programs for workers who move from contractor to contractor. Public sector unions like AFSCME, AFT, and SEIU created career ladder programs to help low-wage workers qualify for higher-skilled jobs. The talent guilds in broadcasting, the performing arts and the specialized fields of translating and interpreting run job referral programs (The phrase “hiring hall” doesn’t appeal to white-collars). CWA sponsors training and credentialing programs for telecommunications workers. And professional associations and professional unions set professional standards and stress professional development.
Second, these workers expect their organizations to advocate — and even, to use that dread word, “fight” for — their concerns about quality work. After all, people become teachers, nurses, journalists, computer programmers, and aerospace engineers because these careers are their callings in life. They want to be proud of their work.
Since the late ’70s, I’ve heard professional and technical workers express their concerns for the people they serve as well as the paychecks they earn. Working in organizing campaigns for AFSCME from 1976 through 1984, mostly in white-collar units, I heard social workers, employment counselors, psychologists, nurses and other professionals complain that they weren’t afforded the time, the resources, or the discretion they needed to serve the public properly.
Fast forward to 2000, when I researched and wrote a report about professional and technical workers for the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank founded by the AFT. I interviewed nurses in New Jersey, aerospace engineers at Boeing, and temporary workers at Microsoft, and profiled the innovative organizations that they had founded, all of which meld the services and appeals of professional associations and modern unions. These studies accompanied national surveys of teachers, engineers, nurses, and information technology workers, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates.
Our research and similar studies confirm the importance of quality work as an issue that inspires professionals and technicians to organize. In their surveys of the four occupational groups, Hart Research Associates found that three of five of those who said their profession was getting worse–but only about a third of those who said their profession was improving–wanted to found a union or some other form of employee organization. Similarly, in a 1997 survey of 1,500 non-union professional and technical employees by Cornell University Professor Richard Hurd, these white-collar workers said the most important issue on the job was threats to their ability to exercise professional judgment.
These findings suggest that today’s professional and technical employees take a more complex view of their jobs, their employers, worker organizations and workplace conflicts than earlier generations of white-collar workers. In my own interviews with aerospace engineers, software testers, and nurses and other healthcare workers, I found an anxious ambivalence that could be summed up in three paradoxes: 1) They love their work, but not their jobs; 2) They believe they care more about the organizations where they work than the people who run them; and 3) They will “fight,” if necessary, but not just for themselves. Each paradox creates an organizing opportunity:
Paradox #1:Professionals are committed to their callings — teaching, nursing, creating software, or designing airplanes, to name a few. But, while they enjoy the actual work that they do, they are less satisfied with the circumstances under which they do it — in other words, their “jobs.” For instance, a software tester told me, “I love my work. The only thing I hate is Volt [one of the staffing agencies that Microsoft uses to serve as the nominal employers for its temporary workers].” Unions should offer professionals the opportunity to improve their jobs so that they once again feel fulfilled by pursuing their callings in life. As a New Jersey nurse told me

Three or four months ago, I had a night that reminded me of the ideal nights a long time ago. There were three or four patients, all stable. I spent a lot of time with one. When I got home in the morning, I said to my husband, ‘I remember how it feels to give good patient care.’ This is what I went into nursing for, this is why I unionized.

Paradox #2: Nurses and other health care workers whom I’ve interviewed at several hospitals in New Jersey told me the same story: The old management cared about people; the new management cares about money. Engineers at Boeing told a similar story — the company had started shortchanging research and even testing, and they feared that Boeing might get out of civilian aviation. When the engineers struck, they had an unusual slogan on their picket signs — “On Strike for Boeing” — because they believed they were more loyal to Boeing’s mission and traditions than top management.
Paradox #3: Of course, professional and technical workers don’t want to walk off their jobs, except as a last resort. That’s partly because they don’t want to miss a paycheck or have a hostile workplace (who does?). It’s also because they are so dedicated to their work and the people they serve. Thus, nurses strike over patient care, not just their own paychecks. As for the Boeing engineers who felt they were defending American leadership in aviation, their union leader, Charles Bofferding, told me, “They don’t like conflicts, but they sure do like crusades.” In a similar spirit, Bofferding said, “We want to cooperate with Boeing, even if we have to do it on our own.”
The concern for quality is the common denominator for all three seemingly self-contradictory viewpoints. So, if we want to promote unions, we have to stress the concern for quality — to link the q-word and the u-word.
Quality work can be the unifying theme for the two essential roles for professional unions: 1) advocating for the resources and autonomy that empower professionals to do their best work; and 2) providing the services that prepare, attract and retain capable workers in a churning economy. Progressive candidates should point to both positive features of modern unions and also present a vision of work in America that not only pays a living wage but also offers the satisfaction of a job well done.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He was on the staff of AFSCME and helped to research and write Finding Their Voices: Professionals and Workplace Representation for the Albert Shanker Institute. He is writing a book about workplace conflicts in today’s America, Love the Work, Hate the Job, for the publisher John A. Wiley and Sons.

One comment on “Minding Our P’s and Q’s: Professionals, Portability and Quality

  1. Lydia Bean on

    This is right on target. This is consistent with what social movement scholars have known for a long time: self-interest isn’t enough, people need a collective narrative that gives meaning to their struggle. People will fight for their co-workers, their profession, their ability to treat patients well. It has to be a noble cause, not just an effort to stiff the manaagement out of higher wages. I think that Democrats need to learn this broader lesson: appealing to self-interest isn’t enough. It always happens that when you go and talk to people about what their concerns are, they use a moral language, not the language of managing risk and pursuing self-interest that Democrats somehow think will resonate with people. Thanks for going out there and talking to people.


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