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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Office Workers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Cubicles

By Will Marshall
Economic change has been especially brutal for Americans who work in factories. Now office workers are feeling their pain.
Thanks to corporate restructurings, automation, cheap communications and the rise of global sourcing and supply chains, U.S. white collar workers face unprecedented levels of job churning, demands from employers for “give backs” on wages and benefits, and the growing risk that their jobs will be sent offshore.
On top of that, middle class workers aren’t getting a fair share of the nation’s economic growth. Although U.S. labor productivity has risen a healthy 15 percent since 2001, the median hourly wage has barely budged.1 Meanwhile, the top one percent of households is reaping a bonanza, claiming fully 53 percent of income gains in 2004.2 This growing concentration of wealth, combined with job instability, has put economic insecurity and inequality front and center in the voters’ concerns — as Republicans learned the hard way in the 2006 elections.
Given office workers’ well-founded sense of economic vulnerability and unfairness, labor analyst Jim Grossfeld asks, shouldn’t more of them turn to unions for protection? It’s a good question. In White Collar Perspectives on Workplace Issues, a report on polling and focus group research into white white-collar attitudes, he makes an intriguing case that workers with professional and technical skills, especially women in “helping professions” like nursing, are ripe candidates for union cards.
Put me down as sympathetic but skeptical. There’s no question that working Americans need a new social contract to replace the unraveling World War II era safety net. In theory, unions could play a key role in such a compact, but they’d first have to reinvent themselves to serve the interests of largely autonomous knowledge workers who compete in global markets. Despite some promising experiments here and there, it’s not clear the U.S. labor movement is ready for such radical change.
Ever since the Reagan years, union leaders have complained that the rules governing organizing drives are rigged in favor of employers. That’s undoubtedly true, though whether it’s the main cause of labor’s dwindling membership is another question. Nonetheless, I note that the Democratic Leadership Council, though often at loggerheads with labor, has endorsed card check registration as a way to redress the imbalance of power. Solidarity forever! But the main barriers to organizing office workers, as Grossfeld’s research makes clear, are cultural, not legal.
It’s no secret that many white-collar workers view unions as relics of the industrial economy they have gladly left behind. They see unions as fomenting conflict between workers and employers, when a dispersed, networked economy relies puts a premium on teamwork. And they view unions as an obstacle to the flexibility and ceaseless innovation U.S. companies need to win in global competition.
Yet their growing disenchantment with the risky new world of global commerce, says Grossfeld, is making them more sympathetic to unions. This is plausible and he should be applauded for asking the right question: What do unions have to offer insecure white-collar workers? While he stresses the need for unions to take a “non-traditional approach,” this passage from his report gives me pause:

In the era of economic globalization, unions and the collective bargaining process remain the most effective vehicles for workers to win economic security for themselves and their families. Regardless of how profitable their employers are, workers who are denied the opportunity to negotiate their wages, hours and working conditions lack any significant means to share in the profits they create. This is the case for the 87 percent of U.S. workers who have no union representation today.

Today’s knowledge workers might well benefit from innovative mutual aid organizations. But industrial unions and collective bargaining rose in response to a specific historical circumstance–the reorganization of America’s agrarian society for mass production — that lies well in our past. The percentage of private sector workers in unions today (around 7. 8 percent) is not much greater than it was as that industrial reordering began in 1901: 6.5 percent.3
Industrial-era unionism scored important victories in protecting workers’ basic rights (now largely codified in national policy and law) and equalizing power between labor and big corporations. Collective bargaining was generally a progressive force (although sometimes minorities were left out). When labor and management struck deals for better pay, benefits and working conditions, the costs were passed on to consumers. Since most consumers workers were also workersconsumers, the result was a virtuous cycle as long as inflation didn’t get out of control.
Global markets confound the old model of labor-management relations, which was designed to work in an hierarchical, national economy. Companies seeking competitive advantage readily move production from high-wage to low-wage countries. Communications satellites and the Internet make it possible to shift specific jobs, typically in business and other services, to well-educated but lower-paid workers in countries like India. With foreign competitors breathing down their necks, U.S. workers and employers really don’t have the luxury of indulging in adversarial relations. Moreover, union-negotiated work rules sometimes stand as obstacles to closer collaboration between managers and workers in making the adjustments necessary to keep pace with global competitors. If U.S. workers want to keep high-wage jobs in America, they have to focus as much onon their company’s productivity, innovation and quality, not just their pay and working conditions.
The contemporary case for traditional unionism seems strongest for workers at the bottom in the labor market, especially in low-paying service jobs: child care, big-box retail employees, hotels and restaurants, etc. Most of these jobs are insulated from the pressures of global competition (though not large-scale immigration), and collective bargaining could help to lift low-wage service workers into the middle class, just as it did steel and auto workers in the industrial era.
But white-collar workers don’t see themselves as victims, as alienated from their labor–which usually often involves collaborative problem-solving rather than performing repetitive tasks on assembly lines–or as incapable of adapting to changing labor market demands. What they need is a new model of unionism that focuses on assuring their employability, mobility and earning power rather than protecting specific jobs or compensation packages.
Today’s workers know in their bones that education and skills are ultimately the keys to their economic security. Yet companies nowadays have weak incentives to make big investments in training their workers, who could pack up and take their new skills to competitors at any time. A creative effort to solve this “free rider” problem is the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership, a consortium of business, labor and government. In effect, it spreads the risk of investing in worker training and, by insisting that training be company-based, makes sure workers get skills for which there is demonstrable market demandthat are really in demand.
This is one model for a new unionism; Grossfeld cites others. The point is, post-industrial unions must provide office workers with what it takes to succeed in the global economy. For example, they could help workers acquire valuable marketable skills, and create “virtual hiring halls” to match them to employers. They could also provide services like portable pensions and health insurance, which would smooth workers’ transitions from job to job. And they could experiment with novel concepts like wage or mortgage insurance, which aim at keeping families’ living standards from collapsing when workers lose their jobs.
Modern labor associations could help workers bargain with their employers for a better work-family balance–for flextime, paid leave, telecommuting and part-time jobs with decent benefits. They could operate, in short, like a back-to-the-future update on the old craft unions, which were defenders of quality workmanship as well as worker’s interests.
In an article for the DLC way back in 1998, Stephan A. Herzenberg, John A. Alic and Howard Wial captured the essence of the new bargain unions might offer today’s knowledge workers:

The essence of the new social contract–the New Deal for the New Economy–must be: Workers and unions will deliver responsible, high quality service; in exchange, society will support a union’s right to exist and all workers’ right to economic security.4

Still sounds like a deal to me.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute and editor of With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov/cps/labor2005/chart1-18.pdf.
2Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, www.cbpp.org/7-10-06inc.htm.
4“New Unions for a New Economy,” The New Democrat, March/April 1998. This publication has been replaced by Blueprint magazine.

One comment on “Office Workers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Cubicles

  1. dj on

    Quick point. There were waves of unionization throughout the 19th century, culminating in what could be called the first “modern” American union, the Knight of Labor.
    I mention this because many workers involved in the KoL didn’t see themselves as especially “alienated” from their labor, and in fact had a great deal of team-based autonomy relative to later work processes. They actually fought management over challenges to that collective autonomy, out of loyalty to their coworkers and to the craft itself.
    I think policy analysts might be drawing to narrow a focus in their discussion of unionizization of white collar workers, because they think in terms of the bureaucratic and politically oriented unions we’ve come to accept. We might be wise to look at the actual work practices coming out of the professional service sector, such as the culture of open source and free software development or coworking, and use those to inspire new labor strategies and structures. We have to remember that the actual explosion of unionization in America was based on a culture that had been decades in the making, built on radical ideology and heroic action instead of labor-management training programs. That isn’t to say a similar path is called for today, only that we need to be a bit more creative.


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