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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Kuttner: How Unions Serve Members, Influence Political Change

If you have any friends or acquaintances you would like to educate about the importance of labor unions in creating a decent society, refer them to Robert Kuttner’s excellent article, “A More Perfect Union” at The American Prospect. Subtitled “New York’s Local 6 shows how organized labor can survive and thrive in the service economy,’ Kuttner’s piece spotlights an important local union of New York City’s hotel and restaurant workers and shows how it serves both members and political progress. Some excerpts:

…The Local 6 story suggests that in the enduring struggle of ordinary workers for fair treatment and a fair share of the national product, unions are not only more necessary than ever but still possible…At Local 6, three generations of union leaders have continued to build on the power bequeathed to them by their predecessors, not for their own personal gain but for their membership. Union leaders do not double dip by collecting extra pay as pension- or health-fund trustees; union officers and delegates are democratically elected, and the delegates work as volunteers for no fees. Local 6 also has been corruption-free…The union keeps finding new ways to mobilize the membership, and success builds on success. The union’s members have friends and relatives working in nonunion establishments and know the value of what they’ve got.

It’s a stark contrast from the workplace environment of nonunion shops in the industry.

Absent a union, the boss can fire for any reason or no reason at all. Management can be as arbitrary as it likes in assigning shifts, defining jobs, deciding whom to lay off and whom to call back. No formal process is required, and no explanation need be given. In a city with a large immigrant population at a time of high unemployment, there is a seemingly endless supply of workers willing to do casual jobs at low wages and fearful of being fired. All of which raises the $25-an-hour question. At a time when the strength of unions is dwindling, how does Local 6 do it?

Kuttner sketches the grievance process.

…Effective unions have long used shop stewards–regular workers who are available to listen to grievances and press complaints with managers. Local 6 takes the concept to a new level of sophistication and engagement. In New York’s union hotels, shop stewards are called delegates. They and assistant delegates are elected directly by the membership at each hotel. Every job category has one or several delegates depending on the hotel’s size.
…If a delegate cannot settle a dispute, it goes to the union business agent, a paid staffer who is responsible for several hotels. If there are still differences, the contract provides for binding arbitration. The union also has a tradition that it reserves for special occasions when it needs to make a point–the lobby meeting.
…Because of the union’s institutional power, however, the choreography of resolving disputes is mostly ritualized and peaceful. The contract spells out rights and responsibilities in detail, and the ultimate recourse to binding arbitration gives management an incentive to settle minor issues before they become major ones….The heavily immigrant union–67 languages are spoken among the membership–runs continuing–education programs that range from English as a second language to culinary school.

Unions deliver in terms of politics, notes Kuttner, locally, as well as nationally:

…One of the union’s newer innovations is the Hotel Employees Action Teams, or HEAT. Through HEAT, the union’s members become more involved in local politics, working to elect supportive public officials. At a time when political campaigning is often reduced to writing checks, HEAT is one of the remaining sources of on-the-ground campaigners knocking on their neighbors’ doors. “They punch above their weight,” says Dan Cantor, executive director of New York’s Working Families Party. “Every mayoral candidate is seeking their support.”
…The union’s political alliances pay dividends. A union with well placed friends sends a signal to developers that it’s better to work with the union than against it. A developer seeking to open a new hotel may not want to bargain with the union, but the project must run a gauntlet of zoning approvals, permits, community-planning meetings–all of which can make the developer’s life easy or miserable. The REIT that holds the real estate may be partly owned by another union’s pension fund, which can also encourage the owner to agree to card check.

Kuttner’s piece clarifies, without saying it, why the public workers of Wisconsin and Ohio have fought so hard to protect their collective bargaining rights. As Kuttner explains, “In the end, this story is all about power, and power used responsibly.”

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