Little Labor

Josh Eidelson explores the rise of nonunion labor groups—20 years ago, there were five, now there are 214—and possibly also the future of labor organizing in this country. (“As unions face declining membership these workers’ groups—like the mostly union-free job sectors they organize—are on the rise, particularly in New York. Because of their efforts, more restaurant workers in the city get paid sick days, domestic workers receive overtime pay, and taxi drivers will soon have health insurance.”)

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highjump (#39)

I have trouble understanding why these groups don’t go whole hog and do real collective bargaining. The issues of being in a profession barred from doing so aside (which is epic bullshit don’t even get me started) why don’t these groups just go for it and write a contract? Then they would really have a voice on the job and as a collective bargaining agent they would better be able to protect members from reprisals (though labor laws are notoriously hard to enforce). Right now it looks like the best tool in their toolbox is the class action lawsuit and major corporations are always going to be able to out-lawyer movements. The rallies and public actions are nice but unions do those all the time too. I realize I’m kind of rambling here, but I’m really asking – why not become a collective bargaining agent aka a union? Maybe stereotypes about unions are a part of the reluctance? Is it the weird tax stuff?

@highjump I think because there are so many restrictions on how labor unions operate and the processes and procedures that govern them (e.g. Republicans blocking appointments to the NLRB so it can’t establish quorum) that it is actually more efficient and less risky to achieve what they want through outside pressure. Sad but probably true in many cases.

Other reasons: It’s easier to achieve workplace goals in a high-turnover setting this way than through a collective bargaining agreement. And, even more sadly, many of the things the employers are doing are downright illegal, so it’s not about establishing new rights for workers but simply enforcing those few that are on the books, e.g. stopping wage theft and discrimination.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@highjump I think it’s mostly because they have more freedom to do different kinds of actions as non-bargaining groups than unions can do. Non-unions can protest outside any employer they want, as long as they don’t have an organizing objective. Unions can’t because the NLRA prohibits “secondary picketing” against employers that aren’t their own.

You have to start segregating your monies so you aren’t violating the law re: spending dues on political activities. You have to follow a lot of very strict financial reporting requirements. You have to deal with administering employee grievances, which takes up a lot of time. You spend most of your time on bargaining and other contract issues, and that diverts time and energy from other actions.

Also it’s very hard to organize a workplace, it often takes years and multiple attempts, especially if you’ve got an employer that is organized in its opposition to unions. Then once you win the election, there’s a couple more years spent bargaining for a contract. Then there’s always the threat of decertification. And all of these things are contributing factors to the overall decline of unionization, of course.

highjump (#39)

@WaityKatie @stuffisthings I appreciate the thoughtful responses. I guess where I come from (union culture, union job) these things are worth it. The picketing limits are annoying, but other than that I see the other ‘drawbacks’ you mentioned as worth the hassle.

My best friend is a union organizer and I’ve done a small amount of organizing work myself so I do not at all mean to minimize the difficulty of establishing locals, but once established you have a voice on the job! You have power! You are part of a movement! Unions aka 501c5s can spend money on moving *their members* to political action. Many unions also have PACs though and the firewalls that need to be erected at that level are significant. However, locals (unless they are very large) almost never have their own PACs so the financial situation at the level of, say, a local that is a single restaurant or even a small chain would be quite straightforward. This also brings up in a roundabout way the power of national/international affiliation (for restaurant employees it might be United Food and Commercial Workers or Service Employees International Union) that would assist the local with such matters. Not to mention providing additional training, resources, materials, power, and access to decision-makers.

As for contracts and grievances, my perspective is this is THE advantage of having a real union. Clarity in your job description. A clear path to promotion. The ability to seek redress against your employer for abuse. Again, I know these things are hard fought and very time consuming, but they are hugely meaningful. IMHO, these things outweigh the benefits of being able to demonstrate where you want and more straightforward financial management. I recognize this is my bias, but I love, love, love working under a union contract and wish more people have the same rights I have.

highjump (#39)

@stuffisthings I didn’t address turnover! The turnover issue is real, but I think the profession would be more stable if there was union contract. Look at retention rates and satisfaction of staff in union hotels vs non-union hotels (much hotel work being usually a very high turnover, low-wage positions). And I know this is hard to quantify but the increased feeling of respect and professionalism among maids/bellhops/bartenders/etc. who can make a living wage and have a chance at advancement in their job is palpable. Stuffisthings you live in DC, have you ever been to the Washington Court? I have to go there for work a couple of times a year and their all-unionized staff is pretty amazing. It’s just different interacting with service staff who can take pride in what they do. I make a real effort to stay at union hotels when I travel for work or vacation and I’ve found the same thing across the country. I’m just not sure these alt-labor groups would make the same kind of impact on turnover, wage theft, etc. that unions can and do.

Sean Lai (#559)

Stuffisthings hit it on the head – labor law is such that unions are not allowed to organize undocumented workers, or do secondary strikes, or encourage ‘community picket lines’. A non-union organization can do all these things.

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