Monday, February 28, 2011

Wisconsin & the Future of U.S. Labor

The dramatic, ongoing protests by unionized public employees and their allies in Wisconsin and around the country mark a turning point in the history of the U.S. labor movement. As noted in an earlier post, public employees now make up the majority of union workers in the country, and if Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other governors around the country are successful in winning substantial curtailments of union benefits and collective bargaining rights, we could soon witness the end of the U.S. labor movement as we know it.

It's no coincidence that the confrontation is Wisconsin has been likened to President Reagan's 1981 confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). By firing striking the striking members of that union, Reagan signaled that the postwar bargain between labor and management was over - and it's no coincidence that unionization rates in the private sector (where workers have less legal protections) have plummeted since that event. As such, it is appropriate that Jefferson Cowie uses the PATCO firings as the place to end his narrative of the decline and fall of the New Deal working class in Stayin' Alive.

The struggle in Wisconsin is primarily a struggle over whether or not public employees should have the right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer to define wages, benefits, and working conditions. Since the 1935 Wagner Act legalized collective bargaining in the private sector (various states have legalized collective bargaining for their employees in various years), collective barganing has been the defining feature of unionism in the U.S. While recognizing the value of collective bargaining in winning material advances for working people, Cowie argues at many points in the book that an overreliance on collective barganing as the primary means of exercising workers' power on the job contributed significantly to the decline of the labor movement. On p. 9 he argues that collective barganing and other features of the postwar industrial relations system "were both srouces of power as well as systems of constraint on the future fortunes of the American working class." And in his concluding paragraph on p. 369, he argues that "whatever working class identity might emerge from the postmodern, global age will have to be less rigid and less limiting than that of the postwar order, and far less wedded to the bargaining table as the sole expression of workplace power."

I want to use these considerations as a jumping off point for discussion of these important questions about the future of the working class and the labor movement in the U.S.:

1) Is it sustainable politically and economically for remaining unionized workers to try to hold on to workplace-based benefits that most workers do not share? Should unions and their allies strive to maintain what has been called a "private welfare state" for their members or fight for universal social programs not tied to the workplace or to union membership?

2) If so, how could this be done?

3) Has the fight over public sector collective bargaining affected your views on the question of public sector unionism? Recent polls seem to suggest that a majority of the public supports public sector union rights. What do you think?

4) While the mid-20th century industrial working class has largely been eclipsed, as Cowie notes on p. 362, "Those steel mills and their surrounding communities may be gone, but the workers are still out there - part of the new Wal-Mart working class." Is unionism still relevant to these workers, or is it a relic of the New Deal era that should be scrapped completely? If not, what might a labor movement defined by a different kind of working class look like?


Anonymous said...

I think that the trend toward synchronizing public worker benefit programs with standard private benefits is inevitable. We saw during the 2005 transit workers strike that private sector transit riders were not swayed by the complaints about transit worker benefit package changes. It may be better to focus on compensation, and see if unions can find ways to sponsor benefit programs instead of relying on public sector employers to do so.

Anonymous said...

Bob Herbert's column in the 3/1/11 NYT is particularly apt for this discussion. You can find it at It discusses advice from Lewis Powell about the power of organizing. It ends with a quote from Harvard economist Richard Freeman: 'One of the saddest things I’ve read in The New York Times recently was a comment by Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, who said that he views the current hostility toward unions by members of the general public as a sign of the erosion of the aspirational nature that has for so long characterized Americans. “It shows a hopelessness,” he said. “It used to be, ‘You have something I don’t have; I’ll go to my employer to get it, too. Now I don’t see any chance of getting it. I don’t want to be the lowest one on the totem pole, so I don’t want you to have it either.’ ”'

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