In the wake of the union breakup, the Wall Street Journal asks the key question: Can the new economy be organized? This is at the heart of the split between the new Change to Win Coalition and the AFL-CIO. In a story today, “Reinventing the Union”, the Journal talks about ways that the break away unions, headed by Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are seeking to become more relevant:
In an interview, Mr. Stern said he realizes the difficulties of organizing workers from disparate industries and says one of his goals is to create different kinds of unions. “First of all, we have to be sophisticated: The 1930s adversarial type unionism isn’t going to apply to nurses and reporters and child-care workers,” he said. “We need to create a lot of different models of unions.”
For example, white-collar contract employees who move from job to job are concerned with how to get and keep benefits. Nurses are worried about staffing and quality of care. Building security guards are more interested in wages.
Another idea is having the unions provide relevant services to members, such as “401(k)-type retirement plans that wouldn’t be tied to a particular employer and job-education programs, both of which could help employees as they move from job to job in an increasingly flexible economy.”
No doubt about it, the unions will be facing an uphill fight. According to a Business Week survey about the union split, the majority voted for “Who needs unions? In the global economy, they’re dinosaurs.”
My view is that unions are not dinosaurs, yet. They can play an important role in the information economy. Six years ago, the New Democrat’s (DLC) magazine Blueprint ran a special issue on the new unions. In their lead editorial, “Why America Needs a New Labor”, talked about a new role for unions:
Some union visionaries foresee the next generation of unions organizing across company lines — an Information Age version of the hiring hall — and serving as the foundation upon which members build economic security. Under this intriguing scenario, one can begin to see the union of the future taking shape. It not only bargains with employers over wage and workplace issues and serves as a guarantor of high-quality workmanship, it also functions as an employment agency, benefit provider, and life-long learning coordinator.
Ultimately, the only way organized labor can reverse its decline is to carve out a new and valued role for itself in the private-sector economy.
Maybe that is what is happening now.