Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, July 25, 2005

AFL-CIO Split?

Hi Everyone,

The AFL-CIO (America's major trade union confederation) is meeting for its annual convention in Chicago, and it's getting attention in the media for the first time in years. Why? Controversy. Four unions are boycotting the confederation meeting - these represent mostly low skilled workers such as service workers, hotel workers but also include the Teamsters.

The dispute is about how much of the budgets should be spent on recruiting new members. The percentage of workers in the US that are members of unions (or the union "density") is between 10% and 20% and dropping. Compare this to desnsity rates in Scandinavia and several other European countries approaching or exceeding 90%. The boycotting unions want the AFL-CIO to dramatically increase recruitment. The AFL-CIO leadership wants to maintain the current balance between recruitment and political lobbying.

Academic research on union strategies given particular density rates (in particular by Dr. Michael Wallerstein), have shown that as density decreases the incentives to spend on lobbying as opposed to recruitment increase. Other researchers (notably Dr. Geoff Garret) have shown strong unions' effect on national economic performance is positive when the government is friendly to labor but negative when the government is generally hostile to labor. America's frequently divide government is typically hostile or at best ambivolent with regard to organized labor. These researchers' findings suggest that increasing union density in the US would not be the most effecient strategy for the union to increase its strength and even if were successful, it would have a negative impact on our over all national economic performance. Of course the economic effect would change if American government became more positively disposed towards organized labor but changing that is a matter of lobbying.

I know we have some visitors who have extensive experience with unions. I'd love to see their thoughts about the events in Chicago.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I worked for a union side law firm for a little over a year in 03-04. The firm represented locals from both side of this fight (UFCW and SEUI on the service side; IBEW, Ironworkers, Roofers, etc on the trade/construction side). We heard rumblings about a split back in 03 when Andy Stern started speaking up. To be sure there, were deep divisions within the firm about the wisdom of such a move, but there was a deep discussion about the need for "density". Density according to the SEIU would mean grouping all of the unions into 12-15 superunions, with the hope that this would lead to greater concentration of membership and political power. The second part of the SEIU goal is to commit fully half of dues to organization, reducing the current focus on lobbying and political action.

In many ways, I see the logic in this approach, since, as we all know, the percentage of union members in America has fallen from 33 to 12 (8 per cent in the private sector), and increasing organization drives would help. In the end, however, I think Andy Stern is misguided.

I think that the experience in Los Angeles is instructive. Historically, LA has been an anti-union town, a counterbalance to the experience in the Bay Area where nothing can be done without unions. From the LA Times bombing at the turn of the century to the use of non-union labor in the post-war construction boom, LA was a difficult place to organize, no matter what area of labor (farm, construction, or service). With the janitor strike in the late 90's, things were different, with people supporting the janitors. Behind the scenes, there was an even more important development - cooperation between unions. The janitors had support from construction and trade unions like the roofers, painters and electricians, established unions with some clout and power in Southern California. The importance of this cooperation cannot be understated. Since that time, service unions have worked side by side with trade and construction unions in LA and there has been a sizeable increase in union membership in all SoCal unions. To be sure, SEIU and UNITE/HERE are growing rapidly and probably would have achieved the increases in membership anyway - but the cooperative effort has solidified the power of the unions. You can see that with the recent victory in the hotel strike and with the huge increase in large union jobs in LA (LAX, the mixed use and retrofit residences in downtown LA, Disney Concert Hall, the Cathedral).

What LA can teach the rest of the labor movement (the supermarket strike aside) is the power of cooperation between unions that typically have nothing to do with one another or have been hostile (territorial disputes, job definition disputes). Breaking with the AFL-CIO will set back the labor movement and stifle cooperation.

Why does the SEIU would want to do this now? I think it comes down to the fact that SEIU, UNITE/HERE, and UFCW now have access to political power that they did not have before (the Teamsters have always had varying degrees of access). Previously, service unions relied on the political connections of trade unions. No longer. I think Stern thinks that with high membership numbers comes political access. He may be right, but he should couple service union power with trade union power.

I'll end this too-long post with an story from my days with the law firm. I went to a saturday meeting where the heads of pretty much all the trade/construction unions in LA were present. They were there to set strategy for going after jobs and organizing. In addition, there was a dispute between two unions. The union heads talked and argued - but always with an eye towards resolution and cooperation. The dispute was solved and seriously, it was like the scene in the Godfather where Vito swears on the souls of his grandchildren that he will not break the peace. THAT is what I am talking about: working through things together, something that cannot be achieved by breaking away from your brothers and sisters in the movement. 

// posted by Rolleroid

Anonymous said...

I find this comment very odd:
"A number of researchers (notably Dr. Geoff Garrett) have shown strong unions' effect on national economic performance is positive when the government is friendly to labor but negative when the government is generally hostile to labor."

1. Isn't this a model driven strongly by the experience in England? I'm curious how many countries and time periods are involved.
2. The fact that this model doesn't seem to predict performance in the world's largest industrialized democracy makes me wonder how good this connection really is.
3. What is the relevance of "national economic performance" in this context? Labor is interested in higher wages, not higher GDP for its own sake. The USA is proof that increasing GDP tide does not "lift all boats." Labor's goal is to harness economic performance in such a way as to benefit not just those who are holding the reins, but those providing the horsepower. The relevant measure, I think, is about effect of unionization on median real income.
4. Couldn't I phrase this finding in a way less slanted against labor, i.e.: "Government hostility to labor hurts economic performance, particularly as labor increases in strength?" 

// posted by LTG

The Law Talking Guy said...

I think the SEIU concept of increased union membership is a very good idea, at least insofar as it has been explained. Labor needs more boots on the ground. 8% of the private sector workforce makes them a mere special interest, which is why they start shifting to lobbying, i.e., they start acting like the Sierra Club and not like a mass movement. When union membership increases, shifts in political attitudes and power will follow.

However, the question of whether labor should be all under the AFL/CIO umbrella or not is more critical than the SEIU realizes. Separate organization will lead, inevitably, to conflict. Separate organizations will resist merger just from bureaucratic pressure alone. The SAG/AFTRA conflict out here in Los Angeles has gravely weakened both unions. Merger has proved really difficult. After all, merger means fewer jobs for the union bureaucrats. Management in businesses resists mergers for the same reason.

Another issue that disturbs me is the effect of superunions (that SEIU seem sto want). Big unions with bureaucracies will be as impersonal as big firms. The tendency for workers and management to both view such superunions as outsiders with their own agenda will seem extreme, particularly where they represent a huge variety of employees in various industries. The danger is that employees will see the union as an outside taxing authority, where they pay money to supports a fancy bureaucracy that never seems to answer the phone when they call really needing something. I hate to say it, but most employees view unions as exactly that - even their own unions.

Labor's additional problem is the Marxist residue, and the difficulty Labor has had in finding a new ideological underpinning. Bread and butter issues are not quite enough to sustain membership, because of the prisoner's dilemma inherent in union support. An individual has an incentive to defect, particularly during a labor dispute. Labor needs a new vocabulary. Business is good at adopting new vocabularies all the time.

Anonymous said...

LTG, I don't have Garrett's book in front of me right now, but I believe he examined all OECD countries (so about two dozen advanced, industrialized democracies) and covered at least since World War II if not the entire 20th century. So you are incorrect in your assumption that the results are driven by the UK. In any case, the UK has not really had strong labor movements in comparison to those in Scandinavia. Rather the British labor movement has been of intermediate strength - much stronger than that in the USA but weaker than Scandinavian, Dutch, Austrian or German unions.

Rolleroid, thanks very much for the inside and local view of union operations. Very enlightening! 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Raised By Republicans said...

Something else about this break up. Why is the AFL-CIO unified to begin with? When was the last time the AFL-CIO negotiated a nation wide contract that cut across industries? That is the standard practice in Scandinavia and other countries. Union density (per cent of workers belonging) has never been very high in the USA. 33% is pitiful by European standards. My guess is that from its very beginning the AFL-CIO was formed primarily to pool lobbying power not to pool membership or even bargaining power.

Part of the problem is the unusually low level of organization on the employers' side of the table. In most European countries, there are national confederations of employer organizations with the authority to negotiate nation wide contracts with the national labor confederation. No such organization exists in the United States. In a sense, the AFL-CIO is in its weak position because Americans' distrust of cartels and monopolies (just a guess).

Rolleroid, what do you think?

Anonymous said...

According to the NYTimes and LATimes, the split is official: SEIU and Teamsters have not just boycotted the convention, but now withdrawn altogether from the AFL-CIO. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

What I've heard is that there is a split within the split. There were four unions in the boycot and two of them are officially quitting the AFL-CIO for good. I also heard that the two departing unions are forming a new coalition with the carpenters' union which was never in the AFL-CIO to begin with.

It will be interesting to see if the new group endorses candidates and if they do, will they endorse the same candidates the AFL-CIO does? 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

If the breakaway unions align with the carpenters they should be seen as traitors to the greater union movement. The carpenters have done more to destroy solidarity between unions in the last ten years than any business or government.  

// posted by Rolleroid

Dr. Strangelove said...

Most of my friends who are members of entertainment professionals unions (e.g. SAG--which, despite LTG's comment, appears quite strong to those on the ground) speak highly of their experiences. On the other hand, I had some very unpleasant experiences with the graduate student union at UCLA (part of UAW). I don't support unions in general--I support good unions. The Teamsters have a lousy reputation and supported Bush anyhow. Let 'em go and rot on their own, I say--they always made unions look bad in general and weakened the whole movement.

I'm just being a little contrarian here. Unions are not always good.

Anonymous said...

Not to get sidetracked here, but almost everyone in "the industry" will agree SAG's negotiating power has been severely hampered by competition with AFTRA, a weak union. It has lost out in DVD sales and other markets. The segregation from the writers' guild has also hurt. They got crushed in their recent strike (it didn't help that they announced the strike more than a year in advance, so the studios loaded up on reality TV and pre-paid shows. 

// posted by LTG

answer-man said...

ps I'm having a little trouble sending comments so if I do it twice please excuse me and I apologize.

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