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Latest News - September 2013

September 1, 2013
A New Kind of Union
Source: The New York Times
By:
Benjamin Sachs

THE financial challenges low- and middle-income Americans face are daunting. But the poor and middle class are in an equally serious, if less well recognized, political predicament: the government has become almost entirely unresponsive to them.

This is a profound political failure. A democracy in which government policy responds to the rich and not to the poor or the middle class is a democracy unworthy of the name.

For several decades now, we have tried to deal with the problem of money in politics with campaign finance regulation, but reform has failed. Political actors, enabled by the Supreme Court, have responded to regulations simply by redirecting their spending in unregulated directions.

The end of campaign-finance reform, however, is not the end of the line. Although we pay too little attention to this fact, there are still sources of power in American politics that are not dependent on wealth. Primary among these is political organization. In fact, the best hope for restoring political equality is to make it easier for the poor and middle class to organize politically.

Throughout much of the 20th century, we had a legal system in the United States that was remarkably successful at promoting just this kind of political organizing. That legal system was labor law, and it is not a coincidence that during these same decades the labor union was able to serve as a highly successful political voice for the lower and middle classes.

Unions, after all, represent workers, nearly all of whom are in the income classes currently lacking effective political representation. Unions turned out their members to vote and consolidated millions of modest contributions into powerful campaign and lobbying operations. Sometimes, unions pushed for politically liberal causes, and sometimes for conservative ones. But when they were powerful, unions were able to insist that government policy respond to the views of the poor and the middle class.

 

In contemporary America, however, there is a nearly insurmountable impediment to unions’ ability to serve as a collective political voice for workers. It stems from the legal requirement that unions bundle political organization with collective bargaining, which means that in order to take advantage of the union as a form of political organization, workers must organize economically for collective bargaining purposes.

This bundling of functions, an artifact of how unions formed historically, is a major problem for political organizing today. This is true most obviously because managerial opposition to collective bargaining has become pervasive. It is also true because changes in markets have made the practice of collective bargaining difficult. And because substantial numbers of American workers say they do not want to collectively bargain with their employers, traditional unions are not an attractive form of political organization for many.

All of this has contributed to a dramatic decrease in unionization rates, which has in turn played a central role in the declining responsiveness of government.

But what if we unbundle the union and allow workers to organize politically without also organizing for collective bargaining? If we shift our aim away from reviving collective bargaining and toward enabling political organizing by underrepresented groups, we would allow workers to organize “political unions” even when they don’t want to organize collective bargaining ones.

It’s more straightforward than it sounds. The key is that we would make the workplace available as a site for political organization. While the law would continue to protect workers’ right to organize traditional unions, it would also protect workers’ right to organize strictly political ones. Workers would have the right to talk about politics with one another at work, as long as they did so during nonworking time.

Employers would be prohibited from retaliating against their employees who organized politically, and if the workers did form a political union, they would be entitled — as traditional unions are — to use voluntary payroll deductions to finance their activities. But these political unions would be prohibited from collective bargaining, and no worker would ever be required to pay dues to a political union — or to be represented by one — unless she chose to be.

The types of policies that political unions chose to pursue would be entirely up to their members. Some might fight for bread-and-butter issues like a higher minimum wage, but others might concentrate on social issues or even foreign policy. But whatever issues they chose to pursue, these unions would give a polilical voice to those in America who currently lack one.

Campaign-finance reform has failed because it does nothing to address the underlying disparities in wealth distribution that produce political inequality in the first place. Legal reforms that enable political organizing are fundamentally different because organization, like wealth, is its own source of political power. Allowing workers to organize for politics, even when they decide not to organize for collective bargaining, would help restore balance to a democracy that wealth has so badly skewed.

 

 


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