Last night, Tom Geoghegan gave a full-throated defense of unions—and laid out the case for a new kind of labor movement in the United States.
Geoghegan’s argument, based on his 2014 book Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement, is that a revived—but different—labor movement is the only way to stabilize the economy, solve the problems of hierarchy in the workplace and inequality in the larger society, and save the middle-class. In particular, he developed a compelling case against the idea, shared by mainstream economists and politicians alike, that all we need is more education. Without a stronger union movement, higher levels of education simply won’t solve those pressing economic and social problems.
So, I’m skeptical about more four-year college, at least as a program to fight inequality. To a labor lawyer, it seems the coward’s way of avoiding what we used to call “the Labor Question.” Or let me try this in a more professorial idiom: certain liberals may be right that “human capital” can balance in inequality in “financial capital,” but this is possible only when human capital is deployed more democratically in the firm. That is, it is possible only if, at these higher education levels, people have more say over wages and conditions at work. Otherwise, in light of evidence to date, it seems we just end up throwing dollars toward degrees.
I have my quibbles with some aspects of Geoghegan’s argument, including the idea that we should be worrying about the U.S. negative trade balance, looking to increase the amount of domestic manufacturing, and making U.S. workers more “competitive.” But leaving such issues aside for the moment, I want to focus on his proposal for a new kind of labor movement.
As Geoghegan asserted in his lecture, and explains in more detail in his book, the existing union movement in the United States (especially in the private sector) is in freefall and simply can’t be resuscitated. So, what’s the alternative? Geoghegan suggests two main strategies for moving forward: disruption (such as we’ve seen in the Fight for $15 movement) and giving up on exclusive representation (the existing 50-percent-plus-one rule of current union organizing).
Forget the elections, forget the card check, forget the whole clunky NLRB machinery that grinds out these certificates of exclusive representation, the thing that enrages the far right.
Since we may have no choice anyway, why not do what they do in Europe and most other countries and just represent the people who want to join?
The latter is what Geoghegan proposes to call “members-only bargaining.”
Both strategies are promising but, I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised Geoghegan didn’t put more ideas on the table, to help revive the labor movement. The two that occur to me are stakeholder or community unions and worker-owned enterprises.
Geoghegan did mention stakeholder governance in corporations (e.g., the idea that workers should have seats on factory councils). But that leaves matters to the corporations themselves. What if workers took the initiative, as many have in the past, to organize not just workers on the shop (factory or office) floor but also others who have a “stake” in the bargaining over wages, working conditions, number of jobs created, kinds of technology utilized, forms of education, the quality of goods and service produced, and so on? I’m thinking of customers as well as the unemployed, members of local communities including students, immigrant groups as well as workers in other countries, and so on. The Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina may be a harbinger of this kind of community union organizing.
And then, of course, there are worker-owned enterprises, in which the United Steel Workers themselves (the sponsors of the McBride Lecture series) have demonstrated interest. I know that, traditionally, organized labor in the United States has been opposed to worker self-management and other forms of noncapitalism that fall outside the traditional worker-management bargaining model. But that traditional model has simply failed.
It’s time therefore, if we’re interested in reviving and building a different labor movement, to widen our horizons and experiment with lots of different kinds of unions, including those that involve other stakeholders and strive to create new, more democratic kinds of enterprises.