Anya Kamenetz is a freelance writer, the author of Generation Debt and a journalistic fellow of the Freelancers Union. She can be reached at her website, anyakamenetz.blogspot.com.
Do you have your dream job? If the answer is "yes," you are probably in a union. That's the finding of a nationwide marketing survey of over 37,000 workers released on January 25. The respondents most likely to report that they were in their dream jobs were police and firefighters (35 percent) followed by teachers (32 percent.)
By coincidence, on that same date, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report showing yet another severe drop in U.S. union membership—from a steady 12.5 percent in 2004 and 2005 to 12 percent in 2006. The remaining stronghold of unionism, with a 41.9 percent membership rate, is local government workers. As the BLS points out, "This group includes several heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters."
The biggest surprise disappointment in this new report is the drop within the traditional base of manufacturing—for the first time in many decades, a factory worker is actually less likely to be unionized than a worker at large.
There is a longstanding progressive debate over whether the decline in unionization is due mostly to sustained business and political enmity towards organizing, or is simply a product of broader global economic forces. A recent Center for Economic and Policy Research report supports the former theory. The researchers found a sharp increase in illegal firings of pro-union workers in the 2000s, estimating the likelihood that a union organizer will be axed during a campaign at 1 in 5.
On the other hand, recent statements at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland give evidence for the latter view. The head of Infosys Technologies, India's second-largest software exporter, said he expects the continued growth of outsourcing and offshoring around the world in 2007.
Did the traditional union die of natural causes, or was it murdered? It may be up to historians to settle the debate. Meanwhile, pragmatism demands alternative models to protect the interests of workers. Increasingly, these are found in "social movement unionism": an approach that is flexible and broad in its definition of workers' issues, often enlisting the cooperation of business and government, rather than being tied to a specific job or employer. Here are three diverse recent examples.
● The Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest health care workers union, is endorsing ten principles of universal health care reform in concert with business owners, seniors and other stakeholders. They are pursuing legislation in six states and reaching out to big business. SEIU President Andrew Stern testified before Congress in January on the need for "fundamental change," declaring "The employer-based health system is dead."
● The Freelancers Union, based in New York, offers group rate health insurance to 14,000 of its approximately 40,000 self-employed members. The organization lowers the cost of insurance by treating its members as though they belonged to one large employer, an idea hailed by Harvard Business School as a "disruptive innovation for social change." While the group does not bargain with employers, they do offer a range of services on an a la carte basis, much like a guild or mutual aid society. These include networking and education events and advocacy for tax benefits, unemployment insurance and other components of a social safety net. They are planning on expanding to 10 more states by the end of 2007, to serve more of the nation's 20 million independent workers. "Our ultimate goal is to update the New Deal," Sara Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancers Union, told The New York Times last week. "It is to create a new safety net that's connected to the individual as they move from job to job."
● Jennifer Gordon, a Fordham University law professor, in a paper forthcoming in the Southern California Law Review, proposes a scheme of "transnational labor citizenship." The idea is to bring migrant workers under the wing of transnational grassroots organizing groups that uphold a "floor" of working conditions. The proposal moves beyond decades of bitter standoff: Labor unions often try to stem immigration or exclude undocumented workers, while employers take advantage of their unprotected status to offer lower wages and worse conditions for the so-called "jobs Americans won't do." While offering a sweeping vision that she says is "unfeasible" today, Gordon's paper opens with a description of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, organizing prospective migrant workers in Monterrey, Mexico in 2005. The FLOC also has an "associate members" program, which offers unorganized, undocumented workers the chance to protect their human and working rights.
A job that includes membership in a traditional union is nice work if you can get it. The rest of us need new solutions. Renegotiating a real social safety net for all is going to take time and hard work, but the way there is forward, not back.