Re-imagining 21st Century Labor Unions

Labor unions have seen their membership and political influence wane as corporate influences have swelled, leading to provocative ideas for a new type of union that represents the political interests of a community of workers.Labor Day was celebrated by the usual picnics and political speeches. But it also drew two intriguing op-eds that pointed to a broader and different role for labor unions in the quest to retain a working middle class in America. 

Both opinion pieces called for labor organizations that extend beyond bargaining for wages and benefits. They urged community-based organizations that would serve as the political voice for low- and middle-class workers as a counterbalance to well-heeled corporate influences in politics and governance.

"The union movement is not going to rebuild the middle class in the 21st century with a system of labor laws that were designed for factory worker in the 1930s and copied for government workers in the 1970s," wrote Tim Nesbitt, a former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO and senior advisers to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber.

In his op-ed appearing in The Oregon, Nesbitt said, "Today's realities require looking beyond the traditional bargaining units composed of jobs of a single employer at one or more work sites, which are no longer effective for advancing the interests of large numbers of workers in the job churn of the private sector."

Writing in The New York Times, Harvard law professor Benjamin Sachs echoes a similar sentiment. "In contemporary America, there is nearly an 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."

"This bundling of functions, an artifact of how unions formed historically, is a major problem for political organizing today," Sachs said. "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 difficult. And because substantial numbers of Americans say they do not want to bargain collectively with their employers, traditional unions are not an attractive form of political organization for many."

In slightly different ways, Nesbitt and Sachs recommend union structures that allow them to serve as a political voice for a wide swath of workers for whom they don't bargain. Nesbitt described his idea as community-based worker representation, patterned after worker centers, which he said are prominent in immigrant communities such as Woodburn. Sachs urged new labor law that would allow political unions.

"While the law would continue to protect workers' rights to organize traditional unions, it also would protect workers' rights to organize strictly political ones," Sachs proposed. "Workers would have the right to talk about politics with one another at work, as long as they did so during nonworking hours. Employers would be prohibited from retaliating against their employees who organized politically. If workers did form a political union, they would be entitled — as traditional unions are — to use voluntary payroll deductions to finance their activities."

Nesbitt praised the AFL-CIO's Working America program that has expanded labor's political influence beyond its bargaining units. He sees this as a new avenue of advocacy that "demands more from government than safety nets for families in crisis," such as 21st century job training and affordable access to college education.

"[We] will need a revitalized union movement," Nesbitt said, "to overcome the forces of wage-cutting competition and ensure [worker] contributions to society create a broader and better middle class."

"The successful unions of the future," he added, "will be less concerned about bargaining for stationary groups of workers and more focused on representing an increasingly mobile workforce as community members, voters and consumers."

That's a lot more to digest than the customary Labor Day hot dog with mustard.