A New Year’s resolution for labor

Dan Bowling Senior Lecturing Fellow, Duke Law School
Font Size:

Here is my New Year’s resolution for labor.

Quit politicking. Start organizing.

Unions spent over $4 billion between 2005 and 2011 on direct and indirect political campaigning, according to a 2012 analysis by the Wall Street Journal, yet much smaller amounts on representational activities such as contract negotiations and signing up new workers (a report filed by the Michigan teacher’s union is instructive, showing that only 11% of its 2011 expenditures went to representational activities). Unions may have gotten what they wanted in the Oval Office, but in the process they have become just another liberal special interest group, largely irrelevant in the private sector.

Unions claim their political focus is necessary. There is much hullaballoo amongst organized labor and its supporters about the “unfairness” of federal labor law; how it inhibits labor’s ability to recruit new members and must be changed. Also, unions are fighting a legislative battle on a number of fronts at the state level. Recently, Michigan became the latest state to pass a “right-to-work” law outlawing forced collection of union dues. The problem is that “right-to-work” is a tail-wagging-the-dog issue: unions can’t collect dues from anyone unless they first organize them, and this is labor’s failing over the last half-century.

The laws that allegedly make it so hard for unions to organize are not some recent Tea Party scheme; they have been on the books since the 1930s and ’40s and didn’t keep organized labor from representing 39% of private sector workers by 1958. Over the ensuing decades, however, unions began a long slog toward obscurity. Today, only about 7% of private sector workers are represented by a union.

When analyzing this decline, the usual suspects are hauled out for a thrashing: Ronald Reagan, global trade, the loss of a manufacturing base. Democratic hero Bill Clinton gets his share of blame because of his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Over the past several years, the list of culprits has grown to include right-to-work advocates, “union-busting” consultants, Republican governors like Scott Walker, and congressional refusal to outlaw secret ballot union elections.

Let me present an alternate thesis. What if those billions of dollars spent on (mostly) Democratic politicians had found their way into organizing? If the vaunted “ground game” the unions deployed for Obama’s re-election in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania had been put into service organizing unrepresented workers? Would membership rates still be hovering around 7%?

Sure, if you are an UAW boss it’s a lot cooler hanging out at the Democratic National Convention with George Clooney and Eva Longoria than sitting in the kitchen of a warehouse worker in Ohio explaining how your union will improve her life. But that is how unions were built — one worker and one firm at a time — not by lobbying.

Personally, I think the decline in unionization is not reversible. Americans aren’t collectivists by nature. Self-reliance and individualism are in our cultural DNA. We are altruistic and work well in teams, but we want to be rewarded for our individual performance, not according to some union contract scale. Although unionism had its day in the mid-20th century, that was a circumstance of time and place. It isn’t coming back.

But this is a debate for another day.

In 2013, I urge my friends in labor to get back to basics. Take your best people out of the corridors of Washington and the state capitals and put them on the street, handing out flyers, talking to real human beings walking out of hospitals, plants, and offices. Go after the powerless in the sweatshops of the modern economy, financial and professional services firms. Put your billions to work on rebuilding your representational base, one worker and one firm at a time.

Quit politicking and start organizing. Put up or shut up.

Dan Bowling is Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law School, a lawyer, and the CEO of a workplace consulting firm. Previously, he was head of global human resources for Coca-Cola Enterprises.