Ten Things Dems Could Do to Win
3. Make it a civil right to join, or not to join, a labor union.
Remember: organized labor is not our base. The working people of the country are our base. We have to repackage labor law reform, even over the protest of organized labor itself. Except for those in the big white buildings in Washington, few working people understand the Wagner Act. Few understand card checks or secret ballot elections or mandatory first-time arbitration. Few labor lawyers understand it. So make it simple: instead of trying to fiddle with an old 1935 law based on a collectivist view of the world, let's bring labor law up to date. How? Let's amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to give the same individual type of civil right to join—or, yes, not to join—a union.
Elsewhere I have argued that letting working people hire their own lawyers, go to court, take discovery, rifle the files and get awards of legal fees would do more to bring back the labor movement than to go on bottling it up in a single federal agency like the National Labor Relations Board. If we amend the Civil Rights Act and let people go to court for any employer reprisal to block a union, and to let the rank and file get their own lawyers and start handing out subpoenas, we'll get back a labor movement fast.
Keep in mind: the works councils and other forms of worker control fervidly supported by unions now in Germany at first did not have much support from unions there.
But how to sell it?
Tell people their rights will trump the rights of the union as an institution.
That includes the right not to pay dues, not to pay a cent, i.e., a completely voluntary labor movement. "My God, unions will never survive." I want to say, Nonsense: they all survive in Europe. But it's true; Europe really is different. For one thing, there is nothing like our unbalanced US Senate to block labor friendly laws (see 9 below). And it is easier to bargain for large groups of workers. Still, the people who benefit from such large-scale bargaining in a country like Germany are free not to pay—and many don't. So what? Many do—up to 20 percent of the workers in the country. Yet collective bargaining covers more than 50 percent of workers.
So, what do we do about the free riders? Let them ride.
Yes, I worry it won't work here. I don't propose to tear down the existing compulsory dues structure all at once. After all, I have to make a living representing unions. But I think ultimately there is no alternative, in a culture so radically individualistic, but to opt for a voluntary model, whether we have European-type labor laws in place or not.
Otherwise, if it is not voluntary, as it is in social democratic Europe, it is hard to see why Americans would vote in yet another institution they cannot influence democratically. Albert Hirschman, the great Princeton economist, contends that to be accountable, institutions have to offer either "voice" or "exit." That is, people either need to really run the institution or to have an easy way out. Organized labor offers neither. That's why people distrust it.
I'd prefer to increase voice, to let the rank and file rule. But it's still impossible to get real union democracy. So the only way to do it seems to be the European way, to let people opt out and make membership voluntary. If that happens, unions here will behave like socialist-type unions in Europe, constantly trying to market themselves and please the members so they will keep paying dues.
People in this country are desperate for a labor movement. They are waiting for a Democratic Party to give them one they can control.