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Lighting Labor's Fire | The Nation

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Lighting Labor's Fire

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1. Individual Membership

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has...
Thomas Geoghegan
Thomas Geoghegan is a labor lawyer and author. His most recent book is Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the...

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At present the only way for most workers to join a union is to pass through a kind of trial by fire--an arduous, often risky, organizing drive that may last for months. No such ordeal is required of people who would like to join, say, the National Organization for Women or the NAACP, who can simply send in their dues. In many European countries, like Germany, anyone can join a union individually, no matter who they are. Yes, it's true that labor law is different "over there," and labor can often bargain in workplaces that never voted in a union at all. (As a result, labor in Europe can more easily bargain for whole industries.) Still, the Europeans have a point. Why, they ask, do you keep all your "true believers" out? The first step toward the revitalization of American unions should be to create a form of membership accessible to any worker.

Recently in The Nation (June 24), Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers took a step in this direction by suggesting that the AFL-CIO try what they called "minority" unions. These would be small groups of pro-union workers, without the collective bargaining rights of old-fashioned majority unions. We're sympathetic to this, of course. But remember, such people would be volunteers for only half a union. And would "half a union" really be half a union, or would it end up being less than zero? Think of a single Starbucks where only three of fifteen people join. They have no contract. The "minority union" members can be picked off and fired (that may be illegal, but there are stiffer penalties for jaywalking). And what can a union staffer do for them? Get them higher wages? No. Cut overtime? Of course not. Indeed, in many a workplace, the business agent, or BA, can't even get in the front door!

Yet Freeman and Rogers are surely right about their big point: Labor has to find a way to let people sign up without necessarily going through an organizing drive. What we have in mind, however, is a very different way of being an "individual" member. There would be no "group," not even a "minority" one. Also, the service being offered would be specific and well defined. Best of all, the AFL-CIO would have to do little more for our project than lend its name.

We're not talking about an AARP-type membership, such as the AFL-CIO tried a few years ago. In that particular case, there was no union-type service that the individuals got. Nothing but VISA cards, hotel discounts, etc. The idea died of its own silliness.

To make individual memberships work, the member has to get a real union-type service, somehow connected to wages, hours, working conditions. It has to be limited: a fee for a specific service, to be rendered now or even later. And it should offer the one thing that every American, stuck in a job, sooner or later longs to do--take the boss to court!

Or at least, get to talk it over with your lawyer. That's the "service." Two hours a year of free legal services, i.e., a consultation with a real lawyer. About labor law? No, about the maze of special employment laws, civil rights laws, laws from disability to family leave to 401(k)s. What the individual gets, in the name of the AFL-CIO, would be a kind of legal referral off the premises: And if you don't need it this year, you can bank it for later.

As we envision it, this service would not come from the union's own lawyers but from the private bar. It is long overdue for the AFL-CIO to connect with lawyer groups like the National Employment Lawyers Association, a network of progressive lawyers who do civil rights, Title VII, sexual harassment and ERISA (retirement benefits) cases. The unions and NELA would run the program, which would function like an Automobile Club card for your breakdowns at work. Best of all, if we want, we can sign up in secret. But people will feel like they are getting a union-type service and will know just what the service is.

What's the payoff for the AFL-CIO? Millions of new members. Even traveling salesmen may start to join. Then think of all the people labor can mobilize on Election Day!

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