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A Proposal to American Labor | The Nation

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A Proposal to American Labor

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The first constitution of the American Federation of Labor, adopted at its founding in 1886, declared the new organization open to the membership of any "seven wage workers of good character, and favorable to Trade Unions, and not members of any body affiliated with this Federation." Tens of thousands of such groups applied for and received direct affiliation with the national federation--afterward, though sometimes long afterward, typically migrating to one or another international union.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Working USA.

About the Author

Richard B. Freeman
Richard B. Freeman, the director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's labor studies program, teaches at...
Joel Rogers
Joel Rogers, a Nation contributing editor, teaches at the University of Wisconsin, where he directs the Center on...

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Unions are gradually making fuller use of the Internet's capacities to
improve communication with their own staffs or members. But increasingly
they are also using the web to recruit new members or to establish
"virtual communities" of union supporters in arenas not yet amenable to
the standard collective-bargaining model.

Alliance@IBM (www.allianceibm.org) is an example of an effective
Net-supported minority union, operating without a demonstrated pro-union
majority and without a collective-bargaining contract at a traditional
nonunion company. The alliance provides information and advice to
workers at IBM through the web. A similar effort at a partially
organized employer is WAGE ("Workers at GE," www.geworkersunited.org), which draws on contributions from fourteen cooperating
international unions. The Microsoft-inflected WashTech
(www.washtech.org) and the Australian IT Workers Alliance
(www.itworkers-alliance.org) are open-source unions that are closer to
craft unions or occupational associations. Both are responsive to the
distinctive professional needs of these workers, such as access to a
variety of job experiences and additional formal education, and the
portability of high-level benefits when changing jobs.

The National Writers Union (www.nwu.org), a UAW affiliate, is another
example of a union virtually created off the Net. It provides
information and advice--including extensive job postings--to members,
and it lobbies on their behalf, most spectacularly in the recent Supreme
Court decision it won on freelance worker copyright rights. But most of
its members work without a collectively bargained contract.

In Britain, UNISON (the largest union in the country) and the National
Union of Students have a website that tells student workers their rights
and gives them advice about how to deal with workplace problems
(www.troubleatwork.org.uk). It is a particularly engaging and practical
illustration of how concrete problems can be addressed through Net
assistance.

Finally, for a more geographically defined labor community, take a look
at the website of the King County AFL-CIO (www.kclc.org), the Seattle
central labor council that uses the Net to coordinate its own business,
bring community and labor groups together for discussion and common
action, post messages and general information to the broader community,
and otherwise create a "virtual" union hall with much of the spirit and
dense activity that used to be common in actual union halls in major
cities.

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It’s time to embrace a new egalitarian politics.

After one of Supreme Court’s most anti-union rulings in recent years, is there still time for organized labor to save itself?

The tactic was particularly prevalent during peak periods of union organization, such as the turn of the twentieth century and again in the 1930s, when workers who did not fit well into their established forms sought to join unions. During these periods another union formation was also widespread: "minority" or "members only" unions, which offered representation to workers without a demonstrated pro-union majority at their worksite. Such nonmajority unions were critical to organizing new sectors of American industry, providing a union presence in the workplace well before an employer recognized a collective-bargaining unit. Most of the early organizing of the industrial trades, for example, and of early industrial unions like the mineworkers and steelworkers, was achieved through such minority unions.

After World War II, however, unions effectively abandoned both "direct affiliation" and "minority unionism" as common practices. Over the past half-century, union membership has come to mean membership in an organization that has demonstrated majority support among workers at a particular worksite, recognized by an employer as the exclusive representative of workers for purposes of collective bargaining. Labor is not as open in its membership, in admitting different configurations of workers, as it was in the past.

We believe this self-imposed limit on the meaning of membership today poses an unnecessary barrier to union influence and growth, and it should be reconsidered. There are tens of millions of nonunion workers--many times the size of the existing labor movement--who want better representation at work or better representation of workers' interests politically, but who remain cut off from the benefits of union membership. Unions can and should seek to change this by reforming labor law or by increasing their organizing efforts. In addition, however, organized labor should open itself to a wider range of members.

Pro-union workers who do not make up a majority at their workplace are not irrelevant to building a labor movement. They have simply not yet achieved one particular measure of union strength--not even necessarily the most important one. These workers have much to offer labor and much to gain from labor. Today as in the past, nontraditional members in nonmajority settings can give labor an immense boost in its reach, leverage and access to strategic information on employer behavior. Adding nonmajority or otherwise nontraditional workers to union membership need not, moreover, conflict with the goal of traditional majorities-only organizing. To the contrary, such new members would provide natural ballast for the legal and policy reforms and organizing committees that unions need to succeed in such organizing.

Opening up to these new members would entail some administrative challenges. Many unionists will worry about the cost of servicing workers outside union security clauses and regular dues collection by employers. But the economics of the Internet have changed this cost equation in fundamental ways. At essentially zero marginal cost, unions can communicate with an ever-expanding number of new members, and they can deliver all manner of services to them through the Internet.

A labor movement that embraced this vision--taking its own historical lessons with diversified membership seriously and relying more heavily on the Internet in membership communication and servicing--would be practicing what we call "open-source unionism" (OSU).

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