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Laboring the Point By: Bryan O'Keefe
Doublethink | Thursday, October 27, 2005

Organized labor, once a pillar of the Democratic party and a major player in American politics, has been reduced to a pale image of its former self. Fifty years ago, nearly one in three workers in the private sector carried a union card. Unions were credited with the rise of a new middle class. Union jobs allowed industrious workers who lacked a post-secondary education to have their shot at the American dream. Organized labor agitated -- with much success -- for well-paying jobs that delivered solid health benefits and generous pensions. Groups like the United Autoworkers and United Steelworkers of America made historic gains in improving workplace safety.

But times have changed. Union membership has steadily declined since the 1950s and today barely 8 percent of the private sector is unionized. A recent poll from Harris Interactive found that people view corporate America more positively than they do organized labor, which is surprising, as this finding comes just a few years after several major, well-publicized corporate scandals. Another survey this past February from Zogby found that only 35 percent of respondents would definitely or probably vote for union representation at their workplaces.

While economic factors such as globalization and free trade have contributed to Big Labor's fall, the movement is hobbled by a leadership trapped in a time warp. The unions have stuck with tactics and slogans conceived when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president.

Meanwhile the modern American workforce has moved away from the collective mindset and, more than ever, it prizes individual achievement and advancement. But the unions do not change. They continue to work almost exclusively with the Democratic party, even after the party has lost majority status and lurches further leftward of the American mainstream. The only new tricks Labor has been able to learn involve trying to organize workers who do not really need unionization.

Nothing better demonstrates Labor's various problems than its attempts to court Ivy League graduate teaching assistants while neglecting high-tech workers. The push for graduate teaching assistants' unions was a classic case of Labor overreach. The whole campaign became little more than a "fight-the-power" social movement for middle-class college graduates who lamented they weren't around for the '60s and the '70s. While many teaching assistants at large state universities have been unionized for decades, union officials stepped up their campaign in the '90s, with a full-blown drive to unionize teaching assistants at several private universities, most notably Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and other such bastions of free-market exploitation. The efforts to organize at these campuses got an initial boost in 2001, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that teaching assistants at private universities were employees and had a right to organize collectively. Three years later the NLRB, now comprised of new Republican appointees, reversed its earlier decision, saying that teaching assistants are primarily students and therefore not entitled to collective bargaining rights.

But even before the two NLRB decisions, the unions had already waged a full-blown campaign on Ivy League campuses to press for TA unionization. Student organizations were created. Protests and rallies were held. There were even strikes during finals week. But the organizers never provided a convincing answer to the question, Why exactly do teaching assistants need a union? Grad student/teaching assistants get a pretty good deal, especially compared with many of the scut-work positions their old classmates have to settle for when they first graduate college. At Yale, for example, every single teaching assistant receives an annual stipend between $18,000 and $26,000 for all five years of their graduate education. On top of that, they are given options for health care, and all of their tuition and fees are waived. In return, the university asks them to teach part-time for two to four semesters. Teaching usually involves grading papers and leading one or two discussion sections of lecture courses. The TA benefits at other competing Ivy League schools are comparable.

Matt Glassman, a Yale student who opposed unionization, says the organizers "didn't talk much about the tangible benefits because there are so few. The only thing I ever heard was dental benefits. And I just kept asking myself, was all of this animosity really worth some better dental benefits?"

In the end, unionizing wasn't about benefits, but a convenient, modern-day social movement, says Giovanni Ruffani, a recently graduated teaching assistant from Columbia University who also opposed unionization. "The people behind this were looking at what students of the 18th and 19th century social movements did and they felt incomplete. They wanted to be part of a cause." The unions were happy to play along. In idealistic college students, they found a sympathetic audience and adapted their public relations to fit local conditions. Evil corporations were replaced by evil universities. Exploited workers were equated with exploited teaching assistants. The United Auto Workers -- whose traditional milieu is of course the car industry -- swooped down and led the charge of complaining graduate students at Columbia.

Even today, student organizers try to play up the idea that universities are abusing teaching assistants like corporations abuse employees. "It's been a long time since universities have been just an ivory tower," says Felicity Palmer, a graduate TA herself and student organizer with UAW Local 1121 in New York City. And while the rhetoric of class warfare enjoys little purchase in American politics generally, two minutes into our conversation, Palmer is off criticizing Columbia for being "quite a wealthy institution."

Before the NLRB ruling, the League of Women Voters conducted a mock election on TA unionization at Yale. The teaching assistants voted down union representation 694-651. An actual NLRB election was held at Columbia, but the votes were never counted because of the board's reversal on whether TAs had a right to organize. While unions were running around New Haven looking for disadvantaged workers among the privileged and well-educated, their time would have been better spent developing new ideas and trawling other communities for recruits. That's because a new class of employees -- high-tech workers -- were finding out the hard way that promises of high pay, good working conditions, and endless job prospects were, in their case, nothing but a mirage.

In reality, high-tech workers had a lot of serious work-place concerns, many of which came to the forefront during the dot-com bust of the late '90s. For starters, high-tech workers were expected to put in long hours, typically 60 to 70 hours a week, with little overtime compensation. Stock options would normally help make up for this, but companies that survived the bust started doing away with options in order to save money. The general lack of job security also hit home. While offshoring, outsourcing, and layoffs might have been unavoidable, what shocked many employees was that their companies were here today, gone tomorrow. In many union shops, employees receive advance warning of upcoming layoffs and possibly even severance pay, luxuries not afforded to many tech workers.

Adding to the problem was a powerful immigration threat. Every year about 500,000 foreign workers obtain L-1 and H-1B visas that allow them entry into the United States. Most of these visa-holders are highly skilled tech workers from India and China who are willing to put in longer hours and work for less money than their American counterparts. Companies defend the hires, saying that foreign-born workers have highly specialized skills that American workers lack. What outraged many high-tech employees was that companies were hiring these new foreign workers while simultaneously laying off American workers. No matter which side is right, their lack of any collective voice prevented high-tech workers from effectively lobbying Congress or the Bush administration on this critical issue.

Put together, these conditions left many high-tech employees overworked, underpaid, and vulnerable to sudden unemployment. And what leverage they might have had individually with their employers was diminished by the looming threat of offshoring and layoffs, along with a messy immigration issue that threatened to replace them with cheap labor from abroad. Sounds like the perfect breeding ground for a union movement, right?

"The idea to organize is met with either apathy or downright hostility," says John Miano, the founder of the Programmers Guild, a professional organization that advocates for high-tech computer programmers. According to Miano, unions have not been able to adapt their regular union pitch to a group of employees who are more individualistic than workers in the past. "High-tech workers are selfish. Unions need to account for that individuality in the industry," Miano says. But instead of adjusting for this different attitude, Miano complains that unions use scare tactics that turn off workers. "I have heard stories of these unions coming into tech firms like storm troopers. They can be very pushy. It's the exact sort of thing that turns guys off. A programmer's biggest fear is the loss of his individualism," Miano says.

Miano's words are echoed by Mike Renaldi, a software engineer who has experience working in both unionized and non-union workplaces. For more than 20 years, Renaldi was employed by various corporations and businesses in their non-union information technology (IT) departments. He later became a public high school teacher in New Jersey, where he had to join the teachers' union. Rendaldi says that the union model used in education--and commonplace throughout organized labor--would never work in high-tech fields.

"You're just not going to see that type of union in the IT community. Engineers and programmers tend to be loners. They come up with new ways of doing things and thinking out of the box. I can't see programmers agreeing to collective bargaining or something where everybody gets the same raise," Renaldi says. Miano agrees that collective bargaining would be a deal-breaker for many high-tech workers. But Miano thinks that a union model for high-tech workers that resembled professional sports unions might work. "If you structured the union more like the Major League Players Association, then it might work. That would allow individuals to determine their own compensation."

But even if unions successfully adopted a new organizing model, they would have to do something else as well to become more attractive to tech workers: loosen ties with the Democratic party. Organized labor's lock-step march with the Democrats turns off many high-tech workers, many of whom find the Republican party's emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility more appealing.

"Unions would have to completely redo their approach to politics. Programmers will never accept unions that are just an extension of the Democratic party," Miano says. The unions wouldn't necessarily have to become conservative, Miano adds, but they would have to end their exclusive alliance with the Democrats. According to Miano, "They have to realize that neither the Republicans nor Democrats are really your friends."

Some evidence suggests a few union leaders are finally getting the message. Frustrated with low membership and what they perceive as excessive spending on politics, a bloc of unions, led by Service Employees International President Andrew Stern, withdrew from the AFL-CIO this past July. These organizations have formed a rival labor federation with hopes of launching major organizing drives in new industries and scaling back Labor's involvement with politics.

Stern has been particularly critical of Labor's close association with the Democratic party. This past May, Stern lashed out at the Democrats, saying, "We just can't elect Democratic politicians and try to take back the House and take back the Senate and think that's going to change workers' lives." While Stern is hardly a conservative, he seems willing to engage both sides of the aisle. In last year's election cycle, SEIU gave a $575,000 donation to the Republican Governors' Association, making the union the largest RGA contributor.

Stern might also be open to new ways of organizing high-tech workers. He recently gave a speech before the PC Forum, a group of elite technology CEOs, in which he didn't sound like the union leader of yesteryear. He openly mocked the stereotype of bullying union bosses and in his speech talked about unions in a new globalized economy.

Stern's approach to both organizing and politics has caught the attention of many people who follow labor trends. "There are signals that the union leadership is going to be trying to shift strategies to focus on tech workers. Somehow unions must become more representative of these high-tech workers. They have to get over that perception of being blue-collar workers rather than knowledge workers," says John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger & Gray.

The examples of successful union drives in high-tech industries are few and far between. One such union is the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, which was founded seven years ago by contract employees upset with how Microsoft treated them. The union is small (even by organized labor's standards) and only counts about 500 members. But its president, Marcus Courtney, flatly denies that the central problem is with the unions themselves. In fact, Courtney says that Renaldi and Miano's accusations simply prove how corporations dupe workers. "My response to what they are saying is that it shows just how effective the corporate campaign against unionism is." He continues: "Workers just do not understand that a union is an institution that represents them. The idea, for example, that a collective bargaining agreement does not allow for bonuses is just a myth."

Courtney also dismisses complaints about his union's political agenda. "Unions stand behind those that support their issues. That's traditionally been the Democratic party, not the Republican party."

Neither Miano nor Renaldi comes across as brain-washed by corporate campaigns. Both complain about corporate workplace issues. And both say a need exists for some sort of organization for workers. That's what led Miano to start the Programmers Guild. But even with his organization, Miano still sees a greater need for high-tech workers. "Programmers would benefit from an effective union," he says. The problem is that Courtney and his fellow union organizers aren't willing to look into the mirror. If the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers has just 500 members seven years after its founding, there is a larger problem.

Of course, some of the opposition to unions is fostered by corporations that want to avoid unionization. In the extreme, some firms have outsourced high-tech jobs that looked susceptible to unionization. But that's hardly the only obstacle. Just as big a problem is the fact that the Labor movement has not changed with the times and still devotes considerable energy to questionable organizing campaigns like the TA drive.

What it will take to repair organized labor is an open question. The split that happened this past summer at the AFL-CIO convention may be a new beginning. Or Labor might need an even bigger crisis that would fundamentally change how it functions.

"I am a great believer in the purging of souls that comes with a crisis. Sometimes it takes a shaking-up to really change things," said Jarol Manheim, a professor at the George Washington University who studies and writes about unions.

But even if unions face a crisis and rebuilding stage, their problems are already so numerous they might not be able to fully recover. "They haven't found the bottom yet, but they are somewhere near it. The bigger question is whether they will hit the bottom hard enough to actually bounce back," Manheim said.

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Bryan O'Keefe is an assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

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