MARCH 1987 - VOLUME 8 - NUMBER 3
L A B O R
Battling Big Blue
by David Kusnet
At first glance, it certainly seems like an uphill battle.
And, at second glance, it still seems that way.
In recent months, U.S. unionists have been talking openly about pursuing what for decades has been labor's impossible dream: organizing the giant multinational corporation, IBM.
With more than 400,000 employees in 120 countries, including 238,000 in the United States, organizing IBM - where scarcely 2 percent of the worldwide employees belong to unions - looms as a long-term project, at best.
But the tactics being talked about for organizing IBM offer a taste of the future, foreshadowing not only the multinational labor battles of the 1990s and beyond, but also the renewal of the U.S. labor movement which, for all its proud history of promoting social change, has often been as resistant to internal change as the corporate giants it confronts.
For starters, the recently discussed plans to organize IBM emphasize a principle that has often been more a slogan than a reality: teamwork among the more than 100 unions that comprise the AFL-CIO. The Communications Workers of America (CWA), the union that is now leading the discussions on organizing IBM, has already proposed making the campaign a joint effort with other unions.
This call for inter-union cooperation reflects a healthy new trend toward multi-union campaigns. Such cooperation was used in recent ventures at Beverly nursing homes, a national chain where the Service Employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers won the right to organize workers at several dozen homes, and Blue Cross-Blue Shield, where the AFL-CIO recently announced a coordinated organizing drive. And it's a welcome change from years of costly and divisive rivalries among unions, particularly in organizing teachers and other government workers but also in the communications and construction industries.
And, in another innovation whose time has come, CWA is seeking international, as well as inter-union, solidarity.
In January, CWA representatives met in London with union leaders from 24 countries to plan a common strategy for organizing IBM - a task which Herman Rebhan, general secretary of the International Metalworkers Federation, called "the labor equivalent of putting a man on the moon."
This, too, is a relatively new - and certainly healthy - development. While a number of U.S. unions, most notably the United Auto Workers, meet regularly with their counterparts overseas to discuss strategies for bargaining with the multinational corporations, it's still a rarity for unions in the United States to work with foreign unionists on organizing the multinationals.
Another strategy that will be used in the IBM organizing drive, though seemingly less dramatic, may have the most important implications for labor's future. This is the tentative working relationship between CWA and several independent associations at IBM. These informal associations bring workers together to discuss job-related problems ranging from forced transfers to corporate secrecy about pay scales and job openings.
CWA's willingness to work with these employee groups and postpone traditional organizing tactics is part of an effort by the labor movement to experiment with new concepts of unionism and new forms of organization. After three decades in which union membership has dropped from 35 percent to 19 percent of the work force, the AFL-CIO understands that unionism must be reshaped in order to appeal to a work force born after the struggles of the 1930s and employed largely in white-collar jobs in the service and high-tech industries.
Two years ago, the AFL-CIO approved a report that would be remarkable for any major institution, but especially one so bound by its own traditions. The report, titled "The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions," candidly acknowledged that both "situations" had deteriorated and called for "new methods of advancing the interests of workers."
Foremost among these "new methods" was a reconsideration of a concept that has been intrinsic to U.S. unionism since the founding of the American Federation of Labor more than a century ago, and which became even more firmly ingrained a half-century later under the New Deal, when the federal government guaranteed worker's the right to elect unions to bargain with their employers.
This concept defines the mission of unions as workers' bargaining agents to negotiate legally binding contracts covering workers' pay benefits and conditions. It links union membership with employment in a workplace with union representation and a union contract. And, while this pragmatic definition of unionism has produced enormous improvements in workers' lives and livelihoods, it also has frequently led to a narrowing of the role of the unions: from a social movement to service agencies that negotiate and "enforce" contracts.
The AFL-CIO report explores several innovations that supplement "contract unionism." It recommends "new categories of union membership" for workers who aren't covered by union contracts, including workers who have left unionized workplaces. There are 27 million former union members in America - a figure almost twice as large as the current membership of the AFL-CIO. It also includes employees at non-union companies who are interested in organizing a union. In addition to suggesting experiments with "associate memberships," the report has also encouraged experiments with new forms of worker organization, including associations such as those at IBM that deal with job-related concerns but, at least initially, de-emphasize the goal of winning formal collective bargaining rights and negotiating a contract.
This report is part of a process of self-examination by the AFL-CIO that has included consultations with academics and public opinion pollsters. Labor's new approach reflects an insight pioneered by Harvard economics professor James Medoff that what most Americans continue to find attractive about unionism is that it allows workers be heard on the job. Exploring Medoffs premise, the AFL-CIO learned, through polling, that a majority of American workers would like to join employee associations which would provide career-related information, help solve job-related problems, and offer benefits such as health insurance, without engaging in confrontational activities such as strikes. These findings led to the recent experimentation with associate memberships and employee associations, as well as new efforts by the AFL-CIO to provide services such as credit cards and even legal representation at discount rates to members and associate members.
These innovations could make U.S. unionism more of a social movement, addressing a wider range of concerns for a larger constituency. Already - and indeed, even before the AFLCIO report was issued - exciting experiments were underway, ranging from the Service Employees' cooperative relationship with a network of working women's organizations, to an effort by the American Federation of Teachers to organize teachers in states undergoing education reform by offering them a voice in the process.
But one thing is certain: unless it keeps changing with the times, the labor movement won't be able to organize the workplaces of the 1980s and 1990s, much less corporate goliaths like IBM.
David Kusnet directed publicity in organizing campaigns for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He was a speechwriter for the late AFSCME President Jerry Wurf and for Walter Mondale during the final two months of the 1984 presidential campaign.