The end of Unionism as we know it
The end of Unionism as we know it
By Wayne Eastman, Vice-Chair, Department of SCM and Marketing Science, Rutgers Business School
A Memo to Randy and Andy: What Comes after the End of Unionism as We Know It? The allegations swirling around former Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Andy Stern, involving an alleged no-show consultant and pocketing an advance for a book that was purchased in bulk by SEIU locals, are troubling but not necessarily related to the bigger issues faced by the union movement.
By contrast, the negative portrayal of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Randy Weingarten as a foe of educational reform in “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary by liberal film-maker Davis Guggenheim, maker of “An Inconvenient Truth,” is a telling symptom of a profound problem for unions and their leaders. Far-thinking union leaders – and Weingarten and Stern, whatever their flaws may be, are two such leaders – know that their movement in its current form is failing, and should be looking for ways that it can be reborn.
Unionism in its current form is a dinosaur headed for extinction in both the private sector and the public sector for a simple, decisive reason: The self-interest of the senior workers for whom unions are run is poorly aligned with the success of the firms and governments for which the workers work and with the interests of society.
The hope of some unionists that public sector employees will save the union movement is a vain one. Teachers’ unions and other government employees’ unions have already lost the war of ideas across the political spectrum, with liberal Democrats like Guggenheim and conservative Republicans alike seeing them as obstacles to progress. Absent radical change, they will join their private sector peers in a long slide into practical as well as intellectual oblivion.
I believe there are three main ways that successors to the current failing union movement can be relevant in the future. The three paths forward for a reinvented unionism correspond to three main purposes that the union movement has been asked to serve historically, which remain vital now.
First, we need a movement – I’d call it “Bosses Against Bosses” – that counters management rip-offs. Management opportunism is a serious problem in the private sector, as the most orthodox of free-market financial economists (see Jensen & Meckling 1976) remind us. It is a big problem as well in the public sector, though there managerial opportunism tends toward deep-seated complacency combined with the pursuit of personal agendas, as opposed to the private sector, where managerial complacency is a less profound though very real problem and managerial greed is a big one.
Second, we need a movement – “Together,” let’s say – that provides opportunities for employees who are not at the top of their firms or their society to improve themselves by listening, speaking up, taking on leadership roles, and learning from their peers and also from others above them on the social ladder.
Finally, we need a movement – “Alliance for Progress” – that provides support to a Democratic Party that without it would be too much under the control of wealthy individuals, and that offers some balance to the alliance of business and conservative religion with the Republican Party.
Now, a bitter pill for Randy and Andy: For any of these movements to work effectively, collective bargaining with its entrenchment of senior worker interests has to go. The successors to unionism as we now know it will not be bargaining with management over the number of times teachers can be observed in a year and the hourly rate for tenth-year Ford employees in job classification 7C. Unionism in the form of collective bargaining is doomed – and the sooner the better.
A second, semi-bitter pill: It will not be possible to have a single union movement in the future. A Bosses Against Bosses movement needs to have its base in business and professional schools, in publ