Labor unions have been having a hard time of it. So union activists have announced a new strategy:
“We are going to expand the idea of collective bargaining,” said Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco AFL-CIO. “You can have collective bargaining through legislation. You can have collective bargaining through ballot measures.”
Columnist Harold Meyerson thinks this is a swell idea.
Having banged its head against a wall for years with nothing to show for it but a headache, the American labor movement is devising a plan to bypass the wall altogether. During its quadrennial convention here this week, the AFL-CIO has acknowledged that the laws protecting employees who seek to join a union have been rendered so ineffectual that labor must come up with new ways to advance workers’ interests.
With just 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce enrolled in unions in 2012, traditional collective bargaining has all but vanished from the economic landscape — taking raises, benefits, job security and much of the American middle class with it as it goes. . . .
There was a time when labor activists believed that the union movement would be the vehicle through which working people rose. For the time being, however, most labor activists don’t believe that’s possible. While they’re not abandoning traditional workplace organizing, they’re proclaiming a strategic shift.“We are going to expand the idea of collective bargaining,” said Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco AFL-CIO. “You can have collective bargaining through legislation. You can have collective bargaining through ballot measures.”
Working in a coalition with community organizations, labor prevailed on San Francisco’s city government in 2008 to mandate that employers provide health insurance to their workers or pay the city to subsidize low-income residents’ purchase of coverage. This year, the coalition also persuaded a hospital chain seeking to build a new facility to staff it with union jobs and to provide affordable housing — in a city where such housing grows scarcer by the minute — as a condition for winning city approval to go ahead with its expansion.
By itself, labor could not have won these and kindred battles. “Even if all we cared about was our own contracts, we can’t even get those anymore without community assistance,” said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.
So the chief business of this convention has been to redefine labor’s mission. Unable to build traditional unions the traditional way, the AFL-CIO has committed itself to building the kinds of coalitions that won expanded health care and affordable lofts in San Francisco. For several decades, unions have aligned with other key liberal constituencies on a host of discrete battles — immigration reform, voting rights (again), financial regulation, universal health coverage — but now it wants to cement these alliances in permanent coalitions.