Economics: Super Seduction
Interview: Bono and Me
Unions: The Eight Hour Day and the Holy Spirit
Technology: From Widgets to Digits
Education: Dumb and Dumber
Health: No Place for the Young
History: The Work-In That Changed a Nation
Review: Dare to Win
Poetry: Labor's Dreaming
The Locker Room
Taskforce Loses "Payback" Evidence
Stalking Horses in Safety Stampede
Morals Beat Hasty Retreat
Uncounted Cost Of Asbestos
Voting Farce Expands
I Beg To Differ
Labor Council of NSW
From Widgets to Digits
By Neale Towart
Katherine V.W. Stone has been grappling with this question as part of her research into employment regulation systems for the changing workplace. Her book "From Widgets to Digits" (great title at least) provides a few snapshots of successful strategies that are helping some unions and that may at least provide a few tips and clues for others.
She is writing largely in the US context and outlines how the initial post-war success of the merged AFL-CIO was based on collective bargaining and contract administration.
However the changes in the international economy that began to impact on the primacy of the US from the late 1960s lead to severe legislative and corporate attacks on organised labour from the early 1980s onwards. The development of new workplace practices combined with information technology, outsourcing and offshore manufacturing attacked the existing employment hierarchies that had suited management and employees. There was need to move from single worksite approaches in the US and towards political and community approaches. That the US legislative environment increasingly made it hard for unions to even survive, let alone broaden their horizons made it a tall order for the labour movement.
One early step by the AFL-CIO was its associate membership program. It offered unorganised workers and unemployed members reduced forms of membership. The aim was to enlist the support of former members and workers who might go on to unionise. This could be enlarged to give political voice to those non-union members.
As Stone says, "in the boundaryless workplace, employees continue to need collective representation, but not merely on the single employer basis. Here the US Labour Relations Board legislation is a limiting factor, and she calls for amendments to various aspects of its operation, not least to the broader scope for bargaining, but also to the ability of unions to act politically. The unions need to be able to exert wider pressure on employers across occupational, industrial and political boundaries. This must mean moving to help provide workers with the chace to improve skills, ensure portability of benefits and to create institutions for childcare, for example.
Mutuality was part of the reason for unions coming into existence. Much of this role has been lost but perhaps now is the time to reclaim it, in a new guise. For community based unionism can mean unions acting as community support organisations across occupational categories in geographic regions.
Stone categorises new roles that some unions have begun to develop into what she calls new craft unionism and citizen unionism.
New craft unionism is described as an occupation-based form of unionism that bargains with industry-wide employer groups to establish minimum standards and provide training, while enabling employees to move between employers in the industry.
In Australia, with the standard career path with one employer becoming a rarity, and with more workers becoming own-account workers/self-employed contractors, this approach is a useful way of rethinking the union role. The Association of Professional, Scientists, Managers Australia (APESMA) has been growing in the IT sector where many are self-employed on short term contracts with many different employers/contracting bodies in a working life.
Gabrielle Meagher, in her study of workers in domestic services, also pointed to US and Swedish unions who have stepped outside the traditional boundaries to play a role in training and ensuring the quality of work and the protection of workers in a sector with many small employers (see WO, December 2003 http://workers.labor.net.au/features/200312/c_historicalfeature_domestic.html)
Stone "compares and contrasts" the experiences of two US unions in the film and television industry. The National Association of Broadcasting Employees and Technicians (NABET) organises on an industrial basis, developing collective agreements between crew and the major motion picture and television studios. The International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) is organised on a craft basis.
NABET's fortunes began to decline as employers in many industries began to downsize and outsource. The major broadcaster, NBC wanted to utilize contract and freelance workers on a per job basis. NABET would not countenance a move away from the collective approach it had succeeded under since the 1950s. After an eighteen week strike, NABET capitulated and were forced to agree to the networks terms. Other major broadcasters and film studios soon followed. Since then regular employment at NABET organised companies has been declining and NABET membership did too. It's largest local merged with IATSE in the early 1990s and the rest of the union joined the Communication Workers of America in 1992.
IATSE, by contrast, as Stone explains, engages in a modern version of the insider contractor system, n which lead workers hire their own crews on an individual job basis. For example a film producer who wants to produce a film in New York contacts a lighting technician, and asks that individual to put together a crew. That person is then the head lighting technician and they contact others to for the crew for the job. Each individual has their own contract with the producer, within the framework of the IATSE local's basic agreement.
Stone calls this the "embedded contract" approach (similar to the site agreement approach in out construction industry and the federal government's dreaded "pattern bargaining". The union negotiated a basic agreement that provides for individually negotiated agreements consistent with the basic terms.
No job security is provided at all. The agreement assumes that workers will be hired on a as-needed basis and will work from job to job, even on more than one job at a time. Another shift is that seniority is not a term of the agreement.
Temporary work in the industry threatened the very existence of NABET, but had no impact on IATSE. Employers are able to use temporary workers WITHOUT GOING OUTSIDE THE UNION. An opportunity not a threat to the union.
This did not happen without disagreement within the union. Some IATSE members argued that low-budget film workers should not be allowed in the union. However it was argued and agreed that having workers outside the tent was a threat. Being outside the union meant that low budget film workers would constitute a source of well trained strike breakers, presenting companies with a constant temptation to eliminate the union. This approach, whilst not pleasing everyone, has enabled IATSE to have strong geographic membership, with New York City being almost 100% unionised.
Old craft unionism restricted membership, resulting in unions that were white, all male and racist. They were ultimately weakened because crafts changed, became easier to learn, or were bypassed with changes in technology. IATSE' inclusive approach enables them to avoid generating underprivileged outsiders.
Other sectors where this flexibility has been turned into a union strength is in the Hotel and Restaurant Employees citywide organising drives and other geographic and occupation based organising drives.
This approach can strengthen the position of low-wage service workers, who are moble across many employers in an industry (as Meagher shows) and raises standards across the board in this vulnerable sector. The construction sector also exhibits features of this form of unionism, with unions providing training and standards across an industry. The Communication Workers Union of America and the Washington Alliance for Technology Workers (WASHTECH) induced IT giant CISCO Systems to adopt a national training program for technical workers.
Citizen unionism is locality based. As Stone explains, it operates by enlisting all employees in a locality or region to pressure area employers to provide labour market protections workers need to survive and thrive in the boundaryless workplace. Workers have temporary jobs, but it is not a simple mater to leave your suburb or region and the ties to space and place are strong for workers and companies. Improving the locales social infrastructure is a major issue for residents across different occupations.
Some issues that citizen-based unions can address are:
- Protection of benefits - portability and uniformity of pension and health benefits
- Training. Pressuring employers to pay for training and retraining
- Child care
- Wages. Pressure employers to adhere to a minimum locality based wage structure. Wage subsidies for low paid work could also be a factor.
- Legal assistance. Enables individuals to access legal mechanisms that could enforce minimum wages, conditions and safety issues
- Corporate citizenship. Employers in a region draw upon collective skills, knowledge, experience and expertise, as well as local infrastructure, resources and natural attributes. Employers should then, contribute to schools, libraries, sports clubs, community groups and hospitals
But how can these unions exert bargaining power. It is all very well to set up with this in mind, but how is it implemented. Stone suggests it is exerted partly by public pressure through the media and personal pressure on managers and other senior people who, after all, live in localities. Also product and service boycotts. Getting corportions to sign codes of conduct is a good public strategy.
Playing a part in the political process by endorsing, dis-endorsing candidates is another strategy, particularly potent in the USA where so many local positions are elected.
Examples of citizen unions and workplace organisations include the Boston Center for Contingent Work that uses the media and other lobbying mechanisms to ensure that companies that hire contingent workers adopt codes of conduct specifying minimum wages and conditions.
The National Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE) lobbies to get temporary workers the same rights under labour laws as permanent workers. It has proposed a Temporary Industry Code of Conduct covering holiday pay, sick leave, safety, orientations, health insurance and job descriptions. It states that employees have the right to join a union.
The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is the most comprehensive example. It is a multi-issue organisation working at a grass roots level on local issues of social services, education, and employment and has established itself in a number of cities and regions. It works through existing organisations like unions, churches, schools, health and neighbourhood centres and other community groups.
So unions and others are developing strategies to deal with the new workplace. But, as Stone, notes, the move from widgets to digits requires labour law reform and this is proving harder to effect. Experiments in structure, coalition building and using power that you gain are what is going on, and we can usefully draw upon the highs and lows of these organising strategies to help ourselves deal with the threats and opportunities we face.
Katherine V.W. Stone (2004). From Widgets to Digits: employment regulation for the changing workplace Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
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