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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Different Voices: Other Forms of Non-Union Employee Representation

In addition to employer-led labor organizations, other groups have been organizing employees across firms, within local communities, and according to social identities. Two models described at the Task Force/DOL Symposium provide interesting examples of ways that, in the absence of collective bargaining, employees can organize to influence conditions in the workplace or to address concerns around work and employment that are shared by a local community.

The Personal is Political: Social Identity Groups within Firms

Where groups of individuals in the workplace share a social identity, there is growing room for organizing to address employer policies and practices. Along with her colleague Amy Segal, Maureen Scully of MIT’s Sloan School of Management has been exploring where the front lines of civil rights movements are meeting the conference rooms of workplaces. Scully presented the results of a study she conducted with Segal, which explores how employee-activists pursue changes that question power relations, draw links to broader societal issues, manage risks to careers, and handle the protection and constraints posed by management.

Scully and Segal interviewed employees from nine grassroots groups in one high-tech firm about how their social change agendas are advancing the improvement of conditions in workplace settings. The groups represented women, African-American, Asian-American, gay/lesbian/bisexual, and aging employees. Their primary accomplishments included: increasing awareness of diversity issues as a necessary step toward change in the workplace; mobilizing around specific events to make the environment more comfortable for traditionally marginalized and less powerful employees; improving retention and promotion opportunities; and changing the style of working and the allocation of power.

Specific examples include the African-American Caucus pressing the company to appoint black managers in its emerging South African operation and lobbying to have a person of color appointed to the Board of Directors. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance researched the costs and structure of same-sex partner benefits and worked with HR professionals to provide these benefits to employees. The group also lobbied successfully to move the company’s annual sales conference from Colorado to California, after Colorado passed an amendment denying civil rights protection on the basis of sexual orientation. Among the list of activists’ tactics include:

  • Using social movement language to help energize their efforts;
  • Adopting the mechanics of business-like task forces—e-mail correspondence, mission statements, and agendas—to stay organized and focused;
  • Courting top management in its own language to garner support and manage risks; and
  • Capitalizing on apparent hypocrisies and inconsistencies to identify opportunistic moments and terms for change.

What are the strengths of these groups—their potential for uniting social concerns with workplace issues? What are their weaknesses? “The issues are in line with discussions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ enterprise-based employee organizations,” said Scully. “On the one hand, they work because they’re nimble, adaptable, and mobilize a great deal of energy and passion around these issues, since employees have a venue where they can compare experiences. On the other hand, they have no coordinated agenda, and the groups are fairly vulnerable to the rising and falling tides of their organizations.”

Finally, what’s at stake for employers? “Particularly for this high-tech firm, it’s the ‘not-a-person-to-waste’ idea,” said Scully. “The employer needs to tap the talents of every employee, and if his or her social identity membership is getting in the way of the employer recognizing and valuing that person’s talents, that’s a problem. It’s part of the commitment to diversity for corporations.”

Community Unionism: Organizing Labor Around Local Concerns

Increasingly, community groups are organizing around issues of work and economic development—in the absence of unions, offering representation, training, and organizing assistance to low-income and immigrant workers across employers and industries. These groups organize across territorial and industrial communities and take into account the diversity of worker identities and interests. Their collective activity has lead to a new thrust in the labor movement that Janice Fine of MIT’s Political Science Department terms “community unionism.” “Community unionism is the political corollary of labor market unionism,” Fine explained. “The community is the fundamental economic organization through which people are connected.”

Examples of community organizing around labor market issues are proliferating. National organizations such as ACORN have partnered with local community groups to mount living wage campaigns across the country. Project QUEST in San Antonio, Texas, joined with the national Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to establish a community training and employment center for low-income workers. In Long Island, the Workplace Project’s immigrant worker center passed a statewide unpaid wages law. The Baltimore organization BUILD has worked for the enactment of a series of city-wide labor market ordinances, including living wage, right-to-organize, and right of first refusal ordinances, as well as a “school counts” law that allows mothers moving off welfare to count education toward their work requirement. BUILD’s latest effort is to pass a $5 million endowment to create a Taft-Hartley plan, which includes a multi-employer health care plan for Head Start workers.

Why are community groups increasingly organizing workers? “First, they realize that no amount of public subsidy could compensate for the decline in work and wages,” said Fine. “Also, unions were not organizing in these communities. Finally, self-interest motivated inner-city churches with dwindling congregations and overtaxed social service infrastructures to engage in this new experimentalism.” Although these efforts are distinct and shaped by local concerns, they do share several characteristics in common:

  • Community unionism is place-based, nonsectoral, nonoccupational, and nonfirm/industry specific. “In many cases, one low-wage job in the service sector is similar to the next,” said Fine. “Communities of interest exist more around place, race, and ethnicity.” These groups operate largely outside of the labor movement and seek to organize workers in ways that cut across skill and firm boundaries.
  • Community unionism achieves more wins in the public policy arena and with employers in the public sector. Thus far, organizing has been geared more toward public policy fights than workplace organizing or representation. These groups are very successful in raising conditions across a local or regional labormarket through regu lation, as opposed to collective bargaining agreements with individual employers. But the reg- ulations are largely limited to the public sector or to work that is contracted by the public sector.
  • Community unions benefit from a freedom from bureaucracy, but also suffer from a lack of resources. Because these groups are firmly based in community efforts, they are free to experiment and can avoid the cumbersome formalities that accompany NLRB elections, since membership is looser than in traditional unions. However, dues collection is not always systematized, so they lack the resources and experiences of the labor movement.
  • Community unions challenge the definition of unionism itself. “Because they haven’t been conditioned by labor union structures or labor law, they consider themselves to be worker organizations or unions,” said Fine. “But their approach raises a question about what a union actually is.” These groups neither rely on majority elections nor perform collective bargaining. Finally, while they do represent minority unionism, they often have difficulty relating to labor unions because they are unwilling to subsume their efforts under an international rubric or to become part of a mainstream local or regional structure.
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