Reversing Labor's Decline

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 2:22 PM EDT

Katherine V.W. Stone, a professor at UCLA, has written a paper entitled, "Flexibilization, Globalization, and Privatization: The Three Challenges to Labor Rights in Our Time," that deserves a look. It gives a solid overview of the three main reasons why unions in the United States have withered over the past few decades. First, companies have increasingly sought greater flexibility in the workplace—often out of necessity—which has reduced the appeal, for them, of the old unionized workplace model, with its narrow job definitions and rigid hierarchies. Second, thanks to globalization, many companies now have the ability to shift operations abroad, thus weakening the leverage unions can wield. And third, active government policies dating from the Reagan era, including the privatization of labor arbitration, have decimated the strength of organized labor.

Granted, it often depends on which industries we're actually talking about: the policy aspect seems more important for the service and retail industry—there's no good structural reason why Wal-Mart workers shouldn't be unionized, except that public policy works against this—while globalization seems more important for, say, some manufacturing. (Although even on this, I'm skeptical of her point that companies move to countries with lowest labor standards, thereby forcing nations to "compete" over deregulations; see David Kucera's work here.) Still, it's a hostile environment out there, and voting in a more labor-friendly government into Washington won't necessarily get rid of the economic reality here. The current union model, in some ways, has become obsolete.

So how to get around that? Stone, building off Edward Glaeser's work on cities, notes a striking fact: many industries tend to "agglomerate" in a single area, likely because they gain some benefit by being near each other. With tech industries, for instance, you can see why it would pay to find one specific region—Silicon Valley, say—where a large portion of skilled workers can live. Insofar as this actually happens, then, workers can form together in local "citizens unions" to put pressure on local companies concentrated in that area:

While training can help make a locality's workforce more flexible and skilled, no individual employer has an incentive to establish such programs unilaterally because it cannot capture all the benefits for itself, or preventing their capture by a competitor. However, if a group of workers, organized as a citizens association or a local union, pressures firms in an area to contribute, it would create a benefit from which all would share. Similarly, if enough corporations were induced to contribute to a locality's social infrastructure – its school system, hospitals, parks, cultural activities, and child care -- that would help attract a highly skilled workforce who want quality educational opportunities for their children. Such community investment would benefit all local firms in a locality.

Easier said than done, naturally, but she might be onto something. In essence, her idea takes advantage of the fact that many companies, especially those with high turnover, draw on the collective skills, knowledge, and experience of the broader local workforce, rather than just those specific workers working in the company at a given point in time. I don't know if that's always true—again, many retailers often draw on the collective lack of skill in a given locality—but it seems like a promising way to think about the structural obstacles unions face. Many local campaigns, such as Mass Global Action, or local "living wage" campaigns, or the Industrial Areas Foundation have all had a great deal of local success that bring many of the benefits of unionization without resorting solely on organizing within a specific company or industry (the campaigns usually combining local activists, church groups, community organizations, worker's groups, in addition to unions). I don't think this sort of thing can ever adequately replace a robust labor movement in this country, but they're definitely complementary in all sorts of crucial ways.