Unions look for relevance in job training

Workforce Development and the New Unionism
Edited by Penn Kemble; introduction by Morton Bahr
New Economy Information Service, Washington, DC, 210 pages.

The second half of 2002 showcased, in rapid sequence, the past, present, and (possibly) future of the American labor movement.

The contract dispute on the Pacific docks conjured up the Spirit of Labor Past: A tightly organized union astride a vital industrial chokepoint wins Cabinet-level paychecks for stevedores and clerks. Labor’s economic clout so overmatches employers that the president wades into the fight on management’s side. (When was the last time a reference to the Taft-Hartley Act appeared on the front page?) The scenario, once common, feels weirdly out of time, like spotting a grizzly on Boston Common. In labor’s mid-century heyday, over a third of the work force carried union cards. Today, after decades of damage from economic and political reversals, unions claim just 9 percent of private-sector workers, mostly huddled in stagnant or shrinking industries. The West Coast remake of On the Waterfront is a flashback, not a preview.

Today, unions claim just 9 percent of all private-sector workers.
The Washington imbroglio over work rules for the new Department of Homeland Security reflects the Spirit of Labor Present. As unionism shriveled in private industry, it surged in government. The public sector accounts for less than 16 percent of all jobs, but almost 45 percent of union jobs. Government employment offers a haven–for some lucky workers–from the harsh economic climate facing people without advanced skills, offering them better pay, richer benefits, and more security than the turbulent private sector does. Much of the labor movement’s mission, in recent years, has been shoring up this enclave.

And the “justice for janitors” campaign in Boston (and elsewhere) might signal the Spirit of Labor Future. The scrappy Service Employees International Union, using adroit tactics and appeals to the public’s conscience, has won serious wage and benefit gains for workers who–in our mostly poor, porous-bordered world –are almost infinitely replaceable. This is a dauntingly difficult but worthy goal, evoking the struggles of A. Philip Randolph, the Reuther brothers, Cesar Chavez, and other patron saints of American unionism. If the labor movement is once more to be (or deserves to be) a major player on the American scene, it’s not enough to defend the perquisites of dockworkers and GS-12s. Its mission has to be restoring America’s imperiled middle-class culture by narrowing the earnings gap–a gap fast becoming a chasm–between hyper-educated professionals and everyone else.

Asked over 100 years ago “What does labor want?” Samuel Gompers, the founder of the AFL, famously answered, “More.” What followed is less commonly quoted, but it should be: “We want more schoolhouses and less jails, more books and less arsenals, more learning and less vice, more constant work and less crime, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge. In fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.”

With a bit of updating for gender, this agenda remains hard to beat today. But there are at least three ways of pursuing “more.” One is classic organizing, to gain workplace leverage for labor. Another thrust is political, aggregating workers’ voices and votes to make public policy more labor-friendly. The third approach is essentially economic, in which unions become agents for increasing productivity. Without denying that each strategy has its place, it is worth noting that the third path is what the game theorists call “positive-sum.” Workers get “more” because they produce more; labor’s gain is nobody’s loss.

And this makes Workforce Development and the New Unionism a very interesting book. It’s interesting in part because of its content: 11 chapters covering various union-based efforts to boost workers’ skills and productivity. It’s even more interesting because of its provenance. This is a book of, by, and for the labor movement itself. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Heritage Fund financed it. The authors are all labor stalwarts, including union presidents Morton Bahr of the Communications Workers of America and Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers. The volume seems to be circulating mainly within labor circles. (Unlike most books, even painfully obscure ones–my books, for instance —Workforce Development and the New Unionism isn’t available on Amazon. com; you have to order it from the New Economy Information Service at www.newecon.org.) The prose is heavy with the acronym-laden earnestness that labor adopts for conversations within the family. Eavesdropping on this conversation offers some intriguing insights into today’s mostly civil and hugely consequential struggle for the labor movement’s soul.

“We recognized that we could no longer promise our members job security.”

Bahr sets the tone. His Communications Workers of America–blue-collar aristocracy barely two decades ago–has been savaged by the perfect storm of deregulation, the Bell System breakup, and warp-speed technological change. “We recognized that we could no longer promise our members job security,” he recounts, so the union “changed our strategy to one of providing employment security–that is, providing the tools our members need to make them more employable…” Bahr spent some of the CWA’s few remaining chips at the bargaining table to lock up employer-funded worker training for his members.

Companies have always provided a fair amount of training, on their own nickel and in their own interests, but it’s mostly tilted toward managers and professionals. When the rank-and-file do get employer-funded training, it tends to be in company rules and procedures, proprietary software, the use of specialized equipment, and other skills that don’t boost earning power outside the company and hence don’t boost bargaining power inside the firm. Bahr urges other unions to follow this lead. “Our culture must change to one that fosters and supports lifelong learning..,” argues Bahr. “Done the right way, it can become an opportunity–perhaps a key to labor’s renewal.”

Bahr may not yet represent the labor movement’s mainstream, but he is far from alone. Workforce Development and the New Unionism presents abundant evidence that union involvement in education, training, and productivity improvement is neither recent nor rare. Retired union leader Gus Tyler recounts the skill-building efforts of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in its formative years, including the establishment of a “Workers’ University” in World War I-era New York City. (A local-interest bonus here is the tale of the Katz family of Posen changing their name to “Filene”–“Feline” seemed too transparent–when they came to America. Staunch believers in what would today be called employee stock ownership, the Boston merchants were key allies in helping the ILGWU crack the New York garment trade.) Labor writer Beth Rogers explains how appalling rates of on-the-job fatalities inspired the formation of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and led it to focus on training from the start. Since 1941 the IBEW and the electrical contractors’ trade association have jointly run a top-notch apprenticeship program. Rex Hardesty describes the Seafarers International Union’s sophisticated educational programs, which have made US merchant mariners worth their comparatively lofty pay as ships go high-tech. Former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet reveals the role played by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in the performance-and-productivity campaign that resuscitated motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson.

Will human-capital investment become a mainstay of union strategy? The jury is still out. In his introduction, editor Penn Kemble concedes that some unionists “may regard what is generally called work force development as a tepid, accommodationist strategy.” True enough, the term doesn’t lend itself to one of those hand-clapping, heart-stirring old union songs. (“Oh, a dose of work force development/Can keep those unions relevant!” Maybe not.) After decades of insults and injuries, on the political and economic fronts alike, some unionists are more inclined to man the barricades than to file into the classrooms. Skeptics from various factions of the labor movement question the payoff from training: Why waste labor’s leverage on undertakings that promise benefits that are, at best, diffused, delayed, and shared with management?

There’s also a potential dark side to labor’s role in work force development, what Kemble coyly refers to as “the influence it gives unions in shaping labor markets.” Education and training can be converted into a vehicle for turf protection, and at several points Workforce Development and the New Unionism hints that ramping up the anti-competitive aspects of training programs is a perennial temptation for labor. Of course, blue-collar unions are not the only ones who make use of formal credentials to limit entry; this is pretty much the whole idea behind the American Medical Association and other carriage-trade guilds. But supply restriction is a different strategy than real work force development, and ultimately a shabbier one. “More” for the duly credentialed union worker means “less” for others–consumers, investors, and the poor schlump who’s perfectly able to do the work but lacks the entry ticket–with no net value created.

Despite the barriers and hazards, however, unions may be uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in work force development. It’s become a cliché–and like most clichés, a reality–that lifelong learning is the key to prosperity in our global, technology-driven economy. Yet sorting out responsibilities for funding, designing, and delivering worker training has proven to be a devilishly difficult piece of policy architecture. It’s hard to structure incentives, obligations, and information flows that induce the various players–employers, training providers, government, and workers themselves–to make efficient choices and to operate accountably. Labor unions may possess just the right mix of expertise, interest, and legitimacy to orchestrate work force development efforts. An emphasis on training that boosts both productivity and earning power, meanwhile, could simultaneously increase union appeal to workers and reduce employer resistance.

The story of the labor movement –a story as rich with glory and grief, virtue, shame, and triumph as any in American history–just might feature work force development as a central theme in its next chapter. It’s clear that the authors of Workforce Development and the New Unionism, at least, view skill building as a modern manifestation of the movement’s most red-blooded traditions. As Kemble puts it: “Those who are not born to education are undertaking a form of class struggle when they educate and train themselves, and help fellow workers do the same.” Maybe there’s a song in there after all.

Meet the Author
John D. Donahue teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and held senior Labor Department posts in the Clinton Administration. His latest book is For the People: Can We Fix Public Service?, forthcoming from Brookings.