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Posted at 3:03 PM ET, 02/24/2011

Why should Wal-Mart concede anything?

By Ezra Klein

In our interview earlier today, Andy Stern painted an appealing picture of a world in which labor and the employers they seek to organize saw themselves as partners rather than mortal enemies. A smart friend in the labor movement writes in to say that Stern is being too optimistic:

Andy seems no long to understand the relationship, in our country anyway, between power and cooperation. When you asked him the good question about why labor relations are different in other democratic capitalist countries than they are in the U.S., he spoke regretfully about the history of labor/management conflict in the U.S. But that begs the question of why there is that conflict. A lot of it has to do with our weaker social welfare state -- European unions, even private sector ones, often fight the state around benefit questions, not corporations. And there are many many other issues -- this is a studied question.

But, to use phrases Andy has used in the past, in the U.S. the persuasion of power must precede the power of persuasion. There's really only so much even a powerful union like SEIU can get from "working with" Walmart. Walmart, and, by extension, the entire American corporate class, has all the leverage when they deal with unions today. Why should they concede anything--there are zero incentives for them to do so. However, in the small pockets of the American economy where unions still have a good deal of power, e.g. the Las Vegas gaming industry, there are all the things Andy talks about, i.e. jointly sponsored training programs, a functioning, rationalized relationship between unions and management. But that only happened because the hotel workers made a huge commitment to fight for, and win, organizing rights at 90% of the hotel rooms on the Las Vegas strip. The persuasion of power comes first, just as it did in Europe (and see Geoff Ely's great book on the history of the left in Europe from the mid 19th century to the present, to understand how hard unions had to fight even there to have the power--and thus the respect--they enjoy today).

In short, you can't get to the "let's cooperate and figure out a way for this business or government to run smoothly on behalf of everybody" phase with the business and government class today. They see no reason to recognize and respect unions as important stakeholders. I'll grant that the public sector unions have more space to be creative in this way than do private sector unions--but the limits on the private sector deeply affect the public sector, and vice versa. Companies have defeated unions, and, uniquely, American capitalists are more intent on winning that victory than on accepting unions as a quotidian part of liberal capitalism. But, having won that fight, they have no reason to let unions back in the front door. So, notwithstanding Andy's worries, it's the old Frederick Douglass story -- power is not granted, it must be taken. Then, after it's taken, we can all sit down and try to do things rationally, like they do in Las Vegas (and even there, the union has to redomonstrate its power constantly). But, in an operative sense, there's no reason to think that American unions today can be creative, vanguardist thinkers about workplace organization than there was to think that the Egyptian opposition could sit down in good faith and talk with Mubarak prior to the dramatic events of the last several weeks.

By Ezra Klein  | February 24, 2011; 3:03 PM ET
 
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Comments

Good luck with the confrontational approach when it comes to the public sector. As Andy Stern points out:

"You can use lots of things like politics and the natural slowness of change, but in the end, if people are waiting on long lines at the DMV, something will happen eventually. Subcontracting, technology, or something else will begin to replace you."

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2011/02/andy_stern_it_may_not_end_beau.html

Posted by: jnc4p | February 24, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Where I work, some of our employees were complaining that when they would park their company cars in the parking lot with full tanks of gas overnight, the next morning the tanks would be nearly empty. Management decided to put a security camera outside to monitor the parking lot. Tapes showed one of the night shift employees stealing the gas from the company cars and putting it in gas cans that he had in his car trunk. The employee was fired but the union complained, arguing that management did not notify the union employees that it would be monitoring their activities. The guy was hired back, and then the union argued that he deserved back wages because he was inappropriately let go.

This is the modern union. No longer trying to make the companies they work for better and more competitive, only protecting thieves and laggards.

Posted by: cummije5 | February 24, 2011 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Your friend's analysis sounds like self-serving baloney to me. My recollection of labor law is that the NLRA effectively mandates an adversarial union/management relationship. As I recall, a number of nonadversarial worker/management councils were found to be ULPs (under Section 8(a)(2), I believe) and forbidden.

Posted by: WmOckham | February 24, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse

In contrasting the European social model with the American, we shouldn't neglect the bitter class conflicts of the interwar years (punctuated by revolutions and civil wars and with labor heavily politicized). The postwar period was marked by a determination on all sides to avoid a repetition of that experience. The Marshall Plan also promoted joint decision-making by labor, management, and government.

Posted by: PeterBelenky | February 24, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

I've heard management say something along the lines of, "If you treat your workers bad enough that they unionize, then you deserve it." I wonder how widespread that attitude is, and if it's resulted in a tendency for unions to appear in already dysfunctional workplaces.

Posted by: MikeT5 | February 24, 2011 4:59 PM | Report abuse

The change in attitude of corporate leaders toward employees, whether unionized or not, became apparent in the 1970s when Personnel Departments were renamed Human Resources.

Most took the euphemism as an upgrade of employee status. In fact, it was a blatant admission that workers were merely another interchangable "resource" for management to manipulate, like raw materials and assembly lines tools.

Governor Walker is merely putting into practice what corporations have preached for 40 years. That's why they have no incentive to negotiate and cooperate with union workers. Why worry what a resource thinks?

Posted by: tomcammarata | February 24, 2011 7:09 PM | Report abuse

the employee was fired but the union complained, arguing that management did not notify the union employees that it would be monitoring their activities. The guy was hired back, and then the union argued that he deserved back wages because he was inappropriately let go.

Under the doctrine of the duty of fair representation (created by the Supreme Court and not the Congress, if I recall correctly), unions can be sued if members believe the union hasn't protected them adequately. So, particularly in dismissal situations, the safer course for the union is almost always to arbitrate the dismissal on whatever grounds it can find, rather than tell the dismissed worker to go pound rocks and wait for the lawsuit to be filed. Unions don't like the DFR doctrine, but it is the law of the land.

My recollection of labor law is that the NLRA effectively mandates an adversarial union/management relationship. As I recall, a number of nonadversarial worker/management councils were found to be ULPs (under Section 8(a)(2), I believe) and forbidden.

More accurate to say that American labor law severely limits the extent to which employees covered under collective bargaining agreements can have managerial or supervisory responsibilies, making some kinds of cooperative activities quite problematic - and, of course, greatly limiting how much of the labor force can be represented by a union.

Posted by: rawson30 | February 24, 2011 8:21 PM | Report abuse

The Left never understood that the best protection for any worker is a competing job alternative. Any individual in the US has the means to invest in improving his skills in a variety of ways, to make himself more valuable to an employers. And of course, the employed can always aspire to be the employer.

Let's compare the growth rate in per capita living standards between the Euros and Americans. I'll take the anti-union US any day because the cut-throat capitalist spirit creates a more competitive economy with more options for ambitious workers to choose from. The laggards can always get a government job.

Posted by: ElGipper | February 24, 2011 9:04 PM | Report abuse

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