Why should Wal-Mart concede anything?
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.
| February 24, 2011; 3:03 PM ET
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