Thursday, December 28, 2006


Labor Unions & White Collar America

The thoughtful article at the link below assesses the possible roles that unions could play in the lives of white collar workers. The authors emphasize that, although white collar workers "are now as bewildered by the 'new economy' as manufacturing workers have been for a generation", they are reluctant to join trade unions. Part of the trouble is that they believe trade unions are essentially divisive - that they obstruct corporations rather than work with them to guarantee a profit for all. Even though white collar workers are dismayed by downsizing and flat wages, most imagine that they can still get around those destructive corporate trends if they only work hard enough. Unions remain in their eyes dinosaurs of a time gone by at best - and, at worst, totally corrupt and irrelevant.

Nonetheless, the authors discovered that white collar workers are interested in "new unions" that can solve problems by working with management rather than against it. But, as the authors say, "labor activists are often ambivalent about characterizing unions as team players." Many union organizers stress that "employers have reneged on partnership arrangements so often that union members are instinctively suspicious of any allusions to teamwork." Casting the work of unions in a new light that emphasizes cooperation rather than opposition, however, can appeal to white collar workers even if the traditional tactics of arbitration and collective bargaining are not wholly abandoned.

Unions have made headway on a variety of white collar fronts. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) has stepped in to help provide training for Verizon employees, and the Professional and Technical Engineers union has fought successfully to allow Boeing employees to telecommute. The Service Employees International Union is sponsoring United Professionals, and CWA is supporting the IT workers union Techs Unite. Ten major unions have established a contract with Kaiser Permanente, called the National Labor Management Partnership Agreement, whose goals are to involve "employees and unions in organizational decision-making at every level" and "to improve the quality of health care, make Kaiser Permanente a better place to work, enhance Kaiser Permanente's competitive performance, provide employees with employment and income security, and expand Kaiser Permanente's membership." This is the kind of sophisticated symbiosis that would attract white collar workers, and there are labor unions out there that are pulling it off right now. The unions are already changing with the times, and all they may lack is the right publicity.

But unions can't conquer white collar reluctance solely through their own imaginative innovations. White collar workers will remain leary of joining any union, no matter how modern and progressive, if union membership threatens their jobs. Unions and their members must lobby the Democratic congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which is intended to shield corporate employees from dismissal just for exercising their legal right to organize.

"A Union Hearing" from The American Prospect
"White Collar Perspectives On Workplace Issues"

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