How to Restore the Power of Unions?

Joe Burns October 28, 2010

On Oct. 16, hotel workers at the Chicago Hilton protested the chain's efforts to lock workers into the recession. They followed the examples of the world’s largest Hiltons in Honolulu and San Francisco, where workers led strikes earlier that week.

Julius Getman’s lat­est book offers a com­pelling answer

In the ear­ly 1990s, trade union­ists in the Unit­ed States aban­doned the strike as a cen­tral com­po­nent of trade union strat­e­gy. In its place, union­ists and aca­d­e­m­ic sup­port­ers focused on orga­niz­ing the unor­ga­nized, one-day strikes and com­mu­ni­ty cam­paigns. Yet on the main con­cern of the tra­di­tion­al labor move­ment — how to extract con­ces­sions from employ­ers through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing — there has been vir­tu­al silence.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas Law Pro­fes­sor Julius Get­man stands out as a rare excep­tion to this trend. For sev­er­al decades, Get­man has urged the labor move­ment to focus on the fun­da­men­tals of trade union pow­er. Getman’s 1998 book, The Betray­al of Local 14, chron­i­cled the heart­break­ing Inter­na­tion­al Paper strike of the ear­ly 1990s, mak­ing a strong plea for ban­ning the per­ma­nent replace­ment of strik­ing workers. 

For­tu­nate­ly for labor activists, Get­man has writ­ten anoth­er about book about labor: Restor­ing the Pow­er of Unions: It Takes a Move­ment (Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press). The first half of Restor­ing the Pow­er of Unions focus­es on the Hotel Employ­ees and Restau­rant Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (HERE). Get­man believes HERE’s mem­ber-cen­tered union­ism can serve as an exam­ple for the entire labor move­ment. The sec­ond half of the book pro­vides insight­ful analy­sis on all-too-often ignored top­ics of trade union strat­e­gy, the short­falls of the orga­niz­ing approach and the need for labor law reform. 

But through­out the book, Get­man con­stant­ly directs the labor move­ment back to its true source of pow­er: a mobi­lized rank and file. 

Get­man chose to focus on HERE because he believes that this union, more than any oth­er union, has focused not only on orga­niz­ing and bar­gain­ing but also on cre­at­ing a spir­it of move­ment.” With hotel work­ers cur­rent­ly engaged in a high-pro­file, strate­gic bat­tle against nation­al hotel chains, Getman’s analy­sis is cer­tain­ly time­ly.

Get­man traces HERE’s trans­for­ma­tion from a mobbed-up union into one of today’s more dynam­ic inter­na­tion­al unions. Along the way, he pro­vides valu­able analy­sis and his­to­ry of HERE’s strikes at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty and the trans­for­ma­tion of local unions in San Fran­cis­co and Las Vegas. To Get­man, key to HERE’s trans­for­ma­tion was the rise of a group­ing of lead­ers who firm­ly believed the pow­er of the union comes from move­ment build­ing— thus the title of the book.

Restor­ing the Pow­er of Unions makes anoth­er valu­able con­tri­bu­tion by ana­lyz­ing the con­flict­ed 2004 merg­er of HERE and UNITE, the gar­ment work­ers union, into UNITE-HERE. Draw­ing on his decades of rela­tion­ships with UNITE-HERE lead­ers, Get­man pro­vides a detailed account of the bat­tle between for­mer HERE leader John Wil­helm and for­mer UNITE leader Bruce Raynor. To many media observers, this was mere­ly a per­son­al­i­ty dis­pute — a fight over who got the cor­ner office. To Get­man, how­ev­er, the dis­pute was over fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences in union phi­los­o­phy: between the top down phi­los­o­phy held by Raynor and his allies in SEIU, and the mem­ber-cen­tered union­ism of Wil­helm and the core HERE lead­er­ship.

With the labor move­ment wracked by inter­nal con­flict in recent years (the split of Change to Win, the UNITE-HERE con­flict, the civ­il wars in SEIU), fig­ur­ing out the under­ly­ing pol­i­tics can be mys­ti­fy­ing. Restor­ing the Pow­er of Unions helps explain part of the puz­zle. (Luck­i­ly, anoth­er piece will soon be filled in by Steve Early’s high­ly antic­i­pat­ed book The Civ­il Wars in Labor, which will dis­sect the pol­i­tics and prac­tice of Raynor’s ally, the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), and is due out next year.)

Halfway through the book, Get­man switch­es to trade union pol­i­cy. Get­man cov­ers top­ics such as details on how labor law is stacked against work­ers, the restric­tions on the right to strike and a crit­i­cal analy­sis of the Employ­ee Free Choice Act. Get­man dis­agrees with many oth­er labor schol­ars that sim­ply amend­ing labor law to include card check will resolve labor’s cri­sis.

Draw­ing on decades of research, Get­man argues that issues of access to employ­ees and under­ly­ing union strength are more impor­tant to union growth. To Get­man, such prob­lems can be only be resolved through pres­sure tac­tics such as com­pre­hen­sive cam­paigns. The com­pre­hen­sive or cor­po­rate” cam­paign is the strat­e­gy of strate­gic mobi­liza­tion and pres­sure on employ­ers used by some unions, includ­ing UNITE-HERE.

At some points, Get­man overem­pha­sizes the pow­er of the com­pre­hen­sive cam­paign. When prop­er­ly uti­lized, the strat­e­gy has proven able to beat back some of the worst con­ces­sions. For exam­ple, ear­li­er this year minework­ers at Rio Tin­to uti­lized mem­ber mobi­liza­tion and inter­na­tion­al pres­sure to force an end to a lock­out and reach a con­tract set­tle­ment. Rep­re­sent­ed by the ILWU, the mem­bers beat back some, but not all, of management’s concessions.

After 25 years, how­ev­er, it is time to admit that strat­e­gy alone will not revive the labor move­ment. To do that, we need a labor move­ment will­ing to con­front the sys­tem of labor con­trol — the legal restric­tions on the right to strike and sol­i­dar­i­ty — that ham­strings the labor move­ment.

Most labor com­men­ta­tors ignore the sys­tem of labor control’s restric­tions on the right to strike. They focus on orga­niz­ing or social union­ism, ignor­ing the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of union eco­nom­ics. Not Get­man. He argues the restric­tions on the right to strike are crit­i­cal, par­tic­u­lar­ly chang­ing the rule allow­ing per­ma­nent replace­ment of strik­ing work­ers. Unlike many com­men­ta­tors, Get­man also dis­cuss­es the impor­tance of labor’s long-lost tac­tics of sol­i­dar­i­ty, the pow­er­ful sec­ondary strikes out­lawed by the Taft Hart­ley Act of 1947. To Get­man, union pow­er comes from sol­i­dar­i­ty — from work­ers act­ing togeth­er.

The main prob­lem fac­ing the labor move­ment is not employ­ers, politi­cians or labor law. It is our way of think­ing — a prob­lem of incor­rect strat­e­gy. It is time for trade union­ists and all involved in the broad­er worker’s move­ment to debate the crit­i­cal ques­tion of how to restore the pow­er of unions.” With Restor­ing the Pow­er of Unions, Get­man pro­vides an invalu­able con­tri­bu­tion for those in the labor move­ment look­ing for answers.

Joe Burns, a for­mer local union pres­i­dent active in strike sol­i­dar­i­ty, is a labor nego­tia­tor and attor­ney. He is the author of the book Reviv­ing the Strike: How Work­ing Peo­ple Can Regain Pow­er and Trans­form Amer­i­ca (IG Pub­lish­ing, 2011) and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_CLceBbPGHH’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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