The Changing Face of Collective Representation: The Future of Collective Bargaining
33 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2007 Last revised: 27 Jun 2013
Date Written: 2007
In many ways, these are among the darkest days for the American labor movement. Union membership in the private sector has declined from 36% to 8% from the 1950's to the present. Large organized companies like Ford, GM and their parts suppliers are in bankruptcy, or threatening the same, and drastically cutting their work forces and demanding wage cuts and benefit reductions. The largest private employers in the economy, Manpower Inc. and Walmart, steadfastly resist organization and adopt policies promoting low wages. Real wages in the economy as a whole have remained stagnant for almost three decades now, as more and more manufacturing jobs are sent overseas, or disappear altogether due to technological innovations. Finally, until the most recent election, the Republican party - no friend of labor's - controlled the Presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Board and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. Even with the Democrats' recent electoral gains in Congress and the states, the prospects for labor's legislative agenda seem dim.
Yet this is also a time of great innovation and excitement in the labor movement. The Justice for Janitors movement has organized and negotiated minimum terms for cleaning personnel employed by cleaning contractors to clean and maintain office buildings in Los Angeles, New Jersey and elsewhere in the country. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, lead a successful four-year boycott against Taco Bell to convince their parent company Yum Foods to pressure growers who supply the chain to raise wages for agricultural workers. New York free lancers in writing, art, financial advice and computers have organized themselves for the purchase of health insurance and other benefits in the organization Working Today. Farm laborers from Mexico and the United States have combined to support the organization of apple-pickers in Washington State, filing complaints under the NAFTA agreement accusing the apple industry of violating labor rights and threatening the health and safety of migrant labor. The AFL-CIO has organized almost a million new affiliate members through community based in its new political affiliate association Working America. Finally, seven powerful unions have organized themselves in the new Change to Win Coalition, promising innovative strategies for organizing and representing the interests of working people.
Why do we see such innovation, even excitement, in the American labor movement, at a time when, by all objective measures, the movement is flat on its back? I will argue that recent changes in the American labor movement represent the beginning of its adaptation to changes in the employment relationship that have occurred as we have moved from production organized according to industrial technology, to production organized under the new information technology in the global economy. A previous change from artisanal to industrial methods of production around the beginning of the twentieth century presaged great change, and growth, in the American labor movement. Similarly, as the American economy transitions from industrial methods of production to adopt new structures utilizing information technology, the American labor movement is being prompted to organize and undertake collective action in new ways, that will hopefully lead to its resurgence. The innovations in the American labor movement to adjust to this change in technology and the employment relationship are what account for the current excitement in the movement.
In this lecture, I will present a brief history of the American economy and trace how changes in the methods of production led to changes in the employment relationship and the collective organization of workers. After a brief discussion of the transition from artisanal to industrial production, I will focus on the more recent changes engendered by the new information technology and the globalization of the economy. My hope is that this discussion will illuminate the significance to recent developments in collective organization and help us divine the future course of the American labor movement.
Keywords: Economics, Labor, Unions, Collective Bargaining, Labor Law
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