To the Editors: 

As I read Stephen Lerner’s “An Injury to All: Going Beyond Collective Bargaining as We Have Known It” (in New Labor Forum’s Spring 2010 issue), I thought it was a parody—here was one of the nation’s foremost practitioners of topdown unionism, a key decision-maker in perhaps the nation’s most centralized and corrupt union, writing to “offer a moral voice for those devastated by the economic crisis.”

Lerner’s “radical” new idea? Labor unions should redouble their efforts to win big at the bargaining table by expanding the scope of negotiations in conjunction with communities and allies to “challenge the dominance of corporate power and money.” I guess that is a radically new idea for an SEIU leader.

Lerner’s prescription would be more credible had he drawn on lessons learned from the SEIU’s many mistakes and what he, as an SEIU leader, is doing to help it regain its lost way and save the labor movement—again. Instead, he takes a cheap shot at the UAW.

He could have started with the decisive failure that was Change to Win and continued with an analysis of the top-down deals negotiated behind closed doors with the multinational subcontractors Aramark and Compass Group, among others. In those back-door deals, the SEIU allowed companies to choose which worksites would be unionized, relegated its members to permanent povertylevel wages and “handled” representation via a 1-800 number thousands of miles away. He also could have accepted the critique of the SEIU’s welfare unionism—an SEIU strategy that cost hundreds of millions of dollars without substantially improving the lives of its incredibly hardworking members—offered in Jennifer Klein and Eileen Boris’s forthcoming book.

Does anyone really think for a minute that if the Bank of America (to which the SEIU is currently $89 million in debt—labor’s version of “the Stockholm Syndrome”) would sign an agreement, the SEIU would maintain its advocacy for banking reform? To demonstrate the SEIU’s moral bankruptcy, ask anyone you know in the SEIU to provide a copy of its agreements with Aramark and Compass, or with the nursing home industry in Washington State. Those deals are so bad the SEIU won’t even release them to its own members, let alone the allies that Lerner now advocates partnering with. Maybe Lerner has turned a new leaf.

There is much to agree with in Lerner’s piece, even if his own organization ignores his earnest recommendations. Lerner advises: “For unions to play a role in reshaping how the economy is organized, we need to figure out how to make collective bargaining relevant, launch organizing campaigns that build movements that unite workers with the needs of their communities, and—in so doing—challenge the dominance of corporate power and money.”

Who can disagree with that?

Less important than Lerner’s writings are his actions. Thousands of health care workers in California are liberating themselves from the corporate unionism of the SEIU, precisely because the SEIU has failed to challenge corporate power. I welcome Lerner gaining the courage to fight for his “radical” change in the one institution he can immediately influence—the Service Employees International Union.

—John Borsos is a vice president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW)

To the Editors:

The most important insight Stephen Lerner offers in “An Injury to All” is that the overwhelming majority of American workers have no meaningful stake in the current system of collective bargaining. When unions represent a significant enough percentage of the workforce in an industry or region, labor standards established through collective bargaining have an upward pressure on all wages because nonunion employers are induced to raise wages to retain workers and to discourage unionization. Under those circumstances, all workers have a vested interest in collective bargaining. As union density has continued to decline, unions no longer set standards. The key question Lerner asks, but does not yet adequately answer, is how—without first unionizing vast sectors of the economy and regions of the country—can collective bargaining become relevant again to 90 percent of America’s workers who remain outside labor’s ranks?

There are at least two ways. The first is to expand the scope of negotiations to include issues and address interests that go beyond more narrowly defined terms and conditions of employment. This is no easy task because the postwar U.S. industrial relations system has evolved in the opposite direction by legally prescribing permissible subjects of bargaining. Ever since the 1945-1946 General Motors (GM) strike, when Walter Reuther failed to win the power to inspect GM’s books or negotiate over the price of cars, American unions have focused their bargaining demands more narrowly on wages and benefits.

Union leaders should give serious thought to expanding collective bargaining in the ways Lerner advocates. The national Building Trades are promoting an innovative bargaining tool called a Community Workforce Agreement (CWA) that covers terms and conditions of employment like a traditional Project Labor Agreement does, but also addresses the interests of urban communities, whose members want equitable access to lifetime careers in the unionized construction industry. These agreements require contractors to utilize apprentices from registered programs and meet hiring targets from specified categories of workers. The best CWAs have monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that hiring targets are met and community interests are respected. The national leadership’s endorsement of the CWAs is truly historic.

A second way to make collective bargaining more meaningful and relevant to the working class is to bring the broader community directly into the negotiating process. Through the Emerald Cities Collaborative—a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, community organizations, and green jobs advocates—the national Building Trades are exploring how to engage underrepresented communities in the process of negotiating CWAs. Laborers Local 55—established in 2008 by LIUNA (the Laborers’ International Union of North America) and New Labor (a New Jersey-based worker center)—is another novel Building Trades example of how to make collective bargaining more relevant to those workers who are not yet union members. For the first time, community interests are not just addressed through collective negotiations— community actors sit on the local’s board and at the bargaining table.

Unless and until millions of unrepresented workers have a real and concrete interest in both the process and outcome of collective bargaining, revitalizing the American labor movement will be difficult to imagine and tough to achieve.

—Jeff Grabelsky is the Director of the Construction Industry Program at Cornell ILR

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