Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Detroit labor activists call for people's unions

6. January 2005 • MarkDilley
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via Michigan IMC:

“Trade Unions, once the champion of the working people, are now standing by helplessly while their share of the organized labor force has dwindled to 9%”

This is simply not true. Unions are trying to figure out how to organize within this nation state, while corporations can run their business/industries at a global level. This is a challenging problem!

I think people need to understand that unions operate on a couple of different principles.

1 – Service Model unionism – where a worker pays dues for union services such as filing grievances and negotiation contracts.

2 – Organizing Model unionism – where the power of the union is recognized to be in workers talking to each other about what is important at work and in their lives. Then using creative problem solving to get to solutions.

If your union is a service model – start talking to your coworkers about changing that. If your union is an organizing model, get involved!



  1. Mark, I give these guys some credit for trying to create a sense of crisis.

    I am a little mystified about why they’re so mystified that so many arbitrators (“even in Detroit”) are elderly white males. Arbitrators are lawyers. Lawyers are elderly white males. Therefore, by the transitive property of Fucking the Worker, arbitrators are elderly white males.

    You notice they don’t mention anything about free higher education? Weird, man.
       —Alyssa P.    Jan. 6 '05 - 11:15PM    #
  2. I know Charles. He’s a professor at EMU (highlighting Alyssa’s point about the lack of mention of free higher ed.) and one of the founders of the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit, which has done some decent work in the last few years. I don’t know if they’re still active, though.

    I think this statement is simply a re-statement of many ideas that have gone before but lack sufficient will on the part of the general public to activate. And the evident confusion among the commenters on IMC makes that about as stark as can be.

    That being said, there’s nothing inherently untrue about what they’re saying. It will simply take more people saying it to sway the body politic. As long as people cling to the old models in the vain hope that they’ll be effective at some point, Charles and people like him will just be shouting into the void.
       —Marc R.    Jan. 7 '05 - 07:20AM    #
  3. Mark (and Marc),

    Having read the indymedia discussion before seeing your comments here, I find myself unconvinced by either side. JaV is producing the traditional-to-the-point-of-ritualized complaint, “I’ve known examples of unionized workers slacking off but being protected by the union from firing, hurting their company as well as the reputation of unions,” and the union advoctes are providing the equally ritualized response, “Yes, well, I’ve known unionized employees who were still vulnerable to serious punishments, and besides, unions are still important!”

    As far as I can tell, both sides are correct, but the discussion is progressing in a totally unproductive, nearly information-free fashion. I have a few questions that I’d need answered:

    1. Given that JaV’s allegations of slackers are both a common perception of unions and not totally unfounded (I’ve known egregious examples in both educator and civil service unions), what can be done to address this? Is there some element of self-policing currently built into unions such that they can pressure visible slackers to shape up?

    2. The initial author(s) outline a good target point, but I don’t see that they offer any recommendations for how to get there—and the goal state they’re defining is one that I had kind of assumed was already an accepted goal state. What’s new in this particular article?

    3. Some of their points seem to point towards stronger industry-specific unions, others (such as supporting the unemployed) for more general unions. Do they want one or the other or both? How does an organizing strategy differ for one versus the others?

    4. As a general question of curiousity/ignorance, whatever happened to large labor actions? I’m not thinking so much general strikes as things like highly publicized boycotts. Even “buy american” is something I haven’t seen much of in several years. I know somebody who’s a union rep at (workshop suppressed) and who shops at Sam’s Club – shouldn’t labor have an ongoing boycott of WalMart (Coca-Cola, etc) if it wants to talk about solidarity with third world workers? Or even in its own self-interest?
       —Murph    Jan. 7 '05 - 10:21AM    #
  4. Murph,

    you make some good points. First while many of the ‘arguments’ i make against unions are tired, untill I hear a good response, I’ll keep asking. The folks over at MichIMC often are way way left or way way right, I consider myself somewhere in the middle, going more one direction then another depending on the topic. Most often they see me as a uber righty.

    I would have liked to talk more on the discussion board about an article I read on unions and how they tend to pigen-hole workers to one job and how the current workforce really needs to be more flexible, but I can’t find the link to the article/website where i read the great article.

    Mark D does a great job of starting a real discussion by breaking the unions into two basic kinds.

    I am not anti-union as much as I am simply willing to ponder if they are effective anymore. I don’t think they are and wish to explore ways to improve them or make them totally obsolete.
       —Just a Voice    Jan. 7 '05 - 12:30PM    #
  5. JaV, very much my point. Unions were wonderful, and may or may not be quite so useful anymore. If they’re not, it’s not an argument against unions, but an argument to find a way to make unions better. (And, even if they are still as effective, that’s no reason not to think about ways to improve them.)

    Mark, where can I (and JaV) read more about current discussions within the labor community about these questions? Assuming, of course, the discussions exist.
       —Murph    Jan. 7 '05 - 01:36PM    #
  6. a quick not, but as of tonight (with some gin in me) my current statement is;

    Unions are outdate, the jobs they best worked for are no longer viable in this country. It is time for the ???/progressive-left/liberals/someonepleas? to find a bold new system for dealing with labor issues in the workplace. If there is debate for us to see I would love to see it.

    I often play devils advocate to see what the good arguments of the two (or more) sides have to say, so then I can use those arguments myslef. I have not found a good argument for unions in the 21st century. Those who speak best for the union movement seem to do so as if it was 1930; or mostly go on about the history of it, no one talks about the problems of the present, or simply dismiss them.

    to see my whole rant (don’t bother) its on the imc site
       —Just a Voice    Jan. 8 '05 - 12:03AM    #
  7. The discussions exist. There are some over at daily kos, and at borders union… etc.etc. but it is not a big public discussion. Most of it is happening with in local unions, or federations of unions. Check out http://www.unitetowin.org/ & http://www.seiu.org/blog/ & http://www.nathannewman.org/laborblog/

    For JaV to say that unions are no longer needed says to me that s/he has not worked in their lives. If you have to spend 40 hours min. a week on a job where you have no rights, you quickly see why a union is needed.

    I rather think the discussion is about strenghtening unions. By strenghtening I mean empowering the members to understand that a union isn’t the leadership, it is them. A good union leadership knows that and is organizing the membership.
       —Mark    Jan. 8 '05 - 12:14PM    #
  8. also check out: http://www.labornet.org/viewpoints/dbacon/radvis.htm
    ——My question to JaV might be, if you are ready to throw out unions because they aren’t “working,” are you ready to throw out corporations?
       —Mark    Jan. 8 '05 - 05:20PM    #
  9. Unions “weren’t working” very well in the US between the late 1800s into the 1920s. At the time, unions were strictly a craft affair—carpenters were in the carpenters union; milk truck drivers were in the teamsters union; plumbers were in the pipe-fitters union; etc. regardless of their employer. This worked well when employers had few workers. The unions’ power was control of the supply of skilled labor (i.e., you can only learn to be a carpenter from another carpenter).

    The industrial revolution changed the equation—the old union model was broken and didn’t work for the mass of new workers in factories and other industrialized work places. Following the lead of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies), unions began to organize all workers “wall to wall” in industrial workplaces, regardless of the particular skill of an individual worker. This changed their power from control of the skilled labor supply. They took advantage of a new feature of the industrial workplace: the large capital investment in factories; idle equipment was a huge liability, so strikes became a dominant source of power.

    Due in part to changes in labor law that make strikes less effective, unbalanced enforcement of labor law in favor of employers, and the increasing mobility of capital globally, the source of power of industrial unionism has slowly eroded, and with this source of power, the size and relevance of the labor movement.

    We’re rapidly reaching a point of union density about as low as it was in the 1910-1920s—immediately preceeding the boom of industrial unionism that provided the most rapid growth in union density in our history.

    I’m personally heartened to see some debate within the labor movement about serious changes to how the movement sees itself, even if I disagree with predominant proposals. I posted a little rant on this subject on my blog.
       —Scott T.    Jan. 9 '05 - 09:22PM    #
  10. Mark, thanks for the links that I haven’t had the time to read yet, and great comment by scott, I can’t wait to get the chance to read your rant,

    but to Mark.
    I origianlly posted my lifes work history, but then decided not to hit send. Let me just say this, I’ve worked my ass off my whole life, and almost always had a job or two even while I was in college. I had my first job at the age of 12. I have never worked for a union and have worked under some really bad managers and owners. So your wrong when you said;

    “For JaV to say that unions are no longer needed says to me that s/he has not worked in their lives. If you have to spend 40 hours min. a week on a job where you have no rights, you quickly see why a union is needed.”

    I have usually worked in places with no more then 10 employees, often less. There were very few places I worked that were larger than that. You also say that I don’t think unions are needed, that is incorrect. I think unions no longer serve the function that they once did and we need to find new ways to do that (that being get workers treated well with good pay etc.)
       —Just a Voice    Jan. 10 '05 - 09:40AM    #
  11. JaV – fair enough – but I was responding to this quote from you: “Unions are outdate(d), the jobs they best worked for are no longer viable in this country”

    The way that I have framed what a union is, in my mind, is best expressed by this quote from Utah Phillips:

    ”...get together and organize.

    Which is to say – learn how to get things done together that we can’t get done alone.

    That’s all a union was meant to be”
       —Mark    Jan. 10 '05 - 12:52PM    #
  12. Mark and JaV, you seem to be discussing two different definitions of union. One is “a group of workers getting together to make things better”, and the other is “the specific unions that exist right now, in their current forms”. I think both of you seem to agree that the former kind is somewhere between “desireable” and “necessary”, and the latter somewhere between “stumbling” and “irrelevant”. Am I reading you both right, or am I just projecting my own opinions?
       —Murph    Jan. 10 '05 - 12:58PM    #
  13. Murph, a union is workers getting together to make things better. period.

    Anything different than that starts to go into other realms of organization.

    All local unions have their different “flavors” – depending on history, personalities, what the employer is like, etc.

    But I think that if you stick with the basic idea of an organizing union, you will understand immediately what a service union is when you see it.

    I am really trying to understand how to talk about these issues, please forgive me if I seem short.

    Best,
       —Mark    Jan. 10 '05 - 05:10PM    #
  14. murph,

    you got me down pretty well, I think that something is needed that is much stronger then our current unions. As they currently stand they are stumbling and on thier way to being irrelevant.

    I don’t know if this is correct, but just assume for a second. Unions helped raise wages and how workers were treated for everyone. As they effected the job market, some employers would just try and treat their employees well and avoid the union. Then as that became more common, unions declined and the opposite happened, non-union jobs could treat employees worse and worse. I think that this may be something that we want to take into consideration if we ever get around to talking about solutions to the problem. Try to figure out a system that won’t be by the market. Otherwise, it would seem to me that as things get worse, we’ll just end up making the unions stronger again, then other jobs will get better, unions decline again other jobs get worse, etc, etc, in a cycle.
       —Just a Voice    Jan. 11 '05 - 04:22PM    #
  15. If you haven’t checked out this site, take a look.

    http://unitetowin.org/
       —Mark    Jan. 25 '05 - 01:45AM    #