Union Or “Slave” Labor: Which Is The Better Way Forward?

Illustration By Ben Heine

Collective bargaining is democracy. Free enterprise fundamentalist claim we can’t afford democracy in the workplace of a competitive world market. The reality is that we cant afford not to organize against concentrated wealth at the top of this economy and its downward pressure on incomes and culture for the rest of society.

We’ve stood by and watched over the years as the proud social mooring of our union culture that mirrors democratic principles of self actualization through collective prosperity, not at it’s expense, has dissolved. Our society is divided in a thousand ways that couldn’t exist in communities that value the common heritage of labor above having easy access to Wall-Mart’s cheap slave labor imports on every street corner.

Unions today represent more than merely a way to negotiate for better wages and benefits and resolving grievances. The critical power of unions are their ability to transform communities. They constitute schools of democracy in a world today, where there are many claims of democratic process but little evidence that collective decision making is actually taking place.

Look for example at the difficulty in getting our health care system reformed. Everyone seems to agree (but the people that can afford to have lobbyist running all over Washington) that more choice and competition through something like a public option for downward pressure on cost is needed. Even Warren Buffet characterized private industry profiteering through medical blackmail as a “tapeworm” slowly killing American productivity. But there’s more than one tapeworm draining America of it’s wealth there are many, each competitively driven to leech more than the other.

Unions are on the front line defending our democratic values. They are the premier institution of a free, democratic society, promoting democracy in the workplace, as well as economic and social justice and equality. If labor’s goal is the shifting of power from a concentrated few back to a majority then unions must lead the democratic struggle throughout our society not just Washington. It means building grass roots democratic unions and moving beyond a strategy of just lobbying the status quo and instead, demonstrating an alternative to free enterprise fundamentalism on the ground.

In a recent interview Bill Moyers asked Richard Trumka how to make unions relevant again:

Richard Trumka: But one of the things that we have to do, and I think in the past we haven’t done a good enough job at this. We’ve expected young workers who are working in a different type of economy to change the way that they make a living to fit our model. Right now, we’re in the process of changing our model so that we fit the way they make a living.

Workers used to get one job– take my dad. My dad went to work in– well, my grandfathers went to work in a coal mine. My dad and his two brothers went to work in the same coal mine. I went to work in the same coal mine. My dad was there 44 years in the same coal mine. People don’t do that now.

They’re going to be in two, three, four, five, six, seven places. So, we have to be able to accommodate them. Our model has to say, “We can help you. And- in the way you’re making a living.” Not say to them, “Well, figure out a way to stay 44 years at one place and we’ll help you.” So, it’s up to us, and we’re changing. And we’re working real hard at it. And we’re reaching out to young people. And we’re reaching out into the community. And we’re building allies and it’s starting to have some effect, real fast.

Most, if not all, researchers acknowledge “human capital” as a key element in driving economic growth. Factors that lead to fewer years of education and training will have negative consequences for years to come (Delong, Golden, and Katz (2002). Families struggling financially often delay continuing education, perpetuating a downward spiral of economic mobility. A recent survey revealed that 20 percent aged 18-29 have left or delayed college(Greenberg and Keating 2009). Another survey (CollegeInvest 2009) in Colorado found that 25 percent of parents with children in two-year colleges had planned on sending their kids to four-year college prior to the economic downturn.

Not only does this drop in attendance and student engagement compound the current economic difficulties of this recession it plants the seeds of hardship for the next generation and impedes social cohesion around cultural values that results ultimately in higher incarceration rates, lower volunteerism, poor health etc. (Baum and Pa-yea (2005).

To begin addressing these myriad challenges of educational opportunity, economic mobility, strengthening a culture of democracy and social cohesion. The National Labor Collegean accredited institution that offers blended learning programs– announced plans recently to establish a new online service that will bring high-quality degree programs to the AFL-CIO‘s 12 million members and their families. The College for Working Families, will build on existing distance learning curricula to combine the advantages of online learning with resources of labor unions to provide programs suited to the needs and interests of members.

The Princeton Review, Inc. and its subsidiary, Penn Foster Education Group, Inc. leading providers of post secondary educational services, will partner with the National Labor College to form the new College for Working Families — which is expected to grow on a historical scale.

Illustration By Ben Heine

“Expanding good jobs is a top priority for the AFL-CIO and to achieve this, workers’ skills and knowledge must match the role of
employers in a changing job market,” Trumka said. “This new online education venture demonstrates our strong commitment to playing a significant role in ensuring that quality education for America’s workers and their families remains affordable and accessible. We believe this is one of the best ways to retain and grow good jobs in this country.”

The College programs will enable working adults to build on their prior training and experience, notably in formal and informal learning provided through union- and industry-sponsored training programs,as well as through local institutions, particularly community colleges.

“In the course of their work union members gain a wealth of knowledge,” Trumka said. “The College for Working Families will be able to leverage an intimate understanding of the nation’s organized workers to provide efficient, effective programs leading to a range of academic degrees that will support the increasing need of working men and women and their families to expand their knowledge in an affordable and assessable manor”

National Labor College President William Scheuerman said “We underwent an extensive process to identify a partner with deep experience helping working Americans achieve their educational goals,” he said. “We were particularly impressed with Penn Foster’s demonstrated expertise in providing high-quality student services and support, elements that we consider essential to the success of this ambitious undertaking.”

“It is critical that the American workforce can be successfully educated and retrained without driving tuition costs beyond the point of affordability,” explained Michael Perik, The Princeton Review’s President and CEO. “We are confident that, through this partnership, we can help ensure that the students who enroll in the College will have a successful learning experience and will contribute in important ways to the growth of the American economy.”

Not only does the College for Working Families address many immediate economic and educational shortfalls, it demonstrates a trending, reemergence of a forgotten American tradition of partnering for-profit institutions with nonprofit to build a more sustainable model for our collective economic future prosperity.

Which do you think is a better way forward?

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One Response to Union Or “Slave” Labor: Which Is The Better Way Forward?

  1. S Jones March 12, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    The “union”, as an institution, can be corrupted like any other institution and is suspect but let’s put that aside for the moment.

    More education for it’s members is a noble pursuit, but wouldn’t a more educated union member seek better employment in a non-union career?

    What is a better way forward?: The unions should compete against the colleges and universities by reviving the age old tradition of “apprenticeship.” A hard truth is many will never be able to afford college and alternative learning costs, of trade schools, are also on the rise.

    What if a young person, out of high school, had a choice of moving right into an apprentice position which was provided by the union? He/she would be gainfully employed and learning a new skill.

    The “union” as an institution would remain strong and relevant.

    This makes our country better. Not everyone wants to be a rocket scientist. Some people want a simple life.

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