In a June, 2004, speech John Kerry brought a New Jersey crowd to its feet when he declared: "It's time once and for all we change the laws so workers can organize when a majority of them wants to, without intimidation and interference from management." Memorable words. But if you don't recall them, you're not alone: this kind of talk was generally reserved for union audiences only.
Among Washington's political cognoscenti it is considered a no brainer that idle chatter about unionism will brand a candidate as a hopelessly unreconstructed "old" Democrat. At the very least, they warn, it would be "off message," given that voters have about as much interest in labor issues as they do in, say, the Law of the Sea. The upshot of this conventional wisdom is that, today, not many Democrats are willing to step forward to promote unionism. What's more, few labor leaders even ask them to. That's too bad, because by speaking out for unions Democrats could not only help to mobilize public support for one of their most effective and most embattled allies, but also speak to the growing economic insecurity of one of their least reliable constituencies: young, educated, white collar workers, particularly younger women struggling with low wages and high prices.
Most Democrats understand that they need to have more to talk about with these Americans than Iraq and stem cell research. The reelection of Janet Napolitano in Arizona and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, to name just two, hinged in large part on their taking an economic security message to technical and professional workers. But progressives need to do more. That "more" should include talking about unions, though in ways that may differ from the messages most people are accustomed to hearing. This is the principal finding of our recent Center for American Progress study, "White Collar Perspectives on Workplace Issues." It's one that Democrats and labor activists alike should carefully consider.
The study, based on polling data and focus group research by David Mermin and Nancy Wiefek, documented the extent to which many young, white collar workers are now as bewildered by the "new economy" as manufacturing workers have been for a generation. As a 20-something techie in the once bustling Silicon Valley told us: "I think a lot of people, you know, 30 years ago, could get a job that was relatively stable, but, here I am, five years out of school, and I've had four jobs. It's not because I'm not good because I've gotten praise from every single job I've been at. It's just that the fact that the companies don't seem stable."
But it's not just that these workers' future career prospects look murkier. The quality of their work lives is tanking, too. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this decline. Technical and professional employees share a profound conviction that their work ought to be intellectually satisfying -- even an expression of their values. However, when employers press for cost savings and workloads soar, psychic wages take a plunge. Echoing the sentiments of many of the workers we spoke to, when asked to describe her office, one San Jose woman answered: "Busy, overworked, under staffed, not enough people in the group to do all the work we need to do so everyone's doing a lot of work and just running around like a chicken with a head cut off."
Seasoned labor organizers would tell you that sentiments like these are a sure sign that these workers are ripe for unionization. And some workers are. One case in point is the health care industry. Thanks in part to the growing ratio of hospital patients to nurses, union cards among RNs are now becoming as common as graduate degrees. Even the American Dental Association is eying collective bargaining as the solution for members being squeezed by insurers and HMOs. But while angry nurses and feisty dentists may give rise to the belief that legions of skilled white collar workers are ready to embrace traditional unionism, it ain't necessarily so.
Ruy Teixeira and Jacob Hacker noted in the December 2006 Prospect that middle class-Americans have a "bifurcated view of their economic situation." This well describes technical and professional workers. Yes, they will tell you that the new economy can be a scary place, but, difficult as it is, they are also convinced they can be successful if they work hard enough. In essence, they accept that today's economy is wholly unlike their parents' and they question the value of any idea for solving workplace problems that seems rooted in the past. This includes unions.
It is not that white collar workers share the right wing's obsession with unions as a demonic force in American life. In truth, most don't think very much about unions at all. However, when they do, many will typically say that unions are obsolete: eight-track tapes in an I-Pod economy. As one Northern Virginia man told us: "They've divided everybody. You've got employees against management and really, to make it work, you've got to have everybody on the same team." Agreeing with him, another man added
that unions "haven't evolved to really what they could do … facilitate solutions … start facilitating instead of talking about these class troubles."
Attitudes like these are routinely exploited by employers to thwart union organizing drives. They understand that better educated white collar workers are more likely than others to recoil from the prospect of conflict with management. Even when faced with downsizing, white collar workers are often sympathetic to employers they believe to be up against economic forces beyond their control. And solving problems on the job and advancing their careers? They would rather do it themselves. They want the tools to reach their goals, but they do not consider themselves victims and they do not believe they need to be "helped." It is an outlook that would make Eugene Debs roll over in his grave -- but buried within it are new opportunities both for organized labor and for Democrats.
In our research we found that while technical and professional workers have little interest in what they see as traditional unionism, they are intrigued by the idea of "new unions" that can "join with management to solve workers' problems and keep businesses competitive." Labor lite? Maybe, but Republicans figured out the appeal of this kind of messaging a decade ago. In its 1996 national platform, for example, the GOP characterized the TEAM Act, a measure that would open the door to management-dominated unions, as a proposal to "empower employers and employees to act as a team, rather than as adversaries, to advance their common interests."
Labor activists are often ambivalent about characterizing unions as team players. Some feel it runs against the grain of what being a trade unionist is all about. Others will tell you that employers have reneged on partnership arrangements so often that union members are instinctively suspicious of any allusions to teamwork. Yet, when organized labor's work is presented in the language of new unionism, even the most skeptical workers take notice.
In our research, we found white collar workers gave a big thumbs-up to a Communications Workers of America (CWA) partnership to train employees for careers at Verizon, and to the Professional and Technical Engineers union negotiating for workers to telecommute to their jobs at Boeing. They were interested in learning more about how the Writers Guild provides employer-paid pensions to freelancers and they were impressed to hear how unions and management worked together to save Harley-Davidson.
It is also important to note that, instead of being put off by examples of labor's political power, workers were impressed by it -- provided they saw it as being in the public interest. One case in point was a Denver woman who, when told of a labor-backed drive to improve the quality of nursing care in California, commented: "It just seems very important … I don't know who else [but the unions] would be powerful enough to make a law like that."
Today, some unions are exploring non-traditional approaches that would resonate with younger, white collar Americans who wouldn't be caught dead in a traditional union. The Service Employees International Union, for example, is sponsoring United Professionals, a new organization launched by author Barbara Ehrenreich geared to providing health care, insurance, and debt relief for unemployed and underemployed professionals. CWA is backing Techs Unite; a new IT workers union which offers training and representation and argues that, "in the new economy, workplace security and working one job for an entire career are truly anachronisms." Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers, AFSCME, and eight other major unions have crafted a unique partnership with Kaiser Permanante to represent workers and promote quality, affordable health care. The cornerstone is their contract, or, as they call it, the National Labor Management Partnership Agreement. "By involving employees and unions in organizational decision-making at every level," the Agreement reads, "the Partnership is designed to improve the quality of health care, make Kaiser Permanente a better place to work, enhance Kaiser Permanente's competitive performance, provide employees with employment and income security, and expand Kaiser Permanente's membership."
There's no question that it would be in the labor movement's interest if more Americans knew about this kind of unionism. But it could also help Democrats, if they embraced it as part of their commitment to helping Americans navigate their way through the new economy. It could be one way that Democrats help workers gain the training, health care, and pensions they need, and create more balance between work and family. Democrats ought to speak out for new unions because they believe partnerships between employers and employees are fundamental to keeping American businesses strong and competitive.
Recently, AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel said that it would "take a movement" to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and strengthen the right to organize. With new majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats can help build that movement. And they should. But to do that they need to talk less about unions as they are and more about what they can become. It is not enough to persuade young, college educated Americans that unions are a good things for janitors and poultry workers. They need to understand that this is about their future, too.
Celinda Lake is president of Lake Research Partners in Washington, D.C. Jim Grossfeld is a union consultant based in Bethesda, MD.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.
Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.