|ONLINE VERSION||MAY 2000|
|Organized Labor in the New Economy|
By Morton Bahr, President, Communications Workers of America
Any vision of labor in the 21st century must start with the image in popular culture of young, entrepreneurial workers at computer terminals in sandals and cut-offs. They are portrayed as happy risk takers. Free to move from job to job. Living off pizza and corn chips as they excitedly work long hours to invent the latest technology or newest computer game.
I met some of them recently and they fit the stereotype in many ways. They still wore shorts and sneakers, but a funny thing happened to them. They had grown older, married and started having families. Suddenly, old fashioned concerns such as decent health care, sick leave, vacations and pensions became very important in their lives. They told me that for every young "computer millionaire," there are tens of thousands of temporary, part-time and contingent workers who are living on the edge.
They asked CWA for union representation even though labor law didn't permit them collective bargaining rights because no company would claim them as an employee. Of course, we helped them. That was more than a year ago. Today, CWA's Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, WashTech, has more than 250 members, most of whom work at Microsoft.
Recently, WashTech won a significant organizing victory among the shuttle bus drivers at Microsoft which contracts-out the largest single-company shuttle bus operation in the world. Now every time a Microsoft worker rides the bus from one building to another, they will be talking to a CWA member.
CWA's WashTech members are among the information industry workers in the vanguard of an economic restructuring in our nation that is as historic as the shift in work from the plow to the factory in the past century. We are embarking on a new age, some call it a New Economy, marked by advanced technologies, driven by computers at the speed of thought and where knowledge is power.
In the old economy, workers received loyalty from the employer and gave loyalty in return. Most work was routine tasks or performed under highly supervised management. Unions concentrated on taking care of the bread-and-butter issues that affected their members. Management managed the business. Workers were trained on the specifics of their jobs and a high school degree was considered sufficient to provide a good life for one's family.
Today, nearly every job, from police work to changing oil, requires
some level of computer skill. Employers now expect workers to exercise
judgement on the job, work together in teams and develop communication
skills to clearly express their thoughts to co-workers and management.
No longer can workers assume that they will retire with the same
employer after 30 or 40 years.
As we envision labor in the next century, we must begin by recognizing that all the old rules have changed and unions must prepare to change with the times. But we do not have to change our fundamental mission to represent workers' interests.
Whether it's old economy or new, collective bargaining remains the most efficient mechanism for improving the lives of working families. Collective bargaining is no anachronism, but serves as a flexible process that allows labor and management to use their imagination, creativity and inventiveness to solve problems and meet new challenges. It is the best tool that permits workers to share in the wealth that they help create.
Even in the New Economy, workers are discovering the value of union membership. Doctors lobby for collective bargaining rights. Computer technicians, such as CWA's WashTech members and IBM workers in several locations, seek union membership to protect their interests. Workers everywhere see unions as the most powerful voice for family-friendly workplaces.
Before labor can reach its full potential in the New Economy, however, growth must become the top priority for every union. The labor movement today is growing rapidly. More than 300,000 new workers were organized last year. That's good but it isn't good enough to carry labor successfully through the 21st century.
The fundamental obstacle to union organizing, of course, is our nation's weak labor laws. The system is broken when thousands of workers are illegally fired each year, as is the case today, for trying to form a union. And employers who violate the law receive the equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
Justice will never be realized in America's workplaces until this nation fulfills the promise of the National Labor Relations Act to guarantee every person the fair and free choice of whether to have a union where they work. That choice does not exist today.
Unions realize that the possibilities of labor law reform are remote. Many unions, including CWA, seek to avoid the National Labor Relations Board whenever possible by a new tactic called "Bargain to Organize." CWA has negotiated a series of card check, management noninterference, expedited elections and other union recognition processes in telecommunications bargaining last year.
Another way to accumulate the resources to effectively organize is through union mergers. George Meany once said that if a union didn't have at least 100,000 members, it should consider merging with another union. Today, that number is probably closer to 500,000 members. There are scores of smaller unions that lack the necessary resources to tackle employers. They would better serve their members by combining with a larger union.
We also must negotiate employer-paid educational programs for our members so that they can maintain and improve their skills throughout their working lives. Labor must take the lead in encouraging our members to take advantage of every educational opportunity that we win at the bargaining table.
Developing skilled workers is but one example of how unions can fulfill a critical national need. Fifty percent of the new jobs in the next century will require a high school degree and 30 percent will require a college degree. Unions can and will greatly assist in building the ever-learning and ever-changing workforce of the future.
The new millennium is an era of advanced technology, globalism, and a different kind of workforce than we have known in the past. But the "old economy" worker concerns of employment stability, fair wages, dignity on the job and a decent retirement remain the same. Labor will change for the future, but our historic mission of improving the lives of working families in and outside the workplace is even more relevant in the next century than it has been for the past century.