In last week’s New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a pessimistic picture of unions in the US – declining numbers of union members and the lowest popular support for the labor movement on record. He makes the case that union demise in today’s recessionary economy sits in contrast to the depression era, where the adventurous tactics of growing unions were widely applauded.
He argues that the lack of popular support for unions could be a death spiral: as the public’s embrace of unions has consistently correlated with successful labor organizing, its absence could make a revival near impossible.
From a national perspective, despite hard working attempts to revitalize and grow unions, Surowiecki rightly points out that the statistics haven’t improved. But the reports of the labor movement’s death are greatly exaggerated: the statistics show the need for a dramatic change in direction for unions.
Unions need to end vested interest, narrow union claims and action – where unions act only for themselves and at the expense of public needs. As Surowiecki and others note, the political environment is presenting unions with an opportunity for something new. In the battles around public sector wages freezes and the school reform unions can do things differently.
They can take inspiration from the story of an Australian union who faced the same difficulties a decade ago. In the late 1990s, the school system was going through a reform process that included closing inner city schools. The union was struggling to respond – the Murdoch tabloid press was slaughtering the teachers union in its contract campaign.
Attacked as dunces, the union decided to change how it engaged with its members, the school community and the general public. Instead of just saying “no” to reforms, continuing to talk about teacher wages and defending the status quo, the union formed a coalition with parents and launched an independent inquiry into public education. The coalition hired an expert education professor as its inquiry head and then travelled the state for a year collecting stories from teachers, parents, school principals and the wider community about their frustrations with schools – and most importantly – their concrete suggestions for how to improve them.
The hearings turned into a series of reports and 92 policy solutions. These policies were then prioritized into 6 united demands identified by a coalition of teacher unions, parent and school principal organizations.
Cleverly, the inquiry and its reports were timetabled with the electoral cycle in mind. Hearings were held eighteen months out from the next election. The reports started being released six months before the election. Then the union – with its coalition of teachers and principals – took action to secure its reform vision for public education.
Instead of resisting government reforms, the union worked in coalition with community organizations to shift public opinion on the question of what school reforms were needed. The inquiry found classroom sizes to be a real concern, so they ran a campaign to reduce them for Kindergarten to Year Two children. They won. Both major political parties – the equivalents of Republicans and Democrats – endorsed a $250 million reform proposal in the lead up to the 2003 election.
Today, US unions will need a similar change in strategy in order to rise to the challenges they face. The scapegoating of public sector unions and attacks on social spending will require a community-wide response. Successful coalitions between unions and community organizations will be part of the solution. But, they are no magic bullet. Coalitions will need to be combined with a community-minded unionism that is prepared to think differently about how it contests public policy, how it takes public action and how it sets an agenda.