Future of Unions Conference Speakers Push Sectoral Bargaining

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

What was supposed to be an intellectual weekend conference on the future of the U.S. union movement turned into a conference on the future of collective bargaining, and specifically promotion of sectoral bargaining, instead.

The Feb. 8-9 confab in D.C., hosted by the Albert Shanker Institute – a think-tank the Teachers (AFT) set up – and the Century Foundation saw a wide range of speakers, both from the U.S. and abroad try to tackle the issue of how U.S. unions could reverse their long downward slide in the private sector.

That slide has taken U.S. private-sector union density to 6.4 percent, according to the latest federal figures – and set unions’ right-wing foes, their corporate class cronies and their political puppets free to go after public-sector unions now.

So far, despite some small losses, they haven’t succeeded, leaders of the four top public sector unions – AFT President Randi Weingarten, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry and National Education Association Vice President Becky Pringle – said in a separate panel.

That’s despite a hostile U.S. Supreme Court which, in last year’s Janus decision by the court’s five-man GOP-named majority, made every public worker in the United States eventually a potential “free rider,” eligible to use union services and gains without paying one red cent for them.

That left speakers wrestling with the question of revitalizing and expanding private-sector union density. While the conference was not designed to come to a conclusion, but instead to float and discuss ideas, said Leo Casey of the Shanker Institute, sectoral bargaining came to the fore.

But it isn’t the only way private-sector unions could expand:

• Many speakers, including Weingarten, Communications Workers President Chris Shelton and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., argued that “bargaining for the community” – by putting community causes at the head of the workers’ demands – leads to more worker power.

They specifically cited the successful strikes which governments’ actions, and inactions, forced on teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and Los Angeles. There, the teachers mobilized parents and students in united fronts by emphasizing raising the funding and quality of the schools for everyone’s kids, ahead of pay and pensions. They also tied those into quality, too, arguing that if teachers are better-paid, they stay in their jobs, or don’t have to take second jobs to survive.

Weingarten said private-sector unions could learn from the successful teachers’ strikes.

Added Jayapal: “Labor issues are community issues and community issues are labor issues, and we will fight for both.”

Shelton argued forcefully for lobbying to enact stronger pro-worker labor laws, going beyond the scope of the failed Employee Free Choice Act of a decade ago.

Former National Labor Relations Board member Craig Becker, now the AFL-CIO’s general counsel, seconded that goal while turning aside a question about whether the nation’s basic labor law, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, is so broken and shot full of holes that it ought to be scrapped. The NLRA, he told the questioner, is still valuable and sets the basic U.S. policy of encouraging collective bargaining to promote labor-management relations.

Other speakers advocated additional and more intensive use of social media in organizing within the NLRA’s bounds, while cautioning that it’s no substitute for face-to-face, worker by worker.

But sectoral bargaining was the biggest topic. Various speakers described it as similar to, but wider than the “pattern bargaining,” which the Auto Workers used for years in talks with the Detroit Big Three automakers, and which the Steelworkers still use in the oil and other sectors: Pick one company, bargain a “pattern” contract with it and then competing firms in the sector fall into line.

Sectoral bargaining envisions the union – or, often, union coalitions – at the bargaining table with all the firms in that particular sector at the same time. It includes common terms, common talks, common contracts, as bargained “floors” which local pacts can then expand upon, and common expiration dates.

That’s a variation on successful sectoral bargaining in other nations. One is Argentina, where it’s led to nationwide worker activism for 78 years, plus a recent general strike against a new right-wing government. Another was Britain from 1909-78, until Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s large parliamentary majority trashed sectoral bargaining. If it wins office, the current Labour Party plans to bring it back, speakers said.

The path to enacting, or implementing, sectoral bargaining won’t be easy, though. Retired Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, the conference co-chair, noted that “many of us” in the U.S. labor movement “are used to who we are and what we do” and reluctant to change.

Nevertheless, “Our old bargaining framework of workplace by workplace is broken” stated Shelton, Cohen’s successor.

“What I call ‘bargaining for all’…for many in our movement is radical and out of the box,” said Cohen, who made his name and reputation as an aggressive and successful organizer.

But it’s also a way “to regain the power we lost on the national level” as union density declined, he contended.

While conference speakers did not say so, some U.S. unions already use a variation of sectorial bargaining, but usually involving just one firm.

One top example is the biggest private-sector contract in the U.S.: The Teamsters’ pact with UPS. The union and the firm negotiate a base pact, but locals then bargain their own add-ons. Sectoral bargaining can also be geographic, speakers noted, if large numbers of firms the union(s) talk with are concentrated in a particular area.

Shelton pointed out that, besides the Teamsters and UPS, an outstanding example of sectoral collective bargaining, which he was personally involved with after joining CWA in 1968, was with AT&T, then the nation’s telecom monopoly.  It finally won that cause with a 7-month strike in 1971.

But even then, he noted, the union still had to organize “worksite by worksite, company by company,” unlike at CWA’s European partner, Germany’s ver.di. And sector collective bargaining collapsed when the federal government broke up AT&T’s monopoly in 1984 into what were then eight “Baby Bells.”

And sectoral bargaining won’t solve all of labor’s ills when it comes to gaining members.

“Autos and trucking also lost their pattern bargaining,” similar to sectoral bargaining, when the government deregulated their industries in the Carter and Reagan administrations, Shelton added. “The one percent then succeeded in weakening unions” by playing workers off against each other.                         

“Wall Street greed, scummy union-busters, legislative defeats and outsourcing and fissuring of the workplace” all also undermined collective bargaining, Shelton said. Except for Jayapal mentioning planned legislation to strengthen the NLRA, those topics got little attention.

 One of the few other exceptions, in a partisan speech pledging party support for workers and comparisons of Trump to Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban, was Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez.

The former Labor Secretary, at the end of the conference’s first day, spent his time denouncing the Trump-GOP-American Legislative Exchange Council all-out war to wreck workers and their unions. But he also admitted the NLRA needs a big rewrite.

"It’s not fitted to the needs of the 21st century,” Perez said.



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