A Memo to the Absent Democrats: What Comes Next?

By Wayne Eastman, Vice Chair and Professor of Supply Chain Management & Marketing Sciences

The current showdown over Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate collective bargaining on non-wage issues for most government employees should focus attention on the American union movement and its future. 

So far, the debate in Wisconsin and elsewhere on collective bargaining has been a highly partisan one, with Republican-led efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to restrict or eliminate collective bargaining in the public sector drawing strong opposition from Democrats, including the decision by Wisconsin’s Democratic legislators to leave Madison to avoid a vote on the governor’s legislation.

What follows is intended as food for thought for the camped-out Democrats, in the hope that they and the rest of us can use the confrontation as an opportunity to reflect. 

I’m a Democrat who worked as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and who was once a collective bargaining supporter but has become opposed to it. 

In reflecting on my experience with the teacher’s union as a school board member in a suburban New Jersey district, I’ve come to believe that the basic problem with American collective bargaining does not lie with any individual union or its leadership. 

Rather, the core problem is that American local unions act in accord with their basic incentive to bargain on behalf of the self-interest of average and below-average senior workers. Unfortunately, the self-interest of less competent senior workers is poorly aligned with the success of the firms and governments for which they work, and also with the interests of society.  

The suggestion here is that far-seeing Democrats and liberals—and for that matter far-seeing union leaders—should recognize that the American unionism in its current, collective bargaining-oriented form is a dinosaur headed downward in both the private sector and, with a time delay, in the public sector.

Rather than expend undue effort in defense of collective bargaining, future-oriented Democrats would do better to figure out new ways to uphold values and interests that American unionism has historically been asked to fulfill and that remain vital. 

First, the idea that workers, at least in the private sector, should in some fashion have a right to organize collectively is an important one that needs to be supported. 

Second, as poor a job as collective bargaining does in restraining lazy or greedy managers, that cause is a very important one. 

Third, it is important for society as well as for the health of the Democratic Party to have significant intellectual and financial support to the Democrats coming from groups and individuals identifying with workers and with checking bad managers, not just from social and cultural liberals and supporters of government programs

Instead of the current American union movement, going forward one can envision two different movements: A “Together” movement that reinvents unionism to focus on local participation rather than collective bargaining and a “No Privileges” movement against opportunism by managers and other high-level employees.

Going forward, the “Together” idea could be fostered by changing federal and state labor laws from guaranteeing collective bargaining to guaranteeing rights to employees to form associations that provide opportunities for non-managerial employees to exercise voice and take on leadership roles in appropriate areas, such as curriculum for a teacher’s group.

A future “No Privileges” movement would aim to produce value-driven leaders who can run private firms like investment banks, government agencies like the SEC, and educational institutions like universities and public schools that could benefit from thrifty, hard-charging bosses who push to transform work cultures of privileged high-level employees into leaner, more effective work cultures. 

“Together” associations and “No Privileges” managers and associations would very likely—though certainly not in all cases--be good sources of intellectual and financial support for the Democratic Party. 

As of early 2011, we do not have either a “Together” movement for employee participation or a “No to Privileges” movement against managerial opportunism.  The practical and intellectual difficulties involved in having something like them come to life are certainly major ones.

For one thing, if the representatives of a “Together” association are to have significant power, they should be accountable to a broader interest than the majority of their co-workers.  How to make that happen is tricky: An approach that would be workable in some cases but very difficult to apply in others would be to have “Together” leaders elected by shareholders in the private sector and community residents in the public sector. 

For another, a “No Privileges” movement would need an intellectual base in business schools, public administration schools, and education schools and support from pro-market publications like the Wall Street Journal and from some managers.  Knitting together all these disparate elements would be no mean feat.

Hard as it would be to try to create new social movements to replace unionism as it now exists, what are the alternatives?  

Defense of the current collective bargaining system is a losing proposition over the long haul both intellectually and practically.

Proposals to tinker with collective bargaining, much as they are worth trying to develop, are likely to founder against the basic problem of the incentive of bargainers to favor the interests of seniors and average and below average workers. 

Further, given American preferences for local initiative, trying to radically reorient unionism away from local collective bargaining to something like the classic Scandinavian model with national unions has chances of success somewhere between slim and none.  

Finally, cut-back proposals like those of Governor Walker and other Republican leaders, much as they may well be a necessary spur to progress, are deficient to the extent they fail to suggest alternatives to replace the current failing collective bargaining system.

More than Republicans and business groups do, Democrats and far-seeing unionists have a stake in developing new movements that uphold values of participation and opposition to privilege and that are likely to align with the Democratic Party.

To address the absent Democrats directly: Whatever the merits of what you’re doing as a short-term strategy, over the long haul, just saying no to Republican cut-back proposals is not an answer.  Whether the way forward in the future is along the lines suggested here or some other way, you and the rest of us need to come up with creative alternatives to a failing system. 

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