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Elaine Bernard Pt5: To build a movement, unions need to organize unemployed workers to demand jobs

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PAUL JAY: Welcome back to the Real News Network. We are talking to a Elaine Bernard about trade unions in the US and the economic crisis. Elaine is the head of the Trade Union Program at the Harvard Law School. Thanks, Elaine. So we’re in very extraordinary times. The economic crisis is deepening, unemployment is going up at stratospheric numbers – into stratospheric numbers. How is the union movement going to respond? How do you think they should respond?

ELAINE BERNARD: Sure. Well, some of the things don’t change. Unions are fundamentally about organizing. And organizing isn’t about just enrolling people; it’s about bringing people together, building organizations that create resources to bring about change. And you think about it, one of the problems we face today, even in unions, is that a lot of people are going to be unemployed. Well, how do you follow? You know, successful organizing by unions has been when they followed their members into new areas and organized those areas. Well, if your members are going into unemployment, how do we make sure that we start creating some resources for those members to stay connected? I mean, one of the worst things about unemployment, along with loss of job, is loss of connection to other people. During the 1930s, one of the reasons unions were able to grow so much was a combination of a change in the labor law, but the other thing was huge movements of the unemployed bringing young workers together, unemployed workers, and creating organization, using the opportunity to do education with those workers, to help let them learn the skills of organizing. So, you know, there’s a real opportunity in this crisis.

JAY: Are the union leaders a bit caught on something? In the 1930s the extent to which the unions organized the unemployed was a demand for jobs, and that demand often was directed at government, and for government to directly hire people in government-financed jobs programs. But the Obama administration doesn’t seem to have any interest in that. President Obama talked about how his stimulus package, 90 percent of the jobs are going to be created through the private sector. And there is very little indication of the direct jobs program. To organize the unemployed, doesn’t there need to be a campaign to demand jobs? And how does the union jive that with the Obama administration agenda, which doesn’t seem to be that?

BERNARD: Sure. And it’s not just jobs; it’s also the quality of the jobs. One of the problems in the 1930s is there were a lot of stupid jobs. Somebody digs a hole; somebody fills it in. In today’s economy, I mean, I like the idea of green jobs. I think rebuilding the infrastructure but building it differently is very important. It’ll not only help Americans, but it will help restructure our economy for the type of problems that the world faces. So I think there are some real opportunities there. But part of it is, you know, the labor movement is both an organization and a vehicle. And so what we need to do is start to use, think about how to use that vehicle of organizing to, create a venue for our retired—sorry, for our laid-off members. I don’t see a whole lot of unions right now looking at that. I mean, first you’re going to fight to retain jobs, but then you also need to create a—use an opportunity so that people can stay connected and involved in the union even if they are facing layoffs. How does the labor movement create new organizations so that, you know, you can build for the next period in this period?

JAY: But it goes back to what you were saying earlier. Do the unions see past the immediate servicing of their members and even organizing the unorganized people into—who are working in jobs to something bigger in terms of the society and, clearly, the thousands and thousands of unemployed workers? I mean, if the main trade-union leadership, for example, now called, say, for a mass demonstration of the unemployed in Chicago or Detroit, the numbers could be enormous. They would have a movement overnight. They don’t seem to be going in that direction.

BERNARD: It’s only a year into this recession – you could point out, you know, Roosevelt’s first year was not full of—. You know, I tend to think that we’re in for some very hard times, and the solutions that are being offered right now are much more timid than the type of solutions that will be required. Some of the key things that unions can do is looking back to the 30s. Very interesting that the people who later were so involved in the massive scale of organizing were people who often started by organizing the unemployed. You can take organizing skills from one environment and pass them on to others. We’re already seeing that, by the way. If you think about the Obama campaign, the number of young people who got involved in the election in 2008 who started to develop all sorts of skills, I mean, boy if we could start to use that to—and they carried those skills over into, you know, demanding a voice in the workplace, we would have a core of people for organizing that, you know, is much more dynamic than our existing core today.

JAY: The trade unions, perhaps like the rest of us, are in a position of change, or perhaps perish. If the trade unions can’t deal with this unemployment situation and find a way to position themselves, don’t they more or less—this process of their kind of marginalization of trade unions as a force in the society, they become less relevant?

BERNARD: There are a number of issues that need to be dealt with right now. Health care is the obvious one. I mean, you know, what happens when you’re unemployed? Well, almost immediately you lose your health care. I mean, there’s things like COBRA [Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985]. So, yeah, you know, if you’re really wealthy, you can keep your health care, but no. So I think one of the things we’re seeing now, which I think is a good thing, is the labor movement looking at campaigns that seek to socialize the benefits that unions have historically won only for their members and now say, “No,” you know, “we can’t hold onto it, whether its pensions, whether it’s health care, unless everybody has them. So let’s raise the floor.” You look at really successful labor movements, and that’s what they do. They win things not just for their own members, but they seek to use their power to spread it to everybody. I know that a few folks say, “Well,” you know, “gee, if everybody had it, why would anybody join a union?” Well, if you look at, , the Canadian labor movement, which is 30 percent of the work force is organized in Canada. They got universal, comprehensive health care. Unions still bargain health care, but they bargain extra health care. So one of the things you want to do is you want to keep raising the floor. That’s not a problem. That doesn’t weaken unions; that strengthen unions, because it also builds in people a sense of “We can win things. It doesn’t isolate us.” And, you know, I think there’s a real opportunity to start to do some of that in this environment. The nice thing about a crisis is that it really does demand bold steps and things that were not even thinkable. Employee Free Choice Act looks very modest, but we have not been able to get labor law reform that’s the least bit progressive probably since the Nixon administration and ERISA [Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974] and OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Act]. So, you know, it’s a time where I think you can really start to think bold things.

JAY: Well, we’ll see if the trade unions rise to the challenge. Thanks very much for joining us, Elaine.


JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Elaine Bernard is the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Bernard's writings often focus on workers in the telecommunications industry, and the role technological change plays in altering work. In the last several years, she has publicly discussed how advancing technology will change how labor unions function (especially in regard to member-to-member and union-member communication and organizing).