America's Labor Movement: Sociological Models and Futuristic Scenarios
by Arthur B. Shostak, Ph.D.
Prepared for the 1994 Spring Meeting of the Industrial Relations Research Association, Philadelphia, PA; April 21, 1994
Sociology, the systematic study of people in social units, can make more of a contribution to the classic ILR interest in labor's prospects than is generally recognized (Godard 1993). Nearly 70 years ago, for example, a founding father, Pitirim A. Sorokin, contributed to America's first sociology journal perhaps the first social science study of the leaders of the labor movement here and abroad (1927). Since then such leading sociologists as Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset (outgoing president in 1994 of the American Sociological Association), C. Wright Mills, Patricia Cayo Sexton, Harold Wilensky, and many others have created an insightful body of material "devoted to an understanding of trade unionism as an agent of structural change" (Peck 1966; 53).
Sociology views behavior as influenced by its entire (manifest and latent) context. Research focuses on the totality of social life, including its historical dimension, economic and political structures, and other such products of human interaction as beliefs and values, rules regulating life, patterns of work, leadership practices, organizational culture, and so on - an audacious effort consistent with the broad scope of an ILR topic like labor's prospects.
Best of all, sociology includes major theories that can help ILR students construct revealing scenarios concerning trade unionism. For example, use of a perspective known as Functionalism can explicate what may prove labor's most probable future. A second and sharply different view of social life, known as Conflict Theory, illuminates a possible future well worth consideration. A third approach or model, known as Humanistic Theory, can be used to highlight a preferable scenario by which organized labor might soon secure a finer future for itself, and, not incidentally, for our nation as a whole.
Regrettably, constraints on space mean discussion of the three theoretical perspectives will be quite over-simplified. Scores of earnest theoreticians endlessly refine 1and defend their choice among these increasingly arcane models, and I apologize in advance for over-generalizing the wide range of views within each model.
A similar difficulty is posed by the diverse set of actors that make up the American labor movement. I agree that "at a minimum, differences between craft and industrial unions in ideology, structure, tactics, and social composition make a monolithic image of organized labor theoretically and empirically inappropriate" (Cornfield 1991; 44). I am never-the less constrained by circumstance to cautiously discuss labor at a very high level of generalization.
A final caveat concerns scenarios themselves. Contrary to popular impression they do not pretend to tell the future, but try instead to make clear plausible alternative futures in the present. Accordingly, in what follows I do not pretend to predict the future of organized labor, something neither sociologists, futurists, or anyone else for that matter, can do. Indeed, "it is the very indeterminacy of things that emboldens us to believe that, within limits, we can make our own future" (Schlesinger,Jr. 1993).
Scenarios are "a tool for helping us take a long view...a tool for ordering one's perceptions about alternative future environments in which one's decisions might be played out." Designed to make significant elements stand out boldly, they can help groups make difficult decisions they would otherwise miss or deny (Schwartz 1991; 3-4). By linking scenarios to (over-simplified) sociological views of reality I try "to gather and transform information of strategic significance into fresh perceptions...[into] strategic insights beyond the mind's previous reach" (Wack, in Schwartz; 39).
Rooted in the discipline's origins, functionalism contends that a society is held together by a basic equilibrium among its parts ("functional relationships"). Mainstream components of the social order (for example, a labor movement that elite power-holders are confident they can rely upon) serve to preserve harmony and stability, legitimize privilege, manage conflict, and prop up the status quo. While mild forms of social conflict are unavoidable, they are stigmatized as pathological and of no special worth.
Even as cursory an explanation of functionalism as this one calls to mind two stalwarts of ILR theorizing about organized labor's prospects. Selig Perlman characterized workers as inherently suspicious of intellectuals whose radical and/or utopian reform ideas threatened to unbalance the equilibrium they were (barely) managing. He thought workers naturally supportive instead of non-nonsense authoritarian leaders (business unionists) whose rapport with power-holders helped secure steady contract gains, left the headaches of managing to the managers, and saluted the most self-serving and pragmatic prejudices of the day (1928).
Functionalism is also strongly evident in Robert Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy, a chilling insight into the bureaucratization process that helps explain the obsession of many leaders in and outside of labor with staying in office and avoiding "returning to the tools," almost regardless of the anti-democratic and manipulative means entailed. .It also sheds light on the inclination of autocratic leaders to surround themselves with sycophants as a shield from harsh realities (1911; 1949ed.).
Functionalism, in short, helps explain labor's "natural" distrust of any who champion substantial changes, its preference for the safe and familiar course, and the carefully-managed insularity of many of its leaders from the equilibrium-threatening turmoil around them.
To be sure, many far-sighted unionists are trying to help the movement break out of this stultifying mold. Indeed, my recent book, Robust Unionism: Innovations in the Labor Movement, recounts over 200 exciting examples of current 3 creative efforts to turn around labor's sagging fortunes (Shostak 1991). And I am currently preparing a sequel that will highlight scores of brand-new innovations too little known even inside labor itself (Shostak 1993).
Recent formation, for example, of the Union Standard Trust Fund, a one-of-a-kind mutual fund, may have first millions, and then billions of dollars from union pension funds invested only in companies friendly to organized labor. The current obscene lunacy of such investments going into the stocks of anti-labor firms may soon end. Using a unique index of a company's labor-management relations (one I help monitor), the Fund's creators envision a time soon when its ability to invest or withdraw millions of pension fund dollars (which, it can be argued, are actually deferred wages), and to do so in combination with several large socially-conscious investment funds, will provide sufficient leverage to move publicly-owned companies in a pro-labor direction (Hinden 1994).
Skeptics, of course, are predicting parochial union trustees will find this pro-union Fund too novel for them. As it is new it has no track record. As it only invests in companies that treat unions well it must forego some "dogs" that otherwise reward investors handsomely, albeit they treat labor very badly. Accordingly, while the Fund is as clean-cut as is required by law, is as likely as any to produce a decent return, and can uniquely aid the labor movement, exceedingly timid union trustees may ignore it for more familiar, if less labor-aiding investments.
A similar tale directs attention to perhaps the single greatest need the Movement has at this time, at least where its own equilibrium is concerned. The new AFL-CIO Organizing Institute breaks with tradition in actively recruiting talent on college campuses. It rapidly puts enrollees into strenuous field training. It lends talent to difficult on-going drives all over the country. And it watches its grads eagerly hired by unions thankful for their help. Accordingly, for the first time in years hope grows that a new stripe of organizer may soon bring in hundreds of thousands of members.
Skeptics, however, are quick to point out that just to maintain current union density in the private sector may require spending $300,000,000 more than at preset (Tarpinian 1993; 6). Also at play here is the infamous "Rule of Five," or the practice internationals and large locals have of allocating no more than five percent of their budget for organizing, a fairly sure guarantor that little or no meaningful recruiting will be accomplished...and no new service-providing headaches will thereby bother gray-hair leaders eagerly counting the few years left to retirement.
Functionalism, in short, suggests the most probable scenario for organized labor is one characterized by drift, rather than by death. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland is on sound ground in peevishly pointing out "labor's obituary has been written at least once in every one of the 105 years of our existence, and nearly that many causes of death have been diagnosed" (1986; 393). Death is not the issue; debilitation and decline are a far more serious threat. Convention platform bombast and Labor Day oratory notwithstanding, unimaginative under-utilization of novel reforms and renewal options appears most likely...or so use of the conservative sociological model known as functionalism would suggest.
An alternative way of looking at the world, the conflict model rails against the status quo as a one-sided conspiracy by and for current power-holders, an untenable situation the powerless cannot overhaul soon enough. Society is not seen as a harmonious whole, whose parts function together on behalf of some larger Good, but as a volatile mix of mutually-antagonistic groups competing for power over the same scarce resources (Henslin 1993).
According to conflict theorists the class struggle explains far more of reality than any fuzzy-headed notion of equilibrium preservation and harmony promotion. In every society those who 5 own the means of production (whether of things, services, or ideas) control the social order and exploit all others. Successful capitalists and their cultural, educational, judicial, media, and political allies try to enforce conformity, which in turn stirs a natural resentment and resistance...thereby assuring a modi-cum of pro-reform conflict throughout time and society (Turner 1978).
Where organized labor is concerned, the conflict model suggests an endless and unforgiving struggle over power and resources is quite normal, and even a healthy state of affairs: Indeed, equilibrium and harmony, the pet concerns of functional theorists, are judged quite unnatural. The central question asked of everything is not how does it prop up the status quo, but who really benefits from it?
For example, where a functionalist might explain unconscionable NLRB delays as made necessary by time-honored bureaucratic formalities, a conflict theorist would indignantly note such delays disproportionately hurt only one side. Where a functionalism might admire labor statesmen, a conflict theorist would quickly agree with labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan that all too many are "so blank, so bureaucratic, [and have ] such an unenchanted connection to things" it is no wonder labor cannot even organize people who want to sign up (1991; 261).
While the conflict model explains much of labor's 19th century history, a process of exchanging briefcases for brickbats since the 1935 passage of the Wagner Act has profoundly altered the class-based militancy of organized labor (Goldfield 1987). Where pickets and company police once bloodied one another's heads, high-priced lawyers for both sides now primly face off in front of arbitrators, judges, mediators, and other erudite aids to dispute resolution. Strike statistics fall with every passing year, and are at the lowest level in the history of the modern labor movement.
Which is not to say pro-conflict types have gone. Quite the contrary, and so very much to the good! Young Turks, for 6 example, who gather in ever-larger numbers at the annual Detroit assembly of Labor Notes subscribers help keep alive the values and vision of class struggle activists (Nyden 1984). Their ceaseless and unsparing critique of mainstream (functionalist) unionism serves the Labor Movement as can only knowledgeable insider criticism. Zesty and energetic, their ideologically-driven faith in the "smarts" of the rank-and-file, along with their personal sacrifices for their union brothers and sisters, provide an invaluable role model (Parker and Slaughter 1988).
Closely related to Labor Notes activism in style, if subtly different in substance, is perhaps the leading example in 1994 of the conflict model in operation. The "Justice for Janitors" campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is an exhilarating mix of guerrilla theater, cameo appearances by celebrities (Jesse Jackson, etc.), and imaginative appeals for public support...or, as the Wall Street Journal recently put it, "a combination of zany, obnoxious, and occasionally illegal techniques...to shame, pester, and push tenants and landlords into forcing their janitorial contractors to unionize" (Ybarra 1994; A-1). While most unions continue to lose members steadily, SEIU has added 30,000 janitors since 1986 when it began the campaign, and it now has one-fifth (200,000) of all organized janitors.
Skeptics, however, are quick to point out labor's Young Turks commonly lack funds, clout, and the electoral support of a majority of co-workers. Vulnerable to red-baiting even this late after the "end" of the Cold War, they struggle for legitimacy and against burnout, knowing the odds remain poor they will soon achieve anything substantial via union-based conflict. Similarly, proponents of campaigns like "Justice for Janitors" struggle for adequate funding (SEIU invests 25% of its budget in organizing), knowing the odds are good employer resistance will remain unrelenting and daunting (Ybarra 1994; A-1; Lerner 1991, 5).
The conflict model, in short, connects with one of the fundamental contributions labor can make, or the mobilization of militant protest against class-based exploitation. At the same time, however, class-struggle militants continue to experience more than their fair share of enervating frustration (Sexton 1991). A related and possible scenario would have organized labor continue for some time to marginalize their impact ...or so use of the sociological model known as conflict theory suggests.
The last of three major ways sociology offers to see the world is the youngest and has the smallest following, but is owed no less a hearing for all of that.
Humanistic sociology differs from functionalism and conflict theory in its preoccupation with the ideal. It insists on going back to the starting line and asking the irreverent question - Are we asking the right questions? Do we really know what we are after? Proponents highlight the ancient Chinese warning - Be careful what you wish for because you may get it-. Meaning no disrespect Humanists prefer to take the advocacy of functionalists and conflict theorists as grist for the mill rather than as received Truth. Suspicious of tried-and-true formulas advanced by rote at ritualistic gatherings of unionists, they gently urge fresh examination of shibboleths and unexamined assumptions.
Typical of the changes this approach can produce is the remarkable campaign waged in recent years by a union coalition intent on gaining control of their inept employer, United Airlines. The Pilots Union, the Machinists' Union, and the Flight Attendants Union were all warned unions and employee ownership do not go readily together. Functionalists frowned at their willingness to upset the status quo. Conflict theorists frowned and labeled them -class collaborationists.-
Much to their credit, the three unions got down to basics and asked in an open-minded way - -What would an ideal airline, an ideal working culture at such an airline, really resemble ?- - And, once they grasped the many-sided answer, they next asked "Would it be worth all the work and risks entailed in its pursuit?" They are now well on their way, and may soon proudly take the entire labor movement to school where unionized (and profitable and personable) employee ownership is concerned (Blasi 1988).
A second, and comparably controversial example dares to raise the taboo topic of staff unionization (Kelber 1992). What is the ideal situation here in a union bureaucracy? If labor unions do not model best practices internally, why should business organizations? Is there any situation that reasonably precludes the unionization of reps or business agents ? How can non-unionists take an organizing campaign seriously if the organizers themselves are not unionists (Clark 1992)?
In 1991 a handful of exceedingly brave trade unionists, each of them representing a small union of union staffers, met and formed the International Congress of Staff Unions (ICSU) It now includes the staff unions of AFSCME, CWA, IUOE, OCAW, and the NLRB, among many others. At its 1992 Convention the organization heard pleas for assistance against employer harassment from the staff of the Carpenters Union, the staff of the National Treasury Employees Union, and that of the Operating Engineers Union, among others.
ICSU believes it offers union staffers the best possible protection against "management's universal obsession - which unfortunately afflicts leaders of some unions on both the right and left spectrums of the U.S. labor movement - to retain absolute control over their employees" (ICSU Staffline 1993). Its widely-circulating newsletter and its growing network are forcing re-examination of an unwritten ban inside labor against the unionization of union staffers - quite possibly the most remarkable piece of hypocrisy currently wounding the Movement.
A third, and final example of the humanist model in operation draws attention to the 1994 report of the AFL-CIO Committee on the Evolution of Work. To the consternation of 9 functionalists the report urges open-minded consideration of the components of an ideal workplace, one that might depart considerably from the status quo. To the consternation of conflict theorists it urges open-minded discussion of a new labor-management partnership based in radical work reorganization options (AFL-CIO 1994).
Skeptics expect the United buyout to falter or fail, so persuaded are they employees cannot help effectively guide their employer except as antagonists. Staff unionism is accused of shielding poor staffers notable only for their loyalty to a previous administration. And AFL-CIO calls for more collaboration with progressive employers are scorned as they think such parties at best only fair-weather friends.
For all of these reasons and more, a scenario for labor based on the humanistic model remains least likely, if also decidedly preferable. With its vexing insistence that the question of the ideal be foremost, it anticipates a labor movement more daring and reformist than functionalists would prefer, and more cooperative and productivity-promoting than many conflict activists can abide (Hoerr 1993). Above all, the scenario expects labor to forge grass-roots community alliances of the most creative and extensive kind (Lynd 1992). Unionism would undergo an expansion of mission, membership, and vision beyond anything functionalists or conflict types can presently envision - thereby underlining the utility of this uniquely empowering model ( Piore 1993).
Sociology has much to contribute to the multi-disciplinary concern ILR students have with labor's future-shaping options (Miller 1994). Three major ways sociology has of viewing the world suggest three alternative futures that beckon to labor; one probable, another possible, and the third, preferable. As the future is made in the present it remains now for ILR students and unionists together to employ sociology to new advantage.
As often before, much was gained from focused conversations with Robert Harbrandt, president of the Food and Allied Services Department, AFL-CIO; Alice Hoffman, founder of the Pennsylvania Employment Policy Institute; and Lynn Williams, retired president of the Steelworkers Union.
- AFL-CIO Committee on the Evolution of Work. 1994. The New American Workplace: A Labor Perspective. Washing, D.C.: AFL-CIO.
- Blasi, Joseph R. 1988. Employee Ownership: Revolution or Ripoff? New York: Harper Business.
- Clark, Paul F. 1992. "Professional Staff in American Unions: Changes, Trends, Implications." Journal of Labor Research, Xlll, 4, pp.381-391.
- Cornfield, Daniel B. 1991. "The U.S.Labor Movement: Its Development and Impact on Social Inequality and Politics." Annual Review of Sociology, 12, pp.27-49.
- Geoghegan, Thomas. 1991. Which Side Are You On? Trying to be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back. New York.
- Godard, John. 1993. "The Potential Contribution of Sociology to the Field of IR." Proceedings of the Forty-Fifth Annual Meeting (Anaheim, January 5-7). Madison, WI: Industrial Relations Research Association, p.543.
- Henslin, James M. 1993. Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Hinden, Stan. 1994. "Mutual Fund Investors May Soon Be Able to Look for the Union Label." Washington Post, March 23; p.F-3.
- Hoerr, John. 1993. "Solidaritas at Harvard." The American Prospect, Summer,14, pp.67-82
Arthur Shostak is a professor emeritus of sociology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and former director of the university’s Center for Employment Futures.