Organization through sectoral bargaining
September 9, 2020 4:32 AM   Subscribe

How Workers Can Achieve Real Power - "We can build a sectoral bargaining system—and strong, democratic, worker-driven unions—from the ground up."
There is broad recognition among experts that the decline in union density is a major contributor to the increase in income inequality. When unions were stronger, workers had the power to demand higher wages and better benefits... Sounds great, right? Why not have a system where workers are automatically covered by wage and benefit packages negotiated by unions and employers at the national level?


If the law was changed so that workers truly had a free and fair choice to organize at their workplace without threats or interference from their employers, tens of millions of workers would form unions. Survey research shows that 48 percent of workers without a union would choose to join one if they could. That translates into 60 million workers.

Adding 60 million unionized workers would quintuple the number (16 million) currently in unions. If workers had those kinds of numbers—or even half of that—and were given the right to insist that their employers participate in multi-employer bargaining to set wage and benefit standards, our labor law system would begin to look more like sectoral or industry bargaining. We know from history, and even from current experience, that when unions are strong, they bargain broadly and set industry standards that cover all workers in the industry, not just at a particular firm. Look at the legendary Master Freight Agreement negotiated by the Teamsters union in the 1960s to cover trucking—an agreement that set standards for the industry and was then undermined by deregulation. Look at the success of SEIU Local 32BJ in organizing and setting wage and benefit standards for building-service workers up and down the East Coast, or the success of UNITE-HERE in setting standards in the hotel industry before the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked such havoc on the industry. (Full disclosure: I co-authored a report on unions bargaining beyond the worksite for the Economic Policy Institute.)

And if we build this system from the ground up by building strong unions, we will at the same time be building a massive labor movement—a movement of workers who will organize and advocate and vote—who will elect representatives who care about working people’s issues and who will be held accountable by the workers who elect them. Research consistently demonstrates that union households are more engaged in issues and elections than the overall electorate.
The Labor Day Graph That Says It All - "If we hope to ever rebuild an economy that works for everyone, we're going to need many more workers in unions and a much stronger labor movement."[1]
  • @jdcmedlock: "Relative to capital gains taxes, a broad wealth tax would punish people who don't efficiently allocate their capital, while rewarding people who put it to productive use. There's a real similarity here to the argument about sectoral bargaining increasing efficiency by compressing wages, pushing low productivity business under while preventing high productivity business from getting 'taxed' by inflated high-end wages... This paper looks at the relationship between institutional structures of collective bargaining and productivity, and finds that coordinated sectoral bargaining is associated with the best outcomes (both productivity and wage compression)."[2]
  • @jdcmedlock: "Co-determination doesn't seem to have an impact on wages, which is fine - that's what sectoral bargaining is for. Co-determination is good because it expands worker voice, can increase productivity, and fight short-termism."[3]
America's Workers Need a Labor Union Comeback - "Employees with more bargaining power would offset concentrated corporate power."

Conservatives Should Ensure Workers a Seat at the Table - "Statement on a conservative future for the American labor movement."[4]

Unions and Inequality Over the Twentieth Century: New Evidence from Survey Data - "Definitive paper on American unionism. New version even better than earlier." (pdf, thread)[5]
It is well documented that U.S. income inequality has varied inversely with union density over the past hundred years. But moving beyond this aggregate relationship has proven difficult, in part because of limited micro-data on union membership priorto 1973. We develop a new source of micro-data on union membership, opinion polls primarily from Gallup (N≈980,000), to examine the long-run relationship between unions and inequality. First, we present a new time series of household union membership from 1936 to present. Second, we use these data to show that, throughout this period, union density is inversely correlated with the relative education of union members. When density was at its mid-century peak, union households were relatively less educated, whereas today and pre-World War II, they had similar education to non-union households. Third, we estimate union household income premiums since 1936, finding that despite large changes in union density and selection, the premium holds steady at roughly 10 to 20 log points. We then use our data to examine the effect of unions on inequality, paying particularly close attention to the mid-twentieth century decline in income inequality. Using distributional decompositions, we show that changing union membership can account for a considerable share of declining inequality between 1936 and 1968, even more so when accounting for spillovers onto non-union members. We then show that union density is robustly inversely correlated with income inequality in both the aggregate time-series and at the state-year level conditional on year and state fixed effects. Finally, we use a new identification strategy based on instrumental variables constructed from cross-state variation in union density induced by the Wagner Act and the National War Labor Board, and find that this plausibly exogenous increase in density has robust effects on both the top ten income share and the labor share of net income. Our results suggest that mass unionization of less-educated workers was a major contributor to the mid-century Great Compression in inequality.
also btw...
Uncertain times - "The pandemic is an unprecedented opportunity – seeing human society as a complex system opens a better future for us all." (via)
Think of hundreds of fireflies flashing together on a summer’s evening. How does that happen? A firefly’s decision to flash is thought to depend on the flashing of its neighbours. Depending on the copying rule they’re using, this coordination causes the group to synchronise in either a ‘bursty’ or ‘snappy’ fashion. In her book Patterns of Culture (1934), the anthropologist Ruth Benedict argued that each part of a social system depends on its other parts in circuitous ways. Not only are such systems nonlinear – the whole is more than the sum of the parts – but the behaviour of the parts themselves depends on the behaviour of the whole.

Like swarms of fireflies, all human societies are collective and coupled. Collective, meaning it is our combined behaviour that gives rise to society-wide effects. Coupled, in that our perceptions and behaviour depend on the perceptions and behaviour of others, and on the social and economic structures we collectively build. As consumers, we note a shortage of toilet paper at the supermarket, so we hoard it, and then milk, eggs and flour, too. We see our neighbours wearing masks, so put on a mask as well. Traders in markets panic upon perceiving a downward trend, follow the herd and, to echo Márquez, end up causing the precipitous drop they fear.

These examples capture how the collective results of our actions feed back, in both virtuous and vicious circles, to affect the system in its entirety – reinforcing or changing the patterns we initially perceived, often in nonobvious ways.
posted by kliuless (5 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Sector bargaining seems particularly appropriate to uberized, gig-based employment where employer/employee relationships are much more transient, do any of the links touch on that in particular? The model used in movie and tv production and construction trades seems on point to app-based jobs.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:29 AM on September 9, 2020

This was my hobby horse this past Labor Day (along with asking people if they were celebrating "a day of solidarity with all the working class" - which, interestingly, didn't seem to throw that many people off); I asked people who were normally quite pro-organization if they knew that solidarity strikes are illegal under the Wagner act. You would be astounded at the number of people (some of whom, Jesus wept, were actually in unions) who had no idea what a solidarity strike was.

Not the same thing, of course, but this seemed to be a good place to share.
posted by pseudophile at 8:53 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

The first/main link - the Nation article - is a good overview of the current state of things and a starting argument for a grassroots sectoral bargaining movement. I'd like to read more in depth about how this style of organizing sectoral bargaining would work.

Right now I"m reading The Civil Wars in US Labor - it's pretty insider-baseball-y, mostly about SEIU in the late 2000s, but it does lead me to have some concerns about who would actually negotiate sectoral agreements. There have been some bad sectoral agreements negotiated by my union - specifically for nursing home and home care workers. But I'd like to understand more some mechanisms for incorporating a movement for sectoral barganing with a movement for shop-floor, rank and file led unionism.

One chapter in particular of this book is highly relevant to anyone interested in the labor movement or anyone interested Democratic politics. Chapter 9 talks about how SEIU (and labor broadly) expended enormous resources getting Obama elected, which bought them access to high level negotiations at the White House, but how SEIU at the executive level ultimately supported deeply compromised policy in the form of both Obamacare (with no real discussion of single payer plans - despite members voting to support such plans) and also rolled over on the Obama aministration's dropping their support of EFCA - a big reform that would have made unionization much more possible, and which Obama had promised to champion, but quickly bailed on. The book is on deep discount right now - I recommend it for that chapter alone, but the whole thing is good if you want to learn about how high level union policy works, and doesn't work. Or rather, what we who are interested in increasing rank and file participation in unions have to work with.
posted by latkes at 10:36 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also, a peeve: That Brookings report is undermined by their choice of stock photo: Workers in the US are mostly in service jobs now - and don't wear hard hats. A good symbol of a generic "worker" in today's America would be a cashier at Target, or a home health aid, or a gig worker, and these are the folks who are in desperate need of industry-wide unionionization.
posted by latkes at 10:46 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

What Joe Biden could do to win working class votes - "Biden could get behind repealing the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947... endorse sectoral bargaining [and] codetermination."

Sanders and Warren Take Aim at Taft-Hartley - "It's interesting to note that, as I explained, neither Warren nor even Sanders endorsed the complete repeal of T-H (although they both had basically similar goid stiff in their labor platforms)."
posted by kliuless at 1:01 AM on September 11, 2020

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