The Future of Labor

Happy Labor Day, everyone. Here are a couple holiday-relevant items out of Detroit: the faculty strike at Oakland University, which has kept classes from being held since Thursday, appears close to resolution.

And Stephen Henderson of The Detroit Free Press, reflecting on labor unrest at OU and among city teachers and workers (the latter of which are considering a strike), writes that it is time “to talk about new organizing principles that might revitalize collective bargaining.” Henderson chides the unions for clinging to unrealistic demands when facing down employers who are hamstrung by economic realities that grant them very little flexibility:

[T]he unions have far more choices about how to respond. They need to acknowledge that there’s no win for them in a contract that preserves pay and benefits but breaks their employer. And, more important, they need to organize around new ideas that will actually empower workers, and sustain their ability to build solid, middle-class lives.

Once upon a time, that’s what unionism was about. It needs to get back to those roots.

So instead of fighting tooth and nail over a 35-hour work week, a totally unnecessary perk built into most city labor contracts, the unions could be arguing for education or training that will ensure that city workers who lose their jobs can find new ones.

Portability of skill is paramount in the new economy. Instead of fighting over rigid job classifications, unions could be encouraging the idea that many people learn many jobs — again protecting workers if they lose their jobs.

Teachers, rather than fighting to preserve $3 prescription co-pays, could be working with the school district to devise a system that rewards good teachers and provides support and training for those who struggle.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.