United We Stand?

Big news in the US union movement today. The SEIU, the largest union in the AFL-CIO (the US equivalent of the ACTU), has announced that it’s withdrawing from the federation, along with the teamsters. Mostly, this seems to be about personalities, but I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing for the organisation. Union membership has been heading south for quite a while, and if you believe that’s a bad thing, then they probably ought to try something different.

In Australia, the union movement seems to have taken the view in the late-80s and early-90s that mergers would boost their membership. The evidence now seems pretty clear that this view was mistaken, and that mergers either had a zero or negative impact on membership. It might be time for Australian unions to consider whether the downsides of competition (time spent on demarcation disputes), are outweighed by the usual benefits that competition brings (more consumers). The best analogy is churches. One oft-expressed view in the economics of religion is that the reason Scandinavians have such low church attendance and Americans have such high attendance is that the former has a state monopoly, while the latter has a highly competitive industry.

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5 Responses to United We Stand?

  1. Robert says:

    I’m not so sure this is about personalities, as you suggest, but rather about generational change and a genuine disagreement about the way forward.

    I agree that the split will probably be worthwhile, as the two bodies can try different organising approaches and see what works, but you’ve also got to consider that the Change to Win proposals included forced mergers. It is the AFL-CIO’s rejection of that reform package that precipitated the split.

    Still, I think that on the whole the SEIU and its allies have had far more success in recent years than the AFL-CIO on the whole. And apart from the merger proposal, I think their ideas are good — such as focussing on organising previously ununionised workers, instead of shoring up existing, but stagnant, membership bases; and a commitment to international solidarity that will shield their existing membership base (such as manufacturing workers) from offshoring.

    It’s an exciting time.

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Robert, I defer to you on the details of the cause of the split, but I’m glad we both see it as a (potentially) positive thing. You should blog on this – I get the sense that suggesting a breakup of the ACTU would be regarded as heresy in Australia.

  3. Sacha Blumen says:

    As a general approach, new ideas and openness to new ways of thinking, thoughtfully and intelligently considered, is always positive. Hopefully these are factors in what’s happening in the US labour movement.

    Something I’ve noticed in the last few years, and this could well be influenced by my education as a (picky) pure mathematician, is that questioning and new ways of thinking are not necessarily encouraged in some Australian unions (eg the NTEU). When I’ve raised questions about certain strategies with union officials/organisers, I havn’t had very satisfactory responses.

  4. Just a correction, Andrew, the Church of Sweden was disestablished in 2002. This notion of religion as a marketplace originated with US sociologists of religion, and I’m very suspicious of it for a range of reasons, but this is probably not the place to articluate them.

    Chris Sheil has more analysis of the split at LP:

    http://larvatusprodeo.redrag.net/2005/07/27/american-labour-divides/

  5. Andrew Leigh says:

    Mark, interesting to hear on the Swedes. Perhaps they’ve been reading up on some economics of religion lately 😉

    I’ve only seen a good formalisation of the competition theory in economic work, esp that of Larry Iannaccone. But I’m happy to believe that like many of our best ideas, it had its origins in sociology.

    Thanks for the link to Chris’s blog. Sounds like he and I are diametrically opposed on this one!

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