Some Thoughts on “The Unbundled Union”

Harvard Law professor Benjamin Sachs has written an article for the latest Yale Law Review, titled “The Unbundled Union: Politics Without Collective Bargaining,”  in which he suggests a reform of U.S. labor law that would allow for the creation of a new kind of “political union,” that does not have the responsibility for collective bargaining.

Sachs argues that the playing field in Congress has turned more and more in the direction of advancing the political interests of the wealthy (and who could argue with that?), and cites a study that shows that “the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution received no weight at all in the voting decisions of their senators.”

I am in support of efforts that would increase workers’ power in the political establishment, and I am always happy to see academics joining practitioners in promoting innovative ideas in organizing. Expanding the right of the working & middle classes to do more effective political organizing is a social good, and should be celebrated.

The two examples Sachs cites in his paper of unions that have organized workers with explicitly political motives in mind—namely, nursing home workers in California, and home care workers in Illinois—were campaigns carried out by the nation’s largest union, the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU*). They required massive expenditures of traditional dues dollars—it is hard to imagine how a start-up political union would have the resources to launch either. If this kind of organizing is funded by traditional unions, it is likely to be eventually pointed in the direction of organizing workers into a more traditional collective bargaining relationship.

Winning political victories in historically Blue states is by no means easy. But winning back enough ground for working people in Congress will require that we win in swing states, and swing districts, and even some deep Red districts. It is to imagine the sustained effort required to do that being funded by political unions which are supported through voluntary dues, that employers will (at least initially) not even be required to collect. If you’re thinking, “well everything will be better after redistricting,” I’d strongly encourage you to read this piece about the electoral bias created by where we all choose to live.  Gerrymandering is not our only problem.

It is rare, in political organizing, for a single conversation with a total stranger to be transformative. Most of us change our deeply-held political beliefs only through repeated interactions, over long periods of time, with people that we trust. Sachs’ plan relies on the need to build long-term relationships—traditional unions have used worksite access to have those conversations, both by sending organizers to hold them in break rooms, and by training rank-and-file leaders to better communicate with members about the union’s political agenda.

If we want to make political unions a reality, I propose the following, as practical questions that should be considered—and I encourage others to add on, as well:

  • Will it be legally possible for traditional unions to host or sponsor political unions? What about worker-owned co-ops, or other forms of worker-led organizations? Professional associations?
  • Typically, the voluntary contributions made by union members to support political organizing are dwarfed by the amount that members contribute in dues. How will political unions scale up, without the staff support that has traditionally been paid for by dues?
  • Does it make sense to seed the organizing of political unions in places where winning political victories is more likely (ie—cities or “Blue” states)? If so, what are the likely long-term ramifications of building political power in ways that will be perceived to be urban, or left-leaning, when it comes time to organize in worksites that are located in more conservative jurisdictions?
  • (Quoting Sachs) “…some political unions might choose not to advance economic goals at all.” If a political union doesn’t choose to advance economic goals, what makes it a union? Simply the fact that it is organized in a worksite?

It is clear that working-class & poor people in this country have experienced a tremendous decline in political influence, over the past forty years, and that decline has led (in part) to an increase in income inequality. We need out-of-the-box thinking to turn it around. I applaud Sachs for taking a step in that direction, and challenge all of us to move this discussion on.

*disclosure—both Sachs & I have worked for different branches of the SEIU.

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