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Working Americans Want “More” and “Better”

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What’s the fastest growing and most heavily unionized sector of the workforce? Surprisingly, it’s professionals and technicians, 23 percent of whom belong to unions, compared to only 15 percent of the entire workforce.

Why are these workers – who are supposed to be prospering in the new economy – joining unions? And why would even more organize if only the right to organize was strengthened for all working Americans?

Yes, part of the explanation is that so many classroom teachers, social workers, and college professors work in the public sector, where employers are less likely to fire or harass workers who try to form unions. But that’s just part of the story. As with other workers, professionals and technicians suffer from stagnant wages, shrinking benefits, and insecure jobs. Moreover, these workers are also vulnerable to offshoring, which is eliminating from 300,000 to 600,000 American jobs every year.

But there’s also one other important source of dissatisfaction for workers in professional, technical, and skilled service and blue-collar jobs. With corporations increasingly focused on cutting costs and boosting their quarterly profit statements, workers are subjected to more micromanagement, second-guessing and penny-pinching. In growing numbers of industries and occupations, workers who care about quality products and services find themselves overruled by managers who care mostly about the bottom line. Thus, nurses and doctors find their professional judgments being overruled by insurance companies and HMO’s. Aircraft engineers are being compelled to cut back on the tests that they conduct on the airplanes. Software developers and testers are told to rush products through to completion. And journalists are being steered away from serious stories and asked to focus on fluff.

These pressures to cut corners are creating new kinds of workplace conflicts. Model employees are becoming malcontents because they care enough to get mad about threats to their professional standards and the quality of the products they make and the services they provide.

Many of America’s most educated, skilled, and committed workers are more dissatisfied than ever. In most workplaces, these workers aren’t organized, so their discontent takes the form of “silent strikes.” In the face of massive layoffs, increased workloads for their remaining employees, and drastic changes in their strategies and product lines, non-union companies such as IBM and Kodak have suffered from internal dissension. In occupations such as nursing, teaching, and engineering, many workers are leaving and fewer are entering the profession, creating growing shortages. Given the choices between staying and fighting or giving up and getting out, many workers are simply departing.

But others are staying and fighting for the future of their professions and the companies, hospitals, and public agencies where they work. During the year 2000, I interviewed workers who took part in workplace conflicts in the Seattle area. At Boeing, engineers and technicians conducted the longest and largest strike by professionals in private industry in U.S. history. But their picket signs said they were “On Strike For Boeing” because they believed they were fighting for the future of Boeing’s leadership in commercial aircraft. At Microsoft, workers holding short-term positions founded a website-based union –WashTech – to protest being perma-temps. But they were almost as upset about their problems testing software as they were about their own precarious prospects. At Northwest Hospital, technicians and service workers complained that patient care was getting short shrift and joined a union that had been founded by nurses. At Kaiser Aluminum, during a lockout that dragged on for two years, production workers allied themselves with environmentalists to combat corporate cutthroat tactics.

As I write in Love the Work, Hate the Job, these workers – and many others across the country – care deeply about the future of their companies and professions. In fact, they’re convinced that they care more about quality than the executives whom they work for. They’re joining together with their co-workers and taking issue with their employers for the same reasons that they entered their professions. Unions, companies, and public policymakers should take notice of – and tap into – this concern for quality.

More than a century ago, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, summed up the movement’s demands with one word, “More.” At the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, union organizers should add one more word, “Better.”

About the Author: David Kusnet, a former staffer for AFSCME, was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job (Wiley, 2008) and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.


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