White-Collar Unionism

Feb 28, 2007

As well as being a member of the Freelancers Union, I am also on the mailing list of the Newspaper Guild/ Communications Workers of America (CWA), a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Their newsletter this month featured a point-counterpoint on a question close to the Freelancers Union's heart: "Do white-collar workers need a different kind of unionism?" The "yes" writer, Jim Grossfeld, compared old-school unionism's message to an old-time religion out of date for today's younger, career-oriented, educated workers. He argues, based on focus group interviews, "In truth, white-collar workers do see the value in having some kind of workplace organization, just not the kind they think the labor movement is offering." What kind of labor organization do we want? Grossfeld's focus groups pricked up their ears at examples of new unions that take a nonadversarial approach by working with management to solve tough workplace problems and make workers happier, and that give nontraditional workers access to portable healthcare and pension benefits (ahem). He urges both the Democratic Party and the labor movement to promote these new groups to white-collar workers rather than sitting around "hoping they become class conscious". I thought the counterpoint response was just as thought-provoking. Andy Zipser of the Newspaper Guild insists that labor and management are and must be adversarial. We should be rebuilding class consciousness, he says, not ignoring it: “Classâ€? is an integral component of a capitalist economy and entirely the reason why unions were created in the first place." Personally, I feel the strength of his message not in the ideology, but in the solidarity of it. Those of us who work for ourselves have a hard time fomenting rebellion against the boss. On the other hand, I don't know how organizations like the Freelancers Union will achieve our long-term vision of a new social safety net and a new New Deal without fostering a strong sense of unity among all the "little guys."