A couple of weeks ago, I linked to an essay by Jim Grossfeld, a veteran union organizer and Democratic communications consultant, about a focus group study (pdf) he'd done with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, talking to white-collar workers about their views on unions. He is tackling some questions of profound interest to me, and I hope to other Freelancers Unionists, about changing workers' organizations, politics, and educated workers' attitudes towards it all. Here is an email Q&A I did with him. Q. How did you get interested in this particular angle of younger, educated workers' attitudes towards unions?
A. A few things played into it. Having worked for different unions I've always been struck by the extent to which a lot of intelligent younger people -- many of them socially conscious and politically active -- don't have the slightest idea what unions are; let alone their importance. For many of them, liberalism, or progressivism -- whatever term you choose -- is defined as being tolerant, pro-choice, environmentalist, and anti-war, but not necessarily pro-union. Democratic politicos understand that and routinely cater to it. The only time you're likely to hear most Democrats talk up the importance of the labor movement is when they speak before union conventions. The prevailing wisdom is that there is nothing to be gained by talking about unions to younger, better educated voters. That wouldn't matter if it wasn't for the fact that organized labor needs to have political leaders and others out front making the case for unions in the public square (to coin a phrase which no one really uses). But it's not enough for them to go before a group of young techies, for example, and say that unions are a good thing for janitors and farm workers. They need to communicate that unions make sense for people like them -- and, to a great extent, that means talking about a different kind of unionism.
Q. What surprised you most about the attitudes that came out in the focus groups?
A. What I found most surprising was the extent to which people were convinced that the rules and institutions which governed their parents worklives are totally irrelevant. They accept that instability and uncertainty are the only thing permanent in the "new" economy. Still, they believe that by gaining the right skills, working hard, and networking, they can still succeed. Unions were just not on their screen at all; they were for poor folks stuck forever in crummy jobs, not something for people with careers like themselves.
Q. Do you see this problem in the context of a larger problem we have talking about class in America?
A. The vast majority of Americans regard themselves as middleclass. They think in terms of advancement, not struggle. They're fundamentally optimistic. The great failure of the American left is that it doesn't have anything to say to people who don't think of themselves as victims.
Q. Do you think that what unions have is mostly a perception/PR problem? What about the need to create new forms of unions that serve this population directly?
A. Unions do have a huge problem communicating, and when they do try to present a message it's often not the right one. The emphasis the labor movement places is on what it achieved in the past: child labor laws, the minimum wage, Social Security -- "the people who brought you the weekend." All noble achievements, but it doesn't speak to what Millennials are concerned with today. The irony is that there are some great examples of new approaches to unionism that the labor movement could talk about, like CWA's work with WashTech and Techs Unite or how the IFPTE negotiated an agreement with Boeing to help workers who telecommute. Examples like these drew a positive response in our focus groups. They saw it as a new and different kind of unionism; one that spoke to their needs.
Q. Being a freelancer and a member of the Freelancer's Union, I'm particularly concerned about how collective bargaining can help freelancers. FU doesn't work on that model. Should we?
A. I think it has its limitations. Unless we see a major change in the way government responds to problems there are some issues that can't be addressed without an employer commitment. For example, can affordable, portable benefit packages be created and sustained absent a compact with employers? Unless government finances it, who will underwrite the cost for the continuous training a lot of careers require? Whether we call it collective bargaining or not, there needs to be a process to institutionalize the relationship between employers and the workforce.
Q. It seems that you're trying to perform a shidduch between several different groups that don't necessarily want to be matched: White-collar workers don't see the value of unions for themselves, the Democratic Party doesn't see the importance of talking to white-collar workers about employment conditions, and old-school unions (as represented by the CWA writer) don't want to water down their message. Are you hopeful that these groups are going to get it together and see their common interests?
A. I'm becoming more hopeful. This is a transformative moment in American history and the old guard is becoming more marginalized. For instance, 10 years ago I wrote an article about unions that appeared in the New Democrat, an early publication of the Democratic Leadership Council. At the time a guy I know who's been a fixture in liberal Democratic politics for a while told me that he was so disgusted that __I had written something for the DLC that he couldn't bring himself to read it. Today, voices like that are fewer and further between. I have a lot of faith in the power of market forces: the kind of unionism represented by FU is going to grow because the demand is there...and, if they're going to survive, both the labor movement and the Democrats need to respond to that. Nostalgia isn't a strategy; it's bupkes.