Monday, September 02, 2013

Labor Day 2013 -- Time to revisit the approach

The US Department of Labor notes:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. 

The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker. 

This is very much the case, but the day also should bring attention to how the labor movement can, under today's conditions, bring about continued progress for families in the country.  Unfortunately, in many respects, the movement has become as calcified in its beliefs and techniques as the very corporations with which it vies.  It often suffers from boards that do not engage in best governance practices, from a lack of transparency about its finances and other operations, and from the kind of political activism that is divisive rather than collaborative.

Labor in America has experienced a drop in membership, and one reason might be that the traditional approach to organizing--one based on getting to know and understand the concerns of potential members at a personal level--has given way to corporate campaigns and the use of big money that fail to engage individuals with a sense of purpose and identity.

Several years ago, I introduced Marshall Ganz at a speech he was giving, and I was struck at the disconnect between the exemplary words he was using in his talk and the practices of the SEIU, the largest union in the health care arena.  I noted:

[H]is impressive speech about the nature of community organizing and, in particular, the importance of having an underlying set of values to serve as the moral basis for a movement.

Having now watched the SEIU for several years, I was struck by the contrast between Marshall's prescriptions and this union's mode of operation. As I listened to his talk, I realized that the union has, in many ways, lost its soul as it has gained power and influence. It has become part of the "they" that is the target of community organizing. Instead of drawing on the resources available to it -- the courage, passion, creativity, and commitment of workers -- it relies on money and power to gain more money and power.

My book, How a Blog Held Off the Most Powerful Union in America, deals with one such example, when the SEIU conducted a multi-year corporate campaign against my former hospital--seeking to denigrate the reputation of the hospital and the people working in it to bypass the normal democratic approach to union certification.  David P. Boyd, Professor of Management at Northeastern University, wrote a foreword for the book.  He noted:

In this book, Paul Levy offers a compelling historical narrative of labor-management relationships over a tumultuous five-year period. While the story itself is riveting and the stakes compelling, it is more than simple case narrative; rather it is a morality play about an attempt at power dominance which, if realized, would have foreclosed employee engagement. Through such tactics as “neutrality agreements” and “card checks,” a powerful union sought to become hostage-taker of a hospital’s financial and reputational halo. Levy knew such an approach would usurp the primary goal of the hospital to preserve and enhance patient care. It would also deny employees the right to debate and determine the environmental parameters within which they worked. Thus the principles in play were no less than institutional purpose and individual prerogative.

As one of our nurses said at the time:

I believe in our practice, mission and values. I understand the concept of free speech, but it certainly hits a sensitive spot when people purposely set out to mar reputations through smear campaigns.

What an incredible waste of time, effort, and money by this union.  Let's hope that it and others will find a new focus for their efforts.


Neville Sarkari MD, FACP said...

Great post Paul. Healthcare certainly is a target for the unions at this time. Do you think that we will see more hospitals and other health care organizations become unionized? Do you feel there are some circumstances when that is desirable? I am not sure.

Anonymous said...

It seems fairly typical of such organizations (the AARP and AMA also come to mind, along with governmental bureaucracies) that the survival and power of the organization come to assume greater importance than the needs of those the organization was founded to serve. Eventually the organization is displaced and replaced by ones with a more focused sense of mission.