Labors business is yours, too

The boardroom struggle at the AFL-CIO

The breaking apart of the AFL-CIO last month might have surprised some people, but I think it should be seen as natural development. It’s natural because, in business, organizations grow and change, but it’s surprising because we rarely look at how “businesslike” labor is.

Scenes of tough-talking bosses shouting into microphones added some drama to the moment, and seemed to fit with the ready-to-rumble image most of us have of labor unions. What’s really happening is something of a boardroom struggle.

To recap, several of the AFL-CIO’s largest constituent unions chose the annual meeting of that labor alliance to announce their defection. The Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers left in a dispute about the future direction of labor in business and public life. They want an expanded agenda on behalf of “working families,” to craft a message that will draw new members and increase their influence in public policy. The remaining AFL-CIO will continue to adopt individual unions and exercise their influence through multi-tiered activism and lobbying.

This is a recognizable dispute: one faction wants to break up the business and streamline its operations to become more effective; the other faction wants to acquire more enterprises and establish new revenue streams.

If this were a corporation, it would be time to reevaluate the business model. Who are the customers, and what do they want? What is the mission, and how can it be fulfilled more effectively? Answering these questions is almost impossible, but here’s a try:

The defecting unions would say the customers are union members and their families, and that they want good wages, fair benefits, safe working conditions, and job security.

Those remaining in the AFL-CIO would say that their customers are the union members, too, but they’d add that the employers’ customers are their customers, as well. Their mission is the workers’ prosperity and security, too, but they want to be recognized for their role in supplying quality products and service.

One strength of the AFL-CIO in the past was the way it adopted corporate thinking in order to thrive in the 20th Century economy. The trouble is, that economic model no longer functions. Many employers and a majority of American workers now prosper without unions. And, this is not a new development; total union enrollment has been declining for two decades and non-union employers are some of the most successful in the current economy.

But for most of the recent past the AFL-CIO, and labor generally, has been pursuing a survival strategy. Sometimes it’s obdurate, demanding, or bullying; sometimes it plays an inside game, negotiating, or conceding, or partnering as it finds necessary. A lot of companies are in survival mode, too.

The way forward won’t be easy, and it certainly isn’t clear. But, it cannot be a strategy built on the past. It has to address the current and anticipated challenges, and for workers and employers these are remarkably consistent: low-cost competition, access to information and resources, and adaptability to changing market conditions.

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