Competition Forever

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
But the union makes us strong.
Solidarity Forever! Solidarity Forever! Solidarity Forever!
For the union makes us strong.

History’s most popular labor anthem got the message wrong. Solidarity is the opiate of organized labor. Class solidarity is a 19th century idea that, like opiates everywhere, makes its users stupid, dependent, and weak.

On this Labor Day, we should acknowledge that competition, not solidarity, makes unions strong. Like any other organism or organization, unions grow by competing successfully for resources. Solidarity is an occasional tactic. It is simply not possible for unions to grow or become vibrant again until they embrace imaginative ways to add value to the lives of current and future members. To do this, unions must resolve to compete and help their members do the same.

To some labor folks, I crossed over to the dark side and to some businesspeople I never left it, but from my perch, unions need to compete with schools, communities, and employers to add value to the professional lives of employees. They need to compete with government and nonprofit organizations to provide useful services to working families. And importantly, unions must compete with each other to eliminate the weak and the infirm that proliferate among them.

Labor economists refer to the share of workers who are organized as union density. It is organized labor’s market share. American private sector union density rose every year for twenty years, but suddenly peaked in 1955. It started down that year and even though unions kept growing, they were adding members at a slower rate than the economy added workers, so density shrank. What on earth happened in 1955 to cause labor’s fortunes to go from overdrive into reverse?

In 1955, labor banned competition between unions by forming the AFL-CIO — the merger of two historically hostile labor federations. AFL-CIO unions are banned from competing with each other — and this ban, known as Article Twenty, was the entire purpose of the merger. Labor’s decline began when unions stopped competing with each other for members.

The decision of a handful of unions to break up the AFL-CIO monopoly is thus a modest start. Because unions are exempt from anti-trust law, the AFL-CIO can legally forbid its affiliated unions from competing for each other’s members — even if members themselves wish to change unions. This enforced solidarity has never worked.

The unions that formed an alternative labor federation called Change to Win worry that we have too many unions. They are right — and enabling a robust competition would solve the problem. Change to Win should urge duplicative unions to merge or fight it out. The contests that would result would fascinate the public, provide protein to the surviving unions, and empower members to quickly decide which unions should grow and which should die. Unions would emerge stronger, not weaker — as anyone knows who ever fought a Teamster raid.

The name is a start: the point is to win, not just link arms and lose. Unions need to compete for the attention, affection, and money of millions of American workers. Here are some places to start:

Professional Associations. Organized labor should create dozens of new professional associations and happily compete with existing ones. Most would have nothing to do with collective bargaining and everything to do with shaping collective professional identity. Who helps taxi drivers, database administrators, or credit analysts get their skills certified? Who gathers regional wage and benefit data and shares it with day care employees, dental assistants, or graphic artists?

Meetup.org, the progressive social networking site that launched Howard Dean, offers a model for convening these groups. As of today however, baristas, cosmetologists, and dry cleaning employees each have zero meetups scheduled anywhere in the country. The competition, Chihuahua owners for example, have organized standing meetings in 58 locations that bring people together to share experiences, have fun, establish standards, and advocate for their needs. Like it or not, there is competition for the attention of union members — and Chihuahua owners are winning.

Employment agencies. Unions should reinvent the hiring hall by competing with Craigslist. Offer up a high quality, free on line jobs board. Anyone looking for work could post resumes and any employer looking to hire could post open positions. Why would employers use it? Same reason we use Craigslist — because it is free in most cities, it is open, easy to use, and connects us with talented people. What would unions get out of it? To start with, a database of millions of employees and employers.

Workplace evaluation. Thousands of readers volunteer on line book reviews each day, so why not enable employees to provide detailed reviews of their workplace? An affiliate of the AFL-CIO, Working America got a start on this with a “My Bad Boss” contest. This was the work of Karen Nussbaum, long one of organized labor’s (and the Clinton Labor Department’s) most imaginative and committed leaders. The entries, as you might suspect, were grotesque.

But why bother highlighting a dozen lousy bosses? Why not enable millions of people to evaluate their boss — good and bad? As a CEO, I might not enjoy the unsolicited feedback — but I would very likely read it and care a lot about how we appeared to potential employees. Ratings can also become a useful source of intelligence for those concerned about their company. Not long ago, employees in many Silicon Valley companies, including mine, regularly started their day by checking this memorably named site to learn of impending layoffs.

Unions could use these evaluations to identify and publicly recognize great workplaces. Done well, these results would have more credibility than Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work. Likewise, unions would be free to humble (or organize) the worst-rated companies. (Potential glitch: the best places to work frequently don’t have unions — and some of the worst do).

Competitive Campaign Contributions Democratic politics is all about competition, except when it comes to political contributions from organized labor. Democrats feel so little need to compete for labor’s time, troops, and money that even Change to Win leader Andy Stern chided unions as “the ATM Machine of the Democratic Party”. Labor should cut back dramatically on campaign spending and instead finance initiatives that generate tangible benefits and help retool unions as a relevant economic force.

Can competitive unions provide services that workers value along with workplace checks and balances? Not without abandoning the comfort of collectivist mythologies that have turned many unions into a hospice for workers in government or dying industries.

Labor’s assets include billions of annual revenue dollars, tens of millions of members, and tens of thousands of committed staff. In Andy Stern, Karen Nussbaum and others they have smart, charismatic leaders who happily challenge orthodoxy. To change or to win, however, labor needs a new song. The new opening line: “When the workers’ information through the union blood shall run….”