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Monday, August 16, 2010

On Online Brainstorming, Or, "Hey, Unions...Wanna Grow?"

Sometimes stories happen because of planning; other times serendipity intervenes, which is how we got to the conversation we’ll be having today.

In an exchange of comments on the Blue Hampshire site, I proposed an idea that could be of real value to unions, workers...and surprisingly, employers.

If things worked out correctly, not only would lots of people feel a real desire to have unions represent them, but employers would potentially be coming to unions looking to forge relationships, and, just to make it better, this plan bypasses virtually all of the tools and techniques employers use to shut out union organizers.

Since I just thought this up myself, I’m really not sure exactly how practical the whole thing is, and the last part of the discussion today will be provided by you, as I ask you to sound off on whether this plan could work, and if so, how it could be made better.

It’s a new let’s all put our heads together and rebuild the labor movement, shall we?

Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: We’re having this conversation today because of a back and forth between StratfordDem and myself over at Blue Hampshire, as I mentioned above, and the ideas that you’ll hear here are hardly my own—in fact, they’ve been part and parcel of how unions have worked for as long as there have been unions.

My proposal, however, takes an old idea, adds a twist, and tries to develop it to a whole new market, in a place where unions have been disadvantaged for a long time: among small businesses.

Before we move forward with the actual proposal, let’s do a bit of “stage setting”:

We are forever being told that the vast majority of jobs being created in the US economy are jobs created by small businesses. Unfortunately for unions, those small businesses don’t seem to be fertile grounds for organizing.

There are a variety of “structural” barriers that have been put in place over the years to make union organizing harder (and it’s even worse outside the US); one example would be the “right-to-work” laws that exist in more than twenty US states.

On the other side, there are industries that seem to likely targets for organizing, including those nursing facilities providing the kind of “hands-on” care that is often performed by medical assistants...who, quite frankly, would be awfully hard to “outsource”.

In normal economic times, it’s hard to keep these places staffed, particularly when there are either short shifts to be filled or people calling in sick, and that’s why there are “staffing agencies” who provide workers to fill in the gap.

There’s a catch: “agency” help is very expensive—and that often forces facilities to choose between agency help or “mandatory overtime”, which is also an expensive option. Obviously, abusing mandatory overtime isn’t just a budget problem—it will also damage the relationship between management and crew, which has its own costs.

The other players in this environment we’ll be talking about are the “Bryman Colleges” of the world (or Everest College, depending on where you live); you know them for their nonstop ad campaigns hoping to make you anything from a medical assistant to a construction project manager.

According to the General Accountability Office, the tuition for the medical assistant program at one of those schools might run in range of $12,000, which could be triple what it would cost to get the same training at a community college.

Ultra Geeky Fun Fact Of The Month: Those of you who play with Lie Groups and buildings of spherical types probably already knew this, but Belgian mathematician Jacques Tits (so famous, thanks to his “buildings” theory, that the concept of a group with a BN-pair is described as a "Tits System") celebrated his 80th birthday August 12th.

Ironically, Tits and buildings have nothing to do with TITS (the Total Information Transfer System), created by the City University of Hong Kong to to improve the communications process among construction managers developing large building projects.

So now it’s time to put all this together:

Picture, if you will, a union apprenticeship program for medical assistants that is melded with a “hiring hall” for fill-in positions.

Instead of spending $12,000 to go to Bryman, people would join the sponsoring union and start paying union dues.

The union, in turn, would place these workers, at about 125-150% of “normal” wage, in the fill-in slots that become available, allowing workers to “earn while they learn”; at the same time they’re attending the academic classes that would be required of any apprenticeship program.

The union needs to find nursing homes that are willing to place these workers. The way they do that is with a fairly straightforward sales pitch: “I can place workers in your facility, on short notice and with one phone call, for about the same price as overtime...and a lot less than the cost of agency help.”

The union involved will have to accept that they won’t be representing all of the workers at that facility...but they will be placing their workers at higher wages than non-union workers...and as the one group begins to see what the other has, this should help to make the idea of joining a union a lot more interesting to that portion of the staff the union does not yet represent.

It also removes the problem of the facility “pretextually” firing anyone who might look like they’re trying to organize the rest of the workforce.

Since workers would be finding out about the apprenticeship program through advertising and other means of contact, the ability of employers to intimidate workers out of joining a union is diminished; since employers are looking to bring in these union fill-in workers to fix a hole in their very, very, tight budgets, their desire to intimidate is also reduced.

If they do this well, the union should be able to create quite a bit of worker loyalty, and that should help resolve some of the problems associated with “right-to-work” laws.

So there you go: there may be a place for unions to expand apprenticeship by invading the territory of training schools that seem to be sticking it to workers today, and those same unions have a chance to change the relationship between unions and businesses into something that looks a whole lot less threatening to those businesses.

In the process, unions could create new worker loyalty—and they could also create a situation where the other workers start asking themselves: “hey...why don’t we belong to a union?”

And that brings us to the part where you come in:

What obvious things did I miss?
What legal impediments might exist that I’m unaware of?
How can this idea be made better?

Let’s make this a conversation, and let’s see where it ends up.

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