Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) march during a protest in support of a new contract for apartment building workers in New York City, April 2, 2014
Mike Segar/Reuters

Krystal Continued: The Future of Labor

The Cycle, 7/8/14, 8:00 PM ET

The future of labor

Krystal Ball sat down with Ed Ott, the co-editor of “New Labor in New York,” to discuss new ways unions are organizing and how it can be replicated on a national level.

In the 20th century, the labor movement was unstoppable. Now, it is seeing a decline due to big businesses.

But, with the rise of community based organizations and worker centers, employees are being given new hope, and even some empowerment.

The book ‘New Labor in New York’ details unionization and how the success found in New York can be replicated nationally. Ed Ott sat down with Krystal to discuss the future of the labor union. 

Krystal Ball: Can you set up the big issues that have led to the big decline in union membership?

Ed Ott: Yeah although dramatically different than when I started in the labor movement. There were a million and half more manufacturing, industrial, blue collar, and warehouse workers in the city and they dominated the character and politics of the labor movements. Now it’s public sector and what we used to do was a lot of direct action, with the employers- strikes, confrontations-what public sectors do well is they lobby and litigate and they have very high level of political operations. So the whole character of the labor movement is different although as one declined the other grew. Professionals started organizing like teachers. So we’ve maintained our strength, but it’s a very different labor movement.

Krystal Ball: There was previously tension between the labor movement and new immigrants, is there a greater desire to organize now?

Ed Ott: One of the things I talk about in the book, one of the biggest mistakes that we made capital went through this re-organization, they really did begin to erode the union’s base-artificial supervisors, designating people confidential employees.  But the biggest mistake that the unions made was accepting this notion of legal and illegal workers the truth is if you were against having low wage immigrant workers, what you want to demand was that every worker that works is treated the same way-gets the same legal protections as everyone else. I think inadvertently some of the union leadership probably encouraged inexpensive immigrant labor by not demanding that be treated equally. So it incentivized the employers to use it.

Krystal Ball: Often people in the lower spectrum feel they don’t have a voice, how are they finding their voice through these organizations?

Ed Ott: One of the things that you learn by observation over the years, one of the groups not in the book –Chinese Staff Workers Association they really dealt with some of the lowest paid workers in the city and what you learn from your interactions with that over the years is that immigrants have a lot of reason to be afraid-they have no legal standing, but they are not hopeless. And they begin to create forms to protect themselves, networks between employers and immigrant workers. I’d hire a guy from Mexico to work on my landscaping business and he’s good at what he does, you got a friend, a cousin, a brother like you-let him come over I’ll give him a job. Those networks become very important, those networks eventually evolve into some of these worker center organizations. Sometimes you’ll find a church-Catholic church in the Mexican community played a role in this, you’ll find that in other places where the church, the mosque is a safe place to go and meet. Out of those networks you begin to get the organizations and then it’s their children who are educated here, who really become the next kind of civil right movement for immigrant workers. The problem we had was people treated it like people were sneaking across the boarder, if you have 150 guys hanging out in El Paso, you have a legal problem. When you have people here with not full legal status, you can only assume the employers needed and wanted them and facilitated them getting here.  For me this whole question of illegal workers, it’s the height of hypocrisy all around.

Krystal Ball: What are the issues being dealt with now?

Ed Ott: Theres social justice issues, there’s basic wage issues. If you’re a professional designer or writer, you made need an organization to make sure you actually get paid. Often people complete their task and never get the check. So they’ve developed organizations that go out and do this.  Some of the traditional unions used to do this in the entertainment industry. The writer’s guild, part of what they did was help workers who performed a task, chase down the guy who was supposed to pay them.  So in that sense, everything old is new again. But what has happened is there is a huge piece of the economy-some estimate it to be up to 40 percent, of people that don’t have the traditional job, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. 40 percent of the workforce is gaining wages some other way. And we have to be nimble. Capital is a very dynamic system and it’s always changing itself and seeking cheaper better ways to do things. Often that’s at the expense of people who work. So our forms of organization are playing catch up at this point, but they’re catching up.

Krystal Ball: Union popularity has seen a decline, how do you reverse that trend?

Ed Ott: Lenny Bruster used to have this joke, first they break your legs, and then they laugh at you because you can’t dance. For 40 years we’ve crushed wages and workers rights and then they’ve turned around and said unions are largely ineffective. And for workers, it’s not a case of if they want the unions; it’s what they are willing to risk to get it. And if they fire one-sixth of those who want to organize and words get out there is risk involved. So the question isn’t whether people want unions-we think they do, the question is what they are willing to risk to get them. The unions are going to have to message in a way, organize in a way that people feel they can risk it. My first organizing was in 1969, we could with some credibility, if the boss fires you we can protect you. By the end of the 1970’s I was unable to say that to workers because it wasn’t true anymore. And that’s part of what we have to overcome, and we’ve learned from the worker’s centers. They are very courageous, they run the risks with people who have no rights at all.  So we have to re-think our own way. 

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Krystal Continued: The Future of Labor