Labor's Real Innovators Will Come from the Ranks, Not the Corporate World

Instead of turning to union members for the bold ideas we need, some labor leaders are taking cues from the corporate world. Photo: Nokton, CC BY-NC 2.0 / Cropped from original.

“Put your faith in the rank and file” was the advice that famed longshore union organizer Harry Bridges used to give. But instead of turning to union members for the bold ideas we need, some labor leaders are taking cues from the corporate world.

Take the Service Employees (SEIU), which recently posted a job for an “Innovation Specialist.”

What would such a specialist do? It’s impossible to tell from the posting, a garble of buzzwords that reads like a Silicon Valley venture capitalist’s TED talk. For instance: “The Innovation Specialist will train and guide teams in the use of innovation methods, tools, and practices to enable staff in SEIU’s locals and in its International Union to innovate systematically with method and rigor.”

No labor-movement experience is required. Instead applicants must have a “working knowledge of innovation methodologies,” including the tech world’s version of lean production.

For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the odious character of lean production, a system designed to maximize profit by shaving off every minute of downtime or ounce of leverage that workers have.

When applied to a union’s work, its concepts are at best pretty banal. “Lean startup” and the “agile” method of testing software—prominent buzzwords in the SEIU job posting—essentially boil down to testing out new ideas and incorporating feedback.

That’s fine, if not exactly earth-shattering. But it falls short of a strategy to revive a flagging labor movement.

VALUELESS PROPOSITIONS

The underlying problem here is the classic problem of business unionism—it confuses growing a movement with selling a product.

Outgoing SEIU Local 775 President David Rolf is the most prominent exponent of this dead-end approach. His new book proposes that unions stay relevant by pursuing nine “value propositions.”

What’s that? Rolf defines a value proposition as “a specific strategy that delivers quantifiable benefits to a recipient through a uniquely differentiated product, service, or intervention that solves a problem or improves a situation.”

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His propositions range from unions taking over the administration of government services such as unemployment insurance to amending federal laws to allow more worker “input” on company boards, as is common in Europe.

He also calls on “labor innovators” to recognize that “there is no more readily available block of venture capital than today’s union treasuries.” Rolf hopes that more unions will marshal funds for “innovation hubs” like the Workers Lab, which applies lessons from business startups to labor questions.

Peppered throughout the book is praise for partnering up with management. But Rolf has little to say about what I would consider a union’s main job—fighting the boss.

In a book ostensibly about worker power, the word “strike” appears eight times, while “partnership” appears 62.

Rolf wants to “innovate” unions into a totally different kind of organization—one that’s more of a business. “It’s time for us to accept that innovation needs to be the new religion,” he writes.

THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION

Thanks but no thanks. Give me that old-time religion.

The Flint sit-down strike wasn’t won by outside consultants or focus-grouped messages about the “value” of belonging to a union.

Brave industrial workers didn’t face down thugs and blacklists because they wanted to partner with management. They organized mass strikes and dreamed up tactics like the sit-down to wrench concessions from their employers—shorter hours, better pay, safer working conditions.

And it wasn’t self-described “innovators” who produced the teacher uprising that’s spreading across the country today. “Red for Ed” came from teachers.

These battles were successful because they tapped into rank-and-file creativity. They’re a reminder that the best sources of innovation and power are found within our own ranks—even though too many of our leaders are always looking elsewhere.