08/01/2013 03:18 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

Organizing for Leverage

To prepare for the AFL-CIO convention in early September, the federation's leadership has created an array of committees, online forums, listening sessions and other important efforts to engage millions of American union members in a process of thinking about the future of organized labor. Why? Because decades of corporate attacks and tectonic shifts in the global economy have pushed the labor movement to the brink of irrelevancy; less than 7 percent of the private-sector workforce is unionized, and many people who work for a living (which is most of us) wonder whether unions have the power or the insight to be meaningful to their lives in an increasingly insecure economy.

From the days of the New Deal through the 1970s, unions focused on collective bargaining at the enterprise level. That is, employees at a particular corporation or location organized and negotiated a collective bargaining agreement. This reflected the organization of the U.S. labor market, and it provided tens of millions of Americans with the power to win middle-class wages as well as strong health and pension benefits. And it still works very well in certain sectors of the economy, particularly where there is low risk that jobs will disappear and where unions have maintained their focus on building internal solidarity and organizing even as their industries have changed around them.

But how can we make collective bargaining work in an era of contingent work arrangements (which undermine the premise that employment means mutual commitment to hard work, career advancement and employment security) and international capital mobility (in which corporations and even entire industries can pull up stakes to chase lower and lower wages abroad)? Globalization and the collapse of traditional employment structures have combined to weaken one of the foundation points upon which enterprise-based collective bargaining is based -- the commitment of employers and employees to the future of the particular enterprise, struggling over how to share the fruits of the enterprise -- but not over the existential question of whether the employees (or even the corporate entity itself) have a legitimate role in the first place.

It would be tempting to throw up one's hands in despair on the grounds that no labor movement could hope to assert power in these circumstances. Our decline has certainly been precipitous, and our diligent efforts to reverse it over the last twenty or so years have not yielded much. But I think it is possible to overestimate the power of executives and capital and to underestimate the power of the people who actually do the work. Notwithstanding sci-fi predictions of an all-virtual future dominated by software networks and robots, in the real world all economic entities -- corporations, sole proprietorships, government agencies, hedge funds -- need the talents and brawn, the effort and insight, of actual human beings in order to succeed. The question concerns how the power relationships are structured and where a labor movement can best assert leverage.

Members of the Writers Guild of America, East, work in the entertainment and news sectors of the economy. Our challenges resemble those of other unions: We have considerable density in our core jurisdiction -- feature films and scripted television programming (at least at the more robust budget levels). Outside that core jurisdiction -- in lower-budget independent film, basic cable TV and digital media -- our members have a smaller share of the work. Even where we have the greatest density, our employers have been consolidating as they have been purchased by, or transformed into, multi-billion-dollar multinational conglomerates committed solely to maximizing the return on investment and agnostic about how or where to do so. And all of our members (except a few hundred who have regular full-time jobs writing and producing news for television and radio) have contingent employment. That is, they live from job to job. That structure works well for the employers, but it creates a kind of counter-leverage, a small voice in the back of the head that pushing too hard to enforce one's rights on the current gig might undermine one's ability to get hired for the next one. Compounding this fear is digital technology, which makes it easier than ever for writers to reach audiences directly -- a tremendous opportunity, creatively, but also potentially a threat to job security to the extent that everyone with access to the Internet can call themselves "writers" and create and distribute their own programming.

Our strategy focuses on the labor-supply side because that is where the leverage is. Our members bring value to their employers, and as we develop their professional solidarity, we simultaneously enhance their power. We devote a lot of time and energy to programs that build a creative community -- skills training courses, workshops where people share ideas about the craft and profession, networking sessions, informal gatherings where people can build relationships and celebrate (or commiserate) about work and life. Current members are actively involved in our organizing efforts, describing to potential members the concrete benefits of union representation and the less tangible but essential benefit of standing up for the value of one's own creative work. Thus, by uniting around the work they do, our members build power that is not based on the commitment of a particular enterprise to employ them indefinitely; their strength is based on the value of their labor rather than on a particular employment relationship, a specific job.

We think this approach of building strength across the labor market (in this case, the market for skilled professional storytellers) is better attuned to the power dynamics in our industries than one of focusing exclusively on enterprise-specific campaigns. The major studios have acceded to this in a sort of backhanded way, having banded together in a multi-employer bargaining association to negotiate the main national contract covering screen and television writers. (This is a common approach in the construction industry, as well.) Thus, in the entertainment and news industries, as in many others, geography and the identity of the particular employing entity are superseded by industry-wide dynamics and, wherever possible, industry-wide collective bargaining. There are times when a union can achieve gains by playing employers off against each other, but that does not detract from the underlying fact that conditions are increasingly determined on an industry-wide basis so therefore the most effective strategy must take industry-wide leverage into account.

As a matter of tactics, there are times when we find it necessary to organize on an employer-by-employer basis. We make it clear to the people we seek to represent that this is a painstaking process which seeks not only to make gains for individual employees at individual shops, but also ultimately depends on building much broader density to be effective in the long run. This has been our approach in nonfiction basic cable television, for example, where we have been conducting NLRB elections shop by shop (an excruciating process even in the best of circumstances) and negotiating the best terms possible with limited density -- but with the express goal of representing employees at most of the relevant production companies within a few years. The writers and producers who work in this part of the industry move from employer to employer many times in the course of their careers, which provides us both with the opportunity to build support across shops and the imperative to keep organizing until we have contracts at a majority of the companies. We don't need to wait for critical mass to engage in the process and begin collective bargaining, but ultimately that must be our goal.

Our model emphasizes professional solidarity and the building of industry-wide collective bargaining. Perhaps the former is best suited to areas in which employers depend on skilled employees who dedicate the time and effort necessary to master their craft. But many unions are refocused on organizing beyond the enterprise level, and many are finding that it pays to build solidarity around the work that their members and potential members do.