February 2003, Vol. 126, No.2
The future of unions
Book reviews from past issues
The future of unions
Unions in a Globalized Environment. By Bruce Nissen, ed. Armonk, NY, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2002. 296 pp. $65.95/hardback, $24.95/paperback.
There hasn’t been much good news for American unions over the past two decades. Rates of unionization have steadily declined and would be declining even faster if public sector unions were excluded from the overall totals. In many cases, the decline did not reflect large numbers of union decertification votes, but rather the loss of employment in industries traditionally heavily unionized, such as steelmaking and automobile manufacturing. The freer movement of capital and trade around the world, often referred to as globalization, has resulted in more goods being produced overseas for the American market with a subsequent decline in the American manufacturing sector.
At the same time, immigration has become a second type of globalization. Immigrant workers coming to America in search of better economic conditions often moved into the largely nonunion service sector, whose job growth provided better opportunities for employment. Thus, unions have found themselves in a difficult situation—strong in those industries with declining employment, while not capitalizing on the employment growth occurring in service industries such as restaurants and temporary help supply firms.
In Unions in a Globalized Environment, Bruce Nissen has compiled a series of essays dealing with these two types of globalization, as well as several essays dealing with the even broader question of how unions must transform themselves to adapt to these changing conditions. The book itself is organized into three sections: how American unions have reached across borders to deal with multinational issues; how American unions have dealt with immigrant workers in the American workforce; and how unions themselves need to rethink their structure and roles in this new society.
The first two sections of the book concentrate on actions already being taken by American unions in reaction to globalization. Section one discusses attempts by the United Auto Workers, United Electrical Workers, and the Communications Workers of America, among others, to build alliances with unions in other nations. The details and the extent of these attempts are fascinating to read, especially as they have received little attention in the general media. Ironically, one chapter focuses on union organizing at Mexico’s maquila plants. At the time, the focus was on bidirectional organizing. Unfortunately, since that chapter was written, the Mexican maquila plants find themselves to be victims of globalization, as Mexican workers are laid off and production is moved to countries such as China, thus demonstrating that globalization remains a complex process where today’s winners can become tomorrow’s losers. It would be interesting to hear how the Mexican unions now view globalization given this new environment.
The second section focuses on immigrant workers, with one chapter devoted to workers in Los Angeles and the other chapter on workers in South Florida. The two chapters highlight differences in union leadership and organization as they deal with immigrant workers. The unions’ records are uneven as they grapple with a changing workforce. While it would seem logical that the unions would embrace new members, the chapters’ authors document how organizational structure and culture impede efforts to create a more open union organization.
The final section differs from the previous sections in that it focuses more on recommendations on how unions should transform themselves rather than documenting their current practices. The combined effect of the essays in this section is to argue that unions should evolve from their present narrow approach in representing workers at specific firms to creating a broader "social movement" unionism. The essays create a more theoretical framework for dealing with globalization than the previous sections.
Producing a book based on a set of essays by different authors involves a different set of challenges than creating a book written by a single author. One challenge is to make the diverse set of essays flow in a coherent manner. In this case, Bruce Nissen has succeeded magnificently. Each essay contributes to the main theme of the book. The first two sections tell much about current union activity that is not widely publicized, which are particularly interesting to modern industrial relations scholars. On the other hand, Paul Johnston’s article is an elegant argument for developing unionism into a broad social movement to benefit the vast majority of working Americans. Unions in a Globalized Environment makes a useful addition to any university’s industrial relations reading list and a good introduction for readers taking a new interest in current industrial relations research.
Bureau of Labor Statistics,
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