#MacroSW chat 2/6/2020: Social work and organized labor.

Chat transcript

For this chat, we’ll focus on the nature of organization labor, and the relationship of the profession of social work has with unionization.

A quick overview: the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established United States labor law. This provided employees to form unions, engage in collective bargaining, and engage in strikes. The National Labor Relations Board was formed to enforce this act.

According to the People’s Policy Project, unions essentially do three things: standardize the worker-employee relationship, standardize how that relationship is changed, and regulate the supply and demand for labor. Craft unions represent workers who are trained to do a specific kind of work. Industrial unions evolved from the factory system, and are made up of workers from different firms. The Teamsters and the United Auto Workers are examples of these workers. General unions span a wider swath of workers across industries and job titles. Public service unions are typically represented by service unions in the public sector. Public service unions can be large and represent many professions. For example, the Service Employees International Union represents nearly two million employees in heath care, public services, and property services. (Social workers, especially those in the public health sector, may find themselves eligible to join this kind of a public service union. This is likely due to the kind of work social workers do; we are often aligned with public health in some form.

As the Economic Policy Institute noted in 2018, while teachers make up the majority of union membership in state and local government, social workers represent membership in this area. To give two examples, Stephen Cummings, the author of this blog post and host for this Thursday’s chat, was a member of the SEIU Local 199 for 10 years while he worked as a hospital social worker. Karen Zgoda, one of the founding members of MacroSW, is a member of SEIU local 509.

In 2018, in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the application of public sector union dues to non-members is a violation of the First Amendment. This effectively led to the end of mandatory fees for union representation. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union had anticipated a drop in membership as a result.

In 2020, when seeking information on the nature and efficacy of unions, the need for critical thinking and analysis cannot be understated. A simple Google search of “organized labor” will likely result in many online resources that are driven to persuade. For example, a resource with a populist-sounding name may actually seek to argue against union membership. Also, at the Federal level, the National Labor Relations Board can have a negative impact on unions. Last fall, the Economic Policy Institute reported that the Trump administration’s iteration of the NLRB has “systematically rolled back workers’ rights to form unions and engage in collective bargaining with their employers” (2019).

Please join MacroSW on Thursday, February 6th for a discussion about social work and organized labor.

Questions we will consider for the Thursday chat:

  1. How do you define “labor union”? 
  2. What are the different types of labor unions?
  3. What are the strengths and criticisms of unionization?
  4. Do social work ethics and values align with the values of public-center unionization?
  5. Have you had direct experience with unionization?

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