On Online Brainstorming, Or, "Hey, Unions...Wanna Grow?"

Sometimes stories happen because of planning; other times serendipity intervenes, which is how we got to the conversation we’ll be having today.

In an exchange of comments on the Blue Hampshire site, I proposed an idea that could be of real value to unions, workers...and surprisingly, employers.

If things worked out correctly, not only would lots of people feel a real desire to have unions represent them, but employers would potentially be coming to unions looking to forge relationships, and, just to make it better, this plan bypasses virtually all of the tools and techniques employers use to shut out union organizers.

Since I just thought this up myself, I’m really not sure exactly how practical the whole thing is, and the last part of the discussion today will be provided by you, as I ask you to sound off on whether this plan could work, and if so, how it could be made better.

It’s a new week...so let’s all put our heads together and rebuild the labor movement, shall we?

Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: We’re having this conversation today because of a back and forth between StratfordDem and myself over at Blue Hampshire, as I mentioned above, and the ideas that you’ll hear here are hardly my own—in fact, they’ve been part and parcel of how unions have worked for as long as there have been unions.

My proposal, however, takes an old idea, adds a twist, and tries to develop it to a whole new market, in a place where unions have been disadvantaged for a long time: among small businesses.

Before we move forward with the actual proposal, let’s do a bit of “stage setting”:

We are forever being told that the vast majority of jobs being created in the US economy are jobs created by small businesses. Unfortunately for unions, those small businesses don’t seem to be fertile grounds for organizing.

There are a variety of “structural” barriers that have been put in place over the years to make union organizing harder (and it’s even worse outside the US); one example would be the “right-to-work” laws that exist in more than twenty US states.

On the other side, there are industries that seem to likely targets for organizing, including those nursing facilities providing the kind of “hands-on” care that is often performed by medical assistants...who, quite frankly, would be awfully hard to “outsource”.

In normal economic times, it’s hard to keep these places staffed, particularly when there are either short shifts to be filled or people calling in sick, and that’s why there are “staffing agencies” who provide workers to fill in the gap.

There’s a catch: “agency” help is very expensive—and that often forces facilities to choose between agency help or “mandatory overtime”, which is also an expensive option. Obviously, abusing mandatory overtime isn’t just a budget problem—it will also damage the relationship between management and crew, which has its own costs.

The other players in this environment we’ll be talking about are the “Bryman Colleges” of the world (or Everest College, depending on where you live); you know them for their nonstop ad campaigns hoping to make you anything from a medical assistant to a construction project manager.

According to the General Accountability Office, the tuition for the medical assistant program at one of those schools might run in range of $12,000, which could be triple what it would cost to get the same training at a community college.

Ultra Geeky Fun Fact Of The Month: Those of you who play with Lie Groups and buildings of spherical types probably already knew this, but Belgian mathematician Jacques Tits (so famous, thanks to his “buildings” theory, that the concept of a group with a BN-pair is described as a "Tits System") celebrated his 80th birthday August 12th.

Ironically, Tits and buildings have nothing to do with TITS (the Total Information Transfer System), created by the City University of Hong Kong to to improve the communications process among construction managers developing large building projects.

So now it’s time to put all this together:

Picture, if you will, a union apprenticeship program for medical assistants that is melded with a “hiring hall” for fill-in positions.

Instead of spending $12,000 to go to Bryman, people would join the sponsoring union and start paying union dues.

The union, in turn, would place these workers, at about 125-150% of “normal” wage, in the fill-in slots that become available, allowing workers to “earn while they learn”; at the same time they’re attending the academic classes that would be required of any apprenticeship program.

The union needs to find nursing homes that are willing to place these workers. The way they do that is with a fairly straightforward sales pitch: “I can place workers in your facility, on short notice and with one phone call, for about the same price as overtime...and a lot less than the cost of agency help.”

The union involved will have to accept that they won’t be representing all of the workers at that facility...but they will be placing their workers at higher wages than non-union workers...and as the one group begins to see what the other has, this should help to make the idea of joining a union a lot more interesting to that portion of the staff the union does not yet represent.

It also removes the problem of the facility “pretextually” firing anyone who might look like they’re trying to organize the rest of the workforce.

Since workers would be finding out about the apprenticeship program through advertising and other means of contact, the ability of employers to intimidate workers out of joining a union is diminished; since employers are looking to bring in these union fill-in workers to fix a hole in their very, very, tight budgets, their desire to intimidate is also reduced.

If they do this well, the union should be able to create quite a bit of worker loyalty, and that should help resolve some of the problems associated with “right-to-work” laws.

So there you go: there may be a place for unions to expand apprenticeship by invading the territory of training schools that seem to be sticking it to workers today, and those same unions have a chance to change the relationship between unions and businesses into something that looks a whole lot less threatening to those businesses.

In the process, unions could create new worker loyalty—and they could also create a situation where the other workers start asking themselves: “hey...why don’t we belong to a union?”

And that brings us to the part where you come in:

What obvious things did I miss?
What legal impediments might exist that I’m unaware of?
How can this idea be made better?

Let’s make this a conversation, and let’s see where it ends up.


hop on in...

...and let's see what we have here.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

An interesting idea

I don't know enough about union laws and policies to comment on legal issues, but the idea of groups of people banding together, incorporating, if you will, has great appeal to me. Why let today's brand of companies dominate the space of corporate personhood. Unions ... or people with union mindsets ... should be creating their own entrepreneurial corporations to take advantage of people power and level the playing field.

Does the action you're envisioning really require unions? Replace the word "union" with "entrepreneurial start up" and see how that feels.


PS I confess to being a capitalist and entrepreneur at heart, having started a half dozen companies in my forty years as an adult. If it weren't such a pain in the ass, I'd be starting more today, but alas, I'm getting too old and am not hungry enough any more.


Thanks for the Blue Hampshire link. That looks like an active, engaged blog.

Would you mind saying which other state blogs you frequent where there's good participation? Do any of them seem to be viable businesses?

We're looking to create BlueNC 2.0 and are looking for insights and innovations that might get us over that hump.

happy to do it:

the best business operation i'm aware of is bilerico, and bil and jerame are absolutely hustling, all the time.

calitics is another that seems to do well.

square state has new ownership (sarah fong, who is running the site, is a former romanoff staffer), and i'd encourage you to talk to her as well for some good input.

steve hanson, of uppity wisconsin and journalism that matters, is another owner you should be talking to.

if you want, i'll be happy to introduce you to any of these folks, although calitics' brian leubitz is the one person in this group i've never dealt with on any real personal level.

on a national level, open left is pretty active--as is docudharma...but i can't speak as to whether either is making money.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

i know bil and jerame personally...

...and i'll be happy to say nice things about you to them.

you can get to bil by using the bil at bilerico.com addy.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965


Hustling is the right term

I visit them often, but the things they do for hits are along the lines of "Naked Pics Here" and "I have a crush on this celeb, and he's shirtless" postings.

Bil even has his guest admin drop in a few half-nude (or full nude) posts when he hands the duties over for a vacation.

Sorry. Not the way I want this place should go, but it's your place.

Best two words in marketing are free and sex, and they use it.


they are catering to a different market...

...and, not unlike "maxim", "xxl", virtually every uk newspaper, and "vanity fair", they do use pretty people to draw eyeballs.

now, just like you, i wouldn't encourage bluenc to go down that path either...and, to put it bluntly, that's because i don't see bluenc attracting the same kind of age or income demographic as any of the other four sites we're talking about...but if i wanted to get ideas about how to develop relationships with national advertisers, i wouldn't personally know anyone better to talk to about it than bil and jerame.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

if groups of folks incorporate...

...for this purpose...they might actually be a union, even if they don't use the name.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Community Colleges

Many, if not most, community colleges are already working with local employers to supply them with a trained workforce. This is especially true with allied health programs. Here in Moore County, Sandhills Community College works closely with the local health systems as well as those looking for careers to bring everyone together. Sandhills also has a foundation that ensures nobody will be turned away because they cannot afford the costs of attending SCC.

I think that's a lot better way to do things than getting unions all wrapped up in small business.

And yes I am a small business owner. Perhaps those with thriving growth businesses (like anything to do with health care) who struggle to recruit enough qualified employees can better absorb 50% increases in labor costs, but I can guarantee you that if it happened to me and most other small businesses who currently DON'T have the "problem" of too much business and too few employees, we'd go out of business really quickly.

there are a few businesses...

...that demand either on-call fill-in help or very short-term "surge" help; those are the employers that are the best targets here.

health care is one; that's because you have to fill shifts, even if someone calls in, and that often requires "no-notice" workers.

in restaurant world, you're trying to convert "fixed" labor costs to "variable" costs as much as is possible (lots of workers are working less than 8-hour shifts), and that means you have lots of workers who work for other employers besides you...and that means lots of call-ins and no-call no-shows. of course, you also have events that require very temporary extra help.

for both industries, agencies fill that gap--but at labor costs that can exceed 200% of a "normal" wage.

that's how the math of a "150% worker" can make sense--and in the case of a caterer, they know, up front, that they will have to eat agency labor costs when they bid, unless they have a crew fully "locked down" for events of all sizes (which is unusual), so for those employers this actually could mean a significant cost savings, as odd as that sounds.

to make this business model work for the involved unions and their workers, the unions will have to be effective "aggregators" of these types of jobs...and i suspect they will have to make some major cultural changes that could represent a barrier to this plan.

as far as community colleges go, i suspect unions would also want to partner with some of the exact programs you're thinking of...and i suspect that could be to the advantage of all parties involved.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

just to add to the conversation...

...consider the situation for a convention center.

you might carry 400 workers on the payroll, but you might have 20 or 21 pay periods where you write 50 checks or less, and another 5 where you have events that require 250 workers or more, and you have to call through that "call list" to fill the gap...or you set up a weekly "call-in" day where everyone has to field the calls, all day long, as the schedule is either filled out or you're telling the crew the schedule is filled.

as you can imagine, there's a lot of hiring, firing, calling, and reporting associated with that many workers, so you probably have 2 ftes, maybe 3, just to manage the scheduling and payroll--and that's another argument for agency help...or, in the case of this proposal, a union "education program/hiring hall" that could provide skilled help for this industry.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965