Rethinking Unions VI: embrace unions and extend them to a true worker movement

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Embrace and extend is a proprietary software company strategy that was made famous by Microsoft’s use of the practice. The idea was to embrace an open standard, create the best implementation of that standard in part by adding proprietary extensions, and get everybody to use your version and become addicted to the proprietary goodness which was not released as an addition to the standard. Everybody buys your commercial software that includes the enhanced standard feature and you gain an extra dollop of lock-in profits for several product cycles.

The challenges of moving beyond current unionization efforts to a true workers movement is a bit like a photo negative of Microsoft’s strategy. What’s desired in this case isn’t to create something proprietary to extend a standard for advantage but to identify the jewels in the proprietary 1st generation unions, standardize and spread their benefits to all workers, and create efficient methods to achieve legitimate worker ends without the violence and without the contribution to crony capitalism that present day unions participate in.

Jewel #1 – Education
US vocational education is generally a mess. Union vocational education is generally considered a viable, quality system.

Jewel #2 – Benefits provider
According to the US tax code ( 501(c) 5 ) Unions have the ability to provide benefits consistent with their purpose. That makes them natural health insurance and pension providers that are financially distinct from the company. Union provided benefits are associational and allow increased worker mobility between firms covered by the same union which is both good for workers and good for capitalism.

Jewel #3 – Worker Protection
This one’s a very flawed jewel, but in a dysfunctional organization that has not yet gone broke, the union might be all that is between you and bearing the cost of changing jobs in a sticky economy when you’ve been done an injustice or have even been asked to do something dangerous or illegal.

Adaptation #1 – The open badging movement in education needs extension into the vocational education sphere. This isn’t really a technical challenge, that part is being handled by the technical crowd admirably. Instead the major unaddressed issues are social and organizational ones. People need to know about the badges both in HR departments and in the job seeking population. Badges need to be something that can give you an edge in finding a job. Badges need to be something that lets you find more good employees and filter out more duds. This is a major work in progress and nobody’s really cracked the code yet though there are a lot of entrepreneurial initiatives trying to work out the issues including big names like MIT and Harvard.

Adaptation #2 – Unions are a ready made association that can stay with workers throughout their working lives and provide benefits no matter what happens to a particular employer. This is a very valuable service, one that could use as many entrants into this market as possible in order to prevent membership gouging If you’re a Catholic, scout master, and bricklayer, picking your benefits among your three major associations gets you better possibilities if all of them are participating as benefits provider associations. This is going to require a sea change in legislation so that cross-state associations can provide benefits packages. President Bush proposed this early in his 2nd term and had his head handed to him. President Obama is obviously not interested. Would our next President do better? On the first day President Romney says he would work to replace Obamacare with a more common sense set of reforms. Would this qualify as part of the solution?

Adaptation #3 – Ultimately, this is the most difficult of adaptations because here is where threat and intimidation get applied in a form of street justice to handle situations that are ill suited to the formal justice system. If management behaves badly, unionized workers impose costs is generally how it works. But the ultimate expression of this tactic in current unions, the strike, is disruptive without being very effective. An entire industry has grown up around making it ineffective. Either formal justice needs to be radically reduced in costs to make these situations solvable by the courts or street justice needs to move into the 21st century so that it has lower dead weight loss, lower overhead, and higher effectiveness.

The Insanity of Federalized Teacher Evaluations

Last Sunday’s New York Times had an article highlighting the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system being put in place in Tennessee. The system is part of the Race-to-the-Top attempt to drive education reform in the states by dangling federal cash for reforms.

As you read the article, you should begin to realize why “reform” fails and why many people in both the Government Education Complex and Education Transformation* movement find these rules so absurd.

There simply is no way that a federal bureaucracy (or any bureaucracy, for that matter) can devise a unified system of teacher evaluation. There are too many variables, and teachers are correct to be skeptical of this top-down approach to their craft.

For example, the first few paragraphs of the article expose the unworkable nature of the evaluation process.

Steve Ball, executive principal at the East Literature Magnet School in Nashville, arrived at an English class unannounced one day this month and spent 60 minutes taking copious notes as he watched the teacher introduce and explain the concept of irony. “It was a good lesson,” Mr. Ball said.

But under Tennessee’s new teacher-evaluation system, which is similar to systems being adopted around the country, Mr. Ball said he had to give the teacher a one — the lowest rating on a five-point scale — in one of 12 categories: breaking students into groups.** Even though Mr. Ball had seen the same teacher, a successful veteran he declined to identify, group students effectively on other occasions, he felt that he had no choice but to follow the strict guidelines of the state’s complicated rubric.

“It’s not an accurate reflection of her as a teacher,” Mr. Ball said.

What a shock. A principal knows his teachers better than the federalized check list. Wonders never cease.

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Rethinking Unions V: AFL-CIOx

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First there was TEDx, the low cost/no cost to the original TED initiative to spread the TED message around the world in local affiliated events. Now there is MITx, an initiative to create free/low cost classes with an MIT affiliation but no degree. So why isn’t there AFL-CIOx? There is no great leap necessary to figure this out. Fire up a web site and provide tools for all workers to improve their position. AFL-CIOx could provide templates on how to lobby their local governments to diversify local economies and cater to entrepreneurs so the increase in businesses operating locally would improve the chance that different employers would compete for local workers. Employers bidding up salaries in order to compete is how non-union workers get salary increases and it’s a successful strategy. It used to be that union workers earned more than non-union. That is no longer true.

And they could provide “plus” services that would carry a fee that you could take or leave. Hat sales alone would probably cover most of the electricity bill. And yes, I’d buy one. I’d also use the site as I assume a lot of people who would viscerally reject joining a union, ever. Google will index it and people will use compelling content, giving unions a 2nd chance at a large part of the population that have long written them off as irrelevant and outdated.

So where is that site? Where is the effort to improve the position of all American workers by providing a 21st century education on how to be a smart, savvy worker?