The union would collect dues and build social-purpose businesses like housing, banks, medical centers, and insurance companies. Each entity would rent space from union-owned office buildings. Then the union used the rent money to pay the mortgage, building real assets and collateral. The union could then borrow additional capital to start more pro-worker ventures. It was a virtuous cycle.
WHAT SHOULD A UNION DO?
But Hillman's vision wasn't just about economic power - though economics was at its heart. It was about what economic power delivered: a middle-class way of life.
Collective economic power enabled workers to focus on their full lives, not just what they did on the shop-room floor. In Amalgamated housing complexes, arts programs, summer camps, and citizenship classes thrived. Through their collective efforts, workers realized they could build something greater than themselves.
You don't have to love unions to see the wisdom in Hillman's vision. Regardless of your political leanings, you probably agree that neither the government nor corporate America is willing or capable of building new institutions to meet the average workers' needs in the near future.
When we have given social unionism a chance, it succeeded. It's a powerful statement that, nearly a century later, many of the institutions Hillman helped found - Amalgamated Bank, Amalgamated Housing Cooperative - are still around. Nearly 1,500 families still live in the cooperative's 11 buildings in the Bronx.
And Hillman's ideas were replicable. In 1949, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers bought a 100-acre golf course in Flushing, Queens, to build Electchester Housing Cooperative. More than 5,000 people - including many union electricians - still live there.
At Freelancers Union, we've been heavily influenced by Hillman's vision. It's why we built our own social-purpose insurance company to serve our independent workforce. It's why we're sponsoring new nonprofit health plans in New York, New Jersey, and Oregon next year. And it's why we're opening a bricks-and-mortar, zero-co-pay medical center in Downtown Brooklyn this fall.
We're not the only unions that do this. Workers United, the Hotel Trades Council, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union all sponsor their own medical centers for members. The American Federation of Teachers' new "Share My Lesson" tool allows teachers to collaborate online to share resources, lesson plans, and other innovative ideas.
We need to go back to Hillman's vision and look beyond the current valley of union decline. The labor movement needs to make sure workers can see the tangible value of union membership - not just in a bigger paycheck and stronger job protections, but also in their networked economic power.
Unions need to get back in the business of building banks, insurance companies, day care centers, affordable vacation destinations -- and even dreaming up new 21st century institutions, like union-owned urban farms. They should be a welcoming home for social-purpose venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.