How Do You Build a Union for the 21st Century? (Step 1: Learn From History)

The next generation of organized labor should be about something more than recovering middle-class wages. It should be about recovering a middle-class way of life.
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When I was growing up, my parents would drive me and my sister from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side to visit our grandma. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment built in the late 1940s by her garment workers union so that their members could lead relatively comfortable lives.

My grandmother's affordable apartment in the Amalgamated Housing complex was the brainchild of labor leader Sidney Hillman. As the head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America before and during the New Deal era, Hillman envisioned a drastically different labor movement than the one we see today.

And on Labor Day, I think it's worth looking back to Hillman's old vision to see the role unions can play in the new, networked economy where forces both political and technological have eroded the primacy of organized labor.

Instead of focusing solely on bargaining with employers, Hillman pioneered another strategy: social unionism. In that model, his union pooled members' dues to create businesses that would benefit the members, at a price they could afford.

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.


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.

This isn't just a dream for young do-gooders. Countless experienced actuaries, lawyers, and accountants are yearning for a way to use their business acumen to rebuild the nation's middle class. A union movement focused on creating sustainable, revenue-generating institutions could provide a platform to serve the social good and the bottom line.

Sidney Hillman never could have foreseen this new economy fueled by ubiquitous personal technology that empowers people to self-organize. Start-ups like Kickstarter and Prosper have shown that Hillman's ideas of mutual support still have resonance - and a receptive, connected audience.

Unions can be the force that brings ideas like these to scale by pooling a critical mass of resources to build tangible, enduring institutions - and finally fulfill Hillman's vision of an economy powered by those who work.