Elaine Bernard: A New “Strategic Plan” for Labour
Labor and Worklife Program
March 29, 2001
CSEW Speaker Series
About the Speaker: Elaine Bernard
Currently, Elaine Bernard serves as the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University’s Law School. She was the Director of Labour Programs at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia. She has a B.A. from the University of Alberta, a M.A. from the University of British Columbia, and a Ph.D. from Simon Fraser University. Bernard is author of Technological Change and Skills Development (Deakin University Press, Australia, 1991), The Long Distance Feeling: A History of the Telecommunications Workers Union (New Star Books, Vancouver, 1982) and numerous articles on labour and the role of unions in promoting civil society, and democracy.
I’d like to begin my talk today by discussing the nature of the Harvard Trade Union Program as well as outlining my vision of where it’s going. I think that this will help other people who are working with different types of institutions that are normally viewed as having opposing interests. I would also like to say a few words about technology, strategic planning, and leadership before concluding with an examination of case method, which is one of my primary passions at this point.
About the Harvard Trade Union Program
I currently run a wonderful program called the Harvard Trade Union Program. When I’m first introduced, people clean their ears out because they keep thinking that one of the above is not right. It’s either not the Harvard University, or it’s not trade unions. The program was started in 1942, a period in which there were huge changes in U.S. labour law, including the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935 which protected workers’ rights to unionize. At this time, Harvard University was called upon to help upgrade the U.S. work force by developing what today we would call “executive programs.” Essentially, these programs take people who are already in the workplace – who are mid-career – and they are brought into the university to complete a very fast, elite program. And, then, they are sent out again. So, in one sense, it’s a really enjoyable program to be involved with because it is actually designed to be adult education. It assumes that people are not only coming to learn, they are coming to teach.
It’s a very exciting environment. On the one hand, I get to be a trade unionist amongst academics. On the other hand, I get to be an academic and a critical thinker amongst trade unionists. Of course, on bad days, I’m caught between two of the most backbiting, Byzantine bureaucracies you could ever imagine!
The Harvard Trade Union Program: Giving Labour and Working People a Voice in the University
It is essential that we recognize that universities are run by their faculty. If you want to institutionalize something, if you want to achieve power within a university, you need to have the faculty buy-in. When I took over the Harvard Trade Union Program, I realized that it did not have faculty support. It was basically a residential program for union leaders. We actually had people out to get us, which is sort of a little bit of what I was expecting. In the past, there has been a tendency for labour to just be grateful that the university is acknowledging us by allowing us to enter through the servants’ entrance and use their facilities and resources as a “free room.” Now, as a former organizer, I never underestimate the value of a free room, but the resources of the university, even private sector universities like Harvard, are paid for by working people. Yet, it is a very privileged environment from which many working class people fear being thrown out. Look at my own personal experience. I’m a high school dropout with a Ph.D. My entrance to the university was through the servants’ quarters. The first time my feet ever landed on the ivory tower in the university was when I went into the science workshop and applied for a job as a machinist.
As a result, when I became involved with the program, I wanted to enable working people to feel a greater sense of ownership of this institution that has tremendous influence within American, and ultimately, world society. Access isn’t just about being able to use the nice chairs in the building – it’s about power; its about enabling working people to fully participate in the discussions and debates that take place at the university. Having labour education at Harvard enables us to mix things up a bit, by bringing labour ideas onto campus and opening up resources and avenues that labour normally finds blocked.
In part, working people are physically able to come onto the campus while attending stewards’ courses or half-day-courses on campus. I also formed an African-American Labour Leaders’ Economic Summit wherein I brought the top forty black labour leaders to campus. Prior to the summit, I met with the labour leaders in order to determine two or three topics that they felt were important to the community. Then, I worked with various faculties in order to develop presentations that would augment the labour leaders’ presentations. Following our first summit, we were the subject of an editorial in the Boston Globe newspaper. This is a really remarkable achievement; I mean – when was the last time anybody got an editorial for a bloody conference you’ve run?
The university also benefits from the presence of the trade union program. Certainly, you’re not going to survive in a university environment unless the university sees you as doing something that contributes to the institution. So, I spend a lot of time raising labour issues, not in the traditional sense of, “Well, you know, labour’s got to be in on this, too. And what about the trade unions?” But rather, in terms of helping people from a variety of fields think about working people, including organized workers, and considering the role that unions and collective organizations can play in diverse issues such as development or the informal economy.
Generally, economists do not regard the informal economy as a serious part of the economy of advanced industrialized nations. However, we have recently started to shake up their traditional assumptions. Economists have long held this view of development wherein the informal economy disappears as you move up the developmental scale. Eventually, the informal economy is transformed into something like the mafia. But, what we’re seeing today is that with “casualization” and other changes, there is a growing sector in advanced industrial cultures called the “informal economy.” This has really captured the attention of economists. And, we can respond to their new interest by saying: “Well, you’ve got to talk to the people who are actually organizing in that sector.” So, again, you have an opportunity to assemble a conference of academics, who bring valuable data, trade unionists, and community organizers.
I often use the business community as my model in building these types of linkages. Certainly, business has profited from their relationship with the universities by using a public resource as a private think tank. So, I approach it with the attitude of: “How can the labour movement achieve similar benefits?” I’ve noticed is that the business community frequently uses the university setting as a forum for introducing people. I have tried to do the same for the labour movement. For instance, a key part of my agenda in holding the African American Labour Leaders Economic Summit was to show people that there are smart, articulate black leaders in the U.S. labour movement. As a result, the black labour leaders who attend can return home with the knowledge that they, and not the president of their union, were invited to Harvard to think about and discuss important issues and debate policy ideas. At the same time, this type of event enables university students and faculty to develop a more diverse view of the labour movement, as opposed to what they see on the news or in the newspaper.
The Harvard Trade Union Project also enables the development of networks across groups. Although unions can invite academics to their conferences, they typically invite friendly academics, that is, good friends or people who they know about. However, we can help unions find people who they don’t know about but who are doing really interesting things. Often, the academic researchers themselves don’t realize that their work has a tremendous impact on labour, or that labour might want to use that information. So, we try to build these sorts of mutually beneficial resource networks as well as developing peer groups.
A key to the development of broader peer networks is the internet. My colleague in England, Richard Freeman, and I are currently doing a fair bit of research on the relationship between unions and the internet. Once again, I have been using the business community as a model. People in the labour movement are often afraid to look at the business community because they think that you’re going to sell out your values. Listen, these guys [i.e. the business community] have been whipping our ass. We’ve got to look at the business community and explore some of the things that have happened there.
Today, you can’t open a book without reading about e-commerce and how it’s going to change the way businesses deliver services to their customers. Well, what we need to think about as a labour movement is: What does an e-union look like? How will unions – and can unions – use Internet technology to democratize; to provide services for members; to help members organize; to facilitate stronger networks; and, to build global unions that are really meaningful across time and space? We have been collaborating with a couple of unions in the United States and England who are really interested in launching serious initiatives around experimenting with, and putting a lot of human resources into, technology in order to explore the idea of “e-unions.”
For example, my work with an organization in Indonesia has reinforced the fact that the acceptance of technology is a generational thing. While younger union members use computers, many older ones do not. When I was attending a bank workers conference in Malaysia a couple of weeks ago, we had five computers set up on the Internet 24 hours a day. People were constantly lined up to check their e-mail. And, remember, these were not wealthy people, these were trade unionists from very poor countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. It was pretty amazing.
Defining the Nature and Benefits of a University-Labour Partnership
So, the key aspect of my work at the Harvard Trade Union Project has been determining how we can assist labour in a meaningful and lasting way. In part, this requires determining what people actually want from the program as well as defining the strengths and weaknesses of the program’s institutional structure. After all, the institution is, love it or not, elite. While Harvard does small really well, it also does big very well. So, this is not a place where you want to run a shop steward program. Historically, it has been better suited to senior union leadership courses. On a good day, I can bring people in once a year for a six week training period. But, there must be something more that we can do to assist the labour movement without co-opting work that the unions don’t want us to do, or which they could do better themselves. These considerations compelled us to become involved with the unions around issues of strategic planning, leadership, and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).
Strategic Planning and Leadership for Trade Unions
Certainly, unions need assistance with developing strategic plans. At the Harvard Trade Union Project, we were confronted with the problem of unions being unsure about how to achieve real and lasting organizational change. After all, these are huge organizations that seek to move vast resources from servicing to organizing. But, they have no idea how to proceed. We can all talk about taking it to convention and voting on it, and agreeing, but what happens to a union when you move 30 % of your budget into organizing or campaigning against the government? Essentially, the union is faced with doing 100 % of what it used to do, and more, but with only 70 % of its former resources.
Another key issue is that of providing sufficiently trained and knowledgeable leadership. This is an age-old problem. Once you’re full-time staff in the union, where do you go for further training? Nobody in their right mind is going to go to a business school and get an MBA course or program. You can get training in arbitration, but that’s a very specific tool. It is very difficult to find human resource management training that complements our core labour values. The two just do not fit well together.
The Case Methods Approach
In order to address the problem of union strategic planning, I began consulting with my colleague David Wyle. He teaches in the school of management at Boston University and wrote a book called, Turning the Tide – Strategic Planning for Trade Unionists. David took a very traditional business school, strategic planning model and applied it to the labour movement. He looked at strategic formulation; that is, how you formulate your mission, how you adjust your structure to fit your mission, how you motivate and move, and how you implement and evaluate your mission. David and I kept getting hit up by unions to develop more and more tools, to start to teach strategic planning, to start to teach organizational change, and to start to teach these issues. And, so, modelling ourselves on the business school’s practice of “case methoding”, we developed “case studies” appropriate for the labour movement.
Now generally, it is easy to answer questions like, “Is this a grievance?” You look at the collective agreement, and if it should be pretty clear whether it’s a grievance or not. However, even if you don’t have a formal grievance you still have a serious problem. At one point, I created a course called “What Do You Do With Non-Grievances?” In this course, we developed a “kvetch forum” in which people could explore common problems where, no there isn’t a grievance, but you still have a member who’s really kvetched off. After all, for the union to dismiss a member by saying, “Sorry, but it’s not a grievance,” is not really helpful. Instead, we need to call it a kvetch but treat it as if it was a grievance. Then, we can explore the problem from all angles and work with the member to find a solution. This is the essence of organizing. Through our course we helped senior-level labour people – full-time staff – to develop their own analytical and problem-solving skills by utilizing the “case methods” approach that is used in premiere business education programs world-wide. Essentially, we gave the participants a case, divided them into small teams wherein they analyzed the case and determined the major issues. Then, we came together as a group in order to deconstruct the case – to develop a “case method.” It was powerful stuff that embodied the best principles of popular education.
A case study is an excellent teaching tool, it doesn’t have to be a heroic story or a morality tale. A good example of a case study is one that I developed with David Wyle and Anne Harvey of the B.C. Nurses’ Union. This particular example starts with a grievance in a union consisting of twenty-five thousand members, all of them nurses. It begins with the Chief Operating Officer being faced with one of the union’s own staff levelling a grievance because the job description for an organizing job that she wanted had been changed, and as a result, she didn’t get it. The case study reviews the history of the situation and ends with the question: “Gee, why does organizational change have to be so hard?”
There are three different ways we can teach this particular case study. You can use this to talk about a very tricky issue in the labour movement, which is the issue of union staff versus governance or the elected folks. Within many unions, staff and governance are separated. The staff is a hired staff, but the people who make the decisions, and who are elected as the leadership, are an elective body. So, you can explore the implications of this issue with regards to organizational change and, in particular, staff resistance to change and how develop an organizational change model.
In this situation, it is also a matter of servicing. An essential question is, how do you change the staff that used to be like McDonald’s’ – “We do it all for you” – to a new type of staff which sees itself as a resource for the members, and that the real action is with the stewards? This union has grown from eight hundred to fifteen hundred stewards, and is now looking to double that to three thousand stewards throughout the province. If you intend to handle your grievances and mobilization through your steward body, all of your structures have to change.
The final means of using the case study tool is to have an analytical discussion about the life cycle of the union. The B.C. Nurses Union is a union that started off as a professional association, not unlike the teachers’ and other public sector unions, but gradually developed into a more “genuine” union, before becoming a fairly militant union. So, it finds itself in an enviable position. It has achieved 100 percent job security and has 90% of B.C.’s nurses organized and part of its union. The question becomes, “How could this union have a problem?” Well, there have been essential changes to Canada’s health care system. In essence, it’s work allowance. The union discovered that despite having organized 90% of B.C.’s nurses and having a collective agreement that assured that no one would be laid off, the restructuring that’s taking place in the health care industry has resulted in horrendous workloads, and you can’t grieve workloads. Grievances simply aren’t going to resolve the problem, which is a political problem. This requires a different approach to finding a solution. Namely, you need to campaign and apply political pressure. This is something very different from what you do with a grievance. This type of issue forces the union to reorganize and restructure, and can enable strategic discussions about environment, leadership and future directions. Indeed, this case can generate a number of different discussions.
Through the development of labour-university partnerships to facilitate peer networks, leadership training programs, strategic planning and management, and the creation of applicable case study models, we are building an arsenal of teaching tools that can be used by the labour movement. And I sort of think that it’s the ultimate in subversion. We’re combining popular education with the best elements of business school and methodology in order to assist unions with managing their organizations. And, we are able to think and talk about crucial issues without endangering the values of labour and non-profit agencies. I think it is a niche that my mother would be surprised at.