States embattled by fiscal crises are abandoning the fight against Wall Street in favor of a new target: unions, particularly public-sector unions. The year began with a media onslaught over this issue, and a variety of print media have published their analyses of the issue.
Overwhelmingly, what debate exists revolves around whether the benefits that the unions have secured for their members are fair or whether those benefits are leading to the collapse of governments across the country. From this perspective, no path toward a new role for unions in our economy is forthcoming. Unions represent members, extract benefits, and provide protections, and all that is debatable is whether this role is positive or negative for society as a whole.
But there is another way to understand what unions are and what their potential is for solving some of our nation’s most intractable problems. Unions, built on the principal of collective bargaining power, are reservoirs of collective practical knowledge. They connect millions of Americans working in the fields of education, health care, and public services, and these workers have knowledge built out of practical experience that our nation ought to be tapping into.
Imagine a world in which unions were called upon to organize collaborative learning sessions that brought together their members with politicians and policy makers, drew on the experience and imagination of those at the front lines of the education and health care crises and empowered them to be thought leaders and problem solvers. Unions, with their nested hierarchical structure, are positioned to organize their membership at local, regional, and national levels.
With the growth of telecommunications, a variety of theories, strategies and tools for collaborative learning have been developed, creating new opportunities for engaging and mobilizing practical knowledge for theory building and problem solving. Changing the relationship between unions and their members – effectively turning unions into grassroots leadership development structures – would allow unions to provide non-monetary benefits and would enable them to become partners in active problem-solving in the public sector.