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Where have all the labor unions gone? Rachel Aleks has some answers.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“There still needs to be a way that workers can collectively build power in order to have a say over the conditions under which they work.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“The purpose of my research is to provide information to organizations so they can make evidence-based decisions that actually shift policy or practice.”
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank

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The dichotomy between the labor protests she observed on the streets and what she was studying in accounting and management was the impetus for Aleks’ interest in studying labor organizations.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“They are the ones creating the wealth. It was…clear to me that management schools are teaching students how to manage but without a sufficient focus on the people working in those organizations—people who need to be treated fairly and with dignity.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

Giving Workers a Voice

by Caitlin Hayes

All workers, whether blue or white collar, can benefit from a labor union and a collective voice, says Rachel Aleks, Labor Relations, Law, and History. Unions, however, have seen a sharp decline in membership over recent decades, despite growing inequality.

“Labor-management conflict has not gone away,” Aleks says. “There still needs to be a way that workers can collectively build power in order to have a say over the conditions under which they work.”

Aleks’ research is geared broadly towards how the voiceless can gain voice and specifically towards the revitalization of labor unions to empower workers. “I don’t think people always recognize that they have within them the power to say, ‘I can change this,’” Aleks says. “We have the agency to change our own paths.”

How Can Labor Unions Become More Successful?

Labor unions give workers a voice while also protecting their rights. So why aren’t all workers eager to get involved? A lot has to do with messaging and organizing. Aleks’ research aim is to help unions discover new strategies. “The purpose of my research is to provide information to organizations so they can make evidence-based decisions that actually shift policy or practice,” she says.

In her doctoral dissertation, Aleks assessed whether the 2005 split of seven unions from the largest union federation in the United States, the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), was successful in increasing new membership. She found that the new coalition, Change to Win, did not achieve their goals in terms of organizing. This broad finding has led her to studies of specific ways unions can do better.

In one project Aleks looks at strategies to improve the organization of professional workers—workers whose main capital is knowledge. While many people may associate unions with blue-collar jobs, knowledge workers need a collective voice, too, according to Aleks.

“Knowing that you have protection, that you can’t just be terminated for no reason or for speaking out, allows workers to provide ideas with an employer that they might not otherwise,” she says. “I think that’s incredibly important in the professional environment, where you have a lot of training and knowledge in the area, and you’re the one who’s carrying out the day-to-day tasks.” Aleks says that this representation is especially important in numerous industries with increasing bureaucratization. A career CEO in a hospital, for example, will be further removed from and less informed about the actual experience of being a doctor or a nurse.

Universities are another example where, in some cases, the increase in bureaucracy has led to a need for unions. “We have a class of highly trained academics who are teaching in adjunct or nontenure-track positions, and they’re incredibly vulnerable,” Aleks says. “Even universities have an underclass of workers who could very much benefit from union representation.”

Aleks has examined how strategies in campaign organizing might differ for knowledge workers, who have different needs and expectations. “Messaging that worked with one group of workers may not work with another,” she says. “There’s a professional identity that makes these workers distinct, and if that identity is better understood, it could provide assistance to unions as they try to approach professional workers.”

Autonomy is often a top priority for professional workers, and they often want to maintain a nonconflictual relationship with management. They may be less likely to want to strike or march and more open to public campaigns that highlight the value of their work.

In other research Aleks is tracking how unions are viewed by young people, using data from a University of Michigan survey, Monitoring the Future, which has been asking high school seniors their opinions of various topics since 1975. Aleks has found that millennials don’t view unions any more negatively or positively than youth of the baby boomer generation. The decline in union enrollment among young people must therefore have some other explanation. “Here, I’m providing a counter-narrative to what a lot of people believe, which I think can help the union movement delve into what the issues really are in terms of getting younger people on board,” Aleks says.

Aleks is also looking forward to projects that examine the internal structure of union leadership and how shifts in this structure might lead to more successful revitalization.

New Research Questions, Cornell Prison Education Program

“For somebody who wants to understand the world of work, the conflict between management and workers and what people do about that conflict—ILR [the School of Industrial and Labor Relations] is the absolute greatest place to be,” Aleks says.

What Aleks didn’t anticipate in coming to Cornell was the profound opportunity presented by the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP). Aleks teaches at Auburn Correctional Facility. She provides inmates with a top-notch class but says she’s benefiting, too, both in her teaching and research. Her time working in the prison has already prompted new research questions.

“I thought more people should be focused on the workers, and I wanted to be one of those people.”

“What does it look like for correctional officers to try to amass and assert collective power in the prison?” she asks. “What does it look like for inmates to seek empowerment and achieve voice, and how do these two conflict?”

Aleks also has an interest in examining the effects of the CPEP program on the dynamics of the prison itself. While research has been done on the positive effect programs like CPEP have on inmates once they leave prison, what is the immediate, local impact? “Is it having a positive effect on the environment, the day-to-day dynamics, the behaviors and thoughts of people in the prisons? I think it’s something that could definitely contribute to the positive narrative about the benefits of this program, which really distinguishes Cornell from a lot of other top universities,” Aleks says.

From an Interest in Accounting to Labor Management Relations

Having taken a few accounting courses in high school, Aleks thought she wanted to become an accountant, and she enrolled in the management school at McGill University. Walking to class, however, she would often pass workers’ protests on the main streets of Montreal. At the same time, in her courses, she was realizing how little attention was paid to how decisions in management affect workers.

“They are the ones creating the wealth,” Aleks says. “It was just so clear to me that management schools are teaching students how to manage but without a sufficient focus on the people working in those organizations—people who need to be treated fairly and with dignity.”

Instead of accounting, Aleks earned a degree in international management with a concentration in labor management relations. After college, she became an organizer for the Service Employee International Union, which represents 1.9 million workers in Canada and the United States. She soon found herself wanting to know whether certain strategic decisions were the right decisions, however, and began a PhD program to do the necessary research. Now, she has started to work with partners in the labor movement to share her work, making the jump from an academic audience to one that includes practitioners.

“In Montreal, my interest naturally sort of gravitated towards those labor protests,” she recalls of her days as an undergraduate. “Workers were mobilized and organized. I was able to see folks use their collective power and have voice. I thought more people should be focused on the workers, and I wanted to be one of those people.”