My experience with unions is pretty limited. I didn’t grow up in a union family – Dad was a federal government civil servant, Mom was a sales rep for various companies. I married into a Boeing family but Dad is an engineer who ignored the SPEEA strike that occurred in the ‘90s and has some sort of union-contentious-objector status that lets him pay lower dues. Brother-in-law worked for Boeing as a machinist for a while but mostly complained about how union rules on being able to run only one machine at a time made for a boring job, and it seemed like he would get into trouble playing gambling games at work to kill time.
Early in my philanthropic years I saw the film “Live Nude Girls Unite” about the unionization of the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. Happy to support women’s empowerment I supported the film. It struck me at the time that in the little, scrappy situation the union was a great thing. Up until a couple years ago there was also a Lusty Lady branch here in Seattle. The director commented on how after the SF location unionized, the same benefits were extended to the Seattle location and so they did not unionize. A few years later, the director reported, Seattle’s benefits withered away while SF kept theirs. One thing I learned was about the concept of an “open shop” vs a “closed shop”. The latter case means the job itself is defined as union or no, the employee can’t decide (like my in-laws at Boeing.) The former case, the union needs to keep making a case for its value to the employees or they’ll stop joining. It seemed to me that it was a great way to keep unions from being encrusted as another layer of management, as long as other rules were changed to make it maximally easy for unions to make that case for employees to join and renew.
My focus in consulting and investing is around entrepreneurship and total start-up companies. We’re a long way from unions. However for nearly a decade as an investor I’ve been looking for a way to ensure the companies I invest in will grow up to be good employers and to focus on all their stakeholders including the environment. I really value the B corporation tool that grew out of folks associated with Investor’s Circle. I’ve studied up on worker cooperativism and supported a worker cooperative in California and sponsored scholarships to visit The Cooperatives of Mondragon in Spain. The US Steelworkers signed a memorandum of understanding with Mondragon that they would work together to figure out what the intersection of Unionism and Worker Cooperativism might be, but that was a few years ago and I haven’t seen much since. My focus on how to measure social impact has continued.
This fall I’m focused on 4 projects: two are related to my condo building; the third is a Social Impact Investment Fund consisting of 10 accredited investors getting down to business of trying to agree on some shared investments and sorting out how we define impact as we go; and the fourth is running for the board of Central Coop, a consumer cooperative grocery store on Capitol Hill. The combination of the last two is giving me some interesting insight.
For SIIF I interviewed a local entrepreneur and was really gratified to hear the language and commitment I seek around building a company as a community and engaging and respecting employees. It seems to be very difficult to find this focus in entrepreneurs – there are so many things for them to focus on, especially when they talk to investors and if they have any sophistication (aka acculturation into the mainstream language around scale and financial return.) This entrepreneur also has really good business sense for a passionate farmer who started only a few years ago. Turns out she was a “shop steward” – a union representative – at UPS for 6 years and she credits that experience with teaching her good systems for managing people.
This particularly caught my attention because this month is the election at Central Coop and I have been “tabling” in the store. This means I stand near the registers with literature, encourage people to vote and make myself generally available for members who want to meet a candidate. Many people prefer to focus on their shopping (I thank you for your patience as I sneak up on you and interrupt to ask you to vote). Each day a few people will stop for a deeper conversation and I’ve noticed that in at least half of those conversations it will come up that this person is a union member/supporter. How? Well in one case we were talking about availability of natural foods and I mentioned Whole Foods and was rebuked for suggesting anyone might shop a non-union shop. In other cases it was how someone identified themselves as I asked them what membership meant to them.
Talking to these coop members and talking to this entrepreneur, I hear the passion and commitment around building an economically just, inclusive community that I seek as a social impact investor. For the first time I see that what I’ve been seeking from B Corporations and worker cooperatives– a way to direct both my consumer and investor dollar to building the kind of world I want to live in, is what these folks already perceive from unions. Buy union not because it’s a tedious obligation of printing your democratic literature but because it guarantees living wages. Buy union not because they have a monopoly on some service you need but because… well, I don’t know. I’m still more successfully indoctrinated with the image of unions as inefficient and bloated and antagonistic. It makes me a little sad, because perhaps here’s the tool I’ve been looking for but boy it’s looking rusty. But hopeful, because maybe I have many more fellow travelers than I realized, I’ve just been speaking a different language.