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This edited volume explores labour’s urban strategies and their potential for promoting union renewal. In the introduction, MacDonald states the future of organized labour is an urban one. Accordingly, the focus is on labour’s urban strategies revealed in a series of case studies involving efforts “to forge alliances with local employers and community organizations around public policy issues, mobilize union members as democratic citizens to move these issues forward with local elected officials, and finally bring this leverage to bear on the reregulation of the workplace”. These strategies are comprised of four elements: 1- the political mobilization of union members as worker-citizens and residents with diverse needs and identities; 2- coalition building with community groups, local firms and real estate developers; 3- exploiting divisions between powerful economic and political actors, e.g. developers and middle- and upper-class residents; and 4- creatively using local government regulatory powers to advance and protect labour standards and interests. In the concluding chapter, MacDonald provides a synthesis of the case studies, including the relative success and contradictions of labour’s urban strategies, and assesses the prospects for union renewal.
The main body of the book is divided into four parts containing a brief overview and case studies examining strategies associated with urban economic development. The contributors come from various academic disciplines (e.g., labour studies, industrial relations and geography) and worker education centres. The case studies are based on the experiences of labour activists and leaders and primarily focus on the influence of unions in “shaping policies and planning decisions” associated with important features of urban life in four sectors: the hospitality sector (the “hospitable city”), the film industry (the “creative city”), green building and manufacturing (the “sustainable city”) and child care (the “caring city”). This approach was adopted to provide “a more realistic way of evaluating the importance of labor relative to more powerful actors”. The case studies examine the extent to which labour strategies advanced institutional goals (e.g., organizing new workers and defending labour standards) and social goals (e.g., building coalitions and promoting urban agendas).
With a focus on dominant global cities, the study is based on comparative case studies of the four sectors in New York and Toronto. While acknowledging there are differences between the two cities, the similarities are notable. They are comparable in terms of labour strength, economic structure, and they are the dominant financial centres in their respective countries. The case studies are diverse. The hospitality sector, for example, examines plans for building of new hotels in East Midtown (New York) and the location of a casino in Toronto. The other cases compare efforts to lure film production from Los Angeles to both cities, strategies promoting green jobs in manufacturing (Toronto) and retrofitting office commercial space (New York), and union campaigns supporting expanded childcare and defending public childcare programs. The childcare sector features two case studies for both New York and Toronto. Given differences in the case studies within each sector, including variations in the union strategies employed and whether they succeeded or not, as well as the breadth of sectors studied, one is led to the unavoidable conclusion the relationship between unions and cities is complicated, indeed very complicated.
In the concluding chapter, MacDonald summarizes the principle findings. He notes unions had greater success achieving goals in the profit-led sectors, but narrower strategies conflicted “with the broader class strategies that are associated with union renewal”. On the other hand, unions were better able to reconcile union and social goals in sectors that were not profit-led, but their outcomes were less impressive. Finally, narrower strategies worked better in the local context (in central locations with local government support), whereas broader class-wide strategies required support from higher echelons of government. None of the case studies demonstrated labour’s ability to achieve both union goals and broader working-class interests.
This volume provides a timely and informative exploration of the role of unions in urban politics and fills a gap in the literature. MacDonald has done an excellent job of introducing the reader to the importance of unions as urban actors and the dynamics of urban politics. The case studies are well written and elucidate the complex relationship between unions and cities. The book will appeal to academics and students in labour studies, industrial relations, sociology and other social sciences as well as labour and community activists. Although labour is often found to be engaged in defensive battles with other powerful urban actors, e.g., real estate developers and urban gentry, the case studies provide many valuable insights into the development and execution of union urban strategies in different sectors under varying social, economic and political conditions.
One somewhat nagging aspect of the book seems to be an overly idealistic view of unions and the prospects for union renewal. It is hard to shake the idea that even where union strategies focus on advancing the greater “social good”, there is a strong and recurring theme of “what’s in it for us” and the pursuit of more immediate or short-term interests. Without question, MacDonald and the other contributors are keenly aware of and document what they consider the contradictions and dilemmas associated with various union strategies. As MacDonald notes: “The left has long lamented the absence of unions from political activity, and in particular from local and neighborhood-level politics that address a working class beyond the union membership and beyond the membership’s working identities” (p. 219).
That may be, but beyond the lament is a harsh reality. Unions are not homogeneous. They are often competitive, ideologically and politically diverse. Their visions differ and inter-union conflict is more commonplace than unusual. These divisions are most evident between unions representing the building trades and industrial workers, between private and public sector unions and among public sector unions. Yes, for some unions in the urban sphere, the pursuit of broader working-class strategies may be associated with the goal of union renewal, but that cannot be said for all or even most unions. The situation is further complicated when one considers the median union member. Many have migrated from the working class to the middle class and strive to solidify their middle class status. To boot, they have moved to the suburbs. One might reasonably ask whether we are truly speaking of contradictions and dilemmas or simply trade-offs made by unions and their members based on self-interest and satisfaction in achieving what is attainable.