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Saving Labor

[ 35 ] February 20, 2013 |

There’s been a lot of discussion about “saving” the labor movement in recent weeks. Two particular pieces to point out. First, Josh Eidelson hosted a forum at The Nation that included CWA President Larry Cohen, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, and a number of researchers and activists. Second, Jacobin interviewed Canadian labor activist Sam Gindin. The solutions for saving labor were along the lines of what you’d expect. There’s a lot of good ideas–focus on organizing over politics, organize immigrants, labor should think about class more than workplace, create a strong progressive coalition to retake the Democratic Party, etc.

I have no real criticism of these ideas. I think they are all solid and, taken together, might really change things. I do want to offer a couple of additional thoughts.

There are two fundamental problems organized labor faces. One, the history of American labor shows that it is never strong enough to create long-term concrete change, or for that matter just winning over workplaces and holding on to what they have, without supportive or at least tolerant federal and state governments. It’s hardly coincidental that the one big victory for Gilded Age labor came at Cripple Creek in 1894 when the governor of Colorado used the state militia to intervene on the side of workers rather than employers. For all the hard organizing over decades, it wasn’t until the New Deal legitimized unions that they had any real success. So we can talk about subordinating politics to organizing and there’s a very good argument to be made in that direction. But the political game can’t be given up entirely because without it, there’s just not much precedence for the success of organized labor.

What organized labor needs to do is to rethink its political actions. I’d argue for the necessity of shifting resources out of presidential and congressional politics and into local and state politics, where they can make a more concrete difference in their members’ lives and where they can foster and develop politicians that will eventually rise into Congress and reshape the Democratic Party into a working-class force. The current emphasis on Washington made a lot of sense in the 1933-1981 era, but it’s been a losing game for 30 years. The AFL-CIO is a very Washington-focused organization and shifting significant resources to the states and counties, not to mention giving locals significant power to engage in local politics, would be a hard task. But I think it is necessary.

Second, the changes in the workplace and workforce has put labor on its heels for decades. The big factory with the shopfloor that contained thousands of organized workers was a great space for building union power. How you do that with our decentralized workforce of the 21st century is a tough question. The old CIO industrial unions were built on the big factory model and making the institutional adjustments are as hard as the strategic adjustments. This is where you have people suggesting cross-class organizing and organized labor playing a central role in all sorts of progressive policies, including immigration, gay marriage, environmental issues, etc. That makes sense from a theoretical strategic perspective but I want to suggest a couple of problems that any serious discussion of labor’s future has to deal with. One, cross-class organizing is a great idea, but there’s a reason for paying dues. If labor is providing a broad definition of representation to workers who do not pay dues, how does it function as an effective organization? In the short term, that might work, but in the long-term you have to turn those people into dues-paying members.

Two, the ultimate job of a labor union is to represent the interests and desires of its membership. While organized labor can provide real leadership and push members to take more progressive stands, it can’t completely ignore its membership. So when you have a significant percentage of membership that might be strongly anti-immigrant, anti-gay, racist, etc., how do you deal with that? I’m not offering this as an excuse for organized labor not playing a progressive role in non-economic social issues. What I am saying is that talking about organized labor in the abstract in pretty easy, but organized labor is made up of working-class people who have a variety of opinions on issues and a lot of them are not going to be done with their unions becoming this broader progressive force on, say, climate change.

In other words, everything about saving organized labor is hard and complex. We should avoid anything that even looks like a simple answer.

Comments (35)

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  1. So when you a membership that might be strongly anti-immigrant, anti-gay, racist, etc., how do you deal with that?

    Educate them? And I’d be willing to say there are very few of those any more. Why? What else did you just describe? Faux Noise viewers, basically. And what else do they hate? Unions!!!!!!!!!!

    • T.R. Donoghue says:

      Your answer is pretty flip. Obviously unions would like their members to be part of a broader progressive movement but people join unions because they think it is in their economic interest to do so. Social issues are seen by many of them as a distration. Not to mention you risk causing a rift between your more socially conservative and socially progressive members over an issue that isn’t actually central to the union’s mission.

      • David Kaib says:

        ” people join unions because they think it is in their economic interest to do so”

        What makes you say that? The organizers I’ve talked to, not to mention a lot of reading around mobilization, suggests that economic self interest is not a very good motivator. It may be true in cases where all the union asks if for you to sign a card, but where unions are trying to get workers engaged, it’s not a very good strategy.

        • wengler says:

          And a worker’s perception that their economic self-interest is best with the union isn’t always the case either.

          People tend to like some of their co-workers and hate others. They don’t necessarily like the idea of someone they hate, that they don’t perceive as working as hard as them, making the same amount of money as them and getting work protections.

          This is why any strategy must be based around finding a common enemy in way workplaces are structured. That bosses shouldn’t be paid a premium while workers are paid a pittance. That all that extra work you do goes into your pocket at the end of the day instead of your boss’s.

          • David Kaib says:

            My sense is that people are most mobilized by demands for respect and dignity, at least when it comes to labor organizing.

            • T.R. Donoghue says:

              And when you gain respect in the workplace it empowers you to bargain for, among other things, increased benefits and wages.

              How do you measure dignity? Among other ways through better wages and a secure retirement.

              Respect and dignity are abstract concepts, they mean different things to different workers. At the end of the day a worker feels more repsected when he has a voice at work and feels more dignified when he makes enough money to save for his kid’s college fund.

              • john says:

                Unfortunately, respect is often spelled “getting paid for work you do”, because unpaid work, off the clock, or other labor that’s unpaid for, is common.

                Read up about any organizing drive, and there are often stories of extreme speed-ups, wages not paid, back wages not paid, tips stolen, and so on.

          • T.R. Donoghue says:

            And a worker’s perception that their economic self-interest is best with the union isn’t always the case either.

            Who said it was?

            This is why any strategy must be based around finding a common enemy in way workplaces are structured. That bosses shouldn’t be paid a premium while workers are paid a pittance. That all that extra work you do goes into your pocket at the end of the day instead of your boss’s.

            Sounds like an economic argument to me.

        • T.R. Donoghue says:

          While it might not be a starkly economic rap that gets a worker to sign a card economics is at the heart of labor. Securing health care, protecting wages, securing a retirement, job security through just cause. That’s all economics.

          Safety at the workplace, solidarity with your coworkers and class – these are all great issues and depending on the worker may move them to join but I don’t think you can argue that economic self-interest doesn’t drive a huge amount of workers to join a union.

  2. T.R. Donoghue says:

    Solid, solid points. I particularly think the point about where to focus our political action is important. Labor has done a great job in Denver of electing good labor people to the City Council – including a former property services organizer for SEIU and several research staff. Unfortunately Denver is a strong mayor system and the labor backed candidate lost in 2011. But no doubt a relatively friendly city council has aided some organizing efforts in the state.

    The state legislature and governor’s office in CO could be critical to growing labor density in the state. The legilsature as it is currently constituted is pretty pro-labor for CO. The current governor is less so, though he’s not outright hostile.

    It is obviously far easier to make significant change through state legislatures than the Congress and that is doubly true for local governments.

  3. massappeal says:

    “…organized labor is made up of working-class people who have a variety of opinions on issues and a lot of them are not going to be done with their unions becoming this broader progressive force on, say, climate change.”

    (I’m going to assume “done with their unions” includes a typo and was meant to be “down with their unions”.)

    All true and important. I think it’s worth noting a couple of things here:

    1) that working-class people who are members of unions tend to have and/or develop more “progressive” views than their non-unionized peers; and,

    2) the fastest-growing part of the working-class labor force (i.e., workers in their 20s and 30s) tends to have more “progressive” views than their parents’ generation on a number of the issues mentioned.

    • Another Halocene Human says:

      Correct. The hate radio listeners who are members of bargaining units tend to be non-members or fee payers or even if they must join don’t pay into COPE and are disengaged.

      Anyone who’s not a what’s in it for me clown tends to understand and respect the issues their coworkers are having on the jobsite. Huge intersectionality with bread and butter progressive issues. (Immigrant justice, GLBT rights, women’s rights, childcare, FMLA, ADA, etc.)

  4. Patrick Pine says:

    Good opinion with interesting observations. Here are a couple of additional observations – while I agree with the idea of spending more energy at the local/state level, when we look at our federal judiciary which has major influence over our labor laws – there is still a need for organized labor to try to influence national elections – the recent DC district ruling on NLRB is the most recent example of an extremely ‘conservative’ judicial ruling. Organized labor needs to figure out how to be more effective and efficient at the national level rather than abandon its efforts at that level. The other concern is the continuing internal warfare in certain sectors that actually have been growing. For instance, the power struggles for nurse representation in California have been divisive and have used substantial resources that might be better used to influence public policy. Finally, there seems to be a canyon between some public sector unions (police, fire, postal) that have successfully built very rich benefit plans that become a focal point in difficult economic times when so many governmental organizations are struggling finacially and facing huge public resistance to paying the whole tab. Not so long ago, public safety employees were revered and little attention was given to the levels of compensation and benefits they had attained = now public safety employees and their unions are not sacrosanct.

    • Jameson Quinn says:

      Right. But strategically you win national elections by focusing on local elections. It develops a farm team, and state houses hold the reins of elections themselves – gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, improved election systems like approval voting. It’s tough, I know, because overcoming existing Republican gerrymanders is an uphill battle, but at least it’s the kind of battle labor is good at.

  5. Beth says:

    I agree that unions need to focus on state and local politics (can you say right-to-work?). I think unions (or someone!) should take on the issue of gerrymandering. If our politicians truly had to appeal to both sides to get votes there might be some movement in Washington. Maybe employers would stop abusing their workers as often if there were some *real* penalties for scaring them off from forming a union. Meaningful penalties for OSHA violations/ wage theft/ and EEOC violations would be good too, but none of that is going to happen at the federal level bickering about how many jobs if would kill instead of focusing on how many of their constituents might be helped by having a safe workplace…

    • Beth says:

      Sorry I meant to say “…but none of that is going to happen at the federal level because they are too busy bickering about how many jobs would be killed instead of focusing on how many of their constituents might be helped by having a safe workplace…”

      • Speak Truth says:

        Beth,
        Only 11.9% of US workers are in a union, And that includes the public workers. It’s a 70 year low in a solid downward trend.

        The question that is not asked: “Is pouring effort and energy propping up failing unions, at this time, the best way to help workers?”

  6. Cody says:

    You mention the difficulty with unionizing the changes in the workplace, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

    My grandfather was an important member/founder in the Louisville IATSE, and because of that a lot of my family has been deeply involved in it. Whenever you came to Louisville for something that required the skills of stage hands, carpenters, light designers, or something similar you gave them a call as they were good repositories of talent and you didn’t have much of a choice.

    Can something like that be done for programming? Now-a-days, there are a lot of companies based around consulting constructing a website or designing a relatively small app. Can you organize “labor” in this field around that idea? Instead of having a company, have an Union structure with apprentices and such. I’m just throwing this out there, as the concept seems novel but perhaps unworkable. Unions don’t seem to penetrate into engineering disciplines well.

    • john says:

      I think it’s possible, but there are challenges. The best organizing models are in entertainment, because you have a lot of individuals who are independent contractors, but also many others who are full timers. Shops are pretty small, and transient. The union takes are of the pension, health benefits, and other things that the company usually does.

      The challenge is that engineers, programmers, and other intellectual workers in larger companies are paid well, generally have secure jobs (unless they’re in IT), and have been difficult to organize in the past. The votes just aren’t there to approve a union.

      Another challenge is that many IT workers are permatemps, and can get moved around during an organizing drive. The labor laws don’t deal with this situation well. They still assume that all the people in a workplace are employees.

      Drop me a message at my site. There’s more info there about this.

  7. A couple things:

    1. I absolutely agree about unions getting active in state and local politics, but you really can’t leave out getting involved in party politics. Unions could have an enormous effect on who runs the Democratic Party on a state and local level, which in turn parlays into national political power.

    2. While I absolutely get the need for political education of the membership, no question, I think we need to be careful to see the labor movement of today, not the labor movement of the 90s or 70s. Anti-immigrant, anti-gay, racist views are much less common among union members today, in part because unions are less white and male than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

    • Dave says:

      The idea that ‘unions’ by themselves can be a major force for anything without solid integration into a nationwide political/ideological movement is the sort of blindness to reality that could only occur, really, in a discussion of the USA. Nobody else smokes that kind of crack about class and politics.

      • Yes, this. The easiest, and arguably most important, thing that unions need to do as an institution to increase their political clout (within the Democratic Party) is fully embrace the rest of the liberal coalition’s goals and become a “good partner” to the only coalition that is going to advance their interests in the U.S. I don’t want to waive off the fact that a large number of union members might be opposed to that, but in that case, if unions are going to be beholden to members who are that committed to reactionary populism, I don’t know that this is even a discussion worth having. You can’t save someone who’s intent on digging their own grave.

        • David Kaib says:

          Someone else must adhere to my positions because they have no where else to go is not going to win many people over.

          As for this “You can’t save someone who’s intent on digging their own grave” – it could just as easily be applied to Democrats who are undermining unions.

          • bobbyp says:

            Hmmm….yes. I see a lot of advise here for unions, but what about the other groups in the Democratic Party coalition? Perhaps they could do a little reaching out themselves? Or take a bit of class consciousness to heart. What’s the use of a few small groups advocating active policy measures to take on global climate change (for one example) if they’re not actively promoting the interests of the organized who can bring numbers to the advocacy?

        • Linnaeus says:

          The easiest, and arguably most important, thing that unions need to do as an institution to increase their political clout (within the Democratic Party) is fully embrace the rest of the liberal coalition’s goals and become a “good partner” to the only coalition that is going to advance their interests in the U.S.

          As institutions, they do, in general (at least over the past 30 years). Some issues may have more salience for unions than others, but that’s true of any interest group within a political coalition.

  8. jeff says:

    I’d like to do this more justice – I’m a veteran union man of most of the aforementioned roles discussed above. But I’ll focus on two: state issues and cross class organizing.

    1) I think the state-focused plan, just like the constant rhetorical homage paid to ‘returning to organizing’ – always an empty favorite – is a bit wanting.

    To play devil’s advocate. Labor has seen a decline for a variety of reasons: restructuring, globalization, ferocity of union busting since the 1970s, fragmentation of work, attitudinal changes in American liberalism and society, problems from within etc.

    However, there is one central theme for why labor cannot regroup: the outdated framework for organizing under the National Labor Relations Act. This is, simply, the biggest reason that labor continues its steady decline. Focusing at the state level, by definition, cannot change the NLRA’s framework. This must be done at the federal level.

    However, I do agree that refocusing some energy at the state level can prevent the nefarious unraveling at the state level (right-to-work laws, automatic dues checkoff, etc). Further, working at the state level would develop relationships that could grow as people move to national office. But, this is already happening. Local unions are very much involved in state level politics, and the AFL-CIO can’t really dictate how or what unions do. Unions pay dues to the afl-cio. CLC’s and state federations could be given a more active role, but then why not just reduce your per capita expenditures to the national body and repackage them to the state and clc level.

    2) As for cross class organizing I agree in part. Generally, there is a lot of verbiage given to making the labor movement broader, more progressive and less workplace focused. But contra some of the other commenters, almost no one joins a union or pays dues – which are necessary to sustain a working class enterprise – to join a bastardized political organization. Seriously, try collecting dues from non-activist types and inform them that none of the money will be spent on their workplace or collective bargaining.

    For starters, they would likely legally opt out of paying their full dues (CWA v Beck). In addition, the organization would stop being a labor organization. So if that is the case, what people are talking about is community activism, not labor organization. The two can work together and labor should serve a community activist type roles, but the two types of organizations are not the same. So if you want a progressive/socialist political party, create that. But to call it a labor union will likely not work in any meaningful, self-sustaining sense.

  9. James E. Powell says:

    It’s been several generations since anyone argued, publicly and continually, that collective action not only brings rewards that are widely shared and long-lasting (weekends, 8 hour day, and the like), but that such improvements in working conditions will never happen without collective action.

    I’m a union member, UTLA (teacher), and some of the most anti-union people I’ve ever known are my co-workers. These anti-union union members almost always look at the union as an organization that takes money from them and delivers nothing of value (I am cleaning up the language usually employed by them). They are only interested in what the union does for them; anything done for others or for a broader group, is a waste of time and money.

    That is what I hear at least once a week.

    Almost from birth, Americans are bombarded with messages that denigrate collective action. The only group action that is sanctioned is a defensive “us vs. them” and most often against poor people.

    By working with a political party and accepting the necessary compromises and half-measures that go with any such partnership, the unions lose the clarity of their message. They should be more like the NRA – focus, focus, focus on the employer-employee relations.

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