Saving Labor

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.

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