Rich Yeselson is always worth reading, agree with him or not. His long review essay of books by three former SEIU leaders, including former president Andy Stern and the activist Jane McAlevey, is quite good. Each of the three have different prognoses that represent their preexisting interests, which is not surprising. Stern, who may have started with his head on straight but was terrible in his last several years as SEIU president, is all into futurism and buddying up with corporate leaders, which is reflected in his love of Universal Basic Income, imposed from on high with no meaningful input from the unions that he now sees irrelevant. David Rolf is big on major wage campaigns such as the $15 campaign in Seattle, but he notes that these don’t actually help unions very much. He believes that unions should try anything, but try something. McAlevey disdains top-down campaigns and wants more organizing, which as Yeselson points out, has its own set of problems and which has been a call from labor reformers for a long time now, but often without much in the way of strategy behind it. There’s an emotional rallying cry against bureaucratic unionism involved in this line of thinking and it’s not one that I find particularly convincing, even though we do indeed a lot more organizing campaigns. As Yeselson also notes, some of each of these ideas is going to be necessary in the future.
What I think each of these writers misses, although I have not read the books, is that the ultimate problem of American unionism and thus the ultimate solution revolves around the position of the government. Unions have been strong in this nation when the government has allowed them to be strong. When the government has assisted employers in repressing them, through force or through law, nothing organized labor has done, whether top-down or bottom-up campaigns, has made much difference. It’s hard to read the history of American labor, for me anyway, without that as the central tenet. It’s uncomfortable for a lot of labor activists who have a lot of emotional baggage at stake in whatever their given critique is of the movement. Of course, none of this means we should sit back and wait for the government to someday be on our side again. Obviously, that means it would never happen. I agree by and large with the try anything strategy, even though I am extremely skeptical of UBI or for that matter anything Stern is involved with. Certainly McAlevey is right about the need for more organizing, but it’s not enough and it never has been.
All I can say is that movements of workers will never go away. Conditions and strategies change with the time and most certainly no one can argue that things will always get better, but at the core, we have to organize with the intent of moving politicians toward our side while also building worker power and capacity for organizing. Whatever that looks like on the ground, I am by and large for.