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Simplistic Solutions to Organized Labor’s Problems



If you want to get published, a real good way is to write yet another version of “labor unions are doing it wrong. They should ORGANIZE and listen to REAL WORKERS instead of PLAYING POLITICS and DOING THE SAME OLD THINGS.” These articles come out all the time. Virtually all have some level of truth in them. Unions often do a lot of things wrong. But they inevitably make broad statements that erase all the complexity from the problems the labor movement faces while asserting a potential for working-class power that probably isn’t there in the way these writers want. There’s a new piece along these lines from Dan Schlademan, the co-director of a group called Organization United for Respect, a group made up of grocery store employees organizing in that industry. So you have to respect the work and I do not mean to say anything negative about that. But this is a good time to critique some of the arguments routinely made on the labor left, because a lot of them are really problematic.

Working people in this country can not and should not underestimate their power. History, as well as emerging movements and organizations, show that working people are not facing a question of life or death. Rather, they are facing the opportunity for renewal. The US labor movement has reinvented itself repeatedly in the past. These rebirths have been crucial to the evolution of the movement’s power. We are now at another historical moment of rebirth. But it’s important to understand how we arrived here, so to best take advantage of the opportunity ahead.

Given the Trump OSHA and EPA though, workers are literally facing a question of life or death. The Trump administration is not an opportunity for renewal. There’s no silver lining here. Yes, the labor movement writ large is not going away. Workers will always fight to improve their lives, or at least some workers will. But I really struggle calling the likelihood of Friedrichs II and right to work laws sweeping any state Republicans take over an “opportunity.”

Today, too many people—inside the labor movement and out—wax nostalgic about mid-1950s movements that are still dominant in 2017. It’s understandable: union membership was over 30% of the workforce, GM workers were able to buy the cars they built, and the modern American Dream—where working hard meant getting ahead—emerged. In this period, unions played a huge role building the middle class and making America strong. But changes to global trade policies, technology, and the rise of other forces, like automation, mean that the organizations that thrived in 1955 are not necessarily equipped to build power for working people today.

This is true.

Emerging worker movements are winning hard fought victories with the painful recognition that the same methods for organizing don’t work inside America’s broken system of laws and traditions. New, emergent forms of organizing are gaining power despite the fact that corporations have unprecedented control over workplaces, politics, laws, and the economy. From OUR Walmart to the Fight for $15, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Better Banks Campaign, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and the Freelancers Union, new forms of worker organizations are winning better pay and scheduling practices at major corporations. They’re providing access to benefits and services by using economies of scale. And they’re securing stronger public policy, winning paid sick days and higher minimum wages for entire communities.

I would call all of this exceptions to the horrible things happening to American workers rather than a new model that is gaining power. Are these workers gaining power? Are they really winning? These movements have put the minimum wage back on the table and shown that raising it is a popular move, even in conservative states. All of these groups do really good and important work, but there’s little evidence that this is a model of the future per se.

These models show that organizers must not be afraid of being catalysts that help workers build independent organizations and experiment. The decision about forming an organization can’t be left up to the government or employers. The presence of workers ready to initiate organization building should be the only prerequisite necessary for an organization to exist.

Workers and organizers must also remember that who gets elected, and what they do in once in office, is a reflection of their power; until they build independent power, they will continue to lose. Some of the resources currently focused on politics needs to be focused instead on building organizations that give working people a voice, community, and vision for change, first.

So this is a really common refrain on the labor left. Unions should stop with the politics and organize. The problem with this is that it’s totally disconnected from the reality of when and why unions succeed in this country. No, the decision on forming an organization can’t be left up to employers or the government, but giving up on the National Labor Relations Act is hardly a strategy, as limited as the NLRA is today. And it certainly may be that we need worker organizations that are not really unions so that they can operate outside the NLRA. But ultimately, those organizations are hard to run, they face enormous challenges that range from a lack of resources to the need for constant leadership building given the reliance on local people to do all the work. In reality, these are big tasks. Moreover, to give workers a voice, they need to have political power.

The most important factor in the success or failure of the American labor movement is something that the labor left hates to hear. It’s not about organizing. It’s not about militancy. It’s not about worker activism. It’s not about radical union leadership. Through the whole history of American labor, the key deciding factor has been the position government takes in a strike or to labor’s demands. There has simply been very few strikes or other victories in American history where labor has succeeded in the face of the complete opposition of government. The Gilded Age provides the most prominent examples of this, not so much because of Pullman and Homestead and the Great Railroad Strike, but because the two big victories of the period–the Anthracite Strike and Cripple Creek–happened precisely because the government made exceptions to their usual anti-labor politics, with Theodore Roosevelt mediating the former and a Populist governor openly taking the side of the miners in the latter. Yes, the Memphis sanitation strike won in 1968 with the Memphis government in total opposition, but that required the death of Martin Luther King and AFSCME couldn’t even build on that in Atlanta less than a decade later when Maynard Jackson decided to side with the city’s business elites over the workers. Moreover, unions’ success not only required unprecedented interventions from the federal government (which would not have happened had workers not struck across the nation in the early 1930s) but their decline coincides with a newly hostile federal government that is most associated with Reagan destroying the air traffic controllers, but really began during the Carter administration.

Unions do need to do more than just play the political game. But the political game is absolutely vital to any union victories. There is no way around this. We have well more than a century’s worth of evidence on this point.

United for Respect @ Walmart (OUR Walmart) has been working on these issues since 2010. Worker-leaders choose not to wait for the government or Walmart to decide if it had the right to exist. The organization exists because Walmart workers decided to build it into a network of more than 100,000, who, in coalition with communities and allies, created pressure on Walmart sufficient to raise minimum pay, change national policies, and win thousands of store-level victories. By necessity, the organization has focused on developing new forms of building power. While the results may look unfamiliar to traditional labor unions, to date OUR Walmart is both resilient and on the route to building long-term sustainability.

OUR Walmart was largely put together and funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers, even though that union has mostly pulled out of it. The Fight for $15 is a project of SEIU. Its not an either/or here. The problem though, as evinced by the UFCW turn away from it, is that these projects are incredibly expensive and there is very little chance of a pay off in terms of union dues. SEIU is facing this now with the fast food workers. When will this pay off? You might say that organizing should happen without worrying about this. But these organizations not only owe their current members proper representation, but if you have a declining membership, you need to focus on keeping your organization alive. Moreover, this supposedly alternative model required traditional unions already doing things that were nontraditional to get off the ground. Without UFCW support, Our Walmart has basically done nothing. Maybe it is resilient in the sense that a few people are still trying. And that’s great! But neither is Our Walmart some sort of alternative to unions that demonstrates that if unions QUIT PLAYING POLITICS AND ORGANIZE!!! that a new labor movement will flower.

The essay concludes with an odd point:

We live in an era where the opportunity to bring people together is in transformation, thanks to continued technological developments that allow for the democratization of connection, information, and media. We also live in a time when poverty and inequality are destroying the fabric of America and the world. We know that the labor movement won’t survive in its current state—a state that allowed for the election of Donald Trump. The question for those of us invested in the future of labor is this: Are we bold enough to build something different, and better, than what has come before?

Social media is a great thing. But social media is not going to organize the working class. Period. If capitalist technologies that are easily monitored by the bosses and where infiltrators and provocateurs can easily screw up these campaigns is the great alternative to stodgy unions, we have a long ways to go to recreate the labor movement.

The people struggling to fight for the rights of themselves and their fellow workers are heroes. The people keeping Our Walmart going are doing necessary and incredibly difficult work. But that doesn’t mean we can allow for simplistic narratives about the future of the labor movement or the problems of the contemporary labor movement to dominate our thoughts about working class movements. I know we all like a clear narrative that diagnoses problems and suggests solutions without muddying the waters too much. This is how you get published and these are the books that sell. But not facing the problems with our own narratives doesn’t help us overcome the huge obstacles anyone fighting for working class power faces.

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  • trog69

    As a union retiree, one problem we face is that sacrifice for the greater good doesn’t put food on the table, and the threat of less hours worked, even at lower wages and no bennies is enough to keep a great many from joining.

  • psychomath

    Well, have we even tried killing and eating rich people? I feel like it is time to start experimenting.

    • Manju

      If that doesn’t work, try giving them a can of Pespi.

  • Murc

    So this is a really common refrain on the labor left. Unions should stop with the politics and organize. The problem with this is that it’s totally disconnected from the reality of when and why unions succeed in this country.

    Mmm… maybe there’s more to it than that?

    I mean, you clearly know a hell of a lot more about this sort of thing than I, Erik, but while a large part of this is clearly “if only we get all the politics out of politics” wishing for a unicorn, I have to wonder if there’s more at work there.

    And to be specific… politics is deeply polarizing, by which I mean deeply tribal. If unions want to wield political power, that means engaging with one of the two current political coalitions currently existing in this country, and realistically that means engaging with only one of them: the Democrats.

    And there are a shit-ton of people who wouldn’t politically engage with the Democrats if they were literally on fire and the Democrats were standing there with a bucket of water.

    My mom did union work for the teacher’s union here in New York for awhile before she became an administrator. Most of the membership recognized that it had damn well better be involved with the Democratic Party… but, well, a lot of these teachers skewed older, white, and suburban, which means there were a non-trivial number of conservatives and Republicans in it. And they were a constant, unending problem; it offended them, on a deep and incandescent level, that were “forced” to be part of an organization they viewed as an appendage of the tribe they hated. They liked the things the union could give them, they just loathed the Democrats.

    Basically they wanted the union, they just didn’t want the politics the union necessitated, and because of they were a millstone.

    I have to wonder if some of the “lets stop with the politics” rhetoric comes from people eager to avoid that problem, or from alt-left types who don’t understand why all this culture war nonsense is infecting the glorious class struggle.

    • sigaba

      I hate all this politics. Why can't large numbers of powerful interests and actors use the Bully Pulpit and Horse Trading to find compromise solutions without having to drag yucky POLITICS into it.

      If a poltical party is just soemthing you vote for and maximize your preferred policies, people would probably resent politics a lot less. If a party essentially stands in for a sort of moral platform and social signifier then yeah, I can see why people would find compromise and “politics” corrupt and painful.

      • Murc

        Well, the problem, such as it is, is that a persons preferred policies often have moral freight to them.

        Like, it isn’t quibbling over tax brackets. It’s about things like whether or not women are people and if its legal to hunt brown people for sport or not. Your party doesn’t “stand in” for a moral platform; much of its policy platform will be a moral platform.

  • pdxtyler

    I feel like the article is making an important point that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand though. One of the weakest parts of American labor law is the nlrb election process, and unions have largely accepted that recognition is a prerequisite for membership. There’s nothing stopping unions from experimenting with other types of membership, most just aren’t familiar with anything except NLRB elections or their public sector equivalents. In other countries workers are able to join up individually. My understanding is that this is how most organizing is done in the UK, unions build work place committees to address workplace issues and then they attempt to sign their co-workers up as members. Once they have a sufficient membership percentage they will likely attempt for recognition, but if they don’t reach that point the organization doesn’t go away. That’s very different from the norm in the US which is that after a lost election most unions just give up and any organization structure built at that point is lost.

    One thing that UK unions can offer individuals is protection from unfair dismissal due to at will employment not being the norm. I’d love to see a U.S. union offer an associate membership that offers employment protections, training and other benefits in the state of Montana. It’s the only state in the country thats not at-will, and attempting to establish workplace committees that immediately took on workplace issues as a step toward full recognition would be a really interesting pilot program. If you kept the dues nominal I think you could get sufficient interest to get off the ground, there’s got to be some folks working in service sector jobs in Butte whose families have union backgrounds.

    • There’s no question that the NLRA is no longer effective. Unions are trying to figure out what to do about that. That includes the UFCW’s attempts to support Walmart organizing that the author fails to mention. I think the real point of this article is angrily subtweeting UFCW’s pullout from that campaign.

      But in any case, it’s not that there aren’t good points in the article. It’s that he doesn’t offer any actual solutions and in fact, I think a lot of what he does offer is not really valuable.

  • Brett

    I’ve become more sympathetic to UCFW curtailing the campaign. Unions have to nourish their membership and spend their dues where it can enhance the union meaningfully. They can’t afford to be the financier for all the many, many cash-strapped progressive efforts out there.

    Right for $15 might be next. Remember that SEIU announcement about a 30% cutback one spending?

  • Jake Nelson

    So, I’m sure I’ve posted something like this before in an LGM thread or three, so apologies to those who’ve read it, but…

    I am extremely skeptical that the “shop model” of unionization can survive even in its current paltry state for much longer. Even aside from things like how the DeVos family is again circulating their years-old proposal to outright ban collective bargaining itself…

    When I was doing local party activism, it was so frustrating that union officers’ idea of how to join a union was: 1) get an existing union job or 2) unionize your workplace. When the only way to join your club is to bring either a unicorn horn or a pegasus feather, you’re not going to have a growing membership.

    Plus, even union-sympathetic, willing to join, workers are put off by the lack of direct benefit to them the times it’s an option. I did overnight stock at my local Target for 7 years. Dozens of my coworkers also worked, or had worked, at Cub Foods, a large regional discount chain grocery store. Cub is UFCW. But everyone who worked both would tell you Cub had worse pay, benefits (and this even after Target’s benefits went to hell), work hours, schedule flexibility, working conditions, jerkass supervisors, etc, etc, etc. Now there’s a lot of valid points to make about that’s hardly UFCW’s fault, but it’s hardly helpful to recruiting to be abstractly in favor of/advocating unsuccessfully for things people can get next door.

    The system seems to be permanently screwed in a way that breaks the existing idea of how a private-sector union works. I don’t know what to do about that, other than a solution will have to let people join on their own, not already be employees of a union shop.

    (Public-sector unions, while obviously facing their own challenges, are a very different beast, and I’m even less sure how to help them. My utterly horrible school years made siding with teacher’s unions all the time extremely unpleasant- I did it anyway, of course, because there isn’t a choice.)

    Anyway, to try to make a statement other than anecdote, my main takeaway from years of dealing with it is that union leadership have no understanding of the current realities of the world outside a union, and 90+% of workers have no understanding of unions. Both tend to have vague ideas based mostly on a surface understanding of how things were 20-40 years ago. Unless something drastic changes, I only see that getting worse.

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