As many of you know, Verizon’s line workers are on strike. Basically, Verizon is looking to bust its remaining unions. It has invested heavily in wireless, but still has the remains of land-line workers. Those workers have good union contracts, unlike its vast workforce of nonunionized and thus poorly paid wireless employees. Verizon wants to crush those unions. This is a good overview of the problems, from the perspective of a striker. They range from Verizon not willing to accept what concessions CWA and IBEW have already offered because the company wants more to real and important issues around work/life balance and Verizon demanding that crews be away from their families for long periods of time.
This strike has received almost no media coverage. But there is this odd New Yorker piece by Mark Gimein that seems to fall into the frequent pundit trap of “I’m uncomfortable actually seeing strikes so they don’t work and instead unions are dead and workers should just vote if they want to see change.” After a strange beginning where he compares Democratic politicians love of a picket line to evangelicals love of a revival meeting, because of course Democrats have totally been all over picket lines in the last 30 years or something, he goes on to talk about Verizon’s business model and say that the unionized workers are probably doomed. Well, maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But it’s the conclusion that is jaw-dropping.
If, nationally, this is the endgame for unions, a lot still hinges on how that endgame will be played. It’s useful to think in the brutally reductive terms of Wall Street. The gains to be made from the legacy business of picket lines are limited, but there is still plenty of capital built up for unions to spend in the legislative arena. That effort has already started. Not long ago, policy-makers talked about raising the minimum wage by a dollar or two an hour. Now New York and California have approved a fifteen-dollar hourly minimum wage, and Fight For $15 has gone national.
That’s a bigger success for the labor movement than anybody would have anticipated five years ago. The way forward now is less in getting people to join unions and more in taking seriously the question that Sanders raised: what can be done for the millions of workers who don’t have a union and never will?
Oh yeah because the recent minimum wage struggle is the first time unions have played the legislative game???? The major leftist critique of organized labor since World War II is that unions have been too comfortable in the legislature and have rejected direct action tactics that put power in the hands of workers. We certainly know the limits of unions focusing on legislatures, including, among many other things, the Employee Free Choice Act dying almost as soon as Obama took the presidency. I don’t blame unions for playing the legislative game and I largely reject those who just say “forget politics and organize!” It doesn’t make sense.
But now journalists are coming along and saying that if only unions stopped with their silly strikes and instead just lobbied in legislatures, they could win real gains! Yeah, I don’t think organized labor needs to be told by journalists how to use legislatures to their advantage. Gimein also just assumes that unions are completely dead and always will be. That leads him to two conclusions. One, evidently, is that unions should use that supposedly endless capital for gains for all workers through legislative action. Again, they already are, but also, if the unions are busted, then they don’t exist and there is no voice for any workers in American politics as all of that capital disappears. Second, since these workers will never have a union, why try to organize them? That’s not only a defeatist attitude for organized labor, it would mean that his supposed desire to see real gains for workers would never come to fruition and we would see an endless supply of exploitable labor in the United States. Maybe that’s what will happen, but it’s hardly something we should just assume and therefore stop trying to organize.
In conclusion, publications need to have people write labor articles for them who actually know something about organized labor.