Now that it is beyond the paywall, you really need to read Gabriel Winant’s essay on the state of the union movement. It’s one of the smartest takes on unionism you will have read in a very long time. He takes me to task a bit for opposing unions seeking exemptions to the higher minimum wage in Los Angeles–and we still very much disagree about that point. But outside of that, I endorse this completely, particularly two critical points. First, the fundamental problem with unions in this country and the fundamental problem going back a long time is not that they don’t organize enough, not that they are bureaucratic, not that they are sexist or racist or slow to respond. It’s that employers in the United States remain fanatically anti-union and that is extremely difficult to contend with, especially if the government is not on the side of workers. For all that the left and the union reformer crowd loves to talk about corruption and bureaucracy and not organizing, this is the key issue.
Second, the union bureaucracy that the left loves to decry is actually an objectively good thing, as worker movements may spring up here and there but if they aren’t fostered, shaped, given resources and organizers, etc., they will fade. If those movements succeed and actually win a union election and then a contract, those dues need to be used not only at the workplace but to lobby the government that is so crucial for the success of unionism. As the quote that titles this post suggests, there is no magic bullet for unionism. As Winant says, you just have to keep trying and eventually hope that all the pieces are there when the historical moment comes for a great advancement. I will close with just one excerpt about the potential of municipal strategy, but please read the whole article.
The members themselves are the most underused resource. America once had factories where thousands toiled together. Though divided by race, ethnicity, and skill, the great plants and mills were hothouses of proletarian consciousness. While such work sites are now extremely rare, their lesson should be remembered. The most promising targets for campaigns are employers large and multifarious enough to implicate workers of many different kinds, as well as the broader community. Hospitals, school systems, and universities leap out as potential targets. These are the institutions where the RN, the custodian, and the fast-food worker are under the same roof. They might actually know one another. The meaning of their alliance might cut across lines of race, gender, and status.
Such institutions tend to have major footprints in their local labor markets. In New York City, the Department of Education is the largest single employer of all agencies of the city government, itself the largest overall employer; health-care providers and universities make up eight of the top ten in the private sector. What’s more, the students, families, and patients who are served by the institution often have interests that can be aligned with those of workers: Do you want enough nurses on the hospital floor? What is all this debt for if the money’s not going to the professors? Do you want your children tested to death and jammed into overcrowded classrooms? Here the classic case is the Chicago Teachers Union, which has successfully positioned itself at the head of a popular majority against mayor Rahm Emanuel.
These institutions are also susceptible to public pressure. Hospitals, school systems, and universities all depend on the public — its opinion, its dollars. If a significant number of people who work at these institutions can be mustered to volunteer in local elections, that group can persuade an even larger group of workers, students, and patients to vote for the same candidates. Then you have a shot at building real, substantive unity between different sections of the working class. This is, essentially, the model of the Working Families Party in New York, as well as my union’s coalition in New Haven.
In New York, the result is visible in the de Blasio administration’s most progressive moves: policies like mandatory paid sick leave, opposition to charter schools, and free pre-K represent points of common interest across the working-class coalition that put the mayor in office. In New Haven, a coalition of Yale employees and community activists, after a string of local electoral victories, extracted an agreement from Yale in December 2015 to hire 1,000 New Haven residents over three years. (I was part of this campaign.)
These successes, along with the astonishing momentum of the $15 campaigns, hint at the possibilities of the city as the unit of strategy. With enough political power at the local level, workers’ organizations may be able to develop forms of leverage that can counteract the growing hostility of the federal legal regime. Imagine if the Chicago Teachers Union won control of the city government (far from an impossible prospect) and used that power to rein in police violence; the union might also reopen schools and clinics closed by Emanuel and staff them, creating huge numbers of unionized jobs. Enough victories like these, and the public image of organized labor might finally change from racist white men to the dominant group across many sectors for decades now — progressive people of color. More significantly, the wide range of working-class people whose long-term interests can align would take a step toward unity.