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Fortress Unionism

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Rich Yeselson has a really superb piece on the ongoing implications of Taft-Hartley and what labor can and can’t do in response. The whole thing should be read, but I’ll tease the bottom line:

Ancient history? Maybe—but it’s also crucial history whose direct consequences labor and the country live with today. Taft-Hartley didn’t destroy labor. But it stopped labor dead in its tracks at a point when unions were large, growing, and confident of their economic and political power; when unions really were what The Wall Street Journal still laughably calls “big labor.” The law codified a series of legal land mines—some of which didn’t detonate for decades—that forced unions to weigh the political and economic costs of doing anything too aggressive in their efforts to grow, and, indeed, to begin fighting many rearguard actions to protect the gains they had already made. Without Taft-Hartley, it’s easy to imagine a continued increase in union density rather than a flattening followed by a gradual and then dramatic decline. Today, only 11.3 percent of American workers are unionized—and just 6.6 percent of the private sector, a level not seen since the early twentieth century.

What is the relevance of all this to today? Well, Taft-Hartley isn’t going anywhere. Its land mines still detonate. And it still defines the legal and political context in which labor must operate as it tries to map out a strategy for the future. An aggressive organizing strategy, of the sort labor attempted when John Sweeney took the helm of the AFL-CIO, just doesn’t work because the smart union strategists can’t compensate for a mostly (though not entirely) uninterested working class. But labor can, without undertaking lengthy and expensive campaigns to organize new sectors, work to buttress the areas in which it is already strong, extend its alliances with other progressive groups, and even train the worker leaders of tomorrow. I call this “Fortress Unionism,” and I believe it’s labor’s best play until the day arrives, if it ever does, when the workers themselves militantly signal that they want unions.

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