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What Should Labor Have Done Differently?

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george-meany-resize-1Above: George Meany, 1967

Stephen Lerner spoke at a plenary session during last week’s Fighting Inequality conference. He asked us to engage in an intellectual exercise. If you could take a time machine back to 1955, what is the one thing you would tell the labor movement to do differently so that it the situation it faces in 2015 wouldn’t be so bad?

It’s an interesting question. My first response is that there probably isn’t that one thing labor could have done differently because the problems it faces are structural rather than a failure of leadership. I know the leadership hasn’t helped, but we need to keep our legitimate criticisms of poor labor leadership in their proper context. One thin labor could have done a lot better is dumping George Meany as head of the AFL-CIO and replacing him with Walter Reuther, but I’m not sure the final outcome is all that much better. From a moral perspective, telling labor to stop working with CIA and supporting American Cold War foreign policy is a good one, but if the AFL-CIO is a leader in opposing the Vietnam War, what is really different today except maybe that others on the left trust the movement a bit more? Certainly telling labor to think of a real response to outsourcing and capital mobility is very tempting. UAW members destroying Toyotas with a sledgehammer might have felt cathartic, but it’s hardly a response of value.

I think the best answer is to urge them to never think of management as a partner. Maybe the biggest mistake labor made was thinking that they had long-term deals with the employers that would create permanent stability for the working class. Labor’s power forced employers to tone down their anti-union rhetoric in public, but they never accepted unions as partners. As soon as labor let its guard down, employers started pushing back against everything they had given up to workers. At first, it was around the margins, but it became a full-fledged assault by the 1970s. And labor had no response to that because it had deemphasized organizing and worker activism, instead relying solely on the boardroom and courtroom as spaces of contention and negotiation. Those strategies definitely had great value and those who wish for a more activist labor movement overly romanticize direct action on the shopfloor. But that doesn’t mean that worker activism isn’t a necessary part of a labor movement. Marginalizing that in favor of thinking of employers as permanent partners that would get workers a growing piece of a growing pie, that was a pretty deadly error of judgement.

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