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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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