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Where Will the Labor Movement Go?


While I suppose we could say that the labor movement has been at a crossroads for a long time, right now, it very much is at a crossroads. That’s because AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka will not be running for re-election and the two choices to replace him are quite stark. There is AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler on one hand and Association of Flight Attendants head Sara Nelson on the other. I’ve written about this a bit before. But in case it’s not clear where I stand on this, I was interviewed for this profile of Nelson and I thought I would share it.

“What Sara Nelson offers is a different kind of labor movement,” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island and the author of A History of America in 10 Strikes. “One that is, for the first time in a long time, charismatic and inspiring and one that speaks not only to current labor union members but also to the vast majority of the American working class that doesn’t belong to a union, or can’t have a union, or where it’s really difficult to form a union.”

Nelson’s embrace of militant tactics – and her reputation as a fierce negotiator – has drawn comparisons to the tough-talking, cigar-smoking union bosses of labor’s golden era. But today’s labor leaders, facing entrenched opposition to organizing and collective bargaining, have been forced to find creative ways to build power in a hostile legal environment.

“Nelson knows her history. She knows that unions and working people build power without having the law on their side and without accommodating or bowing to the interest of companies,” said Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. “But clearly she believes there is value in reviving some of those strategies.”

“The labor movement is not something that we have to rebuild,” Nelson said. “The structure already exists,” Nelson said. “It’s just something that has to be put into fourth gear and supercharged.”

I might be a bit more pessimistic than Givan on that point. I’m not sure the structure really does exist to rebuild the labor movement in many ways. But that’s a minor disagreement. What I would say is that while I have no problem with Shuler, what she represents is an extension of the strategies that simply have not worked. I don’t know if Nelson’s more aggressive strategy will work any better, but I know that the status quo is absolutely a dead end for the labor movement. And we know that Nelson’s ability to inspire workers and make change–which happened to end the government shutdown–is very real.

So yeah, I have much stronger feelings about this than I do which of several different candidates win the Democratic Primary. Because short of the horrors of Biden winning the nomination, who becomes the next head of the AFL-CIO is actually a lot more important to the future of this nation than who the Democratic primary winner ends up being.

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