In recent months, it suddenly seems that there are really two labor movements. One is young and dynamic, growing rapidly. The other is older, richer, well-established and far larger, although often jaded. That established movement has tried year after year to halt labor’s decades-long slide, but it has failed, with some union leaders all but giving up and hardly doing any organizing. (Intense corporate resistance to unions usually makes it very hard for organized labor to expand.)
The new, youth-driven labor movement is busy being born — and eager to go from baby steps to running at full speed. But it is woefully underfunded, and in order to grow and reach its potential, it will need money, lawyers and expertise. The most likely source for that is the richer, older unions, but many of them are showing scant desire to help. Sometimes it seems these older unions are envious of the energetic, younger movement, and sometimes they don’t seem to know what to make of it. These young workers are doing things differently, often doing bottom-up, self-organizing of their workplaces, far different from organized labor’s traditional strategy of relying on unions’ paid staff organizers.
If the nation’s big unions and their leaders are serious about having the labor movement grow again, they need to realize that this is an unusually promising moment, that there’s huge energy right in front of them. The big unions have the money and resources to help the new youth-driven movement expand rapidly. If the big unions don’t jump in and help, then all their grandiose talk about reversing labor’s slide will ring hollow. This is the most promising moment for unions in decades, and if the big unions don’t come off the sidelines and help the youth-driven moment grow, they will have themselves to blame if labor’s decline continues.
Of course, the issue is complicated. Existing unions operate to serve their members. If new unions do develop and win contracts, five decades from now they will do the same thing at Starbucks and Amazon. But the point is correct. There’s a lot currently existing unions could do to assist these young organizers. Some are doing something. But most are really not and are pretty clueless about all of this new organizing.
I’ve talked to a few reporters over the last month where I’ve stated that a lot of what is happening is analogous to the 1930s, where you had these preexisting unions doing nothing to organize the economy as it was and then these new unions develop and the old unions not only have no idea what to do but are actively hostile. That was the AFL and the CIO. Today, the old CIO unions are largely dead and the labor movement is made up of the old and still conservative AFL craft unions and then the less old public sector unions that are more progressive but operate outside the conditions that are creating the new labor movement. There’s not really much reason to expect from the old unions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold them accountable if they do nothing. This is a rare chance to expand the labor movement and any labor leader who is not all over this is not worth the comfy leather chair they sit their asses in while not really doing much.