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On Independent Unions

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MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2021/02/20: Participants seen holding signs and marching on a picket line at the protest. Members of the Workers Assembly Against Racism gathered across from Jeff Bezos-owned Whole Foods Market in Union Square South for a nation-wide solidarity event with the unionizing Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

New Labor Forum asked me to write a long piece on the enduring popularity of “independent” unions, i.e., those without institutional affiliation. This gave me a chance to think through one of the myths of the left and try to understand why these have become so popular in recent decades. Where it led me was to thinking about the decline of expertise generally and the overall mistrust of institutions. Some of that is justified–it was the same midcentury expert position who gave us top-down CIO structures and the Green Revolution and the TVA as who gave us DDT and Thalidomide and the Vietnam War after all. But as we saw with the response to Covid, now that no one trusts anything, the downside is very very big. Anyway, this also allowed me to think about the larger pathologies of American society that created this situation and has hamstrung the labor movement in recent years. I also did a podcast with the great labor historian Joshua Freeman on it.

Here’s an excerpt from the article, in which I take on the hero of the moment, Chris Smalls. As it so happened, this came out the same day he was in Havana, so……:

In the aftermath of the remarkable and unprecedented victory of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at a Staten Island facility on April 1, 2022, nearly the entire conversation around the American labor movement changed overnight.

The ALU had defeated Amazon, one of the megaliths of the modern economy, in a union vote. No one had ever beaten Amazon. For that matter, almost no successful campaigns against any of the iconic companies of the twenty-first century economy—Target, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber, Walmart, or others—had succeeded. So, under any circumstances, this was front page news.

What amazed almost everyone was that the ALU was an independent union movement with few resources. Almost no one believed the ALU had a shot to win this election.[1] I certainly did not. The union record of even highly centralized unions winning elections against the behemoths of the twenty-first-century economy is nearly nonexistent. To say the least, I, like everyone else in the labor movement, was pleasantly surprised.

The rise of the Starbucks campaign at the same time only gave more energy to a rare moment of labor movement optimism. The Starbucks campaign is nominally independent but has support from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) behind it. As of this writing, the Starbucks Workers United has organized 278 stores, although organizing has slowed in the face of overwhelming corporate resistance from Starbucks head Howard Schulz. All of a sudden, it seems that the new era of independent, grassroots, worker-led unionism is upon us.

That the ALU built itself through GoFundMe fundraising and localized events around beer and barbeque seemed even more unlikely. Where were the high-paid union lawyers, the outside organizers, the centrally planned strategy? All of these, admittedly, had not led to a lot of victories in recent years. But still, they all seemed absolutely necessary for even a preliminary victory.

In the aftermath of the initial victory, there was a great deal of talk about how this was the harbinger for a new unionism, one that focused more on independent unions and less on the current unions that are big organizations, often bureaucratic, and often lacking the radical edge that many labor commenters want.

To take just one example, consider the April 7, 2022, Noam Scheiber article in the New York Times about the ALU victory. It cited several labor intellectuals, writers, and activists saying that decentralized unions were not just the future but the present, criticizing established unions for their failures and calling for the labor movement to reorient itself toward an independent model.[2] The great labor scholar Ruth Milkman went so far as to compare the ALU with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the Flint Sit-Down Strike.[3]

In the months since the ALU’s victory, a lot about this initial optimism has aged poorly. Shortly after the first victory, the ALU suffered a blow-out defeat at a second Staten Island facility. And an election at an Amazon facility in Albany saw less than 20 percent of the bargaining unit vote for the ALU, with a 2:1 loss in the overall vote.[4] Beyond those defeats, some original ALU organizers have talked of being purged from the union for insufficient loyalty to ALU President Chris Smalls. At the Staten Island facility, Amazon has refused to negotiate, although that is hardly Smalls’ fault given it would avoid negotiating with any union.

If you want to find Smalls, you can go to a Labor Notes conference, or to various labor events in New York, or to strikes around the nation where he shows up to give a talk. He has appeared at dozens of labor events around the country in the last year. Where you are unlikely to find Smalls is organizing the ALU. The aftermath of that first election has not gone well for ALU. A single victory by this independent  union might mean a transformation in the labor movement. Or it might be a blip in the long history of American unionism.

The reality of organizing under American labor law makes victory very difficult. My concern here is not the ALU per se, but rather how large sectors of labor-movement intellectuals embraced this particular election as the future of the labor movement when evidence suggests that the road for independent unions is extremely challenging, much more so than for established unions.

It is due time to have a serious conversation about the viability of independent unions. I will state up front that I have no particular agenda here except for two points. First, I want to promote the best ideas that will help labor win. Second, I want the larger labor intellectual and organizing community to stop taking isolated single wins and declaring them the future of the labor movement, something easily disproven if one looks back to the claims made after these victories.[5] Otherwise, independent or not, centrally organized or run by anarchists, I only want unions to win.

For over a century, independent unionism as an organizing strategy has ebbed and flowed in intellectual currents on the American left. The history provides a useful way to consider the status of independent unions within the labor movement and among leftists today. The longstanding allure of independent unionism might tell us more about the viability of independent unionism than the ALU’s victory can.

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