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Forget Elections—Labor Needs To Get Back to Its Roots

Tom Lewandowski

A group of out-of-work men nicknamed "Coxey's Army" marched from Massillon, Ohio, to Washington D.C. in protest of unemployment in 1894, and were greeted along the way with solidarity and support. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

With the midterms behind us, we have Nov. 4, 2020, to look for­ward to — labor’s next morn­ing after. On Nov. 5, 2008, we were euphor­ic and full of delu­sion­al hope over the immi­nent pas­sage of the Employ­ee Free Choice Act and the restora­tion of labor. On Nov. 9, 2016, we were par­a­lyzed by despair and denial.

At this point, bet­ting our future on the next bru­tal mat­ing rit­u­al of Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats is not a bet most work­ers are will­ing to take. Since the 1950s, union mem­ber­ship decline has been a straight line down­ward, regard­less of which polit­i­cal par­ty is in pow­er. Only 10.7 per­cent of work­ers are union­ized; an enor­mous 89.3 per­cent are not. That’s too low to make much dif­fer­ence for most peo­ple in most places — more mol­e­c­u­lar lev­el Brown­ian motion than labor move­ment. No threat to wealth, the wealthy, or pow­er­ful. Much worse, no voice or pow­er of, by, or, for work­ers. Instead, orga­nized labor has become so mar­gin­al Don­ald Trump has been able to usurp its role as the emo­tion­al voice for workers.

The econ­o­my is doing great — apart from work­ers. Wages remain stag­nant. Forty per­cent of adults don’t have enough sav­ings to cov­er a $400 emer­gency expense such as a car repair or med­ical cri­sis. Forty-three per­cent of fam­i­lies aren’t mak­ing enough to cov­er month­ly liv­ing expens­es. Uncer­tain work, unpre­dictable work hours, manda­to­ry over­time, dic­ta­to­r­i­al boss­es, mis­er­able job stan­dards, cre­ate day-to-day des­per­a­tion with psy­cho­log­i­cal and social tolls. The labor mar­ket is ripe for an orga­niz­ing explo­sion, but it isn’t happening.

Blam­ing the rich and the Repub­li­cans is great sport. The income inequal­i­ty research indus­try is boom­ing and there is no need to cat­a­log Repub­li­can offens­es — they cam­paign on them. Long ago, labor out­sourced its rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the pub­lic sphere to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, and in the process become a depen­dent fran­chise and an easy tar­get. But the truth is that the Democ­rats patron­ize labor on a good day, sell us out on a bad day, and ignore us on most days. (I speak as a recov­er­ing politi­cian, a Demo­c­rat who ran and was elect­ed four times to city coun­cil in my heav­i­ly Repub­li­can small town.) 

Par­ti­san and com­pet­i­tive think­ing insid­i­ous­ly affects behav­ior. Fifty per­cent plus one pass­es for sol­i­dar­i­ty. Union­ists suc­cumb to polit­i­cal speak, sound­ing like Wash­ing­ton rather than folks round here.” We blame work­ers for vot­ing for Repub­li­cans. If they’d only vot­ed how we told them, then we could get things done. We estrange our­selves from large chunks of work­ers while giv­ing our­selves an excuse for fail­ure. We don’t have to do the hard work of build­ing a move­ment, we only need to win an election.

Maybe we should rethink that.

Instead, start today from where we are and who we are. Sim­ple col­lec­tive self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion with­out insti­tu­tion­al, ide­o­log­i­cal, par­ti­san or mon­e­tary arti­fice. Under­stand­ing who and where we are by our own com­pass; by our own posi­tion, not oppo­si­tion. This requires rad­i­cal respect for our fel­low work­ers. For lack of a bet­ter term, this unadorned orga­niz­ing is social organizing.

Abun­dant exam­ple are scat­tered across the globe and buried in his­to­ry. I wit­nessed a jar­ring work­er tuto­r­i­al in social orga­niz­ing in Poland in 1995, when AFL-CIO des­per­a­tion over labor’s decline and my good luck result­ed in a leave of absence from my elect­ed Cen­tral Labor Coun­cil job to work in those ear­ly post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary years with Sol­i­darnosc lead­er­ship and mem­ber­ship. Iron­i­cal­ly, at one point, I was tasked with orga­niz­ing a con­fer­ence on Amer­i­can union orga­niz­ing for Sol­i­darnosc activists. Just as the accom­plished, well-edu­cat­ed Amer­i­can orga­niz­er sent over by the union began his pre­sen­ta­tion, one Sol­i­darnosc mem­bers inter­rupt­ed to ask, What do you mean orga­nize?” A moment of awk­ward silence fol­lowed. Then, char­i­ta­bly, anoth­er Sol­i­darnosc mem­ber sug­gest­ed, Do you mean, join our orga­ni­za­tion and we’ll rep­re­sent you?” The orig­i­nal ques­tion­er jumped in, we had 45 years of that with the Com­mu­nists.” The work­ers then came up with their own def­i­n­i­tion of orga­niz­ing, co-cre­at­ing our own future.” Work­ers, not the orga­ni­za­tion, were the of, by, and for.

Post-rev­o­lu­tion, the sol­i­dar­i­ty of Sol­i­darnosc dis­si­pat­ed into polit­i­cal and insti­tu­tion­al fac­tions. Still, this inci­dent illu­mi­nates the com­mit­ment to social orga­niz­ing that helped spark this trans­for­ma­tion­al work­er movement.

When all we have is each oth­er, social orga­niz­ing is where we start.

Back to basics

Social orga­niz­ing built the labor move­ment. When 19th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can work­ers had vir­tu­al­ly no insti­tu­tion­al or polit­i­cal voice or pow­er, they devel­oped both by car­ing about and for each oth­er. In near­ly every inch of Amer­i­ca, now-for­got­ten work­ers came togeth­er with that def­i­n­i­tion of solidarity.

In 1894, Coxey’s Army of unem­ployed work­ers marched on Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to press for defined jobs and mean­ing­ful work. As branch­es passed through cities and towns — includ­ing Fort Wayne, Ind., where I work — the Fort Wayne Sen­tinel report­ed that local res­i­dents lav­ished them for days with food and social sup­port. That same year the Sen­tinel report­ed, dur­ing the 1894 street­car work­ers strike, house­wives direct­ed gar­den hoses at scabs, horse drawn wag­ons inex­plic­a­bly unhitched on the tracks, and rid­ers boy­cotted the street­cars. Return­ing the sol­i­dar­i­ty, strik­ing work­ers went back to work with­out pay for one day, Memo­r­i­al Day, so cit­i­zens could vis­it the graves of their depart­ed. Street­car work­ers and the com­mu­ni­ty won that strike.

Thou­sands of lost his­to­ries such as this were the roots of com­mu­ni­ty-based sol­i­dar­i­ty in indus­tri­al Amer­i­ca. This pop­ulist indus­tri­al sol­i­dar­i­ty spawned and sup­port­ed Workingmen’s Asso­ci­a­tions, Knights of Labor chap­ters, Trade and Labor Coun­cils. In turn, these orga­ni­za­tions incu­bat­ed work­er orga­niz­ing in work­places and by trades. Local sol­i­dar­i­ty in rail­road towns and com­pa­ny towns built the insti­tu­tion­al, polit­i­cal and legal foun­da­tions for our now dimin­ished labor move­ment. The grav­i­ty of sol­i­dar­i­ty drew work­ers into the inex­tri­ca­bly inter­twined labor mar­ket and com­mu­ni­ty. This cul­ture of sol­i­dar­i­ty includ­ed direct actions such as strikes and boy­cotts but, more con­sis­tent­ly and impor­tant­ly, direct edu­ca­tion of, by, and for work­ers. Apprenticeships,“lectors” who read news and lit­er­a­ture aloud to work­ers on the job, and inten­tion­al­ly edu­ca­tion­al union meet­ings with guest speak­ers were part of the cul­ture. Rail­road and indus­tri­al activ­i­ties were reg­u­lar­ly cov­ered in news­pa­pers, with the report­ing focused more on work­ers than boss­es or busi­ness. Jour­nal­ists, whether Knights of Labor or just sol­id reporters, would com­mon­ly cov­er union fed­er­a­tion meet­ings. Union lead­ers under­stood their role as rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the com­mu­ni­ty meant talk­ing to reporters, not hid­ing from them. Every­body had some­thing to teach and every­body had some­thing to learn and an oblig­a­tion to do both. A cul­ture of sol­i­dar­i­ty meant edu­cate to orga­nize and orga­nize to educate.

We could take solace and avoid the hard work of orga­niz­ing by say­ing Amer­i­ca and the world are dif­fer­ent now. Our mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry insti­tu­tions, econ­o­my, and democ­ra­cy have decayed or been hijacked. Our social divi­sions can feel insur­mount­able. We’ve been sliced, diced, mon­e­tized, politi­cized and con­trolled. But are we so spe­cial that we now believe we are the first ones to have ever been so seem­ing­ly screwed? Or do we try to work through it, exper­i­ment based on what we can learn from oth­er times and places and most impor­tant­ly, each other?

Social orga­niz­ing after the 2008 Recession

Since 1996, the folks I’ve been work­ing with at the Work­ers’ Project, a research and edu­ca­tion non­prof­it, have exper­i­ment­ed scores of times with work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion through social orga­niz­ing. We are con­fi­dent and hope­ful var­i­ous con­fig­u­ra­tions of work­ers have been exper­i­ment­ing else­where. We have learned some lessons from our suc­cess­es and failures.

One instruc­tive exper­i­ment focused on unem­ployed work­ers’ social orga­niz­ing for voice and pow­er dur­ing and after the Great Reces­sion. A tor­rent of most­ly non-union work­ers, new­ly job­less after the eco­nom­ic crash, were over­whelm­ing Indiana’s unem­ploy­ment offices. The state offices were dis­in­ter­est­ed or active­ly hos­tile toward unem­ployed work­ers. Mean­while, a union foundry in Kendal­lville, Ind., was clos­ing. Bust­ed up from years of foundry work, the union pres­i­dent, the late Leonard Hicks, was ready to quit work­ing but unwill­ing to stop rep­re­sent­ing his folks as their lives became even tougher.

To address both prob­lems, we brought togeth­er union and non-union unem­ployed work­ers to bar­gain with the state through a social orga­niz­ing move­ment, Unem­ployed and Anx­ious­ly Employed Work­ers’ Ini­tia­tive (UAEWI).

First, we lis­tened as work­ers talked about prob­lems and pos­si­bil­i­ties. We devel­oped a sur­vey. In the unem­ploy­ment office park­ing lot, we sur­veyed unem­ployed work­ers about how the office was doing, giv­ing them a report card style sur­vey to fill out, with a vol­un­tary con­tact infor­ma­tion form. The state imme­di­ate­ly called in the police to stop us — claim­ing that we were tres­pass­ing on pri­vate prop­er­ty, because the pub­lic office was housed on pri­vate land. We alert­ed the media and the state received reams of bad press.

The media cov­er­age revealed to unem­ployed work­ers they could have a voice and some grit. They began com­ing to UAEWI meet­ings, along with the union foundry work­ers in Kendal­lville and oth­er union shops expe­ri­enc­ing mass lay-offs.

Our ranks of unem­ployed includ­ed work­ers with edu­ca­tion and expe­ri­ence in soci­ol­o­gy. With their assis­tance, the UAEWI mem­bers devel­oped and col­lect­ed a broad­er sur­vey. The sur­vey was not for aca­d­e­m­ic pub­li­ca­tion, or for an insti­tu­tion­al or par­ti­san agen­da, but instead for col­lec­tive self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It had real val­ue for pub­lic pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions. While the polit­i­cal class talk about or for unem­ployed work­ers, UAEWI rep­re­sent­ed themselves.

Mem­ber­ship was deter­mined sole­ly by a worker’s deci­sion to par­tic­i­pate in the sur­vey — to vol­un­tar­i­ly add their voice to the col­lec­tive voice. We con­duct­ed edu­ca­tion and train­ing class­es as well as group talk ses­sions. With­in a few months, the State’s unem­ploy­ment office man­age­ment found them­selves in a union hall across a bar­gain­ing table with the UAEWI mem­bers. Unem­ployed work­ers gained improve­ments in ser­vices includ­ing increased staffing and train­ing but most impor­tant­ly, a change in atti­tude. Most UAEWI mem­bers had nev­er been union mem­bers; they learned how col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion worked.

For sev­en more years, we con­tin­ued and broad­ened annu­al UAEWI sur­veys. We gath­ered respons­es wher­ev­er we found voice­less work­ers: from folks leav­ing food banks, town­ship trustee office, social ser­vice agen­cies, a mobile Mex­i­can con­sulate. Our sam­pling exceed­ed 500 work­ers in 2012 and was con­duct­ed in Eng­lish, Span­ish and Burmese. We asked more wide-rang­ing pub­lic pol­i­cy ques­tions about issues such as eco­nom­ic development.

UAEWI mem­bers bar­gained in the pub­lic sphere. They pro­vid­ed local, state, nation­al, and inter­na­tion­al jour­nal­ists with reli­able data, con­text, and access to social­ly orga­nized work­ers will­ing to tell com­pelling sto­ries. Some of the sto­ries sup­port­ed Peabody and Mur­row inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism awards. UAEWI mem­bers pre­sent­ed sur­vey report results to oth­er mem­bers and the pub­lic in very pub­lic for­mats rang­ing from tra­di­tion­al research reports to semi-the­atri­cal pre­sen­ta­tions and even cin­e­mat­ic effort. UAEWI mem­bers attend­ed and spoke before the local and state Work­force Invest­ment Boards, Fort Wayne City Coun­cil, Indi­ana Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Board meetings.

Just the mod­est act of ask­ing drew work­ers out of their iso­la­tion and into sol­i­dar­i­ty. Many UAEWI mem­bers were per­son­al­ly trans­formed as they shaped pub­lic poli­cies from the unem­ploy­ment office to well beyond. They were co-cre­at­ing their own futures. This was bar­gain­ing in the pub­lic sphere, bar­gain­ing with the state over the terms and con­di­tions of our lives. Bar­gain­ing with state is foun­da­tion­al for work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the 21st cen­tu­ry, just as it was with Coxey’s Army in the 19th cen­tu­ry. The UAEWI effort only updat­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion with a bit of work­er-dri­ven social science. 

In the last four years, learn­ing from UAEWI effort, we have exper­i­ment­ed with apply­ing work­er-dri­ven social sci­ence and apply­ing it to orig­i­nal NLRA intent in work­places. In labor speak work­ers devel­op non-cer­ti­fied minor­i­ty sta­tus bar­gain­ing” with so-called pri­vate employ­ers. (This less legal­is­tic, insti­tu­tion­al and tech­no­crat­ic orga­niz­ing was envi­sioned when the NLRA was first imple­ment­ed — the work of labor law schol­ar, the late Clyde Sum­mers, as well as Charles Morris’s in Blue Eagle At Work doc­u­ments this well.)

We helped work­ers devel­op their col­lec­tive under­stand­ing and iden­ti­ty to, from the worm’s eye view, make things bet­ter at work. In each case, their self-orga­niz­ing grew from sol­i­dar­i­ty self­ies” and a sur­vey of co-work­ers’ thoughts on the terms and con­di­tions of their employ­ment. It is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­cert­ed activ­i­ty under the NLRA and, more impor­tant­ly, intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty owned by the work­ers. We pro­vid­ed sup­port­ive research and edu­ca­tion for Lati­na work­ers at a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant; sub-con­tract­ed work­ers at a retail out­let; and Burmese work­ers at a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant. One group faced unsafe work con­di­tions caus­ing mis­car­riages. The sec­ond faced a clas­sic bul­ly­ing boss cul­ture. The third faced sys­tem­at­ic eth­nic and lan­guage discrimination.

We pro­vid­ed them access to social sci­ence, legal sup­port, and social orga­niz­ing tal­ent, as well as a place in our com­mu­ni­ty of sol­i­dar­i­ty. We sup­port­ed their con­ver­sa­tions to devel­op strate­gies to nego­ti­ate with the boss. They suc­ceed­ed on their own terms. First the sur­vey process over­came employ­er-imposed iso­la­tion. Work­ers expe­ri­enced their own work­place me too” rev­e­la­tions which led to col­lec­tive voice. They built their rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al pow­er by devel­op­ing a research report on their work lives that became col­lec­tive­ly owned and copy­right­ed intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty with real bar­gain­ing val­ue. Each unit could choose to share the find­ings with who­ev­er they decide in the pub­lic-pri­vate spec­trum: media, gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors, elect­ed offi­cials, cus­tomers, sup­pli­ers, com­peti­tors, stock­hold­ers or, if will­ing, across the table with the boss.

The Lati­na fac­to­ry work­ers met with the plant own­er to present their find­ings. Safe­ty con­di­tions improved, mater­ni­ty leaves were grant­ed, healthy babies were born, and lit­tle Jose Manuel now attends our events. Some of the work­ers were fired, most moved on to oth­er jobs, some won legal set­tle­ments. Most remain active in the His­pan­ic Work­ers Circle.

The sub­con­tract­ed retail work­ers suc­cess­ful­ly con­front­ed top nation­al cor­po­rate man­age­ment. They end­ed the bul­ly­ing man­age­ment cul­ture and main­tain an ongo­ing social sol­i­dar­i­ty union” col­lect­ing no dues and par­tic­i­pat­ing in all Work­ers’ Project activities.

The Burmese fac­to­ry work­ers efforts are ongo­ing. They con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of our Burmese Work­ers Cir­cle which is devel­op­ing as a work­ers’ and civ­il rights organization.

Stay tuned for more news: All groups con­tin­ue full-throat­ed par­tic­i­pa­tion in Work­ers’ Project activ­i­ties and Fort Wayne’s huge annu­al Labor Day picnic.

We think col­lec­tive intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty is an intrigu­ing inno­va­tion. As work­ers we are robbed of our intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty as employ­ers pick our brains, pick our pock­ets, only to pick up and leave us job­less. As con­sumers, our data has col­lect­ed by oth­ers, mon­e­tized and politi­cized at our expense to ben­e­fit wealth. Intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty we own col­lec­tive­ly can help us bar­gain with any­one in the pow­er spec­trum, from pri­vate employ­er to the state.

Own­ing our own voic­es and pow­er, col­lec­tive human agency, is our democ­ra­cy where we work and where we live. Valu­ing each oth­er, shar­ing our expe­ri­ences, infor­ma­tion, ideas, and respect seems a great place to start espe­cial­ly when you are start­ing at scratch. Social orga­niz­ing, old school or inno­v­a­tive, is still solidarity.

This arti­cle was sup­port­ed by the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project.

Tom Lewandows­ki is co-founder and direc­tor of the Work­ers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Ind.
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