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It’s Time Progressive Bloggers Started Caring About the Labor Movement

Mike Elk

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Because the labor movement needs their help, and electoral politics are a dead end (UPDATED with correction and response below)

The recent Democratic loss of more than 60 seats in the House is their largest since 1938, when the party lost 80 seats. But because the number of workers joining unions was increasing during this period, growing their workplace power, workers would build the organizational vehicles necessary for retaking Congress a few short years later.

Many progressives and blogger tend to focus on political elections as the key source for challenging the power of the elites. I would argue that workplace elections are far more important. Electing a progressive member of Congress allows a politician to do something for struggling workers. But joining a union allows workers to do something to improve their own lives.

Often the type of change these workers creates last much longer than the temporary political majorities that seems to disappear every decade or two. Many of the unions created in the 1930s still hold collective bargaining agreements with big corporations today. While some unions have accepted wage cuts and two-tier contracts from profitable companies, as Roger Bybe has reported on this site (and the New York Times this past Sunday), other unions throughout the country have improved their contracts.

What separates those unions making contract gains during the Great Recession from others making concessions?

The answer lies in the ability to develop smart, militant strategies for beating the boss. These fights prove that it is possible to improve the economic conditions of workers in the workplace even when Congress won’t act and when unions are under brutal corporate assault.

This is where bloggers’ ideas are so desperately needed. The labor movement needs to be shaken up out of its losing ways in the same way bloggers shook the Democratic Party out of its losing ways in confronting Bush, which helped lead to electoral victories in 2006 and 2008. Rank-and-file union members desperately need an infusion of the same type of blogger spirit that led to the election of Howard Dean as the head of the DNC and an embrace of his Internet-centered organizing, as well the 50-state strategy. An infusion of blogger energy into labor causes could teach union members to challenge the ineffective, top down leadership of the labor movement in the same way bloggers challenged the ineffective, top down leadership of the Democratic Party.

The labor movement also needs bloggers to help figure out new ways of using technology to organize new workers. Case in point: the AFL CIO’s much-heralded Working America program, which has more than 3 million members, has an e-mail list of about 650,000 (editor’s note: see correction note below). However, Working America has not been able to figure out how to use that e-mail list to teach workers how to organically organize unions on a mass scale in their workplaces.

Instead, it seems to me that Working America has merely become a Move On-style email list to distribute e-mail action alerts symptomatic of top-down point-and-click activism — not the member-run activism necessary for challenging the boss on the shop floor.

If the progressive movement and blogosphere are serious about taking on corporate power, they must invest an equal amount of resources to workplace fights as they do electoral fights. Outside of coverage of the writers’ strike a few years ago, which was an issue that got plenty of media attention, the blogosphere has failed to cover most strikes with any serious commitment or long term attention.

This has failed to happen in the past because progressives tend to come from the professional/​managerial class that has had little involvement with organized labor. They are not aware of organized labor’s structure’s or how organized labor challenges power in the workplace.

Also, bloggers and progressive activists tend not to see strikes and lockouts as national struggles about corporate power, since strikes in most industries typically occur only as part of a specific contract. However, local strikes tend to have bigger implications: If companies win concessions in one part of the industry, companies in other parts of the industry see it as an opportunity to go on the offensive against workers through the nation.

As a result of blogger’s unfamiliarity and lack of relationships with rank and file activists, unions have often been confused or completely unaware about how to exactly involve bloggers in workplace disputes.

Even if bloggers do want to get involved in labor disputes, there are very few things they can do online to get involved. Bloggers can’t raise money for strike funds since unions often do not have any online legal format for accepting donations online. Bloggers can’t direct people to volunteer to walk the picket line because the way they can for candidates since unions haven’t developed the Internet tools to enable outside activists to find easier ways to join their struggles online.

Yes, we just suffered a massive political defeat. Perhaps the loss was big enough that bloggers will stop viewing elections as the key to challenging corporate power and creating lasting progressive change — and instead focus on creating power in the workplace.

Correction and response from Working America: This article has been updated with a correction. While Working America does have a membership of more than 3 million people, its e-mail list is only 650,000. We regret the error. Also, Aruna Jain of Working America rejects Elk’s description of the program as similar to MoveOn, saying:

We are a first and foremost a grassroots field organization, with one of the largest field programs in the country. Our primary activity is member mobilization around issues important to working class Americans… Throughout the year, we have volunteers, activists, member mobilization coordinators, regional, state and field directors on the ground, with an active presence in hundreds of communities all over the country.”

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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