Forget Elections. Build Your Union.

Political power comes from labor power. Not vice versa.

Hamilton Nolan

We don't march for them, they march for us. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a presidential election year. Are you happy? Excited? Ha. Of course not. Election years in America are fueled far more by fear and loathing than by any sense of genuine inspiration. For many of us, political news inspires a vague sense of disgust and a desire to tune it all out. The more politically engaged you are, the more you understand the awful stakes if the other side wins, and the more you fill with dread. Most of the time, the majestic American democratic project is an exercise in manipulative rhetoric, fearmongering, and, at best, a choice of Lesser Evils.

Much of this is hardwired into our inflexible two-party system. Left (and right) wingers are forced into power struggles against hostile party establishments. Any average person with common sense understands that they are treated primarily as props for candidates who are funded by wealthy interests. Lowest common denominator issues rise to the top of the conversation due to their ability to scare elderly cable TV viewers. Electoral politics are dispiriting. Yet we are taught that they are the sole arena for political action, the culmination of all activism, the place where all ideologies must meet to compete for power. 

Allow me to suggest a different idea for all of you politically passionate but frustrated people out there: Unions. I don’t just mean unions as workplace entities, or even as normal players in the universe of special interest groups. I mean that unions can replace the role that political parties now occupy in our nation. Politicians can be satellites of unions, rather than their masters. Electoral politics, that thankless vampire of America’s civic engagement, can assume a new and healthier position at the foot of organized labor. The first step to this transformation is simply shifting your own perspective. 

Try this: Take the mental and emotional energy, the time and the effort, the money and the resources that you dedicate to electoral politics and move it into unions. Take the time that you might have spent door knocking for a candidate and use it to launch an organizing drive at work. If you have a union, get more involved. Run for an elected position in your local. Reach out and help people at non-union workplaces organize. Agitate for your union to hire more organizers. Go to committee meetings and advocate for important endorsements. Find a great candidate for union president and go to the union convention on their behalf. Go to a picket line. Fight for a contract. Yell at the AFL-CIO. Take your passion that has so long been frustrated by our broken political festival of lies and dedicate it to making the labor movement stronger. 

It may sound like I am writing politics off in some naive belief that the decisions on Capitol Hill don’t matter. Not at all. What politicians do matters quite a bit. I am not suggesting that you ignore politics — I am offering up a better way to change it. Though it may seem unlikely when you consider the past half century’s long, slow decline of union density, there are very good structural reasons to believe that reviving labor power is a more productive way to improve this nation’s political outcomes than almost anything else that you could do. Instead of thinking of politicians and laws as the prime movers of the policies that determine how working people will live, think of the much more appetizing vision of politicians as humble employees who must bend the knee to working people in hopes of getting our support. This is not an impossible vision. It is the natural product of the realization that political power can come from labor power. Not vice versa. 

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Though this seems like an elementary distinction, it’s not. It is a simple shift in perspective, but not an easy one — the most powerful institutions in organized labor have, for the most part, not even adopted it themselves. For many decades, the portion of Americans who are unions members has been going down, and the amount of money that unions spend on electoral politics has been going up. During that time, the power of the working class has inexorably declined. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Time to try something new.

Strikes are stronger than laws. The ability of workers to withhold their labor will shut down the engines of commerce no matter what any court or politician says. Stronger worker power — meaning higher union density, millions more union members, more strikes, and more radicalism — will bend politics in a progressive direction whether political parties like it or not. 

As I write in my new book The Hammer,” there are countless examples of unions that practice this principle well on state and local scales. The Culinary Union in Las Vegas has made hotel room cleaners and cooks into legitimate political power players by unionizing the entire casino industry, and then continuing to organize internally to keep members mobilized and ready to fight. Their parent union, Unite Here, does the same thing to varying degrees in cities around the country. After all, if you organize the workers at the airports and the stadiums and the hotels and the convention centers, you have your hands wrapped around the throat of any tourist city’s vital economic organs. 

That labor power is political power. That labor power is leverage to raise the standard of living for every working person. That labor power cannot be brushed aside by a politician, or silenced by a large donation from a corporation. It is a fact of the world. The effort that it takes to build and maintain that labor power is infinitely better spent than the same amount of effort lobbying and schmoozing with officials would have been.

Organizing workers is politics. It is the version of politics that works.

Organizing workers is politics. It is the version of politics that works. My entire lifetime has been spent watching the power of the working class go down. We don’t need to keep doing this forever. We need big unions and the AFL-CIO to pour resources into new organizing in order to raise union density, yes — but there’s no need to wait around on them forever to make the right decision.

This is a change that you can make in your own life. A kind of enlightenment, if you will. A political party will never work for you in the same way that a union will, because you are at best a customer in the view of the political party, whereas you are the union. Spend your precious hours organizing. Make your union strong, engaged, and democratic. Help the 90% of working people who aren’t union members get a union of their own. Turn off CNN and focus on the labor movement.

This is not a call for nihilism, but rather a guarantee: If you do this, not only will you be more fulfilled personally, but you will find as time goes on that the political changes you sought will be easier to come by. Instead of asking politicians to change the conditions of the world, build enough labor power to change them yourself. Politics after labor power. Politics from labor power. Politics in thrall to labor power.

Give it a try. You have nothing to lose but another year of agonized wailing at your TV.

Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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