Saving Labor’s Sinking Ship

David Moberg

Labor leaders finally seem ready to embrace new ideas about organizing like the AFL-CIO's Working America. (Sasha Kimel / Flickr)

What, if anything, can save the labor movement from its steady decline as the organizational voice of American workers? The question, as Jake Blumgart notes, is not new, but it is increasingly urgent for the future of both work and politics in this country. Now the losses of union members in past decades have opened the floodgates to the current devastation for nearly all the much-heralded middle class” and even worse fates for those less fortunate.

Last week a diverse group of talented organizers and astute observers of labor gathered in Washington, D.C., to offer their answers, at the invitation of the Albert Shanker Institute, the Sidney Hillman Foundation and the American Prospect. Not surprisingly, no one reported finding a silver bullet solution. But ongoing efforts to try out new organizational forms and strategies, as well as to re-invigorate the old, offer some hope.

The big question for everyone is how to increase the power that organized workers can muster to combat both increasingly hostile corporate and political opponents as well as corrosive trends in work and the economy — from globalization to the fissured workplace,” where the ultimate managerial power escapes responsibility for what happens on the job. 

An answer might be found, said David Rolf, a successful Service Employees (SEIU) organizer and founder of Workers Lab, a new venture to support innovative organizing, when we realize that policy is merely frozen power, … and power only really comes from disruption,” which leads to new seats being found at the table of power to bargain. … The question for the 21st century is: what is disruptive power?” 

Across many political or strategic differences, many panelists seemed to agree that disruption and, therefore, power relied in large part on mobilizing as organizers many of the millions of already organized workers. Ultimately labor’s greatest resource, the talents of these members, are all too often untapped.

Never give up on the rank-and-file workers having a space to fight for themselves,” AFL-CIO executive vice-president Tefere Gebre said. Union staff should not do things for them. Raise the minimum wage through a fight that mobilizes and educates workers and their allies, not a backroom deal with legislators,” Gebre said, adding that to build a movement, we’ve got to keep workers at the center of our thinking.”

Here are some of the more promising or provocative ideas presented at the conference:

  • A new civil rights movement? Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation proposed making the right to organize unions a civil right (an argument he and In These Times contributor Moshe Marvit put forward in a 2012 book), with violations by employers subject to the same penalties as violations of civil rights statutes (which are much stiffer than penalties under labor law). While the idea may be more readily acceptable to average Americans than the latest failed labor law revision, the Employee Free Choice Act, it would still face stiff opposition from Republicans and business. They see themselves as holding a strong upper hand now in the courts and legislatures from counties to Congress. And Democrats have proven unwilling or unable to bring labor law reform even when they had power.

  • More democracy and class consciousness: Having led the organization of 3.5 million workers — who are not members of unions but sympathetic to labor’s goals — into AFL-CIO’s Working America affiliate, Karen Nussbaum said that to make organizing successful (and implicitly to strengthen Working America as well), the labor movement needs to develop among its supporters a view of the world that sharply distinguishes the interests of workers and big business. Political strategists now call such perspectives a frame,” but it is also what used to be called class consciousness,” she noted. Also, democracy needs to be linked to dues that sustain the organization. Democracy is a mess,” she said, but it’s a challenge we have to take on,” an important internal step if labor’s aim is to redistribute both power and wealth in society at large.

  • Build community: Increasingly, unions need to link with community groups, perhaps becoming more like the 19th century Knights of Labor than the CIO or AFL, suggested Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson. Community must become the new density’ of American labor movement,” argued American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, offering an alternative to the metric usually seen as all-important by unions, the percentage of workers in a particular workforce that belongs to a union. We can’t rely on the workplace alone.” And Georgetown University history professor Joseph McCartin proposed linking public employee unions and the community in a strategy of bargaining for the common good.”

  • Turn to new forms of organizing when needed, such as the Texas Workers Defense Project (a workers’ center), Working Washington (a branch of the Fight for Fifteen), Working America, the Freelancers Union, OUR Walmart, the National Guestworker Alliance, or more broadly, members-only unions—also referred to as minority” or pre-majority” unions. We need new models of unions for the 21st century,” Weingarten said. It may be many models.” But Paul Booth, assistant to the president of AFSCME, which represents public sector workers, struck one dissenting note, arguing that earlier initiatives, such as the Organizing Institute that trains new organizers, had helped make conventional union organizing much more successful than people acknowledged, in large part because new growth had been swamped by losses from globalization and other forces eliminating previously unionized jobs. What’s most needed, he said, are workers and unions willing to take risks and make long-term commitments. 

  • Use government at all levels, including municipalities, to raise standards for workers: Examples include Seattle’s Retail Workers Bill of Rights, employer neutrality during organizing on publicly-supported projects (like airports), higher living and minimum wages, and what might be called local forms of industrial policy. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economys work with port truck drivers to clean up the environment and form a union among workers wrongly classified as independent contractors was highlighted, as well as another broad alliance of unions and community, environment and economic development groups called Jobs to Move America that attempts to use local transit funding to encourage passenger rail and bus manufacturing in the U.S.

  • Change the political culture — of unions and the country: Bring back the labor question,” says Richard Yeselson, a veteran labor strategist, in political discourse. Make the place, the power and the rights of workers at the center of political debate as it was roughly a century ago amid talk of making the U.S. an industrial democracy.” Mark Brenner, director of Labor Notes, found common ground with other panelists’ emphasis on democracy and member mobilization. Advocating organizing that never stops,” he proposed that unions train one activist (say, a shop steward) for every ten members, or about 1.3 million highly trained rank-and-file educators and mobilizers of the current 13 million union members to take action for their own needs and recruitment of new members. 

  • In the process of organizing, says Dan Schlademan, director of OUR Walmart, the labor movement may have to redefine unions and strikes. OUR Walmart states it does not seek recognition as a union, but increasingly, in limited ways and in some stores, it acts like a union. Also, its strikes — like those of Fight for Fifteen — are less intended to stop production (or sales) than to build confidence of workers and support from the public. We are not going to wait for the government or Walmart to say we have a right to build organizations for workers,” Schlademan said. The only thing that should matter is whether workers want an organization.” Strategically, he added, we have to stop deciding what we can win and decide what we need to win, and we need to put our resources into organizing at the same level as politics. … We’re not going to legislate our way out of this crisis. We have to take bigger risks….We have the resources and the power. We just have to use it.”
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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