The U.S. Labor Movement: At a ‘Crossroads,’ or the Gallows?

Jake Blumgart

If something doesn’t give, in 30 years, there won’t be any labor movement left to discuss.

Steven Greenhouse has been here before.

Nearly a month after his retirement, the august former New York Times labor correspondent spoke to union staffers, labor journalists and sympathetic academics at the American Labor Movement at a Crossroads conference in Washington, D.C. The title, he notes, is strikingly similar to a similar event he held in 1982, while in law school at NYU (“The Labor Movement at the Crossroads”).

The title made more sense three decades ago. Today the New Deal model of unionism would be more aptly described as being at the gallows.

The speakers, for the most part, seem well aware of that. With the exception of an outlandishly upbeat opening speech from Secretary of Labor Tom Perez — The arc of the moral universe bends towards those who want to expand opportunity!” — the conference seemed to take its inspiration from the evident end of the 20th century union model.

Conferences of this type lend themselves to pontifications on the evergreen question what is to be done?” — an exercise that often leads to presentations full of banalities. For the most part, such presentations were mercifully missing at the conference. A panel on community-labor alliances proved apt at naming everything the shrinking labor movement should be supporting, but provided precious little insight into how it can be expected to pay to ramp up such campaigns. On an earlier panel, the immanently quotable president of SEIU Local 775, David Rolf described the need for new forms of labor organizing. 

The old model isn’t coming back,” Rolf said. Many of us in the labor movement have been waiting for that mythical pendulum to swing back since sometime in the 1980s.” Rolf later told In These Times that Workers Lab, a program he helped form to fund innovative new organizing efforts, had begun making decisions about which proposals it would fund.

In terms of actual ideas, minority unionism seemed to hold the greatest hope — even if many attendees would probably have preferred that it didn’t.

Currently, American labor law requires exclusive representation” across the nation: workers can be represented by only one union per bargaining unit, and it must represent everyone after being voted in by a majority of workers. But exclusive representation has been under assault almost since its inception. The Taft-Hartley Act landed the first blow, allowing states to establish right-to-work laws permitting private sector workers to refuse dues to a union (although the union is still required to represent them). 

Last year’s Harris v. Quinn Supreme Court decision seems to bring a similar challenge in the public sector. Currently, union members who do not want to pay full dues (or, presumably in most cases, pay anything at all to a union) do not have to officially join the union, but must contribute agency fees” to compensate the union for the resources it is legally required to expend on their behalf. But Justice Samuel Alito expressed disdain for this standard in Harris V. Quinn. Once he secures the necessary votes, it is very likely right-to-work will be coming to the public sector.

Minority unionism would grant workers the right to join a union even if the total number of union supporters does not represent a majority of the workplace. The union, meanwhile, would only have to bargain for and represent those workers who support it. This would allow private sector unions to escape from the bind created by right-to-work laws under exclusive representation while eliminating one of the more unpopular and confusing aspects of contemporary labor law — the requisite membership required of those who may be opposed to the very idea of a union. Some scholars believe the NLRB could easily tweak its standards to allow for private sector minority unionism; non-federal public sector workers are regulated by state-level laws, which would have to be amended state-by-state to allow for such arrangements.

The very fact that minority unionism is a hot topic of discussion at a D.C. labor conference is a sign of how badly organized labor’s hopes have been dashed. The architects of New Deal labor law pushed for majority representation and exclusive bargaining because a union that speaks for the entire workplace is likely to have more influence and can generate enough resources to fund both organizing and political campaigns. But the spread of right-to-work laws, the likely end of agency fees, and the members-only Local 42 that the UAW recently formed in Chattanooga seems to have forced establishment leaders and intellectuals to grapple with the idea.

University of California-Irvine law professor Catherine Fisk spoke longest in favor of minority unionism. (A small swarm of admirers hovered around her at the podium after her panel.) But her pitch was coached in ambivalence.

Members-only unionism is better than no unionism and that’s the choice we face — it’s not like we can just turn our backs on right-to-work,” Fisk told the audience. I’m not advocating members-only bargaining as though it were the best strategy in an ideal world. It’s not. There’s a reason why people smarter than I am decided in the early 1930s to enshrine majority unionism and exclusive representation. But we don’t live in that world anymore.”

The NLRB has not hinted that they will be altering labor standards to accommodate minority unions. But the Chattanooga UAW local could force the issue. There are also several states where public workers now have to labor in conditions that could allow for such a model. In 2011, Tennessee banned exclusive representation for teachers and now requires members-only bargaining. Fisk calls it a terrific natural experiment.” 

Minority unionism is the norm in other nations, such as New Zealand. In 2010, academics Mark Harcourt and Helen Lam performed a comparative study between the two nations and estimated that minority unionism could raise U.S. membership rates by as much as 30 percent. And in his new book, labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan argues that such unions could actually produce a more militant and powerful labor movement, as unions would not have to worry about pleasing ambivalent or anti-union members and could focus exclusively on representing strong union supporters.

But few other experts seem to share such optimistic analyses. The takeaway from Labor at a Crossroads seems to be that the remnants of the shattered American labor movement have been forced into a position where they just need to try something.

We should try [minority unionism]… Our method should be to fire a lot of bullets, not one big cannonball,” Rolf told In These Times after Fisk’s panel. I don’t know if minority membership is the answer, but it must be tried. We should look at things that have been tried elsewhere and things that have never been tried before, things we can prototype and test. The impulse to throw up a fortress” — a reference to conference panelist and veteran labor strategist Rich Yeselson’s recent argument for fortifying union strongholds until the next upsurge in worker militancy — and protect what we have is not how species service, we survive by adaption.”

Greenhouse did not offer any specific proposals in his speech, nor did he adopt the strong rhetoric of Rolf. But while his diagnosis was delivered in a measured tone, the message was just as bleak. He reviewed labor’s successes since he took over the New York Times labor beat, over ten years after the conference he organized on labor’s future. After ticking off some organizing and political successes in the subsequent years, he seemed to tacitly acknowledge that if something doesn’t give, there won’t be any need for a sequel conference 30 years from now — because there won’t be any labor movement left to discuss.

Last night I had dinner with a top labor official who said to me, We are at a moment in American history where the labor movement is weaker than ever before,’” Greenhouse concluded. “‘But never before — considering the position of American workers and wage stagnation — has there been a time when we need the labor movement more. There’s a lot of frustration among American workers, …a lot of anger and alienation. The question is how can that anger, upset, dismay be converted into an effort to create a fairer America?’”

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher based in Philadelphia. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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