If Labor’s Strategy Is as Good as Its Leaders Say, Why Are Unions in Crisis?

David Moberg

A recent panel featuring three major American labor leaders—Richard Trumka, Eliseo Medina, and Leo Gerard—seemed remarkably upbeat about labor's prospects despite the consistently dire news. (University of Chicago Institute of Politics).

Three labor leaders walked into a bar.

Okay, it wasn’t a bar. It was a slightly stuffy faculty club at the University of Chicago.

Three union leaders were invited to the university’s Quadrangle Club by David Axelrod, a former top campaign and White House advisor to President Barack Obama. Aiming to expand students’ political education by exposing them to seasoned practitioners, Axelrod founded the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago after he left Washington.

On Thursday night, current IOP fellow Eliseo Medina, a former United Farmworkers Union organizer and former vice-president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), joined AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Steelworkers Union president Leo Gerard to answer questions posed by New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, in an event titled Whither the Movement?” Given the recent Democratic electoral losses and labor’s lack of traction on most of its major tasks, the outlook from the Quad Club convivium was surprisingly upbeat (an assessment Trumka also gave the day after the midterms).

That may be partly because labor has seen recent glimmers of hope, such as the many low-wage movements that Trumka, seconded by Gerard, said would bring about a rebirth and reorganization of the economy of America.” 

After all, a few hours earlier, workers in one Walmart store in the southern California town of Crenshaw engaged in the first sit-down strike against the company. They carried banners with slogans from workers’ sit-down strikes of the 1930s against Woolworth’s, the Walmart of its day, which were remarkably similar to the contemporary demands at Walmart for full-time work, $15 an hour and an end to company retaliation against workers who speak out. Workers at another Walmart store in Pico Rivera went out on strike in support of the Crenshaw workers.

And in the Los Angeles-Long Beach Port, truck drivers went out on the fourth strike of the year, aiming to win recognition that virtually all of the drivers are indeed employees of the local trucking companies, not independent contractors. After a long struggle, two workers returned to their jobs this week under court orders that they be reinstated in their jobs and treated as employees. Among other things, that means that they would be eligible to unionize.

Neither Walmart workers, port drivers, fast food workers nor many other groups of workers who have engaged in innovative fights with their employers in recent years have won an official union structure. Most have been simply loose membership organizations at best — a fact that should perhaps temper any optimistic assessments of labor’s future prospect.

But they are generating more excitement and taking bigger gambles than most unions. At the same time, many established unions recognize their importance and are putting their resources into support of these non-union worker organizations, whether they become legal unions or not in the future.

If workers get together, struggle together, that’s a labor movement,” Medina said. That’s what we need — many ways to come together and fight together.”

Labor leaders used to try to convince workers that they needed existing unions, Trumka said. Now we try to make [ourselves] into what workers need us to be,” he said.

The three union leaders also seemed upbeat politically because, despite their losses in the mid-term, they are convinced that the political agenda for which they have advocated for years would bring the Democrats victory — if only the Dems would only take it seriously, both in campaigning and governing.

But the unanswered question for Trumka and the labor movement is this: If the labor movement has the correct strategy, why is the Democratic party repeatedly rejecting it — and what can labor and its allies do about it?

Trumka said that election polls, including those done for the AFL-CIO, demonstrated how important stagnant and declining wages were for voters, who overwhelmingly rejected Republican economic proposals but also did not hear a coherent message from Democrats. The Democrats ended up with a 12 percent margin among working people,” Trumka said, down from the 20 to 22 percent margin typical of elections when Democrats win.

People don’t know who’s representing them,” Gerard said. We need to convince the Democrats to start standing up for Main Street and stop standing up for Wall Street.” He praised the recent inclusion of Elizabeth Warren in the new Senate Democratic leadership.

Feeling more overwhelmed by money from corporations and wealthy donors on the Right, Trumka and Gerard strongly argued for public financing of elections, but Gerard said he would take election reform another step: Following the examples of Australia, Brazil, and some Scandinavian countries, he advocated for requiring citizens to vote.

To win such reforms, the labor movement has to go on the offense, Medina said, especially on organizing, fighting with whatever tools and organizational forms needed. If they want law of the jungle, we have to fight with that, too,” Medina said, referring to both right-to-work laws and other legislation Republicans favor to minimize worker rights and labor union security. But the labor movement cannot carry the elections by itself. The problems of the country are too big to be solved by just one group.” 

Trumka and Gerard agreed on the need to take the offense on education about the economy, on forming broader coalitions, and taking seriously labor’s responsibility to speak for all workers, not just its members. That includes the millions of immigrant workers here without legal papers, Trumka said, reinforcing the message of Medina, the leading labor movement advocate of immigration reform for many years.

The immigration system is broken,” Trumka said, not only abusing the immigrant workers but also driving down conditions for workers born in the United States. Even if Obama signs an executive order on deportation, a comprehensive law is still needed.

Trumka also touched on a highly sensitive issue that officials in a position such as his typically try to avoid: granting legitimacy to internal union democratic reform challenges. While taking questions from the audience, an agitated union member began complaining about how her local union leadership was not enforcing the contract or treating members fairly. 

Let me tell you what I did,” Trumka broke in, giving a brief account of Miners for Democracy and its fight for reform of the United Mineworkers. I am a product of that democracy,” he said. It’s your union and you have a right to make it work for you.”

On another broad issue, Greenhouse asked Gerard how he would respond to famed University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman’s argument that government intervention in the free market simply created more problems than it solved.

Bullshit!” replied Gerard, using a critical concept well-understood on the shop floor, if not always in the Quad Club. There is no such thing as a free market. All markets are managed by a set of rules. It’s a question of for whom they are managed. I’m not a raving socialist… well, I am a socialist, but I’m not raving. But what most people want is to work with dignity, to retire with dignity. That’s all people want.”

But Greenhouse asked the three leaders why so many working and middle class families, even those who were not union members, used to view union victories as vicarious victories for themselves. Now many — for example, in reaction to the battle between public employees and anti-union Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin — seem to see union victories as a threat, not something to support. Nobody seemed to have an answer. 

And that’s one of the big lingering, unanswered questions about future possibilities for labor to move forward. If labor’s strategy is as good as union leaders say it is, what is holding the movement back? Are the obstacles all external?

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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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