Decades after its passage, the Taft-Hartley Act still casts a shadow on labor. Unions have a future—but only if they accept some difficult realities.
So to carefully plot a campaign in a union office in Washington whose goal is to organize 10,000 to 20,000 workers—even 50,000 workers—in two to four years doesn’t result in meaningful union growth. That’s too small a number of workers within a workforce of more than 140 million people to generate such an increase, unless the number is replicated dozens of times over in several different industries and sectors. But this is economically and logistically impossible for unions to do; organizing the workers (if the union ever does) takes too much time, and it costs too much in money and staff resources to try to do so over that long period of time.
I’m not saying that the era of the comprehensive campaign was wasted. Unions are, and were, desperate to stem decline, and the campaigning strategy responded creatively to the problem, with some substantial victories to its credit. Comprehensive campaigns were worth a try. But we’re 30 years into them now, and they haven’t worked on a scale sufficient to reverse the trend. Unions have undertaken a natural experiment in whether large multiyear, comprehensive campaigns can significantly increase union density. They can’t. Labor should pocket whatever successes the campaign era brought and move on.
Waiting for the Next Mass Movement
So what is to be done? I propose what I call “Fortress Unionism.” (I am speaking here only about private-sector unions, which face a deep crisis. Public-sector unions have their own well-known dilemmas, but require a completely different discussion.) Fortress Unionism would buttress the remaining strengths of labor. The fortress would remain open; labor’s effort to build coalitions with other progressive forces should continue. Unions, however, should not undertake long, expensive comprehensive campaigns outside their core areas of strength. Today, less would be more. In sum:
Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies. They include, respectively: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, and New York City; the auto industry, large supermarket chains, several hospital chains, building services in major cities, and convention-sized hotels in major cities; UPS (Teamsters), and the telecom companies (Communications Workers). Strong labor movements in metropolitan areas are especially important to sustain, as they are labor-liberal bulwarks of economic and political strength. The labor movement has been particularly effective in jointly mobilizing with Latinos in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. There is no contradiction between organizing around class issues and so-called “identity politics.” It was called something else then, but identity politics as part of union organizing has been around since the first German-American and Irish-American workers unionized in antebellum New York and Philadelphia.
Strengthen existing union locals. Many local unions have atrophied. Staff and a cohort of committed members often run local unions on behalf of a large silent majority of members, who view union membership as something like an insurance policy, paid for by their union dues, rather than a rank-and-file driven activist organization. Train more workers and hire more staff to enforce contracts and teach workers their rights. Invest heavily in worker education programs, everything from knowledge about occupational safety and health to labor history courses. Workers who feel connected and engaged with their local union will someday help organize new members.
Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds? Try, for example, to organize remaining nonunion casinos in the labor powerhouse of Las Vegas. (The Culinary Workers Union in Vegas is, arguably, the strongest, most militant local union in the country.) Continue “bargain to organize” efforts, in which unions gain new organizing rights as a condition of collective bargaining agreements for current members. But for the time being, do not try to organize, via multiyear campaigns, currently nonunion or de minimis union sectors.
Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations. Post-New Left egalitarians fill top leadership positions across the labor movement and are pushing the movement beyond the white-male iconography of the Taft-Hartley era. They have urged unions, with increasing success, to reach out to environmentalists, community organizations, immigration reformers, racial justice advocates, feminists, gay rights activists, and political reformers to pursue policy changes like limiting the filibuster and protecting voting rights. Unions should make the most of these alliances. They expose unions to creative thinking from outside of organized labor and put union money and staff to use behind important projects. Unions, whenever appropriate, should yield control to other organizations and advocates, and play a supporting and facilitative role. Labor’s time in the spotlight is during those great upsurges of high growth. This is not such a time.
Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America. Alt-labor is the name given to efforts to organize disparate workers outside the conventional one-union to one-workplace structure. The AFL-CIO’s 3.2 million-member Working America, led by legendary “9 to 5” organizer Karen Nussbaum, is the largest and best funded of these efforts. The logic of alt-labor is to find the potential leaders of tomorrow’s mass union organizing and organize them today around discrete, achievable demands. It’s exactly the right idea. As AFL-CIO president Trumka said in The Nation recently, “We hope that we will have the seed planted for people to understand the importance of collective action.” Seed away.
And then…wait. Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough. When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it.
That is how massive union growth occurs—workers take matters into their own hands and then unions capture that energy like lightning in a bottle. The workers risk their jobs, and sometimes even their lives, to form a union. It has happened this way all over the world. The workers will signal—loudly—when they want to organize.
In short, union growth occurs when working-class activism overwhelms the quotidian strictures of civil society, forcing political and economic elites to accept unionization as the price of civil peace. During episodes of massive union growth, the workers don’t confine themselves to the careful strategies of union staff—they disregard them, and force the union to play catch up. Conflict spreads quickly from worksite to worksite. If the Wal-Mart demonstrations in November 2012 had followed the pattern of the great railroad strike of 1877 or the 1894 Pullman strike or the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike or any other signature struggle of American labor history, it would have sparked unrest in stores all over the country. Win or lose, workers would have risked their jobs, maybe their physical well-being, and challenged private and public authority. In the summer of 1937, 18 workers died and dozens more were wounded in union-organizing-related violence, shot and beaten by company-hired private security and local police forces.
As the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized in opposition to the 1946 Oakland general strike, sustained worker activism disrupts “the orderly process of daily life.” This may sound melodramatic, but there is no substitute for it. And when the workers do signal, the existing unions and their memberships should stand ready to help. Unions were invented at the same time as modern capitalism. The system generates problems for employees that only collective representation (or the threat of it) can mitigate. An ostensibly democratic capitalism without unions is barely more thinkable than it would be without capitalists. The workers are willful when they want unions. Keep your eye on them. The unions will follow.
This article originally stated the Justice for Janitors campaign started in Los Angeles 23 years ago. It started 27 years ago in Pittsburgh and Denver. We regret the error.
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