Issue #29, Summer 2013

Fortress Unionism

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.

On the night of June 20, 1947, President Harry Truman gave a nationwide radio address about the most pressing domestic issue facing the country: the deepening conflict between management and organized labor. Truman’s address publicly explained his veto earlier that day of the Taft-Hartley Act. Taft-Hartley (known formally as the Labor-Management Relations Act) was named after its two Republican co-sponsors: Congressman Fred Hartley of New Jersey, and Robert Taft, the powerful senator from Ohio and possible 1948 presidential candidate. The law was the consummation of a decade-long effort by Republican politicians, aided by Southern Democrats, business executives, and conservative writers to limit the power of the increasingly aggressive labor movement. The bill easily passed both houses of Congress, as an almost unanimous phalanx of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats crushed the opposition of liberal Northern Democrats and a couple of maverick Republicans. Truman had made little effort to impede it.

Truman generally supported unions. But he also hated the idea that strong unions could disrupt the American economy and defy his wishes. An enraged Truman had recently threatened striking railway workers with conscription. He despised John L. Lewis, the bellicose, eloquent, and supremely powerful leader of the United Mine Workers of America. As the President wrote in a 1949 letter, he “wouldn’t appoint John L. Lewis dogcatcher.”

Yet Truman and his key advisers like Clark Clifford realized that they would need labor to win what was expected to be a tough election campaign the next year. Thus, the President gave a powerful speech defending unions and attacking the bill. Truman told the nation that Taft-Hartley was “a shocking piece of legislation” that “is unfair to the working people of this country. It clearly abuses the right, which millions of our citizens now enjoy, to join together and bargain with their employers for fair wages and fair working conditions. Under no circumstances could I have signed this bill.”

Senator Robert Wagner, the chief sponsor of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), was ill at the time, but he vowed that he would risk his life to cast a vote to sustain the veto if needed. It was not. The Senate easily overrode Truman’s veto, by a vote of 68-25. The next day, The New York Times front page featured a banner headline of the law’s passage, a large picture of Taft and Hartley, and no less than six articles about labor issues and strikes. Five days later, Lloyd Taft, one of Robert Taft’s four sons, got married in Cincinnati. Union pickets surrounded the church. One of the placards held aloft, addressing the groom, read: “CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU. _________________ TO YOUR OLD MAN”—the blank line conveying labor’s graphic wishes for the elder Taft.

That the Taft-Hartley Act generated such anger was not at all surprising. Unions and their allies called the act a “slave labor bill” or, in Lewis’s view, even a symptom of incipient fascism. Battles between labor and management roiled the country from coast to coast. The “labor question” generated perhaps more controversy than the debate over Obamacare has today. Republicans will have to seek to overturn Obamacare for another 20 years or so before they match labor’s determination to undo key portions of Taft-Hartley; and yet, even with its deep penetration in the workforce at the time, even at the apex of LBJ’s enormous Democratic congressional majority, labor could not repeal a comma of it.

With the long decline of the labor movement has come a parallel decline in our historical memory of its once-extraordinary influence, and of the effort to curtail that influence. Books about Truman give only passing mention to the most contentious law passed during his presidency. Taft, the son of a President and a man who might have become President himself, is barely remembered. And it is unimaginable today that a President would give a national address vociferously defending labor unions.

Ancient history? Maybe—but it’s also crucial history whose direct consequences labor and the country live with today. Taft-Hartley didn’t destroy labor. But it stopped labor dead in its tracks at a point when unions were large, growing, and confident of their economic and political power; when unions really were what The Wall Street Journal still laughably calls “big labor.” The law codified a series of legal land mines—some of which didn’t detonate for decades—that forced unions to weigh the political and economic costs of doing anything too aggressive in their efforts to grow, and, indeed, to begin fighting many rearguard actions to protect the gains they had already made. Without Taft-Hartley, it’s easy to imagine a continued increase in union density rather than a flattening followed by a gradual and then dramatic decline. Today, only 11.3 percent of American workers are unionized—and just 6.6 percent of the private sector, a level not seen since the early twentieth century.

What is the relevance of all this to today? Well, Taft-Hartley isn’t going anywhere. Its land mines still detonate. And it still defines the legal and political context in which labor must operate as it tries to map out a strategy for the future. An aggressive organizing strategy, of the sort labor attempted when John Sweeney took the helm of the AFL-CIO, just doesn’t work because the smart union strategists can’t compensate for a mostly (though not entirely) uninterested working class. But labor can, without undertaking lengthy and expensive campaigns to organize new sectors, work to buttress the areas in which it is already strong, extend its alliances with other progressive groups, and even train the worker leaders of tomorrow. I call this “Fortress Unionism,” and I believe it’s labor’s best play until the day arrives, if it ever does, when the workers themselves militantly signal that they want unions.

The Power of Postwar Unions

It is difficult for a reader today to grasp how big a deal the labor movement was in postwar America—how much people, in support or opposition to unions, deeply cared about them. To understand this passion, we need to recall how rapidly unions had grown, and how often they undertook strikes. Contrasting the diminished strength of today’s labor movement against the stunning power of its postwar antecedent is thus necessary (and fascinating) so that we can also understand why, and in what precise ways, the most powerful sectors of the American polity sought to cut unions down to size.

In just the decade after the NLRA passed in 1935, union membership quadrupled from almost 3.6 million to more than 14.3 million workers. During this period, American labor dominated the daily life of much of the nation and drew the obsessive concern of politicians and the press. Even some Southern states had union membership percentages in the high teens—statewide numbers that would be among the highest in the nation today but were among the smallest then. In a six-month period in 1937 alone—the year of the great sit-down strike at General Motors (GM) in Flint, Michigan—the CIO signed up two million workers in a nation with a population of about 130 million.

After a brief lull at the start of the 1940s, union membership rose meteorically during World War II. A month after Pearl Harbor, union leaders met with President Roosevelt and agreed to a no-strike pledge; in return, the unions received compulsory government arbitration of disputes. As the war dragged on, workers (if not always with their union’s consent) violated the no-strike pledge, but the government’s all-powerful War Labor Board squeezed employers to quickly approve union organizing and contract demands. Thus union membership grew even larger.

At war’s end, nonunion and union workers feared that the end of war-driven production that had halted the Depression would result in a return to high unemployment. Workers also worried about increased inflation as Truman considered ending wartime wage and price controls. With the loss of constant overtime, take-home pay in several sectors declined by 30 percent. Economic observers—and, according to polls, the American people—believed that a postwar America might return to Depression conditions.

The American labor movement responded to these uncertainties with the greatest strike wave in the history of the United States. It started almost immediately after the war and continued right through 1946. Clerical workers walked out at the citadel of capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange. About 68,000 textile workers struck in the East, while 35,000 oil-refinery workers struck across seven states. In the Northwest, 40,000 lumber workers struck. In the Midwest, it was 70,000 Teamsters. In Oakland, a strike that started at the loading docks of two downtown department stores spread quickly to include 100,000 workers who effectively halted the city’s commerce and services for two days—the most dramatic general strike of several during the period.

At the end of 1945 and into 1946, 225,000 autoworkers struck GM—this was the great 113-day strike the brilliant leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Walter Reuther, used as an effort to bring European style co-determination to American labor-management relations. In spring 1946, 350,000 of Lewis’s mineworkers struck. Some 750,000 steelworkers struck for 25 days, the most workers ever engaged in a single work action. At one point, 1.6 to 1.8 million workers were on strike simultaneously.

All in all, about 10 percent of the entire American workforce withheld their labor in 1946. There were about 5,000 separate work stoppages involving about 4.6 million workers. This is over six times the number of workers involved in work stoppages over the entire eight-year period from 2005 to 2012, according to figures from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, this at a time when the country had about one-third of the current nonagricultural workforce. To imagine this kind of union militancy today is to imagine 14 million workers striking in a single year.

Republicans ran hard against the strike wave during the 1946 midterm elections under the slogan “Had enough?” The GOP won substantial majorities in both houses and, with the support of Democratic conservatives in the South, moved to pass a new labor restriction bill. While Truman suggested mild changes in labor law, and proposed a labor-management commission, the leaders of America’s unions unconditionally opposed any and all limitations. This proved to be a strategic mistake, as the midterm election demonstrated that, even as the strike wave proved labor’s power (or perhaps because the strike wave proved labor’s power), it did not command sufficient support for maintaining the status quo. Leaders in the news media (including the publishers of almost every major newspaper), the business community, the Federal Reserve Board, the Republican Party, small businesses, and large corporations alike shared a determination to roll back union advances.

Thus the paradox that at the high-water mark of its power and size, the labor movement generated an even more powerful backlash from the nation’s power elite, which was augmented by an obsessive determination from the white South to make its region as union-free as possible. Southern elites, led by their nearly unified bloc in both houses of Congress, feared an ongoing alliance between labor and the first signs of a sustained African-American civil-rights movement, fueled by the return from the war of African-American soldiers newly emboldened to seek justice. The CIO, observing the same phenomenon, hopefully launched “Operation Dixie” in 1946, a well-funded effort to organize throughout 12 Southern states. Southern elites ruthlessly race-baited, red-baited, and intimidated poor black and white workers. Operation Dixie failed dismally, only making the Southern bloc more determined to stop unions in the region. Ira Katznelson, the great historian and political scientist, has called this implacable opposition of the South to African-American rights and the labor movement “the Southern cage.”

The Effects of Taft-Hartley

Congress held several months of hearings on the Taft-Hartley bill that were dominated by a cast of business leaders. Though the reputation of America’s executives had been battered by the Depression, they regained much of their standing by contributing to the war effort, and pleaded effectively for an end to constant commercial disruptions. Taft shrewdly played good cop to Hartley’s bad cop. The Hartley bill that came out of the House was more onerous than Taft’s Senate version. Hartley’s bill would have banned industry-wide bargaining. That would have immediately affected the national contracts that large unions like the Auto Workers and Steelworkers sought from the biggest companies in their sectors. Hartley’s bill would also have banned the union shop nationally (rather than leave it to the states, as the enacted legislation ultimately did). By modifying the bill somewhat, Taft protected it from a coalition of a small number of Republican iconoclasts joining with Democratic liberals who tried but failed to sustain Truman’s veto.

Many scholars have noted that, for the most part, Taft-Hartley did not do the frightening things that unions feared, thus disappointing its business supporters. The law merely codified case and administrative law precedents rather than introduce dramatic new transformations. Union membership dipped a tiny bit, but stayed close to its postwar high for another 20 years or so. These analyses capture part of the truth, but miss the larger point about the bill’s significance. The NLRA had been passed with the explicit goal of increasing unionization and with the understanding that unions were the democratic institutions of working-class self-organization. Taft-Hartley conceived of unions much differently, as merely a large special interest, dangerous to prosperity and stability if left unchecked. Taft-Hartley thus stands as a benchmark for labor’s inability to gain the respectful acceptance of the nation’s cultural, economic, and political elite. The bill cordoned off an aggressive, confident labor movement and enabled its subsequent decimation. To paraphrase the British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s famous 1978 line about the British labor movement, Taft-Hartley (and the almost simultaneous failure of Operation Dixie) halted the forward march of labor in America.

There are many provisions of Taft-Hartley, and the law’s scholars have argued about what the most significant ones are. I list below those that, in my view, had the most far-reaching impact:

Right to work: Probably the most well known of the bill’s clauses today, and the one that labor sought for decades to repeal. Taft resisted Hartley’s effort to eliminate union security clauses nationally. But the law permitted individual states to pass “right to work” laws. These gave workers the right not to pay union dues or an equivalent fee for union services and representation. Within five years of the law’s passage, most of the former Confederacy had passed such laws. In the states where such laws exist, they force unions to spend a good deal of administrative time pressing workers to pay dues voluntarily, even though workers know that they will receive the benefits of a union contract whether or not they pay. “Right to work” made it that much more difficult for unions to organize throughout the South, and is now legal in 24 states.

Employer’s right of free speech: Initially, the NLRA sought to make union organizing a “neutral” process, whereby workers could choose, without employer coercion, whether to have a collective bargaining agent (the union) or not. Employers kept pressing for free-speech rights, and Taft-Hartley finally codified those rights, as long they did not amount to a “threat of reprisal” or a “promise of benefit.” This undermined unionism as an independent self-executing institution of workers and made it subject to the objections of the employer. The right of employer free speech ensured that the party that signs employees’ checks—the employer—would have the most influence. From this spawned a billion-dollar a year industry of “union avoidance” consultants and law firms.

The banning of secondary boycotts: Secondary boycotts were an especially effective tactic by which workers at a company not directly involved in a labor dispute could refuse to handle goods from another firm embroiled in a union fight. The Teamsters had used this strategy to great effect in organizing much of the trucking industry. There are some loopholes in the restriction that allow unions to work around it, but Taft-Hartley caused a vast decline in its use.

The exclusion of foremen and supervisors from labor law: This is one of the least remembered provisions today, but one of the most consequential. At the time of the bill’s passage, the Foreman’s Association of America was growing rapidly and had aligned itself with the CIO. Theoretically, front-line supervisors who did not set company policy could join forces with the unionized workers they ostensibly bossed. Employers viewed this practice, as historian Nelson Lichtenstein notes, as nothing short of “industrial anarchy.” The banishment of the supervisors’ organization flipped these midlevel employees back to the side of the employer and ensured that, in subsequent decades, millions of employees in emerging white-collar segments of the economy would be statutorily denied the right to unionize.

The non-Communist affidavit: Today, we would call this provision the creation of a wedge issue designed to provoke intra-union conflict. Taft-Hartley required officers of unions to sign an affidavit asserting that they were not Communists, either by affiliation or belief. If the officers did not comply, their unions would lose the right of standing before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). At the time of the bill’s passage, perhaps one million workers were affiliated with unions controlled by or sympathetic to the Communist Party. Communist trade unionists were, indeed, followers of the Moscow line, but were also cutting-edge supporters of union militancy and civil rights. Many union leaders, including non-Communists, saw the affidavits as odious and opposed them (in 1965, the Supreme Court held them to be unconstitutional). But others, like Reuther, who was fighting a strong Communist faction within the UAW, avidly pressed for compliance. The more conservative unions of the AFL supported the affidavit clause, as it pressured and embarrassed its rival, the more radical CIO, with which almost all the Communist unions were affiliated. Thus the affidavit, as Lichtenstein put it, “depoliticized” labor, “curbed inter-union solidarity,” and was a factor that led to the expulsion of 11 Communist-influenced unions from the CIO in 1950.

The passage of Taft-Hartley encapsulated the geographical, numerical, and ideological boundaries of American unionism. Labor protested the bill and not only at the wedding of Lloyd Taft. More than 100,000 marched in protest in New York City. The UAW and other unions engineered a massive work stoppage and rally in Detroit, each drawing hundreds of thousands. Still, union leaders such as Phillip Murray, the president of the CIO, chose not to attempt more militant and long-running protests; there would be no repeat of the 1945-46 strike wave in opposition to Taft-Hartley. Union workers were strong, and could strike by the millions. But they were not strong enough to repeal a federal law supported by most of the country’s most powerful people.

Business leaders and their political allies obviously feared the nationally famous union “bosses” like Lewis and Reuther who, with a single command, might order hundreds of thousands of workers to paralyze a major industry. Yet they perhaps feared one possibility even more: that those same workers might be unrestrained even by their leadership and might create civil unrest themselves. The obstacles that Taft-Hartley put before bosses and rank and file alike were simple in the way that pouring honey over a butterfly is simple. Taft-Hartley bureaucratized labor unions. Unions required more and more lawyers—and more and more union stewards adept at labor law—to untangle the welter of laws, board decisions, judicial decisions, and contractual obligations that now ensnared the modern labor organization. This pervasive legalistic framework made the labor titans increasingly cautious, and it drained the energy and creativity out of the members and their rank-and-file leadership—the idea was to wait for the lawyers to tell them what would fly before the NLRB or the courts. A Lewis who could close the coal mines and defy the President and the courts was a great danger. Thousands of Oakland bus drivers, dockworkers, and retail clerks taking over the city were a less likely but even greater danger. Taft-Hartley unmistakably signaled that anti-union political, economic, and cultural elites could contain both the leaders and their ranks. The bill shaved a risk-taking edge off labor that, perhaps, it didn’t realize it needed until subsequent moments of institutional crisis, like Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air-traffic controllers in 1981.

The Failure of Comprehensive Campaigns

So, what is to be done? What can be done? Recently, the distinguished historian of labor Melvyn Dubofsky wrote a disquieting essay, “Does Organized Labor Have a Future?” for the journal Logos. Dubofsky—who thinks that the baneful influence of Taft-Hartley on labor has been overplayed—walks the reader through all the reasons, both external and self-inflicted, that American unions have declined: the containment, which Taft-Hartley abetted, of the movement to the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast; globalization; automation; the failure to embrace women and workers of color more quickly; labor racketeering, and, just as important, government and corporate accusations of labor racketeering; the vehement opposition of employers and the implicit and explicit support for that opposition from the government—for example, the firing of the air-traffic controllers.

In answer to the question posed by his title, Dubofsky concludes: probably not. He writes, “Given the current alignment of forces domestically and globally, I find it hard to conceive of any tactics or broader strategy through which the labor movement might re-establish its former size, place, and power.”

I think Dubofsky is right about labor’s crisis today (if, in other work, too dismissive of the impact of Taft-Hartley), but, lest his remark sound fatalistic, it’s important to understand exactly what he means. Dubofsky is not saying the labor movement is doomed. Rather, he is saying that its current institutional expression—today’s existing unions—cannot, via a creative conceptual breakthrough (“tactics or broader strategy”), engender a vast growth in union strength comparable to its former peak. In short, “organized labor” can no longer create a space for workers to join their organizations by the millions—but the workers themselves might.

Before getting to what could someday succeed, we have to understand what hasn’t succeeded. And we have to define what success would mean. I use the word in the sense that, I think, most of the smartest union members, union staff, and union officers use it. Success would be to organize enough workers so that union density increases significantly, or at least keeps pace with workforce growth.

The decades-long decline in density, despite gargantuan efforts by many in labor, is the surest sign that Dubofsky is right. For the past 30 years, and with even greater intensity since 1995, when SEIU President John Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO pledging internal reform that would spur aggressive growth, unions have created ingenious “comprehensive campaigns” to organize new members and defend existing units. These campaigns sidestepped the legal limitations Taft-Hartley had put on unions by engaging corporate issues not directly pertaining to worker’s wages, benefits, and working conditions. They analyzed every facet of a company’s business strategy—not merely its labor-relations policies, but also its relationships to key institutional shareholders, the litigation and regulatory proceedings the firm faced, its plans to expand or dispose of key subsidiaries—in an effort to focus public and shareholder attention on the entirety of its business model and record of corporate citizenship.

Some of these campaigns led to significant victories, resulting in the organizing of thousands of workers. The SEIU’s brilliantly conceived “Justice for Janitors” (J4J) campaign, which launched in Pittsburgh and Denver 27 years ago and spread to a couple dozen cities around the country, used “street” tactics, such as civil disobedience and sophisticated challenges to zoning ordinances, to make commercial real-estate owners accountable for their janitorial staffs. As a result, SEIU’s urban janitorial workers have increased their standard of living and bargaining power. A particularly noteworthy victory in 2006 was the organizing of 5,000 janitors in Houston, one of the most important union victories in the South in decades.

Yet even the J4J model has proven unable to stop labor’s slide. Despite Sweeney’s 1995 pledge, private-sector unionism has shrunk 40 percent since then. It has continued to decline under his dynamic successor, Richard Trumka. In 2005, several large, aggressive organizing unions, including the SEIU and the Teamsters, grew impatient with labor’s continued deterioration under the Sweeney administration and left the AFL-CIO to form an alternative federation, Change to Win. The breakaway federation promised to put together organizing campaigns targeting 500,000 workers in its first year. Despite the hard work of its staff (which included me from 2005 to 2011), it has never come remotely close to achieving that goal, and overall union membership continues its downward trend.

The Difficulty of Organizing Today

The sheer logistics of organizing workers in major economic sectors today is vastly different than it was 75 years ago. The GM plants at Flint, Michigan, site of the famous sit-down strike that riveted the nation, employed 47,000 workers in 1937—about as many workers as the number of janitors that J4J has organized in its 23 years. That was about 10 percent of all of the autoworkers in the nation then. Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn was even larger: It employed 60,000 workers in peacetime, 80,000 during the war. Today? Just 6,000.

So organizing GM in Flint alone meant that the UAW gained a substantial foothold in the most important industry of mid-twentieth-century America. No city’s cohort of janitors or any other category of workers can have an impact remotely like that. Consider Wal-Mart, today’s socioeconomic parallel to the great car and steel companies of that time, the quintessential corporation of our historical moment. It is said that we have a “Wal-Mart economy” today in the same way we had a “Fordist economy” at midcentury. Wal-Mart employs about 1.4 million in the United States, about 1 percent of the entire workforce, a bit lower than the ratio that the auto workers represented in the U.S. workforce of 1940. The difference is that Wal-Mart has more than 4,200 stores in America today, and GM and Ford together had perhaps 160 auto plants in 1940. The auto plants of that day averaged perhaps 2,500 workers each. Steel plants were similarly large; Wal-Mart stores average about 300 workers. Given that Wal-Mart’s anti-union animus is as fierce as that of the great carmakers during the Depression, it would be as difficult today to organize a single store of 300 as it was then to organize a giant auto plant. The recent courageous activism of several hundred workers at Wal-Mart stores around the country only underscores the overwhelming challenge of organizing the entire company.

The even larger problem, however, is the theory implicit behind the comprehensive campaign model. Even though unions naturally want to win these campaigns as quickly as possible, they undertake these fights assuming that any one of them could go on for years, or, like J4J, remain “on line” for decades as an incremental expediter of union growth.

The trouble with this kind of thinking is not only that the opportunity costs increase greatly the longer the campaign lasts (Andy Stern, the former president of SEIU, has observed that it can cost up to $3,000 to organize just one worker in the private sector). More important is this: No successful labor movement anywhere in the Western world has ever significantly expanded its membership in this kind of slow but steady fashion. Harvard labor economist Richard Freeman demonstrated this in his important 1998 essay, “Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes.” Since the late nineteenth century, private-sector union growth has occurred only in large “spurts” in almost every advanced Western country during roughly the same historical periods (he identifies five, the most recent ending in 1945). During all other periods, union membership erodes. And Freeman further demonstrates that the process happens from the “bottom up,” not the “top down.” The National Labor Relations Act didn’t trigger worker militancy. Worker militancy triggered the passage of the act.

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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Melvyn Dubofsky:

Aside perhaps from our disagreement about the impact of the Taft-Hartley Act, Rich Yeselson and I mostly agree about the trajectory of the American labor movement over the past three quarters of a century, its current plight, and its future prospects. I would add just two suggestions to Yeselson's autopsy of the contemporary labor movement. First, although he is right about the episodic or wave-like aspects of union growth, it takes more than a readiness by workers to act to set labor in motion. Most often as happened in Flint in 1937 and elsewhere, it takes a militant minority to move the mass. In the past that militant minority tended to come most often from parties of the left or radical movements such as syndicalism or what I might call labor/worker Populism. Where will such sparkplug unionists emerge from today and tomorrow. Second workers unbound by union contracts, today the great mass of employees, have broader rights to engage in direct action, that is to strike, than employees bound by union contracts whose right to strike has been effectively curtailed by judicial rulings.

Let me also note a final irony, Taft-Hartley rather than being a totally separate piece of legislation was instead a series of amendments to the NLRA (Wagner Act, whose preamble remained part of the law), many of which were proposed and/or vetted by AFL leaders and their attorney in the late 1930s.

Jun 11, 2013, 4:14 PM
Steven Mayer:

Two questions:
Is it correct to say the decline of the middle class since the 1980s parallels the decline of unions?
Is there a cause/effect relationship?

Jun 11, 2013, 10:10 PM
Cato Uticensis:

This was an interesting read, but I have to disagree with the conclusions you've reached.

We already have fortress unionism. It's the current state of affairs, and it's wholly unacceptable. The 'fortress' has already been breached in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana, and we are being stabbed in the back by our putative allies in Philadelphia and Chicago. The notion that you can just turtle up and wait until worker militancy increases is not a winning strategy. We do not have sufficient resources to hold back the onslaught of capital against us in the North. Only by forcing capital to divert resources to protect its strongholds in the South and parts of the West can you alleviate pressure on the union states.

Labor's future is in the South. Multiple unions need to pool resources to organize entire Southern cities. Have the organizers work for CLCs and create federal locals that affiliate with an international after victory. Turn CLCs into social centers, resources to for nonunion workers to get advice about dealing with shitty bosses and HR or places to get support for protests against wage theft. If you start turning major Southern cities into union hotbeds, the effort becomes self-supporting, and the resources from the AFL-CIO can be shifted to other cities to repeat the process, which would force business interests to redouble their efforts back home and would reduce pressure against organize labor in places like Ohio or Michigan.

While I appreciate the work that went into this piece, the answer to 'what is to be done' is the same as it ever was: organize and fight.

Jun 12, 2013, 1:00 AM
Bill Morgan:

One more thing you neglected to add: Educate our youth. From kindergarten on to high school, ther should be labor studies progrms that explain what unions are, that chronicle the gains made for working families by the labor movement, and that discuss current labor-based initiatives and campaigns. This should be doable because: a) most teachers are unionized; b)state educational standards all include at leat allusions to the labor and other social justice movement, and c)nearly all kids in public schools come from working class families. I said educate, NOT brainwash. emphasis should be on critical thinking, cooperation, and analysis, so students can reach their own conclusions.

Jun 14, 2013, 6:50 PM
Jefferson Cowie:

This is a tight, galloping, survey of the decline of labor. But, two major premises of this piece, the importance of T-H and the idea of "fortress unionism" seem off the mark. If it was just T-H, then labor would have been able to come back and fight under Truman, JFK, LBJ, Carter, Clinton, or Obama. Labor law reform failed every time under all these administrations. We need to think about the historic weakness of organized labor while still accounting for the one-time Great Leap Forward of the thirties and forties. As for the future, one word: immigrants.

Jun 15, 2013, 8:03 AM
Street Heat:

One response to "Fortress Unionism"

Jun 15, 2013, 1:18 PM
Matt Schaaf:

Local UE506 Builds locomotives for General Electric at its' Erie, PA plant. The union is seeing over 1,000 of their jobs moved to Texas to a new locomotive plant GE built. The Erie plant is one of GE's most productive and profitable, however GE figure it can make more money re-establishing operations in right to work, low wage Texas and won't have to deal with pesky unions. After these 1,000 jobs disappear, there will be about 4,000 employees left at the plant. What their long term fate will be, no one knows. This is a tragic loss for the workers involved and the city of Erie which is already downtrodden after many companies relocated or simply went out of business in the last twenty years.

Jun 15, 2013, 1:30 PM
Steve Askin:

I'd quit right now, if I thought Rich's sad conclusion was correct. Today's unions will die unless we actively pour resource into building a movement of the impoverished unorganized. That doesn't mean old style shop-by-shop organizing. It does mean watering and nurturing the seeds of upsurge rather than passively sitting back and waiting for them to sprout. One great example is the fast food workers' rebellion which has spread coast to coast in just the last few months.

Jun 15, 2013, 3:12 PM
Rich Yeselson:

To my old friend Steve Askin, I respectfully say: I think you have misread the article. I proposed a full agenda that would keep you and your colleagues busy for several decades. My point is simply that people who say "labor will die unless it does something "really big" don't quite grasp how big that something has to be. Way way bigger than today's campaigns. So, I've got some ideas in the meantime. Realistically, understanding what is required for massive growth to occur isn't pessimism--it's hard headed analysis. To grow in already existing areas of strength would, in itself, require thousands of organizers and millions of dollars. Let alone to train the next generation of worker leaders and actually buttress today's weak local union structure. As I said, plenty to do for a long time to come.

To Melvin Dubofksky and Jefferson Cowie, two of the most brilliant and significant living historians: Yes, a militant minority is critical to building something bigger. There's no CP or ALP or other radical vehicles for that today. But, somehow, a small group of worker leaders must convince a larger group of peers to take risks they've never taken before on behalf of unionization. Per MD's point about non-union workers having more legal flexibility--yes indeed. In fact, it's very difficult for today's "mature" unions--will millions in building/pension fund assets--to take the institutional risks that the moment requires. They are in a sweet spot of weakness--too big to take large risks, too small to have much power in civil society or politics.

Per JC's point about subsequent failure to enact labor law reform: I'm not sure what is particularly surprising about this. The paradox here is a long standing one: when unions are strong enough to win enabling legislation, they need it least because they are so powerful in civil society. When they are desperately in need of protecting legislation, they are too politically weak to push it thru. Plenty of ways that T-H contributed to that weakness, won't rehearse that now. You also mentioned that you rejected the "fortress unionism" ideas, but didn't mention why. As for immigrants--yes, they are best chance to become the militant minority. Many are already experienced activists in very tough union and political conflicts in their native countries.

Jun 16, 2013, 4:12 PM
Lane Windham:

Yeselson may be correct that a solid defense is the labor movement's best move in 2013; nevertheless, there are two major considerations we should take into account as we have this discussion.

First, we should consier a broader definition of success than expanding union density. Who care is unions are big, so long as the movement makes this world a better place to live for workers and their families? Our goal is economic and social justice, not necessarily big unions. For example, the dominant narrative on the women's association 9to5 seems to be - "great idea, but they didn't succeed." Really? Yes, they did not make unions get bigger. But they helped put sexual harassment on the map as a workplace issue and helped transform the working experience for entire future generations of somen workers. Seems like a success to me.

(continued next post)

Jun 17, 2013, 8:55 AM
Lane Windham:

(continued from previous post)

Second, Yeselson highlights the big moments of union growth, and asserts that we should hang tight and "wait" for workers to drive such a moment. Do we really think workers built those growth moments out of the blue? These surges grew out of decades of patient and persistent organizing. The seed so the 1930s uprising were planted throughout the entire Progressive Era, starting in the late 19th century. Workers learned to form organizations, build broad coalitions, and that "success" would have to come through changes in federal law (a new paradigm then.)

Now is not the time to wait. Now is the time to understand that the unions in which all of us have been working for 20, 30, 40 years are specific creatures from the New Deal and Wagner Act, and that we need new creatures that are more fitting for the Wal-Mart economy that Yeselson describes so well. Yes, real change can't happen without worker activism and passion. But workers need structures and tools, and the ones that we are offering them today are the wrong shape and size. So what tools should we build building to support a new wave of worker power? That's the conversation I'd like to see us engaged in.

Jun 17, 2013, 8:55 AM

The militancy led to the Wagner Act, not the other way around. Most of the growth was post the Act actually being implemented, (after court challenges). Laws don't generate worker activism--worker activism generates laws.

Today, for example, the only way labor could obtain something like the Employee Free Choice Act would be thru a massive upsurge in activism/strikes/militancy. Your other point about planting the seeds is well taken--which is precisely what I argue re: training the leaders of tomorrow for today. This is quite clearly stated in the essay.

I think some readers so the "just wait" remark in my article, and that so annoyed them that they forgot what I wrote immediately above it. There's a large program outlined there, including, as I said, training leadership for future struggles. Plenty of work to occupy labor.

So, yes, Working America is precisely, Lane, one of the tools you wish we should have a "conversation" about. Which is precisely why I praised it in the essay!

Jun 17, 2013, 1:01 PM
Rich Yeselson:

Was writing quickly so want to clarify: most workers organized between 34-39 did so via recognition strikes, not the NLRB elections. Based on the historiography of the era, and Freeman's essay, one can make a strong argument that most of these workers organized under he Act, if not all, would have organized themselves anyway via recognition strikes, so potent was labor then in civil society.In short, the
NLRA ratified the power of labor, it did not create it.

Jun 17, 2013, 5:35 PM

Good advice, I do think you missed a very important component. In addition to the above strategy, a public relations campaign must be funded and followed for the foreseeable future. Labor cannot allow the disinformation campaign being waged against it to continue. It must create a stable of pundits, media personalities, think tanks, etc. to stem the attacks on labor. Bottom line, win the public back.

Jun 17, 2013, 7:39 PM
Evil Overlord:

One thing the article leaves by the wayside (as do many of the comments) is whether unions provide a useful service. The author notes that the working class is mostly uninterested. This may be because in many industries, unions are simply no longer needed. Instead of fighting about how to perpetuate them (without regard to purpose), why not consider whether they're still useful?

The author also notes that 'right to work' laws cause unions to spend great sums on administration. I'd mention from personal experience (admittedly with a public sector union), that 'fair share' requires transfer the burden to workers - in the form of annual hours of querying and form-filling in order to opt out and claim back (back!) the portion of funds used for political purposes (usually laughably small, despite unions' demonstrably aggressive political work). Why should workers pay in time or money for what benefits only the union? From that point of view, 'right to work' is a good thing. If that weakens unions, so be it. No other organization has such special privileges. Unions shouldn't have them anymore, and the more they defend them, the less popular they become, which over the long run weakens them, even if it props them up in the short run.

Jun 18, 2013, 11:04 AM
Tom van Haaren:

To some extent, I wonder why today's labor movement and its progressive allies shouldn't push for broader employment protections such as the right to know why you were dismissed or stronger overall disclosure of labor violations by companies (similar to health dept inspections).

I feel these measures might be easily supported by the general public in any referendum on the question. If workers see tangible benefits from the efforts of unions, the false employer arguments that unions just take dues and return nothing would be less effective.

Jun 18, 2013, 4:33 PM
Kate Bronfenbrenner :

Your argument is based on an assumption that unions have tried comprehensive campaigns in organizing and this model has failed. The problem with this argument is that it is not backed up by the numbers. Speaking as some who has done extensive research on organizing campaigns in the private and public sectors, both Board and non-Board, card check, elections, and voluntary recognitions I can tell you that only a small percentage of organizing, now or in the last 25 years has been done through comprehensive campaigns. Equally significant, even those unions that say they are engaging in comprehensive campaigns in most cases are not running what we would consider a comprehensive campaign but rather are throwing tactics against the wall and seeing if they'll stick. Some campaigns lack a worker or community component but simply consist of staff leveraging employers; others are community based but have nothing focused on the decision makers in the firm; even fewer have done serious strategic corporate research before the campaign, in fact the majority of lead organizers from ALL unions I have researched did not know the correct parent company for the company they had organized. As for the comprehensive campaigns that put everything together and do it right we only see a handful of those campaigns a year. However we used to see only one a year so it is an upward trend. This means rather than being a time to stop comprehensive campaigns this would be a time to increase education and resources devoted to convinces more unions to follow the full model. It is most important to understand how many unions are just starting to develop capacity to run comprehensive campaigns.

The other confusion in article was your assumption about where unions have support. For the last 20 plus years the units that are winning in every sector are those with low wage women, workers of color, especially immigrant and black women. They are changing the face and the focus of the labor movement. But these wins are NOT just in big cities. These workers have been organizing in large numbers in call centers, education, building services, health care, home care, and day care, and light manufacturing, much of it outside the big urban areas you talk about. Many of these jobs have also brought immigrants to the Midwest, Southeast and other otherwise rural white communities. The Towers don't make sense if those with the greatest propensity to organize are locked outside the Towers.

These are challenging times for the labor movement to be sure. But they are even more challenging for workers if the labor movement is limiting itself to a chosen few. This sounds a great deal more like the language of the AFL at the turn of the last century when it wanted to protect its ever shrinking pie than the vision and values of our current movement. It may be small but was at the forefront of the battle for immigrant rights, bank regulation, and other issues central to organized an unorganized workers but it is their newest members who been most active on these issues. Shutting them out would eliminate an important new voice in the political landscape-- up-and-coming black and immigrant women labor leaders.

If Walmart can be knocked off its game, along with the Fast Food Stores, by these women and the corporate media think its so dangerous they have to do a news blackout, why would we choose this time to shut any part of the movement down?

Jun 18, 2013, 8:37 PM
Rich Yeselson:

Well, hi Kate, nice to hear from you. To match your own brusqueness: your second point about non-urban organizing is interesting and suggestive, your first about comprehensive campaigns has zero merit. And your claim that my argument evokes the AFL in the first decade after its founding is just goofy and totally belied by what I actually wrote in the article.

Let's deal with that first point. Your argument is like that of the idealistic Marxists during the middle of the 20th century: sure, "actually existing socialism" is Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is pretty crappy, but **we haven't tried real socialism yet!** Similarly, you argue that its not that campaigns don't increase density, it's that they really haven't been tried yet! How long do we have to wait for comprehensive campaigns to deliver a huge spike in union growth, Kate? They've been around for 30 years, and, during that time, density has declined by 40%! You say that the unions aren't sufficiently prepared and competent to do so, staff doesn't know who the parent company is, etc. Um--doesn't that tell you something? After 30 years?? Like maybe these campaigns are too difficult--even after 30 years!!--for most unions to understand, let alone run effectively. Maybe, for whatever reason, unions can't or won't hire and train competent staff to do them, can't or won't commit the time and money to them. Maybe the necessary training is just too labor intensive. How long should we wait for most of the labor movement to know how to run a campaign, Kate? Another 30 years?? 50?? Moreover, in your haste to refer to your own research, you failed to actually engage what I wrote. I noted that even **effective** campaigns take too long to organize too few workers--the opportunity costs are simply too high. Taking four years to, say, organize 10,000 workers--which would be considered a great success by most unions--just isn't cost effective. And that's assuming you even win the campaign. CtW was founded just to do campaigns--a dedicated campaign shop. How many workers has CtW organized in almost 8 years? If CtW, with a staff devoted only to campaigns, led by crack SEIU staff, can barely initiate large campaigns, let alone win them, who can? I'm not talking about treading water --the point of campaigns, when they first came into vogue, was said to be to turn labor around, to get that big spike in membership, to compensate for the weakness of the rank and file by generating a massive air campaign. Well, as I wrote, campaigns have had some successes--J4J, organizing Vegas, some of the defensive fights that you are familiar with--but they are unable to generate any growth, let alone the huge spikes that I discussed in my essay. Only massive civil unrest or the total production requirements of a world war causes those kind of spikes. So let's stop hanging our hopes on campaigns, shall we? I worked on them, they are things of beauty when they work well, the brilliant, determined people like our friend Joe Uehlein are wonderful trade unionists. But campaigns are not the answer, and claiming that most unions still don't understand how to do them or have the appropriate staff after several decades only proves my point, not yours.

Your remark comparing my ideas to the 19th century AFL is laughable. Again, did you read what I wrote? I argued for continued organizing links to the Latino community, for outreach to every other progressive community out there from environmentalists to the GLBT community to feminists to community activists. I argue that unions should reach out and train worker leaders even in non-organizing situations, so that these leaders will be ready to organize their co-workers when that moment comes. I explicitly argued to link organizing to ethnic identity and activism. I argue to push alt unions or any other institutional framework that will help to socialize workers into supporting unions. None of this sounds like the parochial craft union focus of the 19th century AFL. None of it argues for "shutting out" new union leaders, as you inaccurately accuse me of proposing--indeed, quite the opposite! Honestly Kate: what the hell are talking about? That remark was simply intellectual bad faith.

Finally, you do raise an interesting issue regarding current organizing outside of major metropolitan areas. I did not argue to confine organizing to cities, but to buttress core regions/sectors/companies--all of them. I would look at the sectors and regions you mention, and perhaps commit more resources to those which show the most promise and growth. It is has been true for awhile that African Americans and Latinos are more amenable to organizing--if a particular region or industry is already a surging area of strength, sure, it's smart to build on what's already happening. But again: this kind of organizing doesn't create the spike that's required.

Which was kind of the point of my essay. I want people to understand that it's even harder than they though it was--the big spikes have happened only four or five times in the **entire western world**. The rest of the time unions simply don't grow, in fact usually decline.

Your remarks about the Walmart actions are revealing. These workers are very brave, but the actions have not grown or spread **significantly.** That's how the spikes happen, that's how the Teamsters "leap frogged" from city to city in the thirties organizing truckers, how the UAW went from plant to plant, how SWOC swept into the steel towns. You know this history--this worker militancy had the speed and force of a hurricane. These Walmart actions do not. The "corporate media" would be thrilled to cover a story of massive civil unrest, like what we have seen recently in Istanbul and in Brazil. But Walmart is not that. It's brave, it's clever, but don't make it into something that it isn't--it's not nearly as dangerous as you say. We know what real dangerousness looks like--the 1934 San Francisco general strike, or Flint or the Minneapolis truckers strike or the doomed 1934 textile strike, and on and on. Right--a very rare thing, a frankly high risk thing, with workers breaking thru the careful lawyering to take incredible risks. It's understandable that workers today don't want to take those risks,--but let's not pretend that a couple of hundred workers are "dangerous" to Walmart or the giant fast food companies. They're not--they're annoying, a problem to handle, yes, but they're not dangerous. Maybe in couple of weeks or months, they will be dangerous. But if these things don't grow quickly and dramatically, they don't reach sufficient scale to become as truly dangerous as you imagine them to be today.

So maybe the first thing we should do is to stop fooling ourselves with such overheated, romantic rhetoric. Then we can figure out what to do next.

Jun 19, 2013, 1:32 AM
Kate Bronfenbrenner:

Debate is a good thing and it only happens when people put up thought provoking ideas. I probably should have started out with that in my first response and then maybe you wouldn't have felt so attacked. However, as I learned early on, when you put your ideas out there you have to expect them to be challenged, and the more thought provoking they are the greater the challenge. That's a good thing not a bad thing.

I disagree with you but I am not attacking you neither do I see you as a proxy for CTW. Actually I did not know who you were most recently working for nor do I associate comprehensive campaigns as a CTW thing. They were first used by industrial unions in a bargaining context as you well know, and it wasn't until the 1990s with campaigns such as SEIU's Justice for Janitors Campaign or the AFA's CHAOS campaigns in the airlines that you saw comprehensive campaigns move beyond the industrial sector to organizing. But in terms of saying they have been around for 30 years that is asking a lot of a labor movement where many unions didn't have a fully funded organizing departments until the late 1990s and only got fully functional research departments in the last decade. One of the positive outcomes of the split was that SEIU and UNITEHERE (before it's divorce) helped build research capacity in IBT, LIUNA, and the UFCW, while the AFL-CIO focused on building capacity in building trades and transportation unions that had not gotten as much attention before. That is why that it is only in the last decade that we have unions with the capacity to run these campaigns but instead of running comprehensive organizing campaigns they have spent all their resources running "comprehensive" political campaigns.

There are other deeper philosophical disagreements between us. I also do not consider top-down campaigns comprehensive campaigns but rather strategic or coordinated campaigns because they do not include some of the signature emplements of comprehensive campaigns-escalating internal and external tactics by workers and allies targeted at interfering with connections between key decisison makers, key relationships, profit centers and growth strategies. Thus a union must have research capacity, it must have engaged and involved workers and allies at every level of the campaign, and it only costs a lot of money and takes many years in those cases where it has to. Many of the most expensive and long comprehensive campaigns are bargaining strikes which are defensive actions where the comprehensive campaign starts after the union went out on a traditional strike and was already at impasse. Getting fired workers back in a plant and scabs out involves very different legal and financial stakes for the employer than getting a union in. Thus there is much more variation in cost and length in the union comprehensive organizing campaigns depending on the effectiveness of the campaign.

I also do not believe that worker centers and other union alternatives can thrive without the labor movement continuing to actively organize in conjunction with them. Almost all of them are foundation funded, they can only organize so far or they lose their 501c3 status. Thus, for example, whether it is the USW in the West or RAPNY in the East, the Car Wash Workers start out at workers center's but end up in unions. It is the 9to5 Local 925 model that worked so well it organized Equitable Insurance in Syracuse in the 1980s. But 9to5 alone, as much as it accomplished, could only get women so far. It was the combination that was so effective and the fact that no union has been willing to take on the jurisdiction of organizing women clerical workers when they have shown over and over they want to organize, proves again how much work there is to do before battening up the hatches.

Finally I never compared your model to the 19th century. I said the beginning of the last century which was the 20th century. I was referring to the 1920s when the AFL was afraid to take risks because their density was so low and they felt it was better to hold on to what they had than risk taking on big battles with employers and getting the state riled up against them. That is what I was referring to. Not their membership make up or their craft but low density making them cut down on organizing. There was no great insult intended, you simply miscounted centuries.

I will stop there. I need to write up my latest results and should have it done by the end of the summer. But I promise you they do not show the high point being 30 years ago and downhill from there. It has been the reverse, with most of the activity starting in 1999 and increasing from there.

Thank you for making us all think,

Jun 20, 2013, 9:07 PM
greg Tarpinian:

I want to congratulate Rich for his article Fortress Unionism. I read his viewpoint the following way: At the end of the day, workers make history. Organizational forms come out of struggle, not the other way around. His article does not say give up. It says keep going, but be smart, be strategic, and don't over promise. Understand the objective conditions, and be prepared to adapt and harness when they ripen. No more rose colored glasses.

Jun 21, 2013, 11:02 AM
Rich Yeselson:

Yes, you're right, Kate. A collegial acknowledgment that we know each, even if out of touch for many years, would have been a nice touch--maybe using my name, as you did here, rather than "you." Yes, I found that very off putting. Would have been good to make this second post your first and we would have more amicably proceeded from there, albeit still in disagreement.

I can take the criticism and fully expected it--and, yup, the essay is getting it. But I still don't buy what you're saying about campaigns. I think they have a place--to help to extend existing areas of strength. UNITE HERE in Vegas should usually all relevant tactics to organize the remaining non-union strip motels. Campaign techniques--top down or bottom up--make a lot of sense. Similarly--and at a much larger scale--you could make an argument that the best thing the Teamsters could do--on a 20 year timetable--is put 90% of their organizing/researching resources, including UPS loa's, into organizing FedEx. Again, this is expanding on an existing area of strength, but the challenge is tremendous. Still, as daunting as such an effort would be, at least it would evolve organically from the great powerhouse that is the existing UPS division (I don't submit this as an iron clad proposal--I've thought about this, tweeted about it--but, at least throw it out there as a thought experiment. ) Better that than trying to organize a few hundred or thousand at a time--sometimes it's a few dozen. So, there's a place for campaigns, however you define them. But they will not enhance density at the pace needed because only civil unrest makes the costs to the employer and political elites an unbearable one. Or, if you "prefer", only crushing government pressure on employers in a World War, does something analogous. The latter, of course, no union can initiate or anticipate. And, understandably regarding the former, no "mature" union institution today--unlike the many start up unions of the 1880s or 1930s--will expose themselves to the kind of legal risk that would come from being seen as an "agent" of massive strikes and civil unrest. Unions can't "do" Pullman today, or the SF general strike, or Flint. This is precisely that "sweet spot of weakness" I discussed--institutionally too big to risk radical measures, too small to have the kind of political and economic power labor had in the 1940s.

Btw, I did not believe, Kate, that you were holding me accountable for CtW's program in the last several years. I only brought up CtW as an example of how difficult it is to do campaigns on what people call "sufficient scale." Here's an organization whose entire mission is to do campaigns. It's run a a couple for six-seven years--brilliantly inventive work. But, on balance, hardly anybody is organized this way. 10,000 workers in almost eight years really isn't a lot (I'm actually not even sure that's the number--pretty much a guess) given the costs of these campaigns. It's nobody fault--the staff is talented and hard working, the workers who come forward take great risks, the union officers have supported the work with large budgets. But unions used to organize that much in the late 1940s at the apex of white supremacist brutality in Mississippi. Some well known people imagined that the CtW could be a 21st century version of the CIO when it first began. But we are in a much different structural moment--I wanted, in my essay, to contrast what real union strength looks like compared to the more common periods, like today, of weakness.

This why I'd like unions--stuck in that sweet spot of weakness--to do the stuff they can comfortably do, the stuff I outlined, and not imagine that they can do stuff--increase density dramatically--that they can't do or won't do because the institutional risks are too high. You will never get the general counsel of a union to "approve" massive civil unrest or even massive (not a kabuki style arrest of a 15 people) civil disobedience. That has to be a more organic process emerging from a worker leadership, which the unions follow, not lead. But unions can certainly try to enhance existing areas of strength, buttress their membership, seek out the next generation of leadership, work with the rest of the progressive left. Yet this is still a **lot**, plenty of work to tackle, not an easy lift. But, at least, it's an imaginable lift.

Finally, Re: AFL comparison. Ok, I take your clarification, although, again, I **still have an organizing proposal going forward** as I outlined above and in my essay. I don't at all argue for zero organizing. The confusion came with your remark referencing the AFL "at the turn of the last century." The "turn" to me usually means around the first years of the century, not 20 years in. The AFL was founded in 1886, so I tacked ten years on and got to ca. 1896. But fine.

I realize we are all on the same side, and debate is healthy. And, yes, I am happy that serious thinkers like yourself and many others have taken the time to engage what I wrote.

Jun 21, 2013, 12:38 PM
Rich Yeselson:

Just want to acknowledge Greg Tarpinian's remark here, and thank him for it. It concisely expresses **exactly** the bottom line conclusions I wished to convey to readers.

We can and should argue about whether my ideas are good ones, but Greg's pithy summary is, essentially, what I hoped readers would take away from the piece.

Jun 21, 2013, 2:18 PM
Bill Rumble:

I would be interested in reading more, from Rich Yeselson, on the impact of technology on union organizing. I refer, more specifically, to industries of the "information economy" in which significant numbers of employees work remotely, via computer or other media, in "production."

As I read his article, his comments seem to be appropriate for and directed to economies in which workers gather at a workplace and come together in the production of goods. The workplace may not be, for example, Ford's River Rouge plant. Increasingly, it may be a hospital or school. But it still tends to be some variation of a "bricks and mortar" site, with on-site management and labor.

I am far from a whiz in economics, but I read enough to know that the advent of the information economy, the increased pace of technological progress, digitalization, and the proliferation of work remote from physical sites is having some sort of an effect on traditional labor/management definitions and relations.

I wonder what Yeselson thinks might be the effect of all of these phenomena on future union organizing?

Jun 21, 2013, 6:57 PM
Eric Robertson (@erictheteamster):

Rich and myself have had a spirited discussion over the last week. Far too often we talked past each other. My main difference with Fortress unionism is the degree to which Rich emphasizes protecting what we have will waiting for a new upsurge to happen. Labor has to talk and chew bubblegum at the same time. We have to continue to used proven strategies on an expanded scale, develop new strategies for organizing and building a workers movement on a larger scale AND we have to to the long-term work of building a workers movement in the streets out of which the leaders of tomorrow can emerge. Generating increasing mobilization and confrontation wherever we can is essential for developing the next leaders of the upsurge. I suppose you could boil the difference down to what is the relationship between the subjective factor (unions) and the development of a new leadership and what should we do in the meantime? I think Greg Tarpinian also makes a good point that we have to "Understand the objective conditions, and be prepared to adapt and harness when they ripen. ". The question is what should we be doing to help shape those objective conditions?

Jun 21, 2013, 8:36 PM
Eric Robertson (@erictheteamster):

Please excuse the numerous typos.

Jun 21, 2013, 9:11 PM
Jeffery Hermanson:

Now is not the time for unions to adopt a defensive stance and "wait for a worker upsurge." That's a recipe for disaster, as unions are not strong enough to survive in a defensive posture, and worker upsurges don't occur spontaneously. As Lane Windham says, workers need structures and tools. So what are the proper structures and tools for today's labor movement?

It is hard to understand how an otherwise insightful article on the decline of US labor could relegate one the most important factors in the decline to a one-time mention of "globalization," with no discussion of the ways in which the outsourcing of production has weakened labor and no discussion of any possible counter-measures.

In today's global economy, national unions are not adequate to take on the corporations alone. Most corporations have adopted the "supply chain" or "outsourcing" model, and have become complex international systems of production that cannot easily be challenged by workers in a single location or even a single country.

This means that unions must shed the blinders of narrow nationalism and become truly international structures, using the tools of cross-border solidarity to build power throughout the corporations' systems of production. The "global union federations" that have existed for many decades have not yet proven adequate to the task, although there are signs that they have recognized the need to transform themselves into more action-oriented organizations, and to provide direct support to union campaign coalitions. American unions have been very slow to come to the realization that their fate is bound up with the struggles of workers in the developing world, and most have devoted very little energy or resources to building the relationships that would make coordinated cross-border industrial action a reality. Some positive examples do exist, however, in the Steelworkers' alliance with the Mexican Mineros, the CWA alliance with the Mexican Telefonistas, Teamsters support for UPS workers in Turkey, and CTW's support of workers in Walmart's supply chain. Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of the kinds of international trade union structures that can take on the global corporations and reverse the global decline of labor.

Of course it is important to recognize that as unions join in solidarity with their counterparts in other countries, they must also become more effective at encouraging the participation of their own members in the governance and activities of their unions.

Overcoming narrow nationalism and bureaucratic stagnation are tall orders for a movement that has often been purged of radicals and is for the most part led by adherents of American exceptionalism and pragmatism, who until very recently have been characterized by their uncritical support of US foreign policy and domestic capitalism, and by their acceptance of a top-down presidential model of union organization.

The bottom line is that, rather than retreat into "fortress unionism" the American labor movement should undertake a serious effort to build "international unionism" and at the same time revitalize its internal structures to engage its members in global campaigns against the global corporations that now control our destiny.

Jun 22, 2013, 12:59 PM
Dave Robbins:

Great article. Great history. From my perspective as a rank & file Teamster,truck driver for forty years, except for the 12 years I was a full-time elected S/T and BA, the greatest obstacle to organizing the unorganized is fear. The fear of losing one's job during a union organizing campaign. The fear that standing up for your legal and human rights will result in loss of income and resulting poverty. Unions and all organizations concerned with economic justice need to build a movement to spotlight the glaring inadequacy of the NLRB's ability to protect workers who engage in "protected activities". Given the opportunity to join a union and win bargaining rights, I believe reality and research show, a majority of U.S. workers relish such an opportunity.

Secondly, and I speak from personal experience in the Teamsters, rank and file union members need the same rights to engage in concerted activity within itheir union; to actively participate in a democratic organization, in which they have a tremendous vested interest, without fear of reprisals from union leadership. I've worked union and I've had to work non-union jobs since I was a f/t union officer. On a non-union job the grovelling that goes on is sick and demeaning. But so is the grovelling that goes on within the union, due to fear of economic reprisal; blacklisting of members, going through the motions or ignoring legitimate grievances.

The greatest benefit of being a union member is realizing dignity and a voice on one's job and in one's union.

Jun 22, 2013, 6:35 PM
Kurt in Texas:

I enjoyed the history in this article especially. It helped educate me on an aspect of unionism that I was not familiar with. I was hoping someone can point me at other works that cover what I see as the critical failing of current union structure. Mainly that the benefits unions provide have not changed as worker habits have changed. I am not a union member and haven't been. I usually switch companies every 3 years or so. Generally these moves have been to take advantage of better job opportunities. Most union benefits like job security, advancement, and pensions are built around seniority (which I generally don't accrue). I am a white collar worker but my 30 yr old next door neighbor is a journeyman plumber (about 2 years from being a master). He is also on his 3rd company in the 6 years we have lived by each other. He has switched for more money and because he was unhappy with company rules. I know the current slowdown has hurt the ability of workers to move when unhappy but I don't see this as a permanent sea change, but rather a temporary phenomenon. I think if unions want to regain their dynamism and have membership be something that is widely sought it will have to figure out how to appeal to a world where workers don't accrue seniority the same way and where moving to a new company is considered a good way to deal with intransigent management. Both of my grandfathers were lifelong union members and I don't like seeing labor so weak but when I talk to friends and neighbors no one feels that unions are a path to a more secure or prosperous future.

Jun 23, 2013, 5:13 PM
rich Yeselson:

Those who underestimate the impact of Taft Hartley on the future of the labor movement should note what the Court did this morning. It agreed to hear UNITE HERE vs. Mulhall, based upon the 11th circuit's reading of the "bribery" clause in T-H. Based on that reading, they will likely gut card check next term, eliminating employer neutrality and union access to the workplace.

That's one of the "ticking time bombs" I talked about in the law. Next year, it's probably going to explode.

Jun 24, 2013, 11:04 AM
Mark Gomez:

Ah Richard, you are trapped within a failed paradigm. Back in the day, when I asked my mom how she was doing she never responded by reciting union density data. That's not the point of life.

People want to prosper. If we are to judge how unions are doing, and what they should be doing, we need to think within that paradigm. How big is the middle-class? Is it getting bigger? Is it getting more prosperous?

And yes we know it is going backwards. That's the depressing data that should be keeping you up at night.

Despite the challenges that we confront us I remain confident that we can strengthen and expand those enjoying economic security and a taste of the good life. Organizing more industries into unions is a key strategy. But those unions can't raise their members' take-home-pay within an economy unraveled by extreme inequality.

To complement union organizing success we need innovative policies for a new economy of inter-connected mega regions, dynamic industrial clusters and value chains where the powerful prosper at the expense of everyone else. We need new policies to lift up workers in industries that do not have the power to prosper. We need new policies to shift resources from industries that a prospering but have few low wage workers. And we need unions in healthy industries to raise pay above the legal mandated minimum and living wage.

Jun 26, 2013, 11:48 PM
Kris Warner:

Though I think the history and much of the reasoning for the decline of unions in this article is great, I have to question one of the basic assumptions which leads to the idea of "Fortress Unionism": that "An aggressive organizing strategy, of the sort labor attempted when John Sweeney took the helm of the AFL-CIO, just doesn't work because the smart union strategists can't compensate for a mostly (though not entirely) uninterested working class."

Richard Freeman has an excellent article called "Do Workers Still Want Unions? More Than Ever," which goes a long way in disproving this:

The biggest factor restraining unionization is not the working class, but the employing class and the existing legal framework.

Jul 8, 2013, 9:43 AM

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