Labor Needs New Ideas

Labor Needs New Ideas

Fight for 15 protest in Pittsburgh, April 15, 2015 (Mark Dixon / Flickr)

Labor needs ideas, so it should incubate them in theory and practice. It needs (notwithstanding arguments to the contrary) the support of sympathetic state actors, so it must leverage both local and the federal government to its advantage. It needs to pay much closer attention to its existing membership, and galvanize those members to defend themselves and to increase their ranks. And it needs a continuing presence within the one domestic sector of the globalized economy that can enable it to exert immense pressure on economic and political elites—transportation. Let us consider these suggestions in turn.

Today there is no obvious strategic move to make as there was, say, in 1935, when millions of white immigrants and African-American industrial workers demanded the right to unionize, and the AFL was not doing enough to address their demand. But strategy often takes a long time to ripen—John L. Lewis didn’t just wake up from a fever dream and start screaming, “Organize mass production workers!” The idea (and the failed attempts at executing it) had been around for decades.

So, first and foremost, labor should energetically solicit ideas that may take a while to gestate. The AFL-CIO and large unions like SEIU, AFSCME, and the Teamsters should offer annual competitive fellowships for scholars and writers researching the social science and history of labor—those who study not only unions, but also the economics and political culture of laboring people, writ large. Support and incentivize the thinking of sympathetic intellectuals who, nevertheless, have a professional distance from unions and thus might be willing to refine the next great idea, rather than repeat the last lousy one. And instead of having a convention that focuses on its own business and strategy a couple of times per decade, the AFL-CIO should sponsor an annual “labor thought” conference that brings together legal, historical, and social science thinkers, as well as the smartest people within the house of labor, to discuss and argue about the direction of the movement. Arguments, for example, about minority “members-only” unionism should be listened to and debated, by staff, rank and filers, and union officers directly.

In general, labor needs to argue more, not simply promote “union democracy.” I pretty much agree with Steve Fraser’s 1998 Dissent article that broad pleas for union democracy are often a sentimental wish that the institutional army of the working class can’t afford to indulge. But there are costs to just “following the program,” as some used to describe it when I worked in labor. Labor always needs solidarity, but it should not be the solidarity of the stolid and defeated.

There are other ways to spread the idea of unionism and restore labor’s place in our political culture. Recently, writers and editors at Gawker organized, an incursion of labor into “new media.” But whether they work in new media, old media, universities, non-profits, or think tanks: intellectuals, journalists, academics, and activists should be primary targets for unionizing. Why? Not, of course, because they are the material foundation of the American economy the way autoworkers, steelworkers, and coal miners once were, but because they make a living by making public arguments. So when they organize, as in the case of Gawker and, as this essay goes to press, Salon, they justify their decision in writing. They “talk union” to a wider public, and they do so directly about their own experiences. So, labor: encourage the eggheads to organize!

A long-running debate in the history of American unionism—and in the historical literature that has analyzed it—is whether labor should try to keep the state out of its development, or whether the labor movement simply lacks the strength to flourish without the government helping it to push back against the most radically anti-union business class in the industrialized world.

The answer, I think, is that labor needs both. It is at its most powerful when it has a sufficient foundation in the workplace and civil society so that state assistance can be exploited to its maximum. The best historical example is the huge surge in labor during the second half of the 1930s, which was then solidified and extended via the wartime imperatives of the Roosevelt administration.

At present, with labor so weak in the private sector and under attack in the public sector, the sequence is being reversed: unions are leveraging their remaining influence in blue states and cities as well as with the Obama administration to make what policy gains they can. We see this in Fight for $15, with left labor cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and others raising their minimum wages, and also in the worker-friendly executive orders issued by the Obama administration regarding, for example, overtime wages.

These results, as many have remarked, have not led to organizing gains. But they sustain the idea that workers are not mere pawns to be moved and, when necessary, sacrificed on a chessboard played and owned by Capital. It is also the right thing to do. Unions paradoxically do best for themselves when they make the broadest possible defense of workers, whether they are current members or not.

Yet even as unions consciously use their power on behalf of all workers, they must never forget the workers who fund their organizations. Returning to a proposal from my “Fortress Unionism” essay (Democracy, 2013), unions need to do everything they can to strengthen the internal organizing of their existing local unions. Frequently, critics have juxtaposed the necessity for unions to create an “organizing culture” to increase membership, with what has been pejoratively described as a “servicing culture” devoted to existing membership. But this is a false and, ultimately, self-defeating choice. The best organizers of new members are old members who know firsthand how important unions are in their lives. Moreover, given the resurgence of right-to-work laws in Midwestern states and the threat that the Supreme Court might effectively create a national right-to-work regime for public sector unions, more and more unions are unable to rely upon automatic dues check-off for their revenue base. Like the Culinary Union in Las Vegas has done, unions will increasingly have to inculcate a fierce loyalty in their membership in order to fiscally function, let alone project any institutional political and economic strength.

Finally, to turn to organizing new members: transportation is one “old fashioned” sector of the American economy that critically demands the resources and focus of the labor movement today. Of the great triad of midcentury union power—manufacturing, mining, and transportation—only transportation (beginning with railroads and now mostly trucking) must, by definition, remain within the United States and is substantially immune to the loss of jobs via productivity advances. Transportation literally links global capitalism from the low-wage manufacturing centers in southeastern China to the gleaming Apple stores throughout the United States. This is not to say, of course, that countless other American workers are not deserving of union representation. But it is to say that these sectors cannot sufficiently disrupt the economy to generate the kind of larger institutional power that Lewis, Hoffa, and Reuther could exercise in the mid-twentieth century. Low-wage retail workers have gotten much of the attention of the labor movement recently and activism at fast-food restaurants and Walmart is part of the national debate about inequality. But there is also a long-running campaign at America’s major ports to organize port truck drivers.

Don’t forget the truck drivers. Nothing moves without them.


Rich Yeselson is a contributing editor at Dissent.

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” Click to read contending arguments from Craig Becker and Erica Smiley.