The Road to Renewal

The Road to Renewal

Even in its weakened state, the labor movement remains the largest organizational counterweight to capital and the power of the wealthy.

Introducing our Spring 2019 special section, Labor’s Comeback.

Los Angeles public school teachers protest ahread of a planned strike (Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

While President Trump claims to be responsible for an “unprecedented economic boom,” a wave of labor militancy across the country suggests that America’s workers are not sharing in the supposed prosperity. The past year witnessed more people participating in work stoppages than at any time in the last thirty years, teacher strikes in ten states, the continuation of pioneering Fight for $15 campaigns, a nationwide walkout by Google employees, campaigns for economic justice under the banner of Black Lives Matter and the women’s marches, Amazon run out of New York in large part due to its anti-union practices, and unprecedented multistate strikes by hotel workers against Marriott.

Forty years of attacks by private employers and conservative courts have radically reduced labor’s strength. Just last year, public-sector unions took a hit with the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling, which undermined their ability to collect fair-share fees from workers for whom they bargain. But in keeping with the militancy suggested by the increase in strike activity, unions mounted aggressive campaigns to shore up their membership. While some lost members, others picked up more than they lost. Contrary to expectations, public-sector union membership has barely declined after Janus. And despite, or perhaps because of, the crisis in the labor movement, public support for unions is at its highest level in years. Americans under thirty—many burdened by student debt, employment insecurity, and unaffordable housing—made up a staggering 76 percent of new union members in 2017.

Today, labor is reassessing its approach to politics (who are, and who should be, labor’s allies?), bargaining (should it be at the firm or sectoral level?), and organizing (what campaigns can build labor’s strength, and how can community support be enlisted?). Many in labor are keenly aware that a revitalized labor movement will have to embrace innovative policies, different organizational forms, and new alliances with an increasingly diverse, globalized, and complex labor force.

This special section is devoted to advancing that renewal. 

Nelson Lichtenstein argues that recent labor successes, such as the Fight for $15 and the teacher strikes, occurred when the struggle moved to the political sphere where, in a form of sectoral bargaining, states and cities mandated higher wages. Lichtenstein points out that when unions were strong, they developed sectoral bargaining in the auto, steel, mining, and trucking industries without assistance from the state. That system collapsed in the late 1970s and 1980s under the pressure of deregulation, employer attacks on unions, and globalization. He cautions that while state-imposed sectoral bargaining may be useful in raising wages, a union should do much more: “It raises consciousness among its members, creates an oppositional and continuously active locus of power in a society otherwise dominated by capital, and it has the capacity to mobilize the community as well as its own members for social struggles.”

The U.S. labor movement was eroded in part by outdated and dysfunctional laws. There is a growing awareness that worksite- or firm-based bargaining is often insufficient to protect workers’ interests and to solve problems of economic and political inequality. In many other countries, there is a legal infrastructure for bargaining at the industrial or sectoral level. Kate Andrias resurrects a moment in history when the United States used a form of sectoral bargaining. While a different bargaining model cannot replace the imperative to increase labor membership, Andrias makes a powerful case for exploring “a legal regime that both encourages workers’ collective activity and gives their organizations real power in the governing process.”

Looking north of the border, Rich Yeselson asks: why are nearly three times as many Canadian workers in unions (as a percentage of the workforce) as in the United States? Spurred by Barry Eidlin’s Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, Yeselson rejects simplistic cultural arguments and interrogates Eidlin’s provocative thesis that the U.S. labor movement’s early success in the New Deal, of which there was no Canadian equivalent, meant that the Canadian labor movement was never aligned with a major political party and thus nurtured its own oppositional party, while the U.S. labor movement was one interest among many others in the Democratic Party. Yeselson concludes that the Canadian path was never really an option in the United States, and that the only way labor can grow in both countries is by increasing its political and economic power by organizing.

The government shutdown made Sara Nelson, president of the Flight Attendant’s Association, one of the most recognizable labor leaders in the country. She sounded a clarion call for a general strike that helped end the shutdown in January. In her support for massive job actions in solidarity with embattled federal workers, her words were both a fiery rebuttal to Trump’s scorched-earth budget politics and an echo of the union militancy at the heart of a federal labor clash nearly forty years ago, the air-traffic controllers’ strike, that foreshadowed the wave of neoliberalism that workers are wrestling with today.

Eleni Schirmer’s piece on the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) provides a case study of the transformational power of a union with a social vision. The MTEA once saw itself as a professional association that kept its distance from unions and was often at odds with the African-American community it served. But more recently, and especially after former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched a vicious attack on unions, the MTEA has reinvented itself by aligning with the community and promoting an egalitarian and inclusive vision for education. The damage done by Act 10, Walker’s frontal assault on public-sector collective bargaining, has been severe. But conservative attacks have also spawned a feisty union that is inspiring other teachers around the country. In a moment filled with dramatic teacher strikes, this piece provides a look at the work that goes on behind the scenes to build worker power.

Finally, Trump’s one big idea is that immigration is the source of American workers’ discontent. Unionists, with a few exceptions in the building trades, have resisted this as a distraction from the real causes of declining working-class living standards. Ruth Milkman highlights the political and economic logic of labor’s movement toward embracing immigrant rights in recent years, and argues that this advocacy can only be effective if labor develops a powerful narrative that explains how business strategies and economic policies cause working-class distress.

Even in its weakened state, the labor movement remains the largest organizational counterweight to capital and the power of the wealthy. A vibrant labor movement is a crucial component of left renewal.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor to Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.

Sarah Jaffe is an editorial board member at Dissent, co-host of its Belabored podcast, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Bold Type Books, 2016).

Mark Levinson is Chief Economist of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the book review editor at Dissent.

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