When we both began as union activists in the early 1970s, if someone worked a union job, everyone understood that it was that person’s ticket to the middle class. A union job allowed workers to own a home, take responsibility for their families, see the kids off to college, and retire with dignity.
But today, American workers are living a far different reality. Growing income inequality coupled with decreasing median wages and benefits offer dim prospects for most families’ futures. Corporate power is ascendant, capital’s share of income continues to grow, and union power continues a decades-long decline.
Rich Yeselson, a talented union campaigner, has written a smart and important historical analysis about the passage in 1947 of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act and its long-term impact on workers’ power. It is true that passage of the legislation led to union bureaucratization, a reduced focus on organizing, and a more “business union” labor leadership that professionally managed services for existing members in return for the payment of union dues. It also established employer “free speech” in organizing drives, which allowed employers to use all their resources and inherent power to reward and punish workers to destroy organizing campaigns.
An entire union-avoidance industry was birthed, making the task of organizing workers in modern America virtually impossible in the face of employer opposition. And maybe most importantly, Taft-Hartley set in motion a purge of “communists” (both official party members and supporters) and of unaffiliated dissidents who were a leading force for organizing, worker militancy, and agitation. Through all these means and other legislative restrictions, Taft-Hartley sowed the seeds for organized labor’s long, slow decline.
Yeselson proposes that the labor movement today should adopt what he calls “Fortress Unionism”—defending high-density union strongholds, strengthening existing union locals, building alliances with progressive groups, but for the most part not attempting any mass organizing movements. Instead, he advises, we should wait until the workers are ready: “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…. It has happened this way all over the world. The workers will signal—loudly—when they want to organize.”
Ironically, we believe that the post-Taft-Hartley 1950s and ’60s was the era when Yeselson’s “Fortress Unionism” first took root in the labor movement. Yeselson’s proposal is anything but new. Lane Kirkland, the president of the AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1995, said repeatedly that those predicting the demise of the labor movement were being premature because the pendulum of history would swing back in labor’s favor. It was a failed prediction, and the complacency it bred represented an abdication of union leadership’s responsibility and ultimately led to Kirkland’s own unseating.
Secure in office, successful in society, and with one in three workers unionized, labor leaders realigned their resources, spending 95 percent on workers already in unions and less than 5 percent on attempting to organize nonmembers. Unions developed a model of member services in which collective bargaining and grievance handling, not growth, dominated day-to-day life—a formula that would spell disaster for any membership organization. Happy to pay attention only to the existing members who voted in union elections, leaders quickly adopted a mantra citing bad labor laws, more powerful employers, an unsupportive Democratic Party, globalization, economic conditions, and apathetic members as the rationale for not even attempting to organize.
Defying Bob Dylan’s admonition that “he not busy being born is busy dying,” Fortress Unionism would attempt to create a forward-thinking strategy from a backward-looking proposal to build alliances with other failing mass movements and more militantly defend the declining union base and standards—a formula that has been largely responsible for labor’s free fall and is a proposition Kirkland would have found comforting. For American workers, Yeselson’s so-called “militant left” union strategy of spending all one’s resources fighting to raise worker standards only among union employers while union density declines will not reduce growing inequality or build a new pathway to the middle class. In fact, it actually increases the economic advantage that nonunion employers enjoy and encourages greater resistance to organizing campaigns. It also reinforces the notion that unions are for their members, not all working people.
Yes, corporate interests have succeeded in making it very difficult for workers to organize unions. And yes, corporate behavior in crushing workers and unions is rewarded today rather than condemned as anti-American by the larger society. Yes, our labor laws are weak and poorly enforced, and yes, workers and unions increasingly lack the power to win against entrenched business interests. However, in the face of these challenges, the solution is to innovate, experiment, dream, organize, and plant the seeds of new strategies. A number of ideas come to mind.
One, do something now with the trillions of dollars workers hold in their pension funds. Invest it in vehicles that create jobs and bolster our influence in society, rather than in companies that have privatized pension contributors’ jobs, shipped jobs overseas, or adopted anti-union corporate positions. Union pension funds and public-sector plans with union trustees and participants represent a massive pool of capital that can be leveraged to create good jobs and support employers who respect workers’ rights. The Department of Labor and an array of lawyers and consultants currently have rules and practices that make it difficult to have this capital work for employees as well as achieve maximum returns. The current system prevents workers’ pension money from being invested to serve members’ interests. Often investments actually reduce retirement contributions and returns by eliminating public members’ jobs. Trustees must assert themselves as trade unionists and find lawyers and advisers who will work with us to create good American jobs and change the pension regulations so workers can be more successful.
Two, fight for pro-worker legislation and the confirmation of progressive judges to interpret our laws. Recent federal court decisions like the one that struck down President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board—and thereby potentially voiding hundreds of NLRB decisions—embolden employers to think they can break labor laws with impunity. Court actions and suits brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act against union corporate-accountability campaigns are blunting one of labor’s most effective weapons. Labor must join trial lawyers and other progressive groups to make confirmation of pro-worker judges a priority.
Three, seek strategic alliances with willing employers in the public and private sectors to create good union jobs. In our previous roles, we were successful in mounting creative accountability campaigns against employers acting badly in communities, and then building relationships with those same employers later. It took time for members of the financial and investment community to learn that unions and union assets could be of assistance, and that we could advance each other’s missions. Many workers in security, food service, building services, laundry, and health care are now members of both of our former unions as a result of such alliances. Some critics have suggested that it’s undemocratic for union leaders to negotiate agreements with employers on organizing rights. It’s a ridiculous criticism. When unions can win agreements that allow workers to organize without employer opposition in agreed-upon areas or sectors, instead of waging what Yeselson rightly calls unwinnable campaigns, that is a huge victory. Such new models and experiments in employer-negotiated organizing agreements have laid the groundwork for even more workers gaining better jobs and higher living standards. Pious critics of employer organizing agreements have pejoratively labeled these agreements as top-down “deals,” but they themselves have made little effort and had almost no success in so-called bottom-up organizing. In fact, failed bottom-up efforts in the face of massive employer resistance usually creates worker casualties and reinforces the employer’s message that unions are powerless.
Four, change laws that prohibit unions from signing contracts with employers for services such as training, lobbying, job placement, staffing, and quality control (among others) unless they have a collective bargaining agreement. In certain circumstances, unions can use one of these broad sets of assets to help industries achieve their institutional goals, and it is only reasonable to allow corporations to compensate unions so they have the resources to do so. AARP can partner with United Health Insurance, nonprofits are allowed to market affinity credit cards, and banks can offer money to organizations that direct their members to open accounts in their institutions. Labor is the only institution not free to sign contracts with willing employers to provide services like those above in its own and its members’ interests.
Five, consider new forms of membership in sectors or workplaces that allow workers to participate or have a voice, like minority membership, works councils, online advocacy, or professional associations. In Europe, works councils allow nonunion workers to elect representatives to meet with employers to deal with non-collective bargaining issues at the workplace. In some countries, when less than a majority of workers, sometimes even less than 10 percent, demand representation rights to meet with employers, it is automatically granted. The Freelancers Union, the “Caring Across Generations” campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Restaurant Organizing Committee, Working America, and new online workplace advocacy groups are examples of efforts that offer working people a greater voice.
And, finally, keep trying to find new ways to organize and change laws so workers have a choice about whether they desire representation at work, as opposed to today’s system dominated by employer voices. We need to do the hard work of organizing workers by the hundreds and cease hiding behind the irresponsible idea that unless we have a plan for millions, everything else is a waste of time. Workers and the labor movement need to win. It’s winning, not waiting, that produces more followers and gives people courage and hope.
Waiting, doing a better defensive job, or, as Yeselson correctly states, undertaking campaigns predestined to fail are not strategies to change the lives of workers. Workers and unions have had too many impossible adventures and glorious losing causes. We need inspiring victories, like SEIU’s campaigns to organize janitors, security personnel, and hospital and home-care workers; UNITE’s efforts to unionize industrial laundries and clothing distribution centers; and UNITE, HERE, and SEIU’s joint food-service mobilizations.
Young people are experiencing the worst career prospects since the Depression. This is now true among both the educated and poorly educated. It is causing many members of this generation to question America’s political and economic systems and its established institutions. Today’s unions need to seek twenty-first-century answers, not abandon a new generation of workers to solve their own problems as we try to hold down the fort as protectors of a privileged and shrinking minority. Whether through new experiments, new employer relationships, or new ways for workers to exercise their voice, we need to get busy being born. The road back for our union movement is difficult but achievable if we again aspire to be and act as be the voice for all working people. We need to build bridges, not fortresses.