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The Militant Minority

Aside 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. [“Fortress Unionism,” Issue #29] 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 to act by workers 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 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 spark-plug unionists emerge from today and tomorrow? Second, workers unbound by union contracts, which today is the great mass of employees, have broader rights to engage in direct action—that is, to strike—than employees bound by contracts whose right to strike has been curtailed by judicial rulings.

Let me also stress that Taft-Hartley, rather than being a totally separate piece of legislation, was instead a series of amendments to the National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act, whose preamble remained part of the law), many of which were proposed or vetted by AFL leaders and their attorney in the late 1930s. Moreover, during the first decade of the amended labor law’s existence, unions continued to increase their absolute numbers as well as their density. Federal court decisions that narrowed the meaning of the Wagner Act probably did more at first to curb union power than Taft-Hartley. Only in retrospect does Taft-Hartley seem to explain the paralysis and decline of unionism. Far more powerful factors were involved: the replacement of labor by capital (automation), the spread of suburbanization, and the redistribution of population from the Northeast and Midwest to the Sunbelt that represented more than capital flight from unionism. Those factors plus the subsequent intensification of global competition after 1973 further strengthened capital’s advantage.

The workers most ripe for organization today are those concentrated in service-sector jobs insulated from global competition and domestic capital flight. Yet they remain the most difficult to unionize because their turnover rates are high, their places of employment so scattered, and their bargaining power almost nil. The militant minorities that drove union growth in the past mostly had jobs with long tenure and irreplaceable skills, the type scarce in today’s service sector. Today’s unions have failed to create an organizing strategy that meets the challenges raised by the structure of present-day capitalism.

Melvyn Dubofsky
Binghamton University
State University of New York
Binghamton, N.Y.

Keep Going, But Be Smart

I want to congratulate Rich Yeselson 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 overpromise. Understand the objective conditions, and be prepared to adapt and harness when they ripen. No more rose-colored glasses.

Greg Tarpinian
Former Executive Director,
Change to Win
New York, N.Y.

Rich Yeselson replies:

To Melvyn Dubofsky: Yes, a militant minority is critical to building something bigger. There’s no Communist Party or American Labor Party or other radical vehicles for that today. This speaks to the larger collapse of a left meta-narrative, and the historic relationship between that narrative and the labor movement. No matter: 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 Dubofksy’s point about nonunion workers having more legal flexibility—yes, indeed. In fact, it’s very difficult for today’s “mature” unions—with billions in pension fund assets, large staffs, still substantial memberships, and interest-group influence within the Democratic Party—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.

Finally, regarding the influence of Taft-Hartley: Yes, I noted that membership stayed roughly stable for some time after its passage. And I agree that court rulings had a significant impact on labor. But I do think Taft-Hartley had enormous influence on the trajectory of the labor movement and, rather than rehearse the reasons for that here, I refer readers back to the essay. I’d particularly underscore the act’s impact—hard to precisely measure, but potent, nonetheless—on labor’s increased legalization and bureaucratization.

Taft-Hartley is also emblematic of the simultaneous apex and containment of postwar labor. At the moment when American unions were as powerful as they would ever be, they were, essentially, opposed by every other power sector and elite formation in American political culture. The result was the simultaneous passage of Taft-Hartley and the defeat of Operation Dixie. Taft-Hartley is a critical historical marker as much as an historical agent, but I think it is powerfully both.

I thank my old boss, Greg Tarpinian, for clarifying (in far fewer words!) precisely the key points I wished to make in my essay about the goals and outlook of American labor today.

Democracy Readers who would like to submit a letter to the editor can do so by emailing dajoi@democracyjournal.org.

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