6 Ways to Juice Up the Labor Movement
The passage of a so-called “right-to-work” law in Michigan recently left the labor movement feeling gut-punched.
The law, which defunds unions by allowing workers in shops represented by a union to opt out of paying for the cost of representing them, was a blow at the once-mighty unions that made manufacturing work, particularly Michigan's famed auto manufacturing, a middle-class career. It came in the heart of union country, and while after Ohio and Wisconsin (not to mention RTW's passage in Indiana last year as well) it was hardly a surprise that the wealthy businessmen who fund the Republican party wanted to destroy the labor movement once and for all, the swift passage of the bill (in just days) despite the protests of thousands outside still felt demoralizing.
To make matters worse, it came on the heels of some of the most exciting labor organizing in years; the strikes of hundreds of workers across the country at Walmart stores and warehouses, the strikes of fast-food workers in New York and similar organizing in Chicago. It came not long after Chicago's teachers union struck and pushed back against a wave of corporate-backed education reform policies.
While Michigan's unions regroup and begin the twin processes of trying to survive and retain dues-paying members in the face of RTW and trying to find a way to overturn the law, it's clear that the national labor movement needs to do more than just fight defensive battle after defensive battle. To kick-start a conversation, AlterNet spoke with several of the smartest organizers and labor thinkers we know, and asked them for their suggestions on how labor can go on the offensive in the next year.
- Stephen Lerner, architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign
“It's time to reinvent the strike—the strike as guerrilla warfare,” says Lerner. The strike is the traditional weapon of organized workers, but employers have gotten pretty good at beating those strikes. But in his work with Justice for Janitors, Lerner learned that bosses weren't ready for short, quick strikes. “If you look at the strike as a way to make them pay a price for how they treat you, you do short strikes, in and out strikes,” he notes. “Part of the reason it's so difficult to organize workers now is most people work multiple jobs, they have not a moment to participate. If you view the strike as having multiple goals, one is it allows workers to publicly declare and demonstrate they're unhappy. Second, because they're not at work they can talk to the media, go to churches. Third, it's something very concrete that they can do that does start to make the bosses a little crazy.”
The second thing Lerner suggests is a re-politicization of bargaining. “We need bargaining not to just be about workers but what's good for the community,” he says, “So that we're bargaining for broader issues, especially in the public sector. So that it's not bargaining for the few, it's bargaining for the many.” Chicago's teachers, he notes, raised the issue of the city divesting from banks that were foreclosing on people. “We need to make it so that people see that when those workers win, we all win, rather than they're negotiating for something we don't have.”
- Jonathan Westin, executive director, New York Communities for Change, organizer of recent fast food strikes
“We believe that the future of the labor movement is really organizing low wage service sector jobs. These are the jobs we're stuck with, we need to make them livable jobs,” says Westin, whose organization, despite not being a labor union, has been organizing low-wage workers across New York City, from McDonald's and Wendy's to grocery stores and car washes.