6 Ways to Juice Up the Labor Movement
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It's not just about who you're organizing, Westin notes, it's also about how you do it. “It's about constantly pressuring employers from as many angles as possible. It's leveraging not only NLRB elections but back wage claims to pressure the employers, leveraging community pressure, boycotts, strikes. We did a strike at the car wash in the Bronx and they came to the table. That's the lesson, it's not just any one strategy, you have to come at them at every different angle.”
Because, of course, the big money and corporations are coming at workers from every angle, from RTW laws and attacks on collective bargaining to wage theft and erratic scheduling. “There's so many sectors of low-wage workers that are affected,” Westin says, “Who's to say that we can't organize multi-sector campaigns together? It's not just we're targeting an industry, but we're targeting the entire service economy, looking to build that sector of workers in a big way.”
- Ruth Milkman, Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, Academic Director at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies
“Don't mourn, organize!” says Milkman, whose research has focused both on the American auto industry and recently, on low-wage immigrant workers. “Forget the NLRB system,” she continues; that system has become largely dysfunctional for the workers who are covered by it, and for many it's simply not a question—they're not included in its protections, so they have to find other solutions.
“This is the time to rebuild from the bottom up, with a focus on low-wage workers, both immigrants and the U.S. born,” Milkman says. “Organizing should be based on alliances with community groups, faith leaders, and pro-labor elected officials, drawing on the full spectrum of historical strategies and tactics.”
- Bill Fletcher Jr., longtime organizer and author most recently of “They're Bankrupting Us” And 20 Other Myths About Unions
“We're living with the consequences of a movement that ceased being an economic justice movement,” Fletcher says. To get back to those roots, he's advocating some serious change and rebuilding for labor.
In Michigan, for instance, Fletcher points out the need for internal as well as external organizing, for really explaining to members what unions are all about, and the nature of an economic justice movement. “We need leadership that truly gets neoliberal globalization,” he notes. From there, he points out, it's important to teach members as well.
Internally, he believes that unions need to re-examine their structure, evaluate positions, committees, and connect them to the overall mission of the union. Externally, too, he calls for a reevaluation of central labor councils and other forms of geographic organization—organizing across a city or metropolitan area. “What these central labor councils allowed us to do was position organizing as an economic development strategy.”
Beyond that, he's calling for leadership that is willing to take risks—including knowing when to step down—and to build new alliances. “We need new leadership that understands that alliances are not about hiring the Hessians. This tendency of some unions to believe that alliances with other forces is about funding those groups to do what we want them to do.”
As far as politics, Fletcher says, “The strategy that I've advocated for a number of years is not a go-it-alone labor electoral strategy. It basically is labor playing a role with key community based organizations in developing a platform and organizational form for doing electoral work inside and outside the Democratic party.” It's about organizing politically in neighborhoods and communities where union members are and building leverage that way rather than depending on a party.