6 Ways to Juice Up the Labor Movement
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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.
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.
- Jane McAlevey, longtime organizer and author of Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)
McAlevey points out that the entire structure of work has changed over recent years. That means that there are many workers who don't see how unions could work for them, and who have to be reintroduced to the entire concept of unions. “The way that unions can keep any kind of skin in the game is by rethinking their relationship to their own rank and file and rethinking their relationship to their broader community,” she says.
“How about budgeting the time and recruiting a ton of your top rank and file leaders to go out and meet with damn near every single member of the union, in their worksites, in their neighborhoods, in community meetings?” She suggests that from there, workers themselves could chart and track the relationships they have in their community, figure out their connections. “What is the social fabric of the relationships that the 16 million members of unions in this country hold?”
16 million, she notes, isn't a lot when it comes to the percentage of the workforce (7 percent of the private sector), but it's still a lot of people who have a lot of connections and can have conversations with their community. But to get there, the union members have to feel connected, have to take responsibility, and have to feel like they own their union and they care about their union. “There's no reason to expect that a rank and file member is going to prioritize and make time to reintroduce the value of their union to their community unless they value their union.”
This kind of work can be done, she notes, and must be done—the same way unions put together a Get-Out-The-Vote machine for presidential elections.
- Eric Robertson & Ben Speight, Teamsters Local 728, Georgia
When it comes to organizing under so-called “right to work” laws, Robertson and Speight know all about it. “What Scott Walker tried to do in Wisconsin is our status quo here. In Georgia, there's no recourse. You can literally be told 'I'm firing you for that union button, get out.' There's no board to petition for unfair labor practices. The only ability we have to organize is the discretion of the employer,” Speight says.
Robertson wants to see the labor movement create plans for growth across sectors, and evaluate whether they really have the resources to carry out those plans. “The issue of archaic structures that impede growth is a huge weight that is hanging around our collective necks.”
“Labor has to think far beyond the confines of what has been permitted for us to organize,” Speight says. “The solutions to labor's challenges now come from a recognition that we can only truly grow at the scale that's needed to bring about balance in our society and economy if we're able to compel owners to drop their weapons.”. That either comes through comprehensive labor law reform that brings in workers traditionally excluded from the protections of the NLRA, or, he notes, through massive action from working people and allies, making it impossible for owners to keep operating their businesses until they deal fairly with workers. It's time for mass action, Speight says. “There's the old saying that you can have collective bargaining at the table or have it in the streets.”
“We need to teach people, even longstanding union members, in practice what collective action looks like, how do we identify targets, how do we escalate tactics to make those targets say yes.” To get there, he notes, labor needs to “embark on a deep relationship-building effort with our allies, so that struggles, attacks on labor are not viewed as an attack on labor in isolation, but are viewed as attacks on fundamental democratic rights.”