What Happens If Labor Dies?
Continued from previous page
Another approach to reversing labor’s decline is to broaden the scope of unions’ demands and, with that, their potential to connect with a larger public. One leading proponent of this idea is Stephen Lerner, the veteran union organizer and strategist who devised and ran SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign. Of late, Lerner has been working with community organizations and citizens’ action groups, advising them in a set of campaigns directed against the country’s leading banks. He argues that worker and community-organizing campaigns should target the public and private banks that control an increasing share of the economy as well as corporations like Wal-Mart rather than the multitudes of small firms that make up its supply chain. Going after the 1 percent, Lerner says, is a way unions can take the battle to the economy’s commanding heights and expand the coalition of engaged activists beyond those involved in traditional union campaigns. (If Lerner’s rhetoric sounds like Occupy Wall Street’s, that’s because he laid out a similar battle plan some months before the protests at Zuccotti Park.)
Lerner envisions four sets of protagonists: beleaguered homeowners waging a campaign to renegotiate mortgages; student organizations demanding a reduction in college debt; municipalities suing banks that devised dubious deals for them; and bank tellers seeking unionization. It’s a strategy reminiscent of the 1930s, when tenant rent strikes and armed farmers stopping foreclosure sales were common occurrences. Such campaigns would require acts of civil disobedience. In fact, groups with which Lerner is working have already disrupted shareholder meetings and occupied banks and homes facing foreclosure.
Could such campaigns be scaled up to a level that compels banks to accede to their demands? Lerner argues that it’s possible: “The movements of the ’30s and ’60s were successful because they were disruptive.” Today’s unions may not be able to practice large-scale civil disobedience, he says, but they can certainly encourage the activities of other groups.
Lerner is far from alone in believing that unions can no longer confine their organizing to workers they hope to represent in collective bargaining. For the past half-decade, AFL-CIO canvassers have gone door to door in white working-class neighborhoods in a notably successful campaign called Working America, enrolling more than three million nonunion swing voters to persuade them to support union-backed candidates at the polls. In the past few months, the group has also begun to talk to its members about their workplace concerns and how they might address them. In an even more radical move away from organizing workers, SEIU last year suspended its unionization drives and instead invested tens of millions of dollars in community--organizing projects in 17 cities. The union hoped to create a massive network of minority voters that could move American politics leftward, but the campaign proved largely unsuccessful.
A problem of labor’s own making afflicts such projects: the lack of a unified labor movement. In 2005, SEIU and several other major unions left the AFL-CIO to form a mini--federation of their own, Change to Win, that focused on unionizing workers in industries that could not be offshored. Seven years later, Change to Win has yet to claim any victories. The fragmentation of the movement has kept initiatives like the AFL-CIO’s and SEIU’s from reaching critical mass. Such efforts require funding from the whole of organized labor, since they don’t produce dues-based revenue even when they succeed. Labor’s fissures remain an impediment to its prospects for fighting bigger battles with potentially bigger rewards.
Larry Cohen, the president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), has been a leading proponent of labor’s reunification. He also believes American unions can learn from the successes that labor has experienced in other nations when they helped form broader social movements. In recent decades, he points out, unions in Brazil, South Korea, and South Africa have flourished by becoming linchpins in campaigns for democracy, much as European unions did 100 years ago.