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What Role for Labor in the Progressive Uprising? A Conversation With Labor Strategist Stephen Lerner

If labor alone can't create the change we need in this country, what role can unions play in supporting a wider progressive uprising?

No force did more to build the American middle class than organized labor. In recent decades, however, unions have been decimated. Despite concerted efforts to turn the tide, the movement now represents only 7 percent of workers in the private sector. Never have working people in this country been more in need of a collective voice. Yet, we must ask, can labor alone create the change we need? If it can't do it by itself, what role can unions play in supporting a wider progressive uprising?

Few individuals are offering more interesting, credible and challenging views on this question than veteran labor strategist Stephen Lerner. Ezra Klein recently wrote in The Washington Post: "Ask union types who the smartest labor organizer is and they're likely to point you towards [SEIU] organizer Stephen Lerner, who planned the legendary Justice for Janitors campaign." In the most recent issue of New Labor Forum, Lerner has an essay titled "A New Insurgency Can Only Arise Outside the Progressive and Labor Establishment." It is a must-read for all those who wish to think seriously about creating change in this country.

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I had a chance to sit down with Lerner on his back porch and have a conversation about his article. I walked away with the resolve that never before has it been so important for labor to have an inside-outside strategy. This means that unions can't just work to get better politicians elected, but must also help foster a wider grassroots insurgency that can directly challenge the forces that have undermined the American middle class.

We are about to enter an election year, a time when we would normally put all our eggs in the basket of electoral campaigning. But Lerner makes a compelling case that it is necessary for the labor movement to maintain a dual focus. And that will mean changing the way we usually operate.

In his essay, Lerner argues that, amid efforts by the super-rich and major corporations to restructure the economy for their own benefit, unions have not been able to formulate a response by themselves. "Unfortunately," he writes:

organized labor can be as much of an obstacle as it is a solution to mounting a movement for social justice that might reverse this trend and offer hope for the future.

Unions have the money, members, and capacity to organize, build, and fuel a movement designed to challenge the power of the corporate elite. But despite the fact that thousands of dedicated members, leaders, and staff have worked their hearts out to rebuild the labor movement, unions are just big enough - and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure - to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed.

Lerner cites examples in which unions have called off high-profile protests or acts of civil disobedience because they were worried that the actions would be perceived as too confrontational, or concerned that such protests would have negative legal, economic or political ramifications.

"If our goal is not to offend anyone," Lerner told me, echoing a point he makes in his essay, "we might as well not do anything at all."

I agree with one of his central points here: The more labor is seen as a narrow special interest group, representing the small pools of workers who have union contracts, the more its power will continue to decline. It will be left fighting defensive battles to hold on to the remaining vestiges of the New Deal, even as these are successively whittled away.

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