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Why We Desperately Need to Revitalize the Labor Movement and Take Power Back from Corporations

Are we at a tipping point, where unions are no longer able to play their historical role of creating a shared working-class common sense?

This story was originally published at Labor Notes as part of a 400th issue package addressing the current situation for labor. Read more at

The last four years have been enough to turn even the most true-blue union activist just plain blue. We are facing some very uncomfortable arithmetic.

Despite 16 million members and $10 billion plus in dues revenue, labor’s reach is dwindling. In most industries—even bastions like auto and construction—we don’t control enough of the market to win decent contracts, so we’re not attractive to new members.

Are we at a tipping point, where unions are no longer able to play their historical role of creating a shared working-class common sense? Can we still influence conditions for all?

If ever there was a window into unions’ limited reach, it was the heartbreaking outcome of the June 5 recall vote in Wisconsin. When President Obama and the national Democratic machine declined to weigh in, it was a scary reminder of just how willing our supposed allies are to ditch us.

But as Jim Cavanaugh discusses here, we have to admit that the union-backed candidate lost because of our inability to convince our own members that this was a referendum on the value of unions, and that they were worth protecting.

Twenty-five percent of union-member voters chose Scott Walker, and 38 percent of all those from union households did the same.

We have far to go to return to the days when the labor movement defined the world view of the working class.


For a few short months after the 2008 financial meltdown, the glaring problems with our economic system were laid bare. Everyone could see that bankers and billionaires were to blame.

But when corporations write the rules, they can also throw out the rulebook when it’s convenient. They shifted the debate to handwringing over The Deficit, aided by the very real budget crises in cities and states across the country.

That’s where labor missed an opportunity. The good soldiers at the top of the labor movement took their cues from President Obama; they didn’t lead a people’s movement to rein in the speculators and tax the rich. Instead of linking a fight for jobs with a plan to save us all from climate disaster (which would have meant more stimulus), the president wanted corporate-friendly health care reform.

Labor lined up—even when Obama broke his campaign promise not to tax benefits.

With no daylight between labor’s top brass and the Obama agenda, there was no room to reinforce the country’s initial common sense about what went wrong with the economy and how to fix it.


This left pundits, politicians, and far too many members of the public free to point the finger at teachers, bus drivers, and other government workers, blaming their pay and pensions—and their unions—for budget deficits. Why should city workers enjoy a decent retirement when most workers were one paycheck away from losing it all?

The have-nots were pitted against the have-a-little’s, leaving the 1% to have it all.

When Republicans took control of the House in 2010 and anti-union conservatives like Scott Walker moved in to governors’ mansions, conservatives started rolling out their elimination campaign for unions.

But their assault doubled as a working class wake-up call.

The Wisconsin uprising, last August’s rowdy strike of 45,000 against Verizon, the recurring short strikes by California health care workers, the militant actions of Longshore union members in Washington state to protect their jobs—2011 was the year the labor movement shook off its haze and started fighting back.

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