The Agenda

Some Thoughts on the Future of Organized Labor

Nelson Lichtenstein, a distinguished labor historian teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes that the U.S. is on the cusp of left-liberal ascendancy, and that we may well see a trade union revival in the decade to come. Lichtenstein sees two roads ahead if such a revival is to come to pass. The first road, which keep in mind he sees as desirable and even exciting, would involve massive street protests and crippling strikes:

The first road would look something like what transpired on May 1, 2006, when during the massive “Day Without Immigrants” demonstrations millions of Latinos and supporters shut down scores of food-processing plants, restaurants, vineyards, and transport hubs in what was, in effect, a general strike. In its early hopeful stages, the Arab Spring looked something like this, and had Occupy been a dozen times larger it might have resembled a de facto sit-in that paralyzed urban financial hubs. We’ve had such mass upheavals in the more distant American past: in the industrial cities of the Midwest during the height of the 1936 and 1937 sit-down strikes; and in the era of hospital, teacher, and sanitation worker militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In such moments of controlled but hopeful chaos, the union movement wins allies and partners from a surprisingly wide array of forces: in the 1930s Hollywood stars and consumer advocates identified with the new upsurge while those who had long opposed unionism and worker empowerment rushed to offer concessions, if only to avoid something more radical or destabilizing. Smart labor leaders, like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther in the late 1930s or Jerry Wurf and Leon Davis in the 1960s, first champion this turbulent insurgency and then channel it into a set of well-consolidated laws, institutions, and bargaining arrangements that can last a generation or more. Brilliant and charismatic leaders, like Cesar Chavez, who fail to institutionalize such genuine but momentary militancy are destined to become tragic figures.

The problem with this first road forward is that it is impossible to plan or predict.

The second road Lichtenstein invokes involves establishing Democratic political hegemony, an outcome he sees as all but inevitable:

Here the union movement relies upon what now seems an inexorable drift to the left in American electoral politics. This has been obscured by Republican obstructionism in Congress, but the cultural and demographic revolutions that have liberated gays, made Latinos a decisive voting bloc, elevated an African American to the presidency, and made the Republicans hegemonic only among those white people who live in the states that once composed the old Confederacy seem to ensure that the Democrats, even liberal Democrats, are going to be the natural ruling party for the next generation. The task before organized labor is to make sure that this Democratic hegemony extends to working people, and not just in terms of an anti-poverty agenda or better health care, but in terms of their capacity to build institutional power—to organize new workers into trade unions and then give those unions the freedom to press forward their economic and political agenda.

Trumka’s decision to open up the September 2013 AFL–CIO convention in Los Angeles to a wide array of liberal groups was a symbolic step in this direction. He bragged that the convention was the most inclusive in decades, casting the effort to link up with progressive groups like the NAACP, the Sierra Club, as well as gay and immigrant rights advocates in almost existential terms. “We are in a crisis right now,” he told a press conference on the eve of the convention. “None of us are big enough to change the economy and make it work for everybody. It takes all progressive voices working together.”

He ends by praising “alt-labor,” the new organizing campaigns that seek not to establish traditional unions or collective contracts, but to band workers together in service to various political causes and to advocate for higher wages and benefits, among other things. What Lichtenstein misses is that “alt-labor” could evolve in a very different direction — away from political organizing and towards a more service-oriented culture, in which unions move from an adversarial posture towards meeting the needs of workers as they shift from one employer to another, by, for example, helping them upgrade their skills. This is something a small handful of unions do reasonably well, but it is something new labor organizations freed from the legacy of traditional unions can do even more effectively.

Moreover, Lichtenstein overstates the durability of the left-liberal coalition — the broader and more diverse it gets, the easier it will be for the rival conservative coalition to poach disgruntled members, as reconciling the interests of tax-sensitive upper-middle-income voters and low-income voters is easier said than done, leaving other, less-obvious cleavages aside. The return of labor radicalism is just as likely to alienate voters, including middle-income and lower-middle-income voters, as it is to inspire new coalitions. 

Lichtenstein largely neglects the increasingly central role of public sector unions in the AFL-CIO, despite the fact that their relative rise helps account for the larger ideological transformation of labor he celebrates:

Not all unions endorse the coalition-building, public policy orientation of either the AFL–CIO or the SEIU. Some leaders from the traditionally more conservative and parochial building trades have been alarmed at the prospect that environmental groups might increase their influence within the AFL–CIO, since they oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline and some other big infrastructure projects. “Does that mean we are going to turn energy policy of the AFL–CIO over to the Sierra Club?” asked Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “I grew up in the movement to do one of two things. We support anything that’s good for another union brother or sister, or we keep our mouths shut.” Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, also resisted Trumka’s new initiative, arguing that the whole purpose of trade unionism was to represent workers as workers: “We are not going to be the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations,” he told a press conference in the days leading up to the AFL–CIO convention.

If the majority of unionized employees work for the public sector, for organizations that can’t “go out of business,” political militancy (on behalf of the expansion of public payrolls) and environmental enthusiasms (that damage for-profit firms but that may well promote the expansion of public payrolls) will seem more attractive and less costly.


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