here to read Stephen Lerner's essay, Reviving
It is true, as Stephen Lerner says, that a just society depends on a powerful workers' movement driven by collective organization. And yes, non-violent civil disobedience is a necessary element of the movement: Without that intensity of commitment to the cause, there is no convincing evidence of movement. Every successful social movement has employed non-violent civil disobedience to change unfair rules that have unjustly bound people. Andale.
Reflecting on my own recent experience, I want to supplement Lerner's argument regarding collective organization. A powerful workers' movement needs different types of organizations, much as the Civil Rights movement needed organizations as different as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and the NAACP. I work for the Workers Organizing Committee. We are organizing low-wage workers and their families in metropolitan Portland, Oregon. Our constituency is multi-racial, multi-lingual (we function in five languages), and includes many immigrants. We are both neighborhood- and workplace-based. For the first few years of our existence we were linked with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. Last year we ended the formal ties with the union and expanded our organizing beyond hotel workers into all low-wage work in our urban area.
Unfortunately, however, if the number of unionized low-wage workers in the United States were to quadruple tonight, more than three quarters of the low-wage workers in the country would still be without collective organization in the morning. Unions are not the only collective organization we need.
Successful union organizing -- whether for recognition, or to win a contract -- takes longer now than it has at any other time in the second half of the twentieth century. Serious union organizing efforts must sustain campaigns for years rather than months. And sustaining those efforts often requires the support of strong, stable, allied community organizations and accurate research on corporate vulnerabilities.
In short, we need strong and effective community organizations as well as strong and effective unions.
Unions should shift resources to organizing and labor's message to the moral high ground, as Lerner suggests. Unions should also support the efforts of progressive community organizations, because community organizing has also become more difficult. It has become more difficult because low-wage workers are deeply isolated from each other: fragmented by race, ethnicity, language, dissolving community identity and institutions, and -- with two jobs and the need to hustle to survive -- by the loss of available time to associate with others.
Both sectors need each other in order to succeed in their efforts to organize more people into their respective memberships and to sustain their campaigns in ways that generate enough energy to make building the movement for social justice possible.
The other side is not well organized. They are internally divided, but they are very well resourced. There's a difference.
Our problem has very little to do with the level of organization among corporations and everything to do with the fact that unions and progressive community organizations are too small.
Our moral obligation is to put what precious little time and resources we have into building a social justice movement large enough to enable people to take their rightful place on the planet. This means organizing lots more low-income people into unions and progressive community organizations.
Click here to return to the Boston Review Forum, Reviving Unions.