| Click here to get to Stephen Lerner's essay, Reviving Unions. |
First Things First
American unions -- once key institutions in political and economic life, vehicles for social integration, political mobilization, and economic redistribution -- have lost their capacity to build broad alliances among different groups of workers and with other interest groups, social movements, and political parties in the larger community. How did this decline in organizational fortunes occur? Can it be reversed? And if so, how? These are the key questions Stephen Lerner addresses in his article.
First, the emphasis on direct action blends out the array of alternative (and successful) strategies currently being implemented by American unions. To be sure, the cooperativist and hot shop strategies have their problems, but in certain localities, under particular circumstances (and often combined with other approaches), these same tactics can succeed. Indeed, in an economy that is as differentiated as ours, it is difficult to imagine that any single tactic, be it cooperativist or militant, would always and everywhere work. This was the real lesson of the 1930s. Contrary to what Stephen Lerner claims, the successful organizing campaigns of the 1930s were built not on one strategy -- sit-down strikes -- but rather on an array of alternative strategies. In the steel industry, for example, the militant tactics employed against "Little Steel" were supplemented by a more cooperativist approach at U.S. Steel. The United Steelworkers also employed a legal strategy to challenge the autonomy of many independent locals and force them to amalgamate. Success came from this mixture of tactics, not any single one. The same was true for the garment workers, where Hillman not only mobilized workers to paralyze the entire industry in such major cities as New York, Chicago, and Baltimore, but also negotiated productivity-enhancing programs with individual employers. In short, I agree with Lerner that we should take history to heart as we seek to revive the union movement. But we need to learn from the more complicated and subtle historical record, not some partial and/or nostalgic reading of it.
Second, Lerner conflates the promotion of his preferred tactic with advancing the larger mission and moral standing of the union movement. "Concerted, militant action puts unions on a moral high ground." Not always. While civil disobedience crystallized the moral standing of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the same tactics employed by other groups (anti-choice activists in the US, farmers in France, transportation workers in Italy, etc.) have not moved them onto moral high ground, but have translated instead into highly particularistic and/or selfish images. Civil disobedience can work only if and when the union movement articulates a clear mission -- one that provides benefits not only for the unions' current or potential members but for the broader community. Lerner hints at what this mission could be but never articulates it. This, I believe, is what is really needed today. It is time for the American union movement to engage in a process of introspection, debate, and deliberation about the burning issues of the day: racism, sexism, economic inequality, etc. Once their position is clearly articulated and embraced by their membership, then unions should turn to a discussion of tactics for furthering the mission. But first things first.