The consensus at every level, from rank and file workers to local officers and union presidents, is that our current efforts are not working. We are not successfully organizing the unorganized, protecting the living standards of current members through collective bargaining, or advancing a compelling political and legislative program. Yet even as the lives of our members deteriorate, unions often seem determined to commit suicide rather than fight back. The Right may be offering simplistic solutions, but until recently unions weren't offering anything -- no analysis, no program, no strategy, no vision.
More than our own interests are at stake. A just, democratic society depends on a powerful workers' movement. For workers, economic and political strength comes from collective organization, not individual wealth. Without such organization, we are bound to lose in the labor market and the political arena. And when we lose, democracy is replaced with corporate oligarchy. Over the past generation, these elementary truths have disappeared from political debate, even among progressives. Recovering them is a first step in restoring life to the American labor movement, in rebuilding unions and transforming them into the leaders of a new movement for economic and social justice.
But it is only a first step. Frustrated workers, union activists, and elected union officers can all agree that the situation is bad, and that unions need to do something new, something different. Yet opinion is sharply divided over what should be done. At last fall's AFL-CIO convention, Tom Donahue, who was expected to succeed Lane Kirkland as president, called for "building bridges, not blocking them" as a response to labor's difficulties. His challenger, SEIU President John Sweeney, replied: "I believe in building bridges whenever the shelling lets up long enough for us to put up steel and pour concrete -- we need to be a full partner with our employers and a full citizen of the communities we live in. But I believe in blocking bridges whenever those employers and those communities turn a deaf ear to the working families we represent."
Given our grim situation, then, how can we -- as individuals, as institutions, as a movement -- change the way we mobilize our members, engage employers, and fight back against corporate attack? According to some trade unionists, we must give up on unions' traditional adversarial posture; in a competitive international economy, workers need to cooperate in ensuring the competitiveness of their firms, hoping in exchange to win greater job security and training. Others emphasize that workers need their own representation, but that current circumstances require a shift in organizational form -- from traditional unions, with their role as collective wage-bargainers, to non-union forms of worker representation (for example, works councils, or "new age" unions) that would focus less on compensation than on administering internal labor markets. A third view proposes to arrest the decline of labor through a more aggressive strategy of organizing focused on individual "hot shops" (work sites) where workers are dissatisfied and angry. A fourth focuses on the state, arguing that unions should lobby politically to improve both conditions for organizing and standards of living.
Each of these four strategies -- cooperativist, non-collective bargaining, "hot shop" organizing, and political lobbying -- has serious deficiencies. We have tried cooperation and been rewarded with wage decline and job insecurity. Moreover, non-collective bargaining solutions, such as works councils, developed as an outgrowth of strong unions and political movements in countries where union power is not dependent on individual firms. In the United States, a weaker overall union movement means such solutions are unlikely to advance workers' interests; in any case, we can't give up our role in collective bargaining. In addition, aggressive organizing of individual work sites without addressing real competitive pressures ensures implacable opposition from employers and limits our ability to make substantive long-term economic improvements. Finally, an exclusively political strategy under our current conditions of weakness at best promises minor victories, at worst another round of public humiliation.
If we are to increase the power of workers, then, we need a renewed focus on building unions, not alternative forms of workers' representation. Furthermore, we need an industry-wide and regional strategy of organizing, rather than one focused on organizing firms one by one. And, as Sweeney's victory suggests, we need to back up this program with a militant posture, which means engaging in mass civil disobedience and direct action. With all that unions are up against, only these radically different approaches can help us start winning again.
Where We Are Now
The law doesn't work -- not for us. It does not support or protect workers' right to organize, bargain, or fight to improve conditions. Many of the tactics and strategies that allow us to hurt employers are illegal: secondary boycotts, mass picketing, common situs picketing. Effective action undertaken by striking workers is almost always enjoined by the courts within 24 hours.
Not only are workers' rights unprotected, but actions that increase workers' power are unlawful. As legislators and courts have aggressively protected the rights of employers and failed to protect those of workers, effective collective action has been placed outside the law.
This same dynamic carries over from organizing to bargaining. The law doesn't force employers to bargain seriously or to sign agreements. They can bargain to impasse, lock workers out, hire scabs -- it's all legal. For unions, by contrast, obeying the law reduces us to walking, in small circles, in front of facilities running on scab labor. This has no impact on employers, is demoralizing for workers, and bears witness to union impotence.
Our failures in organizing, bargaining, and political effectiveness are mutually reinforcing. We are weak at the bargaining table because we haven't organized our employers' other facilities or non-union competition. That bargaining weakness -- added to relentless employer opposition -- makes organizing harder: Why join a union that is unable to win improvements in wages and working conditions? So our numbers shrink. And limited numbers make it harder to win legislative remedies that would relieve our organizing problems.
Employers and unions have responded very differently to this vicious cycle. Employers smell blood. From individual work sites to large companies, from county school boards to city and state legislatures, they have implemented a plan to weaken and eventually eliminate unions. Whatever they say about competitiveness, cooperation, flexibility, the good of the whole economy, the new economy, training, or the information superhighway, they see unions, workers' rights, and a broad array of progressive social policies as burdens on business and threats to profit.
Labor's response has been defensive and conciliatory. While employers seek to destroy us, we try to convince them we can help make them more profitable. Rather than advocating unions as the only way for workers to win economic and social justice, we've allowed the question of whether unions make companies and the economy more competitive to define the debate on the importance of unions.
Two broad assumptions underlie this response. First, we have been seduced into believing that a shift to a more global, service and information-based economy has altered the basic relationship between employers and workers, requiring workers to cooperate with owners to ensure the health of the firm. But the importance of international markets and foreign competition has been exaggerated, and new technologies are hardly a new problem. Throughout history employers have used changes in the economy to justify their attacks on workers' rights. What is new is that so many liberal academics, so-called progressives, and even some unionists endorse the cooperativist view -- the idea that new forms of organization based on cooperation with employers are the best hope for workers and unions. We face the greatest employer assault on unions in 50 years, and yet many "friends of labor" are urging us to cooperate with the very people who are trying to eliminate us. We are hardly living through a period of union confrontation and militancy. Having already given concessions and lost control over jobs, how could we be more cooperative?
Second, we continue to operate, in most of our work, on the assumption that unions are accepted and valued as part of this country's economic and political life -- a partner in a system of industrial relations. We see ourselves as supporters and beneficiaries of the very system that has rejected us. As a result, we interpret each new assault on unions and workers' rights as an isolated problem attributable to bad employers, economic change, and disloyal politicians, instead of viewing each gesture as part of a systematic effort to destroy us. Focusing on individual battles, we are blind to the war raging all around us. So we allow employers to open non-union facilities, out-source and subcontract union work, and viciously oppose our organizing, while establishing "cooperative" relationships with these same employers in the ever-declining unionized segments of their work force. And we act surprised, hurt, and confused when the Dunlop Commission's report describes an economy with worker "representation" but no unions. Yet we refuse to publicly criticize and break with our "friends" who drafted and supported a report that offers ammunition to enemies who want to gut collective bargaining.
If we continue down this track, we can only expect more of the same, but with diminishing success. Something has to change -- maybe it's us.
Our first step must be a fundamental change of orientation. We have to stop thinking that unions are one half of a "labor-management partnership," or part of a "system of industrial relations." There is no partnership, and the only industrial relation is hostility. We are now a movement in opposition. Hindered and hurt by our country's laws, we face a life and death struggle with the very corporations, politicians, and government with whom we've spent a lifetime building relationships.
We didn't choose opposition; we have been forced into it. And now we have no alternative but to focus our time, energy, and resources on a radically different approach to rebuilding labor's power. That approach must draw on our principal strength, which is not the good will of employers enthusiastic about cooperative labor relations, but the millions of union workers who believe in their hearts that strong unions are essential to a better future. We need to mobilize these forces.
But members won't rally around defensive campaigns to cut losses. We need something positive and constructive, a set of goals animated by the sense of justice and injustice that has guided the labor movement from its inception. Building on our members, moral principles, and billions in union assets, we can overwhelm the unending greed of the rich and powerful, and mobilize our members and the country to fight for a more just society.
Consider four such goals:
In the 1930's, unions and workers, pursuing similar goals and faced with similar legal and political constraints, made two important strategic decisions. First, instead of proceeding shop by shop, they decided to organize on an industry-wide basis. These organizing campaigns -- in steel, auto, and rubber -- paved the way to power at the bargaining table and appealed to workers' sense that they were building real power. Indeed, no major industry was organized one firm at a time.
Second, because they could not effectively strike, win recognition, and bargain contracts by picketing outside of factories -- a combination of private security guards, police, injunctions, and scabs made this an ineffective method of impacting an employer's business -- workers occupied factories to stop goods from being produced.
Factory occupations required tremendous personal risks, but workers took them because occupations offered an opportunity to win. Sit-down strikes swept the nation because they worked. Their impact on individual companies and the overall economy created a need for legislative relief that rationalized labor relations through a regulated system of collective bargaining. Prior to an explosion of labor discontent the system worked fine, for employers. So if unions hadn't created problems for employers there would have been no need for legislative relief.
Similarly, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and early 1960's could not get legislation passed to outlaw segregation. The moral authority that came from non-violent civil disobedience, combined with the impact of direct action and disruption on business, government, and communities, forced change. In fact, virtually every great non-violent movement of the twentieth century has been built around direct action and mass civil disobedience. From India's struggle for independence to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, effective social movements have stood for something so important that large numbers of people have taken tremendous risks to support them. And because people would get arrested and resist those who oppressed them, these movements were able to develop the power to radically alter their countries.
The sit-down strikes of the 1930's forced concessions from those in power. Because of this concerted collective action, employers wanted unions to be partners in the system, rather than outsiders disrupting it. It is hard to imagine successful organizing and bargaining in the 1930's without sit-down strikes, or a successful Civil Rights movement without mass civil disobedience. More recently, the health care workers of 1199, the United Farm Workers, and public employee unions won critical victories only because they were willing to break the law. The biggest organizing gains in the private sector in the last 30 years have come in occupations that were not covered by the National Labor Relations Act -- hospital workers and farm workers. And illegal strikes that resulted in the jailing of union leaders stimulated the huge growth in public employee organizing. Likewise, to overcome current obstacles, mobilizing our members through mass civil disobedience is the strategy with the best chance of success.
As we seek to revive the labor movement, we should take history to heart. Instead of courting public opinion by playing up our ability to increase productivity, we need to earn workers' and public support by fighting corporate attempts to impoverish workers and their communities. In addition to highlighting associate membership, scholarships, and other non-confrontational benefits we provide, we need to demonstrate that we can beat employers. Rather than making ourselves less confrontational, we need to become more vocal, aggressive, militant, and creative in how we lead the fight to defend workers' rights. Considering all the obstacles we face, we should focus once more on organizing whole industries, and look to non-violent civil disobedience and direct action if we want to regain the ability to win.
Organizing By Industry
We are currently organizing fewer than 100,000 workers each year through the National Labor Relations Board, and we have trouble beating employers who are intent on not signing contracts and breaking unions. To change this, we must return to industry-wide and regional strategies of organizing. Only by organizing whole industries can we take wages out of competition and win serious economic improvements.
Though much recent discussion of wage depression has focused on international factors, the majority of US workers work in firms competing in regional and national markets. Their wages have not been driven down by foreign competition, but by pressure from non-union US firms competing in the same market. Janitors' jobs are not being exported to Mexico or South Asia; instead, janitors -- like hotel workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, and health care workers -- face relentless wage pressure because unions no longer represent the majority of workers within their industries.
Learning from the successes of the 1930's, we need once more to target whole industries. Workers (rationally) won't organize if it doesn't make sense. They won't organize in large numbers if the risk to their jobs far exceeds expected benefits. And they know, from experience and at a gut level, that organizing one shop at a time is a prescription for bad contracts and lost jobs.
At bottom, the problem is that unions will fail if employers correctly believe that signing a contract is committing economic suicide. And that's what happens when we organize one shop at a time: Either we must accept minimal contracts, or we make employers uncompetitive. By targeting industries, and taking wages out of competition, we can rationalize wages and tame market forces. And by targeting tens of thousands of workers by industry, instead of hundreds by shop, we can start to reach the scale required for economic power.
CD and Direct Action
Civil disobedience -- planned and open violations of laws that interfere with the ability to win justice -- means different things to different people. Some people think of symbolic choreographed arrests; some of huge demonstrations. Non-violent civil disobedience can play many different tactical and organizational roles, depending on your aims and level of mobilization. It may be as simple as a sitting in a doorway, getting arrested, and paying a $50 fine. Or it may mean hundreds of people getting arrested for stopping the transportation of struck goods. Beyond the impact of the action itself, civil disobedience draws power from the image of people voluntarily getting arrested; it says that their cause is so just, it is worth the risk of going to jail.
The need for non-violent direct action flows from the same source as civil disobedience: an inability to win within a framework of unfair laws. But the tactics are different. In direct action the goal is to maximize the level of disruption without necessarily engaging in symbolic arrests. For instance, it might mean creating roving blockades of roads, with people leaving the scene in time to avoid being arrested.
Practical and Moral
Embracing civil disobedience and direct action is a practical and a moral choice, based on the conviction that it is our responsibility to take risks, both individually and institutionally, to advance the cause of justice. In both cases we are openly and non-violently violating laws. We are trying to impact employers and the corporate community in more effective ways than we can by obeying the law.
As a practical matter, civil disobedience and direct action are ways to counteract the practice of fighting narrow individual fights and isolated workplaces. Instead of confining disagreements to the smallest arena, the idea is to escalate the scale of the conflict, until we create the level of crisis necessary to settle disputes. We move beyond striking one employer and spread the "strike" to whole companies, industries, cities. We engage our enemies' allies in the political/corporate community, who support and tolerate their unjust treatment of workers.
A common reaction to discussions of CD and direct action is nostalgic: that they were great ideas in our glorious past, but can't be done now. One major fear is that they will result in legal problems and financial liability. "We have too much to lose. Unions have buildings and savings. The reason unions and the Civil Rights movement could take these risks in the past is because they had nothing to lose."
There are several answers to this concern.
First, if we continue the way we are going, we may save buildings and investments but our ability to fulfill our mission of organizing, representing workers, and improving society is zero. Big treasuries don't help if we have no members.
Second, we have tremendous control over when we take risks, and we have the ability to decide if the risk, fines, or jail time is worth the potential benefit. If obeying an injunction is the nail in the coffin of a strike that literally could cause a union to lose 5,000 members, it may be worth violating the injunction. In terms of what is right for workers, and the union's industry bargaining power, it may be worth risking court fines to win the strike. (Especially because the settlement may require all litigation to be dropped.)
Third, we can find creative ways to minimize financial exposure. We might even be able to find a way to be just as effective without violating a court order. If the court order says we can't block a company's driveway, it may not be a violation of the order to block a highway 100 yards away. This not only stops delivery of goods, but raises the conflict to a higher level because a whole area can't function as a result of the action. Our rule should be: expand the scope of conflict, limit the scope of our liability.
But the decision to use CD and direct action as basic weapons in labor's arsenal has significance far beyond its immediate impact on our ability to organize and bargain. Concerted, militant action puts unions on a moral high ground. It says to workers and the country that unions believe the labor movement is worth fighting for, that it stands for values so important to workers and the country that they are worth going to jail for. It says we are assuming leadership in the battle not just for the future of unions but for the whole country. People know us by our deeds: Willingness to go to jail for a cause elevates that cause, and those who act in its name. When leaders, members, and allies take real personal risks for the union, people will see us differently. We will have redefined ourselves, not as victims of an onslaught, but as agents of a more just society. To the extent that unions have employed these tactics, they have largely worked.
These examples suggest a general lesson: that CD and direct action will strengthen our hand in achieving our basic goals -- organizing the unorganized, bargaining with employers, mobilizing our base, and advancing a legislative program. Let's consider these in turn.
Organizing and Bargaining
Workers won't fight for a union, go on strike, or take other risks to win the union, unless they believe they have a reasonable chance of beating their bosses. That's the reason for industry-wide organizing, and that's the reason for campaigns that involve large numbers of union members, non-union workers, and allies in direct action to defend workers' rights. Such battles fundamentally change both the reality and perceptions of power.
Imagine how different our organizing and bargaining campaigns would be if we started using our capacity to physically interfere with the ability of companies to operate, produce, and deliver goods and services. With solidarity actions forcing visible changes in anti-union campaigns, non-union workers would rise above their fear of organizing. And when workers see that we have a plan, a strategy, and the troops to force employers to settle, they would see collective bargaining as worth fighting for.
By mobilizing our most active union members to support workers who are organizing and bargaining, we can:
Mobilizing Our Base
It is difficult to activate members when we are asking them to do something with little impact. By building a campaign around activities designed to engage and beat our enemies we give our members reason to be involved. And we can challenge them to deepen that involvement and take risks that bind them to the movement in new ways. Instead of lowering the definition of what it means to be a union member -- cheap benefits, another credit card -- we are saying that what we have is so valuable that it commands greater commitment.
We don't expect a majority of members to be ready immediately to get arrested in support of the union. We are trying to win victories and inspire other members through the actions of our most active members. Members who aren't willing to get arrested might still support the actions of those who are.
But we should do more with the most active members. If one percent of labor's membership, 160,000 people, could be organized into an army of activists ready to risk arrest to support organizing, bargaining, and strikes, we would have the potential to bring whole cities to a standstill. Through this kind of activity, we demonstrate the kind of power we can exercise, which would enable us to increase the number of members willing to take greater risks. After all, the auto plants were shut down by a militant minority of workers who sat in. During the Civil Rights movement, the militant action of a relatively small group of activists inspired others who were initially paralyzed by fear. And the US anti-apartheid struggle mushroomed into a national movement by building off regular arrests at the South African Embassy in Washington, DC.
Work and Politics
Apart from strengthening its position in organizing and bargaining, the labor movement has an opportunity to champion the rights of all workers -- organized, unorganized, employed, unemployed, working, and retired -- in the political arena. How we articulate and fight for our beliefs politically can mirror, expand, and build on our direct battles with individual companies. By clearly stating our interests as workers versus the interests of corporate America, we can define who the enemy is, who we represent, what we are trying accomplish, and force politicians to choose which side they are on. We can't cooperate with politicians who are anti-union any more than we can with corporations who want to eradicate unions.
But we need to link our legislative and political program to our day-to-day fights. As long as legislative/political work is seen as a sterile exercise of getting people registered and voting every couple of years, we can't expect mass involvement among our members.
For example, by speaking the truth that OSHA "reform" will mean more workers murdered on the job, we set the stage to confront politicians in the same way we confront employers who endanger our lives. We can disrupt their offices, hearings, lives, and businesses and hold them personally accountable for supporting the right of employers to kill workers on the job. And, by targeting the business operations of companies advocating the "right to work" or "regulatory reform" (the effective elimination of OSHA , etc.), or opposing legislation we want, we can involve members in fighting the people responsible for funding the politicians who are against us.
Unions force companies to do things they don't want to do. We use the threat of greater economic damage to get them to agree to changes in wages and benefits. We need to apply the same kind of economic pressure to neutralize them and their allies in the political arena. If we can force a company to give us union security at the bargaining table, why can't we force them not to challenge it legislatively?
The "living wage" campaigns recently launched in a number of cities and states are a good example of such a political strategy. Aiming to address declining wages and increasing economic inequality, living wage regulations require employers that contract with a city or state to pay wages above the current minimum. In Milwaukee, for example, the city council recently established a living wage requirement of $6.05/hour.
But living wage campaigns are not substitutes for organizing and collective bargaining. Raising the minimum wage typically does not provide a living wage, but only a higher poverty wage. And it does not stop the elimination of decent paying jobs that is now resulting from deunionization and the reorganization of work. With a weak labor movement, it is hard to imagine winning a living wage legislatively on a broad scale; as always, decent politics requires a strong social base. Instead, political campaigns should serve as tools in helping to build a movement that organizes, wins contracts, and improves workers' lives. These campaigns can drive public debate about the causes and consequences of declining wages, activate workers and give them hope by winning concrete victories, focus anger on companies responsible for driving wages down, and build coalitions dedicated to fighting for workers' rights.
Civil disobedience and direct action alone are, of course, not enough. No one tactic can restore labor's power. We need a larger program to rebuild the labor movement. Advancing such a program means we must:
1. Go on the offensive, and act powerfully on our moral convictions. To fight for economic and social justice, we must build the organizational capacity to conduct ongoing, escalating actions to promote organizing, bargaining, and legislative goals. We need to develop that capacity in every state and major city to disrupt business as usual. The overlay to all of our work must be a growing ability to interfere with the operations of companies, communities, cities, and governments unless they help settle disputes that stem from anti-worker action.
2. Launch the largest organizing drives in our history. Lobbying and negotiation will not solve problems that stem from declining membership and power. Hope for the future lies in new organizing. All of our work must be judged and evaluated based on how it concretely helps us grow in numbers and power.
3. Mobilize our own base. We need to organize and mobilize union activists to support a broad fight for workers' rights and to rebuild the labor movement. These activists must be trained in and committed to engaging in mass actions that physically interfere with and shut down the operations of labor's enemies.
When anti-labor laws, injunctions, and court orders limit unions' ability to fight, progressives and community activists must step forward and fill the void. Independent organizations dedicated to defending the rights of workers to organize don't face the same kind of legal restrictions or potential liability that unions do.
4. Restore the links between organizing and bargaining. Organizing and bargaining are closely interrelated. Bargaining needs to be used as a key component in mobilizing members to win union recognition in non-union parts of their company and to support labor's larger program, not just to win illusory short-term gains.
5. Commit our resources to the struggle. We need hundreds of millions of dollars to fund these activities. At every level of the labor movement we must shift resources away from servicing a declining base to supporting offensive organizing and bargaining. Locals, international unions and the AFL-CIO must raise money by using reserves, shifting resources, mortgaging union properties, and instituting special organizing assessments. What better way to change our image and capacity to challenge corporate America than to change how we spend our money and allocate our resources?
6. Refuse to divorce our political and legislative agenda from our basic principles. Unions must refuse to support any candidate who does not actively support workers' rights. We must fight for these rights as the Civil Rights movement fought for civil rights. Every bill that is introduced should have pro-worker amendments attached. The litmus test for every politician and piece of legislation must be how it impacts our ability to organize and bargain. If we can't pass pro-worker legislation, then we must demonstrate that we can stop legislation that business needs. Our political work must mirror our life and death fight in the workplace.
7. We need a labor movement-wide approach to movement building. A coordinated labor effort requires leadership. No single union can amass the resources, skill, or capacity to win alone. Our enemies are united and so must we be. The AFL-CIO can be the moral, strategic, and logistical center of a campaign to build a national movement dedicated to fighting for the rights of workers, defending democracy, and improving the lives of the ever increasing numbers of people forced into poverty.
The AFL-CIO leadership has committed itself to plan, direct, and help finance multi-union industry organizing campaigns. It is aiming to refocus the work of state and central bodies toward mobilizing members and affiliates to actively participate in and support offensive organizing and bargaining fights. And the new leadership is developing a broad program that involves members in attacking anti-worker legislation. Changes at the AFL-CIO, combined with mounting worker anger over declining standards of living, offer us a historic opportunity to rebuild the labor movement at every level. We must seize this opportunity to revitalize a workers' movement in this country. By dedicating ourselves to fighting for the rights of all workers, organizing the unorganized, engaging in civil disobedience and direct action, and defeating corporate power, we can breathe life into an old saying: "Bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old -- for the union makes us strong."
Click here for the Boston Review Forum, Reviving