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  Click here to read Stephen Lerner's essay, Reviving Unions.

Building Foundations

Katherine Sciacchitano

Let me start with what is compelling in Lerner's argument. Employers are not our allies, unorganized workers are; direct action and civil disobedience are essential in the current legal and political climate (employers don't let the law define their strategies, and we mustn't either); we need to see organizing and political action as one, and our approach must be broad -- devoting sufficient resources to organize entire industries, and ensuring a leader-ship role for workers in the economy and polity.

Lerner says all these things, and says them with authority: He spearheaded the most significant industry-wide organizing campaign we have today. He has used the tactics he proposes. And he puts the responsibility where it lies. We can't whine about employers. We need to change.

But if what needs to change is "us," Lerner paints only half the picture -- and not the most important half.

Perhaps by omission, Lerner writes as if adopting the right ideas and combining them with direct action and civil disobedience will itself organize millions of workers. This runs the risk of confusing tactics with strategy. It also glosses over unions' tendency to forget that they don't just need workers' bodies to carry out plans determined on high, but their hearts and minds to help develop successful strategies and tactics.
Like many others today, Lerner cites the Civil Rights movement as a model and talks about "the moral authority that came from non-violent civil disobedience" that "forced change." But the Civil Rights movement was not "created" by the tactic of civil disobedience. As Aldon Morris' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement shows, and as surviving activists can still testify, it was the result of indigenous, overlapping networks of activists and "ordinary people" that drew on deep traditions of protest and community institutions, including the church, to shape a sustained and strategic response to oppression. And it did not develop over the course of several campaigns, or several years, but over decades.
Without putting a
premium on union
democracy, we will
never have members'
participation, and solidarity
will be another
hollow slogan.

Similarly, the upheavals of the '30s were not "created" by the decision to organize on an industrial basis or to use extra-legal tactics. They were the result of years of organizing by dedicated in-shop cadre, widespread political upheavals that linked shop floor to community issues, and deep ties that still existed between workers and their communities. Nor did they take place overnight. A decade passed just between the time Big Steel recognized the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and Little Steel agreed to bargain.

The solidarities that once linked workers to their communities and helped organize today's unions didn't come quickly. They grew in response to upheavals of capitalism, as people turned to boycotts, consumer cooperatives, mutual aid societies, and other self-help measures -- as well as unions -- to survive the traumas of industrial transformation.

These solidarities have largely eroded. The source of the erosion lies partly in economic forces. But it also reflects union decisions to narrow their focus from the development of class-based politics to the institutionalization of collective bargaining.

Today, women and immigrants are changing the face of labor. Employment relationships, even whole occupations, are becoming "contingent" and no longer fit within the mold of industrial unionism. The labor movement is only beginning to re-examine its base in the community, and to establish the kinds of organic ties needed to recreate itself in this new environment.

Developing those ties will require re-examining ourselves -- particularly our emphasis on bargaining with employers rather than building worker solidarity and community. It will require that we be less concerned with producing "numbers" than with building solidarity and changing power relations; that we hire organizers from the communities and shops where we organize rather than parachuting them into town; that we be more respectful of non-union forms of worker organizing -- not the works councils which Lerner decries, but the experiments that are forging new forms of unionism that will be needed in the next century; that we treat community organizations as equals, rather than as means to an end; that we build long-term political agendas and alliances -- and yes, a labor party in which we truly have a voice -- rather than short term coalitions to win elections.

Above all, it will require that we put a premium on union democracy -- the voice of our members. For without this we will never have their participation, and solidarity will be another hollow slogan.

Lerner may agree with much of this, but it is not automatically implied in what he has said. And it bears remembering.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review

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