May 22, 2017
With Responses From
May 22, 2017
7 Min read time
Organizational change will not produce more socially conscious unions.
Few on the labor left would disagree with the broad thrust of “The Right to Strike”: that the labor movement’s revival requires a greater willingness to take risks, break laws, embrace social movements, advocate on behalf of the working class as a whole, and ensure a vibrant internal democratic culture. But the specifics of how to achieve this transformation pose a challenge that may run even deeper than the authors acknowledge.
Let’s begin with one of the pillars of their argument, that “the capacity of workers to withhold labor” is the “reason why the workers’ movement, alone among progressive organizations, has been able to sustain mass organizations over a long period of time.” This is the foundation for their insistence on the priority of “reclaim[ing] the right to strike.” But historical precision matters here. From the 1870s onward, the enormous strikes that periodically wracked the American industrial landscape largely failed to produce permanent labor organizations. Even the magnificent sit-down strike wave of 1937 did not result in stable unions. The newly organized workers in auto, steel, rubber, and electrical were “[p]ragmatic and often opportunistic,” historian Nelson Lichtenstein has written, expecting “an immediate payoff from their union commitment: a resolution of old grievances, a rapid increase in wages, a liberalization of work rules and production standards.” When the “Roosevelt recession” threw unions on the defensive in 1938, rendering contract gains impossible, the number of members paying their dues dropped so precipitously that the Steel Workers Organizing Committee resorted to “monthly dues picket lines that cajoled or threatened delinquent workers to pay up before they could enter the mill. . . .[A]bsenteeism ran as high as 25 per cent on the days dues pickets patrolled mill gates.”
To revive the labor movement we need a social and political climate that endows unionism with a broader social, moral, and ideological authority.
It was only during World War II, when the imperatives of wartime production impelled the Roosevelt administration to more broadly honor union security clauses—the union shop with automatic dues check-off—in exchange for no-strike pledges that the new industrial unions finally achieved the stability that had eluded the movement for over half a century. Membership in auto, steel, electrical, rubber, and packinghouse unions more than doubled between 1941 and 1944, at last creating the well-financed organizations we associate with the modern industrial labor movement. Ultimately it was an agreement not to strike that guaranteed labor’s unique independent power—its independent source of revenue.
We cannot polemicize away the profound contradiction that lies at the heart of the labor movement’s power. It was precisely a willingness to channel its power into state-sanctioned structures of collective bargaining that made possible the establishment of unions powerful enough, and sufficiently resourced, to challenge the might of national corporations such as GM, Ford, US Steel, and AT&T. This compromise made possible the enormous gains in workers’ living standards negotiated by the movement in the thirty years after World War II, while also contributing to the bureaucratization and institutionalization that Pope, Bruno, and Kellman assert are corroding labor’s mission and power today.
I am by no means making an argument against strikes. In ten rounds of collective bargaining with the company variously known as NYNEX, Bell Atlantic, and Verizon over the last three decades, I have played a significant role in six strikes, ranging in length from two and a half days in 1998, to seven weeks in spring 2016, to seventeen weeks in 1989. Strikes are inspiring, risky, frightening, grueling, and—when you win—exhilarating. The experience of a long strike forges an enduring sense of workers’ collective power and élan, and lifts up battle-tested leaders. In short, unions shaped by a culture and history of striking are easily distinguished from those that are not.
But it is one thing to wage a strategic economic strike. It is quite another to leap over the virtual absence of radical political consciousness in the labor movement to advocate mass “political strikes” and civil disobedience as realistic short-term tactical options for labor’s revitalization. The authors’ call for prioritization of the right to strike and organize over economic gain harks back to an era when mass strikes—in the Chicago Haymarket in 1886, in New York’s 1909 Uprising of the 20,000, in the Seattle General Strike of 1919, during the 1934 San Francisco General Strike—were political expressions of a vital belief that a new and better world was not only possible, but on the near horizon. Pope, Bruno, and Kellman point to Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Fight for Fifteen, and Black Lives Matter as evidence of a reviving radical political consciousness. But they overlook the problem that these undeniably inspiring developments have largely bypassed labor and the working class. “This new politics is generally more class-focused than class-rooted,” Andrew Murray, Chief of Staff at UNITE, Britain’s largest trade union, has written. “While it places issues of social inequality and global economic power front and center, it neither emerges from the organic institutions of the class-in-itself nor advances the socialist perspective of the class-for-itself.”
The same dilemma complicates the second major argument of “The Right to Strike,” that the elimination of unions’ legal right of exclusive representation is the key to displacing the “crabbed definition of unions themselves” dictated by the legal framework of the National Labor Relations Act. The authors point to all the ways in which exclusive representation empowers unresponsive union bureaucrats, engenders sectoral rather than class consciousness, and narrows labor’s political horizons. These claims have merit; exclusive representation is certainly one element of a highly structured system of labor relations—including automatic dues check-off, no-strike clauses, and legal limitations on tactics such as secondary strikes—that constrict the labor movement’s militancy and power.
The argument against exclusive representation is strangely neoliberal: competition between unions will produce a “better product” for workers.
The question is whether, absent a substantial layer of politicized rank-and-file members and leaders, a labor relations infrastructure without exclusive representation is likely to produce more militant, socially conscious unions? I think not.
Besides, it is simply unimaginable that labor will voluntarily sacrifice exclusive representation. The imminent demise of agency fees in the public sector, and the potential enactment of national right-to-work legislation—while stimulating all sentient unionists to redouble their efforts to engage rank-and-file workers and persuade them of the benefits of union power—certainly do not serve to strengthen the labor movement, even though they weaken the exclusive representation monopoly. And, in the current political climate, the likelihood that labor will be offered a tradeoff between exclusive representation and the proposed Employee Empowerment Act is nil. For the overwhelming majority of trade unionists, elimination of exclusive representation would be just one more anti-union nail in the coffin of labor’s power.
The argument against exclusive representation also strikes me as strangely neoliberal: competition between unions will produce a “better product” for workers. This line of argument parallels what we hear from hedge fund moguls promoting charter schools—that absent the competition of private sector alternatives to the public-school monopoly squelches innovation, breeds complacency, and puts the self-interest of teachers before the interests of students. In fact this is a frequent argument made by the union-avoidance industry itself in worker organizing campaigns. The argument further assumes that a complacent, monopolistic labor bureaucracy stands in the way of a restive and politicized rank and file, a proposition for which there is little evidence. The weakness of the working-class left, at the levels of both rank and file and leadership, is a far more serious problem than the structure of exclusive representation.
What is needed to produce an upsurge in working-class militancy and a revival of the labor movement is not the amendment of a single section of labor law, but a social and political climate that endows unionism with a broader social, moral, and ideological authority. Historically, those are the only conditions under which working-class organizations have both arisen and consolidated. Creating such conditions is self-evidently a challenge of greater scope and complexity than can be addressed by a single tactical maneuver.
In the age of Trump, the logic of labor’s postwar bargaining and political pragmatism has reached its suicidal, absurd extreme. Against such pragmatism, labor progressives must advance a multifaceted alternative program and vision. We must embrace the struggles of social movements, from the Fight for Fifteen to immigrants’ rights, from climate change to Black Lives Matter. We need a scaled-up commitment to membership political education, so that millions of working-class union members can readily distinguish between racist, xenophobic, anti-labor right-wing populism and the multiracial, anti-corporate progressive populism that is our only hope for labor’s revival. We need to explore pragmatic strategies of independent political action, such as the Working Families Party and Our Revolution, which will enable us to challenge the power of corporate Democrats who have helped sink labor’s political agenda for decades. We must strive to build democratic unions that engage in militant fights on behalf of workers from their workplaces to their communities to the ballot box. Without such groundwork, it is impossible to imagine labor adopting the kinds of radical initiatives proposed by Pope, Bruno, and Kellman.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.