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We neither romanticize labor’s past nor neglect the important contributions our forebears have made.
June 10, 2019
With Responses From
Jun 10, 2019
7 Min read time
We neither romanticize labor’s past nor neglect the important contributions our forebears have made.
Editors’ Note: This forum is part of Boston Review's special project Democracy’s Promise.
We feel honored that such an accomplished group of scholars and activists would take time to engage with our essay. One of our goals was to produce precisely the sort of discussion our interlocuters have taken up. We feel strongly that the work of building an inclusive workers’ movement capable of confronting the challenges of twenty-first-century capitalism, reversing growing inequality, and reviving democracy must be a communal project—one built by many hands, informed by many voices, perspectives, and ideas. We don’t claim a monopoly on good strategic thinking, and we welcome dialogue with all who share our values and concern for the future.
We are fortunate to have engaged discussants hailing from different backgrounds and offering a range of perspectives: Cynthia Estlund and Kate Andrias offer insights based on their pathbreaking work on the future of labor law, pushing us to think more about the role of law and the state; Tom Kochan and John Hogan draw on their decades of scholarship in industrial relations to illuminate aspects of our analysis they believe require more attention; Jane McAlevey draws on both her own deep experience as an organizer and her knowledge of history to question the originality of our thinking; and Tamara L. Lee, an important scholar-activist in the struggle to build a more inclusive and intersectional labor movement, fears that we seek to restore a “golden age of labor past” that was in reality deeply problematic, especially for women and people of color.
We believe that we neither romanticize labor’s past nor neglect the important contributions our forebears have made.
Although some of these commentators criticize certain aspects of the strategic thinking we lay out, we are happy to find that none of them disputes either our diagnosis of the problem or our belief that our task in this moment must be, as McAlevey rightly puts it, to create “a more broadly rooted trade unionism.” With a few exceptions, the differences that arise among us flow from our different points of emphasis rather than fundamentally different analyses of where we stand and what we need to do moving forward.
Estlund, Kochan, and Hogan each suggest potentially fruitful points of emphasis that we might integrate into a more fully articulated analysis than we were able to provide in the limited space available for this exchange. Estlund sees a new kind of tripartism in our approach to rethinking collective bargaining—not the failed labor-business-state corporatism of the twentieth century, but instead an “alternative triangular constellation of actors” represented in the “grassroots alliances” we describe. We agree with her that such a constellation could play in reviving effective labor regulation. Kochan’s suggestions for a more fully articulated “technology strategy” for workers are both detailed and welcome—and we might add to his agenda the need to develop a whole new set of labor rights around data ownership, transparency, and surveillance. Welcome too is Hogan’s reminder that no effort to revive democracy will succeed unless workers’ organizations deepen their own democratic cultures and structures of accountability.
Andrias, McAlevey, and Lee are more pointed in their disagreements. Andrias believes that our essay sets up a false “dichotomy . . . between law reform and workers’ struggles” that is counterproductive. That she drew this conclusion from our essay indicates that we failed to be as clear as we should have been on the relationship between law and workers’ struggles. We do believe, as we put it, that “law will not save us.” But that does not mean that legal reform isn’t important or that it doesn’t have a crucial, indeed indispensable role to play. We don’t see legal reform and movement-building as an either/or. We simply meant to address the vital question “Which comes first?” We believe—and Andrias’s own very shrewd recent legal scholarship testifies to this—that the most effective approaches to labor law reform will emerge from workers’ struggles. Those struggles, growing in intensity and disruptiveness, will create the conditions to make truly liberating legal reform possible.
The differences that arise among us flow from our different points of emphasis rather than fundamentally different analyses.
McAlevey’s and Lee’s critiques are perhaps the most sharply edged. Interestingly, they take us to task for completely contradictory reasons. Lee suggests that we exhibit “nostalgia for a golden age of labor past,” while McAlevey makes the opposite point, that we have not given due credit to “the entire history of progressive trade unionism,” which has, she suggests, anticipated everything we have said and think. For our part, we believe that we neither romanticize labor’s past nor neglect the important contributions our forebears have made. But why quibble? Both Lee and McAlevey raise important issues with which we agree. Lee is right to insist both on a critical reading of how labor’s past actions have supported or refused to challenge white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy, and on the centrality of an intersectional approach to its future. It is also fair for McAlevey to remind us in her own way of the oft-repeated truism that there is “nothing new under the sun.” We accept both of these points.
Yet the question of what we believe is new about what we are saying and how it relates to labor’s past is in fact crucial, and so let us close with some thoughts on that. McAlevey’s reminders about the hard-won organizing victories of the industrial union era are well taken. She is right that in many ways the work of organizing and solidarity-building hasn’t changed much since that era. Today, as eighty years ago, there are “no short cuts” to building solidarity at the workplace level. Lee is also right that labor’s future depends on its ability to transcend the old style of workplace solidarity-building that McAlevey’s heroes practiced in the 1930s to build models of organization and bargaining more responsive to the particular form of capitalism that we face today.
Capitalism has changed in some important ways that unions have yet to respond effectively to.
Capitalism has changed in some important ways that unions have yet to respond effectively to. This explains why union density and worker bargaining power has been waning not only across the United States but around the industrialized world. The organizing and bargaining models of both industrial unionism and public sector unionism emerged in response to a capitalism that looked quite different from the version we confront today: before financialization and corporate managers’ slavish effort to satisfy financial markets by “maximizing shareholder value,” before privatization and the erosion of effective regulation, and at a time when the categories of “employer” and “employee” had a degree of stability and coherence that has been quickly dissipating in recent decades. These developments have made increasingly anachronistic the forms of organizing and bargaining that emerged in the private sector during the 1930s and 1940s and in the public sector during the 1960s and 1970s. The marginalized workers and communities that Lee rightly calls our attention to have been the most harmed by this development. Such harms are what we, and those who are developing new approaches to collective bargaining such as Caring Across Generations and Bargaining for the Common Good, seek to address. Both efforts intentionally use an intersectional approach by centering the problems of identity-based marginalization to develop demands, strategies, and tactics.
We believe that we need to build on the best of labor’s past, while confronting its historic mistakes and creating a framework and pathway for the future. Our goal is to create concrete strategies, tools, and tactics that encourage unions as well as racial justice, community, environmental, and other organizations to work together to build a movement to confront the crisis we face today. To do this we must build organizations where we work—knowing full well that this strategy will be insufficient unless we challenge the specific billionaires and corporations that are driving inequality through the financialization and monopolization of the economy. To challenge and beat them, we need to redefine our movement as being for the “common good,” which means going beyond what most unions traditionally organize and bargain about.
We need to redefine our movement as being for the “common good,” which means going beyond what most unions traditionally organize and bargain about.
While the one-on-one work of organizing might not have changed fundamentally, as McAlevey reminds us, the targets and vision toward which workers’ movements are directed must change. We have compiled demands that are increasingly being used in organizing and bargaining campaigns throughout the country, demands that range from racial justice to criminal justice, from protection of the environment to the protection of immigrants—and more. We urge readers to peruse them; they will give a fuller sense of our vision than we can supply here. Many of these demands reflect the challenges and opportunities for salient worker identities beyond class.
As this forum has helped to illustrate, the work of redistributing wealth and power in our age of profound inequality is already under way and already winning successes. We look forward to joining hands with our commentators in pursing this vital work, on which the very future of the planet may depend.
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