Labor Wrestles With Its Future

By Harold Myerson


Working-America2.jpg Since the emergence of capitalism, workers seeking higher pay and safer workplaces have banded together in guilds and unions to pressure their employers for a better deal. That has been the approach of the American labor movement for the past 200 years.

 That approach, however, has begun to change. It’s not because unions think collective bargaining is a bad idea but because workers can’t form unions any more — not in the private sector, not at this time. There are some exceptions: Organizing continues at airlines, for instance, which are governed by different organizing rules than most industries. But employer opposition to organizing has become pervasive in the larger economy, and the penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights as they attempt to unionize are so meager that such violations have become routine. For this and a multitude of other reasons, the share of unionized workers in the private sector dropped from roughly one-third in the mid-20th century to a scant 6.6 percent last year. In consequence, the share of the nation’s economy constituted by wages has sunk to its lowest level since World War II, and U.S. median household income continues to decline.

Unions face an existential problem: If they can’t represent more than a sliver of American workers on the job, what is their mission? Are there other ways they can advance workers’ interests even if those workers aren’t their members?

 These questions are anything but easy. Unions have begun to experiment with answers, even if, as the unions readily admit, they’re a poor substitute for collective bargaining. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has detailed dozens of organizers to fast-food joints in a number of cities: There have been one-day strikes of fast-food workers in New York and Chicago, and such actions are likely to spread. The goal isn’t a national contract with companies such as McDonald’s but the eventual mobilization of enough such workers in sympathetic cities and states that city councils and legislatures will feel compelled to raise the local minimum wage or set a living wage in particular sectors. This means, however, that the SEIU is helping to build an organization that won’t produce anywhere near the level of dues-derived income that unions normally accrue from collective-bargaining agreements. This new approach may not pencil out, but neither does the slow decline in membership that labor will continue experiencing unless it changes course.

 The AFL-CIO has embarked on a similar — and perhaps even more radical — roll of the dice. “We’re not going to let the employer decide who our members are any longer,” federation president Richard Trumka told me in a recent interview. “We’ll decide.”

Instead of claiming as its members only the diminishing number of workers in unions whose employers have agreed to bargain, the AFL-CIO plans to open its membership rolls to Americans not covered by any such agreements. The first part of this plan is to expand its Working America program, a door-to-door canvass that has mobilized nonunion members in swing-state working-class neighborhoods to back labor-endorsed candidates in elections in the past decade. In New Mexico in recent months, Working America enrolled 112,000 residents on their doorsteps in a campaign that raised the minimum wage in Albuquerque and then in an adjacent county. But the goal of such campaigns, says Karen Nussbaum, the organization’s director, isn’t just to win a raise; it’s also “to get as many workers as we can involved in winning the raise and hope this carries over to specific workplace activism.” They aim to build a workers’ movement — even though, as with the SEIU campaign of fast-food workers, securing workplace contracts (and the kind of membership dues that sustain unions) isn’t on the horizon.

 The AFL-CIO’s plans don’t end there. “We’re asking academics, we’re asking our friends in other movements, ‘What do we need to become?’ ” says Trumka. “We’ll try a whole bunch of new forms of representation. Some will work; some won’t, but we’ll be opening up the labor movement.” Forming a larger organization of unions and other progressive groups isn’t out of the question, though it would take time to pull off.

 The labor movement that emerges from these reforms might resemble a latter-day version of the Knights of Labor, the workers’ organization of the 1880s that was a cross between a union federation, a working-class political vehicle (it championed the eight-hour workday) and a fraternal lodge. With working Americans unable — at least for now — to advance their interests in their workplaces, unions are looking to mobilize workers to wage those fights in other arenas. They don’t know exactly where they’re headed, but they’ve begun to make their turn.

 Editor’s Note: This article was submitted to the Democratic Left magazine but for reasons of space only is published as a blog post. One other article submitted to the magazine will follow, as well as articles that also appear in the printed version. 

meyerson.jpgHarold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is a Vice Chair of DSA.

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
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Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
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Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.