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.

Film Discussion: When Abortion Was Illegal

March 26, 2017
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Directed by Dorothy Fadiman, When Abortion Was Illegal (1992, nominated for an Academy Award, Best Documentary Short Subject) reveals through first-person accounts the experiences of women seeking abortion before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973. We are one Supreme Court nominee away from a return in many states to back-alley abortions. Join Amanda Williams, Executive Director of the Lilith Fund, to discuss challenges to reproductive justice and abortion access. (Lilith Fund funds abortions for women in need in the Central and South Texas area.) Learn about how to participate in April Bowl-A-Thons to raise funds for low-income women. View the film here for free before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

March 30, 2017
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You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
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Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. John co-authored Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, which was quoted by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

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Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
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Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT. Here's a blog post about PHIT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

April 04, 2017
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Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
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  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz, schwartzjoem@gmail.com.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

What Is DSA? Training Call

April 05, 2017

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Feminist Working Group

April 12, 2017
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People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

April 16, 2017
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You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT.