Alarmed at declining union density and frustrated with the National Labor Relations Act, many worker advocates want to ditch the NLRA, forsake traditional unions, and start the labor movement afresh. But they should not let novelty overwhelm judgment. Many of these new ideas are clever in theory, but in practice...
Thanks to all the contributors for their incisive and challenging responses to “Careful What You Wish For.” Interesting that each zeroed in on Alt-labor, touching just briefly on union organizing as a civil right, minority union bargaining, digital organizing, grievance fees for non-members and other issues. But fair enough, since Alt-labor is real and the others are mostly speculative.
I tried to credit Alt-labor for its many victories, and for the energy and creativity it brings to the movement. I didn’t say it’s “a lot of flash” (Michael Oswalt) or “counterproductive” (Steve Lerner), nor that conventional unions are “our only option” (Amy Dean).
I did say Alt-labor is not a fix. And I defended Old-labor against notions repeated in some respondents’ comments here: “conventional unionism isn’t possible;” unions are “rapidly fading into irrelevance,” “existentially beset by overwhelmingly powerful forces,” and “facing potential annihilation.”
Workers don’t see it that way. In late August, 1,000 skilled trades employees voted by a 3-1 margin in an NLRB election for the IAM at private-contractor Bowhead’s army maintenance complex in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. They didn’t think they were joining an irrelevant movement about to be annihilated by overwhelming forces. The same goes for 12,000 dealers and other casino employees around the country who voted for UAW representation in the last three years; 25,000 private school bus system workers now with the Teamsters and other unions, 10,000-and-climbing university adjunct professors rapidly joining labor’s ranks; and smaller but promising breakthroughs by port truck drivers, airport service workers, digital journalists, and other sectors with organizing potential.
Unions win a solid majority of NLRB elections. The challenge is to get more elections in larger bargaining units. The NLRB’s recent faster-election rule is one positive move. In Bell Gardens, California, 250 workers at Valet industrial laundry won an NLRB election in late August held three weeks after Workers United filed an election petition. Unusually, more workers voted for the union than had signed cards, suggesting that we can keep building momentum when employers can’t artificially delay elections.
NLRB data for the last half of August reported many more union victories in elections that took less than a month from filing to ballot. Of course, unions lost some votes, too. The new rule does not guarantee victory. It will take time and more research to draw firm conclusions, but anecdotally the NLRB’s action appear to be having a positive effect on new union organizing. Similarly, as Michael Oswalt mentions, the NLRB’s recent Browning-Ferris decision making it easier to establish joint-employer responsibility opens new potential for organizing labor agency employees and others in non-standard employment relationships.
The joint-employer breakthrough is important, but not a solution in itself. A big majority of private sector American workers – tens of millions of them –go to work every day at a single work site for one employer. Organizing under the NLRA and winning an NLRB election is still their main vehicle for collective bargaining. We should fight to preserve and strengthen the Act and the Board, not declare them dead letters and rely on card-check and Alt-labor for the movement’s future.
The bureaucracy problem
Chris Maisano rightly points out the dangers of bureaucratization for labor movement vibrancy. But bureaucracy is not a dirty word. Any organization has to have charters and by-laws, leaders and committees, decision-making assemblies, financial resources and accountability, and other markers of bureaucracy to sustain itself and work effectively.
It’s always a matter of finding the right balance between bureaucracy and movement, ensuring that leadership is responsive to the base, but also that leadership leads in preparing, educating, and mobilizing members for battle – just what Bill Fletcher brought to his long work in the labor movement. And as those inside them know, Alt-labor formations are mini-bureaucracies, too, that face the same challenges.
A note on right-to-work
Chris Maisano argues that it’s another pipe dream to think we can reverse right-to-work in Wisconsin or Michigan or other states by electing more Democrats. To start, I didn’t say Democrats, I said legislators – mostly Democrats most of the time, sure, but not just them.
Ten years ago we would have said right-to-work in Michigan and Wisconsin was an anti-union pipe dream. Then voters elected legislators who adopted it. No iron law says we can’t win back majorities and governors to turn it around again. And here Chris Maisano is right: we can’t just relax and vote; we have to generate bottom-up workers’ action to compel legislators to act.
On digital organizing
In voicing doubts about on-line organizing, I have to admit I’m on shaky ground. I have to read a physical newspaper with my coffee every morning, and the very thought of Twitter terrifies me.
As I learned from CIO veterans and then witnessed in my own years as a UE organizer, I still think organizing has to be rooted in personal interactions among employees inside the workplace. Then leaders emerge who can stand up to management, so that workers see “somebody to back me up,” not just read about it on-line. But I’m rethinking my skepticism reading Michael Oswalt’s examples of creative use of social media and other digital platforms to build ties and raise consciousness. Let’s do it – but don’t let me get in the way.
A final word
This is a good debate to sharpen our thinking. We’re at 10 degrees of difference on focus, not 180 degrees on strategy. On key elements we’re together: fostering worker power (Steve Lerner), linking Alt-labor and Old-labor (Michael Oswalt), bottom-up revitalization (Chris Maisano), experimenting with new forms (Amy Dean), and building social justice unionism (Bill Fletcher).
My offering is that we shouldn’t give up on the NLRA and the NLRB and conventional unions. Or maybe, since “conventional” implies passé (think conventional wisdom), we should talk instead about “rooted” unions nourished by a century’s worth of struggle. Rooted in their workplaces and in their collective bargaining relationships, rooted in their communities, they are still with us, and still capable of growth and renewed struggle today.