Category: On the Contrary

The AFL-CIO “On the Beach”

In the chilling 1959 cold war apocalyptic film, On the Beach, the entire northern hemisphere has succumbed to radiation sickness after a nuclear war. A few pockets of humanity remain in the southern hemisphere but, the characters in the film discover, their demise is inevitable as wind currents slowly move the nuclear fall- out toward them. Life goes on as usual, albeit at a more frenzied and desperate pace, as people await their doom while the radioactive cloud creeps toward them, silencing other outposts as it moves.

At the risk of being overly dramatic, it could be said that today’s AFL-CIO is “on the beach” and awaiting its own demise while attempting to carry on as if it still had a future. Formed in 1955 with a merger meant to end two decades of bitter infighting, the AFL-CIO’s primary purpose was to consolidate and administer the post-war collective bargaining regime. There was a reason why its new headquarters building overlooked the White House. The premise of that regime was that labor was a limited partner with capital in a relationship mediated by the federal government.

This arrangement made workers and their unions particularly vulnerable to the rise of neoliberal globalization. Moreover, a labor movement whose mission focused on collective bargaining with individual employers, and with many of the fundamental functions of working- class solidarity outlawed or constrained, left little scope for a national labor organization to mobilize and lead an organized working class in campaigns against capital.

Instead, we got a federation whose primary internal function was not to unite but to mediate between autonomous unions and whose exter- nal function was to intervene in a regulatory state and serve as a junior partner in a multi- class political party. (Until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. labor movement also performed the additional function of serving U.S. foreign policy interests.)

Today, labor’s influence has been reduced to a few diminishing private-sector outposts. Capital has long moved on, embracing a neoliberal world order with no place for unions or any restraints on its mobility or autonomy. The strange fruits of the November 2016 presidential election make a Friedrichs’-style open-shop public sector all but inevitable. The current Congress and Trump administration may well enact a national right-to-work regulation and do whatever else they can to undermine the right to organize and bargain.

The AFL-CIO has been grappling with this existential crisis since 1995 when, in the only contested election in the history of the AFL- CIO, the New Voices slate was elected with the promise to stop doing business as usual and implement an organizing-intensive program to revitalize the labor movement. The proximate cause of all of this ferment and change was the realization that the Democratic Party had also been captured by neoliberalism. This was driven home by the Clinton administration’s indifference to labor law reform, deference to the medical industrial complex, attacks on federal workers and abandonment of the New Deal/Great Society principles of a social safety net and its embrace of punitive models of social regulation.

Unfortunately, the New Voices leadership never addressed the need to break out of its entrapment within the neoliberal Democratic Party. They actively discouraged the significant union-sponsored effort to build an independent Labor Party that emerged in the late 1990s.[1]

Instead, they doubled down, giving more and more money and organizing resources to Democratic candidates and getting less and less in return. Each election was “the most important fight of our lifetime.” Each victory gave us nothing. Each defeat had disastrous consequences.

This political accommodationism meant that there would be no real improvements in the laws regulating workers’ rights to organize and bargain nor restrictions on plant closures and offshoring. The unrelenting decline in private- sector union density continued, creating a hollowed-out labor movement in all but a few northeastern and west coast states. Union density in Wisconsin in 2011 (the year of the pas- sage of the state’s anti-union public-sector legislation) was less than the union density in Mississippi in 1964.[2] First in Indiana and Wisconsin and then throughout much of the old industrial heartland, anti-union state governments began to aggressively dismantle public- and private-sector organizing and bargaining rights.

In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led five national unions out of the AFL-CIO and launched the Change to Win Federation with a promise to shift resources from politics to organizing. Despite its sound and fury, Change to Win failed to reverse the forces leading to the broad decline of the institutional labor movement. They tripled down on accepting the two parties of neoliberalism as the eternal and unchanging reality of American politics and adopted an instrumental politics that would make an old school building trades local proud: we offer this support in exchange for an agreement to unionize these workers under these terms.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. As union density and political clout diminish, a new cadre of anti-union politicians has abrogated these “organizing” agreements as quickly and as easily as they were established by their predecessors. Today, Change to Win mostly exists on paper while the SEIU spends more on political candidates than does the AFL-CIO.[3]

The logical conclusion of the SEIU’s organizing strategy has been described by “new labor” superstar David Rolf, president of Seattle-based SEIU Local 775, as the “nurse log metaphor”[4]  (a nurse log is a fallen tree in the forest that provides nourishment for other plants). Under this scenario, the institutional labor movement’s primary function is to trans- fer resources from organized, dues-paying members to new initiatives like the Fight for $15 campaigns that can rapidly improve conditions for broad sections of the working class without the hassle and difficulty of building a permanent workplace organization. The problem with this, of course, is that it fails to leave behind the type of organic working-class insti- tutions that can nurture leadership and a sense of collective power. At best, the end result is hollowed-out structures like those unions created by administrative fiat to “represent” home health care and family daycare workers.[5]

One alternative to this approach is what journalist Rich Yeselson has called “fortress unionism”6: Defend the remaining bastions of high-density unionism, strengthen existing union locals, build coalitions with other social movements, and then, “Wait for workers to say they’ve had enough.” This is not unlike the characters in On the Beach who wanted to believe that the radioactive clouds would dissipate before they got to them. Defending collective bargaining where it is still viable is a necessary but not sufficient response to the crisis. “Fortress unionism” as a strategy would merely replicate on a much smaller scale the post-war labor movement’s acquiescence to a non-union South after the defeat of Operation Dixie in 1946-1947.

This is the paradox of the American labor movement trapped in a dying collective bar- gaining regime. On the one hand, its very existence is an affront to the neoliberal consensus that views any effort to intervene in the market as parasitic rent-seeking. Its very survival requires that it mobilize workers to confront massive political and economic power, and the threat of that mobilization is what focuses the organized power of capital against it. On the other hand, on a day-to-day basis, the labor movement must deal with the quotidian concerns of its dues-paying members. This is the world of compromise and contract enforcement, of shift schedules and work boot reimbursements, and of defending the guilty so the innocent will not be harassed. They used to call this stuff industrial democracy but now it just befuddles and bores those staffers and “leaders” who never worked in a union shop or experienced what it is like to be a shop steward coming into work in the morning and seeing ten coworkers waiting by the time clock.

The growth of alt-labor worker centers and similar organizations offers some hope as groups such as the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance evolve from foundation-funded “set- tlement house-style” centers that treat workers as clients to membership-driven organizations intent on building worker power. They may very well develop new models that embed worker organizations into workplaces without relying on the legal entailments and formalities

of the collective bargaining regime. But most workers are not willing to sign up for a lifetime of guerrilla warfare. They want security, respect, and enforceable rights and conditions. It certainly makes for great visuals when fifty immigrant construction workers take the day off and picket the boss’ house when they are robbed of their overtime pay, but, I can assure you, most would rather pay union dues so that they could file a grievance under an enforceable labor contract.

What does all this portend for the future of the AFL-CIO? The Federation is being riven by barely acknowledged ideological debates. The dispute over the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline construction projects exposed the fault lines between those who saw labor’s future as linked to a partnership with capital in an expansionist and extractive economy model and those who saw the potential in a labor movement aligned with the advocates for a planned and regulated green economy. The 2016 Democratic primaries also heightened the contradictions between those who have accepted the neoliberal world order as inevitable versus those who want to build a new social democratic alternative to neoliberalism,  and  the  Trump  administration will certainly intensify these differences. So far, the AFL-CIO has not proven to be a good forum in which to hold these debates. It has taken a hands-off approach and tried to sweep the contradictions under the table. But these contradictions persist nonetheless. They show up in debates over who to support for DNC chair and in the growth of informal caucuses of the left, right, and center. The decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growth of these tendencies based on very different visions of the role of labor in the age of Trump can only accelerate the demise of a Federation model that was crafted in different times for different purposes.

In addition to the ideological pressures, the AFL-CIO is facing a huge financial crunch that will be made worse as the large public-sector unions reduce expenses in anticipation of the loss of agency fee revenue under a new Friedrichs decision. The Federation may soon no longer be able to afford its penthouse terrace overlooking the White House.

But there is something to be said for labor unity, especially in a time of crisis. Many of the central labor councils and state labor federa- tions play a vital role in bringing together the best and the brightest, supporting workers in struggle and engaging in ground-level political mobilization. Compared with the one-party states that characterize most unions, even many of the progressive ones, these structures allow leaders and activists to escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns. If there is to be a real debate about labor’s future, it has to be within structures like these.

If nothing else, this would ensure that the debate would take place within organic structures of leaders connected and accountable to real constituencies and capable of committing organizational resources to a common program. One of the temptations afflicting many in the nominal left is to substitute their own prescriptions for the kind of programmatic unity that can only emerge from such a process. There is no shortage of ideas, many of them quite good, about what the labor movement ought to be doing next. What is needed is not more good ideas but a unified left pole that can give life to a common plan for a revitalized labor movement. This can only happen if key national and local labor organizations are at the table from the beginning of the discussion and feel like they own the outcomes.

There will probably be an AFL-CIO until the radioactive clouds envelop the last outposts of unionism. But time is running short for those who would like to see the AFL-CIO as a catalyst for a revitalized labor movement. To move forward, the Federation must embrace the “spirit of 1995” and acknowledge that we are in deep crisis and need an open and wide-ranging debate about solutions. This must involve a recognition that a revitalized labor movement needs a new vision of politics and a commitment to shift resources toward transformational programs such as single-payer health care, green infrastructure development, and expanding the public sector to support collective bar- gaining goals while building new relationships with social movements and working-class constituencies. There are certainly leaders, staffers, and activists at all levels of the labor movement who recognize the urgency for change. As we deal with the fallout from the disastrous elections and prepare for the AFL-CIO’s upcoming quadrennial convention, this a good time to begin.

One more thing about On the Beach. At the very end, the camera scans the deserted streets of Melbourne, Australia and settles on a Salvation Army poster. “There is still time,” it says. . . .

Notes

1. See Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, “Labor Party Time? Not Yet,” 2012, available at http://thelaborparty.org/d_lp_time.htm.

2. Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/23/385843576/50-years-of-shrinkingunion-membership-in-one-map.

3. Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/big-laborunions-step-up-presidential-election-spending-1476783002.

4. Harold Meyerson, “The Seeds of a New LaborMovement,” American Prospect, October 30,2014, available at http://prospect.org/article/labor-crossroads-seeds-new-movement.

5. For further discussion of this tension, see Jane McAlevey, “Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing,” New Labor Forum 25, no. 3 (2016): 87-89.

6. Rich Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism,” Democracy,Summer, 2013, available at http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/29/fortress-unionism/.Response to Mark Dudzic’s”The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Author Biography

Mark Dudzic is a long-time union activist and former national organizer of the Labor Party. He currently serves as national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare.

Response to Mark Dudzic’s “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Julie Kushner with Kitty Weiss Krupat

There are progressive trade unionists (from the AFL-CIO down to the shop floor) who are engaged in debate about the future of the labor movement—a movement that is struggling to regain its power to defend the rights of workers against the overwhelming force of capital and corporate dominance. For over forty years, I have been part of those debates, as has Mark Dudzic. I began reading his article, “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach’” but almost stopped dead after his opening gambit, an apocalyptic vision from the film On the Beach as a metaphor for the AFL-CIO— all washed up and “awaiting its own demise . . .” But I read on and found myself in agreement with Dudzic on several points. That said, I think, in the main, his conclusions are unbalanced or unfair, dismissing too freely the complexities and contradictions inherent in any organization structured as a federation with voluntary membership.

His narrative begins in 1955, with another metaphor of sorts—the establishment of the AFL- CIO in a building overlooking the White House. What emerges is a picture of the AFL-CIO as a disembodied structure—an imposing marble building with a professional staff and a “marriage” of convenience with the Democratic Party. Largely absent from this picture are unions and the workers they represent. From this limited perspective, Dudzic places the burden of survival on the AFL-CIO, without fully considering the role of its affiliates or examining the policies, prac- tices, and actual campaigns carried out by individual unions and their members. I believe this is a common weakness in labor analysis.

Rightly, Dudzic warns against the danger of divisions within the AFL-CIO on ideological or political grounds, but he overlooks the impor- tant role the Federation plays in bringing unions together to support one another’s organizing or collective bargaining campaigns. He does not mention the enormous resources provided by the Federation, including statewide Leadership Institutes that bring union leaders together across jurisdictional lines to debate critical labor issues. He urges labor activists to “escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns” without reference to Working America, a community affiliate of the Federation that gives non-union workers opportunities to organize around such issues as health care, education, and housing.

We have to wait until the final paragraphs of “On the Beach” to learn something about the important work going on at state federations and central labor councils. Dudzic leaves the impres- sion that these labor bodies are somehow separate from the AFL-CIO. In fact, they are directly char- tered by the AFL-CIO, and many are financed by the Federation in the form of “Solidarity Grants.” These grants help to support the development of labor–community alliances around the country that have resulted in such campaigns as the Fight for $15. In his discussion of alt-labor groups, he points to the Taxi Workers Alliance as a prime example, failing to note that the Alliance is a char- tered member of the AFL-CIO, the first “non-tra- ditional” union of independent contractors in the Federation.

I share Dudzic’s desire for labor unity around a progressive social and political agenda, and I think his critique of the alliance between labor and government is a cogent one. But I also think it is unrealistic to suggest that we ignore the main- stream political arena. Dudzic carefully explains how the alliance has led labor into the neoliberal establishment, but he sidesteps the issue that immediate and constant pressure to save members’ jobs has often driven individual unions into the conservative camp on particular issues such as the environment or trade. I wish Dudzic had spent more time contemplating long-term solutions to that problem, rather than condemning unions for their failures to unite around a left political agenda. I also wish he had noted unions, such as the Utility Workers, who are committed to job creation through Blue-Green alliances and investments in infrastructure development as well as in education and training to help workers transition from old jobs to new ones. Dudzic’s failure to recognize the significant accomplishments of labor through the Working Families Party is also a serious omission.

I do not want to whitewash the weaknesses in labor’s political work. We have failed to convince union members to vote in their own interests, and that is a bottom line. Nevertheless, political action is a necessary part of our work, which can result in important benefits for workers. The 2016 Verizon strike is a good example. Because of its relation- ship to the Democratic Party, labor was able to call upon then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to facilitate a settlement that added 1,300 new jobs and created the first contracts at several Verizon stores—all without concessions on job security and flexibility. The appointment of a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration allowed university workers to regain rights to organize they had lost in the Bush era.

Dudzic suggests that low union density in Wisconsin and Indiana was the enabling factor in allowing state governments to dismantle organiz- ing and bargaining rights in the public sector. I do not think density can be isolated as the factor in that or any other labor struggle. We have to give the Koch brothers some credit. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates poured money and resources into the Wisconsin fight. Unions from around the country came together in the greatest show of labor soli- darity in recent memory. But the combined power of the national labor movement was no match for the power of accumulated capital in the hands of the Koch brothers.

Ultimately—and I am sure Mark Dudzic would agree—we need to encourage and stand with those of our members who are ready to persist and resist. More challenging and more difficult, we need to develop effective ways to engage with, and change the minds of, those members who allow race, gender, homophobia, and fear of difference to divide us. I certainly agree with him that wide-ranging debate is a necessary first step in that direction.

Author Biographies

Julie Kushner is the director of UAW-9A, a region that encompasses New England, parts of New York, and Puerto Rico. In this capacity, she is a member of the International UAW Executive Board.

Kitty Weiss Krupat, a union organizer and labor educator, recently retired as an associate director of the Murphy Institute. Her publications include Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance, co-authored with Patrick McCreery.

 

Mark Dudzic Respondes

Julie Kushner rightfully stresses the many impor- tant things that individual unions are doing to “defend the rights of workers against the over- whelming force of capital.” However, the intent of my essay was to focus on the prospects for the future of the AFL-CIO in light of the continuing decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growing differences among the national unions that make up the federation (her reference to the Utility Workers’ excellent work in promot- ing a Blue-Green Alliance in contrast to more conservative approaches taken by other unions exposes one of those fault lines).

Kushner agrees that the AFL-CIO has diffi- culty functioning as a unified working-class voice because of its federation structure, mak- ing it ill-suited to lead at a time when the con- tradictions with capital have intensified. This structure holds the AFL-CIO hostage to the effective veto of any action by any one of its affiliates. These limitations have convinced union leaders like Larry Cohen, former presi- dent of the Communications Workers of America, that “Too often a particular union’s stance may reflect a private employer’s growth plans, not the general good for working people” and that we should “. . . not necessarily focus on [labor] unity about political strategy.”1

Recent layoffs and reductions in programs at the AFL-CIO are indicative of the precarious- ness of its financial situation and are probably just the beginning of a painful process of finan- cial retrenchment. This situation creates its own death spiral. Will the affiliates continue to prop up the AFL-CIO as it sheds programs and services and is increasingly unable to rise to the challenge of opposing a sustained and concerted attack on the foundational rights to organize and bargain?

Moreover, the Federation has been unable to resolve the tension that Kushner identifies between transactional and transformative politics. The relentless drive toward the lowest common denominator means that the long-term interests of the working class—precisely what a national labor organization should, in theory, be consti- tuted to promote—are often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. At a time when right-wing populism poses an existential threat to the principles and values of an independent labor movement, these compromises can prove disastrous.

I agree with Kushner that perhaps the most important raison d’être of the AFL-CIO is the nur-turing of solidarity, discussion, and labor unity at the local and regional level. Like Kushner, I am not ready to give up on the promise of a unified and activist national labor movement and believe that the institutional labor movement continues to be the source of the resources, organizing capacity, and constituency without which any progressive change is inconceivable.

But time is truly running short. And we are not well served by any perspective that seeks to minimize the extent of the crisis or paper over the internal differences. We must begin by rigorous  self-examination  and  debate  led  by leaders and activists who actually have a stake in the outcome. In the end, a newly revitalized labor movement in the United States may look very different than today’s AFL-CIO.

Notes

1. David Moberg, “This Is What Progressives—Especially Labor—Can Learn from Bernie Sanders’ Campaign,” In These Times, July 27,2016, available at http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19330/this_is_what_progressives_especially_labor_can_learn_from_bernie_sanderss_c.

We Believe that We Can Win!

“On the Contrary”

 

Did the Sanders Campaign Represent a Missed Opportunity for the U.S. Labor Movement?: A Debate

 

As our readers know, the labor movement was divided during the Democratic Party primary season over whether to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination.  We invited contributions from both sides to debate those differences.  Larry Cohen, past president of the Communications Workers of America argued on behalf of the Sanders option, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, together with Leo Casey, president of the Albert Shanker Institute, argued on behalf of the Clinton nomination.  They delivered their initial arguments in early September and then responded to each other.  Both authors assumed, as many readers also did, a Clinton victory.  When the election results came in, Randi Weingarten and Leo Casey asked to rewrite their essay in order to take fuller account of the outcome of the election.  Larry Cohen agreed to this arrangement.  However, he elected to leave his essay as originally written.  He has added a brief addendum that also takes account of the election results. Since Weingarten and Casey withdrew their original contribution, it no longer made sense to publish the replies each had written in response to each other.  Readers should keep in mind that the main part of Cohen’s contribution was written without knowing how the election would turn out, while the Weingarten and Casey essay was written after that outcome had been decided. 

 

When Bernie Sanders began his quest for the presidency in May 2015 in Burlington, Vermont the democratic political establishment either ignored or opposed him.  Hillary Clinton had been running for years and had hundreds of staff and commitments from hundreds of super delegates. Labor leaders were used to being part of that establishment as well.  Although clearly quite different from the Republican Party establishment, labor leaders regularly mingle with Democratic Party leaders and big-money party funders.

“Bernie can’t win,” they repeated to each other over and over. But actually when they said Bernie can’t win, what they really meant was that working-class people can’t win. Sadly, in 2015 most labor leaders had come to believe the legislative priorities long supported by many unions ̶ like single-payer health care, stopping unfair trade deals, or making public higher education affordable ̶ and couldn’t form the basis for a realistic political program for presidential candidates. Ironically, Bernie Sanders’ campaign moved Hillary Clinton ̶ the establishment candidate who sought to convince primary voters she was more able to win ̶ much closer to those and other positions once considered radical.

Far too many labor leaders have long believed that our political action programs are a defensive tactic, or at best on rare occasions a means to achieve incremental advancement, like the Affordable Care Act. It’s easy to criticize such behavior but it’s not new, and with U.S. collective bargaining coverage down by nearly two-thirds in 40 years to just under 12 percent, it’s not surprising. But for those of us who link that slide to the lack of an aggressive political program challenging the fundamental aspects of our economy, that explanation is not sufficient.

There are disparate strategies within labor. Sectoral differences among building trades, government, industrial, and services lead to important differences in political strategy. For government and education workers, the link to elected officials is obvious. While those elected officials are not supporting political revolution, they are adopting budgets that determine whether and how union members work, and often their pensions and health care as well. For many unions, the distinction between lobbying and collective bargaining is very small. Political fundraising from members by these unions is aimed at influencing these bread-and-butter employment issues not the larger issues confronting working families as a whole.

Before Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy hundreds of the congressional and other super delegates who create the political frame for public sector and other unions had already announced support for Hillary Clinton. Breaking from the party establishment would not have been easy for those public-sector unions particularly at the national level. Additionally, political risk aversion is part of the calculus. In the summer of 2015 there was an overwhelming likelihood that the Supreme Court would eliminate the agency shop in the Friedrichs case. As it turned out only the death of Justice Scalia led to the tie vote in that case that left the agency shop in place for those states that permitted it. Practical politics, even at the presidential level, trumped movement-building, transformational politics.

A similar logic often applies to building trades unions, heavily dependent on government- funded projects. Candidates more likely to win, sometimes Republicans as well as Democrats, often get the nod based on funding commitments for public infrastructure.

And similarly for private sector workers from regulated industries, union political endorsements often hinge on candidates’ records on regulation not on broader concerns. Airline and rail workers with high degrees of unionization often make political calculations based on very specific industry issues.

Many national unions, including auto, steel, bakery, letter carriers, teamsters, and electricians, did not make a presidential endorsement until mid-2016 when the primaries were over or nearly over. As a result, there was not a formal AFL-CIO endorsement until just weeks before the Democratic National Convention.

Several national unions, including Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, American Postal Workers Union, and Amalgamated Transit Union did endorse Bernie Sanders by the end of 2015. Eventually they were joined by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (West Coast dockworkers), United Electrical Workers, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and more than 100 locals from other national unions that either did not endorse or had already endorsed Hillary Clinton. Tens of thousands of active union members formed a national network, “Labor for Bernie” and worked within their unions and in their communities to support Bernie in their state’s caucus or primary.

In most cases, local unions that supported Sanders did not face retribution from their national union. This level of tolerance for local political autonomy is critical moving forward. It is one thing for a national union, through its executive board, to make an endorsement; it’s quite another thing to demand local adherence without a membership vote or formal local input.

Given all of the above, the remarkable outcome was the outpouring of support for Sanders from active union members. Local leadership combined with the national unions that did endorse Sanders, rather than the disappointment with the public sector, education, building trades, and other unions that were early Clinton endorsers.

This support for Sanders translated into strong union majorities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and several other states.

Union support was also an important part of the Sanders campaign’s narrative. Fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and pointing out the harm continuing from the U.S. trade regime that started with NAFTA was central to the campaign. In Chicago, bakery workers at Nabisco, facing the shutdown of the Oreo cookie line at their south side plant resulting from outsourcing of production to Mexico rallied and held news events weeks before the Illinois primary. In Michigan, workers held a press conference detailing what had happened to their families decade after decade as American Axle & Manufacturing, General Motors and others shut down their plants seeking cheaper labor in Mexico and other nations. As Senator Sanders told it, Flint’s hardships originated with GM shutdowns in what had been their hometown. Lead-contaminated water followed years of skyrocketing unemployment, and declining tax revenues in a city that in the early 1960s had been among America’s richest.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of union support came from United Steel Workers (USW) Local 1999 in Indianapolis. A few months before the Indiana primary, United Technologies (UT) announced that it was moving production of its Carrier furnaces to Monterrey, Mexico after fifty years in Indianapolis. Management held an all-hands-on-deck meeting in the plant breaking the news that it would close in about a year. Local President Chuck Jones decided that it was time to fight back and not wait for negotiations over the consequences of the closing. Chuck and his members decided that the upcoming Indiana primary provided an opportunity to join this issue with the election and ask the presidential candidates for help.

Sanders answered the call and fighting UT became a centerpiece in the Indiana primary. Just days before the primary, Sanders spoke and joined a march through the city protesting the closing, that included USW officials and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Chuck Jones and most Local 1999 members supported Sanders as he attacked our government for awarding billions in U.S. contracts to UT and then doing nothing when the company announced that 2,000 jobs would be going to Mexico solely because of much cheaper labor and virtually no regulation.

We could certainly moan about labor’s lost opportunity, and had the labor movement united behind Sanders he would have been the nominee and very likely the President. However, the real lesson of the last year is our need to build a broader and more powerful movement for change. For years to come, individual labor unions will most likely pursue conflicting political strategies. But those of us who believe that we need a new political movement demanding real change, we have now built the largest movement for that change in decades. It is messy and still uncertain, but the political revolution of Bernie Sanders, now called Our Revolution will forge ahead endorsing candidates and ballot measures, fighting the TPP, and struggling to unite and expand on the 13 million voters who supported Sanders.

No one would claim that Our Revolution, the successor to Bernie 2016, is the only path forward. There are many other attempts to build this movement. We must do a much better job of uniting racial, economic and environmental justice movements. But the question for active union members is more about the future than the past. Do we believe that we can win? Are we ready to build a political movement that works inside and outside the Democratic Party without attacking ourselves? Can we unite around defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other destructive policies and in doing so show that we can win?

We learned from Bernie’s campaign that real change is possible. We learned that many Americans are not afraid to consider themselves workers, and not just middle class. We learned that we can fight for racial justice as well as economic justice and that doing both at the same time makes us stronger. But mostly we learned that it all starts by actually believing and acting like “We Can Win.”

 

Addendum:

 

First, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly two million and in any other democracy she would be President elect.  The barriers to a 21st century democracy for our nation range far beyond voting rights and big money in politics.

Second, Obama far out polled Clinton in key working class counties in PA, MI, WI and even small towns in Maine.  Those who look for racism as the key variable in Trump’s win need to look much deeper at voting results rather than projecting simple answers.  The destruction of manufacturing jobs through public policy neglect and bad trade deals is a major factor explaining Clinton’s loss in those states and a major problem for Democrats who ignore it.

Recent leaks of emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign chair, indicate that the party elite were improperly involved assisting the nomination of Hillary Clinton in every way possible, and that the Super PACs supporting the Clinton campaign were willing to use divisive and even hateful tactics.

Bernie Sanders is now among the most popular electeds in our nation.  His narrative of working class unity and his focus on free higher education, better health care, peace and justice, fair trade not trade for investor profit, and infrastructure aimed at communities of color and other impacted communities is the basis for Our Revolution, the successor to his campaign, as well as other progressive organizations.

So as we go forward, are we willing to organize around our values, including in primary elections, rather than accept the view of the Democratic Party establishment about who can raise money and therefore who can win?  We can’t just speak out about Citizens United and then defer to those who use every opening to dominate nominations with their dollars.

The Democratic Party itself badly needs structural reform if Democrats are to win the support of working class voters.  There needs to be a real priority on registering millions of voters of color and others trapped by our outrageous voter registration procedures while at the same time we need to fight for automatic voter registration as Alaska just adopted in this election.  We also need to be ready to support independent candidates when they represent our values.  We need to use ballot measures to promote democracy as even this year most pro democracy ballot measures won across the nation.

President Trump will immediately have the two openings necessary to control the NLRB, and begin to roll back the last eight years of Board decisions.  Likely anti-collective bargaining legislation in the Congress and the States will put us on defense again.  But this time can we not only resist, but also build a political movement that speaks to our dreams and aspirations, so that we are campaigning for our values as we fight for the future?

Link to Weingarten and Casey article in series
http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/11/22/on-the-contrary-american-labor-and-the-2016-elections/ 

 

Why Hillary Clinton Deserved Labor’s Support

“On the Contrary”

 

Did the Sanders Campaign Represent a Missed Opportunity for the U.S. Labor Movement?: A Debate

 

As our readers know, the labor movement was divided during the Democratic Party primary season over whether to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination.  We invited contributions from both sides to debate those differences.  Larry Cohen, past president of the Communications Workers of America argued on behalf of the Sanders option, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, together with Leo Casey, president of the Albert Shanker Institute, argued on behalf of the Clinton nomination.  They delivered their initial arguments in early September and then responded to each other.  Both authors assumed, as many readers also did, a Clinton victory.  When the election results came in, Randi Weingarten and Leo Casey asked to rewrite their essay in order to take fuller account of the outcome of the election.  Larry Cohen agreed to this arrangement.  However, he elected to leave his essay as originally written.  He has added a brief addendum that also takes account of the election results. Since Weingarten and Casey withdrew their original contribution, it no longer made sense to publish the replies each had written in response to each other.  Readers should keep in mind that the main part of Cohen’s contribution was written without knowing how the election would turn out, while the Weingarten and Casey essay was written after that outcome had been decided. 

 

From the earliest days of the Presidential campaign, it was clear that 2016 would not be a typical election year: many voters were feeling cheated out of the “American dream” and deeply angry with the political establishment. The Republican Party was captured by its most illiberal and intolerant forces. In the person of Donald Trump, we will now confront a President who has brought into the mainstream of American politics and government a toxic brew of overt racial, ethnic and religious bigotry, misogyny, authoritarianism, appeals to political violence and attacks on immigrants and unions.

[1]Trump’s election demands a full and searching examination of the causes for this defeat. It is a time for reflection and thoughtful analysis, not recrimination and finger-pointing: we need to inform what will now be a decisive struggle to defend democracy and to regain the initiative for progressive policies that empower working people. In that spirit, we offer the following thoughts on the subject.

The AFT and most of the American labor movement endorsed Hillary for President, both in the Democratic primaries and the general election, as the candidate that we believed had the best chance to win the 2016 election and enact a progressive policy agenda. Against a Republican candidate who sorely lacked the experience, judgment and temperament to be President, Hillary Clinton was the most experienced and qualified candidate of the last century, and her election as the first woman President would have been an historic advance for the cause of gender equality. She brought a lifetime of successful work on behalf of progressive causes to the campaign, and under her leadership and in partnership with Bernie Sanders and his campaign, the Democratic Party adopted the most progressive platform of its history in 2016.  Clinton had a particular knack for translating ideas and aspirations for change into government policies that make a difference.

What went wrong?

When a candidate loses the way Clinton did, by razor thin margins in a number of battleground states, one can point to a number of factors each one of which made the difference between victory and defeat. Most important were the anti-democratic features of the American political system. As we write in the week immediately following the election, the tally has Clinton winning the popular ballot by as much two million votes. It is only the archaic Electoral College that has translated that unambiguous margin into a defeat: in every other democratic polity, she would be the victor. Moreover, voter suppression laws in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin clearly made the difference in those key battleground states, tipping the Electoral College to the Republicans. And while the total Democratic vote for the House of Representatives is currently ahead of the Republican vote, gerrymandering has delivered a 40+ seat Republican majority in that Congressional body.

The 2016 election also witnessed the unprecedented interventions of the FBI and the Russian state, to the benefit of Trump. The baseless letter from FBI Director Comey, raising doubts about Clinton’s e-mails that the agency had in fact already reviewed and cleared, reversed her momentum late in the campaign. (Trump confidante and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has acknowledged the decisive impact of Comey’s letter.[2]) The emails of Clinton campaign and DNC staff hacked by intelligence agencies of the Russian state and released at critical times and in coordination with the Trump campaign through WikiLeaks also took a toll. Both developments made the Trump victory possible, and both are deeply troubling for the future of free and fair elections that are the cornerstone of every democracy.

The Clinton campaign, the DNC and those of us in the labor movement could have secured electoral victory with different decisions in a few pivotal areas. The Democratic vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could have been shored up with timely interventions and additional resources, keeping those traditionally ‘blue’ states from turning ‘red’ by the narrowest of margins. While Clinton and the Democratic platform had good policy proposals for addressing economic inequality and fostering good jobs, the campaign never put them together in a compelling message that connected with blue collar workers in ‘rust belt’ states ravaged by corporate dominated economic globalization. Too many of these workers concluded that the Democrats would not bring real change to their lives. Going forward, American labor and the Democratic Party must develop an economic program and highlight class issues that convincingly take on what have been decades of economic losses to working people in the American heartland.

Yet tragically there was more than a class dynamic at work: many white male workers viewed their economic interests through a distorting prism of race and sex. The 2016 election saw a significant backlash vote in which ‘others’ – most prominently, people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews – were scapegoated for the declining economic and social status of white male workers. Trump’s strategy for breaking through the ‘blue wall’ of Democratic states was to appeal to the racial, sexual and religious fears and resentments of white voters, and he was sufficiently successful at this gambit to win a close election. His overt racism, misogyny and bigotry has done real damage to America’s struggle to overcome these evils, and left many Americans deeply fearful for their place in our society. In the dark times ahead, the American labor must hold true to our core values, continuing both the battle for the economic interests of all working people and the struggle against racial, sexual and religious oppression.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, there were those who argued that it was more important for American unions to advance a broad vision of economic justice and long term, maximalist goals than to focus on winning this election. In this view, a Trump victory was an acceptable price to be paid if it results in a future greater good. Some even contended, against all historical precedent, that a Trump victory would hasten that greater good. Unfortunately, we will now witness the damage that a Trump victory holds for the labor movement’s quest for economic justice and for the social democratic policies it advocates.

In 2016, abstentions and votes for the Greens and Libertarians were votes lost to a repudiation of Trumpism, and they made the difference in key battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. We will pay a heavy price for the sectarian politics that trained its fire on the Democratic Party and liberalism, viewing the 2016 ballot as an expressive ‘protest’ vote of moral purity. Michael Harrington nailed it: labor needs a political strategy that fashions itself as the “left wing of the possible.” While our political vision must be bold and far-seeing, it cannot be divorced from what is achievable in the here and now.

Others have argued that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, Trump would have been defeated. In their view, the Bernie Sanders campaign was a “lost opportunity” for the American labor movement, and the great preponderance of American unions that endorsed Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination could have better promoted a labor agenda and victory in November by endorsing Sanders.

Without question, the Sanders campaign’s spotlight on economic inequality and the corrosive, anti-democratic effect of unlimited money in our political system was a valuable contribution to our national political discourse. This focus was particularly important in the campaign’s successful engagement of millennials in the political process. The integration of the Sanders message into the Democratic Party platform was important, and made the Democratic campaign better. In this regard, the Sanders campaign accomplished what was its original raison d’être.

Yet the notion that Sanders could have won the Democratic nomination and gone on to victory in the general election, if only he had been endorsed by labor, does not stand up to close scrutiny. Without relitigating the campaign, it must be noted that Hillary Clinton won far more votes and elected delegates. Throughout the primary season, the Sanders campaign demonstrated weaknesses as well as strengths: his support was strongest in states which were less diverse and more rural, and in states which employed caucuses, where intensity of sentiment carries more weight than a broad popular base. His backing in the African-American and Latino communities was weak.

While Sanders’ supporters have pointed to his favorable ratings in opinion polls as evidence that his campaign could have been victorious in November, he had never gone through the gauntlet of the right wing attack machine. Instead from the start of the 2016 campaign, unrelenting fire from those quarters was concentrated on Clinton as the likely Democratic nominee, following on decades of attacks which had taken a real toll on her popularity. (It should also be noted that many of those attacks were misogynist in character.) If Sanders had won the nomination, he would have faced an onslaught of similar assaults, as Kurt Eichenwald and Will Saletan have shown.[3] As unfair as these attacks would have been, Sanders would have been savaged over such issues as his past praise for Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist regime and the Sandinistas, and his 1960s era publications that celebrated youth sexuality, warned of the dangers of fluoridated water and speculated on social conformity as the cause of cancer. Republicans had prepared a two-inch think ‘opposition’ dossier that included plans for using a decades old piece of fiction Sanders wrote to accuse him of being an apologist for rape. That these issues were irrelevant to the great questions of the direction of the nation would have mattered not a whit, any more than it did in the manufactured controversies over Benghazi and Clinton’s health or the overblown tempest over her emails. From the ‘swiftboating’ of John Kerry’s record as a war hero to the ‘birther’ attacks on Barack Obama’s legitimacy as the first African-American president, such attacks have become a mainstay of right wing politics. They must figure in our political calculations.

None of us have a crystal ball that can predict with certainty how Sanders would have fared in the November election, had he won the nomination. But is seems to us that a Sanders defeat on the order of the 1972 McGovern campaign was more likely than a Sanders victory. In our youth we both worked for McGovern, as part of a passionate student movement that shared much with the millennial support for Sanders. A landslide defeat on the scale of 1972 would have dissipated the progressive energy of the Sanders campaign, much as it did to the McGovern movement. Instead the Sanders campaign ended on a high note, and is now positioned to play an important role in shaping Democratic Party politics going forward.

American unions will face difficult challenges over the next four years. The stakes will be high, as American democracy itself has come under attack. It will be important to learn from our setbacks in the 2016 election as we confront Trumpism. We must articulate a powerful message which targets both economic inequality and the politics of hate and bigotry. Our program must combine the creation of well-paying jobs, access to economic advancement through a robust system of public education, a defense of democratic institutions and norms and a respect for the dignity and rights of all Americans.

Trump enters office with unprecedented high disapproval ratings and without the mandate of a popular vote victory: there is good reason to believe that a revitalized and reinvigorated progressive movement, with American labor at its core, will defeat Trumpism with the right message. We remain optimistic about the long term political prospects of American labor and a progressive policy agenda on behalf of working people.

 

Link to Larry Cohen’s original submission for On the Contrary
http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/11/23/american-labor-and-the-2016-elections-we-believe-that-we-can-win-larry-responds/

 

Notes

[1]

[2] Grace Guarnieri, “Corey Lewandowski says Donald Trump should thank FBI Director James Comey” in Salon available at http://www.salon.com/2016/11/17/corey-lewandowski-says-donald-trump-should-thank-fbi-director-james-comey/.

[3] Kurt Eichenwald, “The Myths Democrats Swallowed That Cost Them the Presidential Election” in Newsweek available at http://www.newsweek.com/myths-cost-democrats-presidential-election-521044 and Will Saletan, “Polls Say Bernie Is More Electable Than Hillary. Don’t Believe Them.” in Slate available at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/04/polls_say_bernie_is_more_electable_than_hillary_don_t_believe_them.html

ON THE CONTRARY

In this article, views of Jay Youngdahl are expressed followed by a response from Ai-jenPoo and Palak Shah

Greed-Washing the On-Demand Economy: The NDWA’s “Good Work Code”

By Jay Youngdahl

Readers of New Labor Forum are familiar with the depleted state of America’s unions, workers’ depressed living standards, as well as of the emergence of responsive ideas, strategies, and struggles.  The current ferment will surely to lead to successes, but in the process a number of counterproductive strategies are emerging.[i]

Though led by smart, empathetic activists, one of the oddest and most problematic of the new efforts is the Good Work Code (GWC or the Code) for the on-demand or “gig” economy, formulated by the National Domestic Workers Association (NDWA).[ii]  While the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in particular, are engaged in unionizing strategies in the tech sector, and enterprising wage and hour lawyers are confronting the sector’s wage theft, the NDWA, working with a number of corporate partners such as the Uber-like delivery company DoorDash, has created an aspirational code for tech-sector employers.

An analysis of the GWC is a lesson in the problematic nature of a number of trends in the Philanthropic Labor Movement (PLM).  Unfortunately, within the non-profits in the foundation-funded PLM, worker agency, power, and democracy, the bedrocks of a strong movement, are often hard to find.[iii]

The Code was unveiled last fall with a splashy website and media campaign, after the well-respected NDWA canvassed “on-demand” employers.[iv]  Signatory companies committed to endorse general “values” for their work forces Safety, Stability and Flexibility, Transparency, Shared Prosperity, A Living Wage, Inclusion and Input, Support and Connection, Growth and Development––and to make public a few sentences about what “progress” they will make in relation to two of the eight values.[v]  Nothing more was required. In exchange, they received a kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to trumpet on promotional materials, backed by the progressive reputation of the NDWA.

Codes which inure to the benefit of workers are sometimes developed for areas in which worker power is lacking and protection at work sorely needed.   But like codes for organic food or product safety, many are simply corporate greedwashing.2)  As the trajectory of the Fair Labor Association has shown in the garment supply chain, “many companies adopt codes to assist with their reputational risks over questionable labor practices,” says Ben Hensler, Deputy Director of the Workers Rights Consortium.[vi]

Good codes exist, but to work, Hensler continues, they “need several attributes including legal enforceability, independent and transparent monitoring of compliance, and meaningful involvement of worker representatives.” One successful code is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (the Accord) in Bangladesh negotiated between international trade unions at such companies as Fruit of the Loom and Benetton.  Coming on the heels of the Rana Plaza building collapse in which, scandalously, more than one thousand people were killed, the Accord is a legally binding agreement covering over two million workers. To ensure a safe working environment the Accord includes inspection programs, public disclosure of reports, a democratically elected factory-based health and safety committee, and a right to refuse unsafe work.  Fruitful codes are present in the U.S. as well.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, through a strategy of farmworker organizing, consumer education, and boycotts, has forced a number of retail companies, including Walmart, to sign onto its Fair Food Code of Conduct, which contains labor protections.  And, the NDWA’s original caregiver’s Bill of Rights is a solid type of code, whose use has advanced efforts to protect in-home labor.

It is easy to see why tech companies would like the Good Work Code.  NDWA’s anointing of DoorDash as a company that provides good work gives the company a powerful weapon when questioned about the compensation of its drivers.[vii]  And, for a troubled public company like Care.com, the reputational boost from its NDWA seal of approval is valuable.[viii]   But why would the NDWA, a very well-respected organization, leverage its prestige with this mealy-mouthed GWC, even as an experiment?[ix]

First, the sparkly potential of the “on-demand” economy glimmers for many schooled in social entrepreneurship, and is seducing too many labor advocates.[x] The Good Work Code is based on the Silicon Valley utopian vision featured in TED talks with breathless paeans to “innovation” and “disruption.”  In this Garden of Eden, it is claimed, wonderful “new opportunities” exist for workers featuring “flexibility” and “freedom.”[xi]

Further, the GWC is a manifestation of the Good Capitalism movement.  Here, the “rich can save the world,” and “capitalism itself can be philanthropic, working for the good of mankind  . . . by [innovating] to benefit everyone, sooner or later.”[xii]  In what the writer Anand Giridharadas has called the “Aspen Consensus,” generosity becomes a substitute for justice. Companies are exhorted to “Do More Good,” but never, “Do Less Harm.”[xiii]  And, in Good Capitalism, “the business approach is the only thing that can change the world.”[xiv]

Worker power is Lilliputian in Good Capitalism, and worker “betterment” is mediated by well-meaning politicians, foundation program officers, and PLM leaders.  Ideas of confrontational unions, with their worker solidarity and messy democracy, is shunned. Describing the GWC, Ai-jen Poo of the NDWA told Forbes, “Our goal is to create a new story—a new narrative– that’s not about abusive employers and downtrodden workers, but rather that brings companies front and center into the conversation about the future of good work.”[xv]  Given the realities of life for Silicon Valley workers, this brings to mind Barbara Ehrenreich’s writing on the perils of positivity as “an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy;” lower-rung “gig” workers are simply “modern” day laborers.”[xvi]  Even one of the signatories of the GWC admitted that in the “new economy” “the basics remain much of the same … a time clock used to be something that was mounted on the wall of a factory; now it’s a mobile app.” [xvii]

For those who would say that criticizing the Code is just “old labor” negativity, consider Poo’s statement to Forbes that, “We see a moment of opportunity right now because the gig/online economy is relatively new and its values and principles regarding work are still forming.”[xviii]  There is much to chew on here, but it is farcical to claim that the “values and principles of these Silicon Valley creations are still forming.” Silicon Valley has a well-formed negative ethical code– raw profit-seeking individualism.  Their leaders are constantly in the news for some kind of unethical actions whether in their personal lives– cheating a sex slave or closing public access to beaches for their private use– or in their business–cheating workers out of their wages.[xix] As to the “evolving ethics” for employees, advocates and discharged workers know that many business models are based on “exploiting workers and disregarding employment laws.”[xx]  The bigger on-demand companies such as Uber and Instacart have recently cut pay to their drivers. And, an “occupational segregation” exists in the Silicon Valley as full-time jobs are replaced with low-wage subcontracting work staffed by predominantly black and Latino workers.[xxi]  A recent report found that the average blue-collar subcontracted worker has an annual income of $19,900.  A living wage for a single mother with one child in this area, for example, is at least twice this amount.[xxii]

New ideas for worker justice and power are needed and certainly a thousand flowers should bloom, but the Good Work Code is a bad strategy even though advanced by good people.

 

Notes

[i] For a light “taxonomy” of these “new labor” formations and commentary of their promises and perils, see, Jay Youngdahl, “Is a Progressive Phoenix Rising?  The New Labor Movement is Approaching,” Social Policy Winter, 2016. http://www.socialpolicy.org/component/content/article/4-latest-issue/779-is-a-progressive-phoenix-rising-the-new-labor-movement-is-approaching

[ii] The NDWA is led by Ai-jen Poo, who is on the Board of the New Labor Forum.

[iii] Recent events have shown that success may come in areas of personal identity and work culture from PLM activities, such as shown coworker.org petitions demanding the right of retail workers to dye their hair blue, red, or pink.  Challenges to income inequality do not fare as well.

[iv] http://www.goodworkcode.org/press/

[v] Palak Shah, the leader of the GWC, said that each signatory commits to “focusing on at least two of the eight as priorities over the next year. The idea is to kick off a conversation– it doesn’t mean these companies will get to all eight right away, but it means they aspire to do so, and they are taking public steps to do so. And it means they won’t have to do so alone, but rather in a community of practice grappling with the same questions.” Michael Zakaras, “Can the Online Economy Become a Labor Leader,” Forbes, November 13, 2015 http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2015/11/23/can-the-online-economy-become-a-labor-leader/2/#67260bac4a87

[vi] The Fair Labor Association has been called a “fig leaf” to cover supply chain labor abuse. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/technology/critics-question-record-of-fair-labor-association-apples-monitor.html

[vii] Lyft recently was forced to admit in court that it has taken $126 million in compensation from drivers through its classification of them as independent contractors. http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_29677142/lyft-settlement-faces-scrutiny

[viii] The case of Care.com and NDWA is especially interesting.  Given Care.com’s business space and the mission of the NDWA, their closeness is understandable.  Like the UAW and GM or the APWU and the USPS, unions often stand by their employers.  Unfortunately though, unlike GM and the USPS, Care.com staff is not unionized.

[ix] I want to thank Ai-jen Poo and Palak Shah for speaking to me as part of my writing in this area.  I salute their openness.  Shah, to her credit, told me that the GWC is an “experiment,” to “shift the conversation to workers.”

[x] A close look at the public relations push behind the “Portable Benefits” movement and efforts to replace worker “employee status” with a form of “independent contractor status” highlights this attraction to Silicon Valley language and thought.  See, https://medium.com/the-wtf-economy/common-ground-for-independent-workers-83f3fbcf548f#.ossv8im0x and Jay Youngdahl and Darwin Bond-Graham, “When Labor Groups and Silicon Valley Capitalists Join Forces to “Disrupt” Protections for Employees,” Working In These Times blog, December 4, 2015 http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/18643/when_labor_groups_and_silicon_valley_capitalists_join_forces_to_disrupt_pro

[xi] As to flexibility, when asked, “Legal arguments aside, why is DoorDash opposed to having its drivers classified as employees?” the company responded that: “Our goal at DoorDash is to provide meaningful, flexible work for people across the country. When we speak with Dashers we regularly hear that one of the most important benefits of their work is flexibility and we want to ensure we continue to provide them with that option. We are proud to have created opportunities for a growing community of tens of thousands of Dashers that offer them flexibility, freedom and a meaningful source of income.”  In fact, this flexibility and new opportunities remind one of the famous quote of Anatole France in “The Red Lily.”  “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

[xii]  See, http://philanthrocapitalism.net/ Recently, the former head of BP, the company responsible for the largest environmental disaster in the U.S., wrote on how companies can “tackle big social problems,” lauding Walmart’s success in this area. http://bit.ly/1Y2BDO9

[xiii] While a fellow at the Aspen Global Leadership Network, Anand Giridharadas gave a speech which included these remarks. https://medium.com/@AnandWrites/the-thriving-world-the-wilting-world-and-you-209ffc24ab90#.3pquhumbl

[xiv]Unfortunately, the NDWA is not the only organization that has been seduced by this “business case.”  In “old labor”, for example, many labor Capital Strategies activists use the term “human capital” to describe workers, even their own members. And the labor program at Harvard, partially financed by unions, is starting a “human governance” research program http://www.hrmaturity.com/human-governance-a-groundbreaking-research-program/ “Human Governance as a management paradigm that emerges when an organization recognizes and seeks to fulfill a commitment to the never-ending pursuit of societal value through realizing the full potential value of its entire human capital.”

[xv]  At a recent White House forum Poo told President Obama that NDWA found that many on-demand employers “just wanted to do the right thing and it wasn’t clear what that was.”  Poo followed that there were “no standards, no guidelines” for employers.  The President responded that he was a fan of collective bargaining.

[xvi] Barbara Ehrenreich, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America,” Picador Press, 2010.

[xvii] See, Cole Stangler, “Meet the Gig Economy Companies That See Investing In Workers As a Smart Business Strategy,”  March 17, 2016  International Business Times http://www.ibtimes.com/meet-gig-economy-companies-see-investing-workers-smart-business-strategy-2336721

[xviii] See, Greg Bensinger, “Grocery-Delivery Startup Instacart Cuts Pay for Couriers,” March 11, 2016 Wall Street Journal http://www.wsj.com/article_email/grocery-delivery-startup-instacartcuts-pay-for-couriers-1457715105-lMyQjAxMTI2MjE0MTIxNzE3Wj

[xix] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-16/how-an-affair-between-a-valley-vc-and-exotic-dancer-turned-toxic; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/business/tech-mogul-asks-for-30-million-to-reopen-martins-beach.html?_r=0;

[xx] http://www.administrativeconsultantsassoc.com/blog/2015/08/12/what-zirtual-and-any-virtual-staffing-agency-workers-need-to-know/; recently a lawyer for Wage Theft Coalition echoed the former Zirtual employee: “In Silicon Valley, exploitation is part of the business model.”  Jennifer Wadsworth, “Recent Cases Highlight Silicon Valley’s Wage Theft ‘Epidemic,’” March 9, 2016 SanJoseInside http://www.sanjoseinside.com/2016/03/09/recent-cases-highlight-silicon-valleys-wage-theft-epidemic/

[xxi] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/30/silicon-valley-subcontracting-income-inequality-worse-report?CMP=share_btn_tw

[xxii] http://livingwage.mit.edu/

 

 

RESPONSE: New Business Models Demand New Forms of Worker Organizing

Response by Ai-jenPoo and Palak Shah

We welcome the opportunity to discuss the merits of the Good Work Code (GWC) and engage with Jay Youngdahl’s critique. As we read it, Youngdahl poses three main objections to the GWC: (1) The values framework articulated is aspirational and unenforceable; (2) it “greedwashes” companies engaged in bad labor practices; and (3) it is based on the notion that “Good Capitalism” can be mobilized to solve the problem of worker exploitation. In the course of his critique, Youngdahl also targets what he calls the “Philanthropic Labor Movement,” that is, those of us with the temerity to organize workers outside the frame of traditional labor unions.

Digital technology and on-demand hiring platforms are rapidly transforming how workers engage with various sectors of the labor market and their terms and conditions of work. Domestic work is among the many occupations impacted by new technology. Increasingly, workers and employers are matched online for child care and eldercare jobs through companies like Care.com, and the on-demand economy has penetrated the housecleaning market through companies like Handy and TaskRabbit.

NDWA turned its attention to Silicon Valley not because, as Youngdahl implies, we were bedazzled by the bright, shiny objects dangled by tech companies, but because, the fact is, these models are transforming labor markets. Increasing numbers of domestic workers, and other low-wage workers, access work through these companies. This phenomenon is in its infancy and our expectation is that it will grow. We believe these workers deserve the best wages and conditions of labor. We assume that Youngdahl agrees with us, at least on this point.

The labor movement is still in the early stages of determining how best to meet the multiple challenges posed by companies that aggregate and deploy workers through digital platforms. Mechanisms for exploiting labor are proliferating and changing far more rapidly than our capacity to organize workers and represent their interests. Tech companies are building new business models, often creating ever more precarious conditions of life and labor, lowering wage floors and job quality. However, with the exception of the ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft, most gig-economy companies are in early stages. It is in this environment, that the labor movement is called upon to develop interventions on many fronts, fearlessly exploring traditional and nontraditional means of articulating, defending, and expanding workers’ rights.

It is in this context that NDWA initiated the Good Work Code. We quickly saw the structural similarities between domestic workers and so-called ‘gig’ workers. Both groups face inconsistent hours, working without contracts, lack of benefits, little to no labor law protections, and no clear path to unionization. At the same time, those who follow the gig economy know that it has been tech companies, not unions or labor advocates, driving the national conversation. By releasing a simple values framework, we have successfully inserted the demands and voices of workers into a narrative dominated by tech companies, with the intention of creating space for a conversation about what better employment practices could look like in the digital economy. That conversation is not meant to obscure problematic or patently illegal practices. It does not take the place of workers organizing, through unions or other forms, to improve conditions. And it does nothing to resolve critical issues like worker classification–it was not meant to. It does, however, broaden worker-driven demands without unscrupulously cutting deals. Our framework consists of eight simple values that we think are foundational to good work in the online economy: Safety, Stability and Flexibility, Transparency, Shared Prosperity, A Livable Wage, Inclusion and Input, Support and Connection, and Growth and Development.[1] The values were developed based on in-person interviews with workers in the tech economy about their experiences working on platforms— though the overarching values and principles are fairly commonsense. To participate, companies identify their current practices related to two of the values and their commitments going forward.[2] The GWC is not a seal of approval.[3] Its purpose is to function as a framework and an initial roadmap for companies to assess and improve working conditions for their employees. The GWC, or any derivative of it, can also begin to serve as a demand framework for all of us in the labor movement as we seek to better understand how work is changing specifically in the online economy.

So far 12 companies have chosen to affiliate themselves with the Good Work Code–launched in October 2015– and publicly endorse the eight values. Our own experience in the domestic worker movement has shown us that organizing strategies complemented with norms and culture change strategies can yield great results.

Over the last six months, we have seen the national conversation about work in the online economy advance from an exclusive focus on employment classification to what workers need and employer obligations to meet those needs. We believe we contributed to this important shift, and that the ground has been softened for a diverse range of interventions that will improve online work and increase worker power in the future.

How will this improve the lives of workers? The simple answer is that we don’t know yet. The vision of the GWC is to articulate aspirational values that extend beyond the rights and protections provided to workers by law, even when those workers are classified correctly as employees rather than independent contractors. But of course these are values, not yet measurable standards or specific rights enforceable by contract, though we support the emergence of concrete standards and enforceable contracts. Not being represented by unions, these workers currently have no contracts. NDWA and the GWC do not stand in the way of union efforts to organize these workers or any other efforts to realize gains for workers. And we understand that the ultimate arbiters of how these companies are doing are neither the GWC nor NDWA, but the workers themselves. However, what Youngdahl interprets as “greed-washing” we offer as one tactic or intervention, in a rapidly changing environment, which we believe has the potential to improve the work lives of tens of thousands of workers. Organizers and advocates would do well to keep their eyes on both long-term goals and on the full range of ways to improve working conditions in the current context.

Youngdahl suggests that we suffer the illusion that “Good Capitalism” will somehow reform itself and begin to operate in the interests of workers and all humankind. To the contrary, we understand that digital technology has, in most cases, exacerbated already stunning levels of inequality in our economy. But our own experience has taught us that an orientation toward collective bargaining or nothing at all is counter-productive and limiting. In the absence of an aggregated workforce, domestic workers have experimented for decades with multiple tactics and strategies to win better wages and decent work. Further, we believe– as we assume most workers do— that some companies are better to work for than others. They pay better wages, they don’t sweat their workers, they provide avenues for advancement, they encourage and incorporate worker input. Perhaps their owners adhere to a set of moral and ethical values that ultimately lean contrary to the demands of capital, and they actively engage that contradiction. Whatever the case, short of a comprehensively unionized workforce or universal worker control of production and service provision, we orient toward making consistent progress on impacting the framework of dialogue and meeting new challenges with new tactics.

We would remind Youngdahl of something he surely knows: Unions have had the opportunity to organize domestic workers since the dawn of the U.S. labor movement. They have chosen not to. Worker organizers outside traditional union structures, with the welcome support of foundations, have pioneered ways to organize neglected sectors of the working class to exercise their power and win better conditions of labor. Youngdahl’s cut at what he calls the “Philanthropic Labor Movement” seems to imply that it would have been better to leave these workers unorganized, or to continue to wait until traditional unions determined that organizing domestic workers was a worthwhile endeavor. We disagree.

As for the notion that those who fight for the rights of workers within the context of non-profit organizations squelch worker agency, power and democracy, we invite Youngdahl to meet the worker leaders and members affiliated with NDWA and dozens of other worker centers. Their power, voice, initiative, creativity, strategic thinking and commitment are the foundation for multiple victories that have expanded the rights and lifted the dignity of previously unrepresented workers.

We understand ourselves to be part of one labor movement, unified in its interest in winning the best deal for workers. We depend on our friends and long-term allies in traditional unions to stand with us in our joint effort to build a powerful and inclusive labor movement. We expect that there may be tactical disagreements among us along the way, but reject Youngdahl’s troubling assertion that we are deluded and that our methods are dangerous.

The reality is that none of us, including Youngdahl, know what it will take the rebuild the power of the labor movement in this country. What we do know is that the future of technology and the future of work are inextricably bound, and that the best work happens in the field. We contend that simply protecting and promoting a model of traditional trade unionism is not sufficient, nor is it working. We need many experiments, new forms of organizing and organization. And, we believe that changing the conversation–the cultural and narrative environment around work– is a key part of creating the context for the ultimate success of a new workers’ movement in this country. Capital is adaptive and sophisticated; at minimum, we must be as well.

 

Notes

[1] See: www.goodworkcode.org

[2] Each company and their public commitments are listed here: http://www.goodworkcode.org/companies/

[3] We are puzzled by Youngdahl’s consistent misrepresentation of the structure and nature of the Good Work Code as an initiative. We have consistently clarified that the Good Work Code is a commitment made by companies, not an endorsement by NDWA. Misrepresentation of these facts changes the nature of the initiative and we can only imagine is being employed to better suit Youngdahl’s argument.

 

Responses to “Careful What You Wish For”

[Responses to “Careful What You Wish For”]

Response by Bill Fletcher, Jr

Lance Compa has written a compelling critique of many of the approaches, so often advanced, toward resolving the crisis facing organized labor. His critique is one that addresses sites of potential growth; techniques for renewal; as well as what might be described as reverse apocalypse-ism (i.e., the worse things get, the better they will be for those of us trying to advance a new, progressive direction).

While I agree with much of Compa’s argument, I believe that the problem facing organized labor has not been properly contextualized either by Compa or by many of those he is critiquing. The challenges facing organized labor must be understood to exist in the very foundation of US trade unionism (and to some extent, the trade unionism of the advanced capitalist states). The challenges cannot be resolved through new techniques or even through greater “political will”. The challenges must be addressed by rethinking what we mean by trade unionism.

As Compa notes, unions are organizations of workers fighting for basic fairness. Yet this is not enough. Unions are potentially organs of class struggle and a movement for social justice. While they are not, nor should they ever aspire to being political parties, there is nothing that ipso facto constrains them to the fight for wages, hours and working conditions except the ideological framework within which they have been operating.

The union movement in the USA is facing potential annihilation because of the fact that (1) the dominant sectors of capital (and their political allies) no longer see any particular need for any degree of class compromise with the working class, and (2) the leaders and large sections of the memberships of organized labor believe their role is that of a trade association or lobby on behalf of the interests of their membership. One must hasten to add, of course, that the framework of the trade union movement was one adopted by a unified trade union movement in the context of the smashing of its left-wing in the late 1940s/early 1950s, and its adamant opposition to change in the late 1960s/early 1970s.

Experiments in new forms of organization, e.g., NY Taxi Workers Alliance; National Domestic Workers Alliance, are critical because they have begun to elaborate a new vision. These formations in so-called Alt-labor are in some cases challenging legal restrictions on who can organize (e.g., Taxi Workers Alliance), while in other cases are advancing the interests of the workers in a broader context of the industry and the clients (e.g., NDWA). One can contrast these Alt-labor experiments with the largely failed efforts by established unions to utilize their “associate member” programs to grow, programs that lacked an overall strategy and vision and were fundamentally instrumental.

Lance Compa is correct that we cannot run away from the need for organizations of workers in their workplaces and industries. Where he falls short, however, is in failing to identify the need for a new brand of social justice unionism with the objective of joining with other progressive movements in an effort aimed at broad social transformation.

Response by Steve Lerner

I share Lance Compa’s frustration with the “unions are doomed chorus” and his skepticism that there is an “innovation” or “app” that will miraculously rebuild unions. But I am also perplexed by his assertions that the NLRA is the best path for workers to organize unions and build workplace power. The experience of the last 30 years is the opposite. Some of unions’ few organizing successes were won by bypassing NRLB elections through neutrality card check agreements. UniteHere, and SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign are two examples of this.

Compa dismisses all experiments and “alt-labor” as ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. After tossing them aside he doesn’t offer any new ideas of what unions should do beyond staying the course. He offers no critique of how unions contributed to their own decline, and no new strategies or tactics that labor could adopt.
We need an analysis and vision of how workers can win in an economy where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated at the top, while work is outsourced, subcontracted and disaggregated at the bottom, with many workers not having an employer under the NLRA at all.

We need to broaden the scope of collective bargaining and collective action to focus on the super-rich and corporations whose names are rarely on workers’ paychecks. They have the power not only over our jobs and pay but also over housing costs, education, and government budgets. Our challenge is to figure out who controls our jobs and communities and to build power to force them to bargain over wages and to stop them from extracting wealth from our communities. To do this we have to:

– Be willing to break laws to change laws: The CIO, the civil rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, and marijuana legalization movements and most recently Black Lives Matter, have all violated existing laws as part of building deeply committed bases winning victories, and ultimately, better laws.

– Reinvent the strike to disrupt the real corporate decision makers. Striking workers and their allies using creative non-violence can dramatically impact the business operations of the entities that control their wages and work-even if they aren’t the “legal” employer.

– Collective Action and Bargaining is not just for workers. Re-popularize collective action and bargaining as the way to confront concentrated economic power. New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago do $600 billion a year in business with Wall Street; they can leverage this money to bargain for lower interest rates and to reduce exorbitant fees charged by Wall Street, freeing up resources to fund public services and workers. Corinthian students are already using a debt strike to force negotiations over the $1.3 trillion in student debt.

There is no secret sauce or shortcut to challenging the richest and most powerful corporations in modern history. Nor can we do more of the same and expect a better result. Anger at growing inequality and corporate abuses creates enormous opportunities to rebuild workers’ power-let’s seize it by looking to the future not trying to recreate the past.

Response by Amy Dean

In this time of drastic economic restructuring of the employment relationship, it is more important than ever that labor vigorously debate and experiment with new models of employee representation. Both the economic and political landscapes in which Americans work have been dramatically altered in the last twenty years. The movement must be ready to adapt to these sea changes.

Lance Compa critiques a wide variety of different approaches that labor advocates have been advancing in recent years, and he is certainly correct that not all of these tactics have equal merit. But he does not offer a coherent alternative and instead seems to be arguing that the labor movement should just soldier on without making any significant changes. There is, quite simply, no way to rebuild exactly the models of unionism that won such brilliant gains in the mid-20th century. America’s economy has been too dramatically transformed since then.

Of the different tactics Compa critiques, alt-labor is certainly one that deserves defense. In the 1930s the experimentation and innovation of the industrial labor organizers was also denounced as a waste of time and resources. The auto and steel workers of the New Deal era were not building their labor organizations in the way that such things had traditionally been orchestrated. But when the massive worker unrest of that decade surged, those CIO unions and the organizational models they championed were there waiting to be picked up and expanded upon.

Today efforts like OUR Wal-Mart and Fast Food Forward are experimenting with new forms of organizing to adapt to the decentralized economy. The funding for these efforts comes from existing unions, but so too did the money for the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee come from other CIO unions. And like the Justice for Janitors model that won such powerful victories in the 1990s and 2000s, these campaigns focus not on the contractors and other middle men being squeezed by corporate giants, but on the client companies themselves. Already, real gains have been won both legislatively, as the $15 minimum wage spreads, and in individual stores where fired workers have been rehired.

Moreover, alt-labor organizations such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Taxi Workers Alliance offer protections to workers who, voluntarily or not, work outside the umbrella of one long-term employment relationship. These groups represent workers who are more contingent, not tied down to a particular employer, and are perhaps misclassified as independent contractors: They cannot only organize workers through a specific employer, but along occupational lines. In these cases the locus of organizing must shift from a single employer to an entire industry. The AFL-CIO has acknowledged the legitimacy and importance of these organizations, allowing them to affiliate with the federation—a radical move that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

Compa’s essay does not adequately acknowledge that the “conventional unions” he champions are existentially beset by overwhelmingly powerful political and economic forces. New forms of organizing, like Fast Food Forward or the Taxi Workers Alliance, must be an integral part of labor’s strategy moving forward. We can, and we must, experiment with new forms of organizing while also defending the remaining “conventional unions” that Compa holds up as our only option.

Response by Chris Maisano

I was disappointed by Lance Compa’s essay in defense of conventional U.S. trade unionism. Existing unions must be defended with all the means at our disposal, but that doesn’t mean we should stop criticizing their many weaknesses and shortcomings — many of which are self-inflicted — or refrain from exploring and testing out different approaches to building worker power. The big bangs of worker organizing in the twentieth century rested on new organizational forms, adapted to the needs of workers and the nature of capitalism at the time. There’s no reason to think that the next upsurge will be any different.

The tunnel vision that characterizes Compa’s essay leads him to make a number of questionable arguments and propositions concerning the future of the labor movement.

He argues that labor should “continue the hard political struggle to elect governors and legislatures who will reverse state right-to-work laws.” This is just as much a “law professor’s pipe dream” as any of the proposals he criticizes. It’s surprising that, after decades of disappointment, the delusion that electing more Democrats to office will result in meaningful labor law reform persists.

A state-level right-to-work law has been repealed exactly once in U.S. history — in Indiana in 1965 — and that victory was reversed in 2012. The electoral arena is clearly important, and labor should participate in it, but if history is any guide labor law reforms will come after, not before, a socially disruptive wave of organizing driven primarily by bottom-up worker self-activity. Encouraging that activity is a far more constructive use of our energy and resources than yet more electioneering for Democrats.

Moreover, Compa rightly decries the “insurance policy” model of unionism, but he fails to mention how susceptible conventional forms of unionism are to its logic. In the conventional model workers often become passive clients rather than active participants in the building of collective power in the workplace. So while the emergence of an unresponsive bureaucracy with its own set of interests apart from the membership is not inevitable, current institutional arrangements make it extremely likely. This process of bureaucratization— which is far advanced in many unions — and the negative impact it has on working-class power must be seriously addressed. Instead, Compa chooses to dismiss it as the misplaced concern of supposed “romantics.”

Significant changes in the legal-institutional structures governing the labor movement in this country seem to be headed our way whether we like it or not. Rather than a long-term “ebb and flow” suggested by Compa, private sector unionization is rapidly fading into irrelevance, and there is a serious possibility that the Supreme Court will soon impose a national right-to-work regime in the public sector in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case.
Finally, pace Compa, few labor activists see strategies like members-only unions as ideal strategies — they are adaptive measures designed to address overriding questions of how to rebuild the organizing capacities of workers when conventional unionization isn’t possible and alternative strategies are necessary. The climate confronting labor activists today is incredibly harsh, and with the Supreme Court decision looming on the horizon, many of these debates may be rendered moot. One fact remains — the labor movement will only be revitalized by developing real worker power from the bottom up, within both existing unions and the organizational forms that may eventually supplant them.

Response by Michael M. Oswalt

Lance Compa is right: alt-labor relies heavily on union support, and it’s not self-sustaining. But the conclusion he draws—that it’s a lot of flash and no fix—is only half-right. The truth is, we should feel optimistic about “traditional” labor because of alt-labor, not in spite of it. The two futures are linked, and supporting alt-labor may be the smartest way for unions to put fuel to the flashes and get to the fixes.

Consider, to start, some alt-labor victories so far. Defying all early punditry, Fight for $15 has spread a fifteen-dollar-an-hour fever that’s touched five cities, a slew of companies, and shows no sign of stopping.i In 2010 the National Domestic Workers Alliance won precedent-setting rights legislation in New York that’s hit 4 states and counting.ii ROCUnited’s lawsuit settlements function as essentially mini-contracts.iii OURWalmart protested its way to raises and meaningful maternity and scheduling changes.iv

There’s more, but here’s the real key: that these and other alt-labor projects rest on union backing isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. It’s proof that unions are willing to take the best part about institutionalization—resource stability—and put some of it on the line for unconventional causes using a diversity of tactics, from the tried-and-true, like lobbying and community-building; to the edgy, like civil disobedience; to the totally new, like running into stores to see who’s up for striking. This is busting-out without breaking-up, and it’s working.

Of course, to keep going, people need to get and stay mobilized, including many at the margins of labor’s usual field of vision. That’s where social media is crucial, and it’s a much more vibrant tool than Compa suggests. OURWalmart’s virtual “strike kit” sparked Black Friday walkouts at locations untouched by organizers; a Coworker.org “Let Us Have Beards” campaign at Publix hit CNN.com and three other sites in nine days;v when fast-food or Uber activism Twitter-trends, the left is following, but so are millenials and the media. Not only does all of this magnify labor’s reach beyond its numbers, it makes workplace activism look incredibly cool. It’s compelling, consciousness-raising stuff, and it forms a foundation for the later work of institution-building.

And that gets to the kicker: as exciting as alt-labor’s progress has been, there’s still time to double-back on sustainability. In fact, it’s happening now. Cabbies, day-laborers, care assistants and other NLRA-orphans are affiliating with unions and encouraging voluntary dues structures or getting contracts under state law.vi A recent Board decision on the test for joint-employers may make unionizing fast-food franchises feasible.vii When supermarket workers see what an on-line petition can do, they’ll wonder what could get done across a table.

In short, when headlines like “Fast-food workers walkout in N.Y. amid rising U.S. labor unrest”viii appear, it’s time to accelerate, not pull back. Workers do want “somebody to back me up” at work, but if we’ve already learned anything, it’s that a whole lot of “somebody’s” are ready—they just need an invite. If alt-labor and “traditional” labor are both invested in all the varied RSVPs, that’s a great thing.

For Lance Compa’s counter-response click here.

Collection: International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985)

Careful What You Wish For: A Critical Appraisal of Proposals to Rebuild the Labor Movement

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...

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For Rooted Unions: Lance Compa’s Reply to New Labor Forum Debate Respondents

See original article here.

See responses here.

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.

White and African American males hold signs that read: "The Dress Shipping Clerks' Won't Cross the Picket Line. We Stand United with the Dressmakers Union!" 1958.

Green Capitalism Won’t Work

For the last 20 years, unions in the U.S. and internationally have generally accepted the dominant discourse on climate policy, one that is grounded in assumptions that private markets will lead the “green transition,” reduce emissions, and stabilize the climate over the longer term. Indeed, unions began attending the climate negotiations convened by the UN in the early 1990s, a time when the “triumph of the market” went unchallenged and the climate debate was awash with neoliberal ideas. Unions therefore focused on articulating the need for "Just Transition" policies.

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Class-Based Affirmative Action

In the press, debates over affirmative action in higher education pit liberals (who support taking race into account in admissions) and conservatives (who oppose it). But there is a third way on the issue—affirmative action based on class, rather than race—which is far more progressive than our current system of racial preferences, the class-based approach is quickly gaining ground.

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