On the Contrary

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.