By lobbying for better working conditions, employee/employer relations, and fair wages, labor unions strive to protect the welfare of working class individuals. With the goal of making work environments fair for their employees, labor unions push forward for progress, fighting for the rights of working class individuals who may not have voices of their own. An individual lobbying for an overdue raise may feel intimidated in front of an employer, backing down for fear of losing his job or drawing undue ire. Labor unions exist to take the pressure off the employees, serving as third parties and go-betweens to help working class individuals fight for their rights in their respective places of work.
Most employees will agree that working under labor unions provides security and job protection. Employers reserve the right to bargain with unions and initiate negotiations to persuade their employees to avoid unionizing, but many employees appreciate the security they receive from their unions and remain with them accordingly. However, it is important to remember that employees must contribute to their unions to protect themselves. Furthermore, unions can occasionally bring more harm than good. To understand labor unions and how individuals may receive them, it is important to examine both sides of the situation to uncover the pros and cons of keeping and operating under labor unions.
One of the most gleaming attributes of a labor union is the protection of a group. A labor union provides a wall of support in the form of paid staff and volunteers who fight for the rights of hard-working employees. A common complaint among employees is money, and labor unions lobby to fight for overdue raises by putting the pressure on employers. In 2011, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations reported that union workers made an average of 30% more than workers who did not belong to any union, making them some of the best paid individuals in the working class.
In addition to helping provide better pay for the working class, labor unions make employees more aware of their rights as workers. Not every individual who wanders onto a job is fully aware of all the rights and privileges that come with the position. For example, a greedy employer may try to exploit employees by denying them appropriately timed breaks in stressful work environments, and many employees will tolerate the abuse for fear of losing their jobs. Labor unions exist to protect employees from this kind of abuse by informing them of their legal rights. Furthermore, labor unions will make employers liable in the event of injury or illness because of workplace abuse or neglect.
Nonetheless, the power of a labor union can also present considerably large drawbacks. Labor unions have the power to press employers for raises, but their zeal may be misplaced. Fighting for the working class is one thing, but pushing an employer for an unrealistic pay raise is another. Some companies simply do not have the money to spend on salary bumps, but pressure from labor unions can force them into submission, and the pressure a labor union places behind an employer does not only affect the company.
By forcing a company to provide pay raises, the cost of productivity goes up, and the difference comes directly out of the consumers’ pockets. This is often referred to as the “trickle down” effect. If Company X must pay its employees unrealistic wages because of pressure from a labor union, Company X must raise the cost of Product Y to balance the books, causing the cost of the salary bump to “trickle down” to consumers.
Pushing for unrealistic wages is only one way that labor unions can exploit their power. Unions have influence over companies, and they can become very greedy. This greediness can lead to a lack of trust between an employee and his employer, contributing to a hostile work environment. This is not to say that employees should avoid joining unions for fear of creating distrust between themselves and their employers. Nonetheless, it is important for employees to know that although unions can bring job security and protection, they can also bring distrust and controversy to work environments.
Labor unions have power, and they know how to use it. By pushing for equal opportunity workplaces and safe work environments, labor unions can help employees to know their rights and receive fair treatment. However, they can also push employers too far and give the wrong impression. Not every employee requires union representation. For this reason, employees may want to examine their work environments carefully and decide whether or not they require protection from labor unions. In more stressful, risky work environments, unions may be useful, but individuals with less demanding jobs may want to steer clear of labor unions and eliminate the clutter.
Filed Under: Business & Economics, Economics
Last spring, I attended the plenary session of an academic conference on labor issues. The audience consisted of university leftists of a particular type — reliables at campus actions on sweatshops or contracts for the custodial staff. The panelists were what you might call union politicians: the most polished strategists that the labor movement has to offer. A director of the AFL-CIO in a southern state proclaimed that the time had come for labor to organize the South. Another speaker campaigned for union members to bring their unorganized neighbors into the movement at the ballot box if not the workplace. The strategic architect of a successful nationwide campaign insisted that organized labor become more confrontational, even if that meant doing things that weren’t strictly legal. An organizer for a major public-sector union called for strategies that would draw out common ground between workers and the communities they serve.
Each speaker was persuasive. All diagnosed real and old problems in the labor movement: the geographic and sectoral narrowness that leaves it exposed to political attack and economic undercutting, the infamous strategic caution that makes unions seem to miss every opportunity. They all proposed remedies that, if successful, would yield what every labor sympathizer wants: new allies, regions, sectors in the movement — growth, dynamism, excitement.
When the time came for questions, one old man raised his hand before the applause ended. He was a retired labor lawyer; in my memory, he looks like Judd Hirsch. He was cranky. Each speaker, he pointed out, had called for organized labor to do something very difficult, and each had a different strategy in mind. The movement, he noted, is currently failing to do any one of these things, and not for lack of trying. How is it supposed to do all of them? The audience, which leaned romantic, grumbled at the pessimism. The speakers demurred. That’s just how it is, they averred. We just have to do all of them. The moderator called on someone else, and the session resumed the heroic mode.
Alas, poor unions: no matter how strong the left-of-center consensus that we need them again, we can’t seem to bring them back. Surely, it’s their fault; as a recent forum in the Nation asked, “Does labor deserve its own downfall?” The movement’s long, sad decline must in some way be a comeuppance. Pick your poison: racism and sexism, retrograde valorization of toil and hostility to environmental protection, bureaucratic complacency, institutional rigidity, top-down authoritarianism, political tepidity, toxic organizational culture, history of corruption — need we continue?
These criticisms are not altogether wrong. But they tend to forget the fundamental order of things. It’s the power of the boss that makes for a sorry labor movement, and the political economy of the past five decades has made for a strong boss. Labor markets are slack and layoffs endemic, which keeps wages stagnant, costs low, and shareholders happy. Wage theft is common and largely goes unrectified; health and safety standards are unenforced. A byzantine nest of subcontracts and corporate shells often separates the workers from the profits, so that whatever subentity is the employer always appears in the red. Labor law’s teeth have been worn down to the gum: to take concerted action these days is to invite near-certain employer retaliation with little chance of remedy. And when the boss inevitably tells workers they should be grateful for what they have and warns them that plenty of people would be happy to take their jobs, the workers have no trouble picturing these people. They are their nieces, cousins, and neighbors, stuck in part-time jobs or out of work. The workers feel isolated and discouraged, the organizers wring their hands, and wages and conditions keep deteriorating.
Union opponents think this quiescence means workers don’t want to fight. Romantic union supporters, perhaps including the people at the conference, tend to think that workers are ready for a struggle but held back by conservative middle-class leadership. Neither account fully contemplates the idea that the struggle between labor and capital might more simply reflect the balance of power. The union movement’s problem, in other words, isn’t that workers don’t want to fight; it’s that they don’t want to lose.
Above all, the problem of strategic resources is oddly absent from public discussion of labor’s fate. Plenty of people turn out for protests and walkouts at retail and fast-food outlets around the country, but few realize that such popularity comes with a price. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), while gaining acclaim for the campaign to increase wages for fast-food workers — Fight for $15 — has seen significant internal dispute about whether even the union’s massive organization can afford a large-scale effort that is unlikely to yield dues-paying members in the foreseeable future. The same is true of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has scaled back its years-long campaign against Walmart. These campaigns are heroic struggles; the question of their affordability for unions — which must also meet obligations to their own members and secure their own financial futures — is easily skipped over by the bystander looking for some encouragement.
Employers have long argued that unions represent a sectional interest only — that they distort the market to the benefit of whoever their members happen to be. But organized labor’s dream is to stand for the common interests of all working people. The more members unions have, the better they will be at representing the interests of the entire working class, organized and unorganized. The flip side of this well-worn aphorism is more rarely stated: the fewer members unions have, the more time must be spent defending the interest of those few members. What these members want, typically, is representation and a good contract. They want the union to be there when the boss tries to screw them. They want it to deliver wage and benefit gains in bargaining, especially as the remnants of the unionized working class find themselves obliged to support the more indebted and underemployed members of their own families.
Union leaders, on the other hand, often know perfectly well that if they only serve their members’ immediate needs, they betray the deeper interests of those very members. The more the standard of living of American workers falls, the clearer this fact becomes for those who are organized. Still, immediate needs often trump long-term planning. Walk into a union hall today and you are likely to find staff concerned with getting a good contract and winning grievance fights, hoping that something offstage will salvage the larger situation.
This problem is no one’s fault but the employers’. But if the union is going to pursue something other than short-term gains or fixes, someone has to pay. People are going to need to recruit and train volunteers to knock on doors. Communications staff will be necessary to generate materials. Researchers will need to be hired to uncover points of strategic opportunity; lawyers, to safeguard the union against hostile courts. And while workers ultimately make the movement, it is usually the organizing staff who create the conditions for them to stand up, by linking them to workers in other parts of the shop and ensuring strategic coordination. Spontaneous working-class action happens occasionally, but today it is riskier than most can afford.
The most definitive research on the subject has found that a successful organizing campaign needs at least one full-time organizer per hundred workers. In a good campaign, the staff organizer identifies, recruits, and trains leaders from the rank-and-file, who do the work of engaging others and developing their collective voice. In the most rank-and-file-intensive models, this trickles down to organizing committee structures that engage one active participant for every four or five workers. That way, each group of workplace friends includes someone who will keep the others engaged. But that’s the ideal. Many campaigns will need more paid organizers to get off the ground.
According to the Center for Union Facts (not a union-friendly organization), America’s unions collect an annual total of $8.6 billion in dues. Forty-four percent of what they spend goes to overhead, 44 percent to “representational activities,” and the remaining 12 percent to political involvement. This last fraction, accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars funneled into the campaigns of largely indifferent Democrats, is where the more militant members of the movement have long looked for more funds. When seven unions split from the AFL-CIO to form the ill-fated federation Change to Win in 2005, they did so in order to focus more resources on organizing. The federation’s structure proposed an allotment of about $40 million a year to organizing, an amount heralded as unprecedented. Still, if you paid staff organizers $50,000 including benefits and didn’t have to pay for any other infrastructure or expenses — office space, legal fees, travel — that still buys you only 800 organizers. At our ratio of one organizer per one hundred workers, we’re talking about a hypothetical campaign for 800,000 workers. Now consider Walmart, which alone has 1.5 million American “associates” — hourly nonmanagerial workers. Then imagine Target, McDonald’s, Subway, and CVS, and you start to see the scale of the problem — and we’re still just talking about a few of the big players in retail. The money issue, in other words, is daunting.
Only a growing revenue stream can square the legitimate, immediate demands of union members with the necessities of the working-class movement as a whole. Yet it’s extremely rare, in my experience, to hear those outside the movement talk about the material questions of organized labor. Where will the money come from? Who will do the work?
There are a few ways people can wield collective power. They can join together to lobby officials or file a lawsuit, they can participate in political campaigns, or they can engage in direct action — rallies, marches, occupations, and strikes. In general, the organizations that do lobbying and lawsuits don’t tend to do direct action, which demands a different set of skills and attitudes: what you say to win in court or convince a lawmaker often has little to do with the real reason you care about the issue. More distastefully, lobbying, electoral politics, and legal efforts inevitably involve cozying up to the enemy. This means that organizations specializing in these tactics tend not to produce mass engagement by a movement’s true-believing base. The obverse is also true. It’s nearly impossible to run a tent city, for instance, and at the same time get a well-sourced policy paper to the key staffer of the swing member of the right subcommittee of the state senate. It’s harder still if that state senator is pissed off about the tent city because it raises issues that could interfere with his reelection — and the tent city and the lobbying organization are not just politically sympathetic but part of the same organization.
Historically, organized labor is the only movement that attempts to participate in virtually every type of collective action, from hiring lobbyists to shutting down cities. When unions have ignored the state, they’ve tended to get crushed by courts and police. When they’ve tried to build power only through official channels, they’ve sometimes managed to pick up membership but never any real participation. Circumstances compel this wide spectrum of action, but it is only possible because labor has long been the only major movement on the left that is sustained entirely from within — relying not on voluntary donations but on the widespread, automatic financial participation of its members. An organization like the ACLU — of the lobbying, lawsuit tendency — runs on gifts and voluntary memberships and is not particularly good at getting thousands of people to do something loud and confrontational together. Occupy, by contrast, was more of an event than an organization; it didn’t consist of much of anything besides the direct action itself. In between are organizations like the Urban League and Greenpeace, groups that have helped lead some of the most important movements in American history, but whose financial existence often depends on fickle outside groups (churches, millionaires) and whose membership lists rarely come close to those of unions.
Organized labor, by contrast, is at its finest both reliable bureaucracy and mass spirit. That these two souls contradict each other suggests the difficulty of challenging the socially powerful for decades on end: you must be both lawyer and pamphleteer, accountant and agitator. On the one hand, as Rosa Luxemburg once warned, the working class will ultimately lose every battle but the last one. On the other, a social insurgency fades without interim victories, and these require everyday satisfaction of the needs of the movement’s constituency. Solidarity is the binding together of self-interests on a scale sufficient to win; it demands not just transformative vision but transactional strategy.
Strategy, though, is not a skill learned in the schools of theory that shape left-wing political culture. Rather, it tends to be acquired over years of defeat and passed down through institutional memory — an asset that has become increasingly precious and uncommon as the lights go out on the labor left.
Few, then, know how to recognize strategy when they see it. Take the outrage over a recent Los Angeles minimum-wage proposal. The city, under pressure from organized labor, passed an ordinance raising the hourly wage to $15. Unions, however, sought an exemption for workers covered by union contracts. The right-wing media were the first to report the exemption, citing it as evidence for what every antiunion campaign argues: that the union is a business and dues are its profits; that if the union has to screw over workers to amass an army of low-wage dues payers, it will do so. As the Chamber of Commerce put it, “With sympathetic politicians’ assistance, unions hope that creating an exclusion from minimum wage laws will entice employers to accept unionization to avoid costly new wage mandates.” But the Chamber was joined by some unlikely allies. Marxist commentator Doug Henwood wrote a tweet mocking the desire of unions for the “freedom” to bargain for low wages. Labor historian Erik Loomis — generally an astute observer — decried the move for its “optics.” A minor internet affray resulted, bringing embarrassment on LA’s house of labor.
A more charitable reading of the proposal would be that low-wage workers are concentrated in competitive sectors of the economy with low profit margins. Although bosses will lie about what they can and cannot afford, it’s true that they cannot afford everything. Low-wage workers often prefer good benefits to a pay bump, since it can be easier to get multiple household members into low-wage no-benefit jobs than to get one into a job with health care. A minimum-wage hike thus has, in theory, the potential to limit the ability of workers to organize for better benefits in a low-margin workplace.
Finally, even if unionization does not provide immediate benefit to the workers, it’s easy to imagine how the exemption could work in unions’ favor. Employers might recognize a union now so they can pay $13.50 rather than $15; the workers, now enjoying contractual protections, would then be at less risk of losing their jobs for taking action. Soon, the workers gain collective confidence and surpass where they would have been otherwise within a contract cycle or two. Such a strategy is no guarantee of success, but it’s hardly science fiction. It’s exactly the kind of thing the Chamber of Commerce fears.
The exemption might well have been a miscalculation, particularly given the momentum that has built behind the $15 campaign. But it isn’t self-evidently exploitative just because it sounds bad. Calculations like this, however, require a union bureaucracy — that century-long bête noire of the left. As Kim Moody, a leading labor leftist, has written, “Union ‘leaders,’ those who make the policy, lean not toward the workers, but toward the rulers of the nation. Since most unions are rigidly bureaucratic, there is little opportunity for the workers to make their voices heard under normal circumstances.” This is sufficiently accurate to have become common wisdom. Taken too far, though, the argument imagines workers who will rise up if only they are freed from conservative leadership. It is a legacy of a fundamentally different moment in the history of the American working class — the turn of the 20th century, when capital was hungry for labor, rather than oversupplied with it — and a different balance of power.
Today, rank-and-file insurgency simply will not form without being fostered. The economic environment is far too hostile. Forming organizations and hiring staff is a necessary step toward enabling workers to be heard; it is not, in itself, the elimination of their voices. The union exists as an organization — as opposed to a network of felt solidarities — in large part so that workers can pool their resources to hire a researcher and a lawyer to figure out which strategic trade-offs might be a good bet. The actual fight is up to them, but organizational capacity gives them a chance to be not just brave, but canny.
What eliminating workers’ voices really looks like is the destruction of their collective organizations. Leave it to the bosses, then, to understand the significance of union dues. Capital and its Republican Party stooges have made the destruction of the dues-collection apparatus their immediate political goal in the class war for years now. And they are, by and large, succeeding. West Virginia, the state where coal miners once staged the largest armed rebellion in American history outside the Civil War, recently became the twenty-sixth state to pass a right-to-work law. Right-to-work, traditionally a southern and mountain-state phenomenon, has in recent years broken into labor’s heartlands, becoming law in Indiana and Michigan, and passing the state legislature in Wisconsin only to be struck down in court. This legislation lifts the requirement that workers covered by a union contract pay for union representation; the union still has to represent everyone, but workers only pay dues if they’re inclined. If you live in New York and don’t want to join the union in your workplace, you instead pay what’s called an “agency fee” — a partial payment for the representation you object to but enjoy the benefits of. If you live in Georgia, there’s no agency fee — you can just not pay.
If organizing means expanding the circle of solidarity, binding together a growing group of individual self-interests, then right-to-work sets in motion a process of unraveling. When a state goes right-to-work, some portion of the workforce opts out, choosing to free-ride on the dues-paying members. The union’s revenues plummet, leading to layoffs of the union staff. The union’s ability to articulate a collective interest shrinks, its organizational capacity — reflected in turnout at actions, signatures on petitions, and the like — declines, the contracts it wins get worse, and even more workers wonder what’s worth paying for. Between 2014, when Michigan’s right-to-work law came into effect, and 2015, union membership dropped from 16.3 to 15.2 percent — despite the simultaneous recovery of auto employment.
Right-to-work could be even more decisive in the public sector. Nationally, one in three public-sector workers is a union member, compared with one in fifteen in the private sector. This is because many public-sector unions benefit from friendly state-level labor laws that make it impossible for government officials to campaign against the union. As a result, many of these unions haven’t developed cultures of mass engagement and struggle that might allow them to survive right-to-work. There are few equivalents in the public sector to Las Vegas’s Culinary Union, the 57,000-strong casino and hotel workers’ giant, which has famously overcome the challenges of its right-to-work environment by developing an enormous network of militant shop-floor leaders. Make it optional to pay union dues for those in the public sector, and you probably kill the unions in their last remaining sectoral bastion.
This was the great significance of the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which labor won reprieve by the death of Antonin Scalia. In 2014 the court had struck down the agency fee for homecare workers, who are paid by Medicaid but, Justice Samuel Alito argued, should be considered the employees of individual clients. In this argument, Alito appeared to invite a challenge to the underlying legal basis of mandatory dues for all public-sector employees. The good people at National Right to Work found a group of plaintiffs who wanted to sue the California Teachers Association to get out of paying dues, and things looked quite bad until Scalia died. Had the court found for the plaintiff, the entire public sector could have gone right-to-work — potentially strangling public employee unions more or less all at once. Now the suit has failed, and public-sector unions have a moment of respite. It’s rare to catch a break; we should use it.
On the left, it’s common to find varieties of accelerationist politics that herald the destruction of organized labor as a necessary clearing of dead wood — in some cases, even a celebration of the punishment of labor for being a bureaucratic anachronism. Among the less apocalyptic it’s been a consensus point for some time that the legal shell of working-class organization, the regime in place since the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, has outlived its day. Certainly the political right has succeeded in circumscribing every legal means available to unions, short of outlawing them altogether.
Few know what comes next, but the formation of nonbargaining organizations called workers’ centers, often described as “alt-labor,” hints at one possible future. These groups teach workers about their rights, organize protests, and offer legal representation, but they don’t bargain with employers or collect dues. Others have taken to calling for “minority unionism”: if unions can’t collect dues from everybody, they shouldn’t have to represent everybody. What if, instead, unions organized small, tight knots of militants who sought their own arrangements with the employer and demonstrated courage to the rest of the workforce? This would probably take a legislative change, since the law currently requires a majority of workers to vote for a union for it to be certified. The proposal has sometimes taken the form of a “grand bargain” in which labor concedes that only members will pay dues — right-to-work everywhere — and in return gets the right to officially represent minorities and strengthened remedies against employer retaliation. There are even efforts to develop an app for organizing: just like on Tinder, a decision to support the union might only be revealed when the move is supported by a majority. “Labr,” BuzzFeed has called the idea.
The accelerationists are right in one respect: although it’s by no means “necessary,” more of labor may yet be broken before much can recover. It’s only by trial and error that unions have ever figured out how to become what the workers have come to need; the movement has historically grown in great spurts, when new organizational forms emerge that fit the new shape of the ever-changing working class. The idea of industrial unionism, for example — a single organization for each industry, rather than different unions for different trades — was present among American workers from the beginning of mass production in the late 19th century, many decades before its realization in the founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935.
While it’s hard to know what could lead to new union growth, to embrace the destruction of existing unions is to cede the initiative entirely. You can’t ever really be ready for the class war, but much of the job of working-class strategy is to stage and escalate conflict at the most advantageous moments. So-called legacy unions represent living traditions with institutional memories of what worked and what didn’t against an individual boss, in a given industry, or among workers of particular types. It’s an error to perceive union defeat as evidence of some strategic mistake. American workers can do everything right and still lose.
Let’s take as examples three different workers: a registered nurse, a building custodian, and a fast-food worker. These are three people in situations subject to different pressures. The nurse is white. She owns a home in a modest suburb but is underwater on her mortgage. She works in an understaffed unit, so her shifts are physically and emotionally brutal and child care is a constant challenge. The custodian is an immigrant from Guatemala. He has a union and managed to buy a small house a decade ago, but lost it to foreclosure in 2010. His boss is always threatening to subcontract his job. The fast-food worker is black. This was the only job she could get. Her hours are unpredictable, her pay is negligible, she has no benefits, and she is disrespected constantly. Her landlord won’t fix anything in her decrepit building and could evict her at any moment.
In broad strokes, this is the American working class. The nurse could be a teacher or an adjunct professor, the custodian could be a truck driver, the fast-food worker could be unemployed. The middle range, the most classically proletarian — here, the custodian — remains the most unionized. If any of these groups are going to build a substantial base of power, though, they need one another. The nurse has the status and voice available to a professional, but, for the same reason, militancy does not come so easily to her. The custodian has some organizational resources in his union and economic leverage at his workplace, but he is at constant risk of being underbid for his job. The fast-food worker has no channel to make herself heard, but she brings numbers and anger.
My own view is that the best way for unions to grow is to combine the strengths of these different strata of the working class. SEIU has tried this, in a way. From its base of hospital workers and janitors (middle-stratum jobs), the union has made incursions up and down, attempting to organize adjunct professors and fast-food workers. The challenge of these campaigns is that the workers are spread across an entire metropolitan labor market. These groups don’t necessarily feature in one another’s lives in any way other than as consumers; they are unlikely to live next to one another, or play sports together, or get drunk together, or share spaces of worship. Their kids aren’t friends or even classmates. The union’s ability to throw its existing weight into new workplaces is thus limited by the social distance separating the organization’s existing base from its areas of expansion.
Our registered nurse, custodian, and fast-food worker, in other words, aren’t necessarily going to take risks on one another’s behalf. The union wants them to understand their fates as intertwined, but given hierarchies of race, economic position, and social status, that understanding is not going to come easily. Such an approach might work incrementally, as SEIU has found with its success in adjunct organizing campaigns — funded by janitors, organized by professionals. But to produce significant results, the labor movement needs to focus on where it can maximize whatever strategic resources it still has.
The members themselves are the most underused resource. America once had factories where thousands toiled together. Though divided by race, ethnicity, and skill, the great plants and mills were hothouses of proletarian consciousness. While such work sites are now extremely rare, their lesson should be remembered. The most promising targets for campaigns are employers large and multifarious enough to implicate workers of many different kinds, as well as the broader community. Hospitals, school systems, and universities leap out as potential targets. These are the institutions where the RN, the custodian, and the fast-food worker are under the same roof. They might actually know one another. The meaning of their alliance might cut across lines of race, gender, and status.
Such institutions tend to have major footprints in their local labor markets. In New York City, the Department of Education is the largest single employer of all agencies of the city government, itself the largest overall employer; health-care providers and universities make up eight of the top ten in the private sector. What’s more, the students, families, and patients who are served by the institution often have interests that can be aligned with those of workers: Do you want enough nurses on the hospital floor? What is all this debt for if the money’s not going to the professors? Do you want your children tested to death and jammed into overcrowded classrooms? Here the classic case is the Chicago Teachers Union, which has successfully positioned itself at the head of a popular majority against mayor Rahm Emanuel.
These institutions are also susceptible to public pressure. Hospitals, school systems, and universities all depend on the public — its opinion, its dollars. If a significant number of people who work at these institutions can be mustered to volunteer in local elections, that group can persuade an even larger group of workers, students, and patients to vote for the same candidates. Then you have a shot at building real, substantive unity between different sections of the working class. This is, essentially, the model of the Working Families Party in New York, as well as my union’s coalition in New Haven.
In New York, the result is visible in the de Blasio administration’s most progressive moves: policies like mandatory paid sick leave, opposition to charter schools, and free pre-K represent points of common interest across the working-class coalition that put the mayor in office. In New Haven, a coalition of Yale employees and community activists, after a string of local electoral victories, extracted an agreement from Yale in December 2015 to hire 1,000 New Haven residents over three years. (I was part of this campaign.)
These successes, along with the astonishing momentum of the $15 campaigns, hint at the possibilities of the city as the unit of strategy. With enough political power at the local level, workers’ organizations may be able to develop forms of leverage that can counteract the growing hostility of the federal legal regime. Imagine if the Chicago Teachers Union won control of the city government (far from an impossible prospect) and used that power to rein in police violence; the union might also reopen schools and clinics closed by Emanuel and staff them, creating huge numbers of unionized jobs. Enough victories like these, and the public image of organized labor might finally change from racist white men to the dominant group across many sectors for decades now — progressive people of color. More significantly, the wide range of working-class people whose long-term interests can align would take a step toward unity.
Our accounts of heroicsocial movements tend to begin at the moment of insurgency, when the cameras show up. The years of bitter, lonely, and seemingly futile struggle get the Ken Burns treatment less often. Even of the heroic age of SNCC in Mississippi, the historian Charles Payne writes, “Field reports are filled with stories of spending day after day dragging from house to house without a single positive response to show for it. Most people were simply afraid and confused but reluctant to admit it.” One organizer reported in 1962 that for every hundred people they spoke to, ten agreed to register to vote, three showed up, “and those three were frightened away from the courthouse by the sheriff.” This is not the epic narrative we are taught. But it is the marrow of movement work.
Here’s another story. In the wake of the First Red Scare of 1919–20, the unions were ruined. Their militants were arrested, blacklisted, and deported. Labor’s most prominent political leader, Eugene Debs, was imprisoned for political crime — opposing the war — only a few years after receiving 6 percent of the vote in a presidential election; he ran for President in 1920 from his Georgia cell. The coal miners of West Virginia were gunned down and bombed from the air in 1921. For those who kept the faith in the factories, mills, and mines, fifteen years of ostracism followed. They had no hint that a moment was coming like the 1930s, when small cells of old believers across the country led millions of workers — many of whom had spent years shunning them — to victory.
To keep your wits about you through this kind of process takes, above all, memory. Memory perhaps once resided in the gemeinschaftlich wisdom of the integrated working-class community. On the Lower East Side, or in Back of the Yards, where everyone on the block had basically the same job and the same daily routine and experience, marching in sync to the factory whistle, collective experience needed less formal incorporation to survive. In the steel and coal towns of Pennsylvania, Eastern European workers referred to company police as “Cossacks.” They remembered across generations well enough on their own.
The organic integration of the working-class social world is gone. To remember, and keep remembering, now happens only on purpose. Memory looks like an office, with file cabinets and framed pictures from past victories. It smells like printer ink and sounds like bitter narratives of defeat often repeated, with lessons learned. It costs money to keep, and it takes sustained and uninterrupted time to accumulate. To remember and renew is itself an act of defiance: each dollar in dues money, each hour spent in some interminable meeting, passes the tradition on, despite constant efforts to extinguish it.
Just because a political project is difficult, in other words, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong. It could just be that it’s hard — that the opposition is fearsome and you haven’t cracked it yet. Some kinds of success are bought with a dozen or a hundred failures. The key is to be there for the next round, and to know a chance when you see it.