[New Labor Forum invited Jonathan Rosenblum, José La Luz and Jane McAlevey to respond to my article, “Two Reasons Why Most Unions Don’t Do Large-Scale Organizing”, and then gave me an opportunity to respond back. This is that published response.]
The respondents have expanded the discussion far beyond the parameters of my initial article. I have written elsewhere about union structure, strategy, and legal reform, but my preceding article does not purport to offer an all-encompassing solution to labor’s organizing woes. Rather, I intended to highlight two institutional conflicts that I have seen little open discussion about, and which are clearly impediments to maintaining a commitment to an organizing strategy.
Simply put, institutional priorities matter and I don’t just mean the budgetary commitment to do organizing. Jonathan Rosenblum, for instance, identifies mass organizing as the only choice for labor. Sure. I’d add reviving the strike weapon to our wish list, but both strategies are more easily said than done. The historical reality is that the U.S. labor movement has mostly grown through brief periods of worker-led, seemingly spontaneous mass strike activity. The efforts of the last 20 years to increase union density by gaining new members as quickly and easily as possible was doomed to never live up to expectations.
It would be better to find a balance — and a connection—between smart contract campaigns aimed at increasing the power and membership engagement of existing unions and strategic and potentially iconic new organizing fights that might inspire more non-union workers to think about their power and how best to organize.
The best example of that kind of external campaign is, as Jose La Luz points out, the Fight for $15. The campaign offers a model of unions thinking outside their institutional boundaries, it also enables supposedly powerless workers to experience the power that comes from withholding their labor. Along these lines, an “internal” organizing campaign that gives me hope is Bargaining for the Common Good, an effort by public sector unions to line up contract expirations and bargaining demands with community demands like progressive taxation, affordable housing, and government transparency, taking dead aim at the largest banks and power brokers while organizing a very real strike threat.
La Luz is correct that the failure by unions to engage in a “serious ongoing conversation” with members about the organizing imperative contributes to institutional roadblocks. Too many unions limited the conversation about the need to engage in organizing to convention delegates, and then just to get dues increases passed. Among admirers, there’s a fear that SEIU might stop funding Fight for $15 if it doesn’t start producing new members. I think Fight for $15 organizers have been thoughtful about getting existing union members to join the rallies and picket lines in solidarity. Such actions can be the most serious education in why we need to organize.
I must admit that I found Jane McAlevey’s response to be unsporting . She twists a few of my points in order to knock them down as strawmen and only seems to offer do more good organizing as an alternative. Don’t get me wrong; if McAlevey and I were tasked with working together to organize a single bargaining unit, I doubt we would substantively disagree on strategy. But reviving our movement will take more than just running more good single unit campaigns, especially if those campaigns want nothing more of their umbrella organizations than to “stay out of the way of good local leadership.”
Affiliation and federation are proven methods for pooling resources to take on larger employers and industries and connecting local fights to national struggles. They’re a pain in the ass, but retreating to provincialism is the worst possible response to the institutional tensions described in my article.
[This piece originally appeared in Volume 25, Issue 3 of New Labor Forum.]