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Lighting Labor's Fire | The Nation

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Lighting Labor's Fire

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The collapse of union membership in America, from its peak at 38 percent in the mid-fifties to 9 percent of the private work force today, is the one big reason for our roaring inequality. It's why the poor and middle class are still being cheated of pensions, healthcare and a fair share of the GDP. Yet we have no chance--for now--of reforming the labor laws that make organizing so difficult. There is little hope, for example, of giving the now toothless Wagner Act some bite, in the form of penalties for illegal unionbusting. Not in this Congress. Or the next. Or probably the next. What, then, is left for the American left? To give up on so many of the issues we care about?

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has...
Thomas Geoghegan
Thomas Geoghegan is a labor lawyer and author. His most recent book is Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the...

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The underlying reason for organized labor's decline is that our labor laws do not let people join unions, freely and fairly, without being fired. Yes, as the Service Employees International Union and others have shown, it is possible to do some organizing "outside" the Wagner Act, ducking the National Labor Relations Board and endless court appeals. But this kind of organizing seems to be only enough to keep labor from disappearing. To bring labor back, some change of law has to occur. Yet change of a good kind seems all but utopian. Even under a Democratic President, House and Senate, it was still easy for antilabor senators to stop a striker-replacement ban in 1993, and to do so with a filibuster that didn't even work up a sweat. And without a labor movement, what's left to us but to snicker at Bush and all the Bush clones to come?

No one, not even labor, seems to have a strategy to bring labor back. And without such a strategy, it is hard to see how the American left, such as it is, can "dream responsibly" of, say, national health insurance, or even of a decent defense of Social Security.

What we need is a new approach to rebuilding the unions--and to labor law reform. There is a hint in Nelson Lichtenstein's recent book, State of the Union, as to what it might be. Lichtenstein argues that in many ways, organized labor missed out on the "rights revolution" of the 1960s and '70s, which won individual workers new protections based on gender and race. True, some unions took advantage of the civil rights movement to organize low-wage African-American hospital and other service workers in a number of cities; and grassroots feminism has certainly contributed to the unionization of women.

But the language and, with it, the ethos of individual rights were quickly co-opted by management, with its stress on the "right to work" and the "right" to have a say in how one's dues are spent. Company anti-union propaganda, as at Wal-Mart, for example, claims that a union will deprive the individual of his or her individual access to management. Never mind that management retains its right to fire nonunion workers at will, for infringements as vague as a "bad attitude," or that, for the past two decades, corporations have steadily encroached on workers' privacy and rights through drug testing, personality testing, ever-more sophisticated surveillance and a proliferation of shop-floor rules such as "no talking."

The AFL-CIO has responded only weakly--with a "Voice @ Work" campaign, suggesting that the workers will be empowered individually, as well as collectively, through unionization. But by and large, it has ducked the issue of individual or civil rights other than the right to join a union. As a result, many workers, perhaps especially white males, perceive unions exactly as management would like them to: as overbearing bureaucracies in which the individual is easily lost or even crushed. This is still true even as workers now are angrier and more willing to take on their employers.

To bring a real labor movement back, we may need a more individualist, even libertarian approach, one that finally brings the "rights revolution" to American workers, regardless of gender or race. The ultimate goal is still to change our labor laws and bring back the old union spirit embodied in words like "solidarity" and the use of "brother" and "sister" as affectionate forms of address. But to get there, unions need to engage the individual worker directly, and not only as an atom within a potential bargaining unit. To this end, we propose a number of approaches and initiatives. Some have a libertarian flavor, at least compared with existing union culture. Others are more traditionally "collective." We realize, with humility, that in the field, at the local level, in universities, others may have similar or better ideas than the specific ones we discuss below. What these ideas have in common is that we can start working on them now. To begin with the biggest:

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