Editor's note: Gordon Lafer and Doug Henwood debate organized labor's electoral and organizing strategies in the wake of its defeat in the Wisconsin recall, with new contributions from Bill Fletcher and Jane McAlevey, Adolph Reed, Jr, and Mike Elk.
My disagreement with Doug Henwood has nothing to do with whether unions should be “sucking up to Democrats” or pursuing “business as usual.” I believe that Doug and I see the same crisis; we disagree about what caused it, and what is to be done.
The loss in Wisconsin, Henwood argues, came about for two reasons. First, elected union leaders act like “feudal vassals”—exploiting rank and file members as “serfs who pay compulsory dues”—so that members themselves are alienated. The fact that many union family members voted to keep Walker in office, Henwood suggests, shows that “union members aren’t even able to convince their spouses that the things are worth all that much.” Second, broader public opinion has turned against unions, which Henwood believes is because “unions …[are] too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class.”
Henwood argues that the root cause of the crisis confronting labor unions is unions' own selfishness and refusal to innovate. He offers a “systemic critique” – aimed not at any particular union practice or leadership, but at the very model of workplace-based organizations that represent the interests of their members. To restore popular support and prevent a future of repeated Wisconsin-style losses, he suggests, unions need to abandon the model of workplace organizing in favor of agitation on behalf of broad social goals like single-payer.
In a time of crisis, it’s important to consider a wide variety of proposals, including this one. But the more one examines it, the clearer it is that the presumed facts behind this argument simply don't stand up.
Public confidence in unions has declined, which Henwood insists is because the public correctly perceives that unions are selfish and fail to promote the common good. Yet the most important facts at the heart of Henwood’s argument—42 percent of the country would like to see unions have less influence, and only 30 percent want more influence – are a product of the last five years. Another part of the same poll, which Henwood chose not to discuss, shows that as recently as 2006, the proportions were reversed, with 38 percent of Americans wishing unions had greater influence, and only 30 percent preferring less. So something happened in the last five years to turn public opinion against unions. What’s the more likely explanation—that unions actually became more self-serving in the last five years, and the public correctly perceived this? Or that a massive campaign of corporate advertising and right-wing newscasters encouraged downwardly-mobile Americans to vent their anger on unions?
For that matter, these same polls show that desire to limit union influence is overwhelmingly Republican; 69 percent of them want to see union influence curbed, compared with only 17 percent of Democrats. So for Henwood’s theory to be true, it would have to be the case that Republicans are much better than Democrats at perceiving the truth about unions, and that many Republicans would turn pro-labor if only they saw unions advocating for Canadian-style healthcare. Uh, right.
The truth, as I wrote earlier, is that Americans’ interest in forming unions remains surprisingly strong. Something like 40 million non-union workers wish they had a union in their workplace. Henwood questions these numbers, pointing readers instead to the "Public Service Research Council," an anti-union advocacy group that boasts of having led the campaign to support President Reagan's firing of air traffic controllers. Yet even that organization’s data suggests that between 30-50 million Americans wish they had a union; and a recent Fox News poll puts the number at 59 million. What stops these people from being able to realize their wish is not union bureaucracy but employer intimidation and coercion.
It’s easy to imagine that a lot of people who wish they had a union for themselves may also be resentful at those who do. Classic right-wing strategy in a time of economic decline is to encourage people who are full of insecurity and anxiety to channel those emotions not against those who actually rule the country, but against others in the broad working class – unions, immigrants, welfare recipients, public employees. This is cookie-cutter corporate strategy, and it works pretty well. But that doesn’t make it true.
Henwood’s assessment of union organizing strategies – charging labor leaders with a blind fixation on “business as usual” – is similarly disconnected from reality. As long as 20 years ago, labor organizers saw clearly the crisis that Henwood imagines he has just now revealed. In the 1990s, the AFL-CIO launched a series of bold experimental campaigns – an industry-wide, community-based campaign for farmworkers in the strawberry industry; a multi-union, city-wide campaign to organize the Las Vegas construction industry, which included protecting undocumented workers from being deported in retaliation for workplace activism; a novel strategy to organize tens of thousands of people working ships that supply oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; and in Seattle, a campaign to turn a dynamic labor movement into something bigger than the sum of its parts, where workers in different unions would support each others’ strikes and unite to push city politics in a progressive direction.
The point of highlighting these and more recent campaigns is not to be a cheerleader for union accomplishments, but the opposite: to be clear-eyed about the fact that if all it took to win was unions' willingness to think outside the box, we’d have been celebrating a long time ago. While these campaigns won some important local victories, they all failed to achieve their goals. Everyone I know who worked on them, including myself, had plenty of criticisms of them and ideas about what could have been done better. Importantly, each of these campaigns was a first – first time figuring out how to organize an entire construction market; first time trying to understand economic power in the strawberry industry. What I really wish is that the labor movement had enough money that we could have taken the lessons from those failures and tried again, in smarter ways. But for unions, there are few chances to fail. Each loss means starting the next campaign with fewer resources, weaker reputation, and shakier internal support for experiments. Trying to learn from these experiences, to maintain members’ support for untried tactics, to keep trying new ways to help people organize and win decent contracts – this is the real challenge. For Henwood to characterize this history as thirty years of refusing to engage in “self-reflection” is as uninformed as it is insulting.
Henwood's critique is fundamentally distinct from other debates ongoing within the labor movement over union democracy. Indeed, it's hard to think of a single union that satisfies his demands. One of the unions I've worked most closely with is the west coast Longshore Workers -- a politically progressive union that was kicked out of the AFL-CIO for refusing to purge its leftists during the McCarthy period, and that shut down the ports in one-day strikes over Mandela and the Iraq war; whose officers' salaries are constitutionally tied to those of the rank-and-file, and whose paid staffers are elected by the members. Yet the ILWU is as guilty as anyone else in Henwood's book. It is predominantly focused on organizing workers and negotiating contracts; and despite boasting a talented, hard-working and creative staff, its organizing drives have confronted many of the same hardships as other unions. The union also devotes significant resources to training workers to police contract violations, and is deeply engaged in electoral politics.
Henwood champions theoretical unions that exist in imagination, but seems to harbor something bordering on contempt for most actually existing unions. His distaste for the real labor movement is palpable: facts are suspect if they come from the AFL-CIO; worker education centers are compromised if they have actual unions on their advisory boards; unions that focus on workplace organizing or engage in the dirty world of political compromise are pathetic or bankrupt.
This condescension is evident in the dismissal of worker education centers for teaching people how to negotiate contracts or police their rights at work. Learning to fight the boss over contract violations is not revolutionary. But for many, it is the starting point for any larger activism. The most heartfelt injustices are the arbitrary firing or mistreatment of oneself or one’s friends. Serving as a shop steward is often the first place where someone becomes a leader of co-workers; where they stand up to management as an equal; where they take risks and fight injustice in the most tangible way. To sneer at this is to misunderstand how people are gradually transformed into workplace leaders. Furthermore, if unions are not going to raise a lot of dues money to hire staff – as Henwood says they shouldn’t -- and are also not going to equip rank and file members to negotiate and police their own contracts, the labor movement will die out and millions of people will see their wages and benefits cut and their protection against arbitrary management dwindle.
Ultimately, the harshness of Henwood’s critique raises the question: why focus on the labor movement? After all, 93 percent of the private sector is unorganized. If the primary barrier to progress is bureaucratic union leaders, the field is – unfortunately – wide open to go around them. Why not create the people’s movement in the 93 percent of the economy, instead of harping on the 7 percent?
To move forward, we need to clearly identify the primary cause of the crisis, which is not the failing of labor unions but the machinations of those who actually rule the country. This is not to deny that there’s much unions can improve on, or to downplay how much that matters. But it means being serious about how hard organizing is, and not imagining that movements come into being in response to the call of a bold leader. And it means staying focused on the right target. The goal of union organizing is to take ordinary people and engage them in a fight against the most powerful forces in the country, at the most critical site where that power is created and maintained: in the workplace. However difficult or obscure the specifics of that fight may be, it still remains the right fight.
As a labor reporter, I was dismayed to see Gordon Lafer’s "Left Anti-Unionism?" that begins this forum. In his first post, Lafer attacked pro-union writers for critiquing labor leaders in the wake of the Wisconsin recall election. He went on to write, "The only serious choices we have are to keep fighting even though times are hard, or to give up, or to enjoy the momentary rush of being on the same side as power and join in the anti-union attack."
While Lafer has apologized for the remarks and said he made them in a “moment of anger,” variations of the term “left anti-union” are often thrown around to silence critics of union leaders. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted how AFSCME’s outgoing President Gerald McEntee spent $325,000 on charter jet flights since 2010, instead of flying coach the way most of the workers he represents do. AFSCME’s response was to blast the report for being published by “the mouthpiece of right-wing, corporate America.” Incoming AFSCME President Lee Saunders went on to say that those within the union who leaked the information “knowingly gave ammunition to the union’s enemies at a time when the right-wing media want nothing more than to destroy the labor movement.”
In the wake of the Wisconsin defeat, there has been far too little concrete criticism of why organized labor lost. The analysis pushed by unions has relied on claiming that Walker outspent his opponent by a margin of 8-to-1. However, the great champion of labor, Paul Wellstone, was outspent 7-to-1 in his first election for Senate right next door in Minnesota, and he still managed to beat an incumbent senator. Strong, organized labor candidates have always been outspent, but they are able to win by harnessing people power the way Wellstone did.
At the height of the occupation, when 100,000 protesters were occupying the capitol, polls showed Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett beating Governor Scott Walker 52-45. The key question is how did the movement in Wisconsin lose this people power?
Quite simply, union leaders have just not invested their members with that much people power—before or after the Wisconsin recall. In February 2011, two union leaders—Marty Beil, one of AFSCME Wisconsin’s Executive Directors, and Mary Bell of the Wisconsin Education Association Council—agreed to across the board wage cuts averaging $4,400 a year for their members. They did so without even taking a vote from their members. You can argue that agreeing to the concessions was a smart strategic move to win public support for collective bargaining rights, but shouldn’t unions let their own members make that decision? How do unions distinguish themselves from corporate America if they don’t allow their own members to even vote on whether or not to accept a $4,400 wage cut?
Once Walker’s bill passed and the drastic wage cuts went into effect, the avenues of protest for union supporters were limited. And by failing to show that they would fight for workers in their day-to-day struggles through direct action, unions lost not just public support, but support from their own membership. After Walker’s anti-union bill went into effect outlawing automatic collection of dues, the majority of AFSCME’s members in Wisconsin chose to leave their union. Membership in AFSCME declined from 62,818 in March 2011 to less than half of that —just 28,745 in February of 2012. A majority of AFSCME members decided not to renew their membership in AFSCME—not exactly a vote of confidence for the union.
In right-to-work states where members can opt out of unions anytime, like public employees can do now in Wisconsin, unions have to maintain their organizational and financial strength through strong, non-stop internal organizing drives, encouragement of collective action on the job and the development of rank-and-file leadership that's very sensitive to the concerns of members. Had AFSCME engaged in a strategy of direct action in the workplace, similar in spirit to the capitol occupation, things might have gone differently.
The momentum of such a movement could have forced candidates like Tom Barrett to be more adamantly pro-union, like the fourteen Democratic state Senators who fled the state and became much stauncher union supporters. That would most likely have attracted more Wisconsin voters. Instead of engaging in direct action in the workplace, revitalizing their unions and changing the political terrain in Wisconsin, the state’s labor leadership backed two Democrats, one in the primary and another in the general election, both of whom bragged in their public appearances about forcing concessions from public workers in the past.
Lafer dismisses the possibility of a direct workplace action, arguing that it’s too difficult for “normal, apolitical, nonconfrontational” people to engage in workplace actions against their employers. He ignores, however, the fact that in response to Walker’s bill, thousands of “normal, apolitical, non-confrontational” people working in public-sector jobs did go out on mass strikes. Thousands of teachers in numerous school districts across Wisconsin, including in Milwaukee and Madison, went on illegal, three-day sick-out strikes to protest Walker’s bill. The illegal sick-out strikes swelled the size of the crowd then occupying the capitol to nearly 100,000.
Anyone who has ever been around a strike or union organizing drive knows that often in the course of being engaged in a labor struggle, people get inspired out of a sense of solidarity to do things that they never would have thought possible. Sure, these kinds of actions are tough to initiate, but Wisconsin labor leaders could have at least tried to motivate workers in their workplace. Instead, Wisconsin Executive Council 48 Director Rich Abelson came out saying, “there has been no talk of a general strike, there has been no talk of targeted strikes, or job actions or anything else. Our dispute is not with our employers. Our dispute is with the Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate, the Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly and Governor Walker.”
Lafer then dismisses claims that unions were unable to fight in Wisconsin because they were saddled with “overpaid union bureaucrats” and were unwilling to take on the Democrats. In a factually inaccurate statement, he claims that a union like “United Electrical workers—unburdened by highly paid staff or Democratic politics—should be meeting greater success in organizing. But, of course, they are not. The problem is not what unions are doing; it’s the coercive power of employers.”
But the United Electrical Workers (UE), which caps its leaders salaries at $56,000 and does not typically endorse Democrats, is indeed growing in states where collective bargaining for public employees is outlawed— states with Democratic governors like West Virginia and North Carolina. On the other hand, AFSCME, who reportedly pledged to spend $100 million to re-elect Obama and whose outgoing president Gerry McEntee made a salary of $387,000 (nearly seven times that of UE’s president), has lost union members in those same states, according to UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend.
As AFSCME has seen its ranks dwindle in West Virginia, UE has become the biggest public-sector union in the state. Despite lacking collective bargaining rights in West Virginia, UE has been able to win small wage increases and grievances for its members by providing very intensive education to a network of shop stewards who then train their own union members in how to be militants.
Instead of building a rank-and-file system of strong shop stewards who could mobilize their members, AFSCME chose to continue giving money to the Democrats in West Virginia in the hope that these Democrats will come to their rescue. AFSCME continues to give to them despite the fact that the Democrats have controlled both the governor’s house and the state legislature for the last twelve years, but refuse to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees in West Virginia. In the past, AFSCME has also given money to Democratic Governors in Virginia and North Carolina who also refused to grant collective bargaining rights. AFSCME saw their union ranks dwindle while the shop-floor-oriented UE surpassed AFSCME’s membership in those states, according to Townsend.
Is UE successful because they cap their union organizers salaries at $56,000? I would say yes. People often ignore the importance of capping union leaders’ salaries in their conversations about union reform. In the 1930s, UE Organizing Director James Matles said that maintaining salaries for union leaders similar to the workers they represent is important because “union leaders should feel like their members, not for their members.” Union organizers feel like their members when they make comparable salaries and live in the same neighborhoods; they have a greater sense of urgency about fighting for their members as a result. (Full disclosure: my father has worked as a union organizer for UE for thirty-five years and makes $50,000 a year).
It also makes sense from a practical financial standpoint. Why pay one union leader a $387,000 salary when you can employ seven full-time union organizers for the same cost? A study of Department of Labor Records done by Labor Notes in 2010 showed that if you capped the salaries of nearly 10,000 union leaders or staffers making above $100,000 to that amount, you would save $294 million dollars a year that could be spent on organizing. Post-Citizens United, when corporations can spend all the money in the world to attack workers, the labor movement simply cannot afford to be paying union leaders more than $100,000 a year.
Instead of trimming executive salaries, perks and maybe scaling back on AFSCME’s pledge to spend $100 million on the re-election of President Obama, AFSCME laid off half of its organizers in Wisconsin, according to AFSCME Wisconsin Council 40 organizer Edward A. Sadlowski, at a time when they should have been hiring more organizers in order to stop their membership losses and fight back against concessions.
Organized labor’s current approach is not working, and we need all the critiques of labor leaders and organizing approaches in order to save the labor movement. As a labor movement, would we rather have a few union leaders embarrassed by how much they make, or do we want a serious discussions about how we revive the movement. Accusing pro-union people, who raise serious questions about the strategy, finances and political orientation of unions in effort to save unions of giving ammunition to union’s enemies or being “left anti-union” is more than just absurd. It could kill the labor movement.
Before Wisconsinites voted down the attempt to recall Governor Scott Walker, and certainly since, principled progressives inside and outside of unions have disagreed on whether or not the campaign should have happened. In fact, between the two of us, we don’t fully agree about whether or not the recall was the correct tactic. But with the defeat in the rear view mirror, two clear lessons can be drawn from Wisconsin: unions need to reinvest in mass participatory education—sometimes called internal organizing in union lingo; and, unions need to stop focusing on “collective bargaining” and actually kick down the walls separating workplace and non-workplace issues by going all-out on the broader agenda of the working class and the poor.
Once you get past the reports that Walker outspent the Wisconsin workers by 7:1, the next most startling fact is that 38 percent of union households voted to keep the anti-worker Governor. That’s slightly more than one third, and had the pro-recall forces held the union households, Walker would no longer be Governor. With major media outlets drubbing us with the 38 percent number, the liberal political elite seem stuck on a rhetorical question: why do poor people and workers vote against their material self-interest? Actually, in our own experience, the poor and working class don’t vote against their self-interest—but there’s a precondition: we have to create the space for ordinary people to better understand what their self-interest is, and how it connects with hundreds of millions in the US and globally.
Participatory education can best be carried out within unions through an on-going organizing program. We know from years of experimenting that adults learn best through taking direct action. Actions themselves are often transformative. And how to calibrate the learning and action dialectical is the work of good organizers—paid and unpaid. But today’s unions have all but abandoned organizers, educators, organizing and radical, participatory education. Why?
First off, many union leaders, despite their rhetoric, do not believe in the critical importance of worker education. Instead they believe in "PowerPoint." They invest truckloads of money into pollsters who perfect their quick and fancy presentations with graphics which all too often aim to dazzle rather than educate. They believe that worker education cannot be quantified and does not necessarily translate into a specific, tangible outcome, thereby making it worthless.
A second reason for the anemic internal education is the legacy of the Cold War and McCarthyism. "Big Picture" education that truly examines the roots of the current economic crisis and the nearly forty year decline in the living standards of the average US worker leads to a fundamental critique of capitalism. This conclusion scares many leaders who fear being red-baited, or may even harbor a fantasy that that they will at some point be re-invited to the ruling circles of the USA.
A third reason is that an educated and empowered membership can be unpredictable. They may start asking questions that many leaders wish to avoid. They may start suggesting different directions. And, horror of horrors, they may actually run for office in the unions themselves.
The second big lesson from Wisconsin is that we can’t do it alone. While the attack by Walker was a frontal assault on women, people of color, workers, the poor and more, unions all too often kept the focus on collective bargaining. When unions allowed the battle in Wisconsin to go from mass collective rage over the excesses of the One Percent to a battle for union rights, it was all but game over. Criticism of Democratic candidate Barrett’s refusal to go along with labor’s messaging on collective bargaining is beside the point—in our opinion, the campaign was lost before the May primary. Reassured by polls showing a majority of Americans (61 percent) support the “right” to collective bargaining, union leaders failed to anticipate the power of a barrage of wedge messages about over-paid government bureaucrats, taxes, union bosses, the unfairness of why public sector workers get pensions and so-called private sector ones don’t and much more. Walker had the apparatus of the state and he had bought the media—he essentially turned Wisconsin into one big captive audience meeting, subjecting Wisconsites to the kind of unbearable pressure that workers in private sector union elections are all too familiar with. We don’t poll in elections where workers are going to vote as to whether or not to form a union because we understand polling is useless in a hotly contested, deeply polarized fight.
In union elections, the sophisticated union busters want to ratchet the tension up so high that everyone associates the new tension in their life with this thing called “the union.” And the boss drives a message that if the union goes away, everything will go back to normal. And normal, which wasn’t OK before the campaign, suddenly sounds good because the venom and hate feel much worse. To have any chance of beating these kinds of campaigns, the campaign can’t be about “collective bargaining” or “the union.” It has to be about a bigger fight for dignity and economic justice that can deeply appeal to a much wider audience.
It is true there’s been an uptick of unions declaring the importance of building allies and “working with the community,” but still the community is too often treated as if it’s a separate species from “the workers.” The workers are the community, and yet union leaders act like ‘the community’ is some foreign land that requires visas, formal paid ambassadors and a Rosetta Stone language learning kit. The reason most labor leaders don’t understand the community is because they stopped trying to understand their members and the unorganized workers who live side by side in every union member’s house. The way back to winning big majorities of Americans to the cause of labor is for labor to take up the causes of the majority. This isn’t rocket science, it doesn’t require pollsters or power point—it requires thousands of meaningful conversations with tens of thousands of people. It requires rebuilding our organizing muscle.
But the phrases, “organizing doesn’t work, it’s too slow,” or the variant, “organizing doesn’t work, it’s too expensive,” have become like a mantra in union headquarters (and the offices of foundations). And yet for our entire adult lives, almost every time we have seen workers and poor people given the opportunity to stand up and fight back, they did.
What about the recall? Wisconsin was a wicked short timeline—unions and their supporters were trying to overcome forty years of no real education or organizing among the rank and file. The recall failure has led to an open season on unions, but this isn’t just a problem with unions. Multiple institutions have failed workers for decades, starting with the Democratic Party. And if that’s not enough, there’s our public school system—including universities and legions of intellectuals—that fail to teach students how to understand the actual power structure in our country or what unions are or have done. And, corporate owned media that have long distorted the real story of unions.
The reason that unions themselves, not front groups, need to take up the key issues facing their base when they aren’t at work is because this model of community work helps to develop even more worker leaders—it provides an ongoing action-learning program for the members when their contract has been settled. And, pedagogically, it helps the members to better understand all the forces keeping them down. “The boss” becomes the economic and political system rather than simply the swing shift supervisor or the foreman or the CEO.
There are plenty of important structural issues that the rank and file could be engaging, including the on-going housing, credit, climate, public transportation, and child care crises. And there’s the matter of bringing the worker’s sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters home from unwinnable wars of aggression. The very best way for unions to build real alliances with non-union groups is via their own members—the very people who make up “the community.” If unions expanded their issue work by engaging their own rank and file, we could develop even more skilled leaders, not simply ‘worker faces’ for a press conference. The organizing-education model assists people in creating better lives for themselves, rather than relying on paid professionals to do the work for them. And the results are that we build mini social movements, not special interest groups.
Organizing is incredibly hard work. And it’s messy work. And the liberal elite, including most union leaders, are constantly investing in everything but deep organizing. The real reason we lost in Wisconsin is the same reason that progressives have been on a four decade decline in the US: it’s because of a deep and long-term turn away from organizing and education and towards something that more resembles mobilizing. Organizing expands our base by keeping our energy and resources focused on the undecideds, and on developing the organic leaders in our workplaces and communities so that they become part of an expanding pool of unpaid organizers. Mobilizing focuses on the people who are already with us and replaces organic leadership development with paid staff. That and the split between “labor” and “social movements” account for the failure of progressive politics, the loss in Wisconsin, the ever shrinking public sphere, and the unabashed rule of the worst kinds of corporate greed.
The work we are describing isn’t an election 2012 program, it’s not a 12 month program; it must happen every day, every month and every year. It’s ongoing. Workers are every bit courageous enough and smart enough, but they experience a lifetime of being told they are not worthy, not smart, and not deserving. In other words, sit down, shut up and listen. Unions have to challenge this paradigm, not reinforce it. When conservatives suffered their own strategic defeat and lost the election in 1964—by much larger margins than the recall in Wisconsin—they didn’t say, “well, no point trying.” They instead built for the long haul and in 1980 it paid off with Reagan.
And with the Supreme Court edging eerily close to a ruling that will make all of America governed by “Right-to-Work” laws, unions have to start acting like they are already operating in a “right-to-work” environment. The education-organizing program outlined here is the very same program unions will need to survive let alone thrive under the current Roberts Court. The sooner unions stop acting like a special interest and start behaving like a social movement; the closer we will be to making lasting, positive change.
I suppose I should begin by noting that, although I don’t know Andy Kroll, I’ve counted Doug Henwood, Gordon Lafer, and Matt Rothschild as friends and comrades for twenty years or more. I know, and they all do as well, that each of them is a committed leftist. Each of them has been a staunch critic of how an ever more neoliberal Democratic Party has corralled progressive aspirations and screwed us over. So we can dial back on the breathless rhetoric about “silencing” and the like. No one is trying to silence anyone; nor is anyone, contrary to some of the overheated, scurrilous attacks on Lafer that have flown over the internet, angling to become a pinky-ringed lapdog of a stereotypically corrupt “union bureaucracy.”
The problem beneath this debate about the labor movement’s role in Wisconsin is that since the economic crisis we’ve all been confronted by our weakness and irrelevance as a left in American politics. This isn’t really news, or shouldn’t be. The left has been a solipsistic fiction in this country for years. It lives in an echo- chamber universe of actions, critiques and debates that have no institutional connection to anyone outside our own ranks and no capacity to influence the terms of national political debate. Reluctance to face up to that grim reality is understandable, and the relentlessness of the right’s increasingly bloodthirsty attacks – on multiple fronts simultaneously -- also understandably inclines progressives to look ever more desperately for hopeful possibilities. That in turn fuels a tendency to discover magic bullets, single interventions that will knock the shackles from the people’s eyes, spark popular outrage and mobilize it into action. The Democrats’ fecklessness in responding to these attacks and their acquiescence and, often enough, active collusion in supporting a regime of intensifying regressive transfer of income and wealth only exacerbates the problem.
Thus we’ve seen proclamation after proclamation that some new right-wing move has gone too far, or some new line in the dirt – Jesse Jackson’s and Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns, Seattle, Katrina, Jena, the 2006 immigration marches, Barack Obama’s election, Republic Windows, Wisconsin, wage theft campaigns, Occupy Wall Street -- will galvanize the popular movement that will begin to turn the political tide back in our direction. Merlin Chowkwanyun (“The Crisis in Thinking About the Crisis,” Renewal ) catalogues the hyperbolic proclamations that the 2008 crisis itself would automatically bring about – if it hadn’t already brought about -- the death of neoliberalism. That essay should be a cautionary tale for those tempted by this sort of wish-fulfillment politics. We didn’t wind up in this situation overnight, and we aren’t going to get out of it overnight. Yes, the dangers that confront us are truly nightmarish, and the thought that we may not have the capacity to curtail the worst – elimination of protections on the job, pensions and benefits, including Medicare and social security, destruction of the public sector, if not the very idea of the public, the panoply of can-you-top-this assaults on women’s reproductive freedom, just to name a few – certainly can push toward despair.
But there are no shortcuts to building a movement capable of responding effectively. The Spark is a myth, and the tendency to believe in it – consciously or not – will generate unreasonable expectations and then dash them. There is no ready-made constituency out there waiting to support a left political program if only it were properly announced. That constituency has to be built, and it can’t be built in the heat of a fight, least of all when we’re on the defensive.
That fact should inform how we think about the Wisconsin defeats. The initial defeat was that Scott Walker won the 2010 election. Everything after that was an uphill fight, and increasingly so because Walker had the huge advantage of control of public authority, including a state legislative majority, and then there was that cornucopia of right-wing corporate money. Yes, the response mobilized against his legislative blitzkrieg was impressive and inspiriting, but it was also a struggle against very long odds. And there was always a tendency among leftists, in keeping with the myth of the Spark, to romanticize the “taking to the streets” element of the Wisconsin fightback, which meant that a couple of important lessons were, if not missed, at least underappreciated. Many observers have noted that the Madison occupation depended on intense, aggressive, even extraordinary mobilization by unions, and not only unions in Wisconsin. That point has underscored the labor movement’s centrality to any mass action of that sort because it alone has the capacity – people and organizational and economic resources -- to pull it off and sustain it. The other side of that coin, however, is that the intensity of effort required to sustain that kind of action could not be maintained indefinitely. It is too easy to imagine, as the numbers in Madison grew, that the mobilization had taken on a life of its own, that the People were rising. However, generating and sustaining that mass action required great commitment of effort and resources – effort and resources that weren’t going toward meeting other pressing needs and commitments. In addition, while attention and focus were on the battleground in Wisconsin, other states passed legislation every bit as anti-labor and hostile to the public sector as Wisconsin. We couldn’t match the Wisconsin mobilization everywhere.
I don’t mean at all that the effort in Wisconsin was misplaced. Rather, my point is that mass protest is not the end all and be all of political action. It does not necessarily mark going on the offensive or seizing political initiative; it can just as easily be the opposite – an act of desperation or an attempt to create a little space or breathing room to try to recover from a serious blow. It is only the fetish of the Spark that underwrites the default assumption that mass protest or street action equates with radicalization and expansion of the struggle. How many of us have ever really seen (i.e., not simply read or heard about – everybody tells that fish story) a protest action grow entirely on its own to a point where it overwhelms political opposition or converts into a new insurgency?
The belief that politics works that way suggests a perspective similar to what Doug Henwood, along with Liza Featherstone and Christian Parenti, quite perceptively criticized some years ago as “activistism” – a commitment to public action as the sole meaningful and intrinsically self-justifying form of political engagement. [“’Action Will Be Taken’: Left Anti-Intellectualism and Its Discontents”]. So what gives?
The tendency to scapegoat the labor movement for Walker’s most recent victory in Wisconsin – and, to be clear, that is what I see in Henwood’s, Rothschild’s and Kroll’s arguments – stems from frustration and desperation and, ironically, recognition, if only backhanded, of the fact that labor was the only element of the coalition challenging Walker with the material and organizational capacity to set and pursue a strategy. What other organized political forces could be identified in order to be blamed? This scapegoating not only rests on a naïvely formalist juxtaposition of street action and electoral action; it also feeds on a long-standing suspicion in many precincts of the post-Vietnam era left of a politics rooted in institutions in general and unions in particular. Gordon Lafer is correct that these criticisms misunderstand what unions are and how they operate as democratic structures, the realities of union leaders’ accountability to their members. I don’t need to reiterate that argument, which he makes very well. I would also commend Corey Robin’s blog posting offering a “Challenge to the Left” to consider what actually attempting to organize a constituency to support an unconventional program requires. For those who want to build a left, that’s the mindset of slow, steady, face-to-face base-building we need, not lurching from one self-gratifying but unproductive action to the next. The point of politics is after all, to resuscitate an old Maoist dictum, to unite the many to defeat the few. Our objective has to be to create that “many,” not merely assume it’s out there already.
At bottom, the problem is that this left has lived in the fictional echo-chamber universe for too long. Not being connected to practical politics anchored in institutions removes an important constraint of interpretive and strategic discipline and leaves too much space for indulging appealing but simplistic fantasies about political mobilization and what it requires. To wit, Matt Rothschild’s and Andy Kroll’s assertions that the popular actions in Wisconsin could easily have been expanded and sustained over a wider span and longer period fundamentally misunderstand the limitations of political action. Electoral mobilization is difficult enough; trying to spread the Madison direct action over the state would have been exponentially more so.
On that score, Bob Fitch was an exemplary person in many ways and a good guy, and we are all that much lessened by his death. That said, Doug knows, I suspect all too well, that I’m one of those who “detest” Bob’s views of unions. Ultimately, as I said more than once to Bob himself, in his view the only sort of union worth having is one that it’s not possible to imagine existing in the circumstances in which we have to operate. He was quick to reject out of hand as tainted beyond hope initiatives that had support of existing union leadership. Like so many flavors of Trotskyists, syndicalist romantics, and rank-and-file fetishists, he saw unions less as vehicles for workers to define and advance their interests than as corrupt entities holding back the development or expression of their members’ “true” interests. To the extent that that view of unions dovetails with the right’s contentions that unions are, well, corrupt entities holding back the development or expression of their members’ true interests and stealing their dues money like a collective Johnny Friendly, and to the extent that it proposes eliminating protections like the union shop, Gordon is correct that it is substantively a form of left anti-unionism. I don’t see how that is at all like a McCarthyite charge. It’s closer to, as we used to say when I was a kid, calling the thing by its natural name.
Like Doug, I think Sam Gindin, the long-time Canadian Auto Workers official, is very much a person whose perspective on the relation between the left and the labor movement is worth taking to heart. In an article in the forthcoming 2013 Socialist Register Sam makes the point that a labor movement that is disconnected from a vibrant left is impoverished, and a left that is not linked in some dynamic way to the labor movement is ultimately impossible. The project most vitally confronting us, Sam argues, is to begin trying to build a left that is committed to a socialist vision linked directly to the felt and expressed concerns of workers as articulated largely, though not exclusively, through their unions. If this debate can help throw that project into relief, it will have been productive.
I have one final comment about the “silencing” issue. I think it is appropriate to consider that some topics are, for reasons of political sensitivity (and, yes, concern that statements could wind up on the National Right to Work Committee’s homepage qualifies as such a reason), best not discussed in open forums like The Nation or the Progressive. I do not think that such concerns violate some principle of responsible left journalism. Rather, denial of such constraints speaks to the left’s disconnectedness from actual struggles; it is a luxury of our irrelevance as a left.
Gordon Lafer apparently thinks I’m some sort of reactionary. Because I’ve written critically about unions and dared to say that they have a lot to answer for over Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin, I’m enjoying “the momentary rush of being on the same side as power” and joining an “anti-union attack.”
Aside from being a low, dishonest charge, that sort of defensive reflex isn’t going to help anyone but employers and their politicians. You might think that an endless series of defeats, going back at least thirty years, would lead to some self-reflection in the labor movement. But it hasn’t. Lafer might find it hard to believe, but there are few things I’d be happier to see than a revived labor movement. It’s hard to see how we can have a better society without stronger unions. We’re not going to get those by just doing the same thing a little better.
“The work of organizing,” Lafer discloses, “is slow and incremental.” In fact, the current model of labor organizing is impressively decremental. Last year, 6.9 percent of private sector workers were organized—that’s half as many as in 1986 when private sector unionization stood at 13.8 percent. The decline in the overall union density rate has been milder—from 17.7 percent in 1986 to 11.8 percent in 2011—thanks to stability among public sector unions. But that looks to be changing rapidly. Already under attack for the last few years, Walker’s victory is certain to intensify the war on public sector unions.
Those attacks have been made easier by the fact that unions aren’t all that popular with the broad public. In my original piece, I cited a number of Gallup polls showing that people thought that unions had too much power, were too interested in themselves and not the broader public and ranked toward the bottom of the list (rivaling banks and HMOs) in Gallup’s annual survey on confidence in major institutions.
To this, the standard union response—and Lafer is no exception—is to cite polls showing that 40 million American workers would like to join a union. The source for this is usually a series of surveys by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. Hart is a Democrat, and his firm lists sixteen unions among its clients on its website. I’m not saying that Hart cooks his results, but it is curious that independent pollsters find nothing like the support that Hart does. (For a review, see the Public Service Research Council.) But the election results in Wisconsin, as well as overwhelming votes to cut public sector pensions in San Jose and San Diego, suggest that the public is not overcome with love for organized labor.
In the face of all this, the reaction of many union people is to blame corporate power, big money, relentless antiunion propaganda, restrictive labor laws and the far right. All true enough, but that’s only a partial explanation. Those obstacles are going to be with us for a long time. So the question really is, How do you operate in this world?
The traditional approach towards organizing the private sector—trying to recruit a majority of workers and win a representation election—looks as good as dead. (For example, there were about 6,000 representation elections in 1980 and not quite 1,600 in 2010, the latest year available, a decline of almost 75 percent.) Employers are unfraid of breaking the law, and workers are afraid of losing their jobs. And the traditional approach to organizing the public sector—electing sympathetic politicians—looks seriously ill, if not terminal. Next to this, slow and incremental progress would seem quasi-revolutionary. Though it’s hard to get the likes of Lafer to admit this, business as usual is no longer an option.
So what then? I argued that if it’s ever to turn things around, organized labor has to act consistently and convincingly in the interest of the broad working class and not just its members. The United States would be a very different country had unions—which still have a lot of money and people to work with—spent the last five years agitating for single-payer health insurance. Or, as Sam Gindin, a long-time staffer with the Canadian Auto Workers’ union now teaching at York University in Toronto, told me in a radio interview , public sector unions could bring up the quality of public services in bargaining, threatening to strike over them if necessary.
Unions have to think about how to root themselves in communities and not think of the workplace as what it’s all about. Turnover is too high, and people have lives outside of work. Or, less politely, unions could take a page from the Occupy movement—maybe help bring it back to life even—and occupy. Many techniques of direct action were practically invented by unions—in days when strikers could get shot by Pinkertons. Some of these things may be against the law, but unions were not organized by people in thrall to the law.
Now, labor’s notion of political action is contributing to and campaigning for Democrats—and that’s about it. It’s donated enormous sums to a party that has given it little in return. The Democrats are not actively hostile, like the Republicans, of course—though that distinction may be eroding quite rapidly. Remarkably, the building trades unions in New York have contributed to governor Andrew Cuomo's SuperPAC, which has been going after public sector unions for givebacks. It is very hard to see what return labor gets on its investment. Shouldn’t business unions ask businesslike questions?
In response, Lafer contends several things. One is that the unions have no choice but to get active in electoral politics, especially in the Walker case. But unions have almost no leverage over politicians after they take office. They never withhold money or endorsements. No Democrat need fear retribution. The relationship gets pathetic at times. According to former top AFL-CIO officer Bill Fletcher Jr., a senior union guy once told him that it was better to be at the table and not listened to than it would be to be outside. But outside is labor needs to be if it’s ever going to have any influence.
Lafer, who is not shy about painting others as identifying with power, is certainly embedded in the union status quo himself. Tom Chamberlain, the president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, is the chair of the board of advisors at the University of Oregon’s labor research institute, where Lafer is an associate professor. Its board is full of other union leaders. The institute’s curriculum is heavy with service-y stuff like grievance handling, bargaining technique and even labor-management cooperation. While these aren’t all evil pursuits, they don’t seem the most compelling material for labor’s intellectuals to be concentrating on in a time of institutional crisis.
Along with declarations of the need to go along comes the assertion that labor is already doing many things on behalf of the broad working class that mere bloggers like me don’t understand. Unions are at the forefront of efforts to protect the minimum wage and promote pay equity, says Lafer. Nice, and true in some sense, but these commitments lag badly behind the devotion to electing Democrats—Democrats who do almost nothing to advance these causes and who can’t always to be counted on to defend them.
Lafer points to the nurses’ union’s efforts to tax the 1 percent. By that I presume he means National Nurses United (NNU). NNU is doing many very good things, but they’re outliers in the labor movement. And in this little spat, it seems more on my side than Lafer’s. NNU’s Michael Lighty said of my first Wisconsin blog post: “Terrific piece that challenges much conventional thinking.” NNU also recently revealed to the world that the Service Employees International Union was working with the California hospital industry to weaken minimum staffing requirements—the opposite of agitating for the public good.
Sam Gindin makes several other points worth stealing. One is that the labor movement has suffered from the decline of the left, one that could provide history and systematic analysis—and with some critical distance. Such a left, he says, should be both inside and outside labor. And unions organized along sectional—professional or industrial lines—may not be the ideal agents of a broader classward turn. To do that you’d need what Gindin calls “intermediate” organizations, coalitions of members of many unions (and why not nonmembers too?) rooted in communities rather than around employers. These are important things to think about.
But, really, whatever the details, the most urgent thing to do is admit that things are dire and a serious rethink is in order. Dismissing critics as giving aid and comfort to the enemy will virtually assure that the union density rate will approach zero in a decade or two.
In the days following the Wisconsin election, a number of progressive journalists responded to the heartbreaking defeat by venting their anger at a surprising target: the very unions that Scott Walker waged war on. Doug Henwood in Left Business Observer, Matt Rothschild in The Progressive and Andy Kroll of Mother Jones each have different analyses of what went wrong, but all agree that unions were guilty of what Henwood terms the “horrible mistake of channeling a popular uprising into electoral politics.”
The Wisconsin movement “began to disintegrate the moment the leaders decided to pour everything into the Democratic Party,” Rothschild explains. That decision, he argues, “destroyed the lesson that you can exercise power outside the electoral arena.” Indeed, Kroll insists that the electoral strategy would have been a “loss” even if Walker had been defeated, since “the Madison movement would have found themselves in…the same broken system, with…little hope.”
Really? The limitations of electoral politics are obvious, but the assumption that electoral strategies per se are always wrong is hard to fathom. The loss in Wisconsin is very serious. But that loss would be the same if unions had forsworn the recall. Around 175,000 employees would still be stripped of union rights, with all that entails for them personally and for the material and organizational basis for progressive mobilization. And while the electoral loss no doubt emboldened anti-union conservatives, not challenging the governor would have conveyed much the same message: It’s politically safe to follow Walker’s example—after all, the unions didn’t even have the guts to take him on! Labor leaders confronted a genuinely hard choice: roll the dice on the recall, which everyone knew would be an expensive and uphill battle, or give up.
For that matter, how should we account for last fall’s referendum in Ohio, where voters overturned a copycat law modeled on Wisconsin’s? The Ohio labor movement chose an electoral strategy—and won big. Was that also a “horrible mistake”? If not, what—besides the outcome—makes the Wisconsin choice obviously wrong, a crime instead of a tragedy?
Critics insist that union leaders should have chosen a more radical path, overturning the Walker regime by harnessing the people power of the capitol occupation. Rothschild calls for mass civil disobedience, slowdowns and strikes; Kroll for consumer boycotts and a new political party; Henwood for grassroots education and lobbying.
But none of these offers a realistic alternative for restoring labor rights in Wisconsin. At their core, these prescriptions fundamentally misunderstand the reality of how unions generate mass action. Both the tremendous strength and real limitation of the labor movement is that, alone among “left” organizations, it is not a vanguard movement. Unlike the Sierra Club or Occupy, its members do not join based on pre-existing ideological beliefs. Overwhelmingly, they become members because they get a job someplace that happens to have a union. Union members are, almost entirely, exactly the same as any other working-class Americans.
Pundits sometimes write as if all that’s needed is for a union leader to make the right decision in order to generate radical action (thus Rothschild suggests that “unions could have told their members simply to ‘work to rule’,” assuming that hundreds of thousands of employees would risked their jobs to answer this call.) This imagines an institutional discipline that doesn’t exist. The work of organizing is slow and incremental. The task of building a serious workplace or political organization entails taking normal, apolitical, nonconfrontational people and moving them to a clearer understanding of the economy and a fiercer will to confront those who rule it. For any reader to sense what this is like, just go into work tomorrow and start asking co-workers to put their jobs at risk by striking over a demand for single-payer or taxing Wall Street. How long would it take to get your fifty closest co-workers to strike? How many would stay out after their personnel supervisor calls them at home telling them to come back?
How do employees go from being mild-mannered workers to fighting the power? Many get transformed through struggles in their workplace. Workplace fights are where the hypocrisy of management is unmasked; where the injustice of budget priorities becomes apparent; where people experience the capriciousness of elites and the potential power of collective action in a very visceral way; where people who are personally conservative and not activists end up doing things that require bravery (in most jobs even signing a petition creates some risk of retaliation) and emerge from it feeling more powerful and more ready to do the next thing. In a less transformative way, many more people are educated through conversations with stewards who are carrying out union education programs. Generally, these conversations are short and few—so union members end up thinking and voting more progressively than otherwise similar people, but not hugely so.
Radical actions remain possible. But we have to be realistic. The notion that the path to victory is clear if only dim-witted union leaders would listen to progressive bloggers reflects not just magical thinking about organizing but also the hubris of being far enough removed from the action to believe you’re the only one to have thought of a new idea.
In fact, hundreds of union leaders and activists have been working for years to build a broader movement—stronger, more militant, with a broader reach into the community and a more expansive vision. Apart from Occupy, the main organization running big public actions to tax the 1 percent is the nurses’ union. SEIU sent hundreds of field organizers to working-class neighborhoods in seventeen cities, knocking on doors of non-union families, seeking to build a progressive political movement to the left of the Democrats. The Laborers’ union launched efforts in multiple cities to team up with immigrant day-labor centers in order to reorganize parts of the residential construction industry. The UFCW is organizing Wal-Mart employees to fight store- and community-level battles over back wages long before there’s any plan for a union contract. The AFL-CIO itself has devoted significant resources to Working America, a program of political and educational outreach to non-union workers.
My point is not that everything is already being done that should be done. We’ve been losing, so obviously the current strategy can’t be sufficient. But the problem is much more serious, and more difficult, than just the strategic choices of union leaders.
Many unions can do a lot of things better, and should. But the depth of the attacks from the left—and the choice to launch them at this particular moment—is curious.
Henwood sees Wisconsin as evidence that the American public has turned against unions—and for good reason. “Unions just aren’t very popular,” he explains, because people correctly perceive that “unions…are too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class.” The core problem, apparently, is that unions are too focused on organizing workers and negotiating contracts, activities no longer viable in the twenty-first century. “Unions have to shift their focus from the workplace to the community,” he says, proposing a popular campaign to “agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.”
But unions are supposed to be organizations of workers who improve their own conditions in their workplace. The problem is not that the model is bad, but the opposite: the best thing that could happen in our economy is for more people to have the right to bargain with their employers in exactly this way.
Here too Henwood blames unions. American workers don’t join unions, he says, in large part because they’re controlled by cronies who enrich themselves at the expense of their members; he approvingly quotes Bob Fitch’s equation of elected union officials with “feudal vassals” living off “serfs who pay compulsory dues.”
At this point we’ve left real economic analysis. Polls show that 40 million non-union American workers wish they had a union in their workplace. This is unsurprising—all other things being equal, workers with a union make 15 percent more and have a 20–25 percent better chance of getting healthcare or pensions than similar workers who have no union. The top reason that more Americans aren’t union members is not because they’re alienated; it’s because the anti-union industry is so aggressive (almost 20,000 Americans a year are economically punished for supporting unions in their workplace), and the law is so toothless that workers correctly fear for their jobs if they try to organize. After all, if the real problem was overpaid union bureaucrats, then radical unions like the Wobblies or United Electrical workers—unburdened by highly paid staff or Democratic politics—should be meeting greater success in organizing. But, of course, they are not. The problem is not what unions are doing; it’s the coercive power of employers.
Furthermore, even while workers mostly focus on improving their own conditions, unions are by far the biggest force working to protect the interests of working people in general. Even as unions have been under such ferocious attack in state legislatures and struggling to repel those assaults, they’ve also been at the forefront of fights to protect minimum wage, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, pay equity, class size, immigrant rights and tax fairness—none of them union-specific issues. That, indeed, is why Walker and his corporate backers are so intent on dismantling them. The past two years have seen some of the country’s biggest private corporations devote millions of dollars to attacking public sector unions. This is not primarily because of ideological beliefs or a desire to pay less taxes. They see what some critics apparently miss—that unions remain the only serious counterweight to the unbridled power of the corporate elite.
Most employees naturally want their dues money to be mainly devoted to caring for themselves and their co-workers. Every time a campaign is undertaken to preserve class size or fight free trade agreements, people are making a decision to spend their dues money on something other than themselves. So, while more could be done, the criticism of union members and leaders for being too selfish is not based in reality.
Here’s the hard truth. We’re living in a dark time, and it’s gotten very hard for normal working Americans to win either at the workplace or in politics. We are massively outspent, and people are so scared of losing their jobs that it’s hard to fight back on a large scale. We have not figured out a reliable way to win. But the fundamental dynamics of power are the same as they ever were. We need to fight as smartly and as powerfully as we can, understanding that the game has not changed but simply gotten a lot harder. Of course there are things unions can do to be better and more effective, and those matter. But declaring organizing and contracts a thing of the past is not part of that.
The only serious choices we have are to keep fighting even though times are hard, or to give up, or to enjoy the momentary rush of being on the same side as power and join in the anti-union attack.
Author’s clarification (June 19, 2012): While I have serious criticisms of the columns about Wisconsin written by Matt Rothschild, Andy Kroll and Doug Henwood, it was wrong to term their writing “left anti-unionism” or to suggest that they were driven by the desire to cozy up to power or enjoy the thrill of attacking unions. Those words were written in a moment of anger, and they were a mistake. There are real enemies of working people and workers’ organizations, and they’re not these three authors. Nothing in this piece, or anything I’ve ever written, was designed to silence anyone. The tradition of left criticism of union practices—while I agree with parts and disagree with others—has helped make the labor movement more accountable, more democratic, and stronger. I posted an “author’s clarification” comment on the Nation website within hours of the piece going up, but knowing most people don’t read the comments, I wanted to append this note to my original piece. These authors do important work and don’t deserve to have their motives called into question.
The body of the piece—in between the headline and last line—I stand behind. I look forward to moving on to have a debate on the substantive issues on which we disagree. For now I want to be clear that from my point of view, that’s a debate that will take place among people who, in the most important way, are on the same side, and want to apologize to Matt Rothschild, Andy Kroll and Doug Henwood for implying otherwise.