At Labor’s Crossroads

At Labor’s Crossroads

Three new books about the SEIU reveal the challenges of organizing in 21st-century America.


The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the most important union in the country and one of the largest, is a pretty big deal, but it would be an even bigger deal if the American labor movement were not itself in such a tenuous state. From its mid-20th-century peak, in which about 35 percent of workers were in a union, organized labor has seen its numbers shrink to about 11 percent of all workers and around 6 percent in the private sector—the lowest figures since the early 20th century, before industrial labor took off in the United States.

There have been plenty of factors—complacent union leadership, a ferocious business assault, the collapse of many industrial-labor sectors—at the root of this dramatic transformation. But despite these challenges, the SEIU, an amalgam of health-care, building-service, and government workers, has been “leading the way,” as it likes to say about itself. Despite the decline in union density, the SEIU’s membership numbers have increased. Even under Republican administrations, it has found ways to exert its influence. All things considered, it is the most powerful liberal-left organization in the country—“liberal” if you ask its many leftist critics, “left” if you ask, say, Glenn Beck. A central part of the Democratic Party’s electoral strategies, the SEIU is embedded in the new working-class economy that has emerged in the United States since the 1970s, and emblematic of the 21st century’s cosmopolitan egalitarianism and the working class that comes with it. Andy Stern, its controversial former president, used to inveigh against the union becoming too “male, pale, and stale.” Today, the SEIU has resisted this description: The union’s rank and file and current leadership are filled with women and people of color. In fact, its current president, Mary Kay Henry, is the first woman to lead the union.

The union’s politics has also followed suit. Along with UNITE HERE, the hotel and gaming union, the SEIU has forged a strong coalition with Latino communities in California, Nevada, and even Texas. Unlike some of its peers, it has also put issues related to gender, reproductive rights, and racial justice at the center of its program. (Cecile Richards, who worked as an SEIU organizer as a young woman, is now president of Planned Parenthood.) The union has also become the primary strategic and financial resource behind the “Fight for $15” campaign, which has led to increases in the minimum wage in a number of cities (as well as in states like California and New York, which together account for about 20 percent of the US population).

The rise of the modern SEIU and its particular brand of unionism can be dated back to the election of John Sweeney as its president in 1980. Sweeney changed what had been a sleepy, sometimes corrupt bureaucracy into an ambitious player in organized labor. With his penchant for Dwight D. Eisenhower–style mumbling, Sweeney was nobody’s idea of a charismatic leader, but he had a gift for imposing a larger vision on the union and hiring often brilliant and relentlessly determined organizers and researchers. These included Stern and Henry as well as Jono Shaffer, David Chu, Kirk Adams, and Stephen Lerner, perhaps the most acclaimed union organizer (and organic labor intellectual) of this era.

This new labor brain trust, combined with militant local union activists like Gerry Hudson in New York City and Sal Rosselli in Northern California, made the SEIU a powerful force in both the streets and the suites. In 1995, Sweeney left the union and took some of this staff with him to the AFL-CIO, where, promising massive reform and growth, he’d won the first contested fight for its leadership since Samuel Gompers regained the presidency of the AFL in 1895. A year later, after a brief interregnum in which the office was held by an old-guard placeholder, Stern became the SEIU’s president.

Sweeney, Stern, and their cohort of union activists and intellectuals helped devise a new set of doctrines for national unionism in the United States—one that reimagined the role that organized labor could play in a society that was moving past industrial manufacturing and no longer viewed unions as central institutions within American liberal capitalism.

Sweeney’s strategists made the following arguments:

§ Large national unions needed to absorb smaller ones and to use their leverage to negotiate national or regional industry-level contracts.

§ “Strategic organizing”—i.e., the intensive analysis of corporate and economic data—was the key to achieving greater “market share” within the union’s key jurisdictions.

§ This style of organizing would lead to a “comprehensive campaign,” i.e., leveraging a company’s key stakeholder relationships with its shareholders, regulators, lenders, and board members in order to exploit a wider range of legal, public-relations, and political strategies that could compensate for a decline in union membership and, as the SEIU saw it, worker militancy.

§ Unions must be willing to make concessions within already existing contracts in order to secure employer acceptance of union-organizing drives.

§ Despite maintaining a reputation for aggressive action, top union officials must be willing to make deals with transactional politicians, Democrat or Republican, who will permit the union to grow and pass policy in its interest.

These ideas were new mainly in combination with one another, and the most important of them—industry-wide national unions—was never achieved. But taken together, they marked the SEIU’s commitment to transforming American labor in the same way that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had when it organized the manufacturing sector in the 1930s and ’40s. And although the SEIU’s goals were less ambitious, the conscious combination of aggressive organizing and an explicit strategic template marked perhaps the first time a union had adopted such an approach since Walter Reuther’s United Automobile Workers in the years after World War II, when it tried, but failed, to pressure the industry into agreeing to make investment decisions jointly with the union.

This strategic model is implicitly and explicitly evaluated in a new set of books by current or former SEIU leaders—Andy Stern’s Raising the Floor, David Rolf’s The Fight for $15, and Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts—and in each of these books, we see the course of American labor, both its achievements and substantial disappointments, reckoned with.

In Raising the Floor, Stern laments that, when he retired as SEIU president in 2010, he had lost his “ability to predict labor’s future.” In large part, this was because he could no longer see much of a future for labor at all. Stern had “run out of new ideas,” he writes, and had grown to doubt his powers of prophecy. Now this weary Prospero has given up on unions as the “only or even best way to achieve what would matter most to American workers in twenty-five years.” Instead, he has become an ardent advocate for a universal basic income of $12,000 per year for those between the ages of 18 and 64, which would cost the federal government somewhere from $1.75 trillion to $2.5 trillion per year.

Still a leader of the SEIU, Rolf adopts, in The Fight for $15, a less despairing stance than his mentor Stern toward the possibilities of organized labor. But he, too, worries that labor might be doomed if it doesn’t unshackle itself from the death grip of the 80-year-old Wagner Act, which was designed to facilitate organizing in the weakened manufacturing and all-but-defunct mining sectors.

A former high-level SEIU health-care organizer who pushed against the model as described above, McAlevey has always been the blunt apostate of the three, and in No Shortcuts, she is the most critical of the SEIU and, specifically, Stern and Rolf. But she also thinks that without changes in labor’s strategic model, the power of unions in the United States will continue to decline. As the title of her book stresses, there are no shortcuts—no matter how clever and innovative—to the intensive bottom-up organizing that helped labor win in the past.

Andy Stern began his career as a state-employed social worker after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He was soon elected president of his local, becoming one of the youngest local presidents in the SEIU’s history. In 1984, Sweeney made Stern the union’s director of organizing. Along with Stephen Lerner, Stern helped drive the Justice for Janitors campaign, which organized more than 200,000 building-service workers around the country.

SEIU membership reached over 2 million under Stern’s watch as organizing director and then as president, although some of the new members were acquired through the SEIU’s merger with smaller unions. In addition to Justice for Janitors, the union organized security guards in commercial buildings, low-wage hospital workers, and, in a major expansion, home health-care workers in California and other states. Stern also invested heavily in organizing workers in the anti-union Sun Belt states, including Texas, where he helped oversee the organizing of 5,000 building-service members in Houston.

Stern sought to brand the union as hip, multicultural, and youthfully militant. As the journalist Ryan Lizza wrote in 2003, there was a demographic and cultural correlation between the millennial supporters of Howard Dean’s insurgent campaign for president and the average SEIU organizer. Moreover, Stern closely identified the union with his own leadership. He wore SEIU purple almost every day, was profiled in The New York Times Magazine and on 60 Minutes, and became the closest thing the labor movement had to a household name in more than half a century.

But his personal prominence and the growing political power of the SEIU in the Democratic Party didn’t lead, in the way that the autoworkers’ and steelworkers’ success had, to rising middle-class wages that extended even to nonunion workers. In 2005, Stern led a rebellion against Sweeney and took seven unions out of the AFL-CIO to form a new union federation, Change to Win, that would seek to put the SEIU model into practice on a larger scale—one that might rival the rise of the CIO between 1937 and ’47. But Change to Win—where I worked for six years—has turned out to be a disappointment: The federation has organized few new workers and lost all but two of its original seven unions.

Toward the end of his presidency, Stern’s restless ambition did not well serve himself, the SEIU, or the labor movement as a whole. He aggressively engaged in a two-front war: against longtime SEIU stalwart Sal Roselli’s Northern California health-care fiefdom, and against erstwhile ally UNITE HERE. These battles, both demoralizing for the union and heavily criticized outside of it, undermined Stern’s reputation within the broader labor community.

Given his own failed experiments to dramatically change the labor movement, Stern now believes, as he argues in his new book, that unions are “typically slow to adapt.” Moreover, the automation of countless jobs over the last several decades has led to fewer full-time positions, thus marginalizing the role that collective bargaining can play in creating a more equal America.

Stern’s rejection of unions captures a larger anxiety that has caused a lot of liberal-left elites to turn to technocratic fixes, like the universal basic income, that descend from on high: either because, in the case of some liberal meritocrats, they disdain populist activism or, in Stern’s case, because they believe that such activism can no longer generate wide-scale social change.

Yet Stern is no incrementalist. Like Newt Gingrich, with whom he once exchanged admiring remarks, he has always thought of himself as a kind of grand futurist, fascinated by the “shock” and “wave” metaphors of human history advanced by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who argued that the information age (the so-called Third Wave, following the agrarian First Wave and the industrial Second Wave) had “overloaded” human beings but also promised them extraordinary material and psychological gains. For this reason, Stern gives short shrift to what he calls “mitigator policies” like massive infrastructure investment, a shortened workweek, or raising the earned-income tax credit. For Stern, these policies merely ameliorate social problems rather than solve them. Think big or don’t bother thinking at all: This was the mantra that underlay many of Stern’s major decisions as SEIU president, and it is now also the mantra for his post-labor phase.

Unfortunately for union activists and scholars, Stern is both vague and defensive about his record as president at the beginning of Raising the Floor, and thus he does little to explicate the history of his tenure. But with that out of the way, the book’s tone changes for the better. As opposed to the tetchy former SEIU leader, this current incarnation of Stern—let’s call him “Curious Andy,” a Columbo-like character—is much better company.

Stern wanders the country chatting up academics, CEOs, consultants, and entrepreneurial do-gooders about the effects of job-reducing technologies. His big-think imperative leads him to ask good questions, but his interlocutors—people like former Intel CEO Andy Grove and Barclays Capital managing director Steven Berkenfeld—aren’t the slightest bit interested in advancing the labor movement, and almost always confirm his instinct that organized labor is doomed.

Stern is awed by the obscure musings of the Yoda-like Grove, and treats the impeccably groomed Berkenfeld as a kind of guru figure: He sees deals once an hour and rips through them “in a heartbeat,” discerning which ones are winners and which aren’t. What Berkenfeld mostly envisions these days are fewer jobs and more innovations like solar-powered compactors that can map out garbage routes and then “empty only the cans that are overflowing with trash.” Another jolly capitalist who Stern finds attractive is Carl Camden, the up-from-the-working-class CEO of the temp firm Kelly Services, who has a PhD and quips: “I like to say we’re the voice of disorganized labor.”

That Stern connects with this sample of postindustrial robber barons isn’t entirely surprising. While still president of the SEIU, he was thrilled by his time on President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, better known as the Simpson-Bowles commission, where he sought common ground with David Cote, CEO of Honeywell (whom he also pays a visit to in this book), and also sought a doomed grand compromise on health insurance with Walmart. But in Raising the Floor, he is drawn to them for another reason: because they help him argue that, as a result of massive new technological advances and automation, massive job loss is inevitable, and therefore only a universal basic income can save the working class from impoverishment.

Class struggle leading to class empowerment is no longer Stern’s goal, though his impulses are certainly humane: He hopes to provide workers with a foundational income in order to facilitate new experiences and interests and to enable them to take more intellectual and occupational risks. Stern points to income advocate Timothy Roscoe Carter’s claim that the money given to people in the proposal would serve as a kind of universal strike fund, which would increase the bargaining power of those who still had work—but without the unions that used to provide such subsidies.

Stern concedes that work “provides us with opportunities to contribute, be validated, become part of a community, and feel pride. It gives purpose to our lives.” But underlying his faith in the universal basic income is the idea that, regardless of the centrality of labor in human history, there just won’t be enough of it around in the future to sustain those forms of validation and communitarianism anyway.

Yet there are several reasons to question the assertion that automation will inexorably lead to mass unemployment: Why, for example, if we are in a grand new age of automation, hasn’t it already generated rapid productivity growth? (Indeed, economists continue to debate the riddle of productivity’s slowdown.) And why, ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, have the predictions that capitalism’s relentless, amoral accumulation would eventually make human beings obsolete proved unfounded? But Stern isn’t exactly concerned with the problems of automation or with the conundrum of productivity or even labor, for that matter. By centering his argument on a universal basic income, what he hopes to do is displace the power of an insufficient (to him) labor activism from the equation. Instead, he wants to empower policy-makers and roving, unaffiliated big thinkers (such as himself) to solve social problems.

Stern cites various elite organizations and individuals in his book who support the universal basic income. Proud of his own experience on the Simpson-Bowles commission, he believes that sensible meritocrats can move the country in a progressive direction and improve the condition of the working class.

We are reminded every day that the world needs sensible meritocrats. But it is hard to see how any of this happens, of course, unless those outside the realm of power place enormous amounts of pressure on these elites. Indeed, Stern’s own provisional membership in their ranks (he’s now a senior fellow at Columbia’s Richman Center for Business, Law, and Public Policy) is paradoxically based entirely on what he used to call the “persuasion of power” that the SEIU brought to bear on corporate interests. But now that he’s been let inside the foyer of the corporate elite’s mansion, Stern lacks an army of millions to buttress his appeals to reason.

Raising the Floor usefully and accessibly opens up a conversation about the universal basic income. In a kind of perverse tribute, Stern has backhandedly honored the vision of one of his forebears, Walter Reuther, who also worried about the problems of automation but, as his biographer Nelson Lichtenstein observed, trusted in Keynesian demand and government support to address unemployment. Stern is attempting a variant on Reuther’s advocacy, in the immediate postwar period, for an arrangement in which the federal government, big business, and organized labor work together to transform labor markets and jointly make investment decisions. However, in the “second time as farce” version offered in Raising the Floor, the government isn’t remotely interested in participating, and labor consists only of Andy Stern, not a mobilized mass-membership union like the UAW or even the SEIU. Meanwhile, business, like the poor, will always be with us, making all of the investment decisions by itself.

David Rolf, whose career Stern encouraged and promoted, still thinks that unions can be part of the solution—­for now.

Rolf caught the union jones earlier than his patron. As Harold Meyerson noted in a fine 2014 profile in The American Prospect, Rolf wrote his senior thesis at Bard College about a deal between the garment workers’ union and New York’s clothing employers in 1910, which Progressive intellectual allies Louis Brandeis and John Dewey helped to broker. Shortly after his graduation, Rolf took a job with the SEIU’s public-sector union in Atlanta to do local organizing.

Stern, then the union’s organizing director, noticed his talents and moved him to Los Angeles to lead the ongoing home health-care workers’ organizing campaign. Rolf figured out that, in California, workers could establish the state as the clear employer of record and thereby collectively bargain. In 1999, 74,000 workers were organized, which led to the largest single organizing gain since the victories in the auto industry over 60 years earlier.

Rolf continued to win big organizing campaigns. He moved to the SEIU’s long-term-care local in Seattle and, teaming up with his friend, the iconoclastic Seattle billionaire Nick Hanauer, pushed a variety of worker-friendly proposals, like portable benefits, as well as helping to organize the city’s Fight for $15 campaign.

In Rolf’s Fight for $15, he reviews a number of these union- and worker-friendly initiatives, from the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a union-funded policy and campaign dynamo, to the Working Families Party and various immigration centers in New York. In each case, he finds the effort to increase working-class power commendable but the results woefully inadequate. He knows that his own earlier victory depended on exploiting the conflicting public and private lines of authority—a method that was great for organizing home health-care workers, but not for many other kinds of workers. Even Justice for Janitors, despite its many successes, failed to achieve its goals, according to Rolf: Janitors’ wages are behind where they were in the 1980s, and the campaign has failed to organize the bulk of the custodian sector.

In Rolf’s view, labor is now at its weakest in the workplace. In SeaTac, an odd little one-company town (the “company” being the local airport), he notes that the contracted jobs meant that, “When it [came] time to improve wages and working conditions, there [was] no responsible [employer] party to be found.” Because of this, organizing one type of job at the airport meant targeting all of the jobs there. In an earlier period, one might have done exactly that, but Rolf instead turned to the city itself, using a referendum sponsored by the SEIU to create a $15-per-hour living wage, a small sick-leave benefit, and several worker protections. The union campaign went door to door, and the referendum won by 77 votes. But this maneuver did not create a union.

Running the same play in larger metropolitan areas like Seattle was more of a challenge, because cities are large and heterogeneous, and require engaging many different stakeholders, from politicians to the business class to the incumbent labor movement, and yet Rolf followed a very similar model in the successful Fight for $15 campaign in the city. Seattle was, he admits, among the best possible places to win a big boost in the minimum wage. It has one of the highest union densities of any American city and a large progressive constituency. Just as important, the city’s business class never, as Rolf underscores, “went to the mat against the $15 minimum wage.” But despite Seattle’s unusual political culture, Rolf believes that it’s in the Fight for $15 struggle that some hints of a new kind of labor politics may be deciphered. And yes, these kinds of higher-minimum-wage victories have been replicated in other places.

Even so, Rolf is uncertain that a national Fight for $15 can move from wage increases to, well, unions. The SEIU, he notes, never answered “the question of how fast-food workers would join a union.” Such a union, he reminds readers, would likely “look very different [from] a traditional twentieth-century collective bargaining based union.” Rolf thinks this is, in fact, inevitable, since the National Labor Relations Act model—­workers organizing via a majority vote that results in their exclusive representation by a single union in a single firm—is broken. But he doesn’t think that any of the current experiments to augur a new labor movement have figured out the right strategy going forward. Ultimately, he says, the fight “relies…more than anything, on the bravery of American workers.” Having written similar remarks myself, I think the assertion is both rhetorical and a truism—yet whichever way you slice it, it is deeply unsatisfying in a work of strategic labor analysis.

Rolf has a few ideas for quasi-utopian best practices—things like codetermination, which gives workers a significant role in managing a company, and sectoral bargaining, which means setting wage and benefit standards for an entire industry—that he has been touting for the past several years. Mostly, though, he’s just yelling at unions to try something, anything, or they are doomed. Rolf thinks that labor needs a start-up ethos, but incentivized by ideological commitment, not money. He is also honest in admitting that he’s not really sure where to go next and that what is needed—as Franklin Roosevelt, the ad hoc–er in chief, put it—is “bold, persistent experimentation.”

Jane McAlevey offers a lot of contrasts to Stern and Rolf. After years of environmental and anti-apartheid activism, she came to union organizing in her mid-30s, when she was hired by Sweeney’s reform team at the AFL-CIO to run a labor-community project in Stamford, Connecticut. Later, McAlevey joined the SEIU and became a director of health-care organizing in Las Vegas, an experience she described in her first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell).

Over this period, McAlevey came to believe that by extolling top-down deals and disregarding the rank and file, Stern and Rolf are part of the problem, not the solution: In her view, they are cynical operators who neuter working-class militancy and add costly layers of union bureaucrats—and deliver in return merely measly contract improvements. Eventually, McAlevey left the SEIU for a PhD program in sociology and became—along with another labor veteran, Steve Early—arguably the most compelling critic of the SEIU model in the country.

There has been a lot of criticism over the past few decades of union inertia from writers like Mike Davis, Kim Moody, and Paul Buhle. In 1962, in a still-powerful critique, the authors of the Port Huron Statement—while sympathetic to the goals and achievements of unions—took the labor movement to task for having “succumbed to institutionalization, its social idealism waning under the tendencies of bureaucracy, materialism, business ethics.”

But the difference between these earlier critics and McAlevey is that they heaped contempt on the sclerotic labor bureaucracy of George Meany’s and Lane Kirkland’s AFL-CIO for lacking the imagination to reach out to low-wage service workers and being unable to overcome its ideological and racial parochialism to join forces with the New Left and civil-rights movement. For her part, McAlevey attacks unions for the presumed remedy to this conservative approach: the reformist, multiracial, and multiethnic “New Labor” movement, of which the SEIU is the exemplar, and which more sympathetic observers have credited with developing innovative approaches to address decades of declining membership. For McAlevey, what labor needs is more traditional organizing rather than the cultivation of business leaders, and more membership participation rather than top-down, centralized deals between union headquarters, politicians, and corporate chieftains.

McAlevey proposes three models for progressive political activism today: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing. Advocacy, which she spends little time on, essentially means letterhead campaigns leavened with litigation, and it’s the purview of large single-issue organizations like the Sierra Club. Mobilizing is New Labor’s preferred mode of activism: far more aggressive than advocacy, but ultimately reliant on a centralized staff and the intermittent marshaling of militant lefties. Mobilization, in McAlevey’s view, doesn’t lead to the creation of sustained and organic working-class self-organization and leadership. This is where her third category comes in: organizing. For McAlevey, organizing is the more traditional model of unionism preferred by the CIO in its peak mobilizing period from the mid-1930s to the end of the Second World War, and she believes that even in today’s segmented and often postindustrial economy, it remains the only path to strong unions and citizens’ organizations.

Organizing builds membership on a worker-to-worker foundation and helps to develop dedicated worker-organizers who can lead unions and ordinary workers in decision-­making. In her view, the comprehensive campaigns most identified with the SEIU, which inventively used political leverage over regulators, shareholders, and municipalities, end up removing workers from their primary place in the class struggle and substituting the wisdom of elite, educated strategic sages precisely like Stern and Rolf.

The professional staff’s gift (when, in good faith, it adopts this program) is to spot and then cultivate organic rank-and-file leaders—not the shop-floor loudmouths and show-offs, but those that other workers respect most for their integrity and judgment. McAlevey writes that “only true organic leaders can lead their coworkers in high-risk actions.” Well-planned strikes that “cripple production” challenge workers to risk their livelihoods, and so they have to be led by co-workers and be waged on behalf of dramatically improved living standards and working conditions, not cosmetic changes.

McAlevey is convinced that labor’s decline is primarily an endogenous issue: The causes “lie mainly in how unions engage with their existing members and with unorganized workers.” Automation, globalization, right-wing political assaults, Democratic Party fecklessness, constricting labor laws—for McAlevey, none of these have been as telling as labor’s own strategic failures.

It is important to McAlevey’s argument that she engages and rebuts the German sociologist Robert Michels and his classic work Political Parties (1911). Michels insisted that leftist political parties and unions, despite the ostensible goals and ideology of their leadership, would inevitably devolve into oligarchic formations. The working class, essential as it is as an adversary to capital, would cede control of the organization to a clever, educated class of bourgeois leaders. Michels called the goal of “popular sovereignty” a “desperate enterprise”: The “mass per se is amorphous and therefore needs division of labor, specialization, and guidance.” But McAlevey believes the examples she cites are proof that “Michels was wrong: Oligarchy does not always win.”

Despite all of her insight and her acute criticisms of the SEIU and Michels, McAlevey can also be unfair to her adversaries and far too enthusiastic about her unified-field model for a new New Labor. She has written a great book about how to organize a given workplace or even several interconnected ones—a book I would recommend to local staff and workers. But as a larger explanatory synthesis of labor today and what it must do next, No Shortcuts is not as effective.

McAlevey hates top-down union deal-cutting with companies and insists, over and over again, that the “campaigns that win workers the highest-impact success follow the classic CIO-era organizing model.” But McAlevey does not correlate the CIO’s model with its legendary leader John L. Lewis. She sees Lewis as the quintessential top-down autocrat. But Lewis’s methods could work, too. McAlevey forgets that Lewis, in the wake of the UAW’s win in Flint, Michigan, secretly cut the deal to organize US Steel at the Manhattan home of the company’s CEO without any input from workers or even from his top lieutenant, Philip Murray. In fact, Lewis’s deal, though it lacked any membership accountability, ended up encouraging more rank-and-file activism among steelworkers. Thus, despite McAlevey’s argument, centralized leadership can lead to victories that, in turn, can inspire militancy.

And even if we were to follow the logic of McAlevey’s argument and agree that rank-and-file militancy is the best practice, there are practical concerns that she doesn’t address. One can no longer have the kind of mass labor movements, built out of large-scale industrial production, in an age in which work is so segmented and precarious. Mobilization, in this context, may be the only practical route for a labor movement that doesn’t possess this cadre of militant, ideologically dedicated members and sympathizers of the Communist Party and other leftist organizations, like the American Workers Party that organized heavy industry for the CIO in the 1930s and throughout World War II. (McAlevey acknowledges the role of these organizers, but she doesn’t give it sufficient weight.) The sheer number of militant, committed organizers that the CIO was able to throw into the fight to organize industrial America is an underconsidered aspect of its success.

Near the end of her book, McAlevey devotes a useful chapter to the fight by a multiracial and ever-changing group of workers to organize the Smithfield Foods pork plant in North Carolina. The sheer determination of the workers and the organizers is inspiring, but McAlevey leaves out one of the reasons why the United Food and Commercial Workers’ story can’t be all of ours. It took over 15 years to organize 5,000 people in that struggle, while the Fight for $15 win in Seattle, which she denigrates as mere top-down mobilization weakened by backroom machinations, took about a year to complete and will affect over 100,000 people over a seven-year phase-in.

A union, to be sure, is better than a wage increase, but the structure of the US economy is such that a 5,000-worker site—large by the standards of today’s economy—doesn’t resonate in the way that, say, the victory at US Steel or General Motors, at sites with five or 10 times as many workers, did in the 1930s and ’40s. As labor has transformed over the past half-century, so too has union organizing.

Part of the reason that unions devised the comprehensive campaign to augment on-the-ground organizing is that workplaces across many industries have shrunk dramatically, and it is hard to imagine how to organize companies with large numbers of workers dispersed over hundreds or even thousands of workplaces around the country—unless there are some other forms of leverage that force corporate leaders to negotiate with labor.

Over the last half-century, something enormous has happened to unions, not just in the United States but throughout the developed world. The core heavy industries of mid-20th-century unionism—manufacturing, mining, and transportation—have undergone fundamental transformations that have resulted throughout North America, Europe, and Australia in the loss of millions of well-paid union jobs (and that have also resulted in the political economies of these countries moving to the right).

Most of this was not because of globalization, although, of course, some of it was. Rather, this transformation arose primarily because of automation and massive increases in productivity. Globalization and especially automation will not likely end work, as Stern fears it will. But they have dramatically changed the composition of the American working class and, with it, the labor movement. Only about 8 percent of US jobs today are in manufacturing, compared with about 24 percent in 1960. This is not because manufacturing no longer makes money; it does. Manufacturing, in fact, has a higher output per worker today than it did in the 1960s. The issue now is that we can produce more with fewer jobs—and as a result, jobs have declined in almost every heavy-manufacturing sector. The 700,000 coal-mining jobs that existed a century ago have dwindled to 50,000 today; the 650,000 steel jobs in the early 1950s are down to less than 150,000; and railway jobs—which can’t be moved to Mexico or Vietnam—have gone from more than 1.5 million after World War II to about 140,000 now. Union density and power have followed suit. The railway unions, which so enraged Harry Truman that he threatened to conscript the striking workers, have today become largely quiescent. The steelworkers union has stayed afloat via strategic mergers, but it no longer dominates what’s left of the US steel sector and it is constantly vulnerable to increased steel imports. The proud United Mine Workers, with its unsurpassed history of militant solidarity, has lost nearly all of its membership to strip mining, fracking, and continuous productivity advances. Today it is barely more than a pension administration for retired miners and their families. And trucking, which was deregulated in the early 1980s, has also become largely deunionized, decimating the concentrated economic and political power that the Teamsters once wielded over the entire sector.

What has been lost is not only power, but also the cultural and social basis, forged in common work sites, that once helped to sustain a broad-based national labor movement. In only a few advanced nations does union membership remain over 50 percent, and this is often because unions, under the aegis of still-supportive governments, administer those countries’ unemployment benefits and thereby help to build constituents and communities that see unions as positive forces in their lives. National unions in the United States, on the other hand, have none of these advantages, and so union growth has waned.

It is clear that the model of national unionism that empowered organized labor and, with it, large working-class communities in the past has expired, but a new model for labor has yet to fully emerge. The SEIU’s attempt, despite its many successes, has been insufficient. This is why Stern has impatiently all but given up on unions; why Rolf wants to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks; and why McAlevey wants to start with the fundamental ingredient of unionization, the workers themselves, no matter how small the numerical gains.

In a recent essay by Gabriel Winant in n+1, we begin to see the contours of another path, one that looks forward rather than backward and that doesn’t abandon the unions’ traditional forms of power. In addition to mobilizing and organizing, Winant argues, labor needs to make greater inroads in the central institutions of today’s urban postindustrial economy—in particular, public-­school systems, universities, and hospitals.

These entities are dispersed; they do not braid the economy together in the way that auto, steel, mining, and transportation did in mid-20th-century America. But they are nonetheless today’s rough analogue to the primary economic sectors of that Fordist era, and they contain within them a wide range of workers, from the highly educated and well-compensated to the precarious, contingent, and disregarded.

In pretty much every city, a university, hospital, or—as both Winant and McAlevey point out in a place like Chicago—a public-school system is the largest employer. This concentrated density means that these are the places to organize in the way that the UAW organized auto-industry cities like River Rouge, Michigan. Pick out the top three private employers in the 50 largest cities in the United States to organize, and labor has a coherent mission that logically builds out from its existing strength in urban America, including big cities not only in blue states but in the red ones, too.

Yes, education and health care aren’t the same as mass manufacturing; you cannot impose national wage and benefit standards on them. But in a political moment when it has become all but impossible to imagine a national labor policy that covers all 50 states, the anachronisms of American federalism can be helpful, and labor can start organizing these sectors on the state and local levels. Indeed, in a perfect demonstration of Stern’s mercurial intellect, the former SEIU president agrees. After publishing a book which all but buries unions, Stern, in an article he wrote with the libertarian policy analyst Eli Lehrer for the conservative journal National Affairs, argues for something that is not entirely different from Winant’s view of municipal unionism. Unions, he and Lehrer propose, should seek state waivers in order to experiment with wage and hour rules, union organizational structure, and benefit provisions. In their view, and in Winant’s, these new organizing fights will be, like the one in Seattle, intensely local rather than national. But from them, a more broad-based movement can emerge, using the examples of a successful strike at a prominent employer—­such as the one by dining-service workers at Harvard University—to inspire workers elsewhere to start their own fights over pay and benefits.

The way out, if there is one, will probably require more focus on building actual labor organizations and less on Rolf’s “try anything” approach. But it will also require more planning by staff elites and more bureaucratic support than McAlevey can tolerate. And it will certainly require more optimism than Stern can muster, at least in Raising the Floor. And it still might not work. But we need to start somewhere. To quote the Port Huron Statement again, “Few anticipate the breakthrough and fewer still exhort labor to begin. Labor continues to be the most liberal—and most frustrated—institution in mainstream America.” Perhaps in our current era of revanchism and resistance, when so many are becoming politicized for the first time, this frustration will finally reach a boiling point.

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