Come On, Labor, Light Our Fire

Come On, Labor, Light Our Fire

Washington, DC


Washington, DC

Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Geoghegan, in “Lighting Labor’s Fire” [Dec. 23], point to ways to help workers realize the value of unionism and the rights that labor law promises but doesn’t deliver. The core of labor’s work, however, must be a concerted effort by the AFL-CIO, unions and organizational and political allies to fire up all workers about the need for collective- bargaining rights. Without such rights, the future for our children and our democracy is bleak.

Most managers, while negotiating their own excessive compensation plans, respond to workers’ campaigns for bargaining rights with a ferocity that often exceeds their response to their competitors. Collective bargaining, not so much union membership or individual rights, is key to workers’ social and economic gains. But the rate of private-sector collective bargaining in the United States is about one-fifth of every other industrial democracy’s. Among US public-sector workers, it’s one-third.

It’s this 65 percent drop in private-sector collective bargaining since 1950 that explains much of our healthcare crisis, our retirement security crisis and the constant attacks on job security. Public-sector collective bargaining is nearly universal (90 percent) in Canada, much of Europe, Japan and Australia but covers just 35 percent of workers here. Texas and most Southern and Western states have no statutory mechanism permitting public employees to bargain.

This is largely a secret, even for most of the 15 million union members and their families. I suggest we begin there–with our own members, in the most intensive work-site-based education effort we can create. Our goal is to promote collective bargaining nationwide, making it easier for workers to bargain at work rather than read about the newest deal for their superstar CEOs.

We need to escalate the fight for public-sector rights in those states that don’t have such legislation. We need to consider incentives for voluntary recognition based on majority support by workers for a union. Building and working with coalitions like Jobs With Justice, we need to imagine and then create a massive movement to press Congress to either endorse union recognition based on majority support (like card-check recognition in parts of Canada and the United Kingdom) or at least to end the federal restriction on states taking such action.

This is a crisis for US workers. We must respond as if each day matters.

Communications Workers of America

Brooklyn, NY

Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Geoghegan are daydreaming. Who would initiate such an enormous undertaking? Where would the countless millions needed to finance it come from? How would the campaign for individual members be conducted? What assurances are there that the campaign would attract even a fraction of the membership the authors envision despite its meager offerings? And how would it reduce employer opposition to unions? The problems the authors raise are real enough, but the solutions lie elsewhere, mostly within the AFL-CIO itself. Polls show that there are some 40 million workers who would like to join a union, but the labor federation has not made a serious effort to organize them. There are no national weekly labor radio or TV programs that can tell the union story to millions of unorganized workers and refute the arguments of adversaries.

National union leaders are almost never invited to big-time talk shows or interviewed by the media. During the November midterm elections, they were all but invisible and speechless. If you can’t talk to masses of unorganized workers, how can you organize them?

Another serious drawback is that unions have become increasingly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary working people. There are now more than 9 million people who can’t find work and would welcome help from organized labor. But unions are not coming to their defense with demands for public works projects. They’re not campaigning for national health insurance, even though millions of workers have had to drop their healthcare coverage. They’re not doing much of anything at AFL-CIO headquarters except issuing statements deploring every attack by George W. Bush against working people.

Some unions are finding better methods of organizing workers than relying on the NLRB, which has built-in advantages for antiunion employers. Instead of trying to unionize people where they work (and are virtual hostages of their employer), organizers can reach them where they live (in the relative safety of their communities). A new strategy calls for building alliances with communities and making them part of each organizing effort. Thus, if an employer fires his workers, the battle for their reinstatement would be fought in the community where he runs his business, not at the NLRB.

There are excellent reasons for workers to join unions, and the AFL-CIO has to do a better job of publicizing them. Union members, on average, earn $154 a week more than those who don’t belong to unions in virtually all nonfarm occupations. For African-Americans, the wage gap is $160 a week, for Hispanic workers, $207 and for working women, $144. Benefits (health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick leave) are substantially better in unionized establishments, while working conditions are usually safer and healthier. All these union benefits are protected by a legally binding contract. With a union card, workers are no longer at the mercy of their employers. Some 13 million workers now belong to trade unions, despite the continuing attacks on organized labor from employers’ associations and their friends in Congress and the media. There must be millions more who are willing to stand up and fight for the many advantages that come with a union contract.

The authors’ recipe for labor growth makes it “easy” for individual workers to join a quasi union that has neither the power nor the purpose of improving their wages, benefits or working conditions. It’s a trial balloon with no helium.

If the AFL-CIO wants to regain its former strength, it will have to do a much better job of winning the hearts and minds of the millions of unorganized workers.

The Labor Educator

Washington, DC

We at the AFL-CIO welcome Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Geoghegan’s article. We greatly appreciate the intellectual struggle for good ideas and solutions. And we definitely encourage all those who share our goals to make common cause and put their shoulders to the wheel. Sister Ehrenreich and brother Geoghegan are absolutely right that the real reason for labor’s decline in density is a fundamental flaw in US labor laws: the failure to protect workers’ First Amendment right to freedom of association and the right to organize. Indeed, Human Rights Watch has documented this fact and made clear that the United States is in violation of international law.

The questions then are, What does the labor movement do about this, and, What do our allies do? Because, as the writers point out, this is not labor’s problem alone. It is a critical problem for all of us who work for and desire a more just society. We at the AFL-CIO are deeply engaged in an effort to pose the right questions and begin to figure out some answers. But no viable answer will exclude the role of labor’s allies in our struggle to rebuild.

What we believe today: that while not yet fully developed, big or broad enough, the AFL-CIO’s effort to defend workers’ freedom to organize by calling on political, clerical and community allies to work with local labor movements to confront abusive employer conduct has made a significant difference in organizing in many cities and campaigns. That effort, which we call Voice at Work, must be bigger, better connected strategically, have a national component and a stronger push at the local level–both among allies and unions–but it is definitely part of the way forward.

That more unions have to invest more in organizing and change the way they organize. We have to be willing to organize and confront employers outside the confining structures of the NLRB. We have to take more risks and bigger risks. We have to use all the resources at our disposal to leverage organizing rights for workers, including bargaining with employers with whom we already have a relationship, for a right to a democratic process and connecting the abuse of workers to such corporate abuses as environmental or corporate-governance abuses. Then we must be willing to run highly visible public organizing campaigns.

We and our allies have to say with a much louder voice that collective bargaining is a social good. It extends justice to the workplace, expands the voice and power of those fighting for a fairer society and raises living standards.

We believe in power. Workers join unions to get things done, to win respect and dignity, increase their quality of life and their families’ standard of living–and power is how you get things done. Power for workers is built collectively, not individually. Even when we are organizing in nonmajority situations, we are building structure, finding and educating leaders, moving issues, trying to build and exercise power. We can and will explore the building of non-collective-bargaining alliances that enfranchise additional people in the labor movement in nontraditional ways, but that will never replace the power workers gain through collective bargaining at their work sites.

We need a long-term fight for labor law reform all can understand. It is a question of human rights and should be addressed as such. And our allies should commit themselves to such a fight with as much vigor and dedication as did the allies of the civil rights movement a generation ago.

Finally, we believe all of us, especially the AFL-CIO and the labor movement, must be willing to fight harder, to force change deeper, to take more risks, to struggle as if history were watching–because it is.

AFL-CIO organizing director

Amherst, Mass.

Labor was strong in this country not only because it had lots of members or provided services but because it had the power through its membership to collectively bargain some measure of justice and dignity and to call strikes and cripple industries if it had to. Individual membership cannot provide this kind of worker power, and this thinking only reinforces the service orientation of many unions, which has undermined the movement orientation of unions in the past half-century. We all understand just how terrible labor law is, but given what happened in the last election, how can we believe that any meaningful labor law reform is possible in the short term? Instead of creating new structures that resemble unions, labor needs to get back to the business of movement-building. Yes, the obstacles are incredibly difficult, but are they any less than they were for African-Americans trying to obtain civil rights or farmworkers or for the victims of apartheid? Unfortunately there are no organizational shortcuts to wresting power from those who do not want to give it up. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Labor Center

San Francisco

Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Geoghegan propose “lighting labor’s fire” but leave us only a few twigs to rub together. The problems are political, not organizational. Organizationally speaking, unions are quite strong–with more money, more staff, more buildings and a greater apparatus than at any time in history–yet membership remains stagnant. Labor’s great weakness is its failure to speak to the broad-ranging social and economic issues confronting most working people. That is what politics is all about. Instead, unions have deferred for decades to the Democratic Party to be that voice.

Devising creative, imaginative organizational gimmicks to overcome what is essentially labor’s political paralysis will only lead us astray or into some bizarre diversions, like those suggested by the authors.

Historically, American workers have shed more blood to organize unions than our European brothers and sisters. Nothing would stop workers from again flooding into union halls when unions are seen as genuinely speaking and organizing for the vital issues that affect their day-to-day lives. Once labor regains its voice, independent of corporations and government, it will also regain the allegiance of the American worker.

IAMAW Local 1781

Springfield, Mass.

What labor really has to do to get back on its feet is to become partners with local community groups in launching and carrying out campaigns that seek to make major changes or improvements in some vital aspect of the community–whether it is requiring some accountability or reciprocity to the community for tax breaks and other privileges granted to those doing business there; or the community supporting labor agreements on construction projects in return for labor aggressively recruiting the disadvantaged into building trades apprenticeships, or the central labor council, community groups, churches or the local law school; or others coming together to create a comprehensive workers’ center that will offer many kinds of services to workers, union and nonunion, including training, education, childcare, organizing support, legal advice or labor history resources, and creating the kind of place to nourish solidarity and the community we wish to create.

As labor more and more becomes part of the community–and this has been taking place in many parts of the country–it will gather steam as part of a larger justice movement, and the power of that larger movement is what will make change more likely, starting at the local level and spreading from there. And with that no doubt labor will grow. We in labor hate the label “special interest,” but it is certain that the right’s propaganda has made us appear that way in the public eye; what we need to demonstrate is that our only “special” interests are social and economic justice, and that we are prepared to join with anyone with genuine aspirations for the same.

SEIU Local 285


As a real live labor organizer, I am frustrated by yet another article on “what labor should do.” People need to talk to the workers! Every day, for twelve or more hours a day, I talk to actual workers: in their homes, at the workplace, in little diners for breakfast as they’re coming off work. Labor will make a comeback when real people start to really organize, and that means talking to workers! Full time! I wish our leftist heroes and heroines would encourage the young to become organizers, get their hands dirty, stop theorizing about the problems and do something!

There are too many well-meaning lefties in graduate school, in law school, talking about the workers but never talking with the workers, unless it’s to study them. I cannot staff organizing campaigns, not because there’s no money for positions but because no one is applying! It’s a hard, exhausting, nonglamorous way of life, but all the Nation articles in the world won’t do for the labor movement what one organizer can do. Tell your children to go to the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute and learn how to mobilize workers! We’re hiring! We need new blood! No more writing, no more talking, no more theorizing. It’s time for the left to get to work!


Alexandria, Va.

Wow! Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Geoghegan, whose labor advocacy credentials are immaculate, have some terrific ideas for mobilizing workers. I hope the unions will give these ideas serious consideration and move quickly to adopt one or more of them.

But I expect they will not. After all, unions are unions and, for whatever reason, most have undertaken new approaches to organizing in a reluctant and halfhearted manner. For most workers, being in a union is their best option for better pay, benefits and job security. It is, therefore, logical and appropriate that unions maintain a strict focus on expanding their membership, continuing to do what they do best. But even at the height of labor’s power, unions represented only 38 percent of workers. The majority of US workers have always been and will always be without union representation.

That’s one of the reasons we launched Working People ( in 2001. There needs to be a strong, complementary labor component to enhance the power of the unions, and Working People, a nonprofit membership organization focused on giving nonunion members a greater voice, is an effort in that direction. The more workers are an active part of the movement, the greater voice workers will have in restoring some balance to an economy overwhelmingly tilted toward wealthy and corporate interests. Until much larger numbers of workers join the labor movement in some form, most will have to settle for the scraps they get from the conservatives’ trickledown economics.

That’s why Barbara and Tom’s proposal to “start memberships with other flavors” is right on target, and Working People provides one of those “flavors.” But their proposals will take a lot of resources, beyond the capabilities of any existing progressive organization, even the unions. Unfortunately, the progressive community is a hodgepodge of interests without sufficient leadership and coordination to bring the many wonderful people and organizations together as a cohesive voice. That will have to change if the disaster of the 2002 elections is going to be turned around. The alternative is continued economic decay of the majority of American families.

Bruce Weiner
President, Working People


Key West, Fla.; Chicago

First, we thank the many people who called or wrote us about the article, even those, like Harry Kelber, who missed the point: that we need individual members so the labor “movement” can get bigger and have more clout at the polls. Only then can we hope to get labor law reform, which would make it possible for unions to perform their most important job of all, bargaining for wages, pensions, health insurance and shorter hours. (The original title of our piece was “While We Wait for Labor Law Reform.”) That’s why we proposed having individual members: to make the unions stronger, as we emphasized in the article. If European unions can take in individual members, so can American unions.

Who would initiate this program? For starters, as to the legal insurance component, we would urge the National Employment Lawyers Association to meet with people at the AFL-CIO. After all, there are many precedents for “legal insurance” of the kind we suggested as a benefit of voluntary membership.

Where would the money come from? Well, that’s the point of people paying dues. Paying dues is not a novel idea, in America or in Europe. Many of us regularly pay dues to organizations like NOW that do not offer any immediate benefits, simply because we support the cause.

Who would be interested? Potentially anyone who has a job. Right now, in the federal courts in Chicago, 40 percent of the filings are “employment” suits, most of them by individuals who would be eligible for this insurance. Apart from these people, there are millions of other Americans who seek advice from lawyers on age-, race- or sex-discrimination questions but never file a suit. And there are millions more who think about talking to a lawyer but don’t know whom to call. In some European countries, a big reason people become individual members is so they have the services of a lawyer when they go to a labor court. It seems to us everybody in America gets fired at least once!

How would this reduce employer opposition to unions? It wouldn’t. The idea is to bring in individual members and organize politically to beat employers at the polls. Europeans have done well with individual members.

We know that in America, from the White House on down, we Americans think we have all the answers and that the Europeans know nothing. Perhaps a little humility would be in order.

As to Larry Cohen and many of the others, we take their general point that all of us should just try harder to organize under the system we have. Sure, but the laws are rigged against us. Perhaps with all our might we can keep labor from disappearing, but that’s not enough. The goal is not to exhaust ourselves so that labor can get from say 8 or 9 percent of the private sector to 11 or 12 percent. Rather, the goal has to be to change the rules of the game, so people in this country can have the right to join unions, freely and fairly, without being fired. That isn’t going to happen unless John Sweeney, Rich Trumka, John Wilhelm and others decide that labor has to think outside the box. And it’s up to the rest of us to persuade them.

We take it from Stewart Acuff’s letter that possibly they are listening. We hope they won’t wait until people start picketing the AFL-CIO, begging to be let in.


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