Making Unions Matter Again

Making Unions Matter Again

For too long, unions have mistaken access for power. They need to get back to organizing and activating members.


For the first time in recent memory, most voices in the social change movement, including progressively inclined unions, are having a hard time spinning victory out of massive electoral defeat. Could it also be that this time we will finally learn the right lessons?

Given the constraints of our two-party system and the differences between the parties on workers' issues, it makes sense for unions to endorse Democrats and for union members to pull the Democratic lever on election day. But for too long, union leaders have tethered themselves to the Democratic Party on fundamental questions of strategy. Ironically, when the Democrats take control of the White House the problem is exacerbated, as unions often mistake access for power. The leaders of the Democratic Party don't wake up in the morning thinking about how to expand social benefits to workers or the poor. And they certainly don't wake up and think about how to make unions stronger.

As the consultant-industrial complex linked to the Democratic Party has taken over at most national unions, unions have substituted "messaging" for organizing while actual organizers have nearly become extinct. To beat the twenty-four-hour nonstop lies blasted into American homes by Fox News requires engaging workers face to face—not blasting them with poll-tested e-mails. It takes a two-way discussion to help workers move past fear and frustration and toward collective action to address the problems in their lives. Note to unions: Twitter and Facebook are not engagement.

Rather than focusing on the immediate economic security of the working class (and in this highly unequal country, that means the middle class too), unions have been preoccupied with their own organizational security. Encouraged by pollsters and Democratic Party consultants, union leaders decided to bet the farm on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). With the economic crisis ravaging the nation, this was the number-one "ask" of the new administration labor had fought so hard (and paid so dearly) to elect. Keep in mind that unions have been trying unsuccessfully to win meaningful labor law reform since the 1940s—when they were much stronger. The Chamber of Commerce and its unionbusting allies were undoubtedly unhappy that Democrats were even discussing labor law reform, but the big business lobby must have been delighted with a strategy hatched by unions that the Chamber could boil down to "unions want to take away a worker's right to vote by secret ballot on whether to form a union." Labor leaders spent the first year of the Obama administration working "behind the scenes" to enact this priority. Not surprisingly, they failed.

What could unions have been doing, and what should they be doing, to change the equation in 2012 and also in future union elections? Creating a real fight over the state of the working and middle classes by picking up on issues where unions can make an immediate difference in people's lives. The ability of unions to expand their ranks doesn't lie in labor law reform; it lies in the potential for Americans in large numbers to see unions as relevant. With just over 7 percent of the private-sector workforce in unions, it's not hard to see why union leaders are preoccupied with their very survival. But after seventy years of unsuccessful attempts at technocratic legislative, legal and regulatory approaches to expanding unions, there is no time like now to try mass social movement unionism.

Workers can't pay rent, pay the mortgage, get a credit card, find a job, buy clothes or schoolbooks for their kids or retire. They face increased divorce rates as family tensions rise, and they have lost their sense of dignity. They don't care about labor law reform, and they don't care about unions (at least in their current form). They are in despair, and unanswered despair quickly becomes either fertilizer for the fearmongers or the reason to not bother showing up at the polls. Either decision is a disaster likely to be repeated unless unions reset, and fast.

Rather than posting links to the websites of housing groups, how about starting direct worker-to-worker conversations about occupying mortgage company headquarters across the country until the banks stop foreclosing on their members' homes? Rather than suddenly calling for members to picket banks or take seemingly random militant actions, how about sitting down with union members and talking about what actions everyone can take to force solutions to the housing crisis—solutions such as making banks revalue mortgages to the actual value of homes and creating lines of credit so workers can move to places where they might find a job?

Unions need to start connecting with workers face-to-face through house parties and worksite and home visits to ask what's keeping them up at night. Then unions should plan direct actions with workers that respond to the issues facing them. How about taking over the offices of big credit-rating agencies and occupying them 24/7 by the thousands until they agree to erase all the bad credit heaped on anyone who has made a late mortgage payment because they lost their job or their hours were cut back? The housing crisis ties directly to the wage crisis, which ties directly to the jobs crisis. People in this country are screaming for a fight, but the only people offering one have been from the right wing. All these issues have been staring labor in the face for several years. Why hasn't any union turned the crisis facing workers into a crisis for capital and the political elite?

There are two main reasons for this failure, and union members need to declare an internal mini-MoveOn movement to confront them. First, to this day, when asked about the housing crisis, many unions essentially say, "That's someone else's problem. We only do workers' issues in the workplace." Given the crises in all aspects of workers' lives, that response is even more backward and shortsighted than the second reason unions have failed to do what they should be doing: union turf wars. Some of the best organizers have been teaching workers to fight one another instead of how to fight the bosses, let alone how to mount collective action against the broader political elite.

It's not too late. The housing crisis still looms large, and the coming attack on Social Security and other entitlement programs will offer plenty of room for unions to mobilize their base and organize the unorganized. But these efforts should be oriented around something other than forming a union.

Union organizers—paid staff and rank-and-file workers—should begin to take to the doors and begin to meet hundreds of thousands of workers and galvanize a movement to demand economic justice. If unions do this with unorganized workers and together they win campaigns, it's more likely these same workers will consider unionization to be a good option in their work life. With a ratio of one organizer for 1,000 organizing conversations in neighborhoods nationwide, just 2,000 union organizers could engage 2 million people—and that's plenty to create an untenable crisis that the elite will have to deal with.

Ironically, the only organizational security issue that should be taken up urgently by the labor movement has produced yet another circular firing squad: the carefully constructed hate campaign against public-sector unions. The bruising attack being waged on "government unions" from the heart of blue states like New Jersey is a three-pronged jihad against everything the right hates most: the idea of redistribution of any resources to the poor; African-Americans and people of color, who are disproportionately represented in the government workforce; and unions in general (the biggest unionized bloc of Americans work for the government). You can bet this third goal is high on the butcher paper covering the walls in conservative war rooms. Watching private-sector unions abandon this fight and willingly serve up government unions for destruction shows just how easy it is to divide and conquer. The longer we allow the right to name the public sector as anything other than one essential component of the economy, the longer we allow the right to dismantle the only real base of unions and the only real source of good jobs left for many people of color and women.

It's time to empower people to get into motion. We know people learn best from action—it's not rocket science or something we need a poll about. For years we have known that the best issues are those that are widely and deeply felt and that we can reasonably come up with solutions for. Unions would see that these issues are staring them in the face if only they'd listen to workers instead of pollsters.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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