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.