Why Unions Must Recommit to Expanding Their Base

Why Unions Must Recommit to Expanding Their Base

Why Unions Must Recommit to Expanding Their Base

Demobilizing our base is never a good idea, especially when the right wing and the Trump forces continue to mobilize.


The coming year will be incredibly challenging for the working class. Austerity is on the immediate horizon, resulting from the unwillingness of the bipartisan political class to challenge its largest donors by taxing the rich and corporations. The presidential election’s outcome will reduce attacks on immigrants and communities of color, but not enough. More workers will face dire conditions in 2021 than they did in 2009: massive unemployment and underemployment; a growing homelessness crisis because of imminent evictions and not enough income to meet rent or mortgage demands; and a severe health care crisis made catastrophic by a raging pandemic and nearly 15 million people losing their employer-based medical coverage in the first three months of the pandemic when they or their loved ones lost their jobs.

Joe Biden’s platform for the economy, part of his Build Back Better plan, would substantially advance the quality of life among the multiracial working class—but the prospect of getting any of those proposals through the Senate, no matter the outcome in Georgia’s runoff elections, isn’t realistic. To win much of the platform Biden ran on will require bolder leadership than he or the generation of neoliberal Democrats in his cohort have exercised in decades. And it will require both a Senate and a House that have more members of the Squad and fewer Joe Manchins. Much depends, then, on the actions Biden takes in his first 100 days in office to enable a change in the US power structure. We need executive-level directives that don’t require congressional approval to tilt the scales in favor of justice-seeking Democrats in 2022. (In the Senate, 34 seats will be up for election, with 13 Democrats and 20 Republicans defending.)

This means making moves that give a structural advantage to progressive forces, such as Biden immediately firing Peter Robb, the worker-hating general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board, to stop the endless bleeding of workers’ basic rights. (Yes, Biden can fire him.) It also means prioritizing fair unionization elections, ending current asylum and immigration policies, canceling student loan debt, and extending Covid-era mortgage payment and rent forgiveness—which, taken together, will create a larger base of people to more enthusiastically mobilize for the Democrats, not the Republicans, in the 2022 midterms. These are urgent actions because midterm elections usually have a lower turnout than presidential-year elections. They need to be in place to ensure Democratic turnout and convince a portion of the 80 million Americans who sat out this past election to vote in 2022 so we stand a chance to radically improve life on, and indeed save, the planet.

Many a headline has trumpeted the fact that Biden received the largest number of votes in US history (over 80 million). Donald Trump, however, received more than 74 million votes—the second-largest total in US history. Of the nearly 22 million more people who voted in 2020 than in 2016, a huge share went to a deeply racist, misogynist grifter. Those numbers should leave little doubt that the forces behind Trump have been engaged in a lot of base expansion and organizing and then mobilizing those voters to the polls. And as was reflected in Trump’s share of the vote as well as the dismal down-ballot results, those reactionary forces are catching up to the already organized base of progressives and the diminishing base of unions. The only possible conclusion we can draw from these very disturbing numbers is that progressives in general—and unions in particular—must recommit to base expansion. That won’t happen by using the various magical formulas popular with most national union leaders and the media. (Sectoral bargaining and cutting worker-hurting deals with gig-economy companies, for example, are the current flavors of the month.)

What actually wins is the type of organizing that shifts people’s understanding of us versus them. Because of the power of Fox News and social media, people need help understanding how to make sense of their own lives. How we do this matters. It requires recommitment to an approach to union organizing that recognizes that the triple crises of race, gender, and class are inseparable. This approach deeply integrates the sum of those three forces into the theory of power and, thus, the theory of winning.

I outlined this approach 10 years ago in my very first Nation article, published on the heels of the disastrous 2010 midterms. I identified two factors that continue to plague national union leadership: the tendency to confuse access with power, and the negative impact on union strategies of what I call the Democratic Party’s consultant-industrial complex. Right now, though, top union officials first need to just stop running with scissors. No sooner had Biden been declared the winner than national unions began fighting over which white man would be named secretary of labor. This is all the more embarrassing when you recall that, as far back as 1932, Franklin Roosevelt nominated a brilliant woman, Frances Perkins, to the job—and that was when the people who were considered workers or wage earners were mostly men.

Another disturbing indication that national union leaders haven’t learned the right lessons since 2010 is watching them demobilize their base, following cues from Biden’s people that we didn’t need to put people in the streets to protect the election results. Whether huge, nonviolent marches were actually needed to protect Biden’s victory is almost beside the point: The decision revealed that national labor leadership still confuses access with power. Unions got virtually nothing from eight years of Barack Obama trying to play inside baseball and be nice to Wall Street, and the little we did get—fair union election rules in 2014, six years in, since reversed by the Trump administration—was too late.

The only constituencies that won big under Obama were the two that actually confronted him and refused to acquiesce to backroom deals: the LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements. Demobilizing our base is never a good idea, especially when the right wing and the Trump forces continue to mobilize.

Unions need to expand their base if Democrats are to stand any real chance in the future; simultaneously, they need to provide deep political education. The organizing strategies that achieve both winning more and helping workers understand who and what divides and oppresses them make up what I call whole worker organizing. It starts by identifying informal or organic leaders in the workplace and then engaging in structure tests, which reveal much more than polling ever can. Structure tests are mini campaigns that build and assess active participation among the ranks on immediate issues. They are a stark contrast to fly-by-phone opinion polls, forcing unions to regularly engage 100 percent of the workforce in two-way conversations instead of just talking with workers who already support the union. Clearly, to expand the base, we should spend a lot more time with workers who are not in unions, don’t support unions, or think they don’t need a union. Targets include the 80 million people who didn’t vote in 2020 or the ones who pulled the lever for the party that couldn’t care less about killing them, literally.

Whole worker organizing doesn’t stop there; it extends the same methods into the workers’ communities. Once there’s enough trust and organization built inside the workplace, organizers among the ranks—supplemented by paid staff—help map the broader structures of power in the labor market in which they live, so workers come to understand the relationships their employers have to the political elite in the area. More important, they learn how to upend those relationships by dividing and conquering those forces and building new alliances with the many organized social sectors, such as those represented by faith leaders and civil rights groups, that often have more power than today’s unions in any single labor market.

Such alliances need to be built by the workers themselves, not union officials handing out contributions to local church groups. They help neutralize the employer in union elections and strikes, allowing more victories while uniting unions with movements fighting for more affordable housing and environmental and climate justice as well as combating violence against people of color and women. As workers come to see the network of power relationships at work and in their communities, they become highly educated voters, not just new union members or members with better contracts. In this type of union campaign, a broader working-class resilience is built across an entire community.

If unions had actually invested in whole worker organizing—based on the workplace but not exclusively in it and not exclusively about its issues—and if their research had been based on a geographic power structure analysis of the labor market rather than a sophisticated but ultimately futile company-by-company study, we’d have higher union density today than we did in 2000, not less. And we’d have a union movement both centered in and anchoring a broader, more powerful social movement.

The bad news is that we wasted a decade. The good news is that it’s never too late to start doing the work we must. There simply are no shortcuts. n

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