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Organized labor is paralyzed at precisely the time when collective action is needed most. Since the election of Donald Trump, most unions have done little more than protect their own jurisdictions, offering no guidance on what must be done during the pandemic.
Yet the spread of Covid-19 and its economic fallout have created an opening for labor to lead a mass movement. These events have shown how little remains of the social safety net the working class helped build nearly a century ago. Unions can now push the country toward a Third Reconstruction, an idea developed by several writers, most notably the historian Manning Marable. The term invokes both the Reconstruction era after the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a Second Reconstruction. While weaker than in the past, trade unions are still among the few groups with enough resources to advance a transformation that addresses not just racial injustice but also economic inequity, environmental catastrophe, and imperialism. Calling this effort a reconstruction is not overstating the case: Unless something dramatic is undertaken, the aftermath of Covid-19 will be economic and social collapse.
To bring about a Third Reconstruction, there are five areas where labor needs to come together and fight.
First, unions need to unite to eradicate all forms of social Darwinism, the debunked 19th century view that the rich are rich because they are superior. The Trump administration and its minions are openly suggesting sacrificing hundreds of thousands of people—disproportionately from First Nations, Latinx, and black communities—to save capitalism. Texas’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, for instance, said seniors should be prepared to die in order to get the economy back in gear. To sustain communities and challenge social Darwinism, unions should build networks of support, such as mutual aid groups among members and their families and friends. By modeling an alternative vision to the barbaric world of social Darwinism, organized labor can help defeat this racist, classist scourge.
There is another concern: In the aftermath of the pandemic, there will be serious psychological and emotional injury brought on by the long period of isolation, anxiety, and fear. Unions and other people’s organizations should anticipate widespread post-traumatic stress, and mutual aid may help to mitigate some of this long-term pain.
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Second, labor must recognize that the crisis is not just about trade union members. There have been endless debates within organized labor over whether the movement should attempt to represent the entire working class or only dues-paying members. Those debates must end. Unions need to internalize the goals of what is known as bargaining for the common good, whereby they address issues facing the larger community. The Chicago Teachers Union modeled this during its 2012 strike, when the teachers made the needs of their students central to their demands. National Nurses United has been at the front lines from the beginning of this crisis—not only with its calls for personal protective equipment for medical personnel but also in highlighting the dangers of irresponsibly reopening the economy. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has been fighting to keep its members in the meatpacking and retail industries safe and is also speaking out on behalf of the health of shoppers.
Unions should, of course, defend the health plans that they have, but they must also insist that everyone has a right to health care. This will have to be both a local and national struggle that necessitates building coalitions. And since at least 20 percent of the workforce is now jobless, the need for that health care to be free has become even more urgent.
Third, unions must lead a coalition that opposes austerity. For years, neoliberal economic policy has been strangling the public sector. If nothing else, this crisis demonstrates the result: People are left to fend for themselves. Congressional Republicans are refusing to provide additional assistance to the growing numbers of the unemployed, and in a move that would make even the most cynical among us blush, they are also seeking to destroy the US Postal Service. The USPS is a critical public good at all times, but it’s especially vital during a pandemic. Wherever there is potential profit, the proponents of neoliberalism will appear like roaches scurrying around a kitchen at night. Unions must beat back the infestation and work to reenergize the public sector.
Fourth, unions must recognize the urgent need for massive worker organizing done on a strategic basis. The greatest growth of organized labor in US history occurred during the Great Depression. Provide workers with a strategy for victory, and they will organize and join unions—even under adverse conditions. While there are semi-spontaneous eruptions underway in workplaces across this country, including at Amazon and meatpacking facilities, remaking the US economy will require a dramatically different scale. It’s a challenge that cannot be met by a handful of small organizations; it requires national unions. So why not launch a campaign to organize Walmart? How about an effort to organize the entire public sector in the South and the Southwest? In these cases, this would not be the work of only one or two unions. Rather, there needs to be national coordination that includes the work of so-called alt-labor, such as worker centers. To carry this out, much as in the 1930s, volunteers will need to enter workplaces to organize from the inside. Some of this is being done—as it was by leftists in the 1970s—but we must expand these efforts. There will surely be objections by some unions that the recession has reduced their war chests, but it is exactly in moments like these that workers need to be mobilized in creative ways.
Fifth, workers will be in a far better situation if unions support organizing the unemployed. As Michael Goldfield documents in his new and important work The Southern Key, organizing unemployed workers beginning in 1930 (led first and foremost by the Communist Party) was instrumental in building a labor renaissance. With at least 23 million people out of work, organizing the unemployed is more important than ever, and it must take various forms. Given the constraints imposed by Covid-19, social distancing will need to be factored in, but immediate relief, including food provision and eviction resistance, is crucial. Organized labor must also demand that the government provide longer-term assistance such as a guaranteed income. At the very least, unions should support the organizations already doing great work, like the Right to the City Alliance and Grassroots Global Justice.
This is a partial wish list, but for any of this to be realized, there needs to be a revolution within membership regarding its understanding of 21st century trade unionism. One of the assumptions that many leftists make is that what labor unions do (or do not do) is the result of good or poor leadership. While that is undoubtedly part of the equation, there also needs to be a critical mass of members who get that the old way of operating has failed and that a new approach is needed. The founder and first president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, said, “The essence of trade unionism is social uplift.” That idea must be at the center of organizing. Labor cannot just defend its dwindling membership; it must fight for a Third Reconstruction and become a movement unafraid of exposing the myths and horrors of the so-called American experiment.