The labor movement demands constant, often thankless struggle, but its fortunes are cyclical. The history of the movement is a history of unceasing endurance rewarded by moments of sudden extraordinary transformation, followed by long, bitter retreats. Such moments happened in the 1830s, in the 1870s and the 1880s, before World War I, in the 1930s, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Each episode was marked by the efflorescence of new organizations, the development of new tactics, the participation of new workers in new industries—and then, eventually, defeat. As Eugene Debs observed of this pattern in 1904:
Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but, notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known.
It’s been clear since the early 1980s that we’re going through a rough period, but, as Debs recalls for us, the cyclical pattern of working-class history offers a source of comfort. The long view allows organizers to remind one another that down does not mean out—that we’ve been here before and come back from it, and not just once but many times. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve raised my hand in a union meeting and relayed the experience of union militants in the 1920s, who saw their comrades arrested and fired, witnessed their organizations smashed and destroyed, and watched their workmates turn against them. How useful a reminder: That was the last period when union density was as low as now, or when inequality was as great. If militants in the 1920s had not persisted, even as they were marked as pariahs in their shops, the heroic 1930s would never have come about.
And yet, while it has seemed like a good axiom that this dynamic is internal to the pattern of capitalist economic development, and will live as long as capitalism does, no historical cycle lasts forever. Moreover, our own period of defeat is now much longer and arguably more profound than any of its prequels. At some point, confidence based in historical memory starts to turn into a kind of quasi-mystical faith. It’s one thing to believe that history has a pulse-like pattern; it’s another to cling to a corpse after it has given up the ghost.
Now, with Janus v. American Federation State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Supreme Court may have pushed this tension to its historical breaking point. In a decision that has proved even worse than expected, the Court has finally dealt public-sector unions the crippling blow that conservative groups have long been pushing, and that labor activists have long feared: It has determined that public employees are no longer required to pay any fees for union representation, and, in the process, has likely deprived unions of many thousands of members and millions of dollars. Moreover, the Court didn’t stop there. Its decision also raises the bar for union membership by turning it, for the first time, into something workers must opt into, rather than giving them the choice to opt out. And, in his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito further invites a challenge to the very concept of exclusive representation by a single union in a given workplace—the bedrock of American labor law. This appears to be an offer to overrule the 1935 Wagner Act.