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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Labor and Dems Must ‘Ripen the Times’

Brad Plumer’s Wonkblog post, “Do private-sector unions still have a future in the U.S.?” addresses a question of enormous importance, not only for the union movement and the nation, but also for the Democratic Party. Plumer riffs on Rich Yeselson’s even wonkier essay, “Fortress Unionism” in the journal Democracy, and distills a few key points.
Regarding the Taft-Hartley Act’s effect on union power, Plumer notes: “Yeselson offers a slightly recast argument here, suggesting that the blizzard of new legal restrictions “bureaucratized labor unions,” by forcing them to lawyer up and “drain[ing] the energy and creativity out of the members and their rank-and-file leadership.”
Plumer notes Yeselson’s critique of Labor’s “creative campaigns to organize workers in fresh territory,” and explains:

Some of these campaigns were quite successful on a small scale — like SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” push. But Yeselson, who worked on many of these efforts, argues that they simply haven’t been enough to stop labor’s overall decline. One reason, he notes, is that it’s simply much harder to organize on a large scale today. When the UAW organized its famous sit-down strike in GM’s Flint plant in 1937, there were 47,000 workers at stake. A single Wal-Mart store today might yield about 300 workers.

Plumer takes a look at labor organizing history in the U.S. and other developed nations and comes to a disturbing conclusion:

Organized labor tends to expand only at rare points in history, so unions should hunker down and wait for that moment to come along. Labor economist Richard Freeman has argued that labor unions in advanced nations tend to follow a similar pattern. They’ve only grown during a few rare “spurts” of social upheaval — World War I, the Depression, World War II. But the rest of the time, they usually wilt….
As such, Yeselson argues, it’s unlikely that incremental organizing pushes can break this long-standing pattern. Instead, he argues, unions should work to shore up their existing strengths: Bolster their locals; organize only where they’re already strong; invest in “alt-labor” campaigns for non-union workers. And then… they should wait for another one of these “spurts” to come along.
“Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough,” Yeselson advises. “When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it.” The big question, of course, is what that moment of social upheaval might look like — or whether anything like the worker unrest in the 1930s is even possible today.

Plumer adds that “certain changes to labor law could at least slow that inexorable erosion of union density — even if they can’t stop it entirely.” However, he adds that “Favorable labor law only passes when unions are already strong — and rarely happens otherwise. He cites Dems’ failure to pass card check in 2009 when they had big majorities, intimidated as they were by the filibuster. He concludes, “if the goal is to hope that big changes to labor law will save unions, that could be a very long wait.”
The future of the labor movement and the Democratic party are inextricably intertwined. When one is sick, the other suffers and neither will prosper unless both are in good health. That’s why unions must stay deeply involved in politics and the Democrats must push harder for labor reforms that can strengthen the ability of workers to organize their power into trade unions. The bleak, unacceptable alternative is continued gridlock.
I appreciate the data mining done by Yeselson, Plumer and all political and social science writers. There are important lessons we must learn in historical patterns. At the same time, however, let’s not allow history to make a hostage of hope. Sometimes a creative tweak can make a failed strategy viable.
Perhaps it’s premature to judge recent experimental labor organizing techniques a failure. If the ones that have been fully tried have failed thus far, then lesson learned. To the extent that they haven’t been fully explored, there may be some room for future successes. Surely there is always room for innovative organizing ideas and more creative forms of membership.
As for waiting for the most opportune moment to organize, certainly unions will be alert and move decisively when such a time ripens. But, like the savvy civil rights leader Dorothy Height once said, “When the times aren’t ripe, you have to ripen the times” — which is damn good advice for any progressive movement.

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