The Will to Change

Nissan workers organizing in Mississippi

The depth of labor’s crisis has now been officially acknowledged by Richard Trumka.

That is a good thing.

All of us , inside and outside the AFL-CIO, should welcome the coming discussions leading up to the AFL-CIO convention later this year.

The space to discuss and debate strategy on how to best revitalize, invigorate, and most of important of all save the labor movement has now been expanded. Hopefully this will open the door to those who decline to comment, discuss, or even acknowledge labor’s fight for survival out of a perceived need to “circle the wagons” so as not to feed into anti-union rhetoric.

While we should carry out this type of discussion with the intended goal of strengthening workers in as open of a way as possible, it should be acknowledged that many times discussions of “change” are often accompanied by rhetorical attacks on leaders of our movement from self-serving perennial critics. This has often led to a tendency of keeping discussions of deeper questions of strategy behind closed doors.

Much of the discussion seems to center around exploring “new models” and strategies that seek to make labor relevant to a broader spectrum of working people including those who are either excluded from traditional collective bargaining or who choose to organize in non-union organizational forms like the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

Bringing in workers that expand a historically limited vision of the labor movement is absolutely essential, but we must resist the urge to seek a path of least resistance as a substitute for developing and deepening proven strategies of breaking and neutralizing employer resistance in the private sector.

Unite Here Campaigns for a fair Election Process at Station Casinos in Las Vegas

Large scale comprehensive campaigns that take on employer intimidation with smart, strategic tactics have not been given a chance to prove their viability to turn around labor’s fortunes because for the most part the overwhelming majority of the labor movement has not even been employing an organizing strategy of any sort. Before people get their shorts in a bunch and become reflexively defensive of their individual unions, if you are getting mad I am probably not talking about your union.

The fact is that far too many Internationals, local unions, joint councils, districts, grand lodges, and other types of labor bodies have no program in place to grow much less to to assist their affiliates  in developing and carrying out a plan. As I said before, I view having the political will to overcome this lethargic approach in the midst of such a crisis as the paramount challenge to leaders contemplating a way out of this mess. The latest new plan to win means nothing if it sits in the “to be read” box of blast faxes regularly sent out to mid and lower level union officers around the country.

Creating the resources necessary to carry out large scale private sector campaigns is another area that requires challenging longstanding structures and consciousness that does not correspond to today’s reality. The questions of restructuring and mergers at all levels of the labor movement is a question that cannot be ignored. This has been a thorny subject in every debate because it means challenging establish structures that will resist attempts to consolidate where that means loss of positions and in many cases salaries.

The main question facing us now is do we have the courage to honestly look at ourselves and make the changes necessary to survive and grow? While we should always be expanding the labor movement to be the voice of all workers, we should remember that  there are still millions of workers who remain in industries that are not excluded from traditional collective bargaining who would join a union the moment they were given the opportunity. These workers have the right to organize and join a union under the law, but in fact are prevented from exercising any of the freedoms that they are supposedly guaranteed due to rampant employer intimidation and labor law that has no mechanism of enforcement worth talking about. They cannot be forgotten in this process.We can’t let them down. 

Street Heat is a a union activist in the south, He blogs at It’s About Power Stupid! Thinking Strategically About Labor’s Survival, where this post originally appeared.

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