by David Kaib
Harold Meyerson has a substantial and important piece (“If Labor Dies, What’s Next?”) surveying the problems of the union movement, and the problems of a liberalism facing a disappearing union movement, in the Prospect. It’s well timed, given the inspiring Chicago Teachers’ Union strike that happening as I type this. Meyerson notes, as he has in the past, a pessimism among unnamed leaders of in the movement – although it seems clear this includes top people at SEIU (see below)
Coming on the heels of the failure of the Democratic Congress of 2009–2010 to amend the National Labor Relations Act so that private–sector workers wouldn’t risk their jobs by forming a union, the Midwestern setbacks struck a growing number of commentators as labor’s death knell. Losing jobs as technology transformed workplaces, losing both jobs and middle-class wages as globalization transformed the economy, and blocked by statute and employer opposition from expanding—unions, some concluded, were history.
Within the labor movement, a number of leaders and activists quietly shared the same pessimism. They had invested in organizing with little to show for it. They had invested in politics but found that the Democrats they’d helped elect could not—or worse, would not—come to their aid. In 2008, they had seen the entire edifice of deregulated capitalism totter and almost collapse, plunging the nation into its deepest and most intractable recession since the 1930s. But unlike the ’30s, when workers flocked to unions, the current recession has only intensified labor’s downward spiral and business’s ascent. “What would it take for labor to come back?” one senior union staffer asked earlier this year. “This was the crisis we were waiting for, and it didn’t do it.”
But has the investment in organizing been substantive or symbolic? I think it’s been real for some unions, but for the union movement as a whole it hasn’t been the case. In part this is because in a time when union membership has been declining for over a generation, there is declining funds, and these are going towards electing Democrats who have repeatedly failed to bring about labor law reform that (supposedly) justifies these expenditures. As Meyerson notes later:
In 2008, SEIU spent more than $60 million in its campaign for Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. This year, labor is likely to spend about $400 million on the election.
That’s a lot of money–money that isn’t being used to organize. Whether unions should be involved in electoral politics isn’t the issue –it’s the relative magnitude of the resources involved. I simply doubt that most are spending anywhere near as much on organizing as they are on elections. Again, SEIU is instructive.
In an even more radical move away from organizing workers, SEIU last year suspended its unionization drives and instead invested tens of millions of dollars in community–organizing projects in 17 cities. The union hoped to create a massive network of minority voters that could move American politics leftward, but the campaign proved largely unsuccessful.
But there are examples where individual unions have seen increases, both in membership and even more crucially to my mind, in density. Some are discussed in the piece. And there are examples of political strategies that have seen great success as well – Meyerson discusses the role of Miguel Contreras, of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and Madeline Janis of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). The activities of LAANE are particularly important because they have successfully challenged the notion that many corporations are getting returns based simply on “the market”.
Janis’s thesis was that businesses that operate on government-owned or -assisted properties or that have government contracts should repay the city by bettering the lives of the workers they employ and the communities in which they operate. LAANE’s first major victory was persuading the city council to require cleaning companies with which it had contracts to pay their workers a living wage—a sum several dollars higher than California’s minimum wage (or a bit lower than that if they provided their workers with health coverage). Over the years, the scope of such ordinances was broadened to encompass card-check unionization at hotels and sports arenas that received redevelopment funds; local-hiring requirements for developers of major projects; and clean-air standards for trucks at the Port of Los Angeles. Some of these ordinances have served as models for living-wage and other laws in more than 140 other cities. “A bank that makes an investment wants a return for its money, and so does the public,” Janis says. “The returns to the public should include good jobs, child-care centers, cleaner air, affordable housing.”
Ultimately, I’m not as pessimistic as some of Meyerson’s sources are about what’s possible, but I do fear the impact of that view. Labor law change is important (and for many workers who aren’t covered under federal labor law, could be achieved at the state level where that’s possible, even without scrapping the NLRB, one of the options discussed in the piece.) But that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to move forward.
One last point: An idea Meyerson neglects is the idea of making labor organizing a civil right, which it should be noted, could also be done at the state level for those not currently covered by federal labor law. That should definitely be part of this conversation.
David Kaib is a political scientist who blogs at Notes on a Theory, where this post originally appeared.