by Street Heat
Rather than scaling back and holing up in our strongholds as advocated in Rich Yeselon’s “Fortress Unionism“, labor should be focused on tearing down the barriers obstructing workers ability to organize in whatever form that is.
Rather than curling up in the fetal position hoping to survive the body blows, labor should launch broad campaigns that employ tactics aimed at pushing back on or circumventing exclusion from the right to bargain a contract and employer intimidation.
“Fortress Unionism” gives readers a crash course on the history of labor’s decline from it’s explosive growth in the 30’s and the powerful upsurge of offensive strikes and organizing that ensued in the postwar period. Fear of labor’s power provoked a swift and unyielding push to pass the Taft-Hartley Act which provided the seeds of labor’s slide towards conservatism, capitulation to reactionary politics, stagnation and eventual decline. “Fortress Unionism’s other great strength is the sobriety with which Yeselson looks at labor’s dire straights and how deep and fundamentally existential this crisis is.
Yeselson moves on to outline a few main fundamentals of what he calls “Fortress Unionism”:
Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies.
Strengthen existing union locals.
Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds?
Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations.
Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America.
The last action the Yeselson proposes we carry out? :
And then…wait. Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough. When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it.
I encourage people to take the time to read Yeselson’s piece in it’s entirety. The proposal made is one that flows from a a deep analysis and a sober critique of labor’s strategic weaknesses. In the end though, Fortress Unionism’s proposals would not only not aid in labor surviving it’s crisis, it would likely result exacerbating labor’s decline .
(Point of clarity: I should have been more explicit here about what parts of Yeselson’s piece I agree with. I basically agree with him on his proposals around ALT-Labor, strengthening local unions, and conceptually around building alliances with progressives. I do however not agree we should shrink into the background though to allow the progressives to be in the spotlight.)
“Fortress Unionism” is based on the premise that the root cause of why we cannot turn labor’s fortunes around is that even with the development of innovative tactics aimed at organizing large swaths of workers, labor cannot organize workers in large enough numbers for it to stop its decline and grow. Yeselson asserts that currently workers do not want to be organized and that we should protect our organizations where we have density and power and hold on to what we have until workers decide they want to be in unions again. This is where we part ways.
I have no idea what data Yeselson uses to back up this assertion that workers are “uninterested” in joining unions. I can only say that polling consistently indicates that workers would join unions if given an opportunity with the main obstacles being fear of management retaliation and/or exclusion from the NLRA. I also know for a fact that my union receives several calls a week of inquiries about how to join the union. The chief reason we never hear back from these workers is fear and disillusionment in the process of organizing under a gutted NLRA, not lack of interest. Workers want to improve their lives or in many cases be able to hold on to what they have. Our dilemma is that labor lacks the capacity and a viable strategy that could lead to organizing on the scale necessary to prove to workers that they can win improvements without losing their jobs.
Our metric for success going forward should be our ability to find a path to worker organization and our ability to break through the two primary barriers to it, employer intimidation and broken labor law. Where we cannot immediately implement a campaign that results in a contract at a given employer, labor must create vehicles for those workers to begin organizing around their issues and create a way for them to join the labor movement immediately. This may be through the formation of affiliated associations, minority union organizing committees, or opening the door wholesale to workers joining existing unions as associate members and assisting them in building organizations at work labor can and must creatively look at ways to break out of the self imposed limitations of only allowing workers to join their unions once they have a contract.
Yeselson’s critique of comprehensive campaigns has merit insofar that they have not resulted in organizing breakthroughs on sufficient scale that would stem labor’s hemorrhaging of members. I find it hard to reject comprehensive campaigns when the overwhelming majority of unions have failed to employ them as a strategy or much less have any sort of coherent strategy to tackle their respective jurisdictions. It would be helpful if we were critiquing labor as a whole acknowledging its crisis and operating at full throttle to employ every tactic at its disposal to organize, but that is not the case.Given that comprehensive campaigns have not been dis-proven in their efficacy and that there is still a possibility and need to organize workers who are not excluded from the NLRA, comprehensive campaigns still have their place as one weapon in labor’s arsenal.
Yeselson is correct that worker organization only grows in a qualitative “leaps” in periods of increased social struggle and that it is these types of struggles that generate pro-worker reforms. The problem is that increased and sustained struggle by workers has never been spontaneous. The upheavals of the 1930s and post war period were the product of intense long-term organizing both on the shop floor and in the streets by socialists, communists and other radicals of various stripes . With the formation of the CIO a vehicle was created that opened the floodgates allowing workers to form permanent organizations by the tens of thousands. Workers in the 1930’s didn’t just spontaneously “rise up” and nor will they now or in the future.
The fundamental problem with “fortresses” is that while they may be useful to establish and hold territory, they can also prove to be deathtraps for ones forces if they are not supplemented by a broader strategy. If encircled, fortresses allow the enemy the luxury of launching sustained attacks on a fixed position and eventually wearing down the defenses.
This analogy holds true with “Fortress Unionism”. Retreating to the increasingly small number of cities or companies where labor has enough density to hold sway means abdicating entire regions of the country and virtually the entire service economy. The result will be retreating from some of the most innovative organizing currently taking place as well as allowing our enemies to further strengthen their own “fortresses” from which to attack working people ie. low density cities, states, and industries and continue the “War on Workers” that began in Wisconsin. These areas of relative strength should instead be used as “bases” from which labor launches “attacks” on the fortresses of the enemy and to strengthen and assist forces who are trapped “behind enemy lines”.
Workers want to to find a way to improve their lives now more than ever. It is our duty as strategists and organizers to assist them in finding a way to break through the obstacles preventing them from self organizing, not to retreat out of a false sense of self preservation. There is no other option but to find a way to fight. The alternative is defeat.
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