Seeds of a New Labor Movement ?

Harold Meyerson.

Mother Jones, American labor activist.

Mother Jones, American labor activist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sit down and read. Prepare yourself for the coming battles.  Mother Jones.


DSA Honorary Chair Harold Meyerson has written the following important long form piece on the US. Labor Movement for the American Prospect. This piece merits discussion.


“The path to collective bargaining has been shut down in the United States,” says Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and head of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Committee. Where Rolf differs from most of his colleagues is in his belief that collective bargaining—at least, as the nation has known it for the past 80 years—is not coming back. In a paper he distributed to his colleagues in 2012 and in commentaries he wrote for several magazines (including this one), he argued that unions should acknowledge their impending demise—at least in the form that dates to the Wagner Act—and focus their energies and resources on incubating new institutions that can better address workers’ concerns. “The once powerful industrial labor unions that built the mid-century American middle class are in a deep crisis and are no longer able to protect the interests of American workers with the scale and power necessary to reverse contemporary economic trends,” he wrote in his paper. “The strategy and tactics that we’ve pursued since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendments [which narrowed the ground rules under which unions may operate] are out of date and have demonstrably failed to produce lasting economic power for workers. We must look to the future and invest our resources in new organizational models that respond to our contemporary economy and the needs of today’s workers.”

This October, with funding from his local, from the national SEIU, and from several liberal foundations, Rolf will unveil The Workers Lab, housed at the Roosevelt Institute in New York. The center will study and, in time, invest in organizations that, in Rolf’s words, “have the potential to build economic power for workers, at scale, and to sustain themselves financially.” Whatever those organizations may be, they won’t be unions—at least, not unions as they currently exist…

Indeed, SEIU’s nationwide campaign to win fast-food workers a contract with such giant corporations as McDonald’s and Burger King has yet to add a single worker to its ranks. That can’t happen unless those corporations recognize the union and sign a collective bargaining agreement with it, a happy ending that some union strategists can’t quite envision ever coming to pass. What the campaign has accomplished is to have highlighted the low pay and arbitrary work schedules of millions of workers, which in turn has led a growing number of liberal cities and states to enact minimum wage hikes—though none as far-reaching as Seattle’s—and paid sick day laws.

The disjuncture between unions’ ability to advocate for workers in the political arena (though only where the center-left governs) and their inability to augment their shrinking ranks with new members cannot continue indefinitely, however. It takes the resources of unions like SEIU and federations like the AFL-CIO to elect public officials who will respond to workers’ concerns, just as it takes those resources to mobilize workers’ demonstrations of their concerns.

“SEIU is making a huge investment with no clear sense that it will ever be able to claim a fast-food worker as a member. How long can that be a sustainable model?”


DSA Honorary Chair Harold Meyerson  is an editor of the American Prospect.


One Response

  1. I am impressed with Mr. Rolf’s contributions to the labor movement but I do believe that he is a little too idolized by the author. Most of his victories have been legislative ones that require no more organizing ability than a campaign manager. He hasn’t built an organizing drive from the bottom up, into a local democratic union, not does he want to. What he fails to remember is that it’s this kind of thinking about “too much democracy” that has turned the AFL-CIO into the fastest shrinking labor movement in the world. And he thinks more of this kind of top-down organizing is going to get us out of this hole? The only way his style of organizing would work is if everyone became a public employee. You are not going to legislate everyone into unions. To turn around the labor movement you have to do just the opposite of the AFL-CIO and you have to let the members run the union, all the way to the top officers. More democratic rights will bring a broader solution to the problems of working people.
    I don’t know what kind of democratic structure the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Taxi Workers Alliance have but they at least have meeting with their members as well as service their needs. I’m also not sure about the group, Working America, but if these groups are not allowing member to approve or disapprove of their actions, then they will fail along with the AFL-CIO.
    Mr. Rolf’s incubator idea is a new approach but if he is only got undemocratic eggs to hatch than I feel it to is doomed to the dust bin of history, just like every other attempt at re-inventing business unionism.
    Community-based and run, organizing committees which serve to teach workers how democratic organizing can help them solve their problems, are real and they are possible in the 21st Century. The CIO was a growing and viable rank and file run organization until the 50’s. That’s when the AFL merged with them and they began to purge the “communist” from the unions. That’s when “business-unionism” was born and the American Labor Movement started to die. Those who choose to ignore the lessons of history are doomed to re-live them!

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