Bringing Labor Back:

Labor-management partnerships will not revive the union movement.

By Chris Maisano. Reposted from Jacobin Magazine.

[ed.note- we encourage responses to this piece and the prior post, First Stop the Self Flagellation]

Workers occupy a factory in the 1937 Flint Sit Down Strike. Library of Congeress

Workers occupy a factory in the 1937 Flint Sit Down Strike. Library of Congress

As late as 2008, it was not unreasonable to think that the stars were aligning for a long-awaited revitalization of the US labor movement. The financial crisis focused popular anger on the Wall Street financiers whose speculative activities brought the global economy to the brink of collapse. The election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress raised labor’s hopes for the passage of an economic recovery program and long-sought labor law reforms.

And it seemed as if workers themselves were finally willing to take action against the decades-long trend of increasing corporate power and inequality. The occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago by a militant United Electrical Workers local — an action that drew approving notice from the president-elect and much of the public — electrified labor’s ranks and seemed to echo President Franklin Roosevelt’s support for unionization and collective bargaining during the New Deal.

This appeared to be the most favorable set of circumstances for the US labor movement in decades, and the first significant hope for revitalization since the successful Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997.

It didn’t happen. Labor law reform was sidelined in favor of health care reform, and the Republicans rolled up big electoral wins at all levels in 2010 and 2014. Despite widespread popular anger at the multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts, the financial sector has come out of the crisis stronger, and corporate profits are at record levels. Economic inequality has continued its upward path.

Fast food and retail workers have shown a new willingness to protest and engage in collective action, and their efforts have spurred minimum-wage increases in a number of states and cities. Still, private-sector unionization continues to move toward total collapse. And in the public sector, the labor movement’s last stronghold, state-level attacks on collective-bargaining rights and anti-union cases in the judicial system have set the stage for a decisive offensive against organized working-class power.

The writing is on the wall: unions as we have known them since the 1930s are in their terminal stage, and likely have only a short time left as a social institution of any major political significance. The private sector is essentially union-free, and public-sector unions don’t have the capacity to defend themselves against legislative and judicial assaults, even in states that are supposedly union strongholds (see Wisconsin and Michigan).

Anti-union forces can taste the blood in the water, and their offensive is only getting broader. Between efforts to pass right-to-work laws at the state and local levels and legal challenges like Harris v. Quinn and Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the legal-institutional basis of US trade unions is being dismantled. And once that’s lost, it will probably be impossible to bring unions back as they were before.

For the last two decades, Thomas Geoghegan has been one of the most astute chroniclers of the labor movement’s excruciating decline. His first book, Which Side Are You On?, is a classic — unique among its peers for the liveliness of its prose, its focus on the lives of the rank-and-file, and its honesty about the many shortcomings of unions and their leaders.

As a lawyer who cut his teeth defending dissident members of the United Mine Workers and the Teamsters as well as the venerable Association for Union Democracy, Geoghegan has an intimate understanding of how unions have often failed to adequately represent their members and live up to their promise.

His dissatisfaction may have prompted him to look overseas. His last book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent, is a paean to the European welfare states. And his new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us, faces up to the grim realities confronting unions and makes the case for a US labor movement of a new type, one that eschews the traditional models of unionization and collective bargaining and takes its cues from counterparts abroad.

Read the remainder here:




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