In Need of Lifeline, Labor Must Rethink its History and Future

Once again labor leaders are debating new approaches to organizing. Service Employee International Union President Andy Stein has proposed the consolidation of existing unions to avoid jurisdictional warfare and to give member unions more of an incentive to organize. Yet the continuing crisis of labor even in the wake of Sweeney's decades-long efforts invites a far more radical question: What are unions for? Business leaders and union leaders have different takes on this question, but the traditional responses from each side may be in need of re-examination.

Many business leaders and their right-wing allies regard unions as obsolete, a relic of an outdated class war. Workers counter that they're regularly subjected to unfair or predatory practices, and believe those practices can be stopped. Why unions have been unable to tap these grievances is a subject that goes far beyond organizational tactics.


The perspective that many union leaders have on labor may be as self-deluding as the right's confidence that unions are obsolete. They argue that unions are dying solely because corporate employers and right-wing governments have decided they no longer need unions and have been willing to take any steps necessary, legal or not, to destroy them.

This perspective surely has elements of truth, but as North Berwick labor organizer and labor scholar Peter Kellman points out in "Divided We Fall" (the Apex Press), unions have often confronted concerted corporate and government opposition and on occasion have achieved spectacular success.

They have been far more successful when they deeply valued and expressed working-class solidarity. Nor is such solidarity always a long bygone dream. Kellman reminds us that at the same time workers at International Paper were losing the most bitter strike in Maine history, workers at West Virginia's Pittston Coal company took on the corporation and won. These United Mine Worker members were heirs of a union tradition going back to John L. Lewis, the legendary president of the UMW in the 1930's and a founder of the militant Congress of Industrial Organization. Like Lewis' tactics of an earlier era, they relied on sitdown strikes to rally community support. In addition, the union leadership, elected directly by its members, involved workers all over the country in the strike.

In the IP strike at Jay, however, the national union leadership was unwilling to encourage sympathy strikes at other IP facilities or a boycott of IP products for fear of alienating a company with whom it still had contracts at other locations. Yet as Kellman points out, that is like letting a shark bite off your arm in the hopes it won't take the rest of you later. Most U.S. corporations have amply demonstrated that their appetites are insatiable.


Ever since the New Deal days, labor has become accustomed to relying on the kindness of strangers to achieve its mission. It counts on the government to hold free and fair union representation elections, but these elections are loaded against workers from the start. Even when corporations obey the literal letter of the law, they are free to advance the company message on company time. Workers are obligated to attend. Worse still, current interpretations of U.S. labor law make the hiring of so-called replacement workers entirely legal. The clear implication is that the right to strike is at best a legal nicety. It is no more than the right to quit one's job.

The government has played a significant role in kicking labor in the teeth. The 1947 Taft Hartley Law allows states to ban union shops, an option that many Southern states have adopted. Even worse, it has outlawed sympathy strikes, even though U.S. corporations enjoy the right to use other branch plants to produce goods in striking plants, thereby whipsawing workers. Taft Hartley also takes control of union pension funds from unions. It thereby deprives them of another right that corporations enjoy, the right to deploy their capital to advance their own economic and political ends.

Kellman reminds us that U.S. corporations enjoy rights of personhood denied to workers in the workplace. They benefit from limited liability under which their investors can lose no more than the value of their initial investment no matter how socially and ecologically destructive their acts. Workers have only the right to quit.

To Kellman's point, I would add that the right to quit itself amounts to very little in large measure because our economy has almost always operated at far short of full employment. Our Federal Reserve System, historically far more responsive to business than labor interests, can be counted on to worry more about tight labor markets and wage growth than about unemployment.


Labor needs a renewed and reinvigorated democratic ideal. Kellman recognizes that the most enduring forms of worker solidarity are not imposed but are rather the product of democratic debate among workers themselves. Debate is necessary both to energize workers and to expose the limits to prevailing policies and agendas. Unions can fall prey not merely to self-defeating forms of collaboration with management but also to internal discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. They can build community support most effectively when they are democratic, nondiscriminatory and articulate demands that advance broad community needs.

Is this a Marxist vision? Hardly. Listen to these words from a State of the Union address by the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president: "Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and will probably be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of the community exists within that relationship."

A democratic labor movement does not mean government management of the workplace. Rather it is an assertion by workers of their right to a free expression and a voice in the day-to-day union and corporate affairs. There is ample evidence that workers still want this, and evidence that businesses can be at least as productive when they treat workers fairly. Toward this end, the kind of civil disobedience that characterized the civil rights movement - including boycotts and sympathy strikes - remains both right and appropriate.

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