Frances Fox Piven, the City University of New York sociologist best known for her work on poor people's movements (which led to unwanted attention as the bete noire of right-wing fulminator Glenn Beck), turned her attention last week to an oft-repeated question: "Can American labor recover?" Her short answer might be: Maybe (I hope so), but not on its own, and not without a push from outside.
For more than a century, Piven told an audience primarily of University of Chicago graduate students, most visions of the left revolved in some way around the unions and their power to organize the working class at work and in politics, thereby disciplining capitalists and supporting social democratic gains or the flimsy U.S. "safety net." At its high point after World War II until the 1970s, the unions created a "tacit social compact" with broadly shared benefits.
But the left, in and outside of unions, has also typically criticized unions and many of their leaders as too bureaucratic, oligarchic, stuffy; or too discriminatory against women, people of color, or workers in the secondary labor market. During the time of the social compact, despite support for some unions' support of the civil rights movement or other political insurgencies, she said, unions gradually became more distant from other popular movements and less of a movement itself.
"Still, it was an accomplishment," she said. 'For many working-class families, life got a lot better—a union, higher wages, security, dignity at work." But growing global competition triggered the barely contained desire of most executives to roll back unions and their gains.
Despite its loss of members and power, unions still can attack vulnerabilities in capitalism, such as a long supply chain open to disruption because of its reliance on just-in-time production and delivery. But the key to transforming labor lies not just in exploiting those weaknesses, but in building to a "mass strike moment" when hope and imagination expand, pushing people to think beyond calculations of monetary gains and losses.
"Maybe the mass strike moment will well up outside the labor movement and incorporate it," Piven said. "I hope so, because I think the future of the labor movement depends on it."
At the moment, she sees the Occupy movement as one possible transformative force and recommends that Occupy work with labor but "on its own terms, not labor's terms." Young people and poor people in secondary jobs might also create movement energy, including in such institutions as universities, which have gained much economic importance. Or there could be a "surge from below" in labor unions themselves.
"The labor movement is not a movement," Piven says, "but a constellation of organized interest groups." She quickly added, "Labor is one of my favorites... Labor can rebuild, but not with the same leaders and structures... Without pressure from below and from outside, I don't think unions can save themselves."
With changes in work, the labor movement may need "new forms of solidarity," Piven says, and an approach to politics willing to threaten even supposed allies, like President Obama, with the loss of his majority if labor hopes to win policy changes.
A self-described "radical democrat," Piven continues to see disruptive surges by the dispossessed as the key to incremental but meaningful change.
"I just don't know [if a return to the post-World War II compact is the best we can hope for]," she said in response to a questioner. "Do you know the future? I take it one step at a time and whatever can win. I don't worry about co-optation; with co-optation you win. I'm not a revolutionary either. A revolution could be barbaric, brutal, bloody, and I have no way of knowing what would happen. It takes fighting like hell to make step-by-step reform. And it takes extraordinary courage to persevere until there's reform."