GETTING DENSE AGAIN

A week ago, TPMCafe opened its House of Labor, a collaborative blog on the future of the Labor Movement with the likes of Nathan Newman, Bill Fletcher, and Jo-Ann Mort, and the discussion has remained unusually articulate, informed, and relevant ever since. Over the past few days the contributors have been debating the organizing agenda of the Change to Win Coalition (now chaired by Anna Burger), a topic on which there’s been all-too little discussion in the blogosphere and the media in general.

Tuesday Bill Fletcher considered a letter from Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger making the case that the AFL-CIO under Sweeney has done the best it could under the circumstances – a position Fletcher, like me, rejects – and that those circumstances deserve a more serious examination in this debate. Fletcher writes that

His argument is that the workforce has jumped in size dramatically and events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks (and other problems such as deindustrialization) have been devastating to organized labor. These issues, he asserts, are not being discussed. He is basically right: they are not being discussed in any serious way. Further, he asks what percentage of the workforce should we be trying to organize. What is interesting about this question is that i cannot remember anyone EVER attempting to answer it. The implicit question here is what percentage of the workforce needs to be organized such that there is a QUALITATIVE improvement in the power relation between labor and capital…What has largely been missing from the debate, as i asserted in an earlier blog, is a real analysis of the objective conditions facing workers generally and unions specifically. It is, for instance, very unclear in the debates what people actually mean by “power” for workers outside of bargaining power…while the debate has focused on the AFL-CIO, the reality is that it is the individual unions that have the major resources AND RESPONSIBILITY for organizing, yet this seems to have been largely ignored in most of the discussion.

Yesterday, Nathan Newman took up Bill Fletcher’s challenge to engage with Buffenbarger’s argument, agreeing that we need better ways to evaluate where we stand and how to get back on track than just comparing density percentages. One key, he suggests, is density within industries, and a more promising approach to building density is what distinguishes the Change to Win dissidents from the team that Buffenbarger is defending. He cites a piece from Justice for Janitors head Stephen Lerner which, as he summarizes

Lerner first argued that the key was dramatic comprehensive organizing, not incremental work by unions…He laid out the argument for consolidation around sectors where such strategic organizing would have the resources to make dramatic changes…He specifically argued that there is a critical point where the combination of density and militant action by unions makes employer opposition too costly; that is the point where employer resistance fades and unions make dramatic gains in a sector..The problem was that most unions were too diffuse in their organizing to achieve that critical mass in any particular sector, so they made small organizing gains that failed to counterbalance other losses. And he argued that unions had failed to grapple with changes in the global economy that made these diffuse organizing efforts even less effective…his steps to rebuilding the labor movement involved both a social vision and reorganization of the union structures…The key, he argued, was to exponentially expand the resources spent on organizing, not incrementally but in dramatic ways. In a sense, Lerner completely agreed with Buffenbarger that the problem was not in the AFL-CIO itself but in the international unions responsible for organizing…The solution was to set concrete goals…with a whole range of other resource and political commitments, from achieving legalization for undocumented immigrants to punishing anti-worker companies as examples to other employers.

While criticizing Lerner’s lack of emphasis on union democracy or racial equality, Nathan argues that the broad strategy he laid out was right then, and that the Change to Win unions are right to push the same one three years later.

Jo-Ann Mort echoes Nathan’s argument that the Change to Win approach to building density offers more hope of reversing the decline in union membership, and she suggests that that decline has brought us so far down that Buffenbarger’s question of “how much is enough” becomes an academic one:

SEIU and Unite-HERE, to name two unions, have strategies, it seems to me, on how to build critical mass in key industries and therefore increase bargaining power. These unions have even been willing to trade members in a particular industry so that their membership is more homogenous, and they can build strength within a certain industry or company. Sectors–both domestic and global matter more today than overall numbers, in a certain sense, but numbers also do matter. The fact is that with organized labor’s numbers having sunk below 10%, it makes it difficult not only to organize new workers, but also to advocate for new laws regarding union organizing, labor law, workers’ rights, etc.–let alone elect a union-friendly politician. Today, it’s a too rare occurance when someone even engages with a member of a union. There are whole regions of the country where labor members are nearly completely scarce. This makes it impossible for labor to build any kind of public support. No matter how you cut it, there is a crisis in labor, a crisis which the Buffenbarger letter doesn’t seem to acknowledge.

Responding today to readers’ comments, Nathan acknowledges that manufacturing unions have faced more hostile organizing conditions than the service unions who’ve been Sweeney’s strongest critics. But like the service unions, he argues, they have strategies available to respond – and they parallel the Change to Win approach:

I’d suggest four possibilities- (1) Abandon new manufacturing and organize associated services; (2) leverage their existing density more strategically; (3) organize the world; (4) organize Wal-Mart, the largest manufacturing company in the world…Given the fact that such a large part of employment in the US is in services — many of them not subject to easy overseas outsourcing in almost any scenario — why not concentrate all of the union movement’s extra resources on the “low hanging” fruit of local services, especially those services most related to a union’s core industry? In a sense, that’s what UNITE’s been doing for a number of years, shifting its organizing focus from garment manufacturing, which has been decimated by global competition, over to related industries like the industrial laundries who wash the clothes UNITE workers once sewed…Unlike the garment industry, a lot of big manufacturing like autos are still building factories in the US– often non-union as with the Japanese transplants — but the industry isn’t disappearing. And the UAW for example, as Frank no doubt knows better than me, is getting smarter at using its incumbent power at the Big Three to leverage new organizing through contract agreements– whether going after parts suppliers or through Chrysler negotiations to get agreements at Mercedes…If unions are stronger in developing nations, companies will only move plants there if it’s really more efficient– not just because they’re running to a non-union environment. And the reality is that US unions could help fund a hell of a lot of organizers in those countries precisely because wages and the cost of living are so much lower– and with more global allies, it would help keep the pressure on the manufacturers across the world…Organize Wal-Mart, which is far more than a retailer, but really the global headquarters directing the operations of thousands upon thousands of manufacturing subcontractors who produce what and when Wal-Mart tells them. Get a handle on Wal-Mart and the union movement could get a handle on organizing a heck of lot of manufacturing companies, both domestically and globally. And that’s a goal both the service and manufacturing unions can share.

UNITE HERE and SEIU absolutely were dealt a better hand as unions in industries where fewer jobs can move overseas. But the organizing victories they have to show from it would have been impossible if they hadn’t played those hands much better than most by prioritizing strategic organizing of the unorganized, including marginalized Americans, and strong community-based coalition-building. And, contrary to Buffenbarger’s implication, this is not a specialized strategy for the service industry.

As Nathan reminds us, while differences between industries are certainly something, they aren’t everything. The aggressive organizing strategy which made Detroit a city where auto workers join the middle-class and the one which made Las Vegas a city where hotel workers do have essential similarities we’d do well to recognize. So do the challenge of choosing interracial solidarity over union-backed racism in an earlier generation and the modern challenge of organizing across lines of citizenship and borders.

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