Sunday, June 17, 2012

anti-union left?

So in order to think through this debate raging online I wanted to take the kick off article from the Nation which basically as I read it calls me part of an "Anti Union Left".  First I really wish someone had let Republicans in my district know back in 2010 I might have gotten a few more votes.  But secondly I want to go through the whole piece and break it down some more (please do read the other pieces as well).  I actually agree with much of it (but I also agree much more with Henwood et al).  Anyways here we go...

In the days following the Wisconsin election, a number of progressive journalists responded to the heartbreaking defeat by venting their anger at a surprising target: the very unions that Scott Walker waged war on. Doug Henwood in Left Business ObserverMatt Rothschild in The Progressive and Andy Kroll ofMother Jones each have different analyses of what went wrong, but all agree that unions were guilty of what Henwood terms the “horrible mistake of channeling a popular uprising into electoral politics.”

The Wisconsin movement “began to disintegrate the moment the leaders decided to pour everything into the Democratic Party,” Rothschild explains. That decision, he argues, “destroyed the lesson that you can exercise power outside the electoral arena.” Indeed, Kroll insists that the electoral strategy would have been a “loss” even if Walker had been defeated, since “the Madison movement would have found themselves in… the same broken system, with … little hope.”

Really? The limitations of electoral politics are obvious, but the assumption that electoral strategies per seare always wrong is hard to fathom. 

Who is saying electoral strategies per se are always wrong?  I think anyone who says that is wrong.

The loss in Wisconsin is very serious. 

Personally I think one perk from the loss was over-reach from GOP and the donors.  I guess it was my Kung Fu training but my sifu always told me you wanted your attacker lashing out at you so that you could use his force again him.  I wasn't in Wisconsin, a part of the efforts, had no decsision making or invovlement so I'm not really going to judge wether "we" should or shouldn't have done the recall. 

I think recall was going to turn off some people who just voted against recalling for something that wasn't illegal.

But that loss would be the same if unions had forsworn the recall. Around 175,000 employees would still be stripped of union rights, with all that entails for them personally and for the material and organizational basis for progressive mobilization. And while the electoral loss no doubt emboldened anti-union conservatives, not challenging the governor would have conveyed much the same message: It’s politically safe to follow Walker’s example—after all, the unions didn’t even have the guts to take him on! Labor leaders confronted a genuinely hard choice: roll the dice on the recall, which everyone knew would be an expensive and uphill battle, or give up.

For that matter, how should we account for last fall’s referendum in Ohio, where voters overturned a copycat law modeled on Wisconsin’s? The Ohio labor movement chose an electoral strategy—and won big. Was that also a “horrible mistake”? If not, what—besides the outcome—makes the Wisconsin choice obviously wrong, a crime instead of a tragedy?

Was the fall referendum a recall?  Again who aside from some anarchist occupiers are saying no to electoral strategies? 

Critics insist that union leaders should have chosen a more radical path, overturning the Walker regime by harnessing the people-power of the capitol occupation. Rothschild calls for mass civil disobedience, slow downs and strikes; Kroll for consumer boycotts and a new political party; Henwood for grassroots education and lobbying. 

But none of these offers a realistic alternative for restoring labor rights in Wisconsin. 

Aren't these critics speaking more broadly about the labor movement?  Why the hell are working class in Georgia going to call about labor rights in Wisconsin?  This is a right to work state--most of them are "saying welcome to the club"; if they are even engaged enough to know what we are talking about right now.

At their core, these prescriptions fundamentally misunderstand the reality of how unions generate mass action. 

How so?

Both the tremendous strength and real limitation of the labor movement is that, alone among “left” organizations, it is not a vanguard movement. Unlike the Sierra Club or Occupy, its members do not join based on preexisting ideological beliefs. Overwhelmingly, they become members because they get a job someplace that happens to have a union. Union members are, almost entirely, exactly the same as any other working-class Americans.


Pundits sometimes write as if all that’s needed is for a union leader to make the right decision in order to generate radical action (thus Rothschild suggests that “unions could have told their members simply to ‘work to rule’,” assuming that hundreds of thousands of employees would risked their jobs to answer this call.) This imagines an institutional discipline that doesn’t exist. The work of organizing is slow and incremental. The task of building a serious workplace or political organization entails taking normal, apolitical, non-confrontational people and moving them to a clearer understanding of the economy and a fiercer will to confront those who rule it. For any reader to sense what this is like, just go into work tomorrow and start asking co-workers to put their jobs at risk by striking over a demand for single-payer or taxing Wall Street. How long would it take to get your fifty closest co-workers to strike? How many would stay out after their personal supervisor calls them at home telling them to come back? 

Aren't they saying unions need to put more of a focus on these efforts BECAUSE they are so hard?  And believe me they are hard.

How do employees go from being mild-mannered workers to fighting the power? Many get transformed through struggles in their workplace. Workplace fights are where the hypocrisy of management is unmasked; where the injustice of budget priorities becomes apparent; where people experience the capriciousness of elites and the potential power of collective action in a very visceral way; where people who are personally conservative and not activists end up doing things that require bravery (in most jobs even signing a petition creates some risk of retaliation) and emerge from it feeling more powerful and more ready to do the next thing. In a less transformative way, many more people are educated through conversations with stewards who are carrying out union education program. Generally, these conversations are short and few—so union members end up thinking and voting more progressively than otherwise similar people, but not hugely so.

Radical actions remain possible. But we have to be realistic. The notion that the path to victory is clear if only dim-witted union leaders would listen to progressive bloggers reflects not just magical thinking about organizing, but also the hubris of being far enough removed from the action to believe you’re the only one to have thought of a new idea. 

I'm not far removed and I think the critics he mentions have a lot of valid points to make.

In fact, hundreds of union leaders and activists have been working for years to build a broader movement—stronger, more militant, with a broader reach into the community and a more expansive vision. Apart from Occupy, the main organization running big public actions to tax the 1 Percent is the nurses’ union. SEIU sent hundreds of field organizers to working-class neighborhoods in seventeen cities, knocking on doors of non-union families, seeking to build a progressive political movement to the left of the Democrats. The Laborers’ union launched efforts in multiple cities to team up with immigrant day-labor centers in order to reorganize parts of the residential construction industry. The UFCW is organizing Wal-Mart employees to fight store- and community-level battles over back wages long before there’s any plan for a union contract. The AFL-CIO itself has devoted significant resources to Working America, a program of political and educational outreach to non-union workers. 

uh, yes, do more of this!  Give Obama a tweet on election day and do more of this!

My point is not that everything is already being done that should be done. We’ve been losing, so obviously the current strategy can’t be sufficient. But the problem is much more serious, and more difficult, than just the strategic choices of union leaders.

But it does have something to do with those choices as well.

Many unions can do a lot of things better, and should. But the depth of the attacks from the left—and the choice to launch them at this particular moment—is curious.

The depth of the attack? 

Henwood sees Wisconsin as evidence that the American public has turned against unions—and for good reason. “Unions just aren’t very popular,” he explains, because people correctly perceive that “unions … are too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class.” The core problem, apparently, is that unions are too focused on organizing workers and negotiating contracts, activities no longer viable in the 21st century. “Unions have to shift their focus from the workplace to the community,” he says, proposing a popular campaign to “agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.”

Unions aren't popular.  Unions do have to shift their focus (if you look at the efforts of Teamsters 728 is doing a lot along these lines.

But unions are supposed to be organizations of workers who improve their own conditions in their workplace. The problem is not that the model is bad, but the opposite: the best thing that could happen in our economy is for more people to have the right to bargain with their employers in exactly this way.

Here too, Henwood blames unions. American workers don’t join unions, he says, in large part because they’re controlled by cronies who enrich themselves at the expense of their members; he approvingly quotes Bob Fitch’s equation of elected union officials with “feudal vassals” living off “serfs who pay compulsory dues.”

I actually think the fedual framework might be fruitful one and help build the movement as it more accurately explains modern corporate capitalism.  I don't see feudal as pejorative though I think its meant to be (and is taken by most to be so).

At this point we’ve left real economic analysis. Polls show that 40 million non-union American workers wish they had a union in their workplace. This is unsurprising—all other things being equal, workers with a union make 15 percent more and have a 20-25 percent better chance of getting healthcare or pensions than similar workers who have no union. The top reason that more Americans aren’t union members is not because they’re alienated; it’s because the anti-union industry is so aggressive (almost 20,000 Americans a year are economically punished for supporting unions in their workplace), and the law is so toothless that workers correctly fear for their jobs if they try to organize. After all, if the real problem was overpaid union bureaucrats, then radical unions like the Wobblies or United Electrical workers—unburdened by highly paid staff or Democratic politics—should be meeting greater success in organizing. But, of course, they are not. The problem is not what unions are doing; it’s the coercive power of employers.

Well spending some of that money that they are spending getting Obama elected and redirecting towards grassroots campaigns might help? 

Furthermore, even while workers mostly focus on improving their own conditions, unions are by far the biggest force working to protect the interests of working people in general. Even as unions have been under such ferocious attack in state legislatures and struggling to repel those assaults, they’ve also been at the forefront of fights to protect minimum wage, child labor laws, unemployment insurance, pay equity, class size, immigrant rights and tax fairness—none of them union-specific issues. That, indeed, is why Walker and his corporate backers are so intent on dismantling them. The past two years have seen some of the country’s biggest private corporations devote millions of dollars to attacking public sector unions. This is not primarily because of ideological beliefs or a desire to pay less taxes. They see what some critics apparently miss—that unions remain the only serious counterweight to the unbridled power of the corporate elite.

Most employees naturally want their dues money to be mainly devoted to caring for themselves and their co-workers. Every time a campaign is undertaken to preserve class size or fight free trade agreements, people are making a decision to spend their dues money on something other than themselves. So, while more could be done, the criticism of union members and leaders for being too selfish is not based in reality.

Here’s the hard truth. We’re living in a dark time, and it’s gotten very hard for normal working Americans to win either at the workplace or in politics. We are massively outspent, and people are so scared of losing their jobs that it’s hard to fight back on a large scale. We have not figured out a reliable way to win. But the fundamental dynamics of power are the same as they ever were. We need to fight as smartly and as powerfully as we can, understanding that the game has not changed but simply gotten a lot harder. Of course there are things unions can do to be better and more effective, and those matter. 


But declaring organizing and contracts a thing of the past is not part of that. 

I don't think they are. I don't know who is saying they are completely a thing of the past.

The only serious choices we have are to keep fighting even though times are hard, or to give up, or to enjoy the momentary rush of being on the same side as power and join in the anti-union attack.

Agreed.  But I don't see them joining in an anti-union attack with a goal of undermining union streghether.  All three, are in good faith wanting  to see the movement grow stronger.  So rather than see critics as anti-union maybe they just have a different visions of how labor moves forward?  Sure lets have that debate.

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