Sober-minded observers cannot dispute Stephen Lerner’s analysis of the state of the US labor movement, and the deep crisis into which it has fallen. Lerner offers several prescriptions for its renaissance including the use of civil disobedience (CD) as, essentially, an effective and moral form of action.

For CD to work as an effective and moral tactical approach, it must be connected with an equally profound moral message. As simple as that may sound, the labor movement has, at least since the beginning of the Cold War, lacked command of the moral high ground on the question of economic and social justice. Of course sections of the labor movement were deeply involved in various social justice issues. But as a movement, it ceased to be known as the leader and champion of the causes of social justice.

If one examines the Civil Rights movement and its use of civil disobedience, for example (as does Lerner), it was not effective simply because of CD, or references to Gandhi. Rather, the CD of the Civil Rights movement was integrally connected to a crusade for justice, a crusade against an immoral opponent (Jim Crow, and in general, the white supremacist system). Activists could unite around CD as a tactic because the opponent was clearly defined, and the need to destroy that opponent was a matter of consensus.

Today’s labor movement is a bit unsure what its message should be and how to translate that into a moral campaign. The key, I believe, is that the message must be aimed beyond the labor movement — as such — and be about economic justice, broadly defined. It must speak to the pain and insecurity that working people are feeling across the country, but it must articulate this populist message in terms which are progressive and pro-equality.

Reverend Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Presidential campaign is the most recent example of this approach. He took the pain and desperation of working people and made it into a moral issue rather than a matter of either a so-called special interest or a matter of another add-on programmatic point. In 1996, Republican Pat Buchanan is attempting to speak to much the same constituency albeit from a right-wing, demagogic populist perspective.

The message must encourage people to understand the nature of actually existing US capitalism, but also the need to struggle against its ravages. As such, it must be antithetical to the approaches offered by much of the political Right which, in its embrace of neoliberal economics, offers charity as the solution to working people’s pain! (See, for example, Gingrich’s recent efforts to redefine public service and divorce it from the role of government.)

The critical feature of a pro-equality, progressive populist message advanced by the labor movement is that it redefines who the people are. Anti-colonial struggles in the nations of the South provide a model: Through the leadership of the various national liberation forces, diverse ethnic groups — often at war with one another — were encouraged to redefine themselves in terms which went beyond their original regional groupings. Here, both genders, etc., have to be won to see themselves as part of labor (regardless of whether one is in a union) and therefore wedded to the concerns of groups beyond themselves. In other words, solidarity must be redefined.

The elaboration of a new, moral message aimed at redefining who is “them” and who is “us” can help to lay the foundation for the tactical approach advanced by Lerner. The issue is not linear — not a matter of “first the message then the tactic” — but rather a matter of forging an overall approach as a strategy for labor’s reconstruction.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the SEIU.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review