The most unexpected thing about this interesting essay by three people whose life work I respect and admire is how it reflects the current culture, if not obsession, of needing to label everything that is good and working well as innovative or new.
Despite making what feels like a passing concession that broad, inclusive, bottom-up trade unionism is “a vision with deep American roots,” Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin contribute to the dominant but false narrative that worksite-based collective bargaining is somehow outmoded, bad, and last century. Their central claim that “traditional worker organizing has failed on every level” is simply wrong, reinforcing a negative view of unions and “traditional” organizing. And, ironically, they try to make their case by using examples of precisely what they criticize: worksite-based organizing and collective bargaining! The best examples the authors offer of what is working today—what they call the “new labor energy”—are directly derived from the best of old-fashioned organizing: worksite by worksite, one-on-one conversation by one-on-one conversation, led by unionists whose values and politics place a premium on unions as social-movement actors (as opposed to unions as narrow self-interest groups). Both types of unions have always existed. All progressives working in labor unions have long repudiated a “bifurcated approach” with “bargaining on one hand” and “political action on the other.”
Consider first my own experience, beginning with the union primarily responsible for my training—a local of what was once a national union, referred to simply as 1199 (and not to be confused with the mega-merged SEIU local still known as 1199 in New York City). Its constitution specifically states that every worker represented by the union has the right to attend their own negotiations. That practice has always amounted to much more than explaining to workers that they have the “right” to be at negotiations.
The original, national 1199, and the local that still closely resembles it, 1199 New England, is only one example of a union long steeped in a radical approach to both participation in the negotiations process, as well as a broad social vision of the union’s purpose. When I served as the executive director of SEIU in Nevada, members voted to open negotiations to all workers represented, and there are many other local unions within the national structures that do the same. In fact, in the first union campaigns I helped lead in the 1990s, in a cooperative, energetic, multi-union effort in southern Connective, we were working inside the norms of the 1930s style unions. We weren’t merely helping workers form unions in a nonunion region; we were also forcefully challenging racism, gentrification, and sexism. We built a wildly successful campaign to stop the demolition of public affordable housing and won public funding to fix buildings that the Democratic party elite assumed they could tear down without remorse or political consequence.
To be sure, the counterexamples come not just from my own experience. The union organizing that won the day in the United States, forging a period where income inequality fell and shared prosperity rose, relied on the same strategies and guiding principles as the most exciting labor work—including some examples Gupta, Lerner, and McCartin describe—taking place today: massive strikes where the strategy made the union and the workplace the power anchor of a broad social movement. The eighteen unions led by leftists in the 1930s, who started the broad-based strikes in 1933 and 1934 after Franklin Roosevelt won the presidential election, created the pressure that led to the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act (all in a matter of months—dwell on that!). The chaos they created was strategic, not accidental. They knew, as did the leaders of the civil rights movement, that they had to create a crisis in order to force the worst elements of the capitalist class to sit down and genuinely share—in other words, bargain. The authors cite Chicago and LA teachers strikes as evidence of a “different kind of unionism.” Yet they were bottom-up efforts led by progressive educators who rebuilt their unions worksite by worksite and used “traditional” collective bargaining to forge solidarity with their communities, placing the union at the center of a bold strategy to challenge unfettered greed.
Just as contemporary successes continue this tradition of worksite-based organizing, so too do they build upon, rather than invent, a legacy of organizing for the “common good.” It is in fact the entire history of progressive trade unionism. Those unions, including the 1199 that I worked for, never saw their work as separate and distinct from a broad campaign for a country and a world that would be better in every way—in their communities and politics, as well as at work. They were the unions that were fighting racism and working to integrate the Jim Crow South, factory by factory. They were the unions that demanded that black women, not just blacks, got hired in the northern factories. They were the unions that went beyond helping to re-elect FDR and strategically targeted two gubernatorial races in the 1936 elections, in Pennsylvania and Michigan, because they understood that in order to succeed in massive sit-down strikes in 1937, in the steel and auto industries, it was important that the national guard and other police forces not be called out against the workers.
So, sorry: I do not see anything new here. But there is the best of what good unions and social-movement-orientated union organizing has always been: small “d” democratic, with broad goals woven deep into their work. Where does this impulse to call everything that works “inventive” come from? Mostly I blame the five biggest companies in the world—Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent conglomerate), Microsoft, and Facebook—for peddling and incentivizing the false rhetoric of inventiveness. All five companies lift their business practices straight from the playbook of twentieth-century savage capitalism: plundering the planet, exploiting workers, supporting intense repression (by using surveillance nowadays), and making a small handful of people super rich. The second and far more distant culprit for making people and nonprofits describe their work as new or innovative is the donor world—philanthropy. The latter should know better; the former need to be nationalized or run as public utilities. And yes, we must gain much more power before we can win that demand.
What the authors sidestep is a deeper debate about the failed strategy of the recent generation of union position holders, people who gave up on and stopped believing in the abilities of ordinary workers—uniting with themselves and their communities—to stand together and challenge the power structure. Most unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win organization replaced organizers—the people who engage workers and their communities—with corporate campaign researchers, pollsters, communicators, and political staff all divorced from the rank and file. That strategy helped, in part, to elect Donald Trump: workers, and radical political education, were no longer seen as important in unions, leaving people wildly confused about who to blame for the many problems in their lives. National union leaders—not just progressive locals—need to embrace massive, well-planned, systematic strikes that integrate the whole of society. Well-executed strikes are not just urgent to win back the material gains the bosses have rolled back; they are essential for the voting booth, too, because they clarify the two sides.
The call the authors make for a more broadly rooted trade unionism is absolutely correct, in short, but their implication that something new is happening does an injustice to a long, strong, proud, important tradition of left-led unions. To get out of the mess we find ourselves in—from the climate crisis to a racist, sexist, hostile White House, to a right-wing Supreme Court—we need to recognize that everything old is new again.