Some critics will undoubtedly say that Stephen Lerner has overemphasized civil disobedience and direct action — “mere tactics” — in his brief on reviving unions. I disagree. Since 1935, American trade unionism has been defined by the National Labor Relations Act and subsequent amendments to it. So rethinking our relationship to the law is a natural starting point for redefining trade unionism in America. Considered from that vantage point, civil disobedience is much more than a tactic. It is the signal expression of a “new” unionism, defined not by a legal framework but by moral principles.

The lunch counter sit-in at Greensboro and Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus dramatized the immorality of segregation precisely by challenging the legal regime that supported it. We need a trade unionism that casts the fight against greed in these same terms. Accomplishing this will take more than civil disobedience — but it is a good beginning. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Civil Rights movement might have been called a whole lot of things — but special interest was not one of them.

So long as we have a bifurcation between labor’s economic and political agendas, however, it will be very difficult to achieve the moral transformation of the labor movement — to construct and project a movement that represents the general interests of working people, that speaks and acts on behalf of an entire class, and not only a particular group of workers.

Historically, unions have pursued their organizing and collective bargaining campaigns quite separately from their broader political goals — so separately that unions bemoan their members’ political independence. While the ideology of “business unionism” explains much of this separation, the structure of the American labor movement has historically reinforced it. Organizing and collective bargaining are the singular domain of international unions and their local affiliates; politics is the mission of the much weaker national AFL-CIO and its affiliated state federations and central labor councils. Thus we have two separate structures: one with enormous resources and a direct line to local unions, the other with much more limited resources and a direct line to local unions only in so far as the internationals will allow.

Of course there is always a tension between representing existing membership and advancing the broader interests of workers, but the current set-up exacerbates this problem: the more resourced international and local unions are driven by the imperative of servicing existing members. A related problem is the lack of room — more accurately, the unwillingness to make room — in the leadership structures of internationals and locals for the “newly organized” — the women, immigrants and people of color who represent labor’s best hope for the future. Fueled by this set-up, the politics of bread and butter unionism are similarly narrow: A desiccated union politics that reduces to the hollow process of candidate endorsement, and that rewards candidates who do right by a particular industry or local firm even while doing wrong on a broader progressive union agenda.

Paradoxically, broad economic restructuring and parallel changes on the industrial and firm level that have caused so much pain and fear for so many workers may catalyze the necessary transformation of unions and their politics. As relationships between workers and firms become more temporary, and workers are less and less able to rely upon long-term relationships with a single employer to supply training, benefits, and upward mobility, unions have the possibility of becoming the fixed point in the changing universe of work. And union politics have the possibility of transcending particularism.

As Lerner argues, taking wages out of competition by re-establishing a loose monopoly over the labor market compels a “labor market” approach to organizing that targets more than one firm at a time and always as part of a larger industrial and territorial strategy. By necessity, union organizing and collective bargaining in this new context will be less firm-based and more labor market-based. It is likely that the twin realities of a restructured economy and a drastically down-sized labor movement will lead labor unions to adopt a new strategy of labor market unionism. But to succeed, labor unions must combine this new economic project with its political corollary — community unionism. Potential members must be courted in a variety of settings by an organization that demonstrates itself capable of understanding the multiple dimensions of workers’ lives and passions and willing to stand for the general interests of the community against the particular interests of the corporation.

This is a fruitful time for experimentation. From health care to the building trades, real innovation is taking place. In terms of labor market unionism, some unions have taken a close look at changes in their industries and rethought their organizing strategies accordingly. In terms of community unionism, some unions are striving to root their efforts in local neighborhood, ethnic, and religious institutions and to locate worker issues within a broader framework of economic development or quality public education or health care. The next challenge for unions is to embody both ideas in everything that they do — combining a smart industry strategy with a carefully reasoned appeal to the general interest.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review