Stephen Lerner and Bill Fletcher appeared on Bill Moyers yesterday. Moyer's theme for the show was "Is Labor a Lost Cause?".
I have to confess Having Stephen Lerner and Bill Fletcher on TV talking about the crisis of labor was enough to make my labor nerd head explode. Both of them have been thinking, writing and speaking about labor strategy for decades and both of their voices are welcome contributions to this discussion.
I came away from the discussion with a sense of clarity that while labor is not a "lost cause", we have a tremendous amount of internal self imposed conservatism that must be broke through at every level of the labor movement. Where the discussion comes up short is that while the ways in which labor is lacking are pretty clear (at least if you are looking), those of us thinking of how to carry out the type of needed transformation were probably still left with many of the same questions we had before.
How do we convince labor leaders at every level of the labor movement to get into "crisis mode" and begin to behave as though the destruction of labor can only be averted by their own bold decisive action? How do we make the case to leaders of union Internationals that they must more aggressively challenge the disfunction and atrophy that may be present among local unions who are more inclined to hole up and hold on to what they have hoping for the best instead of mobilizing? The internal political relationships of the various international are a minefield for a President looking to stay where he is. Not being dismissive of this dynamic and looking for solutions that take it into account are essential to any realistic approach to organizational change.
One difference I have with brother Lerner is his perspective that labor should move beyond traditional collective bargaining towards bargaining startegies that directly benefit large sectors of the non union population.While it certainly reflects a deeper sense that labor should be the voice of the entire working-class, demands such as these are an extremely heavy lift in terms of convincing members that they should lead the fight for the entire working-class by deprioritizing fighting to maintain their own wages and benefits. If labor's survival is deependent on our members reaching this level of consciousness in the near term, we are doomed.
Whether you agree or not with Fletcher or Lerner, you came away after watching their discussion with a greater sense of vision from two people who have spent their lives thinking through how we can fight and win. You also have the sense that both of them strove to frame any criticisms they made from a sense of real historical knowledge of how we arrived at this crisis devoid of the moralism or paternalism that have defined so many critiques.