Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Right to Work" : A Body Blow, Not a Death Blow

The signing of "right to work for less" in Michigan is another stark reminder to us all how deep the crisis of labor is. As if we needed another. The fact that the supporters of "right to work" could garner enough votes to pass such a bill in Michigan underscores the determination of our enemies and the extent to which the decline of labor density has weakened labor's ability to fend off attacks, even in our strongholds.

Right to work will not kill the labor movement in Michigan. If enacted, it will however weaken it substantially. This makes keeping up pressure in the streets, courts and all other points possible to defeat its implementation essential. There is also still time to mitigate and undo the damage done through a variety of legal and legislative strategies. While the fight is far from ending in Michigan, we must look soberly at our priorities as a movement.

Going forward with the effort to beat back and repeal "right to work" is both necessary and makes sense. The same can be said for the other states who have recently passed or partially passed attacks on the labor movement. In many cases these states will see many of the Republicans who snuck into office in 2010 under false pretenses kicked to the curb in 2014. The energy created by the movements against the attacks on labor and working people represents a movement that has awoken from it's slumber and this new energy will lead to our taking the offensive both politically and in organizing if our leaderships take advantage of it.

That being said, the rest of the states that have been living under "right to work" will continue to do so until we reverse our decline and begin to grow qualitatively. In those states growth and infrastructure building must take priority over possible efforts to repeal Right to work or enacting "fair share" legislation. This is not to say that we should not take advantage of any opportunity to do either should it present itself (a remote possibility), but prioritizing it over growing our movement, activating our members, and strengthening our organization would be a mistake at this moment. On the other hand, so not to be confused with the more syndicalist abstentionists out there, to what ever extent possible we have to for survival's sake continue to resist legislative attacks against labor wherever they are.

I live in a right to work state. Anyone who says right to work is an acceptable condition to work under has never lived the experience, at least in terms of trying to build and grow organization.

Every day some portion is spent contemplating how to maintain membership levels in my union. We represent several large groups of low-wage members both newly organized and as components of larger groups of better paid members. These groups of members have an extremely high turnover rate, so engaging with them immediately upon being hired is always a priority. The right to meet and do a union presentation is always a priority of every contract that we negotiate. Freeloaders are subjected to varying degrees of 100% legal social pressure from their coworkers of varying degrees depending on the level of union organization at that worksite. This additional burden of maintaining our membership is a constant financial drain on our union valuable hours of staff time are consumed daily by this area of activity.

Where turnover is lower the level of membership is always higher. Our local union's worksites as well as other unions that are more stable provide the core of our states union membership. Not coincidentally these industries usually represent those area of the private sector where unions used to hold sway nationally. It also reflects the fact that members in these types of bargaining units have a greater understanding of how their membership levels reflect their relative strength to their employer and how that correlates with contract gains.

Schoolbus drivers organize against cuts to unemployment in Georgia
All this being said unions have survived for decades in right to work states and will continue to do so insofar as we continue to survive precariously on a national level. A strategy for growth and strategic development of capacity in right to work states must be at the center of any discussion of labor revitalization. Ideally this would include creating special funds that pool resources from the union locals at the "bookends" of our country where we are strongest to be channeled into strengthening our structures in the south or creating structures where none exist.

Labor must make an investment in the south and right to work states. It is no coincidence that our greatest enemies are voted into positions of power from the south and RTW states. 

In states where the "war on workers" has been waged the most we must do everything we can to roll back these attacks. At the same time as we fighting to protect our flanks in this war we must work to internalize the mistakes we have made that got us here in the first place. The constant attempts to blame the contemporary leaders of unions where mistakes have been made for decades for this situation serves no one. It is up to all of us now to do the hard work of rebuilding and the best way to do that is a robust and sober discussion at all levels of our movement that dispenses with preconceived notions and opens up to winning strategies. It behooves our leaders to listen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A "Tahrir moment" in Michigan?

Thursday the Michigan State House and Senate passed "Right to Work " legislation despite howls of protest over procedure and a massive last minute mobilization by Michigan labor. Since the House and Senate passed different versions the differences must be reconciled and voted on be both houses. If were hiding under a rock yesterday here is the quick and dirty from Working America's blog Main Street.

Union members pack the Michigan capitol on Thursday
Passing "Right to Work" for less legislation in Michigan is further confirmation that the "War on Workers" that started after the 2010 election did not end  with the re-election of President Obama. Those ideologically anti-worker majority legislatures and Governors elected in 2010 that remained in place after this election cycle still hold in their hands the same plans ALEC handed them two years ago. Those chambers that have shifted back toward being less hostile to workers this election are busy ramming through their agenda in the remaining "lame duck" session.

Labor now faces another attempt to cut us off at the knees. Already the cries of "We'll remember in November!" ring out from the ranks of our members packing the Michigan Capitol.There are five days before another vote can be taken on "Right to Work" for less.

Five days is a lifetime in movement politics.

 Where we have failed to defeat these attacks generally it has been because our enemies had generally been more determined than us to win. They have been willing to lie, cheat, steal, and suppress to achieve their agenda. This was true in Wisconsin , Indiana, and Florida and it is true today. Legal challenges notwithstanding, they beat us because they were willing to impose their will on us no matter the cost.

They DID NOT beat us because we didn't mobilize. Incredible mobilizations were carried out in every state where we were attacked, most dramatically in Wisconsin where the capitol was occupied by thousands for a few weeks. We fought hard. But when push came to shove we as a movement choked when the question was called whether we would take the fight to the next level. Obviously some will disagree with me on this assessment, but the fact remains that labor was not only politically defeated we were also outmaneuvered by our opponent's intransigence and political will.

Things are different now. We have contemporary examples of how people can take action to force the hands of those in power and win despite the odds not being in our favor.

Not long after the fights in Ohio and Wisconsin, the people of the Middle East rose up in massive mobilizations against corrupt, authoritarian regimes. In Egypt this culminated in the occupation of Tahrir square in Cairo where sustained demonstrations brought down the Mubarak regime.

Beginning with Occupy Wall Street, occupations of public spread to numerous cities in the U.S. emulating not only Tahrir Square but also the movements for Democracy and against corporate power in countries around the world. The images of these movements are now etched into American consciousness and direct action now carries a legitimacy that would not have been possible before.

Michigan union members and supporters meet to plan civil disobedience
Obviously a titanic amount of mobilization will be required to stop this bill. Mobilizing sufficient social power to put a halt to the legislative process is a tall order, but not impossible.Thankfully plans for such actions seem to be taking place this weekend.
 The number one thing that MUST happen is for people to stop saying we will wait "four more years" to repeal this bill. Winning requires actually believing in your ability to win. The people of Michigan CAN win this fight. My thoughts and prayers are with them as they plan for the fight of their lives.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fast Food Workers Go On Strike in NYC!

 From Josh Eidelson at Salon:
 "At 6:30 this morning, New York City fast food workers walked off the job, launching a rare strike against a nearly union-free industry. Organizers expect workers at dozens of stores to join the one-day strike, a bold challenge to an industry whose low wages, limited hours and precarious employment typify a growing portion of the U.S. economy."
Photo by Laura Clawson at Daily Kos

Sarah Jaffe had this to say in The Atlantic:

"For so long, a lot of labor and other folks have avoided these industries because they thought they were too low wage, too hard to organize, and now our economy has become an economy of mostly low wage service jobs," Westin said. "It was the same thing when they were organizing factories in the early 1900s. They organized those factories and lifted an entire segment of the population into the middle class. This could happen here. We could lift an entire segment of the US population out of poverty and into the middle class."
 Crossposted from LABORSTRAT:

"And this is the common thematic element of the new organizational efforts we’re seeing take place in the service industries. Both the Walmart strikes and the New York City fast food strikes taking place are very demonstrative. That is to say, they are attempting to expose a contradiction in an industry (very successful companies who compensate workers very minimally) with a very visible, highly publicized action. This is a great way to create a discussion, but the question remains after that discussion begins: what type of organizations, unions, and institutions are we to build which can maintain the energy we’ve produced through activism. What receives this infrastructure being built by organizers? How are resources built, and more importantly, how are victories produced in which workers are not only politically better off, but economically better off?"

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thoughts Since Black Friday

I participated in the Black Friday action. No workers struck at my location but dozens of supporters held a spirited and effective action that a) received really good media attention that highlighted the demands of the Wal-Mart associates and b) successfully rattled the cage of store management. All in all a fun day. Nationally the picture was much more varied from strikes with dozens of strikers and hundreds of supporters to a single supporter or striker (yes one striker) picketing a store by themselves. I wanted to share some thoughts on the implications of the Black Friday strike and protests.
  • The strike was a successful escalation. The number of workers participating increased. A new layer of leaders seems to have stepped up since the earlier strikes. A broad spectrum of allies showed up to support the workers. Wal-Mart desperately tried to dismiss the actions as tiny and irrelevant. The key was to for OURWalmart to successfully show thatWalmarts intimidation campaign had not pushed the Associates back, in fact that new additional leaders stepped forward to carry out this series of strikes showed the capacity or OURWalmart to grow despite management's campaign.
  • The strike was a watershed moment for labor. Not because any Wal-Marts were shut down or not, but because WalMart's image as a benevolent employer has been effectively challenged in American public discourse. Illustrated here:

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Employees Strike Back
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

The degree to which the strikers and the supporters were portrayed as leading a just fight by many media outlets was a critical blow to anti-worker PR in general.
  • The notion that changing Wal-Mart was key to change America and creating a new economy is now firmly established among American progressives. Before there was tepid support among many liberals who perceived the Wal-Mart struggle as just another union "pet issue". It is now common wisdom among the progressive blogosphere and academia that Wal-Mart's role in the supply chain is a key roadblock to economic justice for ALL workers.
  • This is where I piss people off. I was disappointed when I noticed that a broad swath of the labor movement sat out the Black Friday action. I was mortified to find out that some large UFCW locals opted to not build or participate in actions. The more this campaign is seen as simply a project of the UFCW International by local UFCW unions, the more difficult it is going to be to build the grassroots infrastructure needed to expand the campaign. The active support and participation UFCW local unions and the full support of labor councils and other labor organizations are key to generating community support and protection  for the OURWalmart activists that will give them the much needed "breathing space" to continue to organize and grow. Bureacratic abstention, Grudges and petty divisions blocking particpation in these HISTORIC actions are the equivalent of high treason in the moment of both peril and opportunity for our entire movement. 
 There I said it. Let me have it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Will Black Friday be a Tipping Point?

Tomorrow, "Black Friday", Walmart Associates across the country will be walking off the job to stand up for their right to organize and to protest management retaliating against their members for standing up. No one really knows exactly how many people will walk off the job during the busiest shopping day of the year, but whatever the number, it is clear that Black Friday has brought the issues the workers face to the forefront of the public consciousness. In that alone they have one victory in the bank.

In the past Walmart was able to tightly control the narrative told by most of the media. That is not so anymore. OURWalmart and their allies have skillfully put Walmart on the defensive by frontlining the members of OURWalmart rather than staff people as guests on talkshows and in the media and by making sure the workers were able to tell their compelling stories through social media. Labor journalist Josh Eidelson has done a fantastic job chronicling the strikes on his new blog at The Nation.

The strike wave a few weeks ago never really ended. Strikes became more sporadic but continued at stores around the country. Warehouse Workers United called a new strike early last week over management retaliation against organizers. These continuing actions have kept the spotlight on the struggle facing Walmart associates who are raising quite reasonable demands. The fact that the strikes are "Unfair Labor Practice" strikes protects the workers from permanent replacement and any retaliation by Walmart simply creates the basis for valid claims of illegal activity by the Company.

My metric for success is not whether a single Walmart is shut down tonight or tomorrow. I will judge the Black Friday strike by whether the labor movement as a whole comes out of this with with a renewed sense of our own ability to be bold, think big, and to take the fight to the enemy. The question for us all is could this be the "tipping point" that both validates a new model of organizing large service sector employers and leads to a new upsurge in organizing and worker militancy? I can't wait to find out.

So get your ass to a Walmart tomorrow and lets make some history.

If you can't get your ass to a Walmart tomorrow(actually even if you do), you can sponsor a striker HERE.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

If You're Not Excited You're Not Paying Attention

I definitely cannot be counted on to deliver up to the minute analysis of huge events in the labor movement. If I counted that as one of my objectives I would be a dismal failure.

Since my last post, we have witnessed a series of events that can only be seen as vindication of those of us who have rejected the notion that the death of the labor movement is a foregone conclusion. Also vindicated is the perspective that labor must begin strategically targeting and organizing in such a way that can shift the balance of power in whole markets in order to win.

It would seem there are more than a few in labor who are determined to turn things around. They are proving the crisis of labor is in fact deep, but not insurmountable.

   The Chicago teachers strike pitted the third largest teachers union in the country, the 25,000 member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)  against Barack Obama's former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual. The stage was set for a confrontation between CTU and their newly elected militant leadership and Chicago's Democratic Party establishment. Known as a ruthless political opponent, Emanuel was outmaneuvered by bold and aggressive organizing that framed the issue successfully and truthfully as a battle to save public education for Chicago's children. The CTU was able to maintain public support throughout the strike and were both aggressive enough to win substantial gains as well as pragmatic and saavy enough not wage an open ended strike, resulting in making concrete improvements both in conditions for Chicago's students as well as working conditions for the Teachers. By rejecting the pro austerity narrative and controlling the framing of the struggle as one for justice and fairness the Teachers defeated attempts to isolate them. All in all, a solid win in an age where strikes are seldom planned and even more seldom won.

The Chicago teachers raised our spirits, got our blood pumping and gave the "screw the unions" wing of the Democratic Party's poster boy a bloody nose.

Unite Here's campaign to organize Las Vegas's third largest private employer Station Casinos received a recent boost when the NLRB denied the Company's appeal of an administrative judges ruling finding Station guilty of 87 Unfair Labor Practices. The violations were so egregious that the NLRB found an additional two charges of Station Casinos violating the workers' right to organize free of intimidation. The ruling came after a dramatic public hunger strike by workers demanding a fair process for an election. 

Groups of warehouse workers who work for Walmart contractors  struck in California's Inland Empire led by Warehouse Workers United and in the Chicago suburbs led by Warehouse Workers for Justice. The Strikers in California organized a "Walmarch" to LA to deliver their demands and the Strikers in Chicago shut down their warehouse with a mass demonstration that culminated in civil disobedience.

Very soon thereafter Wal-Mart store employees (Associates in Wal-Mart Speak) struck over a dozen stores around the country led by OURWalMart an organization led by Wal-Mart Associates. 
The strikes culminated with Warehouse workers from Chicago and California linking up with OURWalmart strikers in Walmart's hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas and where there were joint actions at the first Walmart store and Walmart's headquarters.

Both the warehouse and store Associate strikes "changed the game" and were remarkable in a number of ways:

Warehouse workers and store Associates in Bentonville.

  • Non Majority Strikes- Both the warehouse workers and OURWalmart called strikes where the majority of workers did not participate.The actions rested rested on workers' rights under the  section 7 of the NLRA to organize in the workplace regardless of whether they had majority status. 
  • Strategic Use of Unfair Labor Practice strikes- The strikes were called to protest Walmart's acts of intimidation and harassment of activists making it an unfair labor practice strike. This gave the strikers protection against permanent replacement and allowed them to return to work once they ended the strike.
  • Non traditional Organizing- None of the organizations mentioned regard themselves as unions in the traditional sense, that is none of them are working towards an NLRB election for union recognition nor do they define their goals as ending with a collective bargaining agreement but rather a stated goal to simply improve working conditions.
  • Coordination and solidarity- The warehouse workers and store employees coordinated  in order to build off of and support each others struggle
OURWalmart has announced that they will strike again on Black Friday to protest Walmart's acts of intimidation and retaliation against workers who are organizing for change in their workplace. Making Change at Walmart is organizing solidarity with the workers.  This could well be a watershed moment in contemporary labor history and if there ever was a moment to think in a dynamic way about how we can work along side these incredibly brave workers in their struggle this is it. At a bare minimum, you can sponsor a worker here.

  All of these struggles illustrated the validity of approaches that include boldness, strategic planning, messaging and actions designed to draw public sympathy by emphasizing basic principles of fairness, and organizing that targets building density and power in entire industries and markets. 

Maximizing how the rest of the labor movement learns the positive lessons of the recent actions as well as continues to look to using the same guiding principles in our own efforts at building power for workers.

I would be remiss if I did not touch on the 2012 election. With no exaggeration whatsoever, we face the starkest choice of any election in my lifetime. Mitt Romney poses a mortal threat to American working families. There is no debate that he intends to take measures designed to mortally cripple the American labor movement and roll back every gain of the new Deal.

In addition to supporting candidates, Labor is faced with a number of critical ballot initiatives around the country. From fighting an aggressive attempts to politically neuter labor like Proposition 32 in California to the ambitious campaign to enshrine collective bargaining into Michigan's constitution through Prop 2.

Labor has responded to this threat with the largest independent field mobilization in it's history. Banking on our capacity to mobilize and the newfound ability to directly communicate to the public through community affiliates like Working America or independent committees like Workers Voice , tens of thousands of volunteers and staff have supplemented the massive ground campaign of the Obama campaign and criticial Senate, House, and Gubenatorial races around the country.

All of this is in addition to the traditional member to member campaigns of direct contact at worksites and directly volunteering for campaigns in battleground states. Labor's campaign is now being credited with providing the key firewall in the key swingstate Ohio. When all is said and done, there will be no doubt of labor's key role in every major victory in 2012.

This is no time to be agnostic on elections nor is it a time to turn our backs on our own critical struggles in favor of electoral work. For the first time in our history it looks like that we might actually pull both off.

I am positively thrilled. How about you?

 Now back to the trenches.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day: Time to Think Big

Ok, so I'm a bit late. I spent most of my Labor Day celebrating my son's birthday and fighting the urge to think about what to write about not only today but the past few weeks and the next few months to come.

So much of our future hangs in the balance it is difficult not to offer up a set of opinions of what I think we should be doing to reverse the decline of unions and thus reverse the decline in wages, benefits and working conditions for millions of American workers. Literally dozens of Newspapers, Blogs, and more than a few TV shows today highlighted the fact that unions are singularly responsible for the creation of the American middle-class and with the weakening of unions that same middle-class living standard is disappearing.

It is always good to hear our leaders state in so many different ways that we are going to fight like hell to win this years election. Regardless of anyone's opinion of President Obama's record on delivering on his commitments to labor, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the cabal of reactionary operatives like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist represent an existential threat to unions. They are committed to waging war on our ability to fight for a fair economy that works for all of us.

A key question in this years election will be whether labor's increased emphasis on diverting resources away from Democratic Party structures toward membership mobilization and messaging as well as direct contact with non-union voters will be sufficiently robust to counter the tsunami of corporate money that will bombard voters with billions of dollars in negative advertising.

The spike in corporate money entering elections and the corresponding uptick in right-wing independent expenditures in 2010 caught labor by surprise. That unexpected infusion of corporate cash along with substantial cynicism among union and progressive voters (the "enthusiasm gap") led to the shellacking we took in 2010. After much hand wringing and exhaustive analysis labor has hopefully developed a ground game that can play a key role in delivering a defeat to Mitt Romney.

I accept that most discussion between now and Nov. 6th will be focused on beating our blood enemies. I don't often use the term "our only hope", but this comes about as close as you get to a life or death election for labor.

But aside from the fiery speeches about kicking Mr 1%'s ass, Labor Day allows us to also take a few stabs at thinking about strategies for not only our immediate survival but also turning our current defensive posture into one of offense.Labor Day is a day to think big and dig deep. It is a day to look back in reverence and to look forward with renewed determination.

Thinking beyond Nov.6 is critical. If Obama wins or loses, there are dozens of state houses and Governors now in the hands of people committed to our destruction who will open up legislative sessions next year with a whole new set of attacks on workers.

The same quandary over growth and renewed power for unions in America continues to elude us. Commentary from scores of radical pundits notwithstanding, serious and deliberate action is required to begin retooling the labor movement to meet the challenges ahead:

  • Unions must be willing to restructure to and do away with redundancy, waste and any structure that does not serve the immediate need to grow and raise living standards for our members and the millions  we must organize to maintain those standards. Serious thought has to be put into consolidating organizational bodies, pooling resources, and where possible mergers of entire unions. I say this not to rehash the debate that Stephen Lerner initiated, but because I see that perspective vindicated every day when I see local unions who have jurisdictions ripe for organizing in their cities with no ability to grow because they lack resources or when I see entire International unions with less than five organizers on staff. Fetshizing tiny fiefdoms where we negotiate increasingly marginally better contracts for smaller and smaller groups of workers is a notion that must rejected and vilified. Clinging to standards that no longer determine the wage scale in an industry simply represents impending death for any organization unless we are aggressively working to rebuild density.
  • Make the "Second Bill of Rights" campaign real. The recent trend towards independent political activity should be expanded into a focus on mobilizing our members in state house legislative sessions around the country. We should also be willing to learn from our enemies and make our presence felt whenever town hall meetings are called as congressional representatives come home to their districts during recesses as either confrontation or positive reinforcement whichever is appropriate. 
  • More and more we must renew the idea of looking at organizing entire markets with campaigns that capture the imagination and/or demand the attention of the surrounding community.The increased use of strategic researchers and campaign staff can and should be used to great effect in these campaigns to piece together comprehensive campaigns that use maximum leverage to achieve employer neutrality or at least muted objection to being organized. Where we choose to continue utilizing the NLRB to organize, we must be crystal clear with companies that we are organizing that there will be a political price paid for aggressive anti-union campaigns. Whenever there is a point of vulnerability, coercive anti-union campaigns should be met with public campaigns of equal strength that expose their coercive nature, rally community allies, and bring public pressure to their doorstep.
  • We have to develop alternate or parallel forms of organization for workers who are either not afforded the right to organize or whose employment structures make it all but impossible to organize through traditional means. Structures for misclassified workers, workers excluded from the NLRA, temporary and contingent workers, as well as public sector workers in states that prohibit collective bargaining can and should be developed that allow these workers to build organizations that will allow these workers the ability to collectively fight back. These could take the form of associate member programs, paralleled associations or membership based 501c4's based on the concrete circumstances.
Finally we have to renew the spirit of discussion that can help us flesh out the details. I realize that what I am writing here is just the opinion of one union staffer who has a very limited ability to implement any of what I am writing about. But I also know that many labor leaders I speak with grapple with these exact questions. The main obstacle that seems to be present is a clear method of overcoming the various obstacles both human and material to rebuilding our movement. Happy Labor Day.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Marrying Actions and Rhetoric

I have to thank Stephen Lerner because I am stealing the title of this post from this speech of his given last year:

This is the short version, you can watch the full version here. I chose the title because regardless of how much I understand that changing the labor movement is a titanic task nowhere near as easy as many seem to imply, I deeply feel that there is a disconnect between the state of the labor movement, the challenges we face, and what we as a movement do on a daily basis to achieve these goals, grow and build power for working people.

I attended one of the many labor sponsored banquets not to long ago. While I often find most labor's gatherings dry and mundane, I attend them because it is an opportunity to network and connect with leaders of our movement and to show my unwavering support for our movement at one of its few public events in my city.

Most of the speakers were what I considered to be fairly traditional as were the topics, the 2012 elections, political attacks on our movement, fighting for good contracts, and honoring the storied history of our movement's forefathers. Many of our key politcal allies attended and were recoginized. Drinks were had and fun (or something resembling it) was had by all.

At the end of the dinner, I came to the realization there was huge disconnect between events like this and the reality of the fact that we are actually facing the destruction of our movement.

I am just as guilty as the next person of being part of that disconnect. Intellectually understanding the depth of our crisis and taking action that corresponds to that depth requires having the shirtail to move the necessary changes but more importantly the political will to take the necessary action. The issue for most of us that the process of overcoming lethargy is a daunting thing to tackle and building intertia is harder than it looks.

Most of our time is spent doing what the labor movement needs to have done to exist and protect what members we do have. We negotiate contracts, we represent workers in grievance hearing, arbitrations and panels. These are the main things that workers organize to obtain, ie. to improve their working conditions, to have better wages and benefits, to have these gains "put into writing" in a legally binding agreement, and to have that agreement be enforced by their union.

For many of us, we give everything we have everyday and it is nowhere near enough. Local and regional officers often percieve their organizations as "doing all they can" and often are strapped for resources themselves.

The tendency to "circle the wagons" keep our heads low and hope the assault on labor will "blow over" after Obama wins a second term is strong.

Most in the upper echelons of the various unions do indeed seem to understand the crisis and also seem to have some idea of what it will take to overcome it.The national AFL-CIO has some new itiatives such as the creation of "Workers Voice" a "superpac" that will serve as an independent voice for labor in supporting pro-labor candidates and the Workers Stand for America Rally next week that is meant to role out a campaign for a "second bill of rights".

Both of these initiatives give substance to the notion that labor must redirect resources more towards independent activity rather than sinking resources into the national Democratic Party structure. The justification for this redirection of resources was underscored by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz's comment that the struggle over collective bargaining in Wisconsin would "have no impact on the November election".

Similar to the National AFL, a good number of International unions affiliated to both the AFL and Change to Win have adopted varying degrees of restructuring, directing resources more towards organizing and a more independent approach to electoral politics for this election season. Unfortunately, in every instance the extentof these changes has been either exclusively contained in the International unions or is spotty among regional union structures

The biggest obstacle remains in local and regional structures, where the policies adopted and moved by International leaders trickles down in a very inconsistent way.

The ability build a grassroots movement of working people rests with politically revitalizing the local and regional structures of our various internationals.Mainly because those are the structures that have the most direct contact with union members.

The challenges of doing this are huge. While on the one hand just about every labor leader in the U.S. would call labor's current state as standing on the precipice, the ability to challenge deeply entrenched norms and structures that impede growth and our abilty to build power remains elusive.

This is where the notion of "marrying our actions with our rhetoric" must occur.

Abandoning traditional collective bargaining, and transforming our various unions into movements explicitly geared towards the fight for power is not realistic in the near term. Saying that, we need a sense of urgency in how we frame the state of our movements and the corresponding actions that we should be asking of ourselves, our coworkers and the members we serve.

We are in a crisis folks, let's act like it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Well, is Labor a "Lost Cause?"

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.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Freedom and the Debate About Labor's Future

I actually felt a bit cheesy today as my family celebrated Independence Day the traditional way, poolside in the sun cooking out with family, while I type out my thoughts on the vanishing of real freedom for the American worker.

Labor's crisis is bound up in the dramatic expansion of corporate power. The same forces that have sought to villify and portray labor as a special interest group are the same forces that are hijacking American Democracy with a tidal wave of cash funneled through a variety of corporate sponsored front groups unleashed by the Citizen's United Decision.

Gordon Lafer's latest contribution to the post Wisconsin  debate "Labor's Bad Recall?" does an exellent job of pointing out how Doug Henwood and many of the other critics of labor fail to acknowledge the impact of corporate power and its ability to impact public opinion through media outlets and pundits.

It can't be overstated that it is IMPOSSIBLE to understand labor's steep decline in influence and power without looking and the dramatic increase of corporate influence over American politics. The 2010 election that ushered in so many of the Governors, Congresspeople, State House Reps and State Senators who launched the offensive across the country against unions, voting rights, and public services was the first election carried out under the principles of Citizen's United.

Has labor been in a crisis since before 2010? Yes.
Has labor made mistakes? Yes
Do changes need to be made ? Yes.

But the sharpness of the attacks launched have blunted labor's ability to organize it's way out of the crisis, no matter who is at the helm and despite the best efforts of even what the critics would consider to be model unions.

Lafer rightly points out that the poll Doug Henwood uses to demonstrate his thesis that labor is losing influence due to it's supposed longstanding opulence and lethargy shows what are in fact more recent phoenomenon that are more the result of external factors. There is much anectdotal evidence that the uptick in spending by corporate front groups like the Center for Union Facts , the Koch Brother-funded Americans for Prosperity and other Superpacs has been able to successfully influence public opinion through media saturation aided by entities like Fox News and a host of right-wing pundits.

It is fair to say that labor could have done more to confront its crisis and to push back on this new offensive. The fact that the more recent slew of criticisms fails to even acknowledge that corporate influence has had even the slightest effect is telling about their motives. I would say it suggests a more fundamental difference of political perspective than a competing view of strategy.

Any discussion of restoring labor's power must begin from the standpoint that the primary source of labor's woes lies in the boarddrooms of corporate America, not in the union halls and International headquarters of the labor movement. The corporate cabal that is plotting labor's destruction is the very same threat to American freedom we are fighting to stop from stealing democracy from the American people. The solution to our crisis and the crisis of hope in America lie in defeating those forces

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on Wisconsin

Now that some of the smoke has cleared and most of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks have shot their load, I get the chance to give my two cents:

Claims of Our Demise are Grossly Over-Exaggerated

As much as many pundits and bloggers would like it to think, defeating the recall did not qualitatively alter the balance of forces nationally. Labor is still embattled no doubt, but we have beaten back as many post 2010 attacks as we have suffered defeats.

While not being sucessful at recalling Walker we were able to blunt his agenda by retaking a pro-labor majority in the Senate. We were also enormously successful in energizing a critical mass of members not only in Wisconsin but around the country. While we are not dead yet, in order to ensure that we didn't just wake up to die, we have some serious work to do.

Labor needs to deepen the process of how to make the drastic changes we HAVE to make in order to survive. Obviously we cannot continue on the downward spiral that we have been in for decades. We cannot continue simply tinkering with structure and resource allocation while avoiding challenging deeply entrenched disfunction that prevents us from climbing back from statistical irrelevancy.

The battle in Wisconsin DID reveal how precarious public sector unions are in relation to changing political winds. Labor has been far too dependent on growth in the public sector as a substitute for much needed growth in the private sector. Large scale organizing in the private sector and a deepened commitment to educating and mobilizing our members is the only way out of this mess, otherwise we eventually (and by eventually I mean soon) will reach the tipping point of being so tiny we lack the resources to claw back from the abyss.

Debate is Good (and Essential)

I Sincerely appreciate The Nation for Opening up it's website to be a forum for debate about the Recall and the struggle in Wisconsin. The opening to "Labor's Bad Recall?" asks,
Unions invested heavily in the campaign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Was that a huge mistake?
 The opening exchange between  Doug Henwood and Gordon Lafer  does a pretty good job of putting forward two perspectives that many would agree with on each side of the debate. The discussions happening now give another teachable moment that helps to underscore the need for all of us to dig deep, put aside longstanding presumptions, and truly do some soul searching about the future of our movement.

One big problem is that too much of the debate is coming from outside the labor movement from people who know very little about the inner workings of the very movement they are discussing. The need for folks to have a forum for a broad discussion in the labor movement is great. Unfortunately, no one Blog or Website has successfully caught on as a place where the strategists discussing and assesing Wisconsin and the state of the labor movement could coalesce into a popular discussion.

Labor is Not in Denial, We Just Know How to Lose a Fight

The handwringing by many progressive pundits over Labor's alledged flippancy or minimizing of the defeat in Wisconsin reminds me of the differences in how people from different social classes often react to losing a fistfight.

Many middle class people that I have seen lose fights often immediately begin explaining why they lost the fight. Most blue collar folks I know that lose a fight simply get up dust themselves off and often state matter of factly some variation of," wow he/she sure kicked my ass".

The point being many of the faults laid out with some venom by the progressive professors are things that labor has been discussing internally for decades. NOT A SINGLE point made has been unique nor stated for the first time. We get it we lost, we came up short, but it was not the end of the world for the labor movement.

Electoral Politics Will Continue to Be a Tactic in Labors Arsenal

One of labor's  loudest outside critics is Left Business Observer Editor Doug Henwood. He places the majority of the blame on labor's utilization of the recall as a tactic:
But lingering too long on the money explanation is too easy. Several issues must be stared down. One is the horrible mistake of channelling a popular uprising into electoral politics.
The recall  became the strawman along with labor's alledged lack of rapport with the majority of Wisconsin workers on which the defeat was largely blamed by Henwood and other critics. The fact is that an overwhelming majority of those who participated in the mass protests participated in the recall movement. The recall was simply another stage in the movement. Most of the people involved in the protests voted with their feet and the protests fizzled well before the recall kicked into gear.

As much as it tortures uber radical armchair activists and their more active but just as misled hangers on, electoral politics is still one major component of how most American people will continue to choose to express themselves politically. Yes people are cynical about elections, but that is borne more out of a lack of collective power that also translates into not being active at all rather than engaging in more militant activity that they fantasize about. It is important not to confuse cynicism and abstentionism with militancy.

I wake up every day working to help workers to engage in collective activity, to gain a greater sense of their own power. The day that the majority of working people are ready to move will be a day of celebration, but we are not there yet. We need a combination of grassroots organizing and education that builds power in our workplaces and our communities, but as long as elected officials continue to determine as much of our lives as they do elections will be a terrain we must operate on, recalls included.

Labor Did Not "Sell Out" the Struggle

The biggest myth perpetuated by Henwood and people like Matther Rothschild is that labor "shut down" the protests at the Capitol and "funneled" the movement into the recall campaign. According to Rothschild, the masses of Wisconsin were prepared to carry out open ended sickouts, slow downs, and mass civil disobedience and labor missed it.

No doubt there were people agitating for a general strike and other forms of direct action, the fact is that the critical mass of workers, students, progressives and other people that were part of the movement suffered from the all too human element of exaustion. Bills had to be paid, no strike clauses were in place that people as a whole were not willing to violate, so people returned to back work and continued to organize. Workers did in fact continue to organize on the shop floor by wearing buttons stickers, signing petitions. Maybe not as sexy as Henwood would like, but this is the stuff that actually builds movements.

The romantic notions of what was possible in Wisconsin make for good blog posts but were obviously written by people who have never actually organized workers. This post on Cory Robin's blog gives some insight into the mind one participant who was part of one of the most militant elements of the Wisconsin struggle, the Teaching Assistants Association, who lead the first demonstration and initiated the occupation of the Capitol.

 Which Labor Movement are They Talking About?

Doug Henwood says:
A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it’s true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they’re too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit.

I don't know what union Henwood is talking about. All the major unions I know of and most of the major private sector unions build labor community solidarity as a major component of any organizing campaign where it makes sense and many if not all public sector contract campaigns.

SEIU, AFSCME, ATU, NNU (Nurses), the Teamsters and a host of other unions with public sector members almost always put a sizable chunk of effort into build community alliances over staffing issues related to public safety and services to the broader community. The days of meat headed "go it alone" unionism are the exception and not the rule and they certainly are not how most union leaders are trained in today's labor movement.

This also further underscores Henwood's lack of understanding of what the purpose of a union actually is. Unions exist specifically to improve the lives of their members. Worker do not join unions to change the world and members take action because broader social change will increase their capacity to improve their own lives. People join struggles at least initially out of their own self interests, union members included. That is a basic ABC of organizing that Henwood apparently misses in his critique.

FACT: The National Democrats Turned Their Backs On Us

Yes Barrett was a sucky candidate, yes our messaging could have been better, yes labor could have done a better job of conveying it's message to it's members, all that is true.
BUT THE DNC AND OTHER NATIONAL DEMOCRATS SCREWED US, HARD. And that more than anything set the stage for defeat.

While some other Democratic groups, such as the Democratic Governors Association and the Obama campaign did send money and resources, the massive infusion of cash that was needed to counter Walker's arial bombardment of anti-recall commercials never came. And for a period of time the recall was openly dismissed by DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz as not relvant to the national election. What did come from the DNC came after Walker had already been allowed to define the race and to undermine the recall as a legitimate tactic.

The unanswered call for president Obama to make an appearance in Wisconsin no doubt left a bad taste in the moths of many especially in the aftermath where exit polls showed that a majority of voters were Obama supporters and it was those supporters who provided Walker with his winning margin.And just for the record, the fucking tweet from the President was outright insulting and an outrage.

 It would be suicidal for labor to sit out 2012 in retaliation for the inaction and some would say outright betrayal of the national Democratic Party apparatus out of our own interests in America not lurching further on an anti-worker trajectory. We should also have no illusions that until labor regains substantial density, we will more and more be seen as a junior partner and ATM by a party that is increasingly dominated by business interests. Ultimately the old quote by Samual Gompers that "labor has no permanent friends, only permanent interests" rings as true as ever.

Update: I had wanted to include some commentary about this post by Van Jones where he points out "The lesson of Wisconsin is pretty straightforward," "This is what happens when we put our minimum against their maximum." but the clock ran out.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Debate Renewed

This was not how I hoped we would get this discussion going again.

I have often bemoaned the fact that the debate that began back in 2004 that led to the formation of Change to Win had come to a premature end.

The anti-Change to Win crowd basked in the glow of Andy Stern's pyrhic fall from grace and immediatly began the drumbeat that the experiment of Change to Win had been a disaster at worst and a failure at best. The anti-Stern crowd used Stern as a strawman to declare their victory with their perspective vindicated.
But for many of us inside and outside the AFL-CIO who could not influence the policies or the debate, we were left hanging. For us the question still remained: "How do we reverse the seemingly irreversable decline of labor's power?"  The time remaining to reverse that decline is ticking away every day and a seemingly endless stream of body blows are landed on the body of labor as we move from one battle to the next. The question now for those of us tired of getting our teeth kicked in is, "what is the plan"? How can we regroup to fight back and if we can what form should that fightback take?

The attacks launched against labor after the 2010 election had both the effect of galvanizing labor leaders who rightly mobilized union members to fight back and revealing the limitations of labors ability to beat back the assault. In state after state the results were mixed. When the final shoe dropped in Wisconsin where labor failed to recall Scott Walker but stalled his anti-worker agenda by reclaiming the majority in the Wisconsin Senate, a new debate ensued.

Out of the wordwork came a slew of Monday morning quarter backs railing against labors numerous inadequacies and the bankruptcy of electoral politics. Many of these folks lack any real experience in the labor movement, which prevented them from being privy to the decades long discussion that they thought they were presenting for the first time, or they were the same perennial critics who have been making the same criticisms from the sidelines as part of carrying out a long term ideological agenda.

While the "war on workers " raged across the country, the occupy movement burst onto the stage. The space created to discuss and strategize on how to defeat corporate domination of our society was immense and regularly reached into the discourse on the Sunday morning pundit shows, talk radio, the blogosphere andother forms of social media.

This is the context we find ourselves in. A big mess with everyone explaining to us inside the labor movement what we are doing wrong. A debate raging outside of our movement that lacks the perspective of the ins and outs of actually organizing and mobilizing working people. Maybe it has never occurred to them that some of us understand the problem, but solving it isn't as easy as writing a snarky tweet or blog post.

This blog was created for those of us who want to talk strategy but who lack the shirttail to get a hearing and at the same time aren't necessaritly interested in joining the chorus of perennial critics. I want to hear from the people who really are thinking about strategy on the ground, not the "I told you so" Left. So let's get it on!