Everything We're Doing Is Not Enough
We can win all of these strikes and still lose the class war. Unless...
The WGA is on strike. SAG-AFTRA is on strike. It looks more probable than not that 340,000 Teamsters at UPS will be on strike August 1, and more than 100,000 UAW auto workers could be on strike soon after that. This is, legitimately, an important moment. These strikes are a big deal. They represent one of the most concerted lines in the sand drawn by working Americans since the post-Reagan inequality crisis began. In the timeless see-saw war between corporate and labor power, this building strike wave will take its place in history. It’s not just a vibe, a flood of sensational media coverage, a general feeling that is not backed up by substance. It’s real. You should care about these strikes, and support these strikes, and be encouraged that these strikes are happening. You would not be wrong to let yourself imagine that something big might be shifting, right now.
I say all of that up front because I don’t want to be mistaken for a reflexive contrarian or a nihilist when I say this: These strikes are not the most important work of the labor movement. Nor are any strikes. It is quite possible—if I were placing a cold-eyed bet, I would say is is even likely—that unions could win each and every one of these strikes and that the broader labor movement could continue its decline and aggregate labor power in America could continue going down, as it has for the past century. That’s because the task that unions need to be doing to actually rebuild the labor movement’s power is something completely different from the task of winning strikes. And there is little evidence that they have a plan to do it.
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Everything a union does is important. Organizing new members, winning union elections, bargaining contracts, winning strikes…all of these things are meaningful, especially to the workers who are involved in them. But if you are concerned with the big picture—the overall balance of power between capital and labor, and how capital has seized superiority over the past half century, plunging our nation into a crisis of inequality—then you need to focus on the metric that is going to determine the future of that battle. That metric is union density, which is a measure showing what percentage of the American work force are union members. It’s plummeted from a mid-century high of one in three workers down to one in ten today. In the private sector, it’s less than 7%. This is the direct measure of the decline of union power in the context of the whole economy.
We can never honestly say the labor movement is “winning” this overall battle unless union density is going up. By a lot. We would need to double union density just to get back to where we were in the early Reagan era, when things really began going downhill. That means that we need something like 15 or 20 million new union members in America. That is the single most important task of the U.S. labor movement. And even as the #HotLaborSummer hashtags fly around, there is no sign that we are on the path to turning these numbers around.
As all the strikes today show, union members are being stepped on hard. We are fighting for the very existence of the middle class. But in the bigger picture, union members are a lucky minority. At least we have the tool to fight. Nine out of ten American workers lack even that. Union members go into battle with a weapon, but most workers are just walking straight towards capitalism’s machine guns unarmed. The most vital thing unions in America need to be doing—morally, strategically, and economically—is organizing new workers into unions. Yes, all the other stuff that existing union members need is important also. But without huge new organizing numbers, union density keeps declining, the ship of labor keeps sinking, and eventually we all drown. We need more people.
Even unions that want to organize broadly tend to lack the resources to do enough. But the bigger problem is that most unions do not act as though new organizing is their most important task. This is due to human nature: existing members pay dues, and they are focused on their own problems, and that is naturally where most of the union’s resources end up going. Over time this creates a “shrinking island” effect, where unions tend their own declining base even as the seas of capital keep pushing their numbers and influence down. When John Sweeney took over as head of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he urged unions to dedicate 30% of their budgets to new organizing. Today, that figure is almost unheard of. Budgets don’t lie. It’s not a priority. That will change or the labor movement will continue to peter out.
Here is my challenge to the hundreds of thousands of union members on strike today, including those in my own union: When we win this long, hard fight, we need to carry the same energy and commitment back into our unions to make them organize. Every union needs to grow. Significantly. If your union already dominates one industry, it needs to expand into new industries to organize the workers there. If your union is not spending 30% of its budget on new organizing, you need to get involved and push it to do so. If your union’s membership is not growing at a double digit percentage year over year, then there is more work to be done. (My own union, the WGAE, is considered a fairly aggressive organizing union, but we are not close to meeting these benchmarks.) We can be happy for each new place we unionize, yes, but we also need to maintain enough perspective to step back and look at the numbers and say: We’re not doing enough. We need to organize more people. We need to spend more. We need to hire more organizers. We need to look past our traditional industries. Every worker deserves a union, and nobody is going to give it to them except us.
And that is the really the point: There is no one coming from outside to save the labor movement. It’s on us. If you are in a union, look around—there is the labor movement. It’s you and me. We do not deserve this wonderful and powerful tool any more than the 90% of workers who do not have it. It is our moral responsibility to pass this tool on to them, so that they can join the same fight that we are all in. Strikes are hard, and union members and staffers make incalculable sacrifices for the collective good. That is what we need to do for working people outside of our union, as well. I know it sounds like a hassle, but there is no other choice. We often talk about how strikes are valuable because they excite the general public about the potential of labor power. That is true, but it is only the first step. The next step is giving all of those excited people a union of their own. If we don’t carry through and do that step, all that potential evaporates.
Let’s fucking go.
I did a panel at the Netroots Convention last weekend with a group of cool labor journalists which is a reminder for me to tell you that part of supporting the labor movement is supporting independent labor journalism, and that you should really be subscribing to The Real News and In These Times, two of the most committed labor news outlets in America. Radish Research is also a very good source of big picture research on organized labor. Media coverage of labor rises during exciting, strike-filled times like now, but it inevitably recedes when the strikes are over. The independent media will still be there when the big publications lose interest.
Go join a picket line! Info on all the WGA picket lines is here. Info on the SAG-AFTRA picket lines is here. You can donate to the Entertainment Community Fund to help all of the workers impacted by these strikes here. And the very best thing you can do to support the labor movement is, of course, unionize your own workplace. If you need any guidance on that, email me.
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