What should labor do?

June 27, 2020

I had the very good fortune to participate in a Juneteenth weekend webinar presented by the Commuications Workers of America (CWA).  Four panelists offered valuable insights into both the history and current period of labor organizing in the Deep South, but for me the standout speaker was long-time union organizer, author, and theoretician Bill Fletcher Jr.

Fletcher spoke originally on the challenges facing the labor movement, but referenced a recent piece of his in the June 15/22 issue of The Nation.  After the webinar I looked up the article, and found these five thought-provoking recommendations for how labor can best unite and fight:

First, says Fletcher, unions need to attack the latest iterations of social Darwinism, which bolster the fortunes of the superior rich by sacrificing literally hundreds of thousands of “lesser” people – disproportionately blacks, Latinx, and First Nations people – to keep a failing dog-eat-dog capitalist economy from collapsing altogether.  The opposite of Darwinism is community, mutual aid, and networks of support of all sorts, which unions should devote resources to building.

Second, unions need to move past a long-running debate over whom they should represent – merely their own dues-paying members, or all workers, the entire “working class?”  The right choice is the latter, argues Fletcher; unions should “bargain for the common good,” as the Chicago Teachers Union and National Nurses United have learned to do.

Third, unions should lead a broad coalition movement against austerity.  A decade after the 2008-09 financial meltdown and the painful economic downturn that followed, the political-economic elite’s playbook is well known – bailouts and tax cuts for the big banks, mega-corporations, and major investors; layoffs, budget cuts, and social disinvestment for the rest of us.

Fourth, unions should move all their organizing efforts into high gear without delay.  History suggests that the greatest successes in union organizing came during periods of extraordinary economic distress; the Great Depression of the 1930’s is the best example.  Moreover, unions need to go national in plotting strategies for success; small, disconnected efforts, no matter how energetic they are, will cut it.

Fifth, unions will grow by organizing the unemployed.  However counter-intuitive the strategy may seem, significant numbers of unemployed unionists can lay the basis for an eventual labor renaissance.  With tens of millions of newly unemployed due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic – a crisis likely to worsen and possibly deteriorate into a protracted global depression – there is no better, or important, time to launch organizing initiatives of this type.

Food for thought, indeed; even better, a basis for action.

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