This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.
We need to rethink what an effective workers’ movement should look like. Employers have already figured out the answers to whatever problems we create for them with a “renewed” labor movement that maintains our existing institutional forms. Corporations practice infinite degrees of outsourcing, so many workers don’t even know who their real boss is; that’s the direction capitalism is heading. Organizing the workforce of today will require different kinds of membership organizations.
Unions today are too weak to be the sole agents of social change. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has grown in the past decade, but even if we recruited a million new members, we wouldn’t have enough power to transform society for our members and all workers. So SEIU created a major initiative in 2011 that went beyond traditional union organizing—the Fight for a Fair Economy. In Minnesota, we formed a table where different groups could come together as equals to align their campaigns and identify enemies we had in common. We are not a coalition that’s united to fight just a single campaign. We are an alignment of organizations and campaigns that have a shared analysis—that the problem we jointly face is the corporate takeover of our democracy—and a shared tactic of direct action.
Minnesotans for a Fair Economy has its own staff, a mobile team of researchers, communicators, and organizers. The shared resource of the mobile team adds capacity to all of the organizations at the table. For example, through efforts of the mobile team, a fledgling nonprofit was able to publish and publicize a white paper on the effect of home foreclosures on the budget of the Minneapolis Public Schools. That led many groups to demand that the schools take their money out of one of the banks that had done the most foreclosing—Wells Fargo—and the school district did just that. This kind of effort is a model for what we have to do.
Progressives must also seriously rethink how we fund the work of social justice. The decline of unions means the decline of our dues-paying structures, the biggest and most reliable source of progressive funding. We need to think about how to generate resources, perhaps through institutions like consumer co-ops and creative new membership organizations and institutions.