What Does Labor Need to Do to Survive?

In reporting my piece on labor’s future ("If Labor Dies, What's Next?"), I talked with a number of labor leaders and activists about their ideas for what unions need to do differently to survive—and make a difference—in today’s political economy. Here are my edited versions of four such discussions:


Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers

School districts are cutting professional development, increasing class size, cutting art and music education, and blaming teachers for not doing a good job at the same time that the poverty rates for children are increasing. We can complain about that, but we have to do something about that. We can’t just tell the districts and the legislators to do a better job.

What we realized is we need to solve the problem. We have to focus on quality as well as fairness. Teachers need and want to share best practices with each other. They want to know how to make their lessons more robust. Education is going beyond rote memorization; we must teach critical thinking and creativity. This requires a different kind of pedagogy, at a time when districts are providing fewer and fewer materials for professional development.

So AFT has created a digital file cabinet, www.sharemylesson.com—an interactive Web site we launched in July that offers teachers more than 200,000 resources and where teachers can add their own lessons, critique others, and create their own file cabinets. Anyone can sign on. The site is free. We want to make this available to all educators.

Unions have to focus on the quality of work as well as fairness in the work place. [UAW president] Bob King says this: Management comes and goes, but we need to be sure that whoever’s in management, we can build good cars. For teachers, we want to be sure that we have the environment we need to educate kids.


Madeline Janis

Madeline Janis was the founding director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the organization that first, and most successfully, promoted municipal living-wage ordinances and requirements for local hiring and other community benefits in municipally-assisted developments such as stadiums, hotels and retail centers. She is currently LAANE’s national policy director.

After the civil unrest of 1992 [the Rodney King riots], it was clear that standards of living, particularly for people of color, were spiraling downward in the nation’s second largest city. There were fundamental problems about the lack of good jobs and the growth of unhealthy communities. We needed to do something different, and unions alone couldn’t do it. Community-based organizations alone couldn’t do it.

We had an idea to set up a think tank that could do research on the economy and how public policy could impact it. And that could help build coalitions around mutual interests and really come up with ways to use the power of government to reshape the economy for the better in response to those coalitions. At the same time, the local labor movement was rethinking the role of unions in politics. Miguel Contreras was at the Hotel Employees Union, and he and [his wife, then also a Hotel Employees official] Maria Elena Durazo recruited me to start up that think tank [which later became LAANE]. In 1996, Miguel became the executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. The old way of labor’s doing politics—donating money to candidates—wasn’t working. The County Fed came up with a new model: Setting up independent expenditure campaigns on behalf of labor’s agenda and the candidates who supported the movement, and getting union members to knock on doors on their behalf. LAANE would formulate a progressive vision and agenda, and labor would hold elected officials accountable to that vision.

LAANE became the policy shop for the entire L.A. progressive movement—not just labor, but environmental and immigrant groups as well. As for labor, the unions didn’t have the capacity to think about the entire regional economy and where their industries fit into it, much less come up with way to transform those industries. So we did. We developed a set of policies for employees of private contractors who worked on public properties and for developers who were the beneficiaries of public investment in their developments. We succeeded in getting worker retention ordinances [which guarantee workers the right to stay on their job when they get a new employer] and living wage ordinances [which guarantee workers a pay rate significantly higher than minimum wage and health benefits, or a wage higher than that if they don’t get those benefits] for workers on city-contract jobs.

We also experimented with a new vision for economic development. Traditionally, government has invested in particular businesses and developments and let the private sector do its thing. It provides billions of dollars with no accountability. A bank that makes an investment wants a return for its money, and so does the public. The returns to the public should include good jobs, child-care centers, cleaner air, affordable housing. We built coalitions demanding that government condition its investments on those businesses’ commitment to deliver those goods.

To realize these goals, labor has to develop a political movement that gets its members involved and makes elected officials know they’re accountable to us. Labor also has to put its clout on the table for an agenda broader than just its own. You have to lead with a coalition of community activists and workers; you have to have a broader social movement promoting a broader vision. This takes a long time to build. It requires a fundamental change in the ways unions think about coalitions, in the way they do politics. But in 1993, California was only a nominally blue state and Los Angeles a nominally blue city with a Republican mayor. Look at them now.


Stephen Lerner

Stephen Lerner was the architect and director of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, probably the most successful private-sector organizing campaign of the past quarter-century. He is currently an adviser to groups mobilizing against the policies of America’s leading banks.

There were a number of reasons why Justice for Janitors succeeded. First, we had an analysis of who had power in the building service industry. We knew that the janitors’ nominal employers, the cleaning contractors, were just a payroll agency. We went to the building managers, the building owners, the investors in downtown office buildings, the pension funds, and developed strategies and tactics for pressuring each level. Second, we had a theory of how to improve wages and benefits in a hyper-competitive industry, without forcing unionized employers out of business. The idea was that we had to organize whole markets at one time, and that we didn’t implement higher wages and benefits at a union employer until a majority of the employers in the market were also unionized. We organized for gains, but we didn’t put anyone out of business. Three, following from that, we organized the workers in the whole market, and their allies and community groups. Our campaigns always did community organizing. Fourth, we found that the cleaning contractors and building management companies and pension-fund investors were often global in scope. So we did worker-to-worker contacts in different nations, and exerted pressure on the contractors who were fighting the workers in the U.S. from their unionized workers in other countries. And fifth, we reinvented the strike as a mass activity, not just a picket line, with marches, drama, excitement, civil disobedience. Unions have to do a lot more than just picket.

Justice for Janitors was expensive, though, and took many years to come to fruition. It leveraged resources – funds, staff, activists -- from the existing union base, and some unions may be hesitant about doing that.

Today, wealth and corporate ownership is narrowly concentrated, and work at the bottom is disaggregated. Companies outsource their work, they have multiple subsidiaries and suppliers, they use temporary employees. What the movement needs to do, as Justice for Janitors did, is to go after the top tenth of the 1 percent, not the employer of record. We have to ask, Who’s the real boss?

We need to build social movements to challenge this power, of which unions are only a part. They did this in Brazil and South Africa, challenging dictatorial power and winning democratic government and strong workers’ organizations. Union growth comes as part of a movement for democratizing society. Sometimes we’ve thought that if we could just get more union members, that would lead to a better society, but that’s not the way it works. Where unions are vibrant and growing and playing a socially positive role, they’re part of a broader social movement. They don’t see their role as limited to extracting wealth through collective bargaining. We have to popularize the idea of broad groups of people taking on the powerful outside election cycles. That won’t happen if we focus on convincing the progressive movement to support the growth of unions. Labor has a greater chance of success when multiple constituencies all demand a better deal from power.

Unions rightly raise tons of money for election campaigns, and today, unions agree that we need a massive social movement. But unions should also raise tons of money for that movement, even if it’s a movement they can’t turn on and off.


Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen is president of the Communications Workers of America

Right now, 88 percent of American workers don’t have collective bargaining and the 12 percent who do are all playing defense. Because the number of workers with collective bargaining rights has steadily declined, we’re the only economy in the world where real wages have declined for 40 years. This is what the end of collective bargaining looks like.

Mitt Romney will wipe out what’s left of collective bargaining if he’s elected. But even in the Democratic Party, precious few elected officials understand the effect that the collapse of collective bargaining has had on the economy. Nancy Pelosi gets it; George Miller and Tom Harkin get it. But in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, every other issue comes ahead of reforming labor law so that more workers can bargain collectively.

Things like the Senate rules, which require 60 votes to pass any serious bill, are not a question the labor movement can deal with separately from the question of worker rights. Senate rules, voter suppression, denying a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants, the dominance of money in politics have made the idea of American democracy a laughing stock in the global South. Labor has to help build a democracy movement in the United States – political democracy and economic democracy. If all we do is fight for our issue, if all the other progressive groups do is fight for their issue, we’ll all be blocked by these limits on our democracy. We need to invest the resources and have a common narrative to build a movement of 50 million Americans for democracy, in the tradition of the civil rights movement and today’s movement of immigrant kids.

There’s not going to be one neat approach to rebuilding democracy; this stuff will be messy. But right now in Canton and Akron, our members are going door-to-door with activists from other movements to build a membership organization, Stand Up for Ohio, that won’t just mobilize people for the November election but will fight to keep homes from being foreclosed in their communities. The AFL-CIO’s Working America program is now experimenting with programs that do more than win votes at election time, that build political consciousness in working-class communities. In Detroit, UAW Local 600 is sitting in in people’s houses to keep them from being foreclosed. There’s a growing awareness in the union movement that if we just continue on in our old ways, if we don’t involve ourselves in broader struggles, that’s a death sentence. We can’t keep going down the same old track.

The labor movement of the 21st century also needs to be focused on the quality of work, as well as the standard of living. The building trades have a great tradition of training their members for specialized work, and we all should have been doing that. The lesson we should draw from Germany and the Nordic countries is that strong unions also focus on worker skills and job quality, which can lead to expanded investment, broadly shared prosperity, and even stronger unions.

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