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June 14, 2013 1:16 PM The Labor Movement of the Future

By Ed Kilgore

Earlier this week I wrote about Rich Yeselson’s analysis in an extensive essay at Democracy of the enduring legacy of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 in reversing the American labor movement’s progress and then accelerating its decline. But Yeselson goes on in that essay to suggest a strategy for the survival and eventual revival of the labor movement that deserves some attention and discussion.

He calls his strategy “Fortress Unionism,” and it is frankly defensive when it comes to short-range objectives for private-sector unions:

Fortress Unionism would buttress the remaining strengths of labor. The fortress would remain open; labor’s effort to build coalitions with other progressive forces should continue. Unions, however, should not undertake long, expensive comprehensive campaigns outside their core areas of strength. Today, less would be more. In sum:
Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies. They include, respectively: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, and New York City; the auto industry, large supermarket chains, several hospital chains, building services in major cities, and convention-sized hotels in major cities; UPS (Teamsters), and the telecom companies (Communications Workers). Strong labor movements in metropolitan areas are especially important to sustain, as they are labor-liberal bulwarks of economic and political strength.

But it’s important to note that Yeselson isn’t advising unions to think small or scale back their ultimate ambitions: “Fortress Unionism” is based on a clear recognition of the inherent limits of union organizing efforts. He believes the supply of organizing resources is less important than the demand for them, not just now, but always:

[U]nion growth occurs when working-class activism overwhelms the quotidian strictures of civil society, forcing political and economic elites to accept unionization as the price of civil peace. During episodes of massive union growth, the workers don’t confine themselves to the careful strategies of union staff—they disregard them, and force the union to play catch up. Conflict spreads quickly from worksite to worksite. If the Wal-Mart demonstrations in November 2012 had followed the pattern of the great railroad strike of 1877 or the 1894 Pullman strike or the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike or any other signature struggle of American labor history, it would have sparked unrest in stores all over the country. Win or lose, workers would have risked their jobs, maybe their physical well-being, and challenged private and public authority.

Accordingly, Yeselson urges unions to complement strategies to consolidate their positions of strength with those that encourage the kind of working-class activism which could eventually create a new wave of unionism:

Alt-labor is the name given to efforts to organize disparate workers outside the conventional one-union to one-workplace structure. The AFL-CIO’s 3.2 million-member Working America, led by legendary “9 to 5” organizer Karen Nussbaum, is the largest and best funded of these efforts. The logic of alt-labor is to find the potential leaders of tomorrow’s mass union organizing and organize them today around discrete, achievable demands. It’s exactly the right idea. As AFL-CIO president Trumka said in The Nation recently, “We hope that we will have the seed planted for people to understand the importance of collective action.” Seed away.
And then…wait. Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough. When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it.

In effect, Yeselson is calling for what might be described as a neo-Fabian (“I gain by delay”) labor strategy that stops throwing resources into unwinnable fights, and instead prepares to take advantage of the new and winnable fights of the future, when the labor movement can follow and guide, not create and direct, workers’ own aspirations for better working conditions and a society that respects and reflects their contributions to national wealth. It’s an approach that is not only eminently pragmatic, but also one that emulates the labor movement’s history and values.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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