Is Labor on the Edge of a New Upsurge?

Imagine our goal is to revive the power of the labor movement, not just to hold on for another year, not just to do a little better. What might make that possible?

Most of the labor movement’s focus has been on the need to put more resources into organizing, but if the labor movement doubled the number of people it organized each year, and kept that up till 2036, it wouldn’t bring back the power. It would leave labor’s numbers (in percentage terms) right where they were in 1983, after Reagan wiped out PATCO, at a shade over 20% of the labor force.

Dan Clawson will be signing copies of his new book at the Labor Notes Conference, as well as speaking in a workshop on “Fighting State Budget Cuts.”

If you look at labor history, the U.S. labor movement hasn’t grown slowly, bit by bit, year after year. Most of the time the movement is losing ground. But once in a while there is a sudden burst of growth. The number of members shoots up, and labor’s power increases even faster. For example, from 1933 to 1945 the number of union members quintupled, from under 3 million to 15 million.

That kind of explosive growth can’t be created from the top down, and when it happens it totally changes the labor movement. Conditions today are ripe for another such explosion: people are working harder to stay in the same place, it’s clear conventional politics won’t bring change, business and the rich are plundering people in increasingly obvious and obscene ways, labor groups are forming once unheard of coalitions with other social movements, and the anti-war movement shows the global nature of the problem.

When an explosion comes it will change everything we think we know about the labor movement and what we mean by “union.”

At the beginning of the 1930s, there was only an AFL, no CIO. When auto workers tried to form a union, the machinists were sent to one union, the electricians to another, the unskilled workers somewhere else. They couldn’t work together in solidarity. When auto workers finally got together, they didn’t win by using the normal tactics: they took over the factory and thousands of community members surrounded the building, winning a new form of union, an industrial union. The success of that sit-down strike led to hundreds of other sit-downs in the next year.

The unions that we have today were created for a world that no longer exists. As long as they keep operating within the old framework, they won’t get very far. It will be like the early 1930s unions trying to organize only the skilled workers, and sending the people from one shop into six or eight different unions.

If workers want to organize, most unions still look to the government, especially the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), to provide a speedy election, keep employers from firing or harassing union activists, and make the employer bargain if the union wins. But these days employers totally dominate the government, and if employers break the law the worst that happens is they get slapped on the wrist.


Under these conditions, many unions have decided it’s too hard to win, so they’ve basically quit. They don’t try to organize new workers, and they cut the best deal they can inside the system, even though the “best deal” keeps getting worse and worse. But other unions, and many workers, have reached the opposite conclusion: If the rules are rigged, and playing inside the system leads to defeat, why play by the rules? If the NLRB can’t guarantee speedy elections or fair play, why make use of it?

If workers and unions stop worrying about what the rules say, they come up with very different kinds of unions, just as workers did in the 1930s. As one example among many, in Stamford, Connecticut, a multi-union coalition of low-wage workers, almost all of them people of color and most of them women, had the revolutionary idea of asking union members what issues mattered most to them.



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The issue workers cared most about was that they couldn’t find a place to live in Stamford, an expensive suburb, and one that was trying to slowly eliminate its public housing. So the unions helped the residents of public housing organize to stop privatization. They turned out hundreds of residents and won battle after battle.

Someone could object: yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s fine, but unions can’t afford to keep doing that; they should be out organizing new workers. But at least in this case, and I’d say in lots of others, taking on a community issue became the key to new organizing. When unions went to organize child care workers, lots of them lived in public housing. They already knew the union and spoke up for it in their workplaces.


If the model is “play within the rules and follow the NLRB guidelines” then workers can only go on strike about wages and working conditions. Dealing with a community issue is a distraction, something that dilutes the union’s power.

But if the model is “win by mobilizing community power” then unions need community allies. Dealing with a women’s issue, or immigration, or the environment, or global justice isn’t a distraction. It’s a way to take on the issues that matter to workers and it’s a way to build strong relations with community allies.

These days, sorry to say, if people think something is “just” a union issue, it’s often hard to build public support or get media attention. But almost all union issues are also about family, and the environment, and equal rights for all; making that clear, and building those connections, creates a stronger labor movement that doesn’t have to rely on the NLRB or the courts.

Most of what unions talk about is how to do just a little better. But if we want worker power it can only come through an explosive burst of growth. Just as the CIO was different from the AFL, the next burst of growth will create a labor movement dramatically different from the unions in the current AFL-CIO.

Suppose unions insist workers not only have the right to refuse overtime, but also to take off work to attend Little League games or school plays. When both parents are working long hours, is that a work or a family issue? The new form of labor movement will break down the boundaries between “work” and “family,” between “union” and “community,” between the workers of the United States and those of the rest of the world.

In doing so it will create forms we can barely imagine, perhaps uniting community groups with unions. It will change the culture and the way unions are organized. And it will re-make America.


Is it unrealistic to think this will happen? It’s far more realistic than believing a little more effort, or a slightly new tactic, will suddenly turn things around.

A whole lot of struggles going on today in practice involve attempts to create that new form of union-not because anybody has a plan to do so, but because it’s the only way to solve people’s problems. Most successful social movements were preceded by a long string of “failures”; only after the fact do people realize those “failures” were working out the formula for success.

Today, many predict the demise of unions. But in 1932 the president of the American Economics Association made the same prediction and history proved him spectacularly wrong. History can reverse directions even faster than the stock market. People are disgusted with the way things are, but don’t believe they can win. One hard-fought victory against great odds might change people’s minds and unleash a flood of activism.

Dan Clawson is the author of the upcoming book The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements.