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May 05, 2004

Radically Changing the Labor Movement

Having discussed tactics last week, Andy Stern at SEIU is getting down to the real radicalism of what the Justice at Work project is proposing, namely changing who joins the labor movement and what even being a member means.

Labor unions have been furiously proposing new tactics for a decade or so, some of which are working to revive membership in their targetted workplaces. But unions have maintained the same basic model for membership: a workplace is organized, they vote in a union, then the people in that workplace start paying dues and get a vote in that union.

Now, SEIU is suggesting that people not already in an organized workplace will be able to join the union. The model they are suggesting is the Dean campaign, where people were encouraged to organize in whatever way made sense for them, whether geographically or by ethnic or some other kind of interest. The Internet can then be used to help people find each other and help SEIU organize new broad-based campaigns to organize the unorganized.

Andy Stern wants to start the discussion with how to use the Net better, then turn to how that might fit in with people being asked to join the labor movement.

But I don't think you can really separate them.

What struck me about the Dean movement was the thirst by people, especially young people, for organization, for an organization they could join, where their power to act could be multiplied into a force that could defeat the special interests. This is the classic promise of joining a labor union, but today if you want to join a union, you face years of struggle to organize your workplace, and you very well may never succeed given anti-union attacks by your employer.

Dean let you join by sending in a few bucks and the payoff was an instant sense that you were sacrificing for the greater good. This dKos post by Stirling Newberry captures well this aspect of the Deaniac energy:

Look at the bat. Tell me you aren't buying warbonds.

What made the Dean movement work is something very simple - something touched upon by Bill Maher's "When you ride alone, you ride with bin Laden": namely, Americans want a war. Or more exactly, we want a war effort...Dean and Trippi asked people to give, give for the greater cause.

This gets to a basic counter-intuitive point about Dean- he succeeded by demanding sacrifice by his recruits. By asking them to pay to join the campaign, he gave the Deaniacs an instant sense of effective sacrifice.

Where the union movement went wrong was in thinking that they had to deliver a pay raise or a union contract before they could ask people to join the union. It's as if union dues were merely a fee-for-service for the benefits-- a model a lot of critics called the "business union" model.

But unions shouldn't be asking people to join unions in exchange for better working conditions for themselves. Unions should be asking people to join unions to improve the lives of all Americans, which in the end will help them as well.

Which also means you don't have to wait for a union contract to be won before you ask people to start paying union dues. You can start today and organize people everywhere, in their churches, in their community meetings, whereever they are comfortable. And the Internet just becomes a new tool to make that kind of broad-based organizing easier. That's what the Dean campaign demonstrated.

This is hardly a radical new concept for unions in America. In the 19th century, the Knights of Labor organized not just in workplaces but in community-based chapters as well:

If the KOL had a dominant feature, it was its inclusiveness. All manner of races, creeds and ethnic backgrounds passed through the veils of KOL assembly halls. Alone among American labor organizations until the 20th century, the KOL even entertained the idea that the unskilled, African-Americans and women were the equals of white craftsmen. Such notions cannot be divorced from ideas of "Universal Brotherhood" that infused the Order's rituals.
While the Knights were destroyed under the assault of big capitalists at the end of last century, leaving only the more elite craft-based unions of the AFL, the memory of that more broad-based unionism remained.

The next version was the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW:

In June of 1905, delegates came together in Chicago for the founding convention of the IWW. The convention was a response, in part, to the restrictive organizing efforts of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) along lines of craft unionism and specific areas of manufacture...The power to recall the General Executive Board and for collection of dues rested with the general membership, and that membership would be open to all regardless of gender, race, or occupation.
While both the Knights and the IWW had serious organizational weaknesses, partially due to their separation from many of the traditional workplace-based unions that also formed, their promise of universal unionism was an attractive draw to millions of workers.

The formation of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) had much of the radical spirit of the IWW with more of a commitment to traditional workplace organizing. Unfortunately, World War II and McCarthyism's attacks on unions led to an increasing conservatism and the return of "business unionism" even in the more radical of CIO unions, eventually leading to the merger of the CIO with the old AFL structure-- the AFL-CIO we know today.

So if SEIU follows the Dean campaign in encouraging "self-organizing" among a wide range of communities under the umbrella of the union movement, it's nothing that the Knights of Labor and the IWW didn't do in the past. But by welding that radical energy with both the technology of the web and the traditional stability of workplace unions, SEIU could succeed where those earlier efforts failed.

It's a heady idea, but the key will be challenging people to move beyond their own economic self-interest -- however important that appeal will remain -- to join together in a movement that will create collective power that transcends any particular workplace or industry.

If Justice at Work can accomplish that, it will become the most important union campaign since the CIO formed in the 1930s.

Posted by Nathan at May 5, 2004 08:26 AM