June 2011, Week 4


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Mon, 27 Jun 2011 22:53:37 -0400
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Why the Labor Movement is Not Just Another Protest 
By Joe Burns	

June 27, 2011

This article was originally published on Working In
These Times, at InTheseTimes.com/working. It is
permanently archived at:

SEIU volunteers Pam Rall-Johnston and Ashley Mathews
review paperwork at the United Steelworkers building in
Pittsburgh, Pa., before going canvassing door-to-door
in October 2010. One week before the midterm elections,
volunteers poured their energy into get-out-the-vote
efforts.   (Emmanuel PARISSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson recently
examined the developing trend in which unions abandon
the workplace to become pressure groups divorced from
collective bargaining and the workplace. As an example,
Meyerson discussed the Service Employees International
Union (SEIU) campaign to canvass low income
neighborhoods to sign up working people into a
community-based organization.

"The goal isn't to enroll the people behind those doors
in a conventional union" notes Meyerson, "but, rather,
into a mass organization of the unemployed and the
underpaid that can turn out votes in 2012 and act as an
ongoing pressure group for job creation and worker
rights during (presumably) Barack Obama's second term."

Like SEIU, an increasing number of union activists and
theorists are looking to center union strategy far from
the workplace. Rather than relying on the traditional
union tactics of organizing, collective bargaining and
political action, many trade unionists are instead
focusing on protests against corporate targets and
community organizing. Such actions get members into the
streets to directly confront corporate profiteers and
allow unions to organize around broad-based themes.

But as commentator Randy Shaw notes, the idea that
building "some new and amorphous "mass organization"
that will help elect and then pressure pro-union
politicians reflects a strategy that has already
failed, and ignores that union power is based much more
on the success of workplace organizing."

Indeed, many recent labor books and articles promote
strategies far removed from the traditional home of the
labor movement--the workplace. Thus, we have calls to
focus on building regional worker rights campaigns,
citywide workers assemblies, and to move beyond
collective bargaining to a broad-based populism
promoting consumer mortgage strikes rather than worker

All good stuff, but one must ask where do workers,
workplace organizing and collective bargaining fit into
these visions of trade unionism? (For counter
viewpoints promoting strategies rooted in the
workplace, see an emphasis on member mobilization,
union democracy and my own thoughts on reviving the

This shift away from the workplace, however, poses some
very important questions about the function and purpose
of trade unionism. Can the labor movement become a mass
organization, divorced from the traditional concerns of
the labor movement, workplace organizing and collective
bargaining? Or is there something special about trade
unionism--a historic role--that makes it different from
other protest organizations?

Labor's historic role

For the first 150 years of trade unionism, the central
mission of trade unionism was to change the terms
governing the sale of human labor. At the height of
union power in the United States, through collective
bargaining backed by a powerful strike, unions changed
the wage structures of entire industries and
established standards for union and non-union workers

Unions won healthcare, pensions and work rules that
forced employers to treat workers like human beings. On
the legislative front, unions fought for minimum wages
and overtime protections, which established legal
minimums below which human labor could not be sold.
Such forms of trade unionism disrupted the "normal"
operations of labor markets and as such struck at the
heart of power and privilege in society in ways other
protests groups can never do.

Digging deeper, when trade unionists engage in
collective bargaining, they are reaffirming the
humanity of workers. To anti-labor conservatives, in
the recent words of U.S. representative Steve King of
Iowa, human "labor is a commodity just like corn or
beans or oil or gold, and the value of it needs to be
determined by the competition, supply and demand in the

In other words, Representative King and his corporate
crony's view human beings as things, to be bought,
sold, used up and discarded when no longer useful.
Fueled by such beliefs, anti-labor conservatives are
mounting attacks against child labor laws and any other
laws they consider interfering with the market in the
sale of human labor, including laws mandating fair
wages for federal construction projects.

Trade unionism at its best, however, long challenged
this corporate-centered viewpoint. Unionists fought for
and won respect on the job, pay far above what the
"free market" would dictate, and limitations on
management's control over the workplace. The struggle
for power on the shop floor--for work rules and
seniority rights--stemmed from belief that just because
workers are forced to sell their labor for a period of
time, they don't give up their humanity.  That's
another reason why the labor movement cannot surrender
our most important battleground--the workplace.

At its best, trade unionism is unlike any other form of
organization in society.  Strong organizations, based
in the workplace, allow working people a vehicle to
become active in their workplace and the broader
community. Most people spend a good part of their
waking hours at work. In an alienating society, work
has a social aspect which has long been an important
junction for workers of different races and backgrounds
to come together to fight for common goals.

While most community organizations are dominated by
middle-class forces, unionism has self-consciously been
a bastion of working class leadership. (All too many
middle-class activists, upon entering the labor
movement, ignore this essential feature of trade
unionism. To them, the new agents of history are the
research departments of international unions, the
organizing departments, or the staff of central labor
councils who conduct community outreach.)

For all these reasons, corporate America has always
held a special vehemence for trade unionism, with some
of the greatest legislative battles involving the rules
governing collective bargaining. Judges, the
traditional villains of the labor movement, singled out
unionists for special rules restricting free speech
rights. Constitutional protections have been thrown
aside as judges have placed limitations on our rights
to picket, assemble and free speech in excess of those
afforded other groups in society. Certainly, labor's
enemies do not view trade unions as just another
protest movement.

Finally, the battle for workers rights will be won in
the workplace. Either trade unionist figure out methods
of taking on corporations and improving workers' lives
or trade unionism will become extinct.  In an article
in the New Labor Forum, ILWU organizing director and
veteran union organizer Peter Olney makes a compelling
argument that the future of unionism lies in workplace

Olney discusses one of last year's most intense
workplace battles, in which miners in the isolated West
California town of Boron took on international mining
conglomerate, Rio Tinto. Using a variety of tactics,
and enduring a 105-day lockout, workers stood up to Rio
Tinto, scoring a defensive victory, in which some but
not all of management's concessions were beat back.

Olney argues that such battles are key to reviving the
labor movement:

Union leaders search for large-scale organizing
campaigns that, if successful, could spark a
resurgence. They hunt for ambitious, winning campaigns
that could come to symbolize the rebirth of labor.
Rather than identifying and building on the existing
struggles of the organized working class, their
strategies are always cast as "new" organizing
campaigns. It's time to recognize that winning
defensive battles like Boron is the key to labor's

What Onley points to here, and what labor history clear
tells us, is that when the labor movement comes roaring
back--and it will--it will be because workers and their
unions take a stand to fight back and find new ways of
confronting power and privilege in society. Such a
movement, of necessity, will be firmly rooted in the

Joe Burns, a former local union president active in
strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney.
He is the author of the forthcoming book Reviving the
Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and
Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011) and can be
reached at [log in to unmask] 


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