Labor’s Diversionary Tactics

Frat-boy antics are no substitute for movement-building.

A friend of mine recently took a job organizing with the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU, you’ll recall, is the union that nurtured AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who won office a year and a half ago on pledges to revitalize–or at least resuscitate–American labor. There is good reason to take those pledges seriously: Between 1980 and 1995, a period when most of the labor movement was submoribund, Sweeney’s SEIU launched a series of clever and dogged organizing campaigns, and nearly doubled its membership. But to reverse its four-decade decline, the AFL-CIO will need to do more than adopt the SEIU’s organizing wizardry: It must convince the nation at large that organized labor is not simply a lobby, a New Deal relic, or a clubhouse full of gray-suited men.

Just after she was hired, my friend attended a retreat of SEIU organizers and rank-and-filers. They spent the weekend chewing over the tactical innovations that have made the union’s reputation: “card check” campaigns that bypass the National Labor Relations Board’s sclerotic certification process; aggressive scrutiny of employers’ financial profiles; blitzkrieg drives that take on entire sectors at once.

“And every evening,” she reports with a smile, “we all stood in a circle and sang ‘The Internationale.’ “

Now, the sight, in 1997, of self-respecting American trade unionists singing a socialist anthem–in however jokey a spirit–would doubtless set off alarm bells. It’s easy to imagine Dick Armey and Trent Lott nudging each other with told-you-so glee, or Gore and Gephardt averting their eyes with a shudder. But you’ll hear no complaints from me. Like my friend, I’m somewhere to the left of paleoliberal; I believe that human civilization peaked in Sweden, circa 1972. I hope my friend and her colleagues have long and honorable careers tightening labor markets and kicking the shit out of corporations that bully or cheat their workers.

But I have to confess: Something about that SEIU retreat sounds depressing. Imagine it: In the daytime, Jesuitical preparations for long uphill organizing drives. And then, for uplift and inspiration, a chance to sing “Solidarity Forever” and other anthems that no normal person under the age of 60 has ever heard. This is, bear in mind, one of the most vigorous and progressive corners of the labor movement–and yet it somehow carries the odor of a fading religious sect.

This is John Sweeney’s burden. The American labor movement is alone like no other in the advanced industrial world. It operates in a crippling legal environment. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and its ensuing case law have erected absurd barriers to workers’ freedom of association. For the price of a lawyer and a few gnat-size fines, nonunion employers can comfortably fire workers simply because they seek to organize. (In Canada, the country whose economy is most similar to ours, organizing workers are better protected from dismissal–and per capita union membership is more than twice the U.S. level.)

And where West European labor movements are well embedded within a broader left, the American left is populated by romantic individualists whose pulses are not set racing by the letters “AFL-CIO.” Elaine Bernard, the Canadian scholar who directs Harvard University’s Trade Union Program, quips, “I sometimes think that American radicals will march in solidarity with any country’s working class except their own.”

The tactical savvy that Sweeney brings might help stanch the AFL-CIO’s bleeding (it’s been losing more than 200,000 members a year). But tactics alone won’t rescue labor from its peculiar weakness and insularity. To break through that barrier, the AFL-CIO will need to convince a majority of Americans–or at least a muscular plurality–that solidarity is good for what ails us. They need to sell the case that our colossal wage inequality is not a fact of nature; that a progressive labor movement can make our workplaces more decent and more productive; and that strong unions can leverage gains not only for their members but for the broader society.

Making this case won’t be easy, but it’s unavoidable. Without such a framework, even the cleverest organizing tactics will come to seem hollow. As Bernard says, “The labor movement is eternally in danger of becoming a Contracts ‘R’ Us operation that only services its existing members. You’ve got to look in the mirror every morning and ask yourself: ‘What am I organizing for?’ “

I f labor were less defensive and insular and better embedded in a larger reform movement, it might be more motivated to address its own shortcomings. First–ahem–there is the matter of housekeeping. God bless the day when no one’s Uncle Ed will be able to lean across the Thanksgiving table and say, “So I hear you’re working for the labor movement. Isn’t that America’s last bastion of mobsters, racists, and hacks?”

Second, a humbler labor movement might be less likely to cut shortsighted political deals that undercut its larger purpose. There was a pathetic scene a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, home to several respected labor-community initiatives. These alliances have sweated blood in fights with Republican Mayor Richard Riordan over public transportation, housing, and health care. But in February the Los Angeles Central Labor Council voted to endorse Riordan’s re-election bid after he dangled promises of an immense hotel-development project. (The endorsement vote, which was narrow to begin with, was later rescinded after an outcry. Riordan won anyway.)

And there’s also a risk that tactical innovations like the SEIU’s will come at the expense of movement-building.

Several weeks ago I spoke with a New York City organizer about the disastrous newspaper strike in Detroit. This organizer is an alumnus of the AFL-CIO’s much-praised Organizing Institute, which trains both rank-and-file workers and zealous college students in the latest tactics. He was full of scorn for labor’s plans for a national march on Detroit this June. “That’s the lamest idea imaginable,” he said. “Even if 20,000 people show up, who’s going to pay attention? If they want to win a decent contract in Detroit, what they need is a squad of 50 people who will target the boards of directors of Gannett and Knight-Ridder. Find out where they live. Jam their fax machines. Harass them when they go shopping. That’s how you defeat corporate power.”

This sort of strategy is very much in the Organizing Institute’s spirit. Its training materials stress “finding the person who can give you what you want” and making his or her life hell. The ghost of Max Weber might denounce these frat-boy tactics with a long sermon about means and ends, but I’m a bit more tolerant. After all, employers routinely do things just as nasty. (Did you catch the story a few weeks ago about the Coca-Cola truck driver who was bribed thousands of dollars as part of an effort to subvert an organizing drive?)

But I’m still uncomfortable. Isn’t there something amiss when a movement based on solidarity and cooperation trains its organizers to behave as if they were in a Hobbesian world of all against all? The New York organizer is probably correct: The march on Detroit won’t do much to help win a contract. But without a steady drumbeat of public engagement–through marches, debates, C-SPAN, the works–the labor movement will continue to smell of anachronism. So kudos to Sweeney for toning labor’s muscles. Now let’s work on the heart and the voice.