How to Win

Without unions to institutionalize them, waves of activism dissipate. As the nation and the labor movement shift to the left, progressives need to push forward policies and politics that strengthen those working-class organizations.

The 2018 election reinforced the critical role unions play in electing progressive, pro-worker candidates. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, union-household voters made up 25 percent of the electorate and helped sweep Democrats to victory up and down the ballot. And as the presidential campaign heats up, Democratic candidates are competing with each other to stake out policy terrain on the left. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have both put forward programs that borrow from both European social democracy (worker representatives on corporate boards, universal health provision) and FDR’s early New Deal (higher taxes on the rich, massive infrastructure spending, higher social security benefits, and the reregulation of Wall Street).

But, on the other hand, this moment is also a long “winter of despair” when it comes to a revival of trade unionism and collective bargaining, especially in the private sector, where union density is a vanishingly small 6.4 percent. Despite the remarkable victory of union school teachers in California and elsewhere and the inspiring success of union hotel workers, nurses, and a few other militant labor organizations, the union movement remains essentially stalemated in the private sector, certainly when it comes to making the kind of organizing breakthroughs and qualitative bargaining advances that were a hallmark of labor activism between 1934 and 1973. Unemployment is low, wages are barely advancing, unions are viewed in a quite favorable light, and a new generation of young and energetic organizers have been hired onto union staffs, but it still remains incredibly difficult to organize new workers or win a decent first contract. …

Nelson Lichtenstein

▪ Read article atDissent Magazine Spring 2019

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