The Unanswered Question About the Future of US Labor Unions – Part II

Labor Organizing
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Pearl River The missing link that dashes any hope that the AFL-CIO will every lead a revitalization of organizing and put the “movement” back behind the word “labor” is the recognition that contemporary institutional unions in the US are political organizations more than worker organizations. Though democracy in unions is often only skin deep and in-name-only, leaders still are elected and advance based on their skill at navigating the rungs up the political ladder in their organizations. The unorganized do not vote. Only members vote. Members might like to hear that their union is talking about organizing, but unless it materially advances their own situation or contract, most care primarily about the union in their workplace and how their dues are used to advance their interests. Feelings of class solidarity, dreams of working-class power, organizing the unorganized are all fine and good, but leaders by and large are elected for delivering to existing members not potential members.  

Nowhere is this truer than in the building and construction trades where for the most part the old school is the only school. Their role within the AFL-CIO is outsized compared to their membership numbers. And they exercise their influence conservatively. If the AFL-CIO executive council was weighted by per capita, we would be having a different discussion. If the Building and Construction Trades Council and its member unions, except possibly the Teamsters and maybe the Laborers, were carved out of the AFL-CIO, it would be a totally different organization, and the answer to the question of organizing the 60 million – along with many others – would be very different. In the existing labor federation, political skills are paramount. Shuler’s background fits what many affiliated unions see as the real purpose of the federation, the arena where politics and legislative lobbying fit like fingers in a glove.

The challenge of moving the 60 million who would like a union – or at least some kind of workers’ organization on the job – to become members also faces the limitations of the National Labor Relations Act. AFL-CIO leaders have never been able to make the Act work to help build a mass organization, as evidenced most recently by the defeat at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama. We haven’t organized a single private-sector mass employer in fifty years. Not Walmart. Not Amazon. Not McDonald’s. Not any of the giant tech monsters. In fact, no enterprise that has more than 10 or 20,000 workers in this entire period has become union.

Yet, no matter the leader and no matter the union, we continue the love-hate relationship with the NLRB without doing the hard work or spending the resources to develop a new organizing model that can organize the 60 million to have power on the job and elsewhere.  It won’t be the AFL-CIO that answers these questions, and as union density decreases and with it the resources to develop a new model and organize the unorganized, it may be impossible for any union to solve this riddle on its own. Certainly, SEIU has tried — and thus far failed. The AFL-CIO and many of its member unions will survive at some level, but organizing the unorganized is our moonshot. We’d like to get there, but it would take more than we have to make the journey. Maybe we’re waiting for our Bezos or Musk to pay the bills and show us the way? Who knows? In the meantime, the question is answered, sadly, and the deathwatch continues, even if many refuse to change, and we can’t all hear the rattle.