American unions are in bad shape — really bad shape.
The numbers are well-known, and seem to get worse every time new ones are released. In 2015, 11.1 percent of all workers were unionized, with less than 7 percent organized in the private sector — the lowest levels since the Great Depression. Strikes, too, are near all-time lows. Unions wield nowhere near the kind of influence they once did in American society.
Labor leaders recognize this state of affairs. Yet rather than make a serious attempt to change course — to put forward new approaches and strategies, to save themselves before it’s too late — nearly all US unions continue to run in place. They refuse to broaden their focus beyond the narrow interests of dues-paying members, shovel truckloads of cash into the Democratic Party despite its open disdain for workers, and treat paid staff positions as sinecures rather than stewards of a bigger social movement.
Despite the serious crisis of organized labor — and the working class more broadly — in the United States only a handful of unions seem willing to pursue alternative strategies.
At times it seems like the labor movement has given up on itself.
Should we give up on it too? Perhaps we should shift our focus to more vibrant social movements — movements that aren’t as constrained and conservative, movements on the rise rather than at death’s door. Many on the American left seem to think so.
The choice to give up on unions is understandable. Organized labor’s checkered past — like the AFL-CIO’s anticommunist Cold War foreign policy and the openly reactionary attitudes of labor leaders like George Meany — together with contemporary unions’ ineffective and blinkered organizing strategies engenders a deep sense of frustration among members and supporters alike.
But even in their weakened state, unions continue to improve the lives of both unionized and nonunionized workers. This role is seen most clearly in terms of wages and benefits. Contract fights are battles, and union workers have won many; they still earn significantly more than nonunion workers, and their victories help nonunion workers by raising the floor of compensation.
Beyond wages, unions bring less tangible, but equally important, gains. Workers want dignity and a modicum of democracy in the workplace. Capital wants to hire and fire and shuffle and abuse workers at will. An organized workplace puts a check on the power of bosses.
And while unions are flat-footed today, the labor movement has improved people’s lives on a scale much larger than any other social movement in American history.
Organized workers also retain tremendous power. As Bay Area dockworkers have amply shown, unions can bring key sectors of the economy to a grinding halt. The Chicago Teachers Union has transformed the city’s political climate through its broad social vision and willingness to strike. Even the Fight for 15 campaign, imperfect as it is, has been able to transform the demand for a $15-an-hour minimum wage from a pipe dream to the law of the land in a growing number of states in just a few years.
Finally, unions remain the best vehicle for bringing mass numbers of people into struggle, for turning ordinary working-class people into working-class militants.
Decades of dramatic corporate restructuring atop a shifting geopolitical landscape has seriously undercut the power of unions. Today, the United States may well be the most anti-worker state of any wealthy democracy.
Yet the labor movement has played a central part in its own downfall. When faced with an increasingly hostile environment in the 1970s, unions resorted to defensive and shortsighted tactics and strategies. The accumulation of these decisions is as much to blame for labor’s sorry state as processes like globalization or deindustrialization. Union recovery is impossible without reckoning with this truth.
Labor is not blind to its own shortcomings. Numerous schemes to reverse its decline have been implemented in recent decades — mergers among major unions, for example, and a split within the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win federation. But these “reforms from above” have done nothing to stop the bleeding.
But even with a powerful rank-and-file base, unions can’t go it alone. Unions’ primary responsibility will always, rightfully, be to their members, limiting their scope. Despite their powerful potential, unions will never be the sole vehicle for working-class emancipation.
Nor should they be — working-class emancipation is the job of the Left. Beating capital will require a radical, political movement that goes far beyond the boundaries of the workplace. The Left needs to take the lead in the fight against capital.
Unity is key: unions need a strong left to orient and push them, and eventually go beyond them; and the Left needs to be anchored in a strong working-class movement. Without a socialist left, both inside and outside of unions, organized labor will continue to lose ground.