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Are We at a Tipping Point?

Are we at a tipping point, where unions are no longer able to play their historical role of creating a shared working-class common sense?

The last four years have been enough to turn even the most true-blue union activist just plain blue. We are facing some very uncomfortable arithmetic.

Despite 16 million members and $10 billion plus in dues revenue, labor’s reach is dwindling. In most industries—even bastions like auto and construction—we don’t control enough of the market to win decent contracts, so we’re not attractive to new members.

Are we at a tipping point, where unions are no longer able to play their historical role of creating a shared working-class common sense? Can we still influence conditions for all?

If ever there was a window into unions’ limited reach, it was the heartbreaking outcome of the June 5 recall vote in Wisconsin. When President Obama and the national Democratic machine declined to weigh in, it was a scary reminder of just how willing our supposed allies are to ditch us.

But as Jim Cavanaugh discusses here, we have to admit that the union-backed candidate lost because of our inability to convince our own members that this was a referendum on the value of unions, and that they were worth protecting.

Twenty-five percent of union-member voters chose Scott Walker, and 38 percent of all those from union households did the same.

We have far to go to return to the days when the labor movement defined the world view of the working class.

Missed Chance

For a few short months after the 2008 financial meltdown, the glaring problems with our economic system were laid bare. Everyone could see that bankers and billionaires were to blame.

But when corporations write the rules, they can also throw out the rulebook when it’s convenient. They shifted the debate to handwringing over The Deficit, aided by the very real budget crises in cities and states across the country.

That’s where labor missed an opportunity. The good soldiers at the top of the labor movement took their cues from President Obama; they didn’t lead a people’s movement to rein in the speculators and tax the rich. Instead of linking a fight for jobs with a plan to save us all from climate disaster (which would have meant more stimulus), the president wanted corporate-friendly health care reform.

Labor lined up—even when Obama broke his campaign promise not to tax benefits.

With no daylight between labor’s top brass and the Obama agenda, there was no room to reinforce the country’s initial common sense about what went wrong with the economy and how to fix it.

Blame the Bus Driver

This left pundits, politicians, and far too many members of the public free to point the finger at teachers, bus drivers, and other government workers, blaming their pay and pensions—and their unions—for budget deficits. Why should city workers enjoy a decent retirement when most workers were one paycheck away from losing it all?

The have-nots were pitted against the have-a-little’s, leaving the 1% to have it all.

When Republicans took control of the House in 2010 and anti-union conservatives like Scott Walker moved in to governors’ mansions, conservatives started rolling out their elimination campaign for unions.

But their assault doubled as a working class wake-up call.

The Wisconsin uprising, last August’s rowdy strike of 45,000 against Verizon, the recurring short strikes by California health care workers, the militant actions of Longshore union members in Washington state to protect their jobs—2011 was the year the labor movement shook off its haze and started fighting back.

Of course, Occupy was the game-changer, taking aim squarely at the 1% and succeeding where unions had stumbled, by turning national attention back onto those responsible for the economic collapse. And Occupy also reinforced what was once common sense in labor circles, that direct action pays.

Fighting ≠ Winning

“We need to fight like our unions’ lives depend on it.” It’s less hyperbole and more a statement of fact every day. That’s led to more openness, with unions embracing allies ranging from worker centers to Occupy.

But fighting is not the same as winning, and, frankly, neither companies nor mayors and governors were impressed enough to slow down their offensive. This year could be called the year of the lockout.

Despite last year’s uptick in struggle, not enough unions are taking advantage of leverage they do have, even when facing profitable employers. The Service Employees’ latest agreement with Kaiser Permanente all but guarantees retiree health care cuts five years from now. The Teamsters are about to open bargaining with UPS nearly a year early—foregoing the leverage of a strike threat.

Things are no better in the public sector, where too many leaders and members continue to act as if they can keep their heads down and ride out the storm.

In California this spring, most public sector union leaders were not ready to wage an us-versus-them battle over taxes, sandbagging a popular initiative to tax millionaires in favor of a “shared sacrifice” tax pushed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

In the Teachers union, President Randi Weingarten keeps trying to woo Bill Gates and other billionaires—the 1% of the 1%—who believe they’ll be the saviors of education by demonizing teachers.

Where to Turn?

It’s grim. Where should we focus?

Leverage matters. Unions should be sparking struggles that affect large numbers of people in key positions, like teachers, parents and students, or where workers wield outsize economic power, as in the retail supply chain.

Nurture the sparks, which may grow into flashpoints. We never know what will set off a larger conflagration. Where people are fighting back—like Station casino workers organizing in Vegas, or Chicago teachers readying to strike—go all out with solidarity. And work with, educate, and learn from Occupy members.

Isolation is death. Make it a priority to make connections outside your corner of the labor movement. When other unions have locals at your employer, hook up and start a council. Start a monthly breakfast of progressive union leaders—or rank and filers—in your city.

Make your union hall a center of community activity, places where a multitude of causes are welcome, from anti-foreclosure fights to environmental justice. Learn from unions like SEIU Local 26 (see here) and share space with groups fighting wage theft or organizing immigrants.

When unions adopt the attitude that defending members can’t be done without lifting up everyone, we’ve regained half the reputation we need to reclaim our space at the front of the working class.

National unions aren’t stepping forward, so locals must. Don’t ask for permission. Just do it. Today national leaders are less able to or less inclined to stop you, as the Madison teachers discovered when they struck at the start of the Wisconsin uprising.

Aim at the true culprits. Make every fight into a fight about the 1%. Don’t let our enemies make it a narrow battle about work rules or wages.

Make it clear that our goal is to take power out of corporate hands. It’s the perfect time to ask hard questions about the system we’re in—capitalism—and why it’s leaving so many of us further and further behind.

Understanding how things work, or don’t work, is critical to raising our sights, not just for a bigger and better labor movement, but for a world we deserve.

Reprinted with permission from Labor Notes.

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