Fading Labor Unions Must Expand Strikes to Include Politics

Nelson Lichtenstein, who teaches history at the University of Virginia, is the author of "Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit."

Unionized workers are on strike this summer, shutting down big companies in a fashion not seen for a generation. In June and July, they shuttered General Motors for more than a month. In August, phone workers struck Bell Atlantic, US West and Southern New England Telecommunications. Now Northwest pilots have grounded the nation's fourth-largest airline.

But muscle flexing of this sort will not, by itself, end the union movement's long decline. To inaugurate a labor renaissance, unions need to politicize their strikes and demands, to make corporate shutdowns about far more than wages and working conditions at any one firm. That's the way the union movement has always grown in the past and it's the only strategy that can work in the future.

But wait a minute. Political strikes? Surely that's un-American. They may have their place in Indonesia, South Korea, Poland and even France, but in the United States? Is that part of our tradition and industrial-relations system?

Yes, indeed. In the 1980s, there were hardly any companywide strikes; when they did erupt, management, with the help of the Feds, often politicized the stoppages, using them as opportunities to break unions or wring from workers wage and benefit concessions. Today, a booming economy and a tight labor market have given unions the leverage to more than hold their own on the picket line and at the bargaining table. At GM and Bell Atlantic, for example, labor won a set of modest, but precedent-setting guarantees that management would preserve or expand the number of high-wage, full-benefit jobs. Polls show that such strikes enjoy historically high levels of public support.

This is good news, but it's hardly time to pop the champagne. For the labor movement is still dying a slow death. While the AFL-CIO has stopped hemorrhaging members, trade unions enroll fewer people, as a proportion of the entire working population, than at any time since 1931. That's about 15% overall, just above 10% in the private sector. Despite organized labor's renewed commitment to organizing, these proportions drop a bit more every year, sapping the power and potency of a set of institutions that once spoke for one in three U.S. workers. Routine collective bargaining, no matter how successful, won't reverse this doleful trend, nor will more money for TV ads or political lobbying or even for hiring hundreds of youthful organizers, useful as such activities might be.

Labor needs to make a dramatic breakthrough into the hearts and minds of millions of unorganized workers, people who now see unions as either irrelevant or hostile to their interests. That's the way unions have always grown, in huge organizational and ideological leaps: at the turn of the 20th century, during the Great Depression and in the 1960s, when unionism surged forward in the public sector. In those years, the key strikes were essentially political: Demands made by workers transcended higher wages or better benefits. In the 1930s, demand for "union recognition" was always closely linked to the willingness of state and federal officials to enforce New Deal labor laws, to make the union idea as patriotic and American as apple pie and baseball.

A generation later, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. understood this imperative. When the United Farm Workers struck Delano grape growers and then marched on Sacramento, far more was at stake than a union contract and a 50-cent-a-box wage increase. Chavez and his comrades made the farm-worker strikes a referendum on the standard of living and sense of dignity of the nation's Latino population. Similarly, King led in the politicization of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, during which he was assassinated. Few remember the contract provisions negotiated after his funeral, but many recall the powerful, poignant strike slogan of that conflict: "I am a man."

The 1997 United Parcel Service strike demonstrated that such strikes are not just a part of history. By demanding that UPS transform many "part-time" jobs into high-wage, full-benefit positions, the Teamsters rallied the UPS work force to the union banner and forced managers throughout the nation's huge service economy to rethink their "low-road," low-wage strategy toward ever greater profitability. This successful strike sent an even more powerful message to millions of others, both in the work force and out. Trade unionism, once given up for dead, can help reset the nation's social agenda. Job insecurity can be fought, not just through individual quest for more training or a better degree, but through solidarity and collective action.

The current set of strikes also demonstrates why routine collective bargaining is at a dead end and why picket-line activism has to be political. The U.S. system of industrial relations was long based on the idea that workers and managers in a single company could reach an amicable agreement. Many executives call on this tradition to urge employees to temper their demands in order to preserve the economic health of the company for which they work.

But capitalism is so plastic and the working population so mobile that this idea seems antique. In an era of merger mania, financially driven divestment and technological transformation, labor and product markets are in constant flux and firms transmute themselves overnight into postmodern structures of mind-boggling complexity. For example, Nynex merged with Bell Atlantic last year, and the resulting company is about to acquire GTE Corp. in a $52-billion stock deal. GM will soon spin off its Delphi auto-parts division, and Chrysler workers, who once thought they labored for a profitable, efficient U.S. firm, now find themselves linked to the fortunes of a German manufacturer whose overcapacity is worrisome.

Under such conditions, any strike or negotiation that merely seeks to preserve the status quo at a single firm is tantamount to a failure. Such was the case during the big GM shutdown earlier this summer, when the United Auto Workers frittered away a superb opportunity to transform the strike into a larger defense of the American standard of living. This was especially true for the hundreds of thousands of workers in the auto-parts sector, where a wave of corporate reorganizations and brutal deunionizations slashed wages and job security in the last two decades.

Americans too often think of politics as crass and parochial, but, for the labor movement, the politicalization of its struggles has the capacity to transform the collective imagination of millions of working people. The time is ripe and the opportunity unparalleled.*

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