The Light and the Dark: Taking Stock of the Year in Labor

Source: Ari Paul, New Labor Forum, Vol. 22 no. 3, September 2013
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…It is all but certain that traditional labor is in store for more pain, whether it comes in the form of new antiunion legislation at the state level or simply a widening of the gap between what corporations and unions can spend to influence electoral politics.

But the lessons from the fast food strikers or the Chicago teachers is not so much how a union can campaign against an employer, but how it can promote broad political demands for this economic landscape, demands that may include universal basic income or real health care reform, as well as demands to restrain the financial sector, like reviving the Glass–Steagall Act, which would separate commercial and investment banking. It should not be that only marginal institutions like the Industrial Workers of the World are campaigning for a shortened workday, something that has not happened in more than a century.

Standing in the way of this is an unwillingness to change and the provincialism of specialized unions. At a meeting of labor journalists in New York this spring, in response to the question of why unions have been unable to fund new think tanks or media organizations to counter antiunion institutions, several people responded that labor leaders “don’t speak the same language”; they are constrained by serving their members directly and thus unable to settle on any kind of grander agenda. The building trades, retail, and public sectors are just too different from each other, the logic went, so they are unable to put aside differences and collaborate on long-term projects.

To put it bluntly, this is nothing more than the narcissism of small differences. The reluctance of older labor leaders, lulled into complacency by their hefty salaries and access to Democratic Party officials, to break from tradition will only make next year’s report card for labor more dismal than this year’s. Or, hopefully, the energy and imagination on display in Chicago and elsewhere spreads. …