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91

Who Works for the Workers?

The state of the unions

by Gabriel Winant

2
terms
6
notes

fantastic, as expected

Winant, G. (2016). Who Works for the Workers?. In , n. n+1 Issue 26: Dirty Work. n+1 Foundation, inc., pp. 91-106

92

[...] as a recent forum in the Nation asked, “Does labor deserve its own downfall?” The movement’s long, sad decline must in some way be a comeuppance. Pick your poison: racism and sexism, retrograde valorization of toil and hostility to environmental protection, bureaucratic complacency, institutional rigidity, top-down authoritarianism, political tepidity, toxic organizational culture, history of corruption — need we continue?

These criticisms are not altogether wrong. But they tend to forget the fundamental order of things. It’s the power of the boss that makes for a sorry labor movement, and the political economy of the past five decades has made for a strong boss. Labor markets are slack and layoffs endemic, which keeps wages stagnant, costs low, and shareholders happy. Wage theft is common and largely goes unrectified; health and safety standards are unenforced. A byzantine nest of subcontracts and corporate shells often separates the workers from the profits, so that whatever subentity is the employer always appears in the red. Labor law’s teeth have been worn down to the gum: to take concerted action these days is to invite near-certain employer retaliation with little chance of remedy. And when the boss inevitably tells workers they should be grateful for what they have and warns them that plenty of people would be happy to take their jobs, the workers have no trouble picturing these people. They are their nieces, cousins, and neighbors, stuck in part-time jobs or out of work. The workers feel isolated and discouraged, the organizers wring their hands, and wages and conditions keep deteriorating.

Union opponents think this quiescence means workers don’t want to fight. Romantic union supporters, perhaps including the people at the conference, tend to think that workers are ready for a struggle but held back by conservative middle-class leadership. Neither account fully contemplates the idea that the struggle between labor and capital might more simply reflect the balance of power. The union movement’s problem, in other words, isn’t that workers don’t want to fight; it’s that they don’t want to lose.

—p.92 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago

[...] as a recent forum in the Nation asked, “Does labor deserve its own downfall?” The movement’s long, sad decline must in some way be a comeuppance. Pick your poison: racism and sexism, retrograde valorization of toil and hostility to environmental protection, bureaucratic complacency, institutional rigidity, top-down authoritarianism, political tepidity, toxic organizational culture, history of corruption — need we continue?

These criticisms are not altogether wrong. But they tend to forget the fundamental order of things. It’s the power of the boss that makes for a sorry labor movement, and the political economy of the past five decades has made for a strong boss. Labor markets are slack and layoffs endemic, which keeps wages stagnant, costs low, and shareholders happy. Wage theft is common and largely goes unrectified; health and safety standards are unenforced. A byzantine nest of subcontracts and corporate shells often separates the workers from the profits, so that whatever subentity is the employer always appears in the red. Labor law’s teeth have been worn down to the gum: to take concerted action these days is to invite near-certain employer retaliation with little chance of remedy. And when the boss inevitably tells workers they should be grateful for what they have and warns them that plenty of people would be happy to take their jobs, the workers have no trouble picturing these people. They are their nieces, cousins, and neighbors, stuck in part-time jobs or out of work. The workers feel isolated and discouraged, the organizers wring their hands, and wages and conditions keep deteriorating.

Union opponents think this quiescence means workers don’t want to fight. Romantic union supporters, perhaps including the people at the conference, tend to think that workers are ready for a struggle but held back by conservative middle-class leadership. Neither account fully contemplates the idea that the struggle between labor and capital might more simply reflect the balance of power. The union movement’s problem, in other words, isn’t that workers don’t want to fight; it’s that they don’t want to lose.

—p.92 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago

(verb) to verify or prove to be true in pleading a cause / (verb) to allege or assert in pleading / (verb) to declare positively

92

The audience, which leaned romantic, grumbled at the pessimism. The speakers demurred. That’s just how it is, they averred. We just have to do all of them.

—p.92 by Gabriel Winant
notable
3 months, 2 weeks ago

The audience, which leaned romantic, grumbled at the pessimism. The speakers demurred. That’s just how it is, they averred. We just have to do all of them.

—p.92 by Gabriel Winant
notable
3 months, 2 weeks ago
93

Employers have long argued that unions represent a sectional interest only — that they distort the market to the benefit of whoever their members happen to be. But organized labor’s dream is to stand for the common interests of all working people. The more members unions have, the better they will be at representing the interests of the entire working class, organized and unorganized. The flip side of this well-worn aphorism is more rarely stated: the fewer members unions have, the more time must be spent defending the interest of those few members. What these members want, typically, is representation and a good contract. They want the union to be there when the boss tries to screw them. They want it to deliver wage and benefit gains in bargaining, especially as the remnants of the unionized working class find themselves obliged to support the more indebted and underemployed members of their own families.

Union leaders, on the other hand, often know perfectly well that if they only serve their members’ immediate needs, they betray the deeper interests of those very members. The more the standard of living of American workers falls, the clearer this fact becomes for those who are organized. Still, immediate needs often trump long-term planning. Walk into a union hall today and you are likely to find staff concerned with getting a good contract and winning grievance fights, hoping that something offstage will salvage the larger situation.

This problem is no one’s fault but the employers’. But if the union is going to pursue something other than short-term gains or fixes, someone has to pay. People are going to need to recruit and train volunteers to knock on doors. Communications staff will be necessary to generate materials. Researchers will need to be hired to uncover points of strategic opportunity; lawyers, to safeguard the union against hostile courts. And while workers ultimately make the movement, it is usually the organizing staff who create the conditions for them to stand up, by linking them to workers in other parts of the shop and ensuring strategic coordination. Spontaneous working-class action happens occasionally, but today it is riskier than most can afford.

—p.93 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Employers have long argued that unions represent a sectional interest only — that they distort the market to the benefit of whoever their members happen to be. But organized labor’s dream is to stand for the common interests of all working people. The more members unions have, the better they will be at representing the interests of the entire working class, organized and unorganized. The flip side of this well-worn aphorism is more rarely stated: the fewer members unions have, the more time must be spent defending the interest of those few members. What these members want, typically, is representation and a good contract. They want the union to be there when the boss tries to screw them. They want it to deliver wage and benefit gains in bargaining, especially as the remnants of the unionized working class find themselves obliged to support the more indebted and underemployed members of their own families.

Union leaders, on the other hand, often know perfectly well that if they only serve their members’ immediate needs, they betray the deeper interests of those very members. The more the standard of living of American workers falls, the clearer this fact becomes for those who are organized. Still, immediate needs often trump long-term planning. Walk into a union hall today and you are likely to find staff concerned with getting a good contract and winning grievance fights, hoping that something offstage will salvage the larger situation.

This problem is no one’s fault but the employers’. But if the union is going to pursue something other than short-term gains or fixes, someone has to pay. People are going to need to recruit and train volunteers to knock on doors. Communications staff will be necessary to generate materials. Researchers will need to be hired to uncover points of strategic opportunity; lawyers, to safeguard the union against hostile courts. And while workers ultimately make the movement, it is usually the organizing staff who create the conditions for them to stand up, by linking them to workers in other parts of the shop and ensuring strategic coordination. Spontaneous working-class action happens occasionally, but today it is riskier than most can afford.

—p.93 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago

the opposite or counterpart of a fact or truth; the side of a coin or medal bearing the head or principal design

95

organizations specializing in these tactics tend not to produce mass engagement by a movement’s true-believing base. The obverse is also true. It’s nearly impossible to run a tent city, for instance, and at the same time get a well-sourced policy paper

—p.95 by Gabriel Winant
notable
3 months, 2 weeks ago

organizations specializing in these tactics tend not to produce mass engagement by a movement’s true-believing base. The obverse is also true. It’s nearly impossible to run a tent city, for instance, and at the same time get a well-sourced policy paper

—p.95 by Gabriel Winant
notable
3 months, 2 weeks ago
96

Organized labor, by contrast, is at its finest both reliable bureaucracy and mass spirit. That these two souls contradict each other suggests the difficulty of challenging the socially powerful for decades on end: you must be both lawyer and pamphleteer, accountant and agitator. On the one hand, as Rosa Luxemburg once warned, the working class will ultimately lose every battle but the last one. On the other, a social insurgency fades without interim victories, and these require everyday satisfaction of the needs of the movement’s constituency. Solidarity is the binding together of self-interests on a scale sufficient to win; it demands not just transformative vision but transactional strategy.

Strategy, though, is not a skill learned in the schools of theory that shape left-wing political culture. Rather, it tends to be acquired over years of defeat and passed down through institutional memory — an asset that has become increasingly precious and uncommon as the lights go out on the labor left.

Few, then, know how to recognize strategy when they see it. Take the outrage over a recent Los Angeles minimum-wage proposal. The city, under pressure from organized labor, passed an ordinance raising the hourly wage to $15. Unions, however, sought an exemption for workers covered by union contracts. The right-wing media were the first to report the exemption, citing it as evidence for what every antiunion campaign argues: that the union is a business and dues are its profits; that if the union has to screw over workers to amass an army of low-wage dues payers, it will do so. As the Chamber of Commerce put it, “With sympathetic politicians’ assistance, unions hope that creating an exclusion from minimum wage laws will entice employers to accept unionization to avoid costly new wage mandates.” But the Chamber was joined by some unlikely allies. Marxist commentator Doug Henwood wrote a tweet mocking the desire of unions for the “freedom” to bargain for low wages. Labor historian Erik Loomis — generally an astute observer — decried the move for its “optics.” A minor internet affray resulted, bringing embarrassment on LA’s house of labor.

A more charitable reading of the proposal would be that low-wage workers are concentrated in competitive sectors of the economy with low profit margins. Although bosses will lie about what they can and cannot afford, it’s true that they cannot afford everything. Low-wage workers often prefer good benefits to a pay bump, since it can be easier to get multiple household members into low-wage no-benefit jobs than to get one into a job with health care. A minimum-wage hike thus has, in theory, the potential to limit the ability of workers to organize for better benefits in a low-margin workplace.

[...]

The exemption might well have been a miscalculation, particularly given the momentum that has built behind the $15 campaign. But it isn’t self-evidently exploitative just because it sounds bad. Calculations like this, however, require a union bureaucracy — that century-long bête noire of the left. As Kim Moody, a leading labor leftist, has written, “Union ‘leaders,’ those who make the policy, lean not toward the workers, but toward the rulers of the nation. Since most unions are rigidly bureaucratic, there is little opportunity for the workers to make their voices heard under normal circumstances.” This is sufficiently accurate to have become common wisdom. Taken too far, though, the argument imagines workers who will rise up if only they are freed from conservative leadership. It is a legacy of a fundamentally different moment in the history of the American working class — the turn of the 20th century, when capital was hungry for labor, rather than oversupplied with it — and a different balance of power.

—p.96 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Organized labor, by contrast, is at its finest both reliable bureaucracy and mass spirit. That these two souls contradict each other suggests the difficulty of challenging the socially powerful for decades on end: you must be both lawyer and pamphleteer, accountant and agitator. On the one hand, as Rosa Luxemburg once warned, the working class will ultimately lose every battle but the last one. On the other, a social insurgency fades without interim victories, and these require everyday satisfaction of the needs of the movement’s constituency. Solidarity is the binding together of self-interests on a scale sufficient to win; it demands not just transformative vision but transactional strategy.

Strategy, though, is not a skill learned in the schools of theory that shape left-wing political culture. Rather, it tends to be acquired over years of defeat and passed down through institutional memory — an asset that has become increasingly precious and uncommon as the lights go out on the labor left.

Few, then, know how to recognize strategy when they see it. Take the outrage over a recent Los Angeles minimum-wage proposal. The city, under pressure from organized labor, passed an ordinance raising the hourly wage to $15. Unions, however, sought an exemption for workers covered by union contracts. The right-wing media were the first to report the exemption, citing it as evidence for what every antiunion campaign argues: that the union is a business and dues are its profits; that if the union has to screw over workers to amass an army of low-wage dues payers, it will do so. As the Chamber of Commerce put it, “With sympathetic politicians’ assistance, unions hope that creating an exclusion from minimum wage laws will entice employers to accept unionization to avoid costly new wage mandates.” But the Chamber was joined by some unlikely allies. Marxist commentator Doug Henwood wrote a tweet mocking the desire of unions for the “freedom” to bargain for low wages. Labor historian Erik Loomis — generally an astute observer — decried the move for its “optics.” A minor internet affray resulted, bringing embarrassment on LA’s house of labor.

A more charitable reading of the proposal would be that low-wage workers are concentrated in competitive sectors of the economy with low profit margins. Although bosses will lie about what they can and cannot afford, it’s true that they cannot afford everything. Low-wage workers often prefer good benefits to a pay bump, since it can be easier to get multiple household members into low-wage no-benefit jobs than to get one into a job with health care. A minimum-wage hike thus has, in theory, the potential to limit the ability of workers to organize for better benefits in a low-margin workplace.

[...]

The exemption might well have been a miscalculation, particularly given the momentum that has built behind the $15 campaign. But it isn’t self-evidently exploitative just because it sounds bad. Calculations like this, however, require a union bureaucracy — that century-long bête noire of the left. As Kim Moody, a leading labor leftist, has written, “Union ‘leaders,’ those who make the policy, lean not toward the workers, but toward the rulers of the nation. Since most unions are rigidly bureaucratic, there is little opportunity for the workers to make their voices heard under normal circumstances.” This is sufficiently accurate to have become common wisdom. Taken too far, though, the argument imagines workers who will rise up if only they are freed from conservative leadership. It is a legacy of a fundamentally different moment in the history of the American working class — the turn of the 20th century, when capital was hungry for labor, rather than oversupplied with it — and a different balance of power.

—p.96 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago
100

The accelerationists are right in one respect: although it’s by no means “necessary,” more of labor may yet be broken before much can recover. It’s only by trial and error that unions have ever figured out how to become what the workers have come to need; the movement has historically grown in great spurts, when new organizational forms emerge that fit the new shape of the ever-changing working class. The idea of industrial unionism, for example — a single organization for each industry, rather than different unions for different trades — was present among American workers from the beginning of mass production in the late 19th century, many decades before its realization in the founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935.

While it’s hard to know what could lead to new union growth, to embrace the destruction of existing unions is to cede the initiative entirely. You can’t ever really be ready for the class war, but much of the job of working-class strategy is to stage and escalate conflict at the most advantageous moments. So-called legacy unions represent living traditions with institutional memories of what worked and what didn’t against an individual boss, in a given industry, or among workers of particular types. It’s an error to perceive union defeat as evidence of some strategic mistake. American workers can do everything right and still lose.

—p.100 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago

The accelerationists are right in one respect: although it’s by no means “necessary,” more of labor may yet be broken before much can recover. It’s only by trial and error that unions have ever figured out how to become what the workers have come to need; the movement has historically grown in great spurts, when new organizational forms emerge that fit the new shape of the ever-changing working class. The idea of industrial unionism, for example — a single organization for each industry, rather than different unions for different trades — was present among American workers from the beginning of mass production in the late 19th century, many decades before its realization in the founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in 1935.

While it’s hard to know what could lead to new union growth, to embrace the destruction of existing unions is to cede the initiative entirely. You can’t ever really be ready for the class war, but much of the job of working-class strategy is to stage and escalate conflict at the most advantageous moments. So-called legacy unions represent living traditions with institutional memories of what worked and what didn’t against an individual boss, in a given industry, or among workers of particular types. It’s an error to perceive union defeat as evidence of some strategic mistake. American workers can do everything right and still lose.

—p.100 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago
101

My own view is that the best way for unions to grow is to combine the strengths of these different strata of the working class. SEIU has tried this, in a way. From its base of hospital workers and janitors (middle-stratum jobs), the union has made incursions up and down, attempting to organize adjunct professors and fast-food workers. The challenge of these campaigns is that the workers are spread across an entire metropolitan labor market. These groups don’t necessarily feature in one another’s lives in any way other than as consumers; they are unlikely to live next to one another, or play sports together, or get drunk together, or share spaces of worship. Their kids aren’t friends or even classmates. The union’s ability to throw its existing weight into new workplaces is thus limited by the social distance separating the organization’s existing base from its areas of expansion.

Our registered nurse, custodian, and fast-food worker, in other words, aren’t necessarily going to take risks on one another’s behalf. The union wants them to understand their fates as intertwined, but given hierarchies of race, economic position, and social status, that understanding is not going to come easily. Such an approach might work incrementally, as SEIU has found with its success in adjunct organizing campaigns — funded by janitors, organized by professionals. But to produce significant results, the labor movement needs to focus on where it can maximize whatever strategic resources it still has.

The members themselves are the most underused resource. America once had factories where thousands toiled together. Though divided by race, ethnicity, and skill, the great plants and mills were hothouses of proletarian consciousness. While such work sites are now extremely rare, their lesson should be remembered. The most promising targets for campaigns are employers large and multifarious enough to implicate workers of many different kinds, as well as the broader community. Hospitals, school systems, and universities leap out as potential targets. These are the institutions where the RN, the custodian, and the fast-food worker are under the same roof. They might actually know one another. The meaning of their alliance might cut across lines of race, gender, and status.

—p.101 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago

My own view is that the best way for unions to grow is to combine the strengths of these different strata of the working class. SEIU has tried this, in a way. From its base of hospital workers and janitors (middle-stratum jobs), the union has made incursions up and down, attempting to organize adjunct professors and fast-food workers. The challenge of these campaigns is that the workers are spread across an entire metropolitan labor market. These groups don’t necessarily feature in one another’s lives in any way other than as consumers; they are unlikely to live next to one another, or play sports together, or get drunk together, or share spaces of worship. Their kids aren’t friends or even classmates. The union’s ability to throw its existing weight into new workplaces is thus limited by the social distance separating the organization’s existing base from its areas of expansion.

Our registered nurse, custodian, and fast-food worker, in other words, aren’t necessarily going to take risks on one another’s behalf. The union wants them to understand their fates as intertwined, but given hierarchies of race, economic position, and social status, that understanding is not going to come easily. Such an approach might work incrementally, as SEIU has found with its success in adjunct organizing campaigns — funded by janitors, organized by professionals. But to produce significant results, the labor movement needs to focus on where it can maximize whatever strategic resources it still has.

The members themselves are the most underused resource. America once had factories where thousands toiled together. Though divided by race, ethnicity, and skill, the great plants and mills were hothouses of proletarian consciousness. While such work sites are now extremely rare, their lesson should be remembered. The most promising targets for campaigns are employers large and multifarious enough to implicate workers of many different kinds, as well as the broader community. Hospitals, school systems, and universities leap out as potential targets. These are the institutions where the RN, the custodian, and the fast-food worker are under the same roof. They might actually know one another. The meaning of their alliance might cut across lines of race, gender, and status.

—p.101 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago
103

OUR ACCOUNTS OF HEROIC social movements tend to begin at the moment of insurgency, when the cameras show up. The years of bitter, lonely, and seemingly futile struggle get the Ken Burns treatment less often. Even of the heroic age of SNCC in Mississippi, the historian Charles Payne writes, “Field reports are filled with stories of spending day after day dragging from house to house without a single positive response to show for it. Most people were simply afraid and confused but reluctant to admit it.” One organizer reported in 1962 that for every hundred people they spoke to, ten agreed to register to vote, three showed up, “and those three were frightened away from the courthouse by the sheriff.” This is not the epic narrative we are taught. But it is the marrow of movement work.

Here’s another story. In the wake of the First Red Scare of 1919–20, the unions were ruined. Their militants were arrested, blacklisted, and deported. Labor’s most prominent political leader, Eugene Debs, was imprisoned for political crime — opposing the war — only a few years after receiving 6 percent of the vote in a presidential election; he ran for President in 1920 from his Georgia cell. The coal miners of West Virginia were gunned down and bombed from the air in 1921. For those who kept the faith in the factories, mills, and mines, fifteen years of ostracism followed. They had no hint that a moment was coming like the 1930s, when small cells of old believers across the country led millions of workers — many of whom had spent years shunning them — to victory.

[...]

The organic integration of the working-class social world is gone. To remember, and keep remembering, now happens only on purpose. Memory looks like an office, with file cabinets and framed pictures from past victories. It smells like printer ink and sounds like bitter narratives of defeat often repeated, with lessons learned. It costs money to keep, and it takes sustained and uninterrupted time to accumulate. To remember and renew is itself an act of defiance: each dollar in dues money, each hour spent in some interminable meeting, passes the tradition on, despite constant efforts to extinguish it.

Just because a political project is difficult, in other words, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong. It could just be that it’s hard — that the opposition is fearsome and you haven’t cracked it yet. Some kinds of success are bought with a dozen or a hundred failures. The key is to be there for the next round, and to know a chance when you see it.

—p.103 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago

OUR ACCOUNTS OF HEROIC social movements tend to begin at the moment of insurgency, when the cameras show up. The years of bitter, lonely, and seemingly futile struggle get the Ken Burns treatment less often. Even of the heroic age of SNCC in Mississippi, the historian Charles Payne writes, “Field reports are filled with stories of spending day after day dragging from house to house without a single positive response to show for it. Most people were simply afraid and confused but reluctant to admit it.” One organizer reported in 1962 that for every hundred people they spoke to, ten agreed to register to vote, three showed up, “and those three were frightened away from the courthouse by the sheriff.” This is not the epic narrative we are taught. But it is the marrow of movement work.

Here’s another story. In the wake of the First Red Scare of 1919–20, the unions were ruined. Their militants were arrested, blacklisted, and deported. Labor’s most prominent political leader, Eugene Debs, was imprisoned for political crime — opposing the war — only a few years after receiving 6 percent of the vote in a presidential election; he ran for President in 1920 from his Georgia cell. The coal miners of West Virginia were gunned down and bombed from the air in 1921. For those who kept the faith in the factories, mills, and mines, fifteen years of ostracism followed. They had no hint that a moment was coming like the 1930s, when small cells of old believers across the country led millions of workers — many of whom had spent years shunning them — to victory.

[...]

The organic integration of the working-class social world is gone. To remember, and keep remembering, now happens only on purpose. Memory looks like an office, with file cabinets and framed pictures from past victories. It smells like printer ink and sounds like bitter narratives of defeat often repeated, with lessons learned. It costs money to keep, and it takes sustained and uninterrupted time to accumulate. To remember and renew is itself an act of defiance: each dollar in dues money, each hour spent in some interminable meeting, passes the tradition on, despite constant efforts to extinguish it.

Just because a political project is difficult, in other words, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong. It could just be that it’s hard — that the opposition is fearsome and you haven’t cracked it yet. Some kinds of success are bought with a dozen or a hundred failures. The key is to be there for the next round, and to know a chance when you see it.

—p.103 by Gabriel Winant 3 months, 2 weeks ago