In the face of all this, the reaction of many union people is to blame corporate power, big money, relentless antiunion propaganda, restrictive labor laws and the far right. All true enough, but that’s only a partial explanation. Those obstacles are going to be with us for a long time. So the question really is, How do you operate in this world?
The traditional approach towards organizing the private sector—trying to recruit a majority of workers and win a representation election—looks as good as dead. (For example, there were about 6,000 representation elections in 1980 and not quite 1,600 in 2010, the latest year available, a decline of almost 75 percent.) Employers are unfraid of breaking the law, and workers are afraid of losing their jobs. And the traditional approach to organizing the public sector—electing sympathetic politicians—looks seriously ill, if not terminal. Next to this, slow and incremental progress would seem quasi-revolutionary. Though it’s hard to get the likes of Lafer to admit this, business as usual is no longer an option.
So what then? I argued that if it’s ever to turn things around, organized labor has to act consistently and convincingly in the interest of the broad working class and not just its members. The United States would be a very different country had unions—which still have a lot of money and people to work with—spent the last five years agitating for single-payer health insurance. Or, as Sam Gindin, a long-time staffer with the Canadian Auto Workers’ union now teaching at York University in Toronto, told me in a radio interview , public sector unions could bring up the quality of public services in bargaining, threatening to strike over them if necessary.
Unions have to think about how to root themselves in communities and not think of the workplace as what it’s all about. Turnover is too high, and people have lives outside of work. Or, less politely, unions could take a page from the Occupy movement—maybe help bring it back to life even—and occupy. Many techniques of direct action were practically invented by unions—in days when strikers could get shot by Pinkertons. Some of these things may be against the law, but unions were not organized by people in thrall to the law.