Taking Unions Out of the Workplace

In These Times’ Joe Burns:

Like SEIU, an increasing number of union activists and theorists are looking to center union strategy far from the workplace. Rather than relying on the traditional union tactics of organizing, collective bargaining and political action, many trade unionists are instead focusing on protests against corporate targets and community organizing. Such actions get members into the streets to directly confront corporate profiteers and allow unions to organize around broad-based themes.

But as commentator Randy Shaw notes, the idea that building “some new and amorphous ‘mass organization’ that will help elect and then pressure pro-union politicians reflects a strategy that has already failed, and ignores that union power is based much more on the success of workplace organizing.”

But the bigger problem with this plan is philosophical, not strategic. Moving organized labor’s focus from the workplace would be a bad idea even if doing so produced better policy outcomes. That’s because labor, unlike most other grassroots political movements, is not simply valuable insofar as it can achieve desirable policy goals; it is valuable in of itself as a workplace-based system of democratic governance by which workers can check employer domination.

Because this point is so rarely acknowledged, organized labor’s value is often underestimated even by members of the nominal left. So you have people do things like point out that union X supports undesirable policy Y, and let that single, context-free example serve as an implicit criticism of the entire labor movement. One union’s endorsement of a distasteful policy doesn’t obviate the fact that, without unions (much less the freedom to organize unions), workers are left at the mercy of their employers’ whims, no matter how unjust. To suggest that X’s support of Y somehow negates these broader concerns is a bit like using one state legislature’s passage of a bad bill as an argument for absolute monarchy.

To shift organized labor’s center of gravity away from the workplace would be to tacitly surrender to the specious X-Y argument. It would effectively serve as a renunciation of the core values that make unions necessary and good. Instead, unions should be doing exactly the opposite: not transforming themselves into a subsidiaries of MoveOn.org, but forcefully restating the case for worker self-governance.

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