Are We at a Tipping Point?

Like these Wall Street protestors, we should aim at the true culprits and make every fight into a fight about the 1%. Don’t let our enemies make it a narrow battle about work rules or wages. Photo: Michael London.

The last four years have been enough to turn even the most true-blue union activist just plain blue. We are facing some very uncomfortable arithmetic.

Despite 16 million members and $10 billion plus in dues revenue, labor’s reach is dwindling. In most industries—even bastions like auto and construction—we don’t control enough of the market to win decent contracts, so we’re not attractive to new members.

Are we at a tipping point, where unions are no longer able to play their historical role of creating a shared working-class common sense? Can we still influence conditions for all?

If ever there was a window into unions’ limited reach, it was the heartbreaking outcome of the June 5 recall vote in Wisconsin. When President Obama and the national Democratic machine declined to weigh in, it was a scary reminder of just how willing our supposed allies are to ditch us.

But as Jim Cavanaugh discusses here, we have to admit that the union-backed candidate lost because of our inability to convince our own members that this was a referendum on the value of unions, and that they were worth protecting.


The changes in the labor movement, the economy, and politics since the first issue of Labor Notes came out in February 1979 have been profound.

For our 400th issue, Labor Notes asked several activists to address what happened to labor—and what we should do given the spot we're in.

Are We at a Tipping Point?
Mark Brenner

Organizing: Aim the Slingshot Well
Hetty Rosenstein

Politics Done Differently
Mike Parker

The Labor Law Reform We Need
Rand Wilson

Donate today and support the movement you want to see.

Twenty-five percent of union-member voters chose Scott Walker, and 38 percent of all those from union households did the same.

We have far to go to return to the days when the labor movement defined the world view of the working class.


For a few short months after the 2008 financial meltdown, the glaring problems with our economic system were laid bare. Everyone could see that bankers and billionaires were to blame.

But when corporations write the rules, they can also throw out the rulebook when it’s convenient. They shifted the debate to handwringing over The Deficit, aided by the very real budget crises in cities and states across the country.

That’s where labor missed an opportunity. The good soldiers at the top of the labor movement took their cues from President Obama; they didn’t lead a people’s movement to rein in the speculators and tax the rich. Instead of linking a fight for jobs with a plan to save us all from climate disaster (which would have meant more stimulus), the president wanted corporate-friendly health care reform.

Labor lined up—even when Obama broke his campaign promise not to tax benefits.

With no daylight between labor’s top brass and the Obama agenda, there was no room to reinforce the country’s initial common sense about what went wrong with the economy and how to fix it.


This left pundits, politicians, and far too many members of the public free to point the finger at teachers, bus drivers, and other government workers, blaming their pay and pensions—and their unions—for budget deficits. Why should city workers enjoy a decent retirement when most workers were one paycheck away from losing it all?

The have-nots were pitted against the have-a-little’s, leaving the 1% to have it all.

When Republicans took control of the House in 2010 and anti-union conservatives like Scott Walker moved in to governors’ mansions, conservatives started rolling out their elimination campaign for unions.

But their assault doubled as a working class wake-up call.



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The Wisconsin uprising, last August’s rowdy strike of 45,000 against Verizon, the recurring short strikes by California health care workers, the militant actions of Longshore union members in Washington state to protect their jobs—2011 was the year the labor movement shook off its haze and started fighting back.

Of course, Occupy was the game-changer, taking aim squarely at the 1% and succeeding where unions had stumbled, by turning national attention back onto those responsible for the economic collapse. And Occupy also reinforced what was once common sense in labor circles, that direct action pays.


“We need to fight like our unions’ lives depend on it.” It’s less hyperbole and more a statement of fact every day. That’s led to more openness, with unions embracing allies ranging from worker centers to Occupy.

But fighting is not the same as winning, and, frankly, neither companies nor mayors and governors were impressed enough to slow down their offensive. This year could be called the year of the lockout.

Despite last year’s uptick in struggle, not enough unions are taking advantage of leverage they do have, even when facing profitable employers. The Service Employees’ latest agreement with Kaiser Permanente all but guarantees retiree health care cuts five years from now. The Teamsters are about to open bargaining with UPS nearly a year early—foregoing the leverage of a strike threat.

Things are no better in the public sector, where too many leaders and members continue to act as if they can keep their heads down and ride out the storm.

In California this spring, most public sector union leaders were not ready to wage an us-versus-them battle over taxes, sandbagging a popular initiative to tax millionaires in favor of a “shared sacrifice” tax pushed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

In the Teachers union, President Randi Weingarten keeps trying to woo Bill Gates and other billionaires—the 1% of the 1%—who believe they’ll be the saviors of education by demonizing teachers.


It’s grim. Where should we focus?

Leverage matters. Unions should be sparking struggles that affect large numbers of people in key positions, like teachers, parents and students, or where workers wield outsize economic power, as in the retail supply chain.

Nurture the sparks, which may grow into flashpoints. We never know what will set off a larger conflagration. Where people are fighting back—like Station casino workers organizing in Vegas, or Chicago teachers readying to strike—go all out with solidarity. And work with, educate, and learn from Occupy members.

Isolation is death. Make it a priority to make connections outside your corner of the labor movement. When other unions have locals at your employer, hook up and start a council. Start a monthly breakfast of progressive union leaders—or rank and filers—in your city.

Make your union hall a center of community activity, places where a multitude of causes are welcome, from anti-foreclosure fights to environmental justice. Learn from unions like SEIU Local 26 (see here) and share space with groups fighting wage theft or organizing immigrants.

When unions adopt the attitude that defending members can’t be done without lifting up everyone, we’ve regained half the reputation we need to reclaim our space at the front of the working class.

National unions aren’t stepping forward, so locals must. Don’t ask for permission. Just do it. Today national leaders are less able to or less inclined to stop you, as the Madison teachers discovered when they struck at the start of the Wisconsin uprising.

Aim at the true culprits. Make every fight into a fight about the 1%. Don’t let our enemies make it a narrow battle about work rules or wages.

Make it clear that our goal is to take power out of corporate hands. It’s the perfect time to ask hard questions about the system we’re in—capitalism—and why it’s leaving so many of us further and further behind.

Understanding how things work, or don’t work, is critical to raising our sights, not just for a bigger and better labor movement, but for a world we deserve.


odotmac (not verified) | 07/08/12

I do not disagree with the history cited in this article; it is history, it happened. I do not disagree with the steps the author says should be accomplished.
I do feel the author, like the majority of the Labor Movement, has missed an important point. We do not talk about the WHY.
I do not mean the Why do it? That is easy: we face extinction.
What I do mean is Why Do I Do It? That is not always so easy to know. It seems it is even harder for folks to talk about, even if they are aware of the WHY.

'It is the right thing to do'. Good. I am glad you feel this way. But WHY is it the right thing for YOU to do?
'A rising tide floats all boats'. Good. Getting tired, but true. But WHY is that good for MY boat which is anchored out beyond the tides?

I have worked for my Local because it was the right thing for me to do for my family, for my crew and eventually for my local. It was the right thing to do because it was the moral thing for me to do. It was the right thing to do because it fit me (meyers - briggs: social>mission).

When it came time for me to go to bargaining I worked to get the lowest pay scale job classification in my Local moved up two salary ranges. The boats of full time, family supporting Union Members should not be lower than summer interns and student laborers.

'All politics are local'. They are also personal. The Union Movement, Locals, Organizers & Activists seem reticent to take the time to talk, to make it personal. There are endless lists of campaigns, chores, targets, charting, recruiting, . . . Things. We have lost our personal touch. When asked for - there is no time, or, we will do it at the end of this campaign. The problem is that the end of this campaign always comes in the middle of the next campaign.

The Union Movement needs to get off the hampster wheel. We must refuse to live and work in crisis mode. Our success will come naturally when we make it personal.
When it is personal the goals become clear, the reasoning is simple and the motivation is present.

Professor Smartass (not verified) | 06/30/12

Teachers unions in particular, or at least their members, have a couple of long knives in the drawer they haven't pulled out yet:

1. Boycott the products of those who support right wing, union-busting organizations, and especially those behind the corporate education "reform" movement. When teachers have a chance to be involved in buying decisions for their district, they should argue against those products and even lobby for open source alternatives that don't profit ANY corporation.

2. Teachers should be asking their retirement funds to divest from companies that back union busting and corporate education reform. Those who manage the fund might argue that it's not their job to apply political purity tests, but it is actually part of their fiduciary responsibility to not invest in the companies that want to cut off our access to pensions and drain the funds to make up for tax cuts.

It's time for teachers to stop buying the rope the Wall Street is trying to hang us with.

ren7653 | 07/01/12

I like your ideas, but I have three issues with them -

1) I haven't come across any teacher's union, especially in urban areas, that have a say in the products that are purchased by the school district. Typically, I've been a part of negotiations for when the books have to be delivered (they're still usually late) and other materials, but I haven't ever heard of a union picking what materials over other materials.

2) I don't think "asking" a state-administered pension fund to put their retirement money elsewhere would work. One, there isn't really an audience - you'd be asking the district to ask the state for the union. I guess you could organize your unions to lobby the state, but then again how interested would any Governor, D or R, be in doing that?

I don't really know of any "corporate education reform" groups that also sell materials to districts. They're mostly just lobbying groups and astroturf organizations. As far as bad actors go, I totally agree with you. Unions should be lobbying to keep Coke, Sodexo and other bad actors out of schools.

I was disappointed when the public-sector unions didn't stand with the private-sector during NAFTA, PNTR, etc. That being said, I think they hardly are "buying the rope that Wall Street is hanging us with". The United Fed of Teachers, Randi Weingarten's home local, was one of the first unions to align with Occupy, providing them free storage space and food. There are many examples of this across the U.S. and Canada. Again, I'm not saying teacher's unions don't have issues, but they're hardly blind/disengaged to what's going on. I'd suspect much more so in rural areas than urban ones though.

ren7653 | 06/28/12

It's quite interesting that you criticize Randi Weingarten specifically for having conversations with Bill Gates and his Gates Foundation without adding anything to your critique. Yes, she's had conversations with Gates and he spoke at a convention once - she's also criticized him forcefully when he has come out in support of measures that privatize public education. You failed to mention that part, or the part that an AFT local was the first occupier of the Madison capital, or the 600,000 phone calls and door knocks made by Cleveland AFT members to defeat Senate Bill 5 or the fact that AFT led the charge for the millionaire's tax and universal health care in Vermont.

As a long time reader of Labor Notes, I am sorely disappointed in the critiques and criticisms of the magazine of late. It seems that the staff writes numerous stories without much research or interviews, and has "favorites" among unions.

lycophidion (not verified) | 06/27/12

"But as Jim Cavanaugh discusses here, we have to admit that the union-backed candidate lost because of our inability to convince our own members that this was a referendum on the value of unions, and that they were worth protecting."

Maybe it was that union members were ahead of you precisely because they knew this was no "referendum on the value of unions," but rather the same old electoral cretinism that workers began collectively rejecting with OWS.

Why the Wisconsin Recall Campaign Was a Dead End

The key question to activists, as some have asserted, is what impetus
the recall campaign gives the labor and broader social movement.
Contrary to some, however, the recall effort, itself, cannot be
separated from what was intended to replace Walker, because it is of a
piece, a single electoral strategy pegged to the Democratic Party that
goes back to the Madison occupation.

Keeping in mind that the recall effort was counterposed to a strategy
of continuing grass-roots mobilization (whether or not it culminated
in a general strike) from the beginning -- and not by rank and file
activists, but by the union leaders, liberals and the Democrats -- the
response to that question suggests itself.

Forces politically beholden to the Democrats opted for the recall not
simply because the Democrats are a party of the billionaires, but
specifically because their class interest dictates that they utterly
reject a politics of mass mobilization and collective empowerment in
favor of a politics of electoral and parliamentary cretinism.

That is, particularly beginning with Roosevelt's New Deal, through the
period of post-war capitalist hegemony through the Democratic Party,
the latter has consistently sought to capture social movements
(representing themselves as the latter's political expression), defang
them (in the name of "realism" or "responsibility"), turn their
participants into an atomized and passively dependent "electorate"
(which is far more important to the political elites than for whom the
electorate votes) and refocus the political center of gravity on the
politicians, who become the protagonists on the electoral stage,
playing for the electoral audience. This process has been repeated
with every social movement since the founding of the CIO, but also
during the trajectory of each electoral campaign, with Obama's being
the most recent example -- until now.

Were this focus not of paramount importance for the Dems, why else
would their Wisconsin legislators have absented themselves from the
state at the height of the movement, instead of placing themselves (or
at least some? even one?) squarely in its ranks, if not leadership?
This counterposition of worldviews was almost symbolically stark.

And this electoral/parliamentary cretinism is exactly why the recall
effort is more damaging to the labor movement (as opposed simply to
the union leaders) than Scott Walker. Unless, of course, one either
buys the argument that the Dems are "the party of working people" or
parts from a purely (capitalist) legalistic/legislative framework.
Would a Barrett victory have propelled the labor movement forward.
Would it have given workers more leverage? The argument can be made --
with far more justification -- that Walker has done more to galvanize
the Wisconsin workers movement than Barrett, the recall or the Dems
ever would. It would have been just as likely -- more so, based on
historic precedent -- that a recall and Barrett victory would simply
have been followed by calls by liberal pundits and labor misleaders to
trust in the Democratic politicians to "do the right thing" and avoid
upsetting the apple cart, thus further demobilizing social movement.

It's important to underline that the issue here is NOT the stance of
individual politicians, whether Democrats or Republicans, liberals or
conservatives. Bourgeois ideology conflates the roles of individual
politicians and their parties. This conflation often takes the form of
such statements as  "Obama promised this" or "Barrett promised that."
The "parameters of acceptable discourse"  for Democratic Party
politicians can vary according to the context and (electoral) season,
like a chameleon; their actions in office cannot. Barrett "promised"?
Far better to look at his do-nothing record as Milwaukee mayor.
Hopefully, "radicals" can see past campaign promises to the
triangulation Democrats have become adept at. Hopefully, they can
discern the role even "progressives" (like Kucinich) are assigned in
the Democratic Party as instruments in these triangulation and
electoral 'cretinist' games. Barrett played such a role.

And then we have Barrett, himself, which is not the point of this
tirade, but merits some discussion in context. True, he said in his
debate with Walker, "I am concerned about those [collective
bargaining] rights" (as an aside, it is worth pointing to the
legalistic trap that the NLA and its collective bargaining institution
represent). But, what is one to make of Barrett's, heartfelt concern
in light of his assertion that he was not the first choice of the
unions and that "the real test of leadership is whether you can say no
to your friends"? Triangulation. Moreover, Barrett's budget proposals
differ little from Walker's austerity budget, except to add police and
firefighters to the list of those affected. He has made mouthings
about job creation, but has offered no plan to achieve this.

Barret's role and the role of the recall was to sink the Occupy
movement, at least in Wisconsin. Thank heaven it failed. Now,
hopefully, Wisconsin's working class residents can turn back to
movement building.