Organize, and let the law follow


by C.M. Lewis

Postal workers out on an illegal strike in 1970.

Postal workers out on an illegal strike in 1970.

In the wake of yet another heartbreaking loss at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, the United Auto Workers’ came out full-throatedly in favor of labor law reform. Within twenty-four hours, UAW social media began promoting the “Protecting The Right To Organize” Act—a half-measure introduced by Congressional Democrats in lieu of the more ambitious Workplace Democracy Act introduced by Bernie Sanders.

The “PRO” Act introduces several key labor law reforms: largely things introduced via legal interpretations and guidances under the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (like so-called “quickie” elections), but recently overturned by the new Trump majority. 

It’s an interesting pivot, though not wholly unexpected. The UAW’s argument is straightforward: if the law were different, we would’ve won. And they’re right, to a point—labor law is rigged against workers, and labor needs to fight to change it.

But it’s also a political dead end to place policy before shop floor and community power, and betrays the utter lack of vision in the highest echelons of the labor movement—the same lack of vision that lost the Chattanooga election. Organizing leads the law: it doesn’t follow it.

The UAW’s argument isn’t new; in fact, it’s widely accepted as common sense. In 2008, organized labor made the “Employee Free Choice Act” a major political priority, after sinking millions of dollars and thousands of staff and worker release hours into electing Barack Obama. EFCA advanced several “fixes” to labor law: a pathway to binding arbitration for first contracts, increased penalties for boss retaliation against organizing workers, and “card-check” elections. All of the proposed fixes would have had the net effect of making it easier to organize a union, and to bargain a first contract. 

The political calculus was clear: if we can get a policy fix to the slow two-tiered elections mandated by labor law, and if we can fix some of the union-busting tactics used by the boss, we can finally reverse a decades-long decline in union density. 

Less than a year later, the legislation was killed by a Senate controlled 60-40 by the Democratic Party. “Moderate” Democrats like Dianne Feinstein refused to support the bill, and Democratic leadership—and the White House—both caved. Come 2010, 2012, and 2014, unions still dutifully lined up behind the Democrats that killed their signature bill. So much for organized labor’s number one priority—and so much for Democratic gratitude.

EFCA wasn’t a one-off. Over the past decades, labor has increasingly turned to political lobbying and electoral calculus, rather than organizing. On the eve of the 2016 election, high-profile labor unions joined together pooling tens of millions to launch “For Our Future,” a Super PAC using the same dark money rules created by Citizens United. Hollow refrains to “organize the unorganized,” followed by the same deprioritization of organizing and high-profile botched campaigns, has entered the territory of farce.

What do we have to show for labor’s pivot toward the “art of the deal”? Little to nothing. 

It’s a fundamentally flawed vision of how change happens. Striking workers that broke the law, not lobbyists, secured wage increases from hostile legislatures in West Virginia and Arizona. Striking workers, not lobbyists, won one of organized labor’s largest victories in years in Los Angeles. Striking workers, not lobbyists, secured industry-leading wage settlements for Marriott hotel workers. And striking workers, not lobbyists, fought Stop & Shop—and won.

Changed laws might have changed the outcome in Chattanooga. So would have trusting workers to engage in shop floor struggle on their own terms, instead of calling plays from the same tired playbook. As Chris Brooks lays out in his comprehensive piece on UAW’s loss, their campaign didn’t build a fighting organization on the shop floor level: it waged a media air war that did nothing to build worker power and confidence.

Political power flows from organization. It doesn’t lead it. Dealing with political actors, even from a position of strength, is a fraught business: when it’s from a position of weakness, unions are left fighting for table scraps from the elite. UNITE-HERE’s Culinary 226—pound for pound, one of the most powerful union locals in the country—gets that. It’s why their relentless organization and political education has led them to become a crucial powerbroker in Nevada politics, in spite of the state’s “Right-to-Work” laws. 

Prioritizing lobbyists—many of whom are poached from Democrats and the octopus-like world of liberal and progressive nongovernmental organizations—as the agent of change ignores the one thing that has ever gotten victories, whether on the shop floor or at the ballot box: the power of organized workers. We continue to do it at our peril.

We can, and should, codify our organizing gains into law at every turn. Radical industrial organization in the 1930s conjured the spectre of worker revolt on an unprecedented scale: a spectre that led directly to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. Public sector workers in the 1960s—such as Pennsylvania teachers—turned to wildcat strikes and mass actions, like 20,000 teachers marching on Harrisburg in March of 1968 to demand fair pay, dignity on the job, and union rights. Striking postal workers in 1970 secured the right to collectively bargain for the first time. Once we’ve built power—power only created and sustained through organizing—we need to seize concessions that make more possible.

But we need to be clear about what makes that law: organizing and working-class power. Changes to labor law aren’t handed down from the sky—or from transactional deal-making between “benevolent” politicians and union lobbyists. They’re hard-won concessions gained through the power of organized workers.

Organize first. Make the law follow.

C.M. Lewis is a union staffer in Central Pennsylvania, a member of the Strikewave editorial collective, and a member of UAW Local 1981. The views expressed are his own.