Labor Movement Needs to Focus on Organizing Not Elections

Interview with Tom Lewandowski, co-founder and director of the Workers' Project in Fort Wayne, Indiana, conducted by Scott Harris

U.S. labor unions have witnessed dramatic losses in membership over the last several decades.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics union membership has declined from a rate of 20.1 percent in 1983 to just 10.7 percent today. There were 14.8 million wage and salary workers belonging to unions in 2017, a slight increase of 262,000 from 2016.
It’s been seven years since the state of Wisconsin passed highly controversial legislation in 2011, which virtually eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public-sector workers, in addition to cutting those workers’ benefits.  Funded by conservative activists and think tanks, backed by corporate donors including the billionaire Koch brothers and the Bradley Foundation, attacks on labor unions have spread across the country in recent years where Republican-controlled states have moved to follow Wisconsin’s lead.  The anti-union movement was elated when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against labor in the Janus v. AFSCME case in June, a decision that means public sector unions can no longer collect agency fees as a condition of employment, which had previously been mandatory in 22 states.
While there are signs that certain sectors of the labor movement have become energized this year, with teacher walkouts in six states that won raises and increases in education budgets, labor is still largely on the defensive. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Tom Lewandowski, co-founder and director of the Workers’ Project in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Here he talks about his recent article titled “Forget Elections, Labor Needs to Get Back to Its Roots,” which argues that a focus on rebuilding union membership should be the labor movement’s primary focus.

TOM LEWANDOWSKI: You know, the labor movement was created out of a culture of solidarity that developed and the institutions came after the culture was developed. And, I think we’re at a point now where institutional labor movement is 10 percent and we have to focus on that 90 percent – build a culture of solidarity. Get folks talking to each other and looking out for each other, and that takes a different kind of organizing.

And you know, Donald Trump – a lot of the left is rightly concerned about Donald Trump. Fixated to some extent. But you know, most of us at work have had a boss like Donald Trump. America may have never had a president like him, but most of us who work have had a boss like him before. And so we need to figure out how we can start dealing with him just as a boss. And that just starts with organizing. And I think doing politics alone – I don’t want to dismiss politics entirely, but back in the 1960s, we used to say, “You don’t go to the party to get your act together, you get your act together to go to the party.” Well, the labor movement doesn’t have its act together. We’ve forgotten how to represent workers, how to listen to workers. And we’ve been been too fixated on politics as a quick fix.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, Tom, where do you think the existing institutional labor unions – where should they go now? In terms of their loss of membership, they know they have to turn things around. But, what are some of the things they could do today to get started in a new direction that will revive the labor movement?

TOM LEWANDOWSKI: Well, when I look back to the early 20th century, when the American Federation of Labor saw that there were huge amounts of workers who were industrial workers at that time that didn’t fit into their model, they put resources into looking for new models. I know that there’s been a lot of experimentation with that, but it’s always within the constraints of “doesn’t make financial sense.” It’s still too much about building the organization, building the institution rather than representing the worker. If there was more effort put into what I believe would be regional organizing within communities and sort of bring together community organizing and work organizing, and so people have voice and power where they live and where they work simultaneously – so that those become connected more, rather than an “either-or.”

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you see currents in the existing labor establishment today who know they need to go in this direction? Are there promising signs that change is afoot?

TOM LEWANDOWSKI: I can’t say that I do, but I don’t know that there aren’t. I just haven’t seen many. I think there are a lot of folks out there that know something is needed different, but are despairing. They don’t know where to start. I think there are a large segment of the labor activists who are desperate for trying something new and I think they just ought to try it and don’t limit ourselves to just creating an NLRB union. I talked to a unionist from other places and they start talking about what we’re doing and they go, “Did you win an NLRB election?” I say well, “That’s not the point.”

We first have to build a culture of solidarity before we start doing that. And in that, yeah, we create collective voice and power. But our objective isn’t first to see if we can create a dues income stream – that becomes such an artifice that people see right through that. They say, “Oh, you’re only interested in us for the money.” It’s not about solidarity.

We’ve seen the collapse of – what I believe – is the potential collapse of our democracy if we don’t find a way for working people to have voice and power. And we’re seeing that in Europe now, too. You know, large numbers of the working class who you see in the streets of Paris.

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