A reborn American labor movement is coming—if unions are bold enough to change

The national organization OUR Walmart is seeking to improve working conditions for Walmart employees.
The national organization OUR Walmart is seeking to improve working conditions for Walmart employees.
Image: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
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Donald Trump’s presidency has elevated debate about the grim future of unions. While more policies and laws undermining workers seem inevitable, the movement’s death is not. United against the politics that have led to a rigged economy, workers and organizers from red and blue states are looking for a future in which their families are not constantly struggling, while those in power at corporations, banks, and in Washington help only themselves.

Working people in this country can not and should not underestimate their power. History, as well as emerging movements and organizations, show that working people are not facing a question of life or death. Rather, they are facing the opportunity for renewal. The US labor movement has reinvented itself repeatedly in the past. These rebirths have been crucial to the evolution of the movement’s power. We are now at another historical moment of rebirth. But it’s important to understand how we arrived here, so to best take advantage of the opportunity ahead.

The first documented labor union in North America was the Boston Shoemakers Union, which formed in 1648. Well before then, workers organized themselves upon landing in the American colonies. As a result, many different kinds of labor organizations exist, all with the goal of building power for working people and taking power from those who abuse it. These organizations include craft unions, guilds, protection societies, general unions, trade unions, associations, and more. They provide workers with community, education, political power, and economic power. Most of these organizations also existed for a limited time. They are succeeded by new organizations better equipped to build power in America’s ever-changing economic and societal conditions. For example, the Knights of Labor grew to become largest and most powerful union in the late 1800s, but by the mid-1900s its final members dropped the affiliation, as a new labor movement arose.

Today, too many people—inside the labor movement and out—wax nostalgic about mid-1950s movements that are still dominant in 2017. It’s understandable: union membership was over 30% of the workforce, GM workers were able to buy the cars they built, and the modern American Dream—where working hard meant getting ahead—emerged. In this period, unions played a huge role building the middle class and making America strong. But changes to global trade policies, technology, and the rise of other forces, like automation, mean that the organizations that thrived in 1955 are not necessarily equipped to build power for working people today.

Emerging worker movements are winning hard fought victories with the painful recognition that the same methods for organizing don’t work inside America’s broken system of laws and traditions. New, emergent forms of organizing are gaining power despite the fact that corporations have unprecedented control over workplaces, politics, laws, and the economy. From OUR Walmart to the Fight for $15, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Better Banks Campaign, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and the Freelancers Union, new forms of worker organizations are winning better pay and scheduling practices at major corporations. They’re providing access to benefits and services by using economies of scale. And they’re securing stronger public policy, winning paid sick days and higher minimum wages for entire communities.

These groups and others like them are setting a path for renewal that involves being catalysts, embracing technology and social media, and not waiting for the perfect solution before building and harnessing political power. Understanding and investing in these new models for organizing will help the labor movement succeed. These changes have meant breaking with tradition and tactics of traditional labor organizing, but forging a new path is critical to the revival moment.

These models show that organizers must not be afraid of being catalysts that help workers build independent organizations and experiment. The decision about forming an organization can’t be left up to the government or employers. The presence of workers ready to initiate organization building should be the only prerequisite necessary for an organization to exist.

Workers and organizers must also remember that who gets elected, and what they do in once in office, is a reflection of their power; until they build independent power, they will continue to lose. Some of the resources currently focused on politics needs to be focused instead on building organizations that give working people a voice, community, and vision for change, first.

Meanwhile, new technology and social media has changed the paradigm of how workers can organize on limited resources. Ensuring that our models include training workers on how to organize through social media, and creating tools to support them, is critical. Connecting traditional tactics with social media and technology opens up huge new opportunities in organizing.

And when thinking about resources, organizers must be strategic. They know that a rising tide lifts all, and they need to be more strategic about focusing on industries and sectors that can create the most change for workers. Just as a 500,000 people at Walmart earning a raise resulted in other retailers following suit, organizers need to focus our efforts on the industries and sectors who are going to have the greatest economy-wide impact.

United for Respect @ Walmart (OUR Walmart) has been working on these issues since 2010. Worker-leaders choose not to wait for the government or Walmart to decide if it had the right to exist. The organization exists because Walmart workers decided to build it into a network of more than 100,000, who, in coalition with communities and allies, created pressure on Walmart sufficient to raise minimum pay, change national policies, and win thousands of store-level victories. By necessity, the organization has focused on developing new forms of building power. While the results may look unfamiliar to traditional labor unions, to date OUR Walmart is both resilient and on the route to building long-term sustainability.

OUR Walmart’s resilience is connected to its leaders examining the current situation and designing an organization that can build power in America’s current economic and societal conditions. OUR Walmart has also developed a powerful tool called Workit that has the potential to transform the ways that workers can support each other and self-organize.

We live in an era where the opportunity to bring people together is in transformation, thanks to continued technological developments that allow for the democratization of connection, information, and media. We also live in a time when poverty and inequality are destroying the fabric of America and the world. We know that the labor movement won’t survive in its current state—a state that allowed for the election of Donald Trump. The question for those of us invested in the future of labor is this: Are we bold enough to build something different, and better, than what has come before?