‘Union’ is a verb

Nate Holdren argues that “the labor movement has more possible futures than just passing the PRO Act vs the continuation of the present and intolerable business-as-usual.”

No one with any sense or humanity looks at the current state of the labor movement or working class life in the US and thinks things are going particularly well. Anyone paying even moderate attention knows that reversing this course requires something to change. One kind of change that’s often proposed is to revise the law. The PRO Act is the most recent such proposal. I’m skeptical that the Democrats will pass it, given their failure to pass the Employee Free Choice Act before. I think energy and resources expended on this effort will go the way of the Sanders election campaign (remember all the “we’re building a movement” rhetoric?). I could be wrong, though. After all, Congress did pass the National Labor Relations Act, once upon a time. We’re in a pandemic that is (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime social and economic crisis, so maybe we’re in a one-in-a-lifetime legislative moment. We’ll find out. Time and tide flow wide.

In the conversations I’ve heard and been part of about the PRO Act, people who think the PRO Act is vitally important tend to emphasize the awfulness of pay and conditions right now, in order to dramatize the need for unionization, and to stress how hard it is to win union elections. I agree with all of that. If I got to vote on it, I’d vote in favor of the PRO Act.

I want to be fair here. I know everyone who cares about the PRO Act means well (every human being I mean, not management consultants and others of their ilk, the technical term for which is “evil motherfuckers”), and they tend to be people who read labor history and pay attention to and participate in the labor movement today, so they have a sense of the complexity and nuances in the labor movement.

At the same time, I think the emphasis on “pass the PRO Act so there will be more unions” may treat unions in a bit of flat or formal or static way. If we look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, we find a wide range of understandings of what civil rights were and of how the movement ought to proceed. Similarly, in labor history we find a wide range of visions of what a union is as an activity, tied to a wide range of ideas about how best to proceed. I worry that the PRO Act and efforts like it smuggle in some specific understandings of what a union is and could be and do.

There is some historical basis to this worry. In her prizewinning book The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, historian Risa Goluboff argues that while the legal decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a kind of victory for civil rights, that victory also had an effect on the political conceptions of the civil rights movement — the vision and values through which the movement analyzed society and defined what it meant by civil rights — as well as shaping its practical decisions about strategy and tactics. Alongside the good it did, the Brown decision narrowed the horizons of the civil rights movement, in part by benefiting organizations with more narrow and conservative political visions instead of organizations with more expansive, ambitious, and radical visions.

A similar pattern occurred in the aftermath of the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. In the excellent Rights Delayed, historian Charles Romney argues that the NLRA introduced complicated legal procedures to unionization. These procedures were slow in ways that hurt workers — employers could stand to wait in a way that workers without a paycheck could not. He details, for example, years-long delays in responding to unfair labor practice charges, already in the early 1940s. These procedures required legal professionals as well, which made them less than democratic — lawyers and other experts are generally not a force for collective decision-making; technocracy and democracy are at best an unstable combination — and were also very expensive.

As a result, unions that were more progressive, democratic, and militant saw fewer benefits from the NLRA and were in some ways hamstrung by it. More conservative, top-down, and conciliatory unions, on the other hand, did better. Because the latter kind of unions had better resources at the time, they also fared better in relation to the legal expenses of operating under the NLRA. I’ll add that these processes kicked in significantly before Taft-Hartley in 1947 (overemphasis on Taft-Hartley is a convenient way to dodge problems with the NLRA as such).

This history is important because it means the NLRA did not create an environment that was generally good for unions, so much as an environment that was good for specific kinds of unions. In his excellent Reviving The Strike, Joe Burns refers to labor law as a system of labor control. One way this system of control works is by shaping the character of unions — their vision of unionism and strategies and tactics. With that in mind, while I do think it would better if the PRO Act became law than if we remained in the present impasse, I also think the labor movement has more possible futures than just passing the PRO Act vs the continuation of the present and intolerable business-as-usual. I think emphasis on legislation like the PRO Act exerts a narrowing influence much like presidential elections do, and we should try not to fall for that narrowing.

I have a hunch that one facet of this narrowing is emphasis on union density. While declining union density is a cause for concern, stressing density leaves out the vision of what a union is or can be. To put it another way: when we talk about union density, we should also talk about what kind of unionism we want to be more or less widespread. One measure of density is elections won and contract signed. Readers of Organizing Work will know that the site is generally skeptical of the value of these metrics. A common response to this skepticism goes something like “yeah, well, how will an organization keep existing without contracts?” In reply, I’ll point out that the Civil Rights Movement lasted a long time without anything like contracts, and that there have been important unions without contracts as well, so longevity does not require contractualism. Furthermore, I’m inclined to ask: “longevity of what?”

Pro-union people don’t like to talk about it publicly, understandably, but there are some deeply flawed unions. Organizations can collapse while limping along. Personally I would take a broken shell of a union over no union, I suppose, if those were my only options. After all, a bad local is still a local, it still raises union density somewhat. Once again, though, we should resist narrowing our options to the better of two bad choices. That’s part of why we need ideas about visions of unionism, beyond just density of any-old-union. As I noted in regard to Rights Delayed, policy changes that promote unionism don’t necessarily promote all forms and visions of unionism equally.

As a reader and fan of Organizing Work, my sense is that a lot of the spirit of the site is that we should fundamentally understand a union as an activity: a group of people coming together to challenge their employer’s power and improve their lives in a way that they define. That group recognizes itself. Legal and employer recognition are at best secondary and tactical concerns. This vision of unionism has sometimes been called “solidarity unionism” and “direct unionism.”

Anyone who has been part of collective activity knows that the experience is very powerful and often personally transformative. You never really feel or look at the world quite the same way afterward. Activity like that might not leave behind a contract or a certified organization. Unions can end, and that’s never a good thing. Some of the time, though, an official organization can carry on without being much of a union in this sense of being an activity. That’s a kind of ending as well, but one that’s sometimes masked.

As I said, better a bad local than no local, but unions of that sort — where the union becomes a thing instead of an activity — are less transformative. And in the long run, the proliferation of unions like that also reduces unions’ contribution to human progress. I want to stress as well that when a solidarity unionist effort ends, it can still leave something behind: individual and collective memories of struggle and solidarity, relationships of trust, outrage at inhumane treatment, and the skills and disposition to take collective action again in the future. 

I’m painfully aware that losses and efforts dissolving can produce feelings of disempowerment and hopelessness. I don’t want to minimize that. That matters a great deal. The two main things holding most people back from collective action are a sense of fear and/or a sense of futility, it seems to me. Working class life imposes those feelings over and over again, relentlessly — this is part of why collective action can feel so incredible, as it replaces those feelings with a sense of possibility and power. The end of any organizing effort can end up creating more fear and futility. This can happen when a solidarity unionist campaign dissolves, and it can also happen when a union becomes a shell of itself. 

I think the reality is that the working class and the labor movement are in for a bad time for a long while yet. As the class and movement push through that bad time on the way to better days, there will be a lot of failures. As such, evaluating better from worse failures is worthwhile. (Rosa Luxemburg once said that for the working class “ultimate victory can only be prepared by a series of ‘defeats’.”) To my mind, the best result of an organizing drive is increased capacity to organize — greater skills, disposition to use those skills, more shared sense of solidarity, and so on. That’s more the result of the character of a union in its practices and vision than it’s the result of certifications and contracts, and it’s not measured by things like density. Whether the PRO Act passes or not, the most pressing thing will be to spread the vision — and the skills and the lived reality — of union as a verb, a practice, an activity. Without that, the best outcome will be just another version of our intolerable present.

Nate Holdren lives in Iowa. He is the author of the book Injury Impoverished and keeps an occasional blog.