In the summer edition of the journal Democracy, Richard Yeselson writes about the pall that restrictive labor law has cast over the labor movement. Yeselson takes us through a very thorough history of the construction of current labor laws, from the first right-to-work laws in the states through the Taft-Hartley Act, as well as the post-World War II labor unrest and progressive coalition building that provoked the ire of conservatives and business alike. It is a very compelling retelling of history; one of the best I have seen in an article about labor in a while.
He then goes into the cost of running comprehensive campaigns that seek to organize large numbers of unorganized workers. He makes the argument that, in addition to such campaigns being prohibitively expensive, the American workforce is so large and diversified that even large organizing successes will not make much of an impact in labor density. Furthermore, he suggests that labor growth occurs in spurts, and from the ground up, making the formulation of “a campaign in a union office in Washington” ultimately pointless.
After laying out all of these challenges, he suggests a way forward for labor unions in the 21st century. He calls this path forward “fortress unionism.” It entails:
- Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies.
- Strengthen existing union locals.
- Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds?
- Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations.
- Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America.
- And then . . . wait (for workers to demand a collective solution to issues at the workplace).
As someone whose primary concern is the growth of Southern labor, this strategy is . . . disconcerting.