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An Exchange on Labor Movement Strategy

Article published:
Foreground shows two women wearing red shirts with lots of other people in the background

Alex Riccio critiques the strategy proposed in “No Left without the Labor Left” and Jonah Furman responds.

Alex Riccio offers a critique of “No Left without the Labor Left”:

In a recent article on Organizing Upgrade, Jonah Furman argues organized labor should adopt a similar “inside-outside” strategy deployed by progressives and socialists to battle the Democratic Party establishment. Furman describes this strategy as running insurgents against labor leaders, devoting professional staff and resources toward member political education, and a rededication to militant methods on the shop floor.

The analysis presented by Furman is compelling, and by adopting this strategy prospects for improving left-labor’s influence over national elections seem viable. The question we should ask, however, is not whether Furman’s strategy would be successful on its own terms, but rather, would success be worth the effort?

How does the “inside-outside” strategy avoid recreating the same problems plaguing the current labor movement, namely how the Democratic Party has sought to make labor’s interests subordinate to the party’s interests? How does this change current labor leadership’s prioritization of battling labor law while minimizing the role of shop floor organizing?

Narrowing Labor’s role?

These questions point us toward examining the political choices being pushed in Furman’s proposal. Ultimately, his strategy confines labor’s role to a progressive base-building organization for the Democratic Party. The merits of such a proposal, it appears, would be that left-wing candidates could win elections and potentially tweak the legal terrain constricting union activities in ways amenable for left-wing unionism. A win-win for all, and the common good makes out nice, too.

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Obviously, legislative changes to labor law (more accurately labelled “management law”) would be a net gain, at least in the short term. But it’s in the long-term political horizon where this “inside-outside” strategy falls short. One need look no further for evidence than at the existing decline of labor unions, a decline in power Furman acknowledges throughout his piece.

Labor scholars Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin have highlighted how the leadership of the AFL-CIO is populated by what they label as “pragmatists,” whose primary strategies for stemming labor’s decline has been to shift the fight from the shop floor to the electoral and legislative arena.

Pragmatists gained tactical advantages against left-labor with the adoption of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) along with subsequent expansions of labor litigation, because these legal frameworks enabled them to leverage labor relations against the left-wing of the labor movement and steer strategy to represent their own interests. The advantage was that now the pragmatists had a state sanctioned pathway to create particular kinds of unions, “business unions,” and to back these unions with more recognized rights and authenticity in the eyes of the state than the left-wing models of unionism represented by many unions within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Often I describe this as the long-protracted historical defeat of labor’s left-wing by its right-wing, and unionism in the U.S. today is circumscribed by this defeat.

Pragmatists are an echelon of leadership that, as Jane McAlevey has put it, “assume elites will always rule.” Rather than pursue political alternatives requiring mass worker militancy to achieve, these leaders make consistent political choices that operate tightly within the confines of existing state power administered via labor relations law. What’s been revealed throughout their failed strategy is that workers power is not located in the legislature.

Put another way, mainstream unions have been prioritizing the fight for better labor laws for decades and have been losing for just as long. This fight has been tactically approached through get-out-the-vote (GOTV) blitzes for Democrats, staffing up on lawyers and legislative experts, and political endorsements on national and state level primaries. Furman’s suggestions basically resume these aspects of overall strategy but just make it so that endorsements of “better” Democrats occur and GOTV blitzes are for progressives. While Furman is critical of labor leadership’s pragmatist turn, the direction he points us leads down the same well-worn path. The tone changes, but the substance remains the same.

Rank-and-file insurgencies

Where Furman’s strategy differs is in his acknowledgement that rank-and-file membership needs to mount insurgencies against their existing leadership for organized labor to shift left. I also align with Furman’s desire for a militant rank-and-file organizing approach committed to the principles he identifies as “union democracy, anti-concessionary bargaining, militant tactics, new organizing, and independent political action.”

It’s abundantly clear that the pragmatists need to be removed from their positions of leadership, and a rededication to militant methods on the shop floor is clearly beneficial. But the main limit in Furman’s proposal is in the purported goals of said strategy. Following the principles, he describes would get us up to a point of power, but then our built power would be surrendered to party priorities and interests. All of these means should not simply go down a path which lands us at the feet of the Democratic Party and the legislative arena. We know the outcomes of traveling this road.

Workers power is not in the legislative arena or through the levers of political representation. The power for workers is in the workplace. Instead of pursuing progressive Democrats or socialist politicians that will make friendly modifications to labor relations frameworks, our strategy through these means should be geared toward completely busting apart labor law and supplanting it with a whole new political order.

What I’d like to see is a shift from asking how unions can help elect better politicians to how unions can break out of the labor relations framework entirely. Such questions shift our view of political possibilities and help us make choices to expand our power in the workplace rather than surrender it.

Jonah Furman responds:

Alex Riccio’s response to my article takes a bit of a different core question as its basis, namely, “Why should the labor left engage in electoral politics, particularly through the Democratic Party?” as opposed to the premise of my original piece’s intent to address why the actually-existing left needs to reckon with unions both as vehicles for workplace struggle and as agents in our electoral political system. Both are good questions, and they are of course connected.

Riccio and I agree: we have to break labor’s reliance on the Democratic Party. Just like you can’t be in a union with your boss, you can’t be in a party with your boss — the fundamental function of these organizations is to advocate for the interests of a certain group, which is impossible when you have groups with opposed interests in the same organization.

But our unions are already in that party. If there was some new “Democratic Party” and labor was wondering whether or not it should jump in bed with the big pharma and finance executives who pull the purse strings, I would say no. But labor is already a junior partner in this party, and there’s no ready-made alternative.

The labor left needs a strategy to break that reliance (as does the left more generally). The Bernie campaigns show that contesting the party on its own terms can build power beyond the electoral arena. What’s more is that the tiny amount of leverage the progressive and socialist left was able to use to great effect in the party pales in comparison to the amount of leverage that organized labor has within the party.

No to ‘workplace reductionism’

I fully agree with Riccio’s focus on the workplace, with the workplace being capital’s weakest point. There is a strong trend on the “labor left” that one might term “workplace reductionism”: the idea that the working class has the most leverage over the capitalist class in the form of workers’ ability to disrupt production and provision of services; working class power is predicated on its capacity to threaten and disrupt this production; therefore we must build workplace power to the point that it overflows into political power beyond the workplace. The power of the working class is reduced to its power in the workplace; if it ain’t workplace power, it ain’t power.

This trend has a powerful and important corrective role in a union movement that has mostly ceded the workplace as a site of struggle and turned towards the most cynical forms of electoral and legislative advocacy. It’s also true that the left in general doesn’t attend enough to worker leverage in the workplace and doesn’t invest in the kinds of structures and resources needed to build that leverage. This insistence on the workplace is worth maintaining for those reasons alone.

But I would posit that workplace power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for working class power. There has been no successful revolutionary movement (or even reformist movement!) that has not contested power beyond the workplace, and the vast majority of any examples we might want to emulate have involved directly contesting state power through some sort of party-like vehicle.

Learn from what Bernie accomplished

I’d go further than that: workplace power does not always come prior to other forms of working class power. There are reasons it would be neater and better to believe that if we just build up our workplace power, it will eventually overflow into arenas beyond the workplace. Again, we can learn here from broader lessons of the recent history of the left, by way of analogy. There is a tendency on the left to believe, hope, insist, assert that our power is in the streets, in social movements, outside of parliamentary politics. But it was Bernie’s challenge to the Democratic Party (combined with the election of Donald Trump) that had the effect of reverse engineering the left’s resurgence in broader civil society, radicalizing and activating tens of thousands, who then took the fight into non-electoral arenas.

The labor left is not categorically different. We cannot lament that union members and leaders look outside the workplace as sites of struggle and sources of strength; we have to organize around that fact, and use it to build our forces that we can take back into the workplace. We also cannot organize around or away from the problem of the Democratic Party.

Yes, we need independence from the Democratic Party, but there are two kinds of independence: the independence that comes with weakness and marginality on the one hand, and the independence that comes with a well-organized political base that can act in its own interest on the other. We cannot build the latter capacity to act from strength by abstaining from or ignoring the already-existing conflicts in the Democratic Party.

Riccio writes, “The power for workers is in the workplace.” As a political commitment, I agree. As an assessment of the current situation, I don’t see it. The power for workers, as it stands, is hard to find. Our task is to figure out where the power is and use it as we can to build our strength in the workplace and beyond.



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