If We Can Win Here: The New Front Lines of the Labor Movement.
THE AMERICAN LABOUR movement has been in crisis perhaps longer than comparable movements in any other major industrialized country. Union density is at levels not seen since before the New Deal, the political right is again ascendant, and unions are continually trying to staunch any further losses in membership that they see coming their way. The American labour movement is, like its counterpart in countries like Canada, primarily concentrated in the public sector. More than half of union members live in just seven states, which means that the labour movement is really regionally-based while striving to exert itself as a representative for workers across the United States. This problem of regional union membership concentration is further exacerbated by the fact that 26 American states now have so-called Right-to-Work laws that prevent mandatory dues payment. Employees in the federal public service, while able to form unions, are also covered by separate Right-to-Work provisions. Recent stunning electoral successes by the political right at the state and federal levels are expected to make American labour's circumstances even more dire.
American union leaders, local activists, and sympathetic academics in the labour studies community have long debated how to change the labour movement's trajectory. Fran Quigley's new book If We Can Win Here: The New Front Lines of the Labor Movement is an interesting and timely new addition to the literature on union renewal. He examines successful union organizing strategies in Indiana. This is a state that was once was a bulwark of industrial unionism--the United Auto Workers union was founded there--but now has a Right-to-Work law and political climate that is hostile toward unions. Quigley argues that it is possible to successfully organize in states like Indiana, and devotes considerable space to discussing the personalities and tactics behind effective organizing drives. Most importantly, the organizing campaigns that he analyses occurred within the low-wage end of the service sector. This includes hotel, restaurant, retail, and health care workers. These are people making poverty-level wages who have little to lose by organizing, and much to gain if they are successful. Many of the workers described by Quigley are also people of colour and women. These are groups who are widely known to be receptive to unionization, but who also have not always received sufficient organizing attention from labour.
Quigley's analysis is hopeful, especially at a time when American unions are reeling from renewed attacks from the right, but the scale of what he hopes that labour can achieve does not always sufficiently consider the challenges that winning entails. The fact that unions have been able to organize marginalized low-wage workers in a conservative Right-to-Work state like Indiana is a welcome achievement. However, organizing is just the first step in forming a union. It is clear from Quigley's discussion that keeping unions in place after organizers have left can be difficult. Unions need to devote more resources to training and encouraging activists who will build locals that endure. There is also the fact that restaurants and other low-wage service sector workplaces have high rates of staff turnover, which makes organizing difficult. Overcoming the fear of retribution by employers is also always an obstacle for organizers to overcome. The role of fulltime organizers, as shown in this book, is both hopeful but also problematic. Hope lies in the fact that unions continue to be able to attract smart, dedicated people who want to devote their lives to improving the prospects of working people. The problem is that successful organizing is ultimately dependent on rank-and-file worker activism. Whereas organizing is an all-encompassing mission for a paid union staff member, it is one of many duties fulfilled by local volunteer activists.
This book complements other recent publications that advocate for a renewed focus on local organizing. Those works include Stanley Aronowitz's The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker's Movement (London and New York: Verso, 2014) and Jane McAlevey's No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Quigley's analysis is one of workers trying to collectively further themselves through the Wagner-based labour relations system that has existed in the US since the mid-19305. A serious reconsideration of the continued usefulness of that model, at least in its current form, is going to have to be part of any future strategy for organizing and expanding the labour movement. Quigley notes the role of unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the Fight for 15 movement to raise minimum wages across the United States. Unions in many instances provided key resources, but social activists from outside of the labour movement did a lot of the hard work of actually mobilizing workers. As Dorothy Sue Cobble and Janice Fine have separately discussed, there is a large and growing non-union labour movement in the United States that is often closely linked to immigrants' rights groups like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and other progressive movements.
Quigley has shown one part of the path forward for American organized labour, but taking that journey is going to be very challenging. The success of movements like the Fight for 15 illustrates that a future labour movement that thrives in the United States will be far more diverse, have an agenda that is much more based on local activism, forges progressive alliances, is less bureaucratic, and willing to operate outside of the long-standing parameters of collective bargaining. This is a tall order for a movement that has been losing ground for a long time. There is hope because, as Quigley has shown in this book, workers who are pushed to the margins and have little power can be organized to improve their lives through collective action.
Empire State College--SUNY
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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