- The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements
Progressives looking for hope in hard times would be well advised to read Dan Clawson's recent book, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements. His mostly sober optimism is creatively conveyed through solid historical analysis and compelling case studies. For anyone interested in the labor movement, especially those who see union members and non-union workers as central to broader movements for social and economic justice and who seek to make labor's institutions relevant to social change, this book is a guide to labor's revival.
The current debate swirling around the AFL-CIO and its affiliates is precipitated by the depth of the crisis facing working families. Declining union density and collective bargaining rights impact all working families and have led to increases in the numbers of those without health insurance, retirement security or living wage jobs. Global capital, unfettered by unions, has revived the worst of workplace abuses and created new schemes to pit worker against worker the world over. It comes as no surprise that in the face of this gloomy reality, many search for silver bullet solutions to the problems faced by workers.
While providing no pat answers, Dan Clawson makes the argument that "the labor movement will not grow slowly and incrementally. It hasn't in the past and it won't in the future." Instead, he claims, growth will come quickly, much like it did from 1898 to 1904 or from 1934 to 1945, periods where the numbers of union members increased four-fold.
Still, for Clawson, labor's upsurge is not inevitable. "The key to labor's revival, and to improved conditions for American workers, is a reversal in [End Page 105] these larger trends: for labor to form alliances with other social movements; for those groups, not employers, to have cultural and political momentum; for a mass movement, not staff, to be taking leadership." Even if labor were to meet these challenges and deal with the ferocity of employer opposition to collective bargaining, it would be easy to be pessimistic about chances for resurgence.
Clawson's vision of labor revival could be written off as hopeless optimism. To make his case, he focuses on clear and compelling examples of how labor and other movements are creating concrete models for positive change. Clawson examines the emerging paradigm of organizing for neutrality and/or card check without seeking a certification election by the National Labor Relations Board. This path necessitates building strong alliances in the broader community, and many times requires that workers and their allies address issues of race and ethnicity.
In Connecticut, the Stamford Organizing Project of the AFL-CIO embodied the development of community-based unionism: it helped the community win on crucial issues such as affordable housing and helped the unions involved organize thousands of new members. The principles of solidarity and reciprocity that transcend transactional relationships are key to this paradigm and are embodied in the work of my own organization, Jobs with Justice.
Rather than simply assert that the traditional male "macho" union culture needs to be changed, Clawson cites examples from the campaigns at Harvard and Yale to organize clerical workers that utilized more feminist approaches to building workplace power.
On race and ethnicity, Clawson rightly points out, though weakly, that today's labor movement still offers great potential—especially for women and people of color. In fact, there are more members of color and more women in the labor movement than any other organization. The fact that labor's leadership does not yet adequately reflect the ever-growing diversity in the workforce exposes "the tension/contradiction between the radical democratic potential of the labor movement and the reality of actually existing unions." When workers are in motion in their own (broadly defined) interests and creating organizations whose leadership reflects their own diversity, upsurge may be possible.
At a time when labor and its allies face great challenges, The Next Upsurge offers some helpful insights...