Labor’s Only Real Choice: Beating Harris v. Quinn and Right-to-Work Attacks From the Inside Out

Jane McAlevey is working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.  This article was written by originally posted in The Nation.

Unions are in trouble. Short of a giant meteor crashing on top of the nation’s union headquarters emblazoned with the words, “warning, you will soon be crushed by right-to-work laws,” few things could be clearer from the Supreme Court’s Harris v. Quinn ruling.

Harris v. Quinn unites some of the most toxic trends in American labor tradition. It resurrects the worst of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the racially motivated, sexist concept of “excluded workers,” and then joins it with one of the worst provisions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, the so-called “right-to-work” legal framework which attempts to gut unions from the inside-out. (Although “right to work” has historically been a state’s rights concept, Harris v. Quinn effectively nationalizes it.)

In the hours since the ruling came down, labor has reacted much as it has to other assaults of the last few years: with a mix of head-scratching and denial. But as challenging as any solution might be, figuring out what to do is not astrophysics. To beat Harris v. Quinn and similar measures being thrown at workers and their unions, the labor movement must address what is happening to it internally.

To understand why, it’s necessary to rewind the clock back to 1995, when a slate of smart, progressive reformers won the leadership of our national labor federation, the AFL-CIO. The victors promised a radical reinvention of the US labor movement. ‘Organize the unorganized’ was the clarion call. With the best of intentions, these unions poured tens of millions of dollars into the creation of “external organizing departments.” Yet in the word external lies one of the keys to labor’s struggles today, a reason why lawsuits like Harris v. Quinn and lawmakers like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan and other equally destructive opponents have been successful at gutting unions twenty years into a program that promised to revitalize them.

While reformers were busy trying to expand labor’s ranks, they left behind the most important resource in any challenge to corporate power: labor’s existing ranks. They are the best organizers of unorganized workers, a concept that become rhetoric in the reform effort, not reality. At the same time, the reformers assigned the second-most-important resource, full-time staff, to external organizing teams. This is especially true of the most talented organizers, the ones who specialize in fostering participation, solidarity and the kind of direct action by workers that transforms their understanding of their relationship to each other, their employer and capitalism. Participation and solidarity convince workers that it makes sense to voluntarily pay union dues to combat business-funded right-wing attacks.

This brings us to a second problematic word: representation, which describes the model that dominates all US unions. A representation model of unionism functions much like a car-insurance policy. Workers pay dues and put the membership card into the glove compartment, so that when they crash, or when management rear-ends them, they can get help from their union.

But this model hasn’t helped unions for decades. Many workers, like many drivers, don’t ever crash or get hit. More to the point, unions are much more than mere insurance companies, because they have tools to determine the most important protections for workers’ lives—including pay, benefits and workload. How well a union contract does this directly reflects the power of the membership at the time of contract negotiations. If management sees a united, active workforce, the workers are likely to win and win big. The stronger the local union is at contract time, the better the contract. The better the contract, the more likely that workers in a right-to-work environment will volunteer dues, and, nonunion workers in the same shop or even the same town, city, or region will be ready to risk fighting for their own union so that they, too, can win a better quality of life. And a strong local union is built when the best workers, the majority of workers, are actively participating in and running it themselves, not when the job of “governance” is delegated to a handful of shop stewards or staff reps.

What would happen if the governing model for unions were called ‘participation’ instead of ‘representation,’ and, it actually fostered high participation?

We have just enough examples of local unions that do operate successfully in right-to-work states to know that a culture of participation is key wherever signing membership cards and paying dues is voluntary. Even in the face of campaigns by employers to get workers to drop their membership and refuse dues, workers will continue to be members and to contribute from their paycheck when they experience their union as their union. In Nevada, I helped build a union that sustained 75 percent to 85 percent voluntary membership levels, and we did it by helping workers to understand that everything they hoped and dreamed for was possible—contingent on their own direct involvement in collective action and in the day-to-day affairs of their union.

We moved beyond the simplistic “engagement” verbiage common today but often contradicted internally. For example, very few workers have ever been allowed to experience collective bargaining. The process is typically done by a lawyer and few workers; ten members in a room representing thousands of others would have a union congratulating themselves for involving people. We radically transformed the contract negotiation process: all union contracts were negotiated using a model of open, transparent collective bargaining. We didn’t welcome workers to their own bargaining process; instead, we systematically engaged thousands, bringing them into negotiations for weeks, a day, on their lunch or coffee break. Our goal was for every worker to experience how their contract is won; a few hours of watching the management team was often transformational.

When the contract was settled, we didn’t stop the high participation because we understood it as a muscle, something that atrophies when not in use. We upended the tradition of union leaders deciding union political endorsements by bringing thousands of rank-and-file workers together to decide which candidates deserved their support. Crucially, we enhanced worksite problem solving by empowering the majority of workers to take direct action, reserving the expensive, lawyer-centric grievance process for specialized cases that couldn’t be solved as effectively by workers on the job, confronting the employer en masse. We understood that clauses in a union contract dealing with such mundane issues as new employee orientation could be written in language that forced management to allow no less than one hour for unsupervised unionized employees to engage in worker-to-worker education about how they had won the good wages and benefits the new hires were inheriting. Smart bosses fight this language tooth and nail, and smart unions help workers understand why new employee orientation is a key to future union strength.

Why don’t all unions embrace this high-participation model? Because internal democracy has been the “dangerous” third rail of unions for a very long time. In a high-participation model, rank-and-file members might choose to run for office themselves. Today’s union leaders, including those who are inspiring progressives with campaigns to pass the Robin Hood Tax and the McDonald’s workers’ crusades and other generally good causes being fought outside the current ranks, are as afraid of true high participation and internal opposition as any before them.

And no, hell no, these criticisms are not an embrace of Pamela Harris or her Koch-funded legal attack, or of right-to-work states—far from it. This is the only real strategic option for what’s left of our unions if they want to survive and even thrive. Yes, unions are being challenged today by a well-coordinated attack from outside, but unions are also dying inside.The margin of victory for Scott Walker in the recall election and the margin of defeat for Michigan unions in their attempts to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution were within the union household vote.

The lack of attention to the current membership is sealing labor’s fate. Deciding to reorient to a high-participation model of governance is one clear choice unions can make to strengthen themselves and beat back the besiegers. To win big, to raise workers’ expectations and convince them that they and their communities can reclaim a decent quality of life, unions must rebuild from the inside out. For unions to thrive again, today’s leaders need to tolerate dissent in ways they have been averse to, including during the epoch of renewal that was first promised in 1995.