Rebuilding Worker Power

I read a striking paper by David Rolf this week which presents a powerful prescription for building union influence in the 21st century. As I’ve discussed before, over the last four decades or longer, union membership and union power have taken a nosedive. This reality has given corporations a virtual carte blanche to dominate our governmental processes, concentrate wealth in the upper one percent and destroy what is left of the middle class. This reality is bad for labor, but more importantly, it is bad for the United States.

What is so remarkable about David’s paper is that he advocates a sea change in our approach to fighting for worker rights. In other words, stop fighting 20th century battles with 20th century rhetoric, which we have been consistently losing for decades, and develop a stronger, bolder and more inclusive vision for the 21st century. I could not agree more. We can no longer rely on worn and isolated strategies coming out of Washington. We must develop our own ideas and discover what works where we are – in Nebraska. As David says, “It’s time for us to accept that innovation needs to be the new religion – and that a measurable portion of movement resources and our talent needs to go into creating the next model.”

What disappointed me was that after such a pragmatic and thought-filled call to arms, he then proceeds to focus on polishing-up the old dialogue. It's not really out-of-the-box at all. Don’t get me wrong. His insights are truly high quality. He develops each point with detailed brilliance, but ultimately, he’s still trying to get an edge on those 20th century battles. I get that we need to move the old guard out of the palace, but if we really want to get innovative, don’t we want to reexamine everything, including our foundations?

Currently, power (Who benefits? Who governs? Who wins?) is dominated by those with wealth and influence. They control the system – the game. Playing the game better, as David suggests, can only get you as far as, well, maybe where we are. I don’t think most of our failures have been from want of doing our best. I’m only a commonsense kind of gal. If the game is fixed, we need to change the rules.

Public support for unions today sits at 60 percent, and with those under 30 years of age at 76 percent. What’s more, regardless of political affiliation, Americans are all about fairness and support for the underdog. Theoretically, we have the democratic power to win this game, but we’re not winning for three big reasons. First, we fail to recognize that we won the 20th century. Continuing to fight for things we’ve already won causes a cascade of false assumptions. Second, we fail to recognize and acknowledge our own flaws. You can’t take the high ground, if you’re up to your eyeballs in bullshit. Third, contrary to our ever-increasing concentration on our political base, elections are won in the middle. Ignoring statistical parameters, that matter to the center, does nothing but plant the sword on which we will die.

Winning democratic debate on the coast, where David is located, is nothing remarkable. It is expected, but putting wins on the board for workers in Nebraska is a monumental challenge. As he rightly suggests, it is going to take some out-of-the-box thinking – some real innovation. To accomplish that, we’ve first got to change the rules. That’s going to require the passage of some creative statutory law, and probably at least one Constitutional Amendment. It’s been done, and it can be done again. Second, we can’t sell what needs to be done with 20th century rhetoric and 20th century arguments. We’ve got to look and talk about these things in a new way – so the people in the middle will hear us again. Third, labor had to literally club its way to a seat at the table a long time ago, and in a lot of ways, that adversarial mentality still dominates our consciousness. Our ultimate goals don't need to change, but maybe our approach should. Fourth, business is no longer a small group of greedy bastards making decisions for their own benefit. It is now a large group of greedy bastards, manipulating and being manipulated by a myriad of complex financial variables. If we’re going to establish a meaningful place at that table, we’ve got to put down our pool cues and start boning-up on the nanoscience of business.


Checkout David’s full white paper at the URL below.

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