Where Does the Labor Movement Go From Here?

How the movement for workers’ rights can harness the energy of the present moment.
From Memphis to Madison rally, photo by Karen Hickey

The "From Memphis to Madison" rally in Madison, Wisconsin on April 4, 2011. Rallies took place across the United States both to commemorate the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death and to stand for workers' rights.

Photo by Karen Hickey.

Thousands of people gathered on the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota yesterday to take part in a "March for the Middle Class." As they made their way from the St. Paul Cathedral to the State Capitol, they carried signs defending the rights of working Americans and chanted, "We are one."

The march in Minnesota was just one of hundreds of events that took place around the country. The events marked the forty-third anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, shortly before his death in 1968, had gone to Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike by local sanitation workers. Carrying signs that read, "From Memphis 1968 to Madison 2011," thousands of workers, students, civil rights activists, and supporters gathered at rallies in all 50 states to continue Dr. King's fight and to show their support for workers who have been under attack by conservatives in recent months.

Americans by and large recognized in the pro-union protesters the hard-working teachers and firefighters they know in their own communities.

This tremendous outpouring was remarkable not only for the demonstration of nationwide support for working people and their collective bargaining rights, but also for the broad coalition of organizations that came together in this powerful moment of solidarity. But, unless we seize this opportunity to change the way that the labor movement works and the way in which it is perceived, that's all this will be—a moment.

Earning Public Support for Unions

Following months of assaults by Republican governors in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, the labor movement is now in a unique position. Despite efforts by conservatives to portray the tens of thousands of pro-union protesters in Madison and elsewhere as violent or greedy, Americans by and large recognized in them the hard-working teachers and firefighters they know in their own communities. And polls now show strong public support for embattled unions in the states.

But we should not misinterpret this information. Americans have not suddenly decided that they love public sector unions. Instead, they have reacted against the overreach of Republican politicians who said they were going to create jobs and deal with real economic problems, but who instead used the economic crisis as an excuse to lash out against political foes.

It is a mistake to see Wisconsin and other state battles as marking a sea change in public opinion about unions. However, these fights have put the labor movement in the spotlight. And, in doing so, they have given us an opportunity to rebuild our relationships with the community. Instead of assuming that we have already won a public stamp of approval, we must use the moment to truly earn this support.

Polls show that Americans have rejected Republican characterizations of unions as the cause of the state budget crises. But this is not enough. If we want to build sustainable support among a majority of Americans, community members need to see us playing a proactive, productive role in solving these crises. That means doing more than changing our rhetoric. It means changing the way we do business.

3 Steps Toward A 21st Century Labor Movement

To go forward from here, we need to do three things: expand the range of issues we take on when we represent employees in the workplace, change the way we relate to the community, and begin to move away from outdated models for labor activism rooted in the era of the industrial economy.

Wisconsin Solidarity in Iowa
An American Uprising
Wisconsin and beyond: While wealth and power concentrate in the hands of a few, the rights, jobs, and services that everyday Americans depend on are on the line. Across the country, people are rising up to defend them.

As a first step, with regard to representation in workplaces, we need to be making demands that highlight our role as problem solvers. If we only negotiate over things such as pay and benefits, the public will always see unions as special interests. Instead, we must be concerned with advancing service delivery and using collective bargaining to improve the departments in which we work.

This is especially true in the public sector, where unionized workers are often teachers, firefighters, social workers, and others working for the common good. When public unions began organizing in earnest several decades ago, they bargained over issues like the amount of time social workers would be allowed to spend on a given case: over-hurried employees stood up to management to insist that they get the time they needed to help families. Unions are still very much involved in these kinds of issues, but questions of service delivery have often been overshadowed by wage negotiations. We need to re-embrace demands that highlight unions' roles as public interest advocates, bringing a focus on service to the fore of our efforts.

Through unions, over- hurried social workers stood up to management to insist that they get the time they needed to help families.

Second, we must change our relationship to those outside the labor movement. The time to reach out to community allies and to develop deep relationships is not in the middle of an emergency campaign or a contract fight. Instead, community outreach should be a part of the ongoing organizing work of every union local. Locals should be developing training programs that teach people about the value that our organizations add to their communities. We should use these programs as a way to educate candidates about our work before they receive labor's endorsement, so that elected officials have a substantive commitment to supporting our efforts. And while we're teaching, we should also be learning, understanding the concerns of other community organizations and developing durable bonds based on mutual interest, not momentary convenience. That way, where there is an emergency, we have real community partnerships that we can turn to for help.

A third way we need to change how we do business is to move beyond outdated models of unionism developed in the age when America's economy was based on manufacturing. When public sector unions began to seriously organize, they looked to the dominant model of industrial unionism then in place. Organizations such as AFSCME brought in representatives from the United Auto Workers (UAW) to lead trainings for emerging union leaders. They formed labor operations based on then-dominant norms. These structures might still be relevant in some manufacturing environments. But most of America's economy has dramatically transformed in the past 40 years, and most union structures have not. As Jim Grossfeld points out in a forthcoming article in the American Prospect, even new auto workers' President Bob King has recognized the need to build a "21st-century UAW" to adapt to changing times.

Moral underground, photo by LauraThe Moral Underground
All around you are everyday heroes who refuse to be complicit in the economic mistreatment of other people.

Today, we need to be more decentralized, recognizing that framing issues in national offices doesn't always work. We need to empower local unions to develop their own capacities to proactively engage their communities—allowing them to step forward with research, policy, and coalition-building proposals uniquely suited to their metropolitan regions. That means redirecting resources from the national level into the locals. National officials need to provide the leadership, funding, and support that will allow locals to enter their communities as problem solvers.

In order to move forward and harness the kind of support we saw in yesterday's demonstrations, we cannot merely tell our story differently. We must act differently, earning lasting support from the public by showing, in concrete and local fashion, how much the labor movement serves the public good.


  • The debate in Wisconsin doesn't just apply to union members and public workers—it applies to every American who cares about our fundamental rights as citizens.

  • Amy Goodman and Naomi Klein on how Americans across the country are resisting the Shock Doctrine.

  • Firefighters weren't included in the anti-union bill that sparked the protests in Wisconsin. Lieutenant Mahlon Mitchell on why they're taking to the streets, anyway.