Labor’s Big Contradiction

Sixty-five percent of Americans approve of labor unions and would join one if they could, according to a Gallup poll for Labor Day, 2020. Unions love to publicize that 65% figure. But here’s contradicting info: the Amazon organizing drive at Bessemer, Alabama, failed miserably. Despite a high-profile campaign, about 45% of eligible workers didn’t even vote! Of those who did vote, 60% rejected the union.

Longtime union organizer Chris Townsend, while urging unions to keep trying, projects a bleak future:

“You will have many, many, more opportunities to complain about what went wrong in the future failed organizing drives yet to come. Bessemer is merely a milepost on what will be a long and arduous road to organize this piece of the commanding economic heights. Many more losses lie ahead. Strikes and other uprisings are ahead. The union organization of corporate America will be a messy affair. There will be many casualties.”

Should we conclude that one contradictory fact or the other is just an aberration, or should we accept them both as hard data and try to figure out the reason? Straining to find an answer, should we think that everybody really does want a union, just not in their own workplace?

Most unions and union supporters have seized on a single explanation for the Amazon fiasco. They say that the American government is so hostile to working people that we don’t have a chance to organize. Labor law, they argue with considerable credibility, has to be changed! They are correct of course, but there’s a lot more to it.

I resolve the contradiction this way: unionization is genuinely popular in America, but our method of organizing needs changing. I agree with Chris Townsend that many future workplace organizing drives will fail. I just don’t believe that the traditional workplace organizing drive, taken alone, has a bright future. I also don’t expect a lot of immediate help from the government in changing labor law so that traditional workplace organizing drives will start succeeding. We don’t presently have that kind of government.

I believe that the data on union popularity from the 2020 Gallup Poll was correct. Further, I believe that union organizing is far more popular in 2021, because of the lessons learned during the continuing worldwide pandemic. I also believe that the American union movement, led by the AFL-CIO labor federation, is moving toward riding that popularity to real gains for working families.

Unions need more than traditional workplace organizing drives. We need big, national and international, campaigns to educate and mobilize our many supporters toward the goal of power for working families. We need to sign up all our supporters and get them to coordinate their resources meaningfully. We can do that. Given the fact that most Americans carry advanced learning and communications devices around with them, it might not take much time.

Workplace organizing, instead of being the one-and-only-labor-tactic, will become a by-product of a mighty movement. A single electronic source could start that movement and build it into an irresistible force. The AFL-CIO already has a potential tool called “Working America,” but it has not yet been fully implemented. It will, or something like it will, and union popularity will be unleashed at last.

Let’s See

If I am right about the progressive movement coming together with the AFL-CIO, then we are likely to see bigger and more meaningful activities. MayDay will be a test of sorts. In 2020, the AFL-CIO and certain national unions had big celebrations. For many of them, it was their first time to publicly acknowledge International Workers Day. I predict it will be far bigger and better in 2021. It will be based on unions, but not confined to them. MayDay will help unify and direct the progressive movement at last! Let’s see!

-Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” radio talk show every Saturday at 9AM Central Time. We podcast the program and a more directed program, “Workers Beat Extra” on Soundcloud.com If you are interested in what I really think, take a look at my personal web site.

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