Trump Can’t Kill Labor Struggle

As you might have predicted, the incoming Trump regime is hostile to labor unions. In fact Raymond Hogler, professor of management at Colorado State University, predicts that Trump’s policies — including packing the National Labor Relations Board, appointing anti-union Supreme Court justices, and encouraging right-to-work laws — will be a “fatal blow” to organized labor (“Why America’s labor unions are about to die,” The Conversation, Nov. 29).

But don’t give up hope just yet. The kinds of labor organization most likely to be killed off — traditional bureaucratic unions on the AFL-CIO model, certified and operating under the terms of the Wagner Act — are mostly dead anyway. The last figures I can recall put them at about 6% of the private sector labor force.

And they’re dying largely because they’re such bureaucratic dinosaurs, and so ill-suited to the realities of labor struggle today. They’re mostly given to what labor activist Guy Standing calls “labourism” — that is, they operate under a paradigm where full-time employment is the norm and workplace-based unions represent workers on the factory floor. That means they’re largely irrelevant to precarious workers like temporary and contract employees. At the same time, even within the remaining manufacturing sector where full-time jobs still prevail, they follow a model of NLRB certification and conventional declared strikes that’s almost guaranteed suicide.

On the other hand, the new forms of labor struggle that have arisen in response to present-day reality, outside the archaic institutional framework of the New Deal, will be a lot harder to stamp out.

First of all, even within the legacy manufacturing industry, you don’t have to jump through NLRB certification hoops to be a union; and you don’t have to limit yourself to conventional declared strikes. Unions existed long before the Wagner Act — whenever a group of workers called themselves a union and started fighting for their rights — and they fought with methods a lot more effective than the strike. In fact the main purpose of the Wagner Act was to channel labor struggle away from those more effective methods, and at the same time enlist the leadership of officially certified unions in enforcing labor contracts against wildcat strikes and other forms of direct action on the job by their own rank-and-file.

It may be a lot harder to get a union NLRB certified these days. But as efforts like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and OURWalmart have shown, you can form a pretty powerful national union anyway. And groups of workers in a factory can engage in old-fashioned pre-Wagner tactics like random sick-outs, slowdowns, and work-to-rule — as well as large-scale public whistleblowing, exposure and humiliation campaigns, backed by boycotts, in conjunction with national and community social justice organizations. For a long time, declared strikes have been little more but an invitation for an employer lockout and replacement. On the other hand, staying on the job and sabotaging production — and profits! — through direct action, and airing all the boss’s dirty laundry to the customer, is devilishly effective. That’s why the Wagner Act was passed, remember.

And outside the traditional full-time workplace, new forms of organization are responding to the realities of life for the precariat. The main force on the ground fighting for better pay for service industry workers has been non-certified unions like the Fight for $15 movement, OURWalmart and the like, fighting community campaigns based as much outside the workplace as within.

The most promising forms of organization for temp and contract workers are networked platforms like Sara Horowitz’s Freelancers Union. The Union offers group rate health insurance and other benefits, training, legal aid and collective bargaining services for workers across multiple workplaces. Horowitz was also involved at one time as an AFL-CIO organizer in the Bay Area, creating temp agencies that were a hybrid mix of worker cooperatives and hiring halls on the old longshoremen’s model. That makes sense, because — once you strip away the non-compete agreements and other forms of legal monopoly — the only real assets of a temp agency are its human capital. Temp workers can get a dedicated phone line, P.O. Box and fax machine, hire a coordinator or take turns being the coordinator, and split the former middleman’s profit between themselves and the clients.

For that matter, most of the value in gig economy ventures like Uber and Lyft are created by the drivers and passengers themselves, and only enclosed as a source of rents by the owners of a proprietary app. The solution, as Center for a Stateless Society’s James Tuttle once put it, is to salt the workforce with union activists, hack the app and use pirated versions, and create genuinely cooperative, open-source alternatives.

So all Trump is doing is destroying a system set up mainly to protect bosses against workers, and leaving us to resume the forms of struggle that made the bosses scream for mercy in the first place. Let’s make them scream again.

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