To stay relevant, unions must get angry again

One basic truth is America’s Rosetta Stone: The country has always been run by people who need a lot of work done by other people and would like to have that work cost as close to nothing as possible, moral consequences be damned. From this, all things American may be understood.

What makes a good worker under this system — the kind who doesn’t cost much? The kind who won’t, or can’t, demand much in exchange for their own sweat? The kind who will drop dead from doing the same thing every day for 30 years or more with minimal complaints? The unwanted, the uneducated, the incarcerated? People mired in debt or desperate for whatever reason? But docile people, above all.

Over the past two centuries, legislatures have thrown the occasional scraps to workers: minimum wage, workers’ compensation, etc. The courts, where we lawyers do our best to get some measure of justice for workers, are there to mediate between the working classes and people who would prefer to just be rich and not work, thankyouverymuch. These institutions ensure that we can occasionally get compensation for being killed, mangled, mutilated, poisoned and the like, rather than just doing what good capitalists would prefer we do when we’ve outlived our laboring usefulness, i.e., drop where we are, starve, rot and blow away, leaving no mess.

In this way, the law keeps us all docile. It keeps us from banding together, putting the heads of CEOs and elected officials on pikes and parading them outside of governors’ mansions. If you’re the boss, the cost of not being the boss anymore (because, say, you got your head put on a pike) outweighs the benefit of extremely cheap labor. Pay a little more to your workers, improve safety conditions for them somewhat, cut their hours to 60 from 72, and you get to keep on being the boss. It’s a pretty good deal.

This cost-benefit analysis is critical to understanding how to effect change for workers. Throughout the 19th century, as the cost of slavery became too much (for fear of insurrection, popular revolt or outright civil war), dedicated American capitalists moved to two different strategies, which were: 1) put lots of folks in prison where the Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t apply, and 2) work the remaining poor and their children, quite literally to death. The former strategy is still going strong. What made the latter cost too much?

It was workers who were willing to band together and shut employers down, through one way or another, until things got better. In fact, most good things ever to have happened in this country have been a result, not of changes in the law, but of organized groups of regular folks who will fuck shit up when necessary. Labor unions used to be good at that.

It’s no wonder, then, that as wages stagnate and the gulf between the rich and poor gets wider, union membership is in decline. In 2018, only 6% of private sector workers were union members, and overall union membership was at an all-time low. Even if membership were robust, most unions don’t fuck shit up like they used to. Since the ‘90s, top-down strategies that leave out rank-and-file workers have become the norm, leaving many workers confused about what exactly their unions do to deserve their fees. And thanks to grossly misnamed “right-to-work” laws and the Supreme Court’s opinion in Janus v. AFSCME, which keeps unions from collecting certain fees, membership is likely to continue to decrease, and labor’s influence is likely to continue to decline for a while.

But Janus is more than yet another terrible case from a high court packed with right wing ideologues. According to Roman myth, Janus is the two-faced god of transitions, looking simultaneously to the future and to the past. And in talking to union leaders in Indiana and Kentucky, it seems the best strategy for resurrecting labor is one that looks to the future by educating the working classes about the past, and in the process recruiting new people who will not be docile; that is, the kind of folks who are willing to fuck shit up.

“Our current members need to know how their union got its start, [along with] the struggle and loss it took to provide the security they now enjoy,” said Derek Cronin, vice-president of UAW Local 440 in Bedford, Indiana. “Workers are the reason why companies make such grand profits; they deserve to be treated with respect, have a voice and share in the monies made.” But making that point isn’t as easy as it might sound. “Companies like Amazon have perfected how to keep workers on the edge of poverty, but pay them just enough to keep them from rising up and organizing,” said Bryan Trafford, a member of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville. “If the workers get too upset at any given workplace and try to initiate an organizing drive, the company usually throws them a small bone to placate them and kill the organizing efforts.” Ultimately, the age-old question of “which side are you on?” is one that should still be asked, according to Trafford. “There really are only two classes: The working class and the capitalist class and folks don’t always understand which one they belong to.”

There is hope for progress, even in the short term, said longtime SEIU organizer and former candidate for Kentucky state House Richard Becker. “The fastest-growing demographic among union members are millennials. Younger workers are (re)discovering the power of joining together in union. We see this in the teacher strike waves, digital media workers organizing and the surge in activism among fast food, tech and gig workers.”

How can nonunion folks help? Everyone I talked to agrees on a few general principles:

First, most of us know not to cross picket lines, but it helps to show up and walk those lines if you can.

Second, if you’re a worker, consider joining or even starting a union at your workplace. “People often assume unions are only for factory workers, but that’s simply not true,” said Becker. “Unions represent service workers, white-collar workers, digital media workers and more.”

Third, support politicians who are pro-worker. It’s not always easy to tell who is really there for the working class, but, according to Cronin: “One of the strongest moves being made in the house of labor is a program designed to elect more union brothers and sisters to elected office.”

Let’s hope that program succeeds and that those new elected officials don’t forget where they came from, where we’re going and which side they’re on. •

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: