In the summer edition of the journal Democracy, Richard Yeselson writes about the pall that restrictive labor law has cast over the labor movement. Yeselson takes us through a very thorough history of the construction of current labor laws, from the first right-to-work laws in the states through the Taft-Hartley Act, as well as the post-World War II labor unrest and progressive coalition building that provoked the ire of conservatives and business alike. It is a very compelling retelling of history; one of the best I have seen in an article about labor in a while.

He then goes into the cost of running comprehensive campaigns that seek to organize large numbers of unorganized workers. He makes the argument that, in addition to such campaigns being prohibitively expensive, the American workforce is so large and diversified that even large organizing successes will not make much of an impact in labor density. Furthermore, he suggests that labor growth occurs in spurts, and from the ground up, making the formulation of “a campaign in a union office in Washington” ultimately pointless.

After laying out all of these challenges, he suggests a way forward for labor unions in the 21st century. He calls this path forward “fortress unionism.” It entails:

  1. Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies.
  2. Strengthen existing union locals.
  3. Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds?
  4. Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations.
  5. Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America.
  6. And then . . . wait (for workers to demand a collective solution to issues at the workplace).

As someone whose primary concern is the growth of Southern labor, this strategy is . . . disconcerting.

The concentration of labor pockets in the South are few: Kentucky is the only Southern state in which more than 10 percent of workers are members of labor unions (a statistic known as “union density”). In Arkansas, union density is just 3.2 percent, with the remainder of the South somewhere in between.

Many people will attribute these low numbers to the hostile political climate toward labor unions in the South, but it is also due to the continual neglect of Southern workers by national labor federations. As I pointed out on a previous blog post, this has had real consequences for labor strength in the South. Continuing a strategy that thus far hasn’t worked seems unwise, especially at a time when the South is the fastest growing region in the country.

The most puzzling suggestion that is laid forth in this piece is the supposition that we wait for workers to demand some sort of collective action as a solution to issues on the job. As I have argued before, the need for worker media in the South is great. When unions are not visible, then they are unlikely to be a first option for workers who are seeking a fairer deal on the shop floor. It becomes even worse when labor is only visible at times that they are being framed in a negative light.

But the strategies laid out by Yeselson are not all bad. In fact, there are a couple that can be of great use to Southern labor activists and organizers:

  1. Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations. This is something that should be of paramount importance to Southern labor. An example of this is labor's partnership with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance to combat things like wage theft and racial profiling. Building cross-racial and cross-class progressive coalitions will be a key factor in strengthening Southern labor for the future.

  2. Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America. I have had my criticisms of Working America, but they will be key in building bridges between labor and communities. Because alt-labor organizations can bring in members of the community that are not a part of labor unions, they can be helpful in strike actions against employers, as well as agitating for changes in labor laws in state legislatures.

Instead of waiting for workers to demand collective action in areas where unions are practically invisible, include workers in the two suggestions above. That way, they are becoming more aware of how their struggle affects their families and the community around them. In addition, workers once more are becoming aware of the benefits that unions bring to the table. This bridge-building can prove crucial when it is time for the workers to take that next step towards agitating for a union in the workplace, but it will not happen without building awareness amongst the potential rank-and-file first.

Southern workers need the labor movement to see them as being worth fighting for. Engaging in “fortress unionism” does not do that; it relegates them to the same waiting game that national labor federations have played with regards to the South for seventy years. It is time for a new way forward that builds a truly national labor movement; “fortress unionism” just does not rate.