Brad Plumer’s recent analysis in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog is spot on. Taking a look at Richard Yeselson’s recent article on “fortress unionism” in Democracy, Plumer recognizes that labor organizing alone is not enough to reverse a half-century’s history of declining union membership.
Yeselson’s article is well worth a read. It begins with a legislative story and ends with a conclusion on organizing. Along the way, it provides a glimpse of labor’s immense postwar power, the fights over Taft-Hartley, and the failure of comprehensive campaigns to keep labor from hemorrhaging.
Where Yeselson could have gone further is in suggesting a remedy. Though he recognizes the ways in which Taft-Hartley “halted the forward march of labor in America,” his prescriptions focus solely on organizing strategies. However, if law and government policies had the effect of “cordon[ing] off an aggressive, confident labor movement and enable[ing] its subsequent decimation,” surely law and government policies can help in unbinding labor.
Citing Kris Warner’s research on Canadian labor law, Plumer makes the case that “government policies can at least slow that inevitable erosion of union density — even if they can’t stop it entirely.”
Yeselson’s prescription of hunkering down and defending what labor already has will be difficult to accomplish without a coordinated legislative reform strategy. Large swaths of public employees, which are currently one of labor’s strongholds, can lose their collective bargaining rights with a rushed vote and a stroke of a pen. Michigan, which was a literal and symbolic powerhouse for labor, recently became a “right to work” state. Though the law may not manifest actual declines for some time, it will surely make defending the fortress far more difficult.
Whether the hope is to hold steady or to grow, labor law reform must be part of labor’s strategy. Without it, labor will find itself in a continuous position of reacting to harmful changes in the law. We have to rid ourselves of the idea that labor law reform necessarily means EFCA or card check. The key is to push legal reforms that fit well with organizing efforts, and help amplify labor’s message. Yeselson highlights the ways that the Wagner Act and Taft-Hartley Act helped define unions:
The NLRA had been passed with the explicit goal of increasing unionization and with the understanding that unions were the democratic institutions of working-class self-organization. Taft-Hartley conceived of unions much differently, as merely a large special interest, dangerous to prosperity and stability if left unchecked.
Currently, the only labor law reforms that similarly offer a definition of unions are the anti-labor public sector initiatives being pursued in Republican-led states. Pushing strong pro-worker legislative reforms will help labor win back the meaning of “unions.” Richard Kahlenberg and I have proposed amending the Civil Rights Act to protect labor organizing, for the reasons contained here. Hopefully, Yeselson’s fascinating article not only leads to a robust conversation of organizing going forward, but also legislative strategies.