Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to a variety of audiences about my book, Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada which came out last year. The book seeks to explain why, after tracking each other for decades, unionization rates in the United States and Canada diverged, such that they are now nearly three times higher in Canada than in the U.S.
Taking issue with much of the conventional wisdom, which chalks up the divergence to differences in political cultures, labor laws, along with a plethora of other factors, I argue that it was the result of different ruling party responses to worker upsurge during the Great Depression and World War II. The core irony is that it was an initially more pro-union ruling party response that laid the groundwork for U.S. labor’s long-term decline, while a more hostile ruling party response set the stage for Canadian labor’s relative resilience.
I have summarized the argument elsewhere, which I won’t do here. But in these book presentations, my discussion of labor’s past has inevitably led to a discussion of labor’s future. For much of the time I spent researching and writing the book, this was a painful discussion to have. While my historical perspective prevented me from succumbing to the conventional wisdom that unions were outdated institutions headed for terminal decline, there was not much reason for a positive outlook. Every year as I worked on the book, US union density continued to drop, and strikes remained rare.
Now that the book has been published, the discussion has changed. Trump’s election, his attacks on workers, and the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision last year have dealt serious blows to labor. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) just released its latest figures on U.S. unionization rates. They show that labor’s decline continued in 2018, as the unionization rate slipped from 10.7 to 10.5 percent. Meanwhile, labor’s collective response to challenges like the current government shutdown, where unionized workers are being forced to work without pay, was lackluster at best—at least until airline workers and air traffic controllers brought the shutdown to an abrupt end. These suggest an even bleaker future ahead for workers and their unions.
At the same time, there has been a notable uptick in the class struggle. BLS data for 2018 show that 485,000 workers went on strike in 2018, the most since 1986. Much of this reflects the teacher revolts in several so-called “red states” like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky, where workers struck illegally to demand funding for public education. That momentum has continued into 2019, first with the strikes and contract settlements at Marriott hotels across the country, and most spectacularly with the victorious Los Angeles teachers’ strike, where the union struck a blow against billionaire-backed plans to privatize public education in the city.
In sum, labor is at a turning point. In the Q&A sessions after my talks, I often end up answering the question about what lies ahead for labor by invoking the slogan first articulated by Karl Kautsky in The Class Struggle, but generally associated today with Rosa Luxemburg: “socialism or barbarism.”
The analogy might be overwrought, but not by much. Even with key Republican setbacks in the 2018 midterm elections like the defeat of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, ideologically-committed anti-union executives and legislators retain a strong foothold at the state and federal levels. Combined with the entrenched conservative majority on the Supreme Court, they can continue to tighten labor’s legal fetters for years to come.
With unions less able to play their role in reducing inequality and increasing workers’ civic and political voice, business would be ever more empowered to implement an agenda that redistributes wealth upwards while dragging working class communities down. This in turn could strengthen the material base for Trump-like demagogues to whip up racist and nativist fervor that further divides and disorients workers and their movements.
The other possibility is that the recent uptick marks the opening shots of a new worker upsurge. With the teachers’ strikes, we’ve already seen that they are contagious, sweeping first across “red” states last year, then “blue” states like Washington, Colorado, and California more recently. Beyond challenging the conventional wisdom that strikes are no longer effective, these strike waves have also taught important political lessons. The red wave has been important for demonstrating that labor mobilization can win even in hostile legal and political climates. The blue wave has been important for highlighting the fact that attacks on public education and teachers’ unions have been a decidedly bipartisan affair, which takes labor’s standard “elect more Democrats” solution to political problems off the table.
The question is whether the teachers’ strikes can expand beyond the education sector. In recent years we have seen wins in telecommunications (Verizon) and hospitality (Marriott), as well as some restlessness in health care, not to mention some renewed militancy among airline workers in response to the government shutdown. But none of this amounts to a generalized upsurge—at least not yet.
Still, these are promising signs, all the more so because they are paired with a broader sense that “politics as usual” is broken. This has created openings for more systematic political reforms. Socialism as an idea is no longer taboo, and policies once deemed beyond the pale like a $15/hour minimum wage, Medicare for All, and a federal jobs guarantee are now part of mainstream U.S. political discourse.
On the Canadian side of the border, there isn’t the same “socialist surge” that has grabbed headlines in the U.S. with the rise in popularity of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Indeed, the Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP) is currently riven by internal disputes, specifically about oil pipelines, but more generally about the future of the party and what it should stand for. Still, the wing of the party that rejects watered-down “Third Way” triangulation is stronger than it has been in recent memory, and policies like the $15/hour minimum wage have gained traction in several provinces. For its part, labor’s fortunes have been mixed in recent times. In the past year, Ontario community college instructors and postal workers nationwide waged militant strikes, only to be ordered back to work by Liberal governments. Nonetheless, these fights garnered popular support, and the back-to-work legislation exacted political costs on the governments involved.
Overall, what determines which path labor takes will be the degree to which labor mobilization spreads and is tied to a broader political vision. That in turn will depend on the kind of patient, workplace-based organizing that rarely makes headlines. As I often wrap up my answer to this kind of question, it’s not a guarantee of victory, but it’s the only thing that stands a chance.