The Seeds of a New Labor Movement
SEIU’s David Rolf—virtuoso organizer and mastermind of Seattle’s $15 minimum wage campaign—says labor needs radically new ways to champion worker interests.
[The single best article I've read on the state of the American Labor Movement in years. Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. Thanks to Tim O'Reilly for suggesting it.]
Over the past 15 years, no American unionist has organized as many workers, or won them raises as substantial, as Rolf. Which makes it all the more telling that Rolf believes the American labor movement, as we know it, is on its deathbed, and that labor should focus its remaining energies on bequeathing its resources to start-up projects that may find more effective ways to advance workers’ interests than today’s embattled unions can.
Most labor leaders and activists concur that the union movement is in something close to mortal peril. With Rolf, they believe that the inadequacies of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), which union-busting employers are able to violate with impunity, have made it almost impossible to organize private-sector workers. Unable to grow, labor has also seen its ranks diminished by the offshoring of millions of jobs and the relegation of millions more to the ranks of contingent labor or ostensible self-employment. Today, the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has dropped to a bare 6.7 percent—roughly its level at the beginning of the 20th century, before the advent of a sizable middle class.
This October, with funding from his local, from the national SEIU, and from several liberal foundations, Rolf will unveil The Workers Lab, housed at the Roosevelt Institute in New York. The center will study and, in time, invest in organizations that, in Rolf’s words, “have the potential to build economic power for workers, at scale, and to sustain themselves financially.” Whatever those organizations may be, they won’t be unions—at least, not unions as they currently exist.
Rolf’s favored metaphor for the role that he believes today’s unions should play is that of a “nurse log”—a term used by forest ecologists. A nurse log is a fallen tree that, as it decays, provides nourishment and protection to seedlings, some of which will grow to become new trees. “That’s our choice,” he says. “We can preserve the dying model, or we can use the resources of our model to give birth to what replaces it.”
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