A Return to Solidarity?

My esteemed friend Rich Yeselson, the great chronicler and sometimes critic of the labor movement, has published an important piece at the American Prospect (in conjunction with an “American Labor at the Crossroads” conference), that reviews what we now understand about the decline of union power during the last half-century, and the possibilities that remain to place a reduced labor movement into a role that gives the entire working class the benefit of its well-honed leadership skills.

After discussing key missed opportunities in the past for labor to transcend the interests of a largely white, largely male membership rooted in declining manufacturing and (especially) mining industries, Yeselson espies a possible opening, albeit one that will not be easy to pursue:

[T]he job of today’s labor movement, even amid the fears and anxiety about its chronic decline, is to create the conditions for what might someday be called a new version of the old institutional and historical memory once retained by these millions of manufacturing and mining workers (and still sustained by their successors, however reduced in numbers). Many newly organized immigrant union workers bring with them to the United States histories of labor and political activism in Mexico, Central America, and parts of Asia and Africa. They and others contemporary union members will have to construct a new, cosmopolitan culture of solidarity here in the U.S. SEIU and UNITE HERE have been successful in fostering such a new solidarity in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area, but more is required—more consciousness and more members.

This new solidarity will be premised on what the political philosopher, Nancy Fraser, has called two distinct, but intertwined “paradigms of justice”: “redistribution” and “recognition.” Redistribution is self-explanatory, but recognition is a pithy way of cataloging the great post-Sixties struggles around issues of, as Fraser puts it, “cultural domination”, “being rendered invisible”, and being “disrespected.” These recognitional movements around racial, gender, and sexual identity must, as Fraser suggests, meld with the class-driven fights for economic redistribution to form an encompassing social movement.

We see the promise of uniting these two paradigms in the post-Ferguson demonstrations against police violence in the African-American community, in the fights of low-wage fast food and Walmart workers for both higher wages and respect, and in the increasing focus on issues of economic inequality spearheaded by Elizabeth Warren, and reflected in the surprisingly large sales and attention given to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. And we should well recall that the great recognitional slogan of that last fight of Dr. King’s life was on behalf of the redistributional demands of the Memphis sanitation workers: “I am a man.”

In the spirit of Memphis, the determination to represent the entire working class is the best chance labor has had in over 40 years to put the now forgotten, but once pervasive “labor question” before the nation again. I wouldn’t bet on it; there is too much in the labor movement of what a friend of mine calls “magical thinking”—imagining small victories leading to large gains. But there is a structural logic to converging trendlines in the economy, the political culture and the diverse energies of labor itself. This logic makes it possible to conceive, at the least, something different and better, if not yet bigger, for labor than it has had for a very long time. That’s far from enough, but it’s a start.

It is indeed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.