Submitted on Sun, 11/08/2015 - 2:56pm
By Eric Dirnbach - Waging Nonviolence, November 4, 2015
The debate on how to revive the troubled U.S. labor movement has been around for decades. Labor activists generally believe that much greater rank-and-file democracy and workplace militancy is the key to labor renewal. However, an essential perspective that is usually missing from the conversation is well represented by Staughton Lynd’s “Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below,” which was first published in 1992 and has been recently reissued.
Lynd is a legendary progressive lawyer and activist from Youngstown, Ohio. He is the coauthor with his wife Alice Lynd of the classic “Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers,” a collection of oral histories of militant union organizers, which informs much of the framework of “Solidarity Unionism.” At around 100 pages, the book reads more like a summary of his organizing philosophy, and many readers will come away wanting a more extensive discussion. It should be read along with several other recent books which make similar arguments: Stanley Aronowitz’s “The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement,” and “New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism,” edited by Immanuel Ness, who also provided the introduction for “Solidarity Unionism.”
Lynd argues for a rethinking of the assumptions of the labor movement and for a revived version of labor organizing that was more prominent in the pre-New Deal era that he calls “solidarity unionism.” What may surprise most labor-oriented readers is that central to this kind of unionism is the absence of a contract between the union and the employer.
Isn’t the whole point of forming a union to get a written collective bargaining agreement? Lynd doesn’t think so and he argues that workers fighting together with direct action on the job to make improvements in the workplace do not need a contract and may be hurt by having one. He is critical of the “management rights” and “no-strike” clauses that are standard in almost all union contracts. He believes they reduce the power of workers to influence major decisions in how the workplace is run and to solve their problems at work immediately as they arise. Contracts tend to remove agency from the workers and place it in the hands of union staff who typically bargain and process grievances while the members may be uninvolved and cynical. Lynd is also skeptical of a union’s exclusive representation of all workers in the workplace and automatic dues check-off, preferring for workers to actively join the union and pay dues because they want to.
Lynd’s view of the prevailing “contract unionism” differs from standard labor history, which considers the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA, labor reforms as a progressive advance for workers. In the mainstream view, workers organizing, with the support of President Roosevelt, finally won full government enforcement for the right to organize and bargain collectively. In exercising this right, unions typically hold workplace elections and then negotiate contracts with employers that set the conditions of employment and also guarantee labor peace (no strike/no lockout) for the term of the contract. This industrial relations framework led the way for millions of workers to organize and improve their wages and working conditions. This “class compromise” held for several decades until employers changed their mind and increased their opposition to unionization again.