With Fortresses Like These …

by John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi on July 9, 2013

Rich Yeselson’s stimulating piece, “Fortress Unionism,” has attracted wide attention and appears to have provoked yet another round of soul-searching within the US labor movement. Yeselson clearly and convincingly shows how the laws and institutions governing American labor markets have, since Taft-Hartley, sapped the energy and resources of American unions, rendering them unable to effectively organize and represent workers as times have changed. He calls for unions to hunker down in their existing geographic “strongholds” and wait for someone or something else to bring workers into the streets.

We agree with Yeselson that the organizing efforts of the last 15 years, while substantial in relative terms, are no where near the levels that could possibly reverse any decline in unionization.  But we contest three of his assertions.  First,  “fortress unionism” is not a proposal; it is the doomed strategy unions have been following for some time.  Second, we cannot and should not discuss public and private sector unions as if their fates are not directly bound together.  Third, and most importantly, we highlight some of the lessons available from existing social science research that can inform—and correct—what we believe to be some of Yeselson’s misguided policy advice for unions.  Holing up in regional enclaves, hoping to exploit some exogenous worker mobilization produced magically by others is cynical and unlikely to benefit workers or save existing unions, whether public or private sector.  We conclude with suggestions about strategies and tactics, some of which echo Yeselson’s own calls for more creative disruption.

American unions: circling the wagons – and the drain

Yeselson argues that the “comprehensive” organizing campaigns of the last 15-20 years, while improving the lot of certain workers, did little for the broader labor movement.  This is not news. The organizing efforts of US unions, even in the Sweeney era, were far short of what is necessary to reverse the decline in unionization.   Farber & Western calculate that by the late 1990s the resources needed to stop the decline in private sector unionization were so large as to require organizing expenditures to increase over 500%, surpassing total current union expenditures on all activities. Union leaders know all this, so it seems unlikely that existing organizing efforts were really as “comprehensive” as Yeselson claims.  And at least since Sweeney’s “union cities”, efforts have been underway to build up city labor councils and create coalitions with community-based groups.  Yet, the devotion of energy and resources did not realize the hoped for increase in union rates.   When looked at in this light, the US labor movement has already been practicing defensive unionism for some time, organizing where it is cost effective (e.g., among quasi-public sector workers such as those in health care) but not committing the resources necessary to actually turn the tide, if this is even possible.

Links with the public sector

Yeselson dismisses the need to discuss public sector unionism in the context of the collapse of private sector unionism.  We believe this is a mistake for two major reasons. First, as Ahlquist demonstrates (gated), public sector unions owe their strength and very existence to the previous successes of private sector unions.  Government workers cannot typically rely on industrial strength or tight demand conditions to force unions on their (government) employers. Such an approach is particularly questionable in a democracy.  Public sector unions therefore rely on the willingness of voters to support the validity of the unions’ claims to legitimately represent their members’ interests.  Voters are more willing to do this when they, themselves, enjoy the rights and benefits of union representation in their own workplaces. The collapse of private sector unions implies a collapse in the public support for public sector workers’ unions.  Public sector unions have, however, shown little interest in devoting serious resources to shoring up their allies in the private sector. Public sector unions are living on borrowed time.

Second, the largest, richest, and most stable unions in the American labor movement are now unions of public sector workers.  Where are the resources to defend the erstwhile labor citadels of Los Angeles and Las Vegas going to come from if not largely from public sector unions?  Any meaningful defense or expansion of workers’ organizations in the United States is going to need the active support and participation of public sector workers and their unions.  It is in the interests of public sector unions to devote the resources to these activities, but it remains to be seen if they will.


All this has implications for Yeselson’s “fortress unionism” presciption.  Contrary to Yeselson’s claims, the US labor movement appears to have been following this strategy for some time already.  Fortress unionism has, at best, slowed the decline marginally. It is particularly telling that, even having pursued this strategy, the labor movement has been unable to defend basic union rights in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, former “strongholds.”  It is hard to see how long the fortress will hold under Yeselson’s recommendations.

Understanding past waves of unionization: opportunities and actors

Yeselson rightly observes that unions have rarely expanded in incremental fashion. Rather we see large and rapid waves of union organizing.  These waves usually coincided with major social upheaval such as mass warfare (WWI, WWII) and economic distress (the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s).

But Yeselson makes a big jump, arguing that since previous organizing happened in large waves we should therefore sit back and wait for the next Big Era of Worker Anger.  This is where we (and existing thinking on social movements) part company with him. His prescription rests on two dangerous assumptions, both of which are contradicted by existing social science.

His first assumption is one about worker grievances and demand for unions.  In his telling, workers are simply not yet pissed off enough to mobilize in the face of current repression, so union leaders should just wait until they are.  Survey work by Freeman and Rogers have documented the extensive, deep, and persistent unfilled desire by workers for a greater voice on the job and more control over their working lives.  As with so many social movements, the existence of grievances are unlikely to be a good predictor of collective action or movement success.

Second, Yeselson seems to imply that the success of past waves of union organization hinged entirely on external events, independent of the work of generations of union activists who toiled in less opportune moments but gained knowledge of local conditions and relationships with local workers, ultimately planting the seeds for local organizations.

A longer look at labor history can be instructive.  There have been many periods of unrest, riots, short strikes and protests that left no durable legacy on which to build.  There have also been extended periods in which labor organizations were continuously trying to organize large groups of workers, with only limited near term success. Many of these activities may have appeared unprofitable at the time or seemed to leave no marks, but they were crucial.  They trained the leaders and laid the organizational groundwork necessary for unions to take advantage of opportunities when they come.  They also enabled new kinds of workers—first, craft; then industrial; now service—to develop organizing and action repertoires more appropriate to the nature of the work and skill and more likely to succeed in the given political environment.  As the economy and the laws change, so do must the labor organizations.

Such moments of opportunity are exceedingly difficult to foresee ex ante, so there must be organizations in place, continually experimenting with new tactics, strategies, and objectives. This is not achieved by withdrawing to only narrowly defined geographies and industrial sectors.  The union movement can control the extent to which there are some basic resources ready to be deployed, the existence of networks of activists and workplace organizations, and whether labor activists can articulate a coherent and compelling alternative to existing economic relations. As we show in our forthcoming book, a cadre of committed activists able to articulate a coherent alternative to existing institutions plays a key role in creating and sustaining durable organizations capable of mobilizing workers for broader causes.

Forging a future for workers’ organizations

So what can existing social science point to as clues to a way forward?  There are several.

1.   Private sector unionization rates have effectively crashed.

Analogous to a fishery that crashes—when its population is too small to effectively reproduce itself—unions have crashed in the United States.  Yeselson, along with Farber & Western, powerfully articulate the steep costs of organizing new workers in the private sector.  Those costs must be shared across an ever-shrinking group of existing union members. It appears we have reached the point where it is effectively impossible for existing unions shoulder this cost and organize themselves out of their problems, if we imagine that workers must be organized into existing unions as conventional union members.

2.    Alternatives to formal unionization under existing labor law must be considered more seriously.

Unions as we know them may be fading, and no fortifications, based on old technologies, are sufficient to defend against new and shiny weapons.  As with all struggles, the armaments and strategies evolve.  Organizations representing workers might have to find a new instantiation.  New kinds of workers—first, craft; then industrial; now service—each developed organizing and action repertoires more appropriate to the nature of the work and skill and more likely to succeed in the given political environment.  As the economy and the laws change, so too must the labor organizations.  They may have to shift the primary focus from the employers to the government and the courts.  More importantly, they will need to find new organizational forms that free them from the bureaucratic and legal restrictions on collective bargaining.  Existing unions may need to channel their resources into building their replacements—a difficult task for any organization and a difficult thing to convince existing union members to do.  But the alternative is losing everything.

Some attempts already exist including debt strikes and the occupation of foreclosed homes.  Another pathway involves more of the unions joining existing coalitions of immigrants, the 99%, and others who are raising serious questions about the distribution of wealth and jobs.

The key here is, as Yeselson notes, are new coalitions. The good news, reported by Kang (gated), is that the public still seems to have sympathy for the rights of workers despite antipathy to particularistic demands perceived as self-serving.  Reframing the debate and rhetoric must be part of the strategy.  Perhaps more importantly, union members have overlapping memberships; they should be seen as participants in the variety of groups trying to protect consumers, taxpayers, the environment, etc. Too often unions are seen as using coalition partners for union goals rather than as active citizens joining a coalition for larger and overarching interests.

3.     Workers tend to have the most leverage at times of crisis and war

This has several important implications, especially for the immediate future.  Times of war and its aftermath can present workers with leverage in the political to successfully win major policy victories (gated), including progressive taxation (gated).  Wars and crisis also generate leadership and activism.  There is new evidence, along with extensive historical work demonstrating that returning soldiers present a potent challenge to existing political orders; they are often gifted organizers.   The 1990s SEIU made considerable use of veterans from the 1960s social movements, and the 1930’s CIO relied heavily on Communist activists.  Workers rights organizations need to actively take advantage of, not simply wait, for these kind of political opportunities.

4.     Organization matters

As unions or the movements that replace them grapple with how to proceed serious discussion over how to organize their various interests will be critical. Previous attempts at broad organization, such as the 19th century Knights of Labor, were unable to sustain their rapid initial growth because the organization they created failed to account for the diversity of interests and resources involved. Others, such as the Teamsters, are able to create large, diverse and long-lasting unions but only by narrowing their focus to the interests of the particular workers. This may protect a given union but is not the way to build a movement in the contemporary world.

Workers’ organizations able to uphold the rights and livelihood of workers must become part of a larger movement on behalf of citizen rights and protections.  Our research suggests this requires the combination of a leadership that fights to improve the workers’ well-being but also urges workers to fight on behalf of others as part of a larger “community of fate.”  The organizations that succeed on both fronts are those with governing rules that encourage a vibrant rank and file democracy informed about the world around them and able and willing to challenge their leaders and each other.  Durable organizations require both foresight in the design of rules and the flexibility to revisit them down the road.  And they must be an integral part of the larger conversation about creating a better society for all. Only in this way can unions (or whatever takes their place) ensure that workers’ rights are citizenship rights.

Cited works:

 Ahlquist, John S. 2012. Public Sector Unions Need the Private Sector (or why the Wisconsin protests were not labor’s Lazarus moment).” The Forum (special issue on American labor unions). 10(1).   (gated)

Ahlquist, John S. 2012. Who Sits at the Table in the House of Labor? Rank-and-file citizenship and the unraveling of confederal organizations.” Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization. 28(3): 588-616.

Ahlquist, John S. and Margaret Levi. forthcoming (2013). In the Interests of Others: Organizations & Social Activism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Farber, Henry S., and Bruce Western. 2001. Accounting for the decline of unions in the private sector, 1973-1998. Journal of Labor Research 22:3, 459-85.

Jha, Saumitra and Steven Wilkinson. 2012. Does Combat Experience Foster Organizational Skill? Evidence from Ethnic Cleansing During the Partition of South Asia. American Political Science Review.

Kang, Susan. 2012.  “Right v. Privilege: Contesting Public Sector Labor Rights in the United States,” Human Rights Review, Vol. 13 (3): 379-389

Levi, Margaret. 2003. Organizing Power: The Prospects for an American Labor Movement. Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 1: 1. (2003), pp. 45-68

McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. 2001. Dynamics of Contention. New York: Cambridge University Press

Ness, Immanual, and Stuart Eimer, eds. 2001. Central Labor Councils and The Revival of American Unionism: Organizing for Justice in Our Communities. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard Cloward. 2000. “Power Repertoires and Globalization.” Politics & Society 28 (3):413-30.

Scheve, Kenneth and David Stasavage. Democracy, War, and Wealth: Lessons from Two Centuries of Inheritance Taxation.  2010. International Organization. 64(4) pp 529-61

Scheve, Kenneth and David Stasavage. Democracy, War, and Wealth: Lessons from Two Centuries of Inheritance Taxation.  2012. American Political Science Review. 106(1) pp 81-102

Voss, Kim, and Rachel Sherman. 2000. “Breaking the Iron Law of Oligarchy: Union Revitalization in the American Labor Movement.” American Journal of Sociology 106 (2):303-49.




Main Street Muse 07.12.13 at 3:07 pm

In a cursory view of this post and the Yeselson article (time is tight!), there seems to me a glaring omission – the outsourcing of jobs to countries other than the US. I recently moved from Illinois (pro-union, both public and private) to North Carolina (a “right-to-work” state with a very high unemployment rate.) One thing that has transformed the work environment here in NC is the absolute collapse of the manufacturing industry.

The Charlotte Business Journal had a story recently on this issue: “For North Carolina’s manufacturing economy, the punch was the hit we took in traditional industries. Between 1990 and 2012, N.C. jobs in textiles, furniture, apparel and tobacco dropped 80%, from almost 380,000 to just over 75,000.

“Every part of our state felt the loss in jobs, payrolls, tax revenue and sense of community. North Carolina was not alone in feeling the negative impact of innovation and globalization. Neighboring states and large Midwestern industrial states lost more than 20% of their manufacturing jobs.” (http://bit.ly/138zzG7)

An 80% loss of jobs is a massive loss – which leads to the question: how can one organize laborers when the labor itself has vanished? This seems a cart without a horse.

WalMart poses an interesting question – their efforts are very powerful at quelling any form of labor unrest (first on my twitter feed today – a sponsored link by WalMart focusing on what their employees like about WalMart.) In a country with very high unemployment, it is difficult for employees to oppose the power of a company that employs 1% of the country’s labor force. We see that in how rapidly WalMart fires workers who question the status quo.

The point needs to be made that there is a very heavy public burden caused by companies like WalMart that pay minimum wage and provided very little in the way of benefits. (http://1.usa.gov/1b0vGfG). THIS is a key point to be made about labor issues in America today – that the government is subsidizing the private market failure that comes when companies profit enormously yet do not share these moneys with the workers in the form of a decent salary and decent benefits.

On the flip side, there is an enormous amount of money being thrown at the idea that we have no labor problems today. David Koch just produced a video claiming that people who make $34K are in the 1% (if you look at the world’s labor pool.) It’s an astonishing pitch to make – that an American family living on an income that is less than that cost of one year at a private university are privileged and wealthy and should not be complaining. It’s disgraceful.

I am intrigued by the idea that people should unite to “fight on behalf of others as part of a larger ‘community of fate.'” In North Carolina, we see people joining to fight for the community on Moral Mondays. We’ll see what the fates shall bring…


Patrick C 07.12.13 at 5:23 pm

“The best defense is….”


Fu Ko 07.14.13 at 11:58 am

The manufacturing industry is actually doing quite well. Those eliminated workers mostly do not represent a decline in production, but an increase in labor-efficiency. There has only been a slight dip in USA production, not because of outsourcing but the recession. See http://static.seekingalpha.com/uploads/2009/8/23/saupload_mfg2.jpg

(Also, I have to mention in passing that the same article shows that productivity per USA worker in manufacturing is a whopping $223k! http://static.seekingalpha.com/uploads/2009/8/23/saupload_mfg1.jpg )

This is the new pattern: increases in productive efficiency take the form of eliminated jobs. The challenge for the 21st century is for the non-owning class to take some portion of these types of increases. Can unions be relevant here? It seems like we need something fundamentally different now: to make a universal claim on the same kind of “passive income” (independent of labor) received by the 1%. That kind of claim can’t be on behalf of the worker.


Fu Ko 07.14.13 at 12:02 pm

By the way, the world-wide top 1% of households by wealth hold $512k or more in assets (in Y2000 USD).


Comments on this entry are closed.