Revitalizing Labor: “Another World is Possible” by Staughton Lynd

I love Lynd’s radical and critical perspective on the proposals that people are floating for the labor movement. On reform efforts he says: “Current efforts to revive the labor movement in the U.S. define their objectives so narrowly, that even if successful, they would not change anything fundamental.” Beautiful!

The 2nd half gets into debates on labor history, but it is exactly on point: everybody is waiting for a leader, but it is the bottom up organzing with a radical vision that moves change.

Another World Is Possible

Staughton Lynd lectures to Missippissi Freedom School teachers.

By Staughton Lynd

WORKING USA – March 2008

What is the problem? What needs to be set right? The
mother of all wrong solutions is card-check voting,
which would give more access to unorganized workers for
the same top-down unions, with the same
unaccountability to the membership because of the dues
checkoff, with the same ever-readiness to give up the
right to strike. Equally misguided in my view is the
notion that Taft-Hartley represented a decisive turning
point and that its repeal would release the original
pristine impulse of the Congress of Industrial
Organizations to flower again. All major trade union
leaders beginning with John L. Lewis have devised means
whereby workers would give up the right to collective
self-activity embodied in Section 7 in exchange for a
mess of pottage. So we, labor lawyers and labor
historians, can only begin to be useful when we forego
our endless apologies for the latest hoped-for
“progressive” union leader. Our task is to envision an
institutional” “embodiment of the class self-activity
discovered and imagined by E.P. Thompson and colleagues
and partially realized by the IWW in work that
desperately needs updating.”

The new worldwide movement against “globalization,”
meaning, U.S. imperialism, and for a better day, has
come up with a defining slogan: Another World Is
Possible. The words remind us that a social movement is
unlikely to bring about what it does not even try to
achieve. Current efforts to revive the labor movement
in the U.S. define their objectives so narrowly, that
even if successful, they would not change anything

One such proposal is to “increase the amount of money
spent on “organizing” “to increase the percentage of
the labor force that belongs to unions. Such an
increase in union “density” might maximize the
influence of existing unions, but would not change
their entanglement in the management prerogative and
no-strike clauses that exist in almost all collective
bargaining agreements. These two clauses give profit-
maximizing management the right to make the fundamental
decisions and take away from workers the ability to do
anything about it.

Another widely endorsed strategy is “card-check
elections”. If enacted into law, that procedure would
very likely increase the number of bargaining units
represented by existing unions. It would do nothing to
change the top-down, bureaucratic character of those
organizations. Indeed, in the absence of prolonged
election campaigns and vigorous public controversy,
card-check elections might very well cause unions to
become even less democratic than they now are.

Moreover, experience suggests that in the absence of
legislation, in order to obtain card-check elections
unions often make significant concessions (about which
the affected workers have no say) as to what will be in
the contract after the union is recognized. A third
widely articulated strategy is “minority or members-
only unionism”. The idea is that an employer should be
required to bargain with any group of employees who
request it, even if those workers are not a majority of
the workforce. This is much the best mainstream
formulation for improving the labor movement because it
requires a union to prove its value through actions,
not promises. However, the idea has significant
drawbacks. Those who favor minority unionism see it as
an intermediate step toward majority support and
recognition of the union as exclusive bargaining agent.

Moreover, like so many other notions of labor law
reform, it seems to require legitimation by some arm of
government (such as Congress or the National Labor
Relations Board) before it becomes real. Better than
any of these strategic visions would be a deliberate
return to the essential principle of the labor
movement: the principle of solidarity. The Knights of
Labor and the IWW articulated this principle of
solidarity for all time in the words, “an injury to one
is an injury to all.” Certain applications of this
principle are self-evident. For example, it would
finally preclude the creation of separate wage tiers
for workers who do essentially the same jobs and differ
only with respect to their dates of hire. Again, it
would require the labor movement to seek solutions that
benefit “both “workers who seek to enter the U.S. “and
“workers who are already here.1

In order to develop such solidarity unionism in
practice, workers, labor historians, trade union
officials, and labor lawyers must affirm the underlying
idea that answers to the miseries presently experienced
by workers in the U.S. (and elsewhere) will develop
from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. We need to
go back to the experience of workers in this country in
the early 1930s who were unable to get help from either
national unions or the national government, and who,
therefore, turned to each other, improvising new
central labor bodies to coordinate their local general
strikes. Rather than seek assistance from the courts,
they sought to get the judges off their backs, through
the anti-injunction provisions of the federal Norris-
LaGuardia Act and the little Norris-LaGuardia laws of a
number of states. The indispensable precondition for a
new bottom-up labor movement is to give up the quest
for a magical new leader of the existing trade union
movement who will make all well again.

Intellectuals associated with the labor movement have a
special responsibility. In 1995, two labor historians
circulated an Open Letter to President-elect John
Sweeney, which greeted Sweeney’s elevation as “the most
heartening development in our nation’s political life
since the heyday of the civil rights movement,”
assessed his election as “promis[ing] to once again
make the house of labor a social movement around which
we can rally” and pledged “to play our part in helping
realize the promise of October.”2

When Andrew Stern later denounced Sweeney and led
several major unions into a new organization, Barbara
Ehrenreich declared that “the future of the American
dream” was now “in the hands of Andrew Stern”
possessing a “vital agenda for change” and “a bold
vision for reform.”3 This was presumably before Stern’s
coalition with Wal-Mart. The foregoing makes clear why
it is so important to look again at John L. Lewis, to
move beyond Saul Alinsky, Melvyn Dubofsky, David Brody,
and Robert Zieger, indeed beyond the consensus of labor
historians, concerning this paradigmatic figure. Here,
the research of Jim Pope is the gateway to
understanding the importance of rank-and-file activity
as central to labor movement growth.4

As Pope states:

According to the standard story, section 7[a] of the
National Industrial Recovery Act [made possible] a
brilliant organizing campaign that reestablished the
mine workers’ union in the soft coalfields. The story
begins in late May 1933, when UMW President John L.
Lewis-anticipating the enactment of section 7(a)-
commits the union’s entire treasury. . . . One hundred
organizers fan out into the coalfields . . . claiming
“the President” wants the miners to join the union. . .
[W]ithin weeks of section 7(a)’s signing, the union
enrolls the overwhelming majority of miners in the soft

In this standard story, Pope rightly observes, “coal
miners rarely appear and strikes-if they enter the
story at all-play a subsidiary role,” and are said to
have been masterminded by Lewis.

Pope tells us that he began his research when the New
York Times headline “Coal Men tell Roosevelt Code will
be Signed Today: 16 Shot in Riots at Mines” caught his
attention. Inquiry revealed that strike activity in the
summer of 1933 involved 100,000 miners spread out over
1,000 miles of mountainous terrain. The self-activity
of coal miners in southwestern Pennsylvania and West
Virginia began before any initiative by Lewis and
without his assistance. In Pope’s words, they “brought
their common law of solidarity into the realm of public

Section 7(a) “neither sparked the movement nor shaped
its demands.” By May 17, 1933, when the NIRA was
presented to Congress, “the organizing upsurge in
garment and coal was already in full swing.”

From self-organization, the miners moved on, according
to Pope, to enforcement from below. Lewis advised
miners not to strike because the real action would be
inWashington and announced that strike activity was
unauthorized. When President Roosevelt intervened
personally to broker a truce, striking miners refused
to return to work. UMW Vice President Philip Murray
then entered into an agreement with the owners that
banned all mass picketing.

The strikers, however, viewed picketing “not as a form
of communication, but as an enforcement device.”

The miners stayed out despite wage cuts and promised
wage increases because Pope says what they wanted was
“structural change” and a “new industrial order.” The
strikers organized themselves through pit committees
that superseded the official UMW apparatus. Pope

Throughout the struggle, John L. Lewis had been a step
behind the local union activists. His celebrated
organizing campaign was not launched until after rank-
and-file miners had already rejuvenated the union. Once
deployed, his organizers worked persistently to
undermine the strike movement. . . . Thus,

the sensational recovery of the UMW union – later
touted by Lewis as a product of centralized discipline
and federal government lawmaking – was in fact brought
about by a democratic movement of local activists
enforcing their own vision of the right to organize.

We must demythologize not only John L. Lewis, but also
all such leaders including Philip Murray, Walter
Reuther, Cesar Chavez, Arnold Miller, Ed Sadlowksi, Ron
Carey, John Sweeney, and Andrew Stern, and we must
reconceptualize rank-and-file movements as something
more than caucuses to elect new bureaucratic union

The rank-and-file movements of the early 1930s ran
candidates for office, but they also refused to accept
collective bargaining agreements negotiated behind
closed doors; initiated wildcat strikes, local general
strikes, and a national textile strike; and did not shy
away from the option of seceding to start new unions.

They believed, in the language of the antiglobalization
movement, that another world is possible, and in the
language of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, that they
had a world to win.


1. Historians routinely condemn Samuel Gompers for
supporting the “exclusion” of Chinese workers at the
end of the nineteenth century. When Tom Leedham, as the
candidate of Teamsters for a Democratic Union for
president of the International Brotherhood of
Teamsters, criticized his opponent ( James Hoffa, Jr.)
for not doing enough to keep Mexican truck drivers out
of the U.S., he exhibited the same parochialism.

2. The letter was signed, among others, by Stanley
Aronowitz, Derrick Bell, Barry Bluestone, Julian Bond,
Barbara Ehrenreich, Eric Foner, Betty Friedan, Herbert
Gans, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Todd Gitlin, Michael
Kazin, Jonathan Kozol, William Kornblum, David
Montgomery, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Michael

Walzer, and Cornel West, who also hailed Sweeney as a
“visionary leader.” “The Rise of the House of Labor,”
“In These Times”, December 25, 1995, p. 4.

3. Steve Early, review of John Sweeney, “America Needs
a Raise”, and Andrew Stern, “A Country That Works”, in
WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society”, vol. 10,
no. 1 (March 2007): 142.

4. “The Western Pennsylvania Coal Strike of 1933, Part
I: Lawmaking from Below and the Revival of the United
Mine Workers,” Labor History, vol. 44, no. 1 (2003):


“Staughton Lynd “is a leading social historian who has
devoted his life to scholarship on the working class
and social activism and solidarity. He is author of
numerous books on labor, the working class, and the
oppressed. He practiced employment law as a legal
services attorney in Youngstown, Ohio. He is the author
of “Solidarity Unionism “and edited “We Are All
Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s”.
He and his wife Alice Lynd authored “Rank and File “and
“The New Rank and File”. His recent work focuses on the
cogency of social solidarity and worker self activity.
He is author of “Lucasville: The Untold Story of a
Prison Uprising”. E-mail:

2 Responses

  1. Adam, I just suggested this to Todd as well – you should start an members only blog and repost stuff from this site there. At least some of it. Do I need to explain/try to convince or are you sold?

  2. An example of what Staughton was talking about that is currently in full swing here in California. I am a rank and file member involved in this struggle and Staughton has been an inspiration to me for years. Now we finally have the opportunity as workers to create the kind of history I’ve read about in his books. Thank you Staughton and also Steve Early. You are both an inspiration to workers everywhere. We will build a new world from the ashes of the old for the union makes us strong!

    Trusteed Workers In California Form Independent Union

    As former UHW staff members, we’re writing to update you about the trusteeship of UHW as well as healthcare workers’ recent founding of a new union here in California.

    First, a quick update: On January 27, President Andy Stern imposed a trusteeship on UHW, thereby removing UHW’s 100-member Executive Board, suspending its constitution, removing its officers, and appointing out-of-town trustees to run the union. An article from the Daily Labor Report offers more details and is especially interesting because it includes observations from labor analysts like Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University and Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California Santa Barbara. Their comments underscore what’s been widely understood about the effort to seize control of UHW – that there are no legitimate grounds for trusteeing UHW and that the trusteeship is simply a move by Stern to eliminate his political opponents inside SEIU. In the article, Bronfenbrenner points to the profound contradictions in Stern’s stated rationale for the trusteeship. A second observer calls Stern’s action “the height of absurdity.” A third calls the former UHW “a model union in many ways… a big, vibrant democratic local which has a policy disagreement with the international.”

    On January 28, the day after the trusteeship, UHW’s 100-member Executive Board voted unanimously to form a new union independent of SEIU – the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Since then, tens of thousands of workers have flocked to the new union in an unprecedented exodus from SEIU. In just the first week after NUHW’s founding, a majority of the workers from more than 100 hospitals and nursing homes signed NLRB certification petitions requesting to leave SEIU so they can join NUHW. These petitions, which were filed with the NLRB, cover more than 25,000 workers and are the largest such filing in California’s history. Since then, petitions covering approximately 5,000 more workers have been filed. Workers accomplished this feat without the help of a single paid staff person. Currently, NUHW is an entirely volunteer organization that relies on thousands of dedicated rank-and-file leaders as well as more than 120 former UHW staff who quit their jobs and are volunteering to help build a democratic, member-led union.

    The mass exodus of workers from SEIU is a totally predictable response to Stern’s actions. For months, UHW members pleaded with Stern to let them continue to govern their own union. More than 125,000 UHW members signed petitions telling Stern not to trustee their local. More than 8,000 protested at SEIU’s trusteeship hearings. Staffers assigned to the trusteeship team are now facing the predictable anger of UHW’s members. Members are refusing to let out-of-town organizers set foot in their facilities. International officials have had to hire off-duty cops to guard the offices that they forcibly seized from UHW members. SEIU officials hide behind office doors chained shut with heavy locks and guarded by gun-toting officers. For more reports about what’s happening inside the trusteeship, go to (Today’s post includes a report from an SEIU staff person assigned to the trusteeship who quit her job.)

    Meanwhile, SEIU officials have launched an aggressive campaign to stop workers from leaving SEIU. These SEIU leaders are working with some of California’s worst anti-union employers to threaten, suspend and even fire rank-and-file workers who circulate petitions to join NUHW. In the words of one UHW steward: “This is like a very bad marriage. We filed for a divorce. SEIU is like an abusive husband who’s trying to stop us from going.” Meanwhile, each day UHW members are filing more and more certification petitions and are insisting that SEIU officials respect their decision.

    For more information, please go to

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