Review of The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century by Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta, ILR Press, 2022

by Trudy Goldberg

The Future We Need by Erica Smiley and Sarita GuptaAccording to Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta, our future would be a lot brighter and our democracy much healthier if collective bargaining were much more widespread and applied to economic encounters beyond the workplace.  Smiley is Executive Director of Jobs with Justice, and Gupta is currently the Ford Foundation’s Vice President of US Programs. Both authors are seasoned collective bargainers and movement builders.

What is this magic bullet that will, Smiley and Gupta maintain, safeguard both economic and political rights? “Traditional worksite-based collective bargaining is a system by which working people can exercise collective power and directly confront the owners of capital in a way that reclaims portions of that capital for working people and their communities.” The authors argue for far wider application of collective bargaining: “the process whereby working people take collective action in negotiating with any entity that has power over their rights, living conditions, and overall economic well-being in a way that produces an enforceable agreement that can be renegotiated as conditions change.”

Collective Bargaining and the History of Labor

In a chapter in which the authors relate the history of collective bargaining to the history of the U.S. Labor Movement, they focus, not on the obvious choices such as the American Federation of Labor, but on the mass refusal of Black slaves to work, midway through the Civil War and the successful citywide strike for better pay of Atlanta washerwomen in the 1880s.

In their brief history of U.S. labor, Smiley and Gupta do not assess the role of the CIO in relation to issues of both race and gender, despite its generally being regarded as more progressive than the AFL in these regards. Nor do they allude to the role of the Communist Party or its members in furthering racial justice in the labor movement.

The authors draw some lessons from the history of US labor. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which robbed labor of important rights by banning secondary boycotts and exempting millions of workers from NLRA protection “illustrates how quickly a federal government that appears to be firmly on the side of workers can be twisted in the opposite direction when workers themselves fail to be vigilant about not just winning the game but also changing the rules to protect and maintain those victories.” The authors, however, provide no evidence of declining worker vigilance. The story of labor’s response to Taft-Hartley is a complicated one that includes compromise on the part of labor movement leaders but widespread workers’ protest.

In discussing “government,” the authors tend to omit the difference between the two major parties, the Democrats being moderately pro-labor for a short time in the 1930s and the Republicans largely hostile to labor. Republicans dominated the 80th Congress that enacted Taft-Hartley over the veto of Democrat, President Harry S. Truman. In both Houses of Congress the number of Democrats voting not to sustain Truman’s veto narrowly outnumbered those voting to sustain the pro-labor veto. Missing from the authors’ analysis of labor’s decline is the Democratic Party’s lack of support for labor in the last sixty years, despite heavy electoral support for Democratic candidates on the part of organized labor—what labor economist Richard McIntyre refers to as “unrequited love.”

The Great Rollback

A chapter on “The Great Rollback” emphasizes globalization and the consequent ability of global corporations to outsource production tasks to countries where workers’ rights are fewer, government regulations are scarce, and salaries much lower than in the US.  With financial capitalism, the successor to managerial capitalism, investors gamble with companies and other economic entities in order to maximize profits–with severely negative consequences for wages, safety, healthcare and other social needs. Redoubled use of the divide and conquer tools of white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia on the part of today’s Right is a feature of the rollback emphasized by Smiley and Gupta.

Contingent work—subcontracted, temporary, part-time, or otherwise precarious work is a “powerful antilabor trend” associated with the rollback. Some contingent workers are indirectly employed and unable to negotiate with their “real bosses.” Some are misclassified as independent contractors, hence outside the legal framework of the NLRA as well as denied such safety net protections as unemployment insurance. The authors also take a look at the gig economy, concluding that “it is far from the worker-empowering revolution that companies are marketing and far less sizable.” This is a conclusion similar to that reached by labor historian Frank Stricker in his NJFAN Newsletter article, “The Gig Economy:
How Big, How Bad?”  Included in the armory of capital “rollback” by Smiley and Gupta are the skyrocketing sums that corporations can spend to influence U.S. elections, a trend well-established before the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Another Supreme Court blow to labor that noted by the authors is the 2018 Janus ruling that non-union government workers cannot be required to pay union fees as a condition of working in public service.

Pushing Back against the Rollback

Much of The Future We Need is devoted to a discussion of how labor can push back against a system that isn’t working for most of us—one epitomized by a choice for many working people between covering the rent and putting enough food on the table. Stories told by workers who are pushing back are a welcome feature of this book. Workers’ stories are preceded by their portraits, painted in the innovative style of queer, feminist artist Gwenn Seemel.

In their section on the labor movement Smiley and Gupta call for broadening our image of US workers—beyond the stereotype of “a strong white man wielding a pickaxe or a hammer while building one of the major industries of the twentieth century—steel, automaking, or mining.” The 10 workers featured in this book hardly fit that outdated stereotype. Only one man! These workers are teachers and employees in a department store, domestic service, school food service, an auto manufacturing plant, a packing house, and multinational retail and fast food enterprises.  Most of these workers are black or brown, all but one is a woman, and none wields an axe at work.

The workers featured in The Future We Need are pushing back against age-old challenges that were tamed by civil rights and women’s movements but resurgent in the pushback. Capital’s traditional divide-and-conquer strategy for weakening labor is alive and deadly in today’s effort of bosses to pit whites against blacks, women against men, and native workers against immigrants. And the workers’ stories, moreover, emphasize the sheer immiseration of people who do the hard and necessary work for us—work that was only deemed “essential” when a pandemic demonstrated how much we need them. Some Walmart’s workers, we learn, spend their days off at a food bank. Unable to afford a car, an older worker featured in this book walks seven blocks to a bus stop, takes four hours each way to get to work at McDonald’s, and sometimes is employed only four hours of work when she gets there. Not to mention the lack of respect from managers that comes through in these stories.

Rubynell Walker-Barbee, a food service worker at Morehouse College in Georgia, organized a successful drive for membership in the SEIU. After three years working at Morehouse, she had been rewarded for good work with a $.02 increase! She started “asking around” and realized fellow workers weren’t even making the minimum wage. Unionization, however, did not prevent the state labor commissioner’s arbitrary revocation of the unemployment insurance benefits that school-service workers rely on during the three-month school vacation–a loss that created great hardship for workers earning low wages to begin with. The workers, union and nonunion, organized, rallied outside worksites, even went to the labor commissioner’s house. And they succeeded in having the governor overturn the commissioner’s denial.

Lidia Victoria, a Dominican immigrant helped with the fight to gain union recognition for Smithfield Packing in North Carolina which has a very diverse workforce. “Of course, the company knew our chances of winning decreased the more divided we were. And they played on this.”

Sanchioni Butler, a UAW organizer, found that Nissan in Canton, Mississippi “used their money to divide the workers.” “They would encourage white workers in the plant, who were in just as bad shape as everyone else, to still feel privileged over Black workers.” Many of them “had their own ‘aha’ moments after they experienced an injury and saw how the company treated them just as badly as they had treated Black workers who had been injured.”  Smiley and Gupta regard white supremacy “as a tool of capitalist dominance for white people”—one supported by Sanchioni Butler’s observation of how white workers were led to feel privileged over black workers but were treated just as badly.  The authors emphasize that “patriarchy, like white supremacy, must be centrally targeted by labor organizers and others who want to build a truly effective movement for economic democracy.

Kimberly Mitchell is a union organizer who was a shop steward at Macy’s in DC. The authors relate her self-description to the concept of intersectionality or intersecting identities and the consequent need for twenty-first century collective bargaining to consider the whole person:

If all you see when you meet me is that I’m a worker, you’re missing the entire point. I am a whole person. I should be able to exercise control of my life in all aspects—at work, in my home, and in relationship to the big banks and the large corporations who shape so much of our society. If we fail to see people like me as whole people, then we’re losing good soldiers who could be in this fight with us, this fight for dignity and respect.

A chapter titled “Beyond the Red and Blue” tells the story of the successful teachers strike in West Virginia, one of the states that adopted right-to-work laws in the last 30 years. Smiley and Gupta consider it “a remarkable anomaly” that the first of the 55 West Virginia counties to implement the work stoppage were more conservative than those in other parts of the state. All three are red counties, one of them 98 percent white and relatively poor (median income $36,000). These counties, however, located in the epicenter of the mine wars after World War I “identify with the ideals of dignity and respect for working people.” Smiley and Gupta conclude that “organizing people is not about their ideology. It is about appealing to the values that drive them.” Apart from the difficulty of distinguishing between ideology and values, this is a rather small sample to draw conclusions about going beyond the Red and Blue.

Heather Deluca-Nestor, president of her county union local, emphasizes that West Virginia teachers who participated in the work stoppage were doing more than protecting their rights as workers. “I guess you would call us the standard-bearers of public education and defending our children.” Deluca-Nestor contrasts teachers who defend public schools–their employers–with her steel-worker relatives who strike against their company for fair wages. What goes for teachers also applies to other public-service workers who are allied with their employers when it comes to gaining public support for these services.

New Challenges for Collective Bargaining

While challenges like the divide-and-conquer strategy are age old, some of the direct-bargaining examples in this book address new challenges. One is “the fissured workplace” which David Weil, former labor administrator in the Obama administration, describes as: “a constellation of different companies delivering what the consumer may think of as simply ‘the Marriott experience.’” In such workplaces, it is difficult for workers to know who their real boss is and with whom to negotiate. In the world of global capital, Smiley and Gupta emphasize, the “ultimate profiteers” must be confronted directly. Another newer challenge is what sociologist Beverly Silver calls the “spatial fix” or the avoidance of labor militancy and power by relocating sites of production. Here again, the real boss is not at hand.

Smiley and Gupta cite several initiatives to overcome the spatial fix. One is the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), “a strategic network of garment-sector unions and other worker organizations from countries across the continent.” The network seeks to form “a global bargaining unit with an equal role in governing the industry rather than allowing suppliers and the global retail brands to pit working people from one country against those from other countries.” The authors report that “the AFWA continues to thrive even in the harsh circumstances presented by the COVID-10 pandemic and the ongoing shifts in global capital.” However, Smiley and Gupta provide no examples of AFWA success. The Accord on Fire Safety in Bangladesh is an example of “intensive collaboration around bargaining demands and organizing goals across national borders” that is necessitated by the global economy. However, US retail giants that sell Bangladesh-made garments had refused to sign on to the accord at the time when this book was written. Global Union Federations (GUF) are international union federations that attempt to construct global framework agreements (GFAs), but these agreements “often lack real enforceability.”

The stories of Bettie Douglas, a Black grandmother employed at McDonald’s in St. Louis, and Cynthia Murray who works at Walmart in Maryland, provide examples of the need to target the ultimate profiteer rather than a local franchise owner. When Douglas tried to bargain with the franchise owner, her direct boss, she realized it was not a decision he could make and that “We had to try to engage the executives at the top of the McDonald’s corporation.” And she has overcome the nervousness she first felt in testifying about her experiences before a large audience that included McDonald’s executives. Douglas has gained personal strength from expressing her true feelings and expresses hope that face-to-face meeting with executives will make each understand where the other is coming from. But there is no report of worker gains from these meetings.

Cynthia Murray recognized that “With a company like Walmart, you can’t just go store to store. We had to get to the top of the company.” Murray tells of a face-to-face encounter with a Walmart executive in which she and her colleagues made him listen to a story of how one of them lost her baby when, while pregnant, she was forced to pull a pallet jack. For the first time she could see he was human and realized they were too. Yet, Murray relates no gains for Walmart workers from this encounter.

Community-Driven Bargaining

Workers are whole people whose daily interactions and struggles with the economy go far beyond the workplace. Therefore, while a union contract at work is an important step toward economic democracy, working people must also be able to collectively negotiate economic relationships far beyond their worksites, in all aspects of their lives. This is what “community-driven bargaining” is all about.

This opening paragraph of the section, “What is Community-Driven Bargaining?” sums up a central theme of The Future We Need and the authors’ justification for extending the powerful tool of collective bargaining to the full range of workers’ encounters with capital. What follows are descriptions of the kinds of economic encounters that community-driven bargaining is designed to address: renters versus corporate landlords; debtors versus big banks; and consumers versus corporations. In each of these the individual deals with powerful, remote entities—for example, instead of an on-site landlord a company that owns over 150,000 rental properties, including apartments, manufactured homes, and RV parks.

Deloris Wright is a Jamaican immigrant who is an activist in Domestic Workers United and in its six-year, successful campaign to achieve a New York State Domestic Bill of Rights. But her struggle for economic rights did not stop with her role as a worker. As an apartment dweller in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, she encountered many of the problems that plague lower-income tenants–rent costs “through the roof” and neighbors being manipulated into moving out so that landlords could increase the rent. “I couldn’t sit by and watch,” writes Ms. Wright who joined the Crown Heights Tenant Union which has been able to negotiate with landlords and building owners and to accompany their neighbors to housing court when they are summoned so that they don’t have to navigate the system by themselves.

Throughout US history, the authors write, the consumers-against-corporations strategy aided causes ranging from the abolition of slavery to unfair labor practices and civil rights. One might add to their historical examples an in-depth by labor historian Anne-Lise Orleck: the successful housewives’ boycotts over food and housing costs in a number of cities that peaked during the Great Depression, a Communist-backed movement led by women whose organizing skills were honed in the labor movement.[1] Today, we have no nationwide consumer movement of consumers-against-corporations. Think what such a movement might have done to counter the current inflation–by targeting price-gouging corporations instead of workers’ jobs and wages.

Smiley and Gupta hold that instead of settling for enacting policy changes or electing like-minded people to office, community collective bargaining should “Help to Govern.”  They suggest the creation and administration of a trust board that governs a public fund which advances community interests. An example the authors give of the “Help to Govern” approach is a Connecticut Campaign for Worthy Wages focusing on legislation that would charge employers who pay less than $15 an hour a “McWalmart Fee” to retrieve the cost to the state of public-assistance fees resulting from their workers’ insufficient incomes. These revenues would be used to pay for the senior-care and childcare services needed by many McDonald’s, Walmart, and other low-wage workers. The legislation failed, but the Connecticut insurance giant Aetna, raised its starting wage to $16 and reduced out-of-pocket-care expenses for its lowest-paid employees. An effort in Cook County, Illinois to establish a similar fund also failed, and so did a Maine initiative to establish the right to home care supports and services for Mainers with disabilities.  Such efforts, though they may fall short of objectives, can tarnish the image of large corporations and raise public awareness of economic injustice.

Among “Community Pathways to Workplace Bargaining,” the authors discuss coenforcement and procurement strategies.  “Coenforcement is a means by which workers can broaden the scope of bargaining by negotiating with government or private actors to play a formal role in enforcing labor and employment laws.” Jeff Crosby, a veteran labor activist who tells his story, provides an example of coenforcement. In addition to leadership in the workplace, he is a member of a Labor Council that includes organizations ranging from a Worker Center to the Chamber of Commerce. When an anti-wage theft policy was enacted, they wrote themselves into it as an advisory committee because they knew the city didn’t have the money to hire someone to enforce it.

Largely confined to negotiating over wages and working conditions in the post- World War II period, unions have been attempting to broaden the scope of bargaining to include employers’ impact on workers’ communities. This social movement unionism has been more common in the public sector where, as mentioned, teachers see themselves as defending public education as well as their rights as workers. Smilely and Gupta report that teachers in St. Paul Minnesota, for example, inserted in their negotiations that the district cease all business with banks that foreclose on families with school-aged children during the school year.

Technological Change: Who Benefits?

New technology, Smiley and Gupta emphasize, is neither good nor bad for workers. “When working people can inset themselves directly into the processes of designing, adopting, and governing new technologies and shifting the organization of work, the result will be overwhelmingly positive for much larger groups of people.” Their section on technological change tells two stories—one in which collective bargaining led to good outcomes for workers in a company adopting new technology and one in which the views of working people were disregarded, and both the company and workers were losers.

In the success story the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) and Allen-Bradley Automation in Milwaukee were able to negotiate benefits for workers as the company was adopting new technologies. A core issue was increasing the opportunity for workers with seniority to be trained for new, more technically advanced jobs. Another was the creation of apprenticeship programs available to people whose jobs were being eliminated. By contrast, in building its Factory of the Future, General Electric did not heed the advice of a workers’ technology committee that workers learn multiple skills as opposed to deskilling their work. The result: the company built “one of the world’s most inflexible machining centers” which was shut down after ten years.

The Future We Need

I am in accord with Smiley and Gupta’s analysis of the conditions that have led to the decline of labor density and collective bargaining. Their proposals for countering some effects of the “Great Rollback” are also on the mark. Their section on Community-Driven Bargaining is comprehensive in its identification of strategies that take collective bargaining beyond the workplace. And the workers’ stories in this book undergird the authors’ analyses of the problems and their solutions. I recommend The Future We Need to all who aspire to make workplaces and communities more democratic and better able to resist the egregious economic inequality of 21st century global capitalism and the means by which it achieves and maintains hegemony—financialization, fissured workplaces, and the divisive effects of white supremacy and patriarchy.

Collective bargaining is a strategy, a means to an end. The authors assume that collective bargaining will be used to further the progressive goals or ends they espouse. And that is largely the case. Yet, they point out that many Black and Brown workers today “experience labor unions in part via unionized government agencies like US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local police departments—both negative, violent forces that often terrorize these communities.” Smiley and Gupta note that the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis helped prevent the removal from the police force of police officer Derek Chauvin who subsequently murdered George Floyd. Moreover, the authors point out that the AFL-CIO defended the membership of the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) in the federation while calling for some general reforms that IUPA was still heavily offended by.” However effective they are at collecting bargaining, the unions that abet racism must be opposed vigorously by the labor movement and other progressive forces.

Largely missing in this book is a consideration of the role of federal government policy in achieving a brighter future and of movement action in pursuit of progressive government policies. The authors recognize the importance of such legislation as the National Labor Relations Act and, in fact, note that when protection from the NLRA became less effective in the 1970s and 1980s, working people turned to other federal laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (that prohibits sex discrimination in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance). Their section on negotiating beyond the workplace refers to some failed efforts to enact state legislation, but influencing federal policy is not included.

A statement of the authors quoted earlier in this review suggests that influencing government policy is not a priority in “organizing for a better democracy”: “While voting, lobbying, and other forms of policy and legal work are important forms of democratic participation, collective bargaining—both at work and elsewhere—applies democratic practices to economic relationships.” Perhaps that is one reason why some critical future needs that can only be achieved by changes in federal and state policy are not addressed in this work– climate change and the future of the planet itself; the almost unthinkable proliferation of battlefield weapons that make our schools and our streets scenes of deadly violence; and a swollen military budget and nuclear arsenal that also threaten the survival of the human race. Moreover, the goal of full employment as a means of achieving good jobs for all is not mentioned in this work, despite the importance of tight labor markets to strength at the bargaining table. This book–as the authors make explicit in the final chapter of their book–is about the future of the labor movement and its potential contribution to the important goal of economic democracy.

As a member of the unit of the American Association of University Professors at Adelphi University I was aware of how leaders of our faculty union were able to use collective bargaining skills, developed in the workplace, in a successful, wider effort to save the university from a hostile right-wing takeover. As chair of the National Jobs for All Network, I think of the “future we need” as  more than the future of the labor movement or collective bargaining-, however more powerful in workplace  and  more widely directed to economic issues beyond the workplace.

Admittedly, the enactment of federal policies that limit the ravages of capital are very difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve. But what else will give us the future we as a nation really need? One that affects the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, world-wide. If wider and more effective practice of collective bargaining is the route to this, then I wish the authors would have said so and shown how and why–including how widely practiced it must be in order to lead us to the future we need. In theory, democratic government can limit the inequality generated by capital, but that is unlikely when capital invades democratic government through unlimited campaign contributions. In fact, Smiley and Gupta call attention to this problem: “The amount of money that corporations can spend to influence elections has skyrocketed in the last half century,” and they add that the trend began long before Citizens United. Mass movements like those that gave us a civil rights revolution or women’s suffrage have forced our federal government to limit patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalist hegemony, albeit insufficiently and impermanently. Smiley and Gupta propose strategies for limiting anti-democratic capitalist control of workplaces and some other institutions. Is that enough to achieve “the future we need?” Or should they have been more modest in claiming what collective bargaining can achieve?

[1] Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States,1900-1965, 2nd ed., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *