“What do we do when we’re under attack? Stand up, fight back!”

It was a chant that echoed throughout the Iowa State Capitol back in February, as thousands of firefighters and police officers, teachers, and laborers packed the rotunda to protest House File 291, a bill to drastically change to Chapter 20 of the Public Employment Relations Act (PDF). But now that HF 291 has been signed into law, how can Iowa unions fulfill their promise to “stand up, fight back” against this reactionary attack on workers?

First, a quick recap: HF 291 severely limits the scope of collective bargaining negotiation topics for public sector unions, to “base wages.” It allows the firing of union employees without cause, completely dismantling the original intent of PERA to establish a working relationship between public employers and employees based on “good faith.” But perhaps most pernicious is a new rule stating (PDF), “The board shall conduct an election to retain and recertify the bargaining representative of a bargaining unit prior to the expiration of the bargaining unit’s collective bargaining agreement.” This provision will result in extra costs to unions as they are forced to hold re-certification elections every one to two years, even if union employees do not call for the election. And if a re-certification election fails, those public employees must wait up to two years before submitting a new petition for certification, as opposed to one year under the original PERA.

Taken all together, this legislation drastically undermines the power of public sector unions. And while AFSCME and others have sued the state, claiming the changes are unconstitutional, anti-labor Republicans still control the trifecta of state House, Senate, and governor’s office. Even if the court finds in AFSCME’s favor, new legislation addressing those flaws would be introduced next year and pass just as easily.

Iowa unions thus have their work cut out for them. How are they responding to these attacks? At the moment, it appears that they remain committed to leaving the fates of their members with the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, while the Democrats continue to proudly voice their support for the unions and a minimum wage increase, past precedent shows that their promises will ring empty should they regain a majority in the legislative chambers. In 2009, unions pushed forward the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have expedited the union certification process with a “card check” that bestows immediate union certification to employees in a workplace who have signed union cards in a simple majority without a lengthy election process. Democrats failed to enact the bill at the federal level, despite controlling the White House and both house of Congress, including a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate at the time.

A pro-union protest against changes to collective bargaining at the Iowa Capitol in February. Photo: Patrick Stall
A pro-union protest against changes to collective bargaining at the Iowa Capitol in February. Photo: Patrick Stall

This legislation should have been an easy vote for congressional Democrats, but they failed to support organized labor despite having run their campaigns on union money for decades. Now, of course, it’s the Republicans who control Congress and the presidency. National AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka responded to the new political situation by expressing his approval of President Trump for condemning undocumented immigrants for driving down wages for American workers. He added that he would “absolutely” partner with the president to address this issue and “rewrite the rules of the economy.” This is a shameful move on behalf of the union leadership, which showcases their pitiful strategy to partner with whomever is in possession of political power at the current moment. Reactionary tactics like these have shaped unions into a “business” for their members, only looking after their immediate interests. This strategy has failed the unions time and time again, and this time is no different. An allegiance to Trump will only ignore the president’s long record of union-busting and sowing divisions within the working class.

It has never been clearer that a different strategy is needed. Though the unions should by all means defend themselves at the voting booth as well as in the workplace, placing their hopes in the hands of the party that has stabbed them in the back time and time again has failed to get their members better wages, working conditions, or benefits. In fact, by throwing financial and volunteer resources behind the Democrats, the unions are passing by an opportunity for a game-changing alternative strategy. Rather than continuing their failed electoral strategy, the public sector unions could invest in a campaign of grassroots organizing which trains and coordinates their members in taking direct action at the workplace. Slowdowns, ‘working-to-rule’, sick-ins and strikes are effective means at building union power and extracting concessions from employers, and they don’t place union members’ fates in the hands of politicians who never really cared about them anyway.

Taking direct action on the job has a long and cherished history in organized labor. Rank-and-file direct action is how the labor movement was built. Long before the current system of labor bureaucracy and state contracts was established, workers had to confront their employers through militant action in order to exact even the smallest of concessions. Employees, including teachers and firefighters, had to go on strike, hold mass pickets, and generally shut down workplaces in order to win recognition for their unions and decent benefits for themselves and their families. In an effort to minimize these sorts of disruptions, liberal legislators legalized unions and granted contracts to government employees in the first half of the 20th century, and the union leadership, sensing both an opportunity to secure those gains and enhance their own power (by holding positions as liaisons between their members and elected officials), began the alliance with the Democratic Party that has continued to this day. History demonstrates, however, that when the general position of labor is weak, direct action is the only tactic that gets union members the benefits they deserve. The labor movement was forged in the crucible of strikes and other direct actions, and in many places still flexes its muscles through work stoppages: In 2012, for instance, the Chicago Teachers Union went on an eight-day walkout, winning excellent contracts for its members and maintaining neighborhood schools for its students.

Unions are at a crossroads: They can carry on with their current strategy of making opportunistic deals with whichever party happens to be in power at the time, or they can take radical, direct action.

Further, shifting to a strategy around rank-and-file action in the workplace also puts union members in the forefront of union activity and increases democratic participation in workplace decisions. Rather than waiting until the next contract negotiation, organized workers can take direct action on the job to improve their conditions. If the school administration begins floating the idea of a 40-student classroom load, for example, a union membership organized and trained for direct action could collectively call in sick for one day.

Of course, this sort of rank-and-file participation and militancy doesn’t appear overnight. It takes practical, on the ground, long-term grassroots commitment to workplace democracy and worker-centered unions. But in light of the abject failure of labor’s long alliance with the Democrats and the apparent unlikeliness of victories in the courts, a rank-and-file approach isn’t just the most (small-d) democratic choice, it’s the smart choice. Unions face grave consequences if they fail to change course. The very things that the past decade of neoliberal attacks on labor targeted — workplace conditions, health care, wages — are very basic and necessary benefits that a labor organization offers its members. If unions can’t guarantee their members health insurance, better working conditions, and better pay, why would anyone join them — or pay union dues? The unions must either get militant or prepare to fade into irrelevance completely.

But the current labor leadership is largely ossified and decrepit. They are in no position or state of mind to do this. So who will? Insofar as unions achieved their greatest strength through rank-and-file action, that rank-and-file action was instigated and lead through militant leaders. A militant minority of workers has been and will be the catalyst for the sort of collective action which gets results in the short term and fosters strong organization in the long term. It is high time, then, that the newly resurgent left considers the advice of Erik Forman to radicalize the unions they already belong to or organize new unions in currently unorganized workplaces. Unless we are prepared to involve ourselves and instigate workplace militancy, it is all but certain that organized labor will remain pacifistic in relation to employers and continue their long retreat.

Unions are thus at a crossroads. They are left with two options: They can carry on with their current strategy of making opportunistic deals with whichever party happens to be in power at the time, or they can take radical, direct action. Labor’s past shows that relying on establishment politicians to safeguard their interests has only resulted in letdowns, setbacks, and a shrinking membership. Instead, the unions must choose to engage in militant labor action if they want to protect their collective bargaining rights and retain control over their working conditions and relationships which provide for their means of survival. The unions have nothing to lose but their increasingly anemic contracts. They have everything to gain through direct action and an incredibly angry and active membership. The grit of the rank-and-file has been thoroughly demonstrated by the incredible turnout at pro-union protests in Des Moines and Madison and the militant strikes by the Chicago’s Teachers Union, Verizon workers on the East Coast, Longshoremen on the West, and bodega workers and taxi drivers in New York. By channeling this ardor into direct action with robust demands and led by a militant minority, union workers can reclaim their power and reverse the labor movement’s long retreat. With a rank-and-file strategy, with action taken by and for the workers themselves, organized labor can start to win again.

Patrick Stall is an itinerant Catholic Worker and wage laborer currently traveling the continent in a truck camper. He is a recent Drake graduate, founding member of Des Moines’ Democratic Socialists of America chapter, and has been active as an organizer and participant in the Occupy movement, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, and anti-eviction struggles. He has also written for Jacobin magazine and maintains a travel blog at skampercamper.wordpress.com. He can be reached at stall.patrick [at] gmail [dot] com or by howling obscenities about the capitalist class into the wind. Jade Suganuma is an itinerant Catholic Worker, recent Drake graduate, and wage slave from Grand Island, Nebraska. She helped found the Des Moines DSA chapter and has been an active environmental organizer, especially against the Dakota Access Pipeline. She aspires to never work until wage labor is abolished and spends her days camping with a sloth. She can be reached at jade_2244 [at] hotmail [dot] com or by joining her truck camper convoy.