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Telling Labor's Story

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Like so many things in life, politics is about narrative. About which organization, or candidate, or policy offers the most compelling story. As I see it, the labor movement is trapped inside three tiresome story lines.

There's the sentimental favorite, which many activists (including me) like to tell ourselves: Unions are the folks who brought you the weekend. Organized labor enabled working people to rise from the exploitive depths of the Depression, to beat back the worst ravages of unbridled corporate greed.

There's also the story we hate: Union bosses are corrupt. This is the tale of venal titans who use their near-absolute power to coerce innocent executives and to steal lots of money.

Then there's the third story: Unions are the defenders of inefficiency and the enemies of economic progress. This one includes many stereotypes, from the union carpenter who won't cross jurisdictional lines to screw in a light bulb, to the autoworker whose paycheck nearly wrecked the industry, to the villain du jour: the incompetent schoolteacher who can't be fired.

There is a smidgen of truth to each story. Well, more than a smidgen in the first instance; if unions didn't actually create the middle class, they certainly gave it an enormous boost. But there have also been crooked union leaders -- a fact not diminished by the existence of corporate thieves. And many unions have indeed been slow to adapt to the tectonic shifts in capital and labor markets.

But none of these narratives inspires people to join the labor movement or makes a compelling case that what we do matters at this point in history.

There are tens of thousands of union activists around the country who are doing vital work, empowering millions of Americans to build better lives. And many unions are doing a great job getting these stories out to the public -- presenting real portraits of what working Americans do day to day, and how collective action protects them on the job and helps them provide for their families. What is missing, perhaps, is an overarching narrative that would help convey why unions are not simply a "special interest," but are instead (or, rather, should be) central to the American project.

Let's think about what people want and need, and what moves them. It's not tales of faded glory or heroic defeat. It's about possibility and hope. It's about building the future, not trying to hold ground that cannot be defended.

Beyond these broad rhetorical themes, however, I'm not sure we in the labor movement have entirely figured out how to be essential to the forward progress of the American people. We are so busy fighting battles -- mostly defensive ones -- that it is sometimes difficult to think more deeply about the bigger... well, I was going to say "war," but I'm not sure a war story is what we're after.

We need to think through how a movement of organized working people can be relevant in the age of the digital community. Our union -- the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO -- has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and our electronic activism project is a real success. But just getting people to hit the "Like" button or to send a boilerplate email to their representatives in Congress isn't enough to build and sustain an organization with the power to effect change in people's work lives. From an activist perspective, the most successful online communities are the ones that inspire offline action (such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring).

We also need to think about how to organize in the age of the moveable workplace. There are still a lot of factories and hotels and hospitals with relatively stable workforces, but no longer does anyone expect to work for the same company from high school through retirement. Globalization exerts enormous pressure on employers to restructure operations and to relocate production, and technology makes it easier than ever to do these things. I'm not suggesting that we celebrate these developments unequivocally, but we can't pretend they're not real.

So the labor movement's story needs to be meaningful in the world of swift digital communication and contingent work arrangements. It cannot be based on the premise that most people work for large employers that are sufficiently rooted in American soil to remain committed to American workers. Labor's story must inspire people to organize in ways that can have concrete effects on how they work, on how employment is integrated into their lives. In my view, it should go beyond wage issues and offer members a sense of community, of professional identity. This is what entertainment unions like the WGAE offer, and there is no reason why other unions cannot also be places for people to come together with others who face similar workplace and work-life issues, to share experiences and learn skills, to get smarter about what is happening in their industries, to educate one another about how to stay ahead of the curve.

If we start to describe unions as a force not only to resist corporate power, but also to enhance people's work lives, this will resonate. Perhaps it will inspire people to think beyond the old stories and to think of the labor movement as something to join, and not mourn.

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