01/03/2013 01:34 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Labor's Story Retold

Lame duck Republicans in Michigan have rewritten a chapter of that state's long and proud labor history, ramming through a "right to work" law that will force unions to represent people who do not pay dues. The transparent goal is to deprive organized labor of resources and to drive wages and benefits down, down, down. Once again, the labor movement, its leaders and its members are hunkered down for a prolonged defensive battle. What went wrong, and how did organized labor lose grip of its narrative?

As the executive director of a union that represents, among others, television, film and broadcast-news writers, I see the labor movement trapped inside three predictable and simplistic story lines, which we must break away from:

  • There's the sentimental favorite that labor activists like to tell: Unions are the folks who brought you the weekend. Organized labor enabled working people to rise from the exploitative depths of the Depression to beat back the worst ravages of unbridled corporate greed.
  • There's also the story organized labor recoils from: corrupt union bosses, labor's equivalent of fat cats, who extort innocent executives, receive cushy salaries and steal from union coffers.
  • The third tired stereotype: unions as the defenders of inefficiency and the enemies of economic growth and progress. This story includes numerous stereotypes -- from the union carpenter who won't cross jurisdictional lines to screw in a light bulb to the latest menace to society: the "incompetent" schoolteacher who cannot be fired.

Whether these old narratives are accurate or not, none is particularly relevant to where labor is today. There has been a dramatic shift in the American economy over the last couple of generations, and as the information economy continues to take hold and grow, unions still have not figured out how to build and harness the power of their members in the digital era. Or how to best communicate their stories in this transformed environment.

Many people still work in big factories and hold onto their jobs for years, but most do not. Corporations have no loyalty to towns or countries or employees -- or, given the rapid advance of technology, no loyalty to the idea of employees at all; robots and computers, after all, cannot organize. This, plus ever-loosened regulations, means that the tools developed by unions in the 1930s and '40s and '50s are not nearly as effective as they once were.

Labor must think about what people want and need, and about what moves them to action. Tales of faded glory or heroic defeat are not enough. We must talk about possibility and hope, about building the future, not about trying to hold ground that can't be defended.

Fundamentally, what unions are about is work -- ensuring that work is properly valued, that people have the most fulfilling and productive work lives possible. The labor movement stands for the proposition that, through their work, people contribute to the welfare of the country and of their family and neighborhoods. We believe in the fundamental dignity and importance of labor. More concretely, unions can (and do) enhance their members' skills; help them develop rewarding careers; make workplaces safe for people to earn a living without risking life and health. By joining together in a revitalized labor movement, people can build work lives that offer more opportunity to be creative and productive, and that are a source of pride and accomplishment rather than stress and uncertainty. And unions can (and do) represent people who move from job to job.

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 of getting these stories out to the public -- presenting real portraits of what working Americans do day to day, and demonstrating how collective action protects them on the job and helps them provide for their families.

From a Writers Guild perspective, what is missing is an overarching narrative that would help convey why unions are not simply a "special interest" but instead are (or, rather, should be) central to the American project.

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 simply 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 (like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring).

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 and 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 consider the labor movement as something to join, and not mourn.