Earlier this year, labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky gave a very pessimistic assessment of the prospects for the American labor movement. “Given the current alignment of forces domestically and globally,” he concluded, “I find it hard to conceive of any tactics or broader strategy through which the labor movement might re-establish its former size, place, and power.” Rick Yeselson has written an implicit response. He proposes a “Fortress Unionism” strategy during the period of labor’s stasis and decline, a period he thinks will end only when “the workers themselves militantly signal that they want unions.” Fortress Unionism has five tenets: (1) Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies; (2) Strengthen existing union locals; (3) Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds?; (4) Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations; (5) Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America.
With the possible exception of (5), Fortress Unionism seems like a defeatist strategy that will worsen’s labor’s plight. Jimmy Hoffa would have agreed with Yeselson’s commentator Cato Uticensis: “the answer to ‘what is to be done’ is the same as it ever was: organize and fight.” But perhaps a better (though not a complete) answer for the modern labor movement is provided in the comments by Jefferson Cowie, author of the great 1970s labor history, Stayin’ Alive, who said: “As for the future, one word: immigrants.”