Richman’s Tell the Bosses We’re Coming provides a valuable discussion of the challenges facing trade unions and offers a range of solutions to be debated, finds John Westmoreland

Shaun Richman, Tell the Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century (Monthly Review Press 2020), 246pp.

Shaun Richman has been a US labour organiser for much of his working life. He is currently the Director of the School of Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College. Tell the Bosses We’re Coming draws on Richman’s decades of experience as a union organiser. The purpose of his book is to answer the question: why, in an era of rampant inequality, increasing protests over questions of social justice, and strikes, does union density continue to decline? After all, the polls show that the vast majority of ordinary Americans believe in the value of trade unions.

Richman is unquestionably on the side of labour against capital. Two considerations prompted him to write the book. Firstly, American labour is caught in the trap of unjust labour laws, state laws and legal precedents that force unions to spend their reserves of energy and cash in a draining, and inevitably unsuccessful, battle to escape legal restrictions. Secondly, the labour unions continue to do what they have always done – rely on the received wisdom of labour leaders past – and watch the crisis of American labour deepen.

Richman offers some solutions. The strapline to the title is, ‘A new action plan for workers in the 21st century.’ In broad terms he tries to offer a way out of the trap of labour law by critiquing the failing practices of trade-union organisers outlined above. The book has not been written for popular consumption. The selection of evidence, and the abstract and technical way that the argument is presented, would suggest the author was writing for aficionados of the US labour movement.

The solutions to the very real problems which Richman identifies seem a little muddled, with the saving grace of a very strong argument for ‘just cause’ campaigning.

Trapped in a legal web

Richman rightly sees the purpose of anti-trade union laws as a largely successful attempt to stifle rank-and-file organisation. Chapter One of the book analyses this. The basis of US trade-union law is Roosevelt’s National Labour Relations Act. The NLRA sought to diminish the violence of labour relations through government agency. The positive effect of the NLRA was that it prompted a wave of unionisation to take place across America, but it allowed the state to have the deciding voice.

The bosses have used the courts to force through subsequent modifications of the NLRA, appealing that the unions have no right to damage their own rights to run their businesses ‘as they damned well please’. The most damaging of these was the 1947 Act known as Taft-Hartley that has served as the legal basis for the employers to whittle away the hard-won gains made by American labour.

The problem confronting unions is that the vast majority of contracts drawn up within union recognition agreements contain no-strike clauses and other binds that prevent unions from taking effective action in defence of pay and conditions. Richman’s conclusion from this analysis is that the unions have to change the way they operate. He uses arguments aimed to shock union organisers. In a section headed ‘Organising won’t save us,’ he argues that the ‘“organise or die” mentality that funds recruitment campaigns may get unions more “bargaining units” but has so far dismally failed to swing the balance of industrial relations to the side of labour’ (p.13).

Changing the game

Through chapters 2-8, Richman explores some new ways of addressing the challenges American trade unions face. Readers who are not familiar with American labour history might struggle with what is a very well researched and detailed approach. Richman rightly wants to ditch some of the tried and failed strategies that have been the meat and drink of trade-union rep schools for decades, in favour of innovative methods generated by the anti-capitalist movement.

The solutions that the book offers are not fully thought out, but rightly suggest going beyond normal bargaining structures and fighting on a broader working-class front. This means appealing to communities as well as workplaces; popularising campaign issues; and at the same time developing a dialectical relationship with the Socialist Democrats to keep working-class issues in the public eye.

So Richman talks about creating union structures and approaches for organisers that surround, rather than fully replace, the NLRA bargaining scheme. For example, he advocates the creation of wage boards (trade union led) to determine wage rates on a sectoral basis. This would help expose rogue employers and win a broad argument about ‘an injury to one being an injury to all’, and ‘one out, all out’. This is fine, but wage boards have to be accepted by employers, and the state and judiciary to be effective. This confusion is apparent:

‘It’s important that the industrial labor boards do much more than establish minimum wages. First of all, Congress can do that. (I mean technically they can. Obviously their track record of doing so has been less than stellar)’ (p.121).

Less than stellar indeed! With state functions and oversights gifted to corporations (and their lawyers and accountants) the state is highly unlikely to give any rights to labour that would simultaneously erode the rights of capital.

‘Just cause’ campaigning

One of the strongest arguments in the book, and one that has a great deal of relevance to trade unionists outside the US, is the case for ‘just cause’ campaigning, and to which chapter eight is dedicated. In US labour contracts, unionised workers have usually benefited from a ‘just cause’ clause that offers protections. Non-unionised workers are deemed to be working ‘at will’.

So a unionised worker may not be dismissed without just cause; may not be required to perform non-contracted work without just cause; and so on. ‘At will’ workers are not protected because they have made themselves fully flexible, and can therefore be treated ‘at will’. Richman argues against the usual approach of organisers to ignore the fortunes of ‘at will’ workers because their suffering presents workers with an incentive to join the union and pay their subs. Richman maps out the potential for a nationwide campaign to make ‘just cause’ cover all jobs.

In the USA ‘just cause’ has a political resonance that is understood across classes and states. The argument goes that the constitution offers the employer and the worker equality of rights and protections, until the worker clocks on. Then the exploitation of the worker by the boss is the norm. ‘Just cause’ protections are needed to overcome the democratic deficit workers face, and Richman makes a telling point about how ignoring ‘at will’ suffering is exploited by the union-busting bosses:

‘The fact that most workers could be fired at any time for just about any reason is not driving workers to form unions in hordes. It’s doing the opposite. It is what gives anti-union campaigns of terror – with their pervasive threats of widespread job loss, sprinkled with actual retaliatory terminations – so much of their power. It is, in part, what holds so many workers back from everyday acts of protest on the job’ (pp.129-30).

A joined up ‘Just cause’ union campaign would unite workers around opposing discriminatory practices against minority workers and would give unions their important role in campaigning against the democratic deficit and authoritarianism that neoliberalism encourages.

Tell the Bosses We’re Coming is not an easy read, but there are many valid arguments in its pages. I would strongly recommend the book to trade-union reps and organisers who will share the concerns expressed by Shaun Richman, and will no doubt wish to ponder his solutions. The book would benefit from being set within a broader analysis about how neoliberalism has impacted workers’ lives and organisations, and that would point, in turn, to the need to win the working class to the need for system change. The organisational initiatives we need should be subordinated to the politics of change.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.