Meeting Labor’s Moment: On Hamilton Nolan’s “The Hammer”

By Joseph A. McCartinMay 4, 2024

Meeting Labor’s Moment: On Hamilton Nolan’s “The Hammer”

The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor by Hamilton Nolan

RECENTLY WE HAVE witnessed a union upsurge. Starbucks baristas, Trader Joe’s clerks, Wells Fargo bank tellers, Google programmers, and many other groups have been fighting to form unions. Meanwhile, already-unionized workers have been engaging in strikes at a level we haven’t seen in decades. In 2023, the Bureau of Labor Statistics measured 33 work stoppages that involved at least 1,000 workers each, more than six times the number it registered in 2009. Autoworkers, screenwriters, actors, and others hit the streets within the past 12 months to demand higher pay, the end of two-tiered wages, and protections from technological change.

This union revival has been accompanied by a resurgence of labor journalism. A new generation of reporters is stepping up to take the mantle from elders such as Steven Greenhouse, formerly of The New York Times, one of the few prominent reporters on the labor beat during the 1990s. Today, outfits from Bloomberg to Teen Vogue feature first-rate labor reporting.

Hamilton Nolan, author of the new book The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of American Labor, has participated in both labor reporting and the resurgence of labor organizing. The son of 1960s radicals, he did not set out to cover unions. He was attracted to online journalism as a broad “platform from which to yell about who society’s villains are.” But after being hired by the irreverent news and gossip site Gawker in 2008, he developed a distinctive voice covering the Great Recession’s impact on workers and over time evolved into the site’s “de facto labor reporter.” In 2015, Nolan transitioned from the role of observer to that of participant, leading an effort to organize Gawker’s young staff into the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE). Gawker’s staff became the first online journalists to unionize.

Like most labor veterans, Nolan had to overcome setbacks. No sooner did Gawker workers secure their first contract than the company was bankrupted in 2016. The fatal blow was a lawsuit filed by wrestler Hulk Hogan, who claimed damages when Gawker posted a sex tape in which he had appeared. Funded by Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire and right-wing zealot who despised Gawker for its coverage of him, that lawsuit forced the site out of business. Nolan credits the workers’ union contract with preserving the jobs of most Gawker employees as the company was acquired by Univision and then shut down. In the meantime, Gawker’s breakthrough triggered the unionization of other digital media companies, such as HuffPost, Salon, Slate, Vox, and Vice.

The Gawker union fight was transformative for Nolan. He likens it to “finally grasping the right tool after rummaging around in a toolbox for years.” Unions, he came to believe, have the only tool—“the hammer” of collective action—through which working people can “reclaim their rightful share of the nation’s wealth.”

Inspiration and frustration alternately drive Nolan’s narrative. Inspired by the courage and sacrifice of rank-and-file union members and activists, he introduces readers to a rich cast of characters that include Black longshore workers in South Carolina, California’s low-waged childcare providers, the immigrant members of Las Vegas’s powerful Culinary Union, hotel employees in Miami and New Orleans, fast food workers in West Virginia, and Nabisco strikers in Portland, Oregon. He shows how such workers have discovered and learned how to deploy the power of solidarity.

Nolan’s frustrations are directed at a labor movement that he believes is failing the millions of unorganized workers who, in his view, would organize if only unions took the risk of investing in their organization. He fears that the movement is failing to meet its moment. His fears are not groundless. Despite the union victories of 2023, union density dropped last year from 10.1 percent in January to 10 percent by December, a trend Nolan believes will continue unless unions stop waiting for the passage of laws that will make organizing easier. Unions can’t afford to “rest their strategy for revival on their ability to fix something that they have continuously failed to fix for seventy-five years,” he argues. Rather, they must take their fate into their own hands.

In Nolan’s view, “America is a vast, virgin landscape for labor organizing, an enormous array of potentially powerful groups just waiting for someone to invest the time in pulling them together.” Yet after decades of decline, sadly, unions are frozen in a defensive crouch and their leaders have had “neither a plan nor the capacity to organize workers at a large scale, even when conditions were in [their] favor.” Richard Trumka, the mine workers’ leader who rose to the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 2009 and died of a heart attack in 2021, was “a man who, at least, tried” to rouse unions to act, Nolan says. But Nolan is less generous in assessing Trumka’s successor, the first woman to lead the AFL-CIO, Liz Shuler. He sees her as “an unflashy woman who radiates a sense of practicality” but is short on inspiration. He disparages the goal of Shuler’s signature initiative, the Center for Transformational Organizing (CTO), which seeks to organize a million new union members by 2032. He points out that, at that pace, unions will fall further behind the curve in an economy that is expected to generate more than 10 million new jobs during the coming decade.

The problem is less the quality of Shuler’s leadership, Nolan admits, than the structure of the AFL-CIO, a federation traditionally geared more toward protecting the interests of its existing members than evangelizing new ones. Indeed, he is unsparing in his characterization of the federation. After attending its 2022 convention, he concluded that the attending delegates were, “generally speaking, indistinguishable from the crowd at the Mid-Atlantic Insurance Industry Convention.” The AFL-CIO “offers pleasant bureaucracy when we need heroics.” It’s “not bad,” he sighs, “it is just blah.”

Nolan’s critique is not original. In 1967, Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers (UAW) resigned his AFL-CIO vice presidency, accusing the federation of “becoming increasingly the comfortable, complacent custodian of the status quo.” In 2005, Andy Stern, then president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) complained, “Our world has changed, our economy has changed, employers have changed. But the AFL-CIO is not willing to make fundamental change.” In frustration, both Reuther and Stern opted for secession. Reuther’s UAW left the AFL-CIO and formed an ill-fated alliance with the Teamsters called the Alliance for Labor Action. It lasted only three years. Stern led a handful of the AFL-CIO’s largest unions out of the federation in 2005 to form a rival group called Change to Win. Within five years, it began unraveling, with most of its affiliates ultimately drifting back into the AFL-CIO.

Nolan wisely avoids calling for a repeat of those secessionist failures. Instead, he pines for a transformative leader who might redeem the federation from within. While he allows that it is “unhealthy for movements to become too invested in the idea of having a savior in human form,” his book quickly puts that thought aside and all but anoints Sara Nelson, the charismatic president of the Association of Flight Attendants, as the one leader who might save labor.

Nelson assumed leadership of her union in 2014 and rocketed to national prominence during the government shutdown in January 2019, when she called for a general strike in support of furloughed federal workers and threatened to keep her members off scheduled flights unless stressed-out air traffic controllers and other federal workers were paid. Days after she spoke out, enough controllers called in sick to freeze traffic in the New York area, which brought the shutdown to a swift end, earning her credit for having productively channeled labor’s anger.

As an indisputably shrewd and nervy leader who considered running for AFL-CIO president after her 2019 turn in the national spotlight, Nelson becomes a what-might-have-been figure in Nolan’s telling. Had she not tripped and fallen while out for a run in July 2021, leading to two hip surgeries and months of rehab, Nolan thinks Nelson might have assembled a coalition of unions that would have allowed her to defeat Shuler for the AFL-CIO presidency at its 2022 convention. “That stumble may have changed the history of the American labor movement,” he writes. A significant chunk of the book focuses on Nelson, extolling her formidable communication skills in contrast to labor’s other leaders; “of all union leaders in America, she gives the most rousing speech,” he observes, while “her passion for the labor movement propels her like a nuclear reactor does a submarine.”

It is understandable why Nolan wants to see in Nelson a figure who might have revitalized the labor movement without splitting it. But how one leader—no matter how charismatic—could single-handedly transform a labor federation that Nolan elsewhere characterizes as little more than “a Kiwanis Club for unions” he does not say. When discussing Nelson, Nolan pines for “an LBJ-style master of power politics bringing recalcitrant unions to heel with a velvet glove over an iron fist,” even though he admits elsewhere in the book that the position of AFL-CIO president has “an explicit lack of actual power to make the member unions do anything.”

By directing so much of The Hammer toward praising Nelson and critiquing Shuler and other labor leaders, Nolan misses a point more vital to labor’s resurgence than which of these talented women would make a better AFL-CIO president. At its most successful, organized labor has always needed leaders as different as Shuler and Nelson to work in tandem, complementing each other’s strengths, because successful labor leadership requires a division of labor, teamwork, and solidarity. Nearly a century ago, the perceptive radical A. J. Muste observed that the union was a unique institution that “seeks to combine within itself two extremely divergent types of social structure, that of an army and that of a democratic town meeting.” Rarely does an army general prove equally adept at leading a town meeting. Thus, John L. Lewis relied on Philip Murray as he launched the CIO in the 1930s; César Chávez leaned on Dolores Huerta as he built the United Farm Workers.

The point is less about who sits in the top-floor office at the AFL-CIO than whether the occupant of that suite is in sync with those leading the fight on the picket lines, and whether both are aligned around a winning strategy. This book is eloquent in its celebration of rank-and-file activism, but it has little to say about what would make for a winning strategy for organized labor in the 21st century. Nolan devotes a scant two pages to summarizing a four-point program he has heard Nelson advocate, but, at least in his recapitulation, it scarcely amounts to a strategic plan that could defeat a power like Amazon. Two years after the Amazon Labor Union’s successful breakthrough at JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, no progress has been made on winning a contract at that facility, nor has that lone victory been replicated. Labor needs strategies capable of forcing powerful entities like Amazon to the table. It has yet to perfect them. And, unfortunately, this book doesn’t shed much light on what they might be.

At crucial moments in organized labor’s history, the Left helped it grasp how capitalism was changing and how it might best be challenged and tamed. The AFL’s founder, Samuel Gompers, thus formulated the ideas that informed 19th-century craft unionism in dialogue with Marxist radicals in 1870s New York, while John L. Lewis turned to socialists and communists for ideas and organizers as he advanced a strategy for unionizing the 1930s mass-production economy. Today, young labor leftists such as Nolan are poised to play a similarly important role in preparing labor to successfully confront 21st-century capitalism, a project upon which the future of the planet arguably depends. But if they are to make the most of that opportunity, they will need strategies that amount to more than the simple injunction to “organize!”—which, in a word, is the distilled message of this book. Organize, yes. Organize, of course! But how, where, when, with whom, against which targets, demanding what, toward what ultimate ends?

Fortunately, there are labor activists giving thought to such questions. Some of the most creative are associated with a movement called Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG), which began among educators in Chicago, Saint Paul, and Los Angeles, but which has begun to spread to other public- and private-sector struggles. BCG’s strategy is premised on the notion that labor must rethink the narrow bounds of collective bargaining as it took shape in the 20th century, expanding its participants, opening up its processes, and revising its purposes in response to the realities of 21st-century neoliberalism.

During the first week of March, activists in Minnesota inspired by the BCG model waged a weeklong series of coordinated strikes and other actions by janitors, park groundskeepers, nursing home and home care workers, laborers, teachers, airport workers, nurses, and their community allies behind the slogan “What could we win together?” By having each other’s backs, they found that their whole was more than the sum of its parts; each group won significant gains, and their collective power was in turn enhanced. In recent years, other activists have used that collective power to organize new workers, such as janitors at Target and other big-box stores. It is this kind of approach that must spread if we hope to take on Amazon, and Nolan would do well to give more attention to such models.

Historically, labor leaders have disliked their Hamilton Nolans. Gompers mocked the pen-wielding radicals of his time as meddlesome “long-haired men and short-haired women.” Pioneering labor scholar Selig Perlman identified hostility to intellectuals as a signature trait of 1920s union culture. But labor’s Hamilton Nolans have played an indispensable role in its history, repeatedly prodding it to lift its gaze toward the horizon, reminding it of its larger mission. Fortunately, Nolan and his generation know that they need the labor movement, warts and all, to realize their dreams of a sustainable, equitable, anti-racist, and democratic future. It is a boon for the movement that so many currently share Nolan’s belief that labor “should be at the center of American politics.” One hopes that today’s cautious unions and young radicals learn how to work together better in the years ahead—for our future may turn on whether they do.

LARB Contributor

Joseph A. McCartin is a professor of history and the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He writes broadly on US labor issues and politics. He is the 2024–26 president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association.


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