“Can We Do Anything besides Watch?” Some Ideas for Addressing Labor’s Crisis

Most labor activists with whom I have spoken have had a similar reaction.  Whether one supports positions taken by the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters, et al.; whether one supports the positions advanced by the John Sweeney leadership of the AFL-CIO; or whether one falls into the ‘none of the above’ category, there is this sense of relative powerlessness.  While it is true that this so-called debate has been brought to us in living color via the Internet and the various websites, thus allowing for more commentary than what would have been the case in the past, what has been missing is the sense that those of us beneath the level of president of a national or international union can have any impact on events.

A sense of powerlessness is never positive, even more so in a situation where external enemies aim to annihilate the US trade union movement.  Thus, rather than sit back and watch things unravel, regardless of whether there is an open split or not, leftists and progressive in organized labor must take some steps.

For those leftists and progressives in union or in central labor council leadership positions, the first thing that they can do is to mandate educational programs that help the members think through the issues that confront organized labor.  This does not mean restricting one’s self to only those position papers circulated by the unions.  Rather, it is important to help to create a framework to consider all of the options facing the workers’ movement, including but not limited to proposals discussed in the AFL-CIO debate.

The main point is that the current debate is not the end of a struggle, but in real terms the beginning of badly needed rethinking about the nature and scope of trade unionism in the USA.  What continues to concern me is that most of the leaders of organized labor act as if we are attempting to rebuild a movement in something of a vacuum.  One example immediately comes to mind: the question of the Democratic Party and non-partisanship.

The debate about politics among AFL-CIO affiliates has been superficial at best.  Some leaders say that more resources need to be put into elections in order to guarantee a better environment for workers to join or form unions.  Other leaders say that the AFL-CIO has been too subservient to the Democratic Party and that it is now time to be more bi-partisan.

What is odd in this exchange is that neither side has identified the nature of the political environment in which we live.  The Democratic Party officialdom has been moving the Party to the Right quite actively since the days of Jimmy Carter.  In addition to taking African Americans for granted, the Democratic Party has turned to organized labor as a source of money and volunteers, but precious little input.  The bulk of organized labor has accepted this role with among the most humiliating examples being during the Clinton era when union leaders would regularly meet with the President, and receive little in return.  This was compounded by organized labor’s paralysis in November 2000 in the face of the election theft when unions followed the orders of the Gore campaign to remain quiet.  Thus, the notion of simply putting more resources into electoral politics without any sense of a new strategy and set of objectives — not to mention, new forms of organization — is the equivalent of asking that workers get kicked in the rear again.

At the same time the notion of bi-partisanship has a hollow ring.  Does bi-partisanship mean paying more attention to the Republicans?  Apparently for some in organized labor (and unfortunately in Black America as well), it means embracing the Republicans as a potential alternative to being taken for granted by the Democrats.  This view misses the mark.  The dominant view in the Republican Party is so entirely anti-union and anti-worker that it is only on very particular grounds that one can conceive of even a tactical alliance.  In other words, bi-partisanship is difficult to embrace when one side is ignoring you and the other side is shooting at you.

Can we do anything?  Irrespective of how the current debates in the AFL-CIO turn out, at the local level a different approach toward electoral politics must be developed. Central labor councils, for instance, could co-convene local working people’s conventions where unions and community-based organizations join together to identify the principal issues facing working people and what programmatic direction should be followed.  This can be accompanied by a vast expansion of ‘labor/neighbor’-type programs (that are supposed to engage union members in electoral work in their communities) by the creation of ward and precinct electoral committees.  Such committees might parallel other bodies, but these could serve as a mechanism for working people to address their own issues in the electoral arena rather than being restricted to the role of passive observers.  Such union/community initiatives could also be linked to the identification and development of pro-working people political candidates.

Leftists and progressives cannot restrict ourselves to being objects of the actions of other political forces.  The current debates over the future of organized labor may result in a debacle, they may result in vision, or they may result in mediocrity.  Nevertheless, the renewal of labor — and not just unions — necessitates taking great risks and engaging in experimentation.  If the national leaders of organized labor are currently engaging in the wrong debate and in wrong-headed fashion, then let’s flip the script and demonstrate a different practice.

What do we have to lose?



Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long time leftist labor and international activist.  His writings are widely published in books and periodicals.  He currently serves as the president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, DC-based non-profit educational and advocacy grouping.  This column does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of TransAfrica Forum or any other organization with which the author is associated.