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The Labor Movement: It’s More than We Bargain for

The battle over labor’s future is heading toward a showdown at the AFL-CIO Convention, beginning Monday July 25th in Chicago. But the confrontation pitting a team of insurgent unions led by the Service Employees International Union against the AFL-CIO establishment is shaping up to be organizationally bloody, but spiritually bloodless. We’re fighting for the heart and soul of the labor movement as though we had neither.

Given the general ho-hum about all things labor, one might say that any news is good news, and most of us progressive labor folks think a shake-up is long overdue. But there’s a nagging unease on all sides about the terms and tenor of the debate. The sound bites never get much beyond “blah, blah, blah, blah, organize, blah blah blah, blah change.” And the skirmishing is all about mathematics: How much money for organizing? How many international unions should there
be? What percentage of dues should go to the Federation?

But the numbers obscure the bigger questions at the heart of our struggle: Organize how? Change how? What kind of labor movement do we envision? How will it make the world more equitable for the most number of people? And what are we willing to sacrifice in order achieve it?

“We sometimes get criticized by members who don’t understand why we have a position on Central America, on abortion, on God knows what,” a labor colleague from a liberal union once told me, “but there are a majority who believe there is a connection to organizing and what we produce for the workers. If the work is just to get a contract, and you don’t have a vision to empower masses of people to change the country, then it will never occur. If the organizer’s vision is too small, the union will be too small.”

The real problem with the current labor debate is not that it is too large, but that it is too small.

Love and War

When I first went to work at SEIU in the early 1970s, in the first wave of baby-boom unionists that includes many of those now bidding for top leadership, the AFL-CIO wore the dull grey suit of business unionism and a cloak of Cold War paranoia. Its leaders nurtured a bureacratic style and a disinterest in new organizing.  Moreover, the institution enthusiastically helped destroy many left-leaning labor leaders in other countries, while maintaining a Soviet-style grip on internal U.S. labor dissent.  Women and minorities were ignored whenever possible, and otherwise treated with condescension and disdain.

But despite all that, we fell in love with the historic mission of organized labor: to demand a fair share of the wealth for the people who do the work;  to protect employees from arbitrary management and harmful treatment through collective action; to put human rights above the protection of property. And, although we often bickered over strategy and tactics, we shared a communal dream: a world in which political democracy and a fair economy walked arm in arm
with racial and gender equity. We knew what we were fighting for. Bread and roses. And labor would lead the way.

That conjoined vision of political, economic, and social justice inspired me through seventeen years as a labor staffer at SEIU, the Screen Actors Guild, and finally, the National Writers Union/UAW, where I still hold my union membership. And, as many of my friends and colleagues who shared that vision inched their way up their union hierarchies, and helped elect reformer John Sweeney to the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, some modest changes took hold; the
Cold War apparatus was largely dismantled, and a more aggressive organizing and political agenda has emerged.

Not enough. Today union-busters are running the U.S. Government and amoral corporate behemoths are ruling the global economy. And despite plenty of talk about organizing and democracy, the results have been insufficient. Labor has continued its downward death spiral from representing one third of the workforce in the 1950s to less than 12 percent today. Not to mention that the airline companies are dumping union pension plans; employers are downgrading health care benefits; and labor and its allies lost the last presidential
election. No wonder SEIU President Andy Stern and the heads of five other unions have called the question on business as usual, demanding a radical overhaul, rather than the modest AFL-CIO makeover proposed by current president Sweeney.

Personally, I’m grateful that this insurgency has mounted a challenge that cannot be buried in the back rooms of a stultifying bureaucracy. Like them, I believe that: (1) doing more of the same is not an option unless we want the same dismal rate of union devolution that we’ve been experiencing for several decades; (2) too many small unions and too little organizing diminish our strength and stymie our agenda; (3) prevailing union culture and strategy are ill-suited to the
realities of our current moment in the global economy; and (4) a brawny labor movement is one heck of a lot better than a puny one.  I even believe that a robust fight can infuse new energy into a languishing institution.

But the bare, brittle bones of contention combined with personal enmities and organizational grudge-fests have my progressive trade union colleagues split into perplexed opposing camps; and the unions who are generally on the liberal side of the labor ledger are
similarly divided. The insurgency is anchored by the forward-looking SEIU and UNITE-HERE (the recent amalgamation of the needle trades with hotel and restaurant workers). They’re partnered with the pallid United Food and Commercial Workers and the historically reactionary tough-guy Laborers, Teamsters, and Carpenters. Meanwhile, traditionally liberal unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and organizing innovators like the Communications Workers (CWA), are amassed on the AFL-CIO team with conservative building trades and the remaining hodgepodge of contentious, mostly shrinking unions.

Underlying the split is the irreversable truth about the changing constituency of labor: the old industrial shop floor that defined American unionism is giving way to a service economy, one that is culturally more female and more diverse. Most (but not all) of the
manufacturing unions — those hardest hit by the global economy –are firmly lined up on the AFL-CIO side, more concerned with retrenchment than expansion; most (but not all) of the unions organizing service workers and new constituencies are with the insurgency.  Yet neither side has quite owned up to the implications. The old unions are in denial, unwilling to accept their shrinking future. The insurgent unions, betting on the new workforce, have little time or empathy to waste on diminishing sectors. Public workers, who are roughly divided into both camps, and threatened with privatization at both federal and local levels, have been largely ignored in the public debate, although their fate has massive implications for the kind of society we become.  In addition, the split of SEIU and UNITE-HERE into one camp and AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers, the Postal Workers, and others into another, has created something of a schism between unions with
significant low wage Latino membership vs. unions with a strong base among African American workers who have achieved a toehold in the middle class through unionized public employment. Rather than forging the kinds of ties that made the election of Mayor Antonio Villaregosa possible in Los Angeles, this unspoken rift only exacerbates existing tensions between the two communities and has erased the voice of African American unionists in particular from the debate.

The Crossroads of Capital and Conscience

These weird political alignments make it difficult for either faction to promulgate an inspiring labor future beyond the imperative to boldly organize where none have gone before.  Torn between the divergent needs and cultures of old and new workers in a rapidly
changing economy, labor has been disinclined to present a counter-vision to the conservative doctrine that deifies free market enterprise and demonizes multiculturalism.

One sticking point is that too many industrial and craft unions have bought into the right’s scenario which exploits rationing based on fear rather than on equity. In a world of migrating and mutating jobs, unions have argued that Americans are more deserving of work than other people across the globe too often phrased as, “those Mexicans” (or “those Chinese” or “those Indians,” depending on industry) are taking away our jobs.” In the past few years, we have also been treated to the sight of AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka
ferociously opposing the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, putting the very short-term fate of a plummeting number of his United Mine Workers ahead of the entire world’s future.  And a colleague recently recited the story of Teamsters and building trades unions in Brooklyn supporting the eradication of 4,000 long-standing light industry jobs in exchange for 400 temporary union construction jobs, razing the small factories to build high-priced condos in their place. Such positions, which pit unions against other progressives, are riddled by fear and ally labor with its own worst enemies.  In
Europe, by contrast, people and their unions generally understand that more taxes can translate into health care, child care, and four week vacations for all.  Workers are often pensioned off and provided for to soften the personal economic consequences of globalization. And they are willing to acknowledge the need for energy conservation and public transportation by paying higher
dollars at the pump.

Labor’s narrow definition of self-interest has also made it slow to confront the right-wing marriage of economic fear with racial enmity, seldom venturing to deconstruct the toxic stew being fed to its desperate members in the heartland. Dealing with inequality is often sacrificed to internal short-term political expedience, separate and less important than economic concerns. My first arrest in 1969 was at a protest of Pittsburgh’s black construction coalition demanding that the building trades integrate their unions; not many years ago, masses of Latino workers organized in Las Vegas only to have existing construction locals balk at admitting them to membership. When I first went to work at SEIU, there were still some
gender-segregated locals, where the rates negotiated for women were lower than for men; today, only six of the forty-nine AFL-CIO executive council members are women. On the insurgent side, the
Laborers, claiming 800,000 members, have ZERO women on their executive board, and the Teamsters have only one woman and one recently-elected African-American among the twenty-four top officers.

There’s been progress, of course. SEIU’s most vibrant campaigns are all about immigrants, people of color, and women claiming their rights to representation and fair wages. However, it’s depressing that there are so few women or people of color in the foreground on either side of the current labor battle. The latest Nation cover says it all: Six white men — the key labor leaders — debate the fate of a labor movement whose primary constituency will be neither white, nor male.

Aligning economic and social fairness is, of course, easier to pontificate about than accomplish. As pollster Stanley Greenberg told a 2004 conference on inequality, voters who care about worker issues of economic inequality are likely to be conservative on issues
like gun control and gay marriage. He recommended shying away from “the culture wars” in order to win the economic ones.  That neatly describes the predicament of trying to move the labor movement in a different direction with allies whose vision may be much narrower, and whose members may include larger numbers of NASCAR dads than urban working moms.

However, as the last presidential election suggests, the duck and cover strategy employed by labor is just about as effective in the face of the right-wing assault as hiding under the desk is for protection from a nuclear blast. If we are truthful, we know that the worst crashes and the greatest injustices occur where the economic and the social converge. Women are disproportionately represented among the poor, women of color disproportionately represented
among poor women. Over the long term, we have discovered, in both union organizing and political campaigns, that what seems politically expedient in the moment can ultimately defeat us, leaving workers with no progressive interpretations for the uncertainties and fears of our daily lives. As one staffer at the AFL puts it, “the right has convinced us that we are taxpayers and consumers rather than community members and workers and they can run their agenda through that lens.”

A Vision Worth Fighting for

Reworking that equation requires a dialogue and a dream. But little money seems earmarked for that purpose by either side. The AFL-CIO squeezed out a visionary education director and has decimated its field services department. And, although the insurgency may
have a popular education plan in its back pocket, it’s not being worn on its sleeve. There’s really no imperative to share history, impart culture, or explore issues; all we see are political and organizing operatives to exhort the troops and whip them into shape. And that’s a lost opportunity. After all, the most notable struggle in recent memory is South Africa, where a bold vision of liberation, education, democracy, and reconciliation went hand in hand with the
acquisition of power. So closely were they intertwined that it’s hard to imagine how one would have succeeded without the other.

So too is it with us. Unless we are able to forge a growing labor community with a working model of equality, an unfashionable sense of communal responsibility, and a process of democratic participation, we cannot win by more than a John Kerry. And although there are days when even that would be a relief, we know it’s not nearly enough.

In the end, most of us harbor the belief that ideas have the power to
transform. That, as Martin Luther King told us, is the arc of history, which, though long, bends toward justice. That the tide will eventually turn. A friend of mine relates:

I was at a meeting in the early ’80s in Santa Cruz. I met a retiree Longshoreman, a life-long union activist and organizer. He was probably close to 80, certainly the oldest guy I’d ever seen with a stud in his ear lobe. “I’ve always tried to remember that, as an organizer, I can’t actually create the wave,” he told me. “I just have to be smart enough to be in a position to catch it. I call it ‘surfboard organizing.’ You have to be in the right place to take advantage of new momentum when it occurs, and catch the wave when it surges.”

Looking into the middle distance, we can perhaps see that new wave of union evolution, gathering strength. Its predominant face is of color, and female. It is Spanish/English bilingual and capable in many languages. It is predicated on dignity, power, and living wages for service work — our new industrial shop floor — with an international structure, a non-imperialist culture, and worldwide standards for safety, health, and environmental integrity. And I like to think that, despite the current furor, most of us are eager to catch it, bending the arc of history toward justice.

For me, that means a world in which we all can live in dignity, mutual respect, and peace, sharing equitably in both resources and decision-making — entitled to good air, food and water, housing, and healthcare from birth to death; a world in which we can grow to our full potential through education and work — free to think, create, play, free to worship or not, free to sing what we want, and free to love whom we please — provided we cause the least harm to other people, our planet, or our universe; and a world in which we use more consensus than coercion to accomplish these goals and always stretch ourselves to see that others have the same rights and privileges as we do.

We need to restore poetry to our politics, the meaning that strengthens the muscle. Bread and roses. It may be more than we bargain for, but for progressive labor, it’s the real deal.


Kim Fellner is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. She
lives in Washington, DC.


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