The following talk was given to a conference held in Pittsburgh last Fall. Bill Fletcher Jr is Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO, overseeing the labor federation’s Departments of Education, Civil and Human Rights, Field Mobilization, Safety and Health, the Working Women’s Department, the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, and its National Labor College. Reprinted from the Spring, 2000 edition of Labor Standard.


Tasks for a Revitalized Union Movement

by Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Good evening and thank you very much for inviting me to speak with you today.

We live in a paradoxical situation. Consider for a moment. We have a polarization of wealth in the USA, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1920s. We have the production of jobs which few people relish since many of them are part-time or temporary, but are creating a rather tight job market. We have seen 25 years of a declining or stagnating living standard, which has only turned around recently with the tight job market. We now have a stock market in flux and anyone’s guess as to what will happen.

Yet despite both the good and bad economic times the trade union movement—irrespective of real excitement and promise—has not yet taken off as a mass upsurge. Don’t get me wrong. We have, at least for now, stopped the decline in members and there has been some growth in absolute numbers. The trade union movement is getting far more press attention than at any point in the last 20 years. And there is a growing favorability rating for trade unions. But what we have not seen is the type of dramatic growth which one witnessed in earlier periods, such as, with the Knights of Labor in the 1870s and 1880s; the CIO in the 1930s and early 1940s; the public sector unions in the 1960s and early 1970s. We have witnessed energy and dynamism from countless organizers. We have witnessed important victories such as the Steelworkers at Ravenswood; the Teamsters with UPS; and the UAW in ‘98. We have seen important organizing victories, such as SEIU’s homecare organizing in Los Angeles which brought into the union movement more than 70,000 workers. Yet this has not translated into what can be described as a mass upsurge.

I am not going to spout platitudes about how victory is inevitable, or how truth, justice and the “American way” are on our side, because the reality is that while truth may be on our side, there is little justice in the American way, and the reality is that victory is never inevitable.

So, let’s look at our situation and consider a few points. Mass movements, and specifically mass upsurges, are never planned events. If one looks at one of the premier examples from our times, that is the Civil Rights Movement, one can see how matters tend to unfold. First of all, too many histories identify the start of the Civil Rights Movement with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955–56. Second, these histories make it all appear — and this may sound like a contradiction — that this was all spontaneous.

The Civil Rights Movement, first of all, represented the accumulation of struggles for African-American freedom which, I would argue, go back to the end of the Garvey Movement and the struggle of African-Americans in the 1930s. It involved the struggles during the Depression concerning the New Deal and its impact — or lack there of — on African-Americans; the work of several CIO unions in opposing racial discrimination in the workforce; struggles during World War II which ultimately led to the desegregation of the military; the March on Washington Movement; the National Negro Congress; the Congress of Racial Equality; the Supreme Court case of Steele v Louisville R.R, the activities of the Communist Party and other Leftists in the fight for equality; the growth and suppression of the National Negro Labor Council …I could go on and on… but I think that you see my point. The Civil Rights Movement — that is the events which we associate with the period from roughly 1955 until 1973 — did not come out of nowhere. They were the result of various struggles and efforts taken by countless organizations and individuals, often in relative isolation.

My second point is that conscious action was critical, at each stage, in advancing the movement, but one could never predict the outcome of that conscious action. Let me give you an example. Popular mythology says that on a particular day in December 1955, one Rosa Parks got on a bus and got tired. She refused to move when asked to and thus the movement took off. This is entirely false. Rosa Parks was part of an organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association, one of whose leaders was one E.D. Nixon, a trade union leader from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The MIA had been looking for a way to demonstrate against and overturn the segregation of transportation facilities and Rosa Parks — an activist who had attended trainings at the Highlander Educational Center in Tennessee — happened to be someone who was willing to take the plunge. There had been earlier examples of civil disobedience in the bus system of Montgomery, but those examples did not catch on for a variety of reasons. Rosa Parks’ action did. She was no victim nor an accident. She was an activist. And, neither she nor the MIA, nor the relatively unknown new, young minister, Martin Luther King, had any idea how this incident would unfold.

So, drawing from this, let me make these points. The creation of any upsurge is the result of activities where those involved have no way of predicting the outcome. The activities may help to lay the foundation for a massive upsurge, or they may result in heroic activity which does not translate into anything (there are many historical examples of this, such as with the IWW in some of their campaigns). But, second, one cannot then turn to fatalism and say “…what will be, will be…” since it is the conscious activity of the activists and the masses who follow them which helps to advance the conditions, leading to a social explosion.

When we look at the trade union movement, though, we have to consider some other issues when one thinks about its resurgence or transformation. The rise of any movement is often tied to the existence of other movements. In other words, a social upsurge does not happen in isolation. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, helped to inspire the anti–Vietnam War movement, but the two movements interacted and helped to fuel other social explosions. The rise of the CIO in the 1930s took place in the context of the rise of fascism world-wide, and the international united front which was emerging to counter it. It took place in the context of a massive Depression, as well as the transformation of the African-American movement.

Thus, when we think about the reawakening of the trade union movement, it is impossible, or I should say, it is fool-hardy to think of it in isolation from other social movements and other domestic and international events. Part of what seems to happen, during periods of upsurge, is that masses of people (never the majority, but huge numbers, capable of shaping opinions and reality) recognize that existing conditions can no longer continue and that something must be done. In that context they begin looking for a variety of forms of expression for their outrage, and for their hope.

I should say something about this thing called “hope.” Many people looked skeptically, if not cynically, when Jesse Jackson coined the slogan “Keep Hope Alive,” but I think that a critical point was missed. Without ‘hope’ people are almost incapable of heroic action. That “hope” may be based on a vision — without a vision the people will perish — or it might be based on faith, or it might be based on some sort of historical analysis, but the hope lays the foundation for people to take remarkable steps forward.

So, what is this all to say, besides the fact that I love to speak about history? We, meaning the collective we of trade unionists, need to rethink trade unions and trade unionism. There are many labor leaders who think about the re-emergence of trade unionism the way that one would think about filling a balloon. You have the balloon and you simply pump air into it. In time the balloon grows, but it is always the same balloon.

What history teaches us is that mass upsurges have the potential to transform or render irrelevant institutions and bring into being or come to represent new social movements. Mass upsurges do not accommodate themselves to that which exists. Existing institutions may be able to help to shape (and be reshaped by) these movements, but they do not simply become the receptacles for the movements.

This point is critical when we think about where we are at. It is very likely that as long as there is the capitalist system, there will be resistance and organization by the working class. There are countless historical examples from the USA and elsewhere to support that conclusion. What we cannot say, however, is whether the movement which we currently think of as organized labor will survive in its current form. There have been a variety of forms of labor organization throughout US history going back to slave insurrections, municipal labor parties, the Knights of Labor, the IWW, the AFL, the CIO… There have been independent unions and associations, all of which have reflected varying degrees of working class consciousness and organization. There is nothing, and I repeat nothing which guarantees that the current form of organization which we have will continue much into the 21st century. If this depresses you it is not intended to do so, nor should it. It is to say that we must look at the trade union movement as the catalyst for the development of a labor movement in the USA. It means that the work which we currently do is actually aimed at laying the foundation for the altering of class relations in the USA, principally through the changing class consciousness and organization of the U.S. working class. This is a mighty task and it necessitates a profound commitment to labor education, organizing the unorganized, and the transformation of our unions into truly fighting organizations which embrace diversity and lock arms with other social movements. The objective of this work is nothing short of the creation of a social bloc of forces capable of changing the politics and economics of the USA.

So, what does this mean for the everyday trade unionist? Let me suggest a few things:

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Let me bring this to a close with a final thought. We have in front of us the task of organizing at least 20 million workers if we want to achieve at least the same percentage of the workforce unions represented in 1955. 20 million workers! In order to do this we will be unable to operate on the same basis upon which we are currently operating. Usually in union audiences we discuss that this means that the unions need to shift resources and concentrate on organizing. This is all true, but I would argue that this is insufficient.

In order to organize 20 million workers we must change the climate in this country. That is more than advancing the right to organize. It is about social turmoil. It is about masses of people saying in chorus that they are as mad as hell and will not take it any more. It is about masses of people believing that there is a future which they can achieve, a bright future for themselves and their families. To create this climate we need more than audacious organizers, though we desperately need them. We need more than more money into organizing, though we desperately need that as well.

We need action, movement and creative thought on so many different levels. In this sense, when one talks about an injury to one is an injury to all, it is not rhetoric. Indeed, I would argue that it truly represents the key to the future of trade unions and will determine whether we can actually rebuild a labor movement in the USA. I am confident that with the rising of new leadership and the audacity which it takes to stand up to corporate America, we can indeed make the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” a reality which comes to be gripped by masses of workers and asserted in their own voice.

Thank you.