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Some Labor Day 2001 Comments

 It’s Still Them and Us

 by Bill Onasch

For most workers Labor Day makes a nice three-day weekend to enable one last fling at summer activities. Every family unit is on their own seeking recreation. Many pile into their cars, or SUVs, and head for the lake to “get away.” Others settle in front of the TV for long sessions of preseason football or MTV videos. You can replace “Labor” with “Independence,” or “Memorial”—it doesn’t much matter what “Day” is responsible for expanded leisure time.

This random dispersal of the working class around major holidays was not always the case. There was a time, within the living memory of some, when workers and their families came together for parades, rallies, picnics, and other such mass participation events. It was a time to both demonstrate and celebrate, an occasion for bonding and boasting, an opportunity for learning as well as eating, drinking, dancing, playing games. It was an affirmation that organized labor was a living, dynamic, participatory movement.

Most areas gave up on organizing such events decades ago. A few places have half-hearted “Labor Day” parades the weekend after Labor Day, choosing not to compete with recreational attractions. This is one of the signs of how most unions have evolved into self-styled “service” institutions—servicing an ever shrinking number—alien to the everyday lives of members and their families.

But for a few, Labor Day is still a traditional time for the labor movement to take stock, review successes and failures over the past year, and to think through what we should do next. Too often these efforts are superficial appeals to stay the course and work a little harder. This year we were pleased to see a serious, substantial and refreshing exchange of views in The Nation. The online edition of this venerable weekly presented an article by Kate Bronfenbrenner, 'Changing to Organize', along with a number of responses to it.

Bronfenbrenner is the director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She is the co-author and editor of several books on current labor issues, including Ravenswood: The Steelworkers' Victory and the Revival of American Labor and Organizing to Win: New Research on Union Strategies. In addition to being a talented researcher and writer she’s also a fighter. Against the advice of some lawyers she refused to turn over research notes on a nursing home workers organizing drive she assisted that the employer had subpoenaed. She ultimately prevailed in a legal showdown and was given the Karen Silkwood Award by the Labor Party for her courage.

The title of Bronfenbrenner’s article is taken from a slogan of the Sweeney slate when they swept into leadership of the AFL-CIO six years ago. While acknowledging some good work that has been done since she gives a sober assessment of where the labor movement stands.

…it is clear that despite all the new initiatives and resources devoted to organizing and all the talk of "changing to organize," American unions are at best standing still. They will need to organize millions, not hundreds of thousands, of workers each year if they are to reverse the tide and begin to regain their influence and power in American society.

Why is this so difficult? Why has it taken so long for new organizing initiatives to bear significant fruit? After spending the past fourteen years conducting a series of studies analyzing the factors contributing to union organizing success, I find the answers to these questions to be painfully obvious. Building capacity for organizing is one thing. Changing the structure, culture and strategy of the large, entrenched, democratic institutions is another.

I’m not sure that I would use the adjective “democratic” without a lot of qualification but I won’t quibble about that. Otherwise she’s spot on. Bronfenbrenner also cautions about ignoring manufacturing industries—where organizing is toughest—while there is competition between unions in the relatively easier service and public sectors.

Sixty years ago, it was organizing in manufacturing that helped build the American labor movement and the American middle class. Today, manufacturing workers have felt the worst effects of globalization, both in declining job security and in deteriorating wages and working conditions. Absent intensive efforts to organize the nation's most mobile and global industries, working conditions will deteriorate even further. If manufacturing is not organized, there will be nothing to stop the race to the bottom in wages, benefits and working conditions for all organized and unorganized workers in all industries.

Bronfenbrenner has some harsh criticism for the methods used by even the most aggressive unions in organizing. 

Too many of these unions, along with the AFL-CIO, have shifted resources into organizing, at the expense of funding for union education departments and programs. Thus, at the very time the labor movement most needs structural and cultural change, it is depleting the funds of the single most effective force for that change--membership and leadership education. Increasingly this has meant that the frontline work of organizing is being done by a flying squadron of new and inexperienced organizing hires, not by member volunteers or rank-and-file leaders within the unit being organized. Instead of building a union from the bottom up, these blitz campaigns often are little more than flash-in-the pan mobilizations that fail to build the sense of ownership and commitment among the rank and file that is necessary to withstand the bosses' anti-union onslaught. 

She concludes, 

The labor movement has made important gains in its effort at changing to organize. Unions are running and winning more campaigns, and winning them in larger units. But they still have a long way to go before they are organizing on the massive scale promised by the new leaders of the AFL-CIO six years ago. It won't be easy. Not only do unions face ever more powerful external opposition from employers and government. There are serious internal obstacles as well--but these, at least, are within their control. The challenge is to move beyond a simple tactical effort to increase numbers, and to engage in the self-reflection and organizational change necessary to reverse the larger pattern of decline. Only then will labor be able to build a social movement powerful enough to take on global capital and win. 

The Nation sent advance copies of Bronfenbrenner’s article to a number of labor leaders and commentators, and published their responses in a Forum. 

Adolph Reed Jr. is a professor of political science on the graduate faculty of the New School University. His most recent book is Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press). He is a member of the interim national council of the Labor Party and an occasional contributor to publications such as The Progressive, Labor Standard, and The Black World Today. His comments included 

Much of the relative success in organizing outside the industrial sector in recent years has resulted from factors that Bronfenbrenner indicates—perhaps chief among them relative immunity from threats of capital flight. However, another source of that success has lain in the extent to which organizing among women and Hispanic and Black workers has been linked, even if only evocatively, to a larger struggle for social justice. Although it is certainly important for union leadership to look more like union membership, that goal is necessary but not sufficient for reinvigorating the labor movement as a broad, working class-based social movement. It must also tie itself to a larger social agenda, and articulate and struggle for a political program that rests on a vision of what public policies would look like if society were governed by and in the interests of the vast majority of people who live in it. Only the labor movement has the resource base to conduct serious national education and mobilization in pursuit of “practical utopias” such as real national healthcare, removal of financial constraint from access to higher education, commitment of federal support for affordable housing and the many other concerns that are felt most acutely by working people, whether they belong to unions or not. This kind of broad fight for social justice could do more to open up organizing opportunities in all sectors than anything else that can be imagined. 

Kim Moody, a founder of Labor Notes, and author of countless articles, books, and pamphlets about labor struggles, had this to say

Only a broad class vision can unite the ever more diverse millions who compose the working class. While most unions point to the growing disparities in income and wealth, however, only a handful dare name the class reality that underlies these trends. For those suffering the daily effects of stagnant or declining incomes, downsized/intensified work and insecure futures, the unions offer no clear alternative vision.

Capital is at war with labor at home and abroad. What is needed in the United States is not simply bigger unions and improved techniques but a labor movement with dynamic unions at its core drawing on many kinds of working-class organizations and communities. To get from here to there requires open debate within the unions. It demands a class identity that recognizes difference, but defines what we hold in common in society and who the enemy is.

Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern, while purporting to agree with the gist of Bronfenbrenner’s article, obviously tried to reply to some of her more stinging criticisms of SEIU style organizing

Our union, now the largest in the AFL-CIO, has boosted the number of workers who join us each year from a rate of 20,000-­30,000 in the mid-1990s to 70,000-­80,000 now--the result of a huge shift in resources at both the national and local levels. We have focused on uniting workers in the three sectors where we represent significant numbers of members--SEIU is the largest healthcare union, the largest building-service union and second-largest public employee union. This year, thousands of janitors who have organized into SEIU from New Jersey to Baltimore have won raises from $5.50 per hour to more than $9 per hour. Thousands of healthcare workers at Catholic Healthcare West, the largest hospital chain in California, have joined us in order to win progress on understaffing and other problems that affect the quality of care.

To take our efforts to the next level, we have started new programs to train hundreds of rank-and-file members and committed young people as organizers. In cooperation with Morehouse College and Cornell University, SEIU has launched an education institute to develop new leaders. Through a variety of initiatives, women and people of color are playing a far greater role in our union at every level.

The piece by Bronfenbrenner and the supportive and elaborative remarks by Reed and Moody, are a breath of fresh air. The fact that Stern, and several others, felt compelled to respond in friendly tones is also a hopeful sign.

And we needed some hopeful signs. The drift of labor leadership has been in the opposite direction over the recent period. We’ve seen too many leaders joining the bosses to collaborate on issues such as Bush’s energy bill, and support to Star Wars. Union pension plans are providing venture capital to employers in their industry. They’re circling the wagons in what will prove a futile attempt to preserve the jobs of their present dues-paying base.

So what do we need to focus on this Labor Day? With the help of the views expressed in The Nation, we need to get back to the basics that worked to create the labor movement.

Our Jurisdiction is the Working Class
The perception of “Them” and “Us” is powerful among humans. Among a diverse working class it can be divisive and the ruling rich have been very adept at promoting division. The boss tries to convince us that Us is the company to be defended against all competitors. Racists say Us are those of the same skin color battling Them who have a hide of a different pigment. Sometimes craft pride degenerates into craft chauvinism with Them, the unskilled or other crafts, taking too big a piece of the pie that rightfully belongs to Us.

American bosses, like the Borg of the Star Trek saga, have worked to assimilate us by obliterating our class identity through their domination of schools, media, and churches. They have done a good job in disguising what the founders of the labor movement more clearly understood—the most important division in our society is along class lines.

There’s Them—those who own and control our economy—and Us—those who do the work. The differences between Them and Us are not family squabbles, nor are they primarily the result of evil intentions or poor communication. They flow from the different material interests of our two classes. We have little in common with our employers; we have everything in common with all who work for employers. If you don’t understand this fundamental truth you will become hopelessly disoriented—as much of our leadership has.

A viable labor movement can not simply be a job trust protecting only its present dues base. Such a narrow view never worked very well and in today’s world is doomed to inevitable failure. Instead we need a movement that uses the power of the organized to fight for our class as a whole, promoting the human spirit of solidarity. Paraphrasing an old Irish proverb we should view a nonunion worker as a member we haven’t signed up yet.

More Than Just Bread and Butter
The “service” oriented union leadership focuses on negotiation and administration of wages, benefits, and working conditions. Those are essential items to be sure, affecting our everyday lives, the main reason why unions are formed. But broader social forces intrude into these workplace arrangements.

What happens when you get into negotiations and the boss says he has to have concessions to “stay competitive?” There have been so many jobs moved to take advantage of cheap labor costs in other countries the employers don’t even have to make direct threats any more—unions are showing self-restraint which has led to wage stagnation.

Nearly a quarter of unionized workers have no health insurance coverage and those of us lucky enough to have it are using more and more of our compensation to pay for it.

What do you do when your company is a major polluter, destroying the environment we’re leaving for our kids, and the boss gives you the choice: support our continued pollution or kiss your job goodbye?

The “service” union leaders, like Borg drones, try to adapt to these challenges within parameters set by the employers.

To beat the “competition”—which is sometimes plants of the same company with workers in the same union—they encourage various cooperation schemes on the shop floor with the aim of increasing productivity—getting more work out of fewer workers. These plans have worked well—for the boss. American workers put in more hours on the job than our counterparts in any other industrialized country.

Many leaders are also One with the employer hive in fighting environmental controls.

Not accepting victory in the Cold War some support the latest in corporate welfare—the return of Star Wars anti-missile missiles.  

A Social Vision Needed
To address these kinds of challenges from outside the workplace we need to do what the CIO did in the Thirties, when much of the industrial union movement was built under very adverse conditions: we have to make the labor movement a social movement as well as putting the bread and butter on the table.

Instead of following the bosses’ Judas Goats, like lambs into the slaughterhouse, we need to ally ourselves with those fighting against globalization, for universal health care, adequate Social Security, protection of the environment.

We need to be advancing constitutional guarantees for the right to a job; transitional programs to retrain and re-employ workers displaced because their employers were polluters; reducing the work week—by law, as many European countries have done—with no reduction in pay; a minimum wage, at least double the present level, that could lift the poorest workers out of poverty.

And we need to more aggressively work to overcome the divisions and discrimination along skin color, ethnic, religious, gender, and age lines.

In short, we need to give American workers a realistic vision of how we can make the world a better place through organization, education, and action as a class that embraces the big majority of society.

Situation Critical—But Not Hopeless
As we know from the experience of Seven-of-Nine, some drones can regain their independence from their hive masters. Resistance is not futile. Workers on the frontlines have never been completely assimilated. Even if they don’t think in broad class terms they usually understand that they have interests that sometimes conflict with those of their own boss.

De-programming the “service” union leaders is more of a challenge but not futile in all cases. As the exchange in The Nation  affirms some progress has been made. We should be encouraged by these developments:


§                     Participation alongside student and environmental activists in protests against Globalization

§                     Support for the rights of immigrant workers and efforts to organize them

§                     A campaign to hang on to what remains of Social Security

§                     Ongoing Labor Party project


If we use The Nation presentation as a starting point for a serious discussion of how to reclaim our basic principles, and give them life through achievable goals, then we will certainly have more to celebrate next Labor Day.

September 1, 2001

Bill Onasch is a bus driver working for the Kansas City ATA, a member, and former Vice-President, of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287. He is webmaster of and also Chair of the Kansas City Local Organizing Committee of the Labor Party.

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