Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
July 27, 2012

Is Labor Too Small To Matter?
In an editorial entitled
What Choice In 2012?, Against the Current concludes,

“At this point, the campaigns of the Green Party and other potential alternatives to the capitalist parties haven’t yet crystallized. We will follow these with interest as they develop. In any case, with all due recognition of the Occupy movement’s uncertainties and difficulties as it emerges from the winter cold into the election blizzard of 2012, we proclaim with no hesitation: ‘Occupy Is Our Party.’”

Labor Notes director Mark Brenner arrives at a similar stance in his article, Are We at a Tipping Point?

“Despite 16 million members and $10 billion plus in dues revenue, labor’s reach is dwindling. In most industries—even bastions like auto and construction—we don’t control enough of the market to win decent contracts, so we’re not attractive to new members. Are we at a tipping point, where unions are no longer able to play their historical role of creating a shared working-class common sense? Can we still influence conditions for all?”

After reviewing the fiasco of the Wisconsin recall elections Brenner goes on to say,

“We have far to go to return to the days when the labor movement defined the world view of the working class.”

One of the founders of the Labor Notes project, and a long-time activist in the UAW until his recent retirement and relocation to California, Mike Parker was even more blunt in his recent piece, Politics Done Differently. One of the main thrusts of Labor Notes from its founding was fighting for rank-and-file control of our unions. Parker and numerous others played honorable roles in such struggles in the UAW as well as developing useful educational materials for those in other unions. But it sounds like these fighters are beginning to lose confidence in such struggles today. He writes,

“Tragically, despite the educational value of advocating a labor party to carry out this working-class politics, organized labor is now too small for such a project. Its leaders are turned in another direction and isolated from their members.”

Parker acknowledges, “Bitter though we may be, labor can’t turn its back on political action.” What does he envision as a substitute for the “too small” union movement? He too is an avid fan of Occupy.

“What we need is a political movement that unabashedly challenges corporate control over our daily lives. The Occupy movement brought this perspective out from the fringes of American politics.”

Except when following marching orders from Jobs with Justice and/or MoveOn, Occupy in my home town is today hardly visible even on the fringes. A recent attempt at a representative national gathering in Philadelphia of local Occupy groups was much smaller than the Labor Notes Conference in May, and was marked with heated dissension and splits.

The New York City anchor Occupy Wall Street, which does still engage in consistent activity, describes itself,

“Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”

The Cairo Occupy that inspired OWS was saved from being crushed by repressive forces by the intervention of a “small,” semi-legal trade union movement. But the failure of either the Freedom Square occupiers or the unions in Egypt to build a mass party corresponding to their strength in the streets and workplace eventually led to a Hobson’s choice of the military or Muslim Brotherhood in the first election. But that’s another story.

In addition to Occupy, Parker says,

“national and local political efforts should feed off each other. Unfortunately, we are pretty much starting from scratch in both cases. Educational efforts, independent efforts like the Green Party, and struggles within the Democratic Party may all contribute to a national political movement down the road. The other place to start is in local coalitions of labor and community. A workshop at the recent Labor Notes Conference examined some efforts, including the New Lynn project in Massachusetts, the Working Families Party, and an attempt to remake a local Democratic Party in New Jersey.”

And Parker is particularly enthusiastic about a project in which he is now engaged-- “the Richmond Progressive Alliance in California, where a community-labor alliance has reshaped local politics.” A check of the RPA website indicates the main issues currently pushed are keeping WalMart out of Richmond and supporting a tax on sugary beverages which would be dedicated to new athletic fields.

These views are not those of confused political neophytes. I’ve long had great respect for the authors of the three articles cited. That’s what is so disappointing.

Perhaps Parker is restarting from scratch but the Greens have been around for a while and have already had their fifteen minutes of fame with Ralph Nader in 2000. Groups such as the RPA have been a backdrop of California politics since the Sixties. Bogus labor parties like the Working Families Party have been wheeling and dealing under various names in New York since the Thirties. And the broad tent of the Democrats has been sheltering a graveyard for class and social struggles at least since William Jennings Bryan lured the Populists inside.

These authors do make some unassailable points about the downward spiral of union membership, density, and subsequent retreats in bargaining. But these trends have been at work for some time–and were already manifest at the founding of Labor Notes in 1979. I have often made the same points in this column and elsewhere. Like Global Warming, if this decline is not soon reversed we will pass a tipping point from beyond which we will not recover. That is a bitter reality which can be neither ignored or refuted.

But as with Climate Change, the labor movement is not yet beyond the point of no return. It is still possible, in my opinion, for a mobilized rank-and-file to pressure and/or replace their leadership and revive our unions as advocates for the working class as a whole.

We saw a fleeting glimpse of what’s possible with last year’s struggle in Madison before the diversion in to recall disaster. In Ohio a union movement of typical size and density won over the broader working class in a ballot measure that overturned antiunion legislation. The We Are One events of April, 2010 attracted not only participation by hundreds of thousands of union members but many thousands of unorganized sympathizers in the communities. We watched the ILWU battle in Port Longview win wide solidarity from not only unions but other workers cheering them on. We even witnessed union contingents from the ATU and TWU joining climate change activists in mass demonstrations and civil disobedience at the White House against extension of the Keystone Pipeline.

No, our unions are not yet dead or dying. Density may be down but sixteen million members and ten billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at. As I wrote in an article a few months ago, these are the only mass organizations we have. They are essential not only on the job where we still have contracts but are indispensable as well in creating working class politics--and giving clout and guidance to community-based movements such as Occupy, antiwar, civil rights, women’s rights, and around climate change.

I sincerely hope that those who are discouraged after battling decades in the trenches will soon get their mojo back. We need them.

Slowed By the Heat
Some readers have been wondering why it has been almost a fortnight since the last appearance of the Week In Review. The delay isn’t because of any personal health problems nor am I any lazier than normal. Certainly it’s not because there was nothing worth comment.

Like much of North America, Kansas City has been in the grip of a long, brutal excessive heat wave and drought. Our old (1890) house, that is in a constant state of restoration, has central air conditioning that does an excellent job in these extreme conditions–on two of our three floors. But when temperatures hit the triple digits I have to restrict my time in my third floor office to a couple of early-morning hours. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Of course, this inconvenience is nothing compared to the misery, and even deaths, being experienced by the poor without air conditioning--and workers on the job. One heat-related fatality was a Letter Carrier on a route he had long served in suburban Independence.

Mike Elk reminded us in a recent story,

“As high temperature records are broken across the United States, health and public safety advocates are calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to finally issue a rule protecting workers from extreme heat. In 1972, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended a heat standard, but OSHA has still failed to implement it. With global warming likely to make heat related deaths more common, public safety advocates say OSHA must act immediately.”

So far, I’ve been able to keep up with the Monday-Friday news digests on our Labor Advocate Blog

That’s all for this week.

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