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On this 125th Labor Day, there’s good news for our side:

winning-kid

The statistics recently shared by the AFL-CIO are pretty good:

  • 48% of unorganized Americans would join a union if they could. If you add the ones that already have a union, we’re a majority!
  • 262,000 new members joined last year
  • Union approval is at 62%, an all-time high

And you can add some local things that are impressive:

  • The Dallas Labor Day Breakfast has already sold more tickets than ever
  • The Dallas AFL-CIO has more staff and more participation than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been watching for a long, long time
  • The Dallas AFL-CIO is playing a central role in several critical coalitions
  • My own local union has about 375 new members!

Look at the Trend

To really understand anything, don’t just look at what it is. Look at what it was, and look at what it is becoming. If you go back to the period between 1947 and 1995, you’ll see an American labor movement that was conservative, timid, and isolated. It was also losing two-thirds of its membership and most of its political clout.

The ice began to break in 1987 when five of the more progressive industrial unions formed Jobs with Justice to consolidate the movement and take new initiatives. In 1992, as part of Jobs with Justice, I attended a special conference on low-wage workers. In 1995, for the first time in 100 years, there was a disruption in the succession of leadership. The outgoing leaders of the AFL-CIO did not get to pick their own successors.

After 1995, things really began to happen. In 1997, they removed the anti-communist clause from their constitution and started trying to work with more people. In 1999, they stopped calling for deportations of immigrants and committed themselves to organizing everybody that works.  Since then they’ve greatly improved their outreach to women, to minorities, to gays, to environmentalists, to retirees, to workers in other nations, and anybody else that might help American working people.

And through that period, from 1995 to now, the progressive leadership from the top has sifted down into the affiliated unions, the Central Labor Councils, the rank and file, and the many other kinds of organizations that can make up a united progressive movement.

We’re Not Done

There’s a lot more to do. Way to many union members still think of themselves as superior because they have better jobs than ordinary Americans. Way too many ordinary Americans still think that the labor movement doesn’t share their interests. Way too many people don’t see the crisis we’re in and don’t see that organizing is the only way out of it. Way too many old habits persist.

But if you think of employers and employees as two different sides of a war, and if you realize that you belong on the employee side, you begin to appreciate the fact that our side is better informed and better organized than ever in American history. The employer side may have the option of destroying the world, that may be in their power to do.

But defeating our side is not one of their options.

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program in Dallas 89.3 FM at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

Does the progressive movement have its leadership today?

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Richard Trumka, President of AFL-CIO

Leadership is everywhere – popping out of our computer screens every time we look! The problem is that they are nearly all self-appointed, untested, and mostly unqualified.

The most popular leaders – Senator Sanders, Senator Warren, Mrs Clinton, etc – all suffer from tunnel vision — a single-minded determination that we will win at the ballot box, while the truth is that democracy keeps shifting away like sand in an hourglass.

Not that elections aren’t critical – but they’re not the only form of struggle. The best leadership available today is the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO.

Not That Labor Leadership Is Perfect

What we really need is a mass workers’ political party beholden only to working families. We don’t have one, and I don’t see one on the immediate horizon. But when it does come, it is most likely to come out of the AFL-CIO.

Here are some of the positive arguments for AFL-CIO leadership of the progressive movement:

  1. Unions have more money than all the tiny little organizations that are begging for contributions every day.
  2. They have physical buildings, meeting places that are long-established in communities. Here where I live, nearly all the progressive groups try to get into the Communications’ Workers Hall, and the AFL-CIO encourages them.
  3. Say what you might against the better-paid union members, they are solidly working class. If you think about it, most of the progressive groups vying for leadership are actually led by preachers and professionals – people in the ideologically uncertain “in between” class.
  4. While the AFL-CIO works hard on elections, they also work hard year-round on lobbying, organizing workers, participating in protests, economic struggle, and organizing mass demonstrations
  5. Since the leadership turnover of 1995, AFL-CIO leadership has affirmatively tried to end its old policy of isolation. For example, they no longer call for deportation of all undocumented immigrants – they call for organizing them. They have active Constituency Groups trying to organize working people as interest groups such as women, Latinos, gays, etc. Some of the better labor leaders are also coming out strong for public presence and improved communications. They also established Working America to incorporate, politically, all American workers whether or not they work under union contracts.
  6. Many unions maintain a relationship with their vast numbers of retirees and, consequently, greatly increase the union’s political clout. Non-union retirees, like non-union workers, are pretty much on their own, and largely helpless, as political entities.
  7. Increasingly, unions are partnering across national lines. It’s not there yet, but it’s on its way to becoming a world movement.
  8. The basic idea of unionization is cooperation of all workers in a workplace, consequently today’s unions tend to be anti-racist, anti-sexist etc. Women in unions, for example, have already largely achieved the American dream of equal pay for equal work.

OK, There’s a Downside

The reasons that union movement leadership isn’t as good as a mass Workers Party could also be listed:

  1. Individual unions, which make up the AFL-CIO and provide its revenue, are defensive organizations with one dominating purpose – to defend their members against their particular employer. Broader social concerns aren’t the main business of union locals nor of their national leaderships. This constraint has less of an influence on labor’s federation, the AFL-CIO, but it is fundamental to understanding the union movement.
  2. As mentioned above, union members tend to make more money than non-union members; consequently, they don’t share exactly the same viewpoints. While many workers dream of making $15/hour someday, some union members are already making $35!
  3. Union contracts are based on seniority. That means that older longer-term workers tend to displace the younger workers. There is almost no other way to keep bosses from applying work rules unfairly, so seniority rules in union contracts. The aging of the union membership is a harmful consequence. “Who has the youth has the future,” goes the saying, and some of America’s unions try hard to cultivate younger leaders, but seniority keeps pushing them out the door!
  4. While the unions fight hard against losing jobs to outsourcing, they have virtually no defense against losing jobs to automation. This was not always true – the CIO (pre-1955) always fought for shorter working hours – but it seems to be true now. The reason may be that workers, including union workers, are also consumers. As consumers, they are debt-ridden and addicted to overtime pay. They may be averse to discussing shorter working hours as a social solution.
  5. To someone outside the unions, it may seem strange, but some union leaders tend to want to keep things the way they are rather than embrace change. The reason, believe it or not, is fundamental democracy within the labor movement! The present corps of union leaders were democratically elected by their members just the way things are. Any change, especially change that involves mobilizing the membership, is change that will “rock the boat” before the next union elections. If the membership undergoes change, how will the next union elections turn out? This has to be on the minds of local union and national union leaders, but is less of a problem for the AFL-CIO federation.
  6. The AFL-CIO, I think intentionally, has no real sense of history. Without an honest history, they tend to ask people to believe the self-serving union histories that exist. In those histories, all labor leaders of the past were heroes who never actually made a mistake.
  7. Unions aren’t intentionally revolutionary. Their revolutionary potential comes from their consistent advocacy for workers’ rights. The AFL-CIO’s anti-capitalism doesn’t come by intentional design, but from the nature of things. Bosses continually accuse union organizers of trying to destroy their own workplaces, but it isn’t true. Unions simply want a better deal for workers within existing workplaces, not a revolutionary overturn. The union struggle, then, might be seen as eternal, with unions always fighting bosses and always wanting to win in the immediate sense, but never wanting a decisive victory.

Summing Up: Stick With the Unions!

AFL-CIO leadership is today the best option for the progressive movement. An actual Workers Party that seeks power would be better, but a true mass Workers Party is more likely to come out of the AFL-CIO than from the imaginations of radical activists, the Democratic Party, or anywhere else. Consequently, those of us seeking progressive leadership should look to join a union, organize a union, join Working America, and/or, at the least, consult with the AFL-CIO for leadership in the progressive movement.

Walter Reuther CIO

Walter Reuther is a pivotal character in labor history

Most union histories say little about the Taft-Hartley law except that unions opposed it, Democratic President Harry Truman vetoed it, and the Republican Congress passed it anyway. It was the axis about which the American labor movement swung from highly progressive and successful into a long downward spiral.

 

The law signaled the end of the cooperation between labor and progressive Democrats that produced such landmark improvements as the National Labor Relations Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, unemployment compensation, workers compensation, and Social Security. It was the first big anti-labor law to pass since 1932. It’s intent was to greatly weaken and isolate organized labor. It worked great!

Taft Hartley hit labor like a tsunami. It destroyed whole unions, many careers, and many lives. Combined with the “Iron Curtain” speech of the previous year, it dovetailed into the witch hunt that sapped American culture for the next decades and is affecting us still. Like a tsunami, though, it also lifted some boats. Opportunists took over the unions.

Communists and socialists had played a major role in building the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Taft Hartley made it illegal for them to serve as union leaders. Some of them disavowed their previous connection, some of them kept their principles but lost their careers, a tiny few held fast and survived, but at great cost.

Devastation

Walter Reuther and the CIO expelled 14 unions for refusing to give in to Taft Hartley. Then they raided them. Only two survived: the United Electrical Workers  (UE) and the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Union (ILWU). Both of them remained vigorous and progressive through the long period of growing isolation of organized labor. Both of them stood up for civil rights and against war when neither was generally popular. Both of them stood up for  solidarity when most unions increasingly adopted “go it alone” as their credo.

Prior to 1947, the CIO was the point of America’s progressive spear. They were internationalist. They pushed hard for improvements in Social Security for all. They demanded national health care for all. They demanded a shortening of the work week for all. After 1947, the union movement forgot the shorter work week, and they accepted company proposals for employer based pensions and health care. Union members continued to get higher salaries, better pensions, and solid health care into the 1970s while the rest of the working class did the best they could.

In 1980, when the employers and the government turned viciously against their old buddies running the union movement, we were largely friendless and almost helpless! Walter Reuther, who was probably the best of the mainstream union leaders, had been killed in 1971, right after protesting Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War. American union leadership didn’t fully adapt to the hostile new situation until 1995 when the AFL-CIO, for the first time in a century, did not let the outgoing leadership pick its replacements.

Turning things around

The new leadership has been turning things around. It’s a hard job, but it’s working. Our days of isolation are over and the sun is shining on organized labor today. Taft Hartley wounded us severely, but not mortally.

Here’s how Eugene Victor Debs once put it: “Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”