Labor Unions

Repair Job

Eric Reed

On the line: With a tentative settlement in the two-week-long UPS strike reached on Monday, the AFL-CIO claimed “a major victory for working people” in its first major contract negotiations under new leadership.

Big labor is putting the move back in the labor movement

By Todd Gitlin

THURSDAY NIGHT and Friday, Oct. 3 and 4, something rarer than a picture of Dick Morris on the cover of Time magazine is going to happen in New York. Two endangered species are going to see what they can do for each other. Intellectuals of the left, in cahoots with the AFL-CIO leadership, summon one and all to gather at Columbia University in what is billed as a “teach-in with the labor movement.” The conjunction is important. It implies cooperation and equality, not pity.

It’s been less than a year since American labor decided to take the cure, with, of all things, a contested election. It took the AFL-CIO longer than the erstwhile Communist regimes of the Soviet empire–culminating in the ascendancy of John Sweeney, the reformers’ hope. Sweeney and his team are not just talking the talk of organizing the unorganized. They are actually putting up money, $20 million of it, where their rhetoric is, training organizers to organize unions.

Under the rubric of Union Summer, with intended echoes of Mississippi 1964, some 1,000 young people, including a contingent of Santa Rosa Junior College students, took the summer off to set up at factories and offices, doing the hard work of campaigning to make it possible for unions to compete in fair elections. They won some and lost some, but they found out that making society more decent is more than a matter of reading French theorists.

This is the kind of lesson that lasts a lifetime. A career as union organizer might just turn out to be the sort that grows as fast as that of security guard.

Turning the AFL-CIO around, even with a new captain, is like turning a supertanker around. This isn’t the first time the AFL-CIO has talked the talk. As NYU journalism chairman William Serrin reminds us, 50 years ago the CIO put together Operation Dixie to organize Southern workers, and in 1955, the merged labor federation swore it would organize 15 million workers, both times to little avail.

The unions are pushing upstream, which is not impossible but requires a lot of muscle. They are up against global corporations that can blithely reassign production anyplace on the planet. They face outsourcing and downsizing, global competition, steadily fancier machines, and an unfriendly government.

The last is one area where the unions could use public support. They have taken a bath in the public bassinet. Less than 20 years ago, in 1977, almost one quarter of American workers belonged to unions. Today it is only 1 in 6–only 1 in 9 in the private sector. While some would argue that unions are so lean because they’re not mean–that is, militant enough–a more likely explanation is that the game is rigged against them. The National Labor Relations Board, founded to help unions get certified, has served in recent years mainly to block them. When Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981, he sent a resounding message. Strikes have become, usually, losing propositions while company anti-union campaigns get bigger and smarter.

Despite occasional moves, such as, most recently, the minimum wage boost, Bill Clinton, who governed one of the decidedly less unionized states in the country, has never had much time for labor. If there is any union background in his family, he has shut up about it. We know more about his underwear.

Even if it’s not immense, labor has at least begun to draw blood as a stand-up bogeyman for the right. As the AFL-CIO started early, pouring unprecedented sums into congressional races at the start of the year, Republicans went gangbusters with their rhetoric machine. With indignant yelps from the likes of Trent Lott about “big labor,” you’d think the mobsters of yesteryear had come back from their cement bathing suits. Bob Dole’s handlers, no geniuses, seem to think that the teachers’ union makes an opportune target. Over the long run, Republicans show their class colors when it comes to unions.

But labor needs more than to cry foul against pro-business media and politics. It needs to tend to both horns of the dilemma: to stake out big purposes and to win more fights.

When I mentioned this week’s teach-in to a friend of mine, a lifelong partisan of labor, he said, “You know why this is happening now? Labor has fallen so far that students can finally see it as a victim group.” A crack as hopeful as it is cynical, actually, and he has a point. The left-of-center politics of the middle classes is ordinarily knotted up with class guilt about how exotic others are being treated.

Downsized professionals, students, and intellectuals may be coming to understand that the exotic others are themselves, or their cousins and aunts. The biggest unions now include teachers and clericals–and, significantly, large proportions of women and people of color. Unions are, in crucial fact, the major transracial, transethnic, transsexual, transpreference groupings around. Craft unions that cavalierly excluded African-Americans have mostly had to come clean or wither. Mob influence is way down (though union membership participation is also way low).

Those who wearily stare at the limits of identity politics have sorely needed a cross-category federation, an actually existing movement, in which people of various types work together because their common condition matters more than their differences.

Decades have passed since labor was a cause among the chattering classes. In the fabled ’30s, intellectuals rolled up their sleeves, went to Detroit and Alabama, took their lumps, and helped put the movement in labor. In the fabled late ’60s, the farm workers made collegiate hearts beat, and the Maoists of Progressive Labor and other Marxists made occasional pilgrimages to strike picket lines.

But for the most part, the attitude of student radicals was disdain–as in the New York teachers’ strike of 1968-69, with tragic consequences that reverberate to this day. Especially because the AFL-CIO was hotter to subsidize anti-Communist unions in South America than in North Carolina, labor seemed fossilized–at best, a pause more than a cause.

Recently, things have changed a bit on campuses, with Yale’s and Barnard’s strikers getting sizable student support. The deeper challenge will be not just to sign up union members and bring sandwiches to picket lines but to get rusty unions to wheel around and get serious about what to propose as remedies. The days when collective bargaining by itself could make a pass at solving immense social problems are long gone.

Health insurance for all will not result from signing one company contract after another. The unions, with their immense pension funds, have to do more than look upon the economy passively while they fight rearguard battles. They have to get big and smart enough to fight for affirmative investment, child care, steady retraining–not just grouse about NAFTA. They have to convince a skeptical public that they aren’t simply self-protection societies.

From the August 21-27, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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