American Labor & Class
BILL MOYERS: As those conservative protesters were leaving Washington, members of the country's largest body of unions, the AFL-CIO were arriving in Pittsburg for their annual convention. They elected the former coal miner Richard Trumka to be their new President and heard from the man they had worked hard last year to send to the White House.
BARACK OBAMA: Thank you AFL-CIO!
BILL MOYERS: But all is not well with organized labor. Midway through the last century unions represented more than a quarter of America's workforce. That's fallen to about 12 percent today, when earning a living wage couldn't be harder. Just last week the Census Bureau reported that Americans are getting poorer, their median household income suffering the biggest decline since 1991. About 40 million people now live below the poverty line, with the poverty rate at an eleven-year high.
Where is organized labor? Why are unions so impotent when workers are so exploited? That's what I want to know from my next two guests. Bill Fletcher is a long-time labor and community organizer who was once an official of the AFL-CIO He now works for the American Federation of Government Employees, although he is here speaking for himself and not his organization. He is also the co-author of this new book SOLIDARITY DIVIDED: THE CRISIS IN ORGANIZED LABOR AND A NEW PATH TOWARD SOCIAL JUSTICE.
Michael Zweig has been at this table before. He is active in his own union, the United University Professions. He teaches at the state University of New York at Stony Brook, where he also runs the center for study of working class life. His most recent book is this one, WHAT'S CLASS GOT TO DO WITH IT: AMERICAN SOCIETY IN THE 21ST CENTURY. Welcome to both of you.
Bill Fletcher, we just heard in the earlier part of this broadcast, Sam Tanenhaus talk about the death of conservatism. Is it time to write the obituary of organized labor?
BILL FLETCHER: No. Not by no stretch. But organized labor remains in a crisis. And a low point very much of a low point right now. And the question for organized labor is whether or not it actually can become a class movement. A movement of workers. And not simply unions representing people in different workplaces.
Because I think that that speaks to some of the anger that's out there among workers who feel that they're unrepresented. That the society's crushing them. And they're looking for a vehicle. They're looking for someone to be their champion. Someone to channel their anger and if it's not unions, my fear is that these right wing populists are going to just grab onto this.
BILL MOYERS: Well, much of the anger we saw last week in that march on Washington were was came from ordinary people who are upset with what's happening in their own lives. But they're going toward the conservative movement and the Republican Party, not toward the unions.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, who's leading them to the unions? Who's calling them to the labor movement? The problem is that I don't think that the labor movement can successfully organize in particular places without a context of a broad social movement that addresses the power of capital. Not just in the particular workplace, but in the society as a whole. And if there isn't that context of a social workers movement I don't think it's possible to go shop by shop and recover the strength of the labor movement.
BILL MOYERS: So, what's a union for if it can't improve the living standards of ordinary people?
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, it's for improving the living standards of ordinary people. It's certainly for that. But in order to do that, it has to have a broader agenda.
BILL FLETCHER: One of the things that struck me when I interviewed people that were active in the 1930's and '40s is that even if you if you were progressive, even if you weren't in the unions, you had a sense that the union movement or at least a good section of it was supporting progressive causes. That it was there. It was not just about organizing workers at a particular workplace. But that the unions were part of this broad effort of progress.
And the problem that's happened, and it's reflected in the these interesting polls. Where workers will say nonunion workers will say on occasion that the unions are good for their members, but they're not necessarily good for other people. And I feel like when I hear when I hear that, it's an incredible indictment on the kind of unionism that we have.
We have leaders now that are paying more attention to getting access to political leaders or holding hands with the head of Walmart. Rather than actually getting and inspiring workers, irrespective of whether they're our members right now. To engage in a struggle for justice.
BILL MOYERS: Those conservative protestors we saw are not afraid of confrontation. They're willing to use sharp elbows and brass knuckles in fighting for what they believe in. Why isn't labor more confrontational in behalf of those very people, the working people of this country?
BILL FLETCHER: Well, part of it is that there's I know people won't appreciate my saying this. But among many of the leaders, there's really a fear of losing respectability. I mean, you have leaders that have now gained these positions and they're really afraid that if they shake the table too much, that they will be excluded.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: What has happened is that the corporations and the corporate elite have structured what this country is, what's valuable, what's important, how we organize our lives. And labor has not come forth with an alternative set of values.
BILL MOYERS: But why haven't they? Now, that's
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, there I think because we used to have that. And all the labor movement did have that.
BILL MOYERS: Solidarity forever, right?
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, and the labor movement had a very militant, very aggressive stance in the '30s, '40s, '50s that challenged capital. That got tremendous benefits. You know, the labor movement is the people who gave us the weekend. Let's not forget. The labor movement is what…
BILL MOYERS: The eight hour day.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Got us the eight hour day, and the social security, and all the other things that we think are so very important, but are just natural. That came out of a labor movement, but a labor movement that was led by people and was fueled by people who understood that there was antagonism. That there was a battle that they were involved in. This was not just, 'Let's sit down and have lunch and figure out what's the best thing to do for America.' This was, 'Here's a group of people who run the country and run businesses. And they have a certain set of interests. And they do not have our interests at mind at heart. They are not for us.'
BILL MOYERS: For the working people.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: For the working people. We have to be organized and be a contrary force, a counterforce that's a real force. That isn't just a debating society. That doesn't just have resolutions that it passes.
BILL MOYERS: A real force to take on capital
MICHAEL ZWEIG: To take on capital.
BILL MOYERS: And power.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: And power.
BILL MOYERS: And why have they lost that?
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, because they got crushed.
BILL MOYERS: No one.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Because the people who tried to do that. And the people who did do that were leftist. They were people who had a class analysis of society. Many of them were socialists and some of them were communists, but not all. But that sentiment, that understanding of the basic structure of society as divided by class interest. That there's a working class that's a majority of the population in this country. And they have interests. And they have a set of values that that convey those interests. That are very different from the corporations. They're very different from capital.
And if the people who held those views and mobilized the labor movement at an earlier point in our history. Those people were pushed out. And they were pushed out by the labor movement, internally, because there was great division and splits. And so then the labor movement got drawn into an era of cooperation. An era of, "Well, let's all sit down. And we'll all be reasonable. We'll all figure out what to do that's best for America." And it turns out America is not one thing. America is divided by these deep class antagonisms that we are now living with.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, working class has disappeared from the language. I mean, there..
BILL FLETCHER: We're all working.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah?
BILL FLETCHER: See, that's the thing. Palin used working class.
BILL MOYERS: Sarah Palin.
BILL FLETCHER: Sarah Palin used the term working class more than Obama did in the 2008 election. But her notion and those the notion of many other conservatives, when they use the term working class. They're not really talking about the same working class that we're talking about. They're not really talking about Latinos, African Americans, Whites, Asians. They have a certain sort of stereotypical idea of the White worker. But so, they will use that term. And that's the irony of our times. But I want to go back to one thing.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
BILL FLETCHER: I realized this waking up this morning. This is the 60th anniversary of when the Congress of Industrial Organization began a process of purging, wholesale, unions that were led by people on the left. And it is exactly what Mike was talking about. That these purges are came they followed the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. Led to this incredible Cold War witch hunt against anyone to the left of the Attila the Hun.
So that the people that were the most militant, that had the most advanced views on organizing. Who were anti-racist, ended up being pushed out of organ the official organized labor. And were put pushed to the margins in many cases. And in some cases the unions were actually destroyed. The unions that remained in the CIO and then merged with AFL. adopted the view that Michael was describing. They adopted the sense that we had somehow come to peace in our time with capital. That we did have a place at the table. And that if we rocked the boat, outside of an occasional strike, that we will be excluded. We will be no longer relevant. And this purge, we are living with the legacy of that purge of the left.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: But see, this is a process that takes a long time to do. When this began in the 1940s and 1950s with this anti-communist witch hunt. And with this redirection of what labor should be about. There was the nice cop and the nasty cop in that. The nasty cop was the McCarthyite investigations. And the purging of the Left. But the nice cop was the invitation to come in and sit at the table and be reasonable.
BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson. Come now, let us feast together.
BILL MOYERS: He'd say to the President of the National Association of Manufacturing. He would say that to the head of the AFL-CIO
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Over
BILL MOYERS: Under George Meany
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Over when George Meany was proud that he never walked a picket line. And he said so. And then when Lane Kirkland died, who was the President of the AFL-CIO. then you the Wall Street Journal had an obit for him. And under his little picture it said, "Lane Kirkland, anti-communist." That's what the labor movement was known for. It because they were able to push out a certain segment. But then to come in with another kind of leadership. An affirmative statement that "We are going to be cooperating now with the corporations and with the corporate elite. We are going to be like a junior partner at the table."
BILL MOYERS: But do you see any green spouts of confrontation, militancy, defiance growing on the Left, among unions, that we see on the Right?
BILL FLETCHER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Where?
BILL FLETCHER: Well, first of all, I think that the election of Richard Trumka has a great deal of potential. Because
BILL MOYERS: The new president of the AFL-CIO.
BILL FLETCHER: The new president of the
BILL MOYERS: Why?
BILL FLETCHER: Because Trumka comes out of a history of militancy. He you know, in terms of his vision of the United Mine Workers that he led. His emphasis on organizing. His clarity on the nature of the economic crisis that we've been facing. And what he has articulated so far. And all I can say, this is a hope, is the notion that we have to engage in that confrontation that you're describing.
We have to do much more massive organizing. Particularly of the poor, the increasingly poor sections of the working class. So, I think that there's a vision here. And I can't overstate this issue of vision. Because it's not simply the technique of unions putting resources into organizing. People have to feel compelled that there's a vision of success, but a vision of a different kind of country. And indeed, a different kind of world.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: It's also a different understanding of how you do politics and how you exert power. It's one thing to say, "I'm the leader of an organization of eight and a half million workers. I'm the head of the AFL-CIO. We have eight and a half million members in our affiliates." And I'm going to sit down at a table. And I'm going to say, "I have eight and a half million members out there." It's another thing to have eight and a half million members out there, who are in the streets, who are not just sending in letters and not just signing petitions. But who are actively engaged in exercising power, in building power in the streets, in the communities, in the schools.
BILL MOYERS: And we don't see that happening. Why? Why isn't that happening?
MICHAEL ZWEIG: But see, I think that Rich Trumka understands something about the need to do this. And we'll see where this goes now. But, you know, it's hard to change culture.
BILL FLETCHER: Right.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: It's hard to change the way we understand how things should happen.
BILL MOYERS: You began by talking about class. The fact of the matter is there has been a class war for the last 30 years in this country.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: And the working class lost.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: So, if you've been defeated, where do you how do you come back?
BILL FLETCHER: Well, let me give two answers to that. One is that that in large part because of the Cold War witch hunts, actually even using the term class within organized labor.
BILL MOYERS: That's right.
BILL FLETCHER: For up until the mid-1990s led to people being condemned of being communist. I mean, it was absolutely absurd. So, it's the culture and the psyche that Mike is talking about, still infects many of the leaders, unfortunately. But I want to say that people are struggling. But you have the great--
BILL MOYERS: You mean that-- I know people are struggling just to make meet their daily needs. You mean--
BILL FLETCHER: Struggling and succeeding. Workers are fighting back.
BILL MOYERS: Where?
BILL FLETCHER: For example in the Smithfield Plant in…
MICHAEL ZWEIG: In North Carolina.
BILL FLETCHER: In North Carolina.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Tar Heel, North Carolina.
BILL FLETCHER: Right.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Was the biggest pork processing plant in the country.
BILL MOYERS: Mostly Hispanics. They were--
BILL FLETCHER: Black and Latino. And the United Food and Commercial Workers put resources. They had a brilliant strategist who was directing it. And they succeeded. It doesn't get a great deal of attention. The Communication Workers of America--
MICHAEL ZWEIG: It succeeded after 14 years.
BILL FLETCHER: Right.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: But the workers that were fighting for 14 years at Smithfield. Or the Communication Workers of America members in Texas or Mississippi that have been fighting for-- in the public sector for years. These fights are going on. What's missing though is this sense of coherence. That this is not simply a victory at Smithfield. Or a fight that's going on in Knoxville. But that this is a fight for social justice. And that is what--
BILL MOYERS: Meaning a fight for…
BILL FLETCHER: A fight for health care reform. A fight against a racial differentials and health care and education. A fight for housing. The policy towards the cities!
MICHAEL ZWEIG: But see, I think it's more than just a policy list. It's a fight for a different way of being a country. A fight to care for one another.
BILL MOYERS: Well, it used to be a fight--
MICHAEL ZWEIG: A fight to take care of one another.
BILL MOYERS: It used to be a fight to take on capital, right? Labor was a real force in trying to bring to tame the wildness of capital.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Of capital. That's right.
BILL MOYERS: And we've seen what happened over the last few years when capital went wild.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: Without any kind of--
MICHAEL ZWEIG: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: Without labor, can the battle for social justice be fought and won in this country?
MICHAEL ZWEIG: I don't think so. You know, there's this story about the cat that goes and eats the mice at night. You know? And the mice get together and say, "What are we going to do? We have to save ourselves from this evil cat that's eating us up. And one night one mouse says, "I know what we're going to do. We're going to put a bell around the neck of that cat. Right. And when the cat comes, we'll hear the bell, and then we'll all run away and be safe." Great idea. Who will bell the cat? Right? Who's going to put that bell on that cat? Who's going to put the bell on capital in the United States? There's only one force. There's only one set of people who can do that. That's working people. That's the majority of the people in this country.
BILL FLETCHER: And unfortunately, many workers really do believe that they're in this fight alone. That they're being crushed not because of some the larger dynamic of capitalism. They're being crushed because they're not working hard enough. That they have overspent. That they are in too much debt. They're not understanding that the problem is not them. Even if they have problems. The problem is systemic. And this vision needs to be articulated. And it needs to come out of organized labor. To remind people the problem is not them.
We are in a system that is walking over working people. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of working people. And the working people need a voice. And they need a mechanism, as Mike is saying in order to say, "Yes, I'm part of this fight. And I'm prepared to fight for social justice."
BILL MOYERS: So, where are we? Martin Luther King talked about the arc of history bending toward justice. Is the arc of this present moment, bending toward justice?
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, you know President Obama in his campaign talked about the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. And it's long. It takes a long time. The emphasis there, you know, is seven-- what is it? From Seneca Falls in 1848 to the 19th Amendment in 1920 to get women the right to vote. The women's movement was 72 years. So, it takes a long time to get the eight hour day from 1886 in Hay Market to 1938. It's a long time.
So, is it bending towards justice? That's up to us to do. We have to go out there and bend that arc. It doesn't just happen. And the way to bend it is now to understand the importance of class. We have an African American president. That's a great advance for this country. We have an African American on the United States Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas. That's also a great advance for this country. Now the question is: which African American? And that question is a question of class.
Are they going to be an African American that's there to advance the interests of working people? Or are they going to be there to advance the interests of corporations? Which woman is going to be in the White House? Is it going to be Hillary Clinton? Or is it going to be Sarah Palin? Two women, just because they're a woman, that's great that they're there. And a representative of the success of the feminist and the women's movement to get to a position where a country can have that.
But that's not the-now, that's not the full question. Now we have a new question. What woman is going to represent what interest? Is it going to be the interests of working people or the interests of the corporations? And that test is a test of cap-of class?
BILL MOYERS: Do we know where Obama comes down on this?
MICHAEL ZWEIG: It depends where the working class is--
BILL FLETCHER: That's right.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: As an organized force. And Obama himself said, "I can't do this alone." He was campaigning on this progressive agenda and he said, "I cannot do this alone. I need a social movement." You know, that's what we have to push. And if corporate elites are we know they're pushing. And if there isn't any pushback, that's where he's going to go.
BILL FLETCHER: I think that his heart lies with working people. But I think that he believes fundamentally that he has to make sure that capitalism is functioning in a certain way. And that means that he has to pay attention to the corporate elites. And for that reason, what Mike raised is absolutely on the money. That we have to push him and point out to him that an economy should be serving working people.
An economy where you have an announcement that the recession is ending, but we have more than ten percent unemployment, probably between 10 and 20 percent unemployment. And you in addition, you have this structural unemployment in places like Camden or Flint. Where people are never going to work permanent jobs. That's no kind of economy. You know? And we don't need a president that is simply going to pay attention to making sure that the stock market is going up, while the rest of us are going down.
But I want to go back to one thing. I want to say about this arc. I sometimes get attacked, Bill, for being a prophet of doom or something. But which I think is an unfair criticism. But I'm worried. I really am. I think that we really are at one of those critical moments, when that arc could move towards barbarism. Not simply moving in a conservative direction.
When I see people bringing AR-15s to rallies with the President. When I see this insanity behind the Birther Movement. And questions about the President's citizenship. I realize that the strength of the irrationalist right is something that we have to contend with. And that these are people that could bring everything down in ways that could be quite catastrophic. So, I put it more in a different way. My hope is that the arc is moving towards justice. But I think that it will only successfully move there if we push it.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: That's right.
BILL FLETCHER: And that really does come down to what Mike was raising. That we cannot sit back and believe fatalistically in the inevitability of progress. The only thing inevitable is death. What we do will make the fundamental difference. If we push that arc in a certain way, we will have social justice. But we cannot that means among other things with the union movement, breaking with old ways of thinking, old ways of operating. And recognizing that there are people out there that are literally and figuratively dying for leadership, that wish a vehicle to speak for them. That really-- where the message resonates. That's our job.
BILL MOYERS: Bill Fletcher and Michael Zweig, thank you very much for joining me. This has been a very interesting discussion.
BILL FLETCHER: Thank you very much.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Thank you very much.
BILL FLETCHER: It was a pleasure.
BILL MOYERS: That's it for the Journal this week. Remember to log onto our Web site at pbs.org, click on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL. There you can see a web-exclusive essay prompted by those protests in Washington, and you can hear more from the next generation of conservatives, as well as from some of the movement's stalwarts. You'll also be able to find out about the challenges facing the youngest American workers. That's all at pbs.org. I'm Bill Moyers, until next time.