CWA’s Cohen: Can Labor and Allies Create an ‘American Spring?’
Just before Christmas in 1986, Larry Cohen, having just been named organizing director of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) after stunning successes in New Jersey during 10 years as a worker-organizer, confronted a crisis that came to be known as “the Christmas Massacre.”
Workers at a MCI call center in Southfield, Mich., had petitioned for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election to certify CWA as their union. But rather than let them decide whether they wanted a union, as the law promises, or even fight for a “no” vote, as most employers do, MCI instead simply shut down the center and fired 500 workers, bringing each in separately to retrieve personal property.
“I realized the success we had in New Jersey was not really possible on a large scale if we didn’t build a broad movement,” Cohen said. “The system was already broken. It wasn’t going to be fixed by one union. It wasn’t going to be fixed by the labor movement...It was too late, and the fight needed to be about working Americans, not about unions.”
In response to the crises at MCI and other corporations, such as Eastern Airlines, Cohen and other labor and progressive leaders founded Jobs With Justice the next year as a network of labor-community coalitions—now numbering 46 in 24 states—that, most significantly, asked every member to pledge to “be there” in support of someone else’s fight five times over the next year.
Jobs with Justice has evolved since, most recently merging with American Rights At Work, a primarily online group doing research and advocacy for labor organizing rights. Today, its local chapters vary in effectiveness but represent important links to local communities in the broader movement for democracy and economic justice. On Nov. 29, the organization celebrated its 25th anniversary with a tribute to Cohen, its funders and two exemplary organizing campaigns—Justice for Janitors and Justice at Smithfield.
Today, Cohen is president of the CWA and still building coalitions. On Dec. 10 he met in Washington, D.C. with leaders of the NAACP, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and some 70 other progressive groups to convene a “democracy initiative." The still-unnamed group will flex its collective muscle around issues such as campaign finance, voting rights and filibuster reform.
Cohen talked to Working In These Times about lessons from the past quarter century and what he thinks labor and allies must do now.
What did you hope Jobs With Justice would be able to do when you started 25 years ago?
We had three goals then: organizing and bargaining rights, workers’ standard of living, and secure jobs. With hindsight that looks to be a pretty good list, but sadly that list looms larger today than ever, and we find ourselves, in our union at least, arguing that we not only need to build a movement for those issues but for democracy.
We have lower real wages today than we did then, not just union wages—union may be a little better—but for Americans in general. On the issue of job security, we have the least secure jobs in the history of this country—in terms of restructuring, offshoring and outsourcing. And we have the worst organizing and bargaining rights of any democracy. We’re virtually on the same level with Mexico and Colombia.
The good news Jobs With Justice can celebrate is lots of good coalition work, lots of progressive voices like your own over that 25-year period, but sadly by any benchmark, while countries like South Africa and Brazil rose up in that time, we are still going backwards.
What do you think were some of the high points of the work Jobs With Justice did?
The overall high point is that some of the local leaders are selfless people who have done amazing work in their communities, from Oregon to Boston, North and South. The organizing lessons from that work are stellar, and the results made a huge difference in sparking our own bargaining and organizing campaigns, most recently Verizon. But it was not just for our union or just unions, but everything from the partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to great work with Young Dreamers [fighting for immigrant rights] to work on health care reform and leading work on the Employee Free Choice Act and bargaining and organizing rights for 25 years, and building some great coalitions.
You launched the organization as a labor-community coalition to support unionized workers at Eastern Airlines.
That was one of the triggers. The other trigger—for me—was that MCI shut down the Southfield, Michigan call center in the face of an NLRB election.
In the beginning the steering committee was mostly non-labor. There were strong labor components, but anybody could get active in this. It wasn’t like an X-rated movie when you were a kid and couldn’t get in. Much of the labor movement is like that. But anybody who was committed and active could get involved, form a local coalition, and be a leader.
How would you assess the organization’s success, lessons learned, things you would do differently?
The key [lesson from that for] today is partnering, which is what we’re trying to do, to build a movement for democracy—that’s the difference here [from 25 years ago]—and economic justice with 50 million Americans. No one organization is going to lead that [movement], and in fact we need millions of people to organize in all kinds of ways to make that happen.
What we’ve learned is a plan was already underway by the right-wing to, in my view, destroy democracy. Collective bargaining rights were on the front end of that attack. We would now say that the democracy pieces are forerunners. We can’t just hope that they’ll occur. They’re fundamental, about as fundamental as they’ve ever been in the history of this country—getting the money out of politics; money is not speech; corporations are not people. A lot of [the problems with corporate political power] started with union-busting in the ‘40s. Courts looked the other way and said it was free speech rights, and now it has come to haunt the entire political system.
We have the worst Senate rules ever today. We hope a small step will be taken soon in that regard [to change filibuster rules]. Reform [on major issues] has been blocked for 10 years in any meaningful way because of how the Senate operates.We have visions of what people did in the 1960s with civil rights, not realizing that our government doesn’t operate the same way anymore because of this pervasive influence of the super-rich and right-wing.
It seems that Jobs With Justice did not take off as expected. What were the obstacles?
Whatever obstacles there were, I don’t think they’re there now. I think it’s more about how do you encourage people to stand up and fight back. That’s a problem we all face, not just Jobs With Justice. Initially there were some internal [labor movement] issues about creating this kind of internal space and direct action. I don’t think they are there now.
There have been lots of successes, but the real issue is continuing to build new organizational forms that convince people they can be one of millions, not one of thousands. Twenty-five years ago being one of thousands might have been sufficient to win certain fights, but now it has to be millions. The frame is much broader now.
What's your hope for the labor movement going forward, particularly the new democratic coalition you are building with CWA?
There are a lot of benchmarks along the way. The amount of work it will take is monstrous, and I’m pretty humble about the outlook for it.
But more so than twenty-five years ago, [in this new democracy and economic justice movement] there would be a link between the political movement in every forum—not just elections—and the workplaces. And the coalition movement has to come together to resemble more the Arab Spring than anything we’ve experienced.