I'm Part of Today's Unions, Ask Me Why
Thanks to Elisabeth Armstrong and Brian Steinberg for discussions on this subject.
In a somewhat recent issue of <Counterpunch> the editors quote a rather obscure AFL-CIO official who is said to have commented that 'grassroots authenticity' is overrated. The editors take this to mean that the 'labor bureaucrats' at 16th Street in Washington are out of touch with, and indeed detractors of, the militancy at the grassroots. This leads the editors to question the authenticity of the changes from above wrought by the election of the Sweeney slate in 1995. There is much merit in viewing the changes with caution, but there is little to be gained by the ritual of denunciation indulged by some figures on the Left. As it stands now, militancy from below ('grassroots authenticity'); is the engine for union democracy, but allies above should not be discounted for this crucial struggle. To dismiss what is snidely called the 'labor bureaucracy' is to discount the value of many allies within the structure whose commitment to union democracy is impeccable. That Richard Bensinger earned 'early retirement' from his job as organizing director of the AFL-CIO is perhaps unfortunate, but this itself provides insufficient grounds for dismissal of the entire organization.
'Flexibility' and Militancy
Fortunately, the folks at <Counterpunch> avoid the trivial position of such as Manuel Castells, that technological changes have rendered the proletariat non-revolutionary (a position first enunciated by Marcuse in his famous 1965 <Praxis> article, where he called the communist parties 'doctors at the bedside of capitalism');. Certainly the end of the Keynesian compromise (demand management) means that the role of labor unions needs to be rethought - as firms take advantage of the practice of 'flexibility' to their advantage, union militancy can mean the transit of certain kinds of firms away from unionized shops. However, vast sections of the economy are not so mobile, such as municipal and service work. This is one reason why unions in these two sectors are now stronger than those in industry (and not for any mystical shift in the general tenor of the economy - industry continues in the US, but not in states with a high union density). From above comes the message to target these sectors of the economy to ensure that union resources are used to their maximum effect. Invigorated Central Labor Councils and the Union City concept allows unions to struggle within specific shops whose wages determine the earnings in a region. To revitalize labor culture, the AFL-CIO's concept of 'street heat' is crucial: 'Street Heat is about mobilizing union members and the community around action - a small but effective protest, a mass march and rally, a canvassing of neighborhoods. Through mobilization efforts like these, we can activate the power that exists within our ranks. We let employers and politicians know that working families are watching and ready to respond. We spark a larger movement by inspiring others to join the fight. And after years of being on the defensive, we take the initiative, we restore the right to organize and we revitalize the labor movement' (this is from the AFL-CIO's <Mobilizing to Win> document from 1997). 157 Central Labor Councils are now committed to the Union City concept.
Unions recognize that the threat of 'flexibility' works most effectively with some industries rather than others, and that international cooperation is often an effective deterrent against transnational firms. Thus, in the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1814 ongoing fight against Domino Sugar's Brooklyn plant, the union contacted the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Association which represents the workers of Domino's parent company, Tate & Lyle. The International sent a letter to its affiliates around the world on 25 August to put pressure on Tate & Lyle (who also own the notorious A. E. Staley of Decatur, Ill.). This is one way to deal with 'flexibility,' to urge for more international solidarity. That the AFL-CIO of Sweeney refused its CIA subsidy of $10 million is a mark of its renewed commitment to genuine internationalism. A second way to deal with 'flexibility' is to study the shifts in the economy, to learn how to build workers' power in this new context, and to provide certain work services in the interim (such as the National Labor College). In Seattle, computer software workers created WashTech last year as an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America. The goal of WashTech is to visit the problem of temporary work within the industry - a sign that labor is aware of the shifts in the economy. Few intellectuals have answers to the problems of 'flexibility,' but we do seem to make a career of mocking the trials of labor in this conjuncture. The concept of 'flexibility' and management's creative use of technology has re-created the work structure in certain fields. The challenge for unions is how to craft militancy in the age of 'flexibility.'
The food service workers at Trinity College (founded 1823), where I teach, are part of HERE Local 217. They are in the midst of their first contract renegotiations, one that is not coming easy from Sodexho-Marriot. As part of the fight, the Faculty Labor Action Committee circulated a petition among the 160 faculty and collected 105 signatures within a week. The Student Labor Action Committee did much the same, and many staff members expressed their sympathy for and/or solidarity with the workers. The culture on the campus has been decisively altered by the presence of a workforce that is at once proud to be in a union and not entirely distraught by its working conditions. This struggle, in many ways, would not have occurred without the renewed pledge to organize workers from the 'labor bureaucracy.' In previous years, so many union organizers waited for workers to call them for a card count; now the organizers hustle to see what struggle they might insert themselves into. The militant (mainly immigrant) workers and the Sweeney slate rewrote the history of Local 217.
The union, further, cannot afford to remain immune from the total struggle of the workers. Take HERE's Local 2 in San Francisco whose drive to organize Park 55 Hotel was aided by AIDS activists because the union negotiated the first AIDS disability benefits in the country. 'We have a pretty extensive community support plan,' reports Lisa Jacques of the Local. 'We go out with the workers and speak to local organizations about our campaign and how it fits in with our community struggles. We commit to joining other people's events. We can't just expect people to show up for our events without us contributing to the larger struggle.' In Philadelphia, the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust will use $123 million in pension funds to renovate low-income and moderate-income housing. This is the tenor of the renewed AFL-CIO, one that cannot be entirely measured at 16th Street, but whose dynamic needs to be gauged in such new developments on the ground (if I had more room I'd elaborate upon the Campaign for a Sustainable Milwaukee, a labor-community coalition).
From above, Sweeney hired a slew of new directors and deputy directors for the Department of Field Mobilization (1996). In the West, he brought in Mark Splain and Pat Lee (founding member of the radical Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance): if these people had been around earlier the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LAMAP) may have been a true success story (as noted by Tom Gallagher in <Z Magazine,> November 1998). New York's Mary Fears Creighton came to take charge of the Mid-West along with Milwaukee Central Labor Council's Bruce Colburn (also of the New Party, whose views can be gleaned from a notable <Nation> article of 18 November 1996). To direct the South, Sweeney hired Kirk Adams (then of SEIU, now Organizing Director) and Ken Johnson, director of the Southern Labor Institute (founded in 1984 by people such as William Lucy of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. The Institute pioneered the Rural Coop Democracy and Development Project). In the East, importantly, we have two well-regarded progressives, Joe Alvarez (previously UNITE's political director) and Merrilee Milstein (once Connecticut's Deputy Secretary of State and militant Vice President of Local 1199, Connecticut). The presence of these veterans as an alternative hub to the power of some recalcitrant Locals is a symbol of the changes from above. To dismiss them cavalierly is to miss a chance to give these progressives the kind of community support so integral to the reconstruction of US Labor. In a recent issue of <New Politics> (vol. 7, no. 2, Winter 1999), Kim Moody argues that we stand before a choice. 'We can tinker at the top telling ourselves all the while that things are getting better in the house of labor. Or we can lend a hand to those who seek a deeper change and are willing to put up with debate, political conflict, an informed rank and file, and the other facets of democracy because they know that ultimately that is where the power of the unions will be found.' I don't see the logic of the binary offered to us. We can do both - fight among the grassroots, the militant rank and file, in the street heats, as well as work to give our allies who work within the ensemble of 16th Street to shift resources the way of militancy.
Prashad Assistant Professor
International Studies 214 McCook
Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106. 860-297-2518.