Tag Archives: labor movement

Will “Accompanying” Work as an Organizing Principle?

Liberals and progressives have generally seen union and community organizing as the best tools to resist corporate power and provide the working class with a political voice.  But in this era of neoliberalism, these traditional models of organizing have lost their effectiveness.

Unions have continued to lose membership and are fighting among themselves over organizing and politics. Building trades, manufacturing, and public sector unions seem to be going in different directions despite the efforts of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to bring the labor movement together. When direct attacks on labor occur, the labor movement does come together, as we saw in Ohio in 2011. But not always, as in the struggle over collective bargaining in other states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where some unions preferred pragmatic, self-interested politics that led to distrust and divisions.

Community organizing has also suffered, especially from fatigue.  In 2012, Obama’s mobilization efforts were incredibly effective in organizing women and people of color. This was no small deal given the political attacks on and the 2009 collapse of the preeminent community organization, ACORN, which required activists to build new community organizations, especially around working-class issues like housing and income inequality. These new organizations have succeeded in campaigns around vacant properties and the minimum wage, but overall, community organizing  has become episodic, and it wins too seldom.

This is particularly important for the Democratic Party and its base. As Michael Tomasky predicts, the Democrats’ problem will be motivating voters. The Democratic Party is terrified that in the 2014 mid-term elections its base (African-Americans, Latinos, women, and young adults) will not show up and it will be unable to gain new support from the solidly Republican white working class. The result would be decisive Republican Senatorial and Gubernatorial gains that will be as difficult to unwind as the Republican redistricting of the last three years.

Today’s conversations and reevaluations, especially about community and union organizing approaches, have been occurring across the political spectrum, but we should pay particular attention to some ideas emerging from the old New Left.  In a review of two new books by Gar Alperovitz and my Youngstown colleague Staughton Lynd, David Moberg notes that Lynd has attributed the current political environment to the American Left’s inability to build real mass movements that can pressure politicians. As Lynd puts it, “Obama is a liberal, a good human being, and we have failed him.” Like Lynd, many in the progressive community have given up hope for the kind of Labor or Socialist Party that exists in other countries to advocate working-class issues. His solution is to move beyond the single-issue politics of an earlier era.  Instead, we should seek greater participation in representative democracy with distinct moral overtones.

Perhaps one way of understanding Lynd’s ideas is through Pope Francis’ teachings and approaches to poverty. In a world of so much wealth, the Pope sees poverty as a scandal that demands justice and requires us to bear witness. The Pope’s vision is not merely an updating of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a call to action that echoes the ideas of liberation theologians from the Global South.  Lynd echoes the Pope’s sensibility, using the term “accompanying” rather than “witnessing” in thinking about organizing — a term associated with the Pope’s murdered colleague, El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Pope Francis warns that witnessing is not about managing, instructing, or judging (like “legalists, scribes, and hypocrites”) but rather about listening, accepting, and validating others. Real power is gained by being a role model “with that zeal to seek people, heal people, to love people.”  Likewise, Lynd sees accompanying as avoiding didactic approaches and the often situational ethics associated with organizing. Rather, accompanying involves deep and extended community obligations and committing to “equality, listening, and seeking consensus and exemplary action.” This includes the free interchange of ideas and modeling personal and democratic behavior. This moral approach can help local organizations build real pressure to move public opinion. As Timothy Weaver suggested at a recent Urban Studies Association Conference, it is time to move beyond “the dead weight of pragmatism and feasibility.”

Forget parachuting in community organizers who work hard during the election season only to disappear after the results. Forget about the current servicing model of unionism or  “hot shop” union organizing that never builds real union solidarity. Pope Francis and Lynd believe that community and labor organizing begins where you are and embraces a moral approach, not just organizing tactics. It engenders real participation and not just cooperation.

This approach is already being used effectively. The low-wage worker and Wal-Mart campaigns and strikes may have seemed minimal and episodic as workplace actions. But these same actions have had strong community support (that included religious figures and community groups to provide moral authority) as well as worker involvement.  Both locally and nationally, these efforts have been crucial in moving public opinion around inequality and living wages. In Ohio, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative “brings together neighborhood, faith-based and labor groups to build the capacity necessary to create sustainable change in our community.” The MVOC has provided a moral and ethical model for grassroots organizing around economic opportunity, fighting human trafficking, housing and vacant property reform, and food and health care access. This morally-focused model of accompanying has inspired other community organizations statewide, including religious groups such as Ohio Prophetic Voicesand ACTION, various neighborhood associations, and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Lynd’s concept of accompanying as an approach to organizing calls us all to organize where we are, and above all, to assert and sustain strong moral claims to justice, equality, and fairness before we get too quickly to the “pragmatic and feasible.”

John Russo



The Future of Labor Unions and Community Coalitions

Over the last 30 years, the American labor movement has periodically gone through wrenching discussions of its failures to organize new workers and grow its membership. See, for example,  “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions” (February, 1985), “New Voice for American Workers” (June, 1995), and “Change to Win” (July 2005). Almost every time, unions promise to listen to their members and allied non-governmental organizations more carefully and rethink union structures, organizing strategy, alliances, and engagement. In the past, despite the best of intentions, the results — especially in terms of membership growth — turn out to be negligible due to lukewarm leadership support, insufficient resources, and/or poor planning and execution. More importantly here, past strategic plans have left many community groups and political allies feeling betrayed by the process when the labor movement did not fully embrace their issues.

In March, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka called for yet another reevaluation because membership continues to decline and unions have lost political power and relevance. From now until the September 2013 convention, Trumka has asked the labor movement and its supporters to entertain new directions, strategies, and partnerships in the common struggle for social and economic justice. Trumka hopes this reexamination will result in a more sustainable new plan. In speaking to past initiatives and union leadership failures, Trumka says that the AFL-CIO is serious and that the time is over for leadership “bluster or head-in-the-sand insistence that everything is fine.”

But labor’s coalition partners are suspicious of the new initiative, especially community groups with working-class ties. Specifically, many feel that labor/community coalitions remain largely one-sided, primarily serving the interests of labor rather than working-class communities. For example, in the fight against the Ohio anti-union bill SB5 in 2011, community groups loaned labor groups, particularly SEIU, many of their best neighborhood organizers. Despite promises of continuity and reciprocity, SEIU brought the neighborhood organizers to Columbus just three days after the election and announced that they were no longer useful – but they should turn over all their organizing materials to the union. So ended the first experience of many neighborhood organizers with the labor movement. Later, many openly wondered how much union support they would receive for their organizing objectives, such as foreclosures, vacant housing, and human trafficking.

Community groups have to bear part of the blame for such actions. Clearly, since the destruction of ACORN by conservative groups, the rebuilding of sustainable community organization has been episodic, at best. In part, this is because of the difficulty of raising funds locally, which has led to the call for “monetizing organizing efforts.” The result is that community groups and working-class organizers have been forced to chase resources provided by labor unions and foundations, which means their campaigns often coalesce around other people’s issues. Often this has been done under the guise of “capacity building.” But, one might ask, capacity building for whom? While there is always tension around which local or national issues should receive organizing energy and resources, the net effect has been a general decline in grassroots organizing around sustainable neighborhood issues over the last few years. Regardless, community groups are undergoing their own reexamination of issues, structures, and coalitions.

As unions reconsider their futures, what should they consider? While there is no one answer, several key questions should be part of any reexamination.

First, will the organization in the future ask for participation or cooperation from its membership as it develops issues, strategies, and tactics? Participatory models stimulate and involve members in problem solving, group process, and collective action rather than just asking for support.

Second, will the relationship between labor and community groups be transformative or transactional? As Marshall Ganz has suggested, “Transformational” leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. Transactional leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading and operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.”

Third, will new labor and community coalitions be built on a transformative culture of organizing and education that builds skills, capacity, and sustainability among all parties rather than transactional policies and actions that are situational and episodic?

Fourth, will the new labor-community coalitions develop goals and strategies that will build capacity, or will they just develop a series of tactics? Will they be able to go beyond creative tactics that are unsustainable, unlike the Occupy Movement?

Fifth, will the new coalition be based around the values of social and economic justice and reciprocity, not just material advantage and one issue politics? That is, more attention, not just lip service, must be given to injustice, inequality, and discrimination? And will coalition efforts include more direct action and broad public protests?

Finally, will the labor movement develop a real plan to move forward, remembering that hope is not a plan and that any plan needs real resources? This means no unfunded mandates.  Substantial resources must be directed at outside organizing rather than to internal struggles, as we saw recently in California.

Obviously, the stakes are high for the labor community, as the labor movement must change if it is to remain relevant. But can it really change? There are some indications that it can. For example, the AFL-CIO leadership has recently changed its policies regarding immigration. As a result, union activists have joined with pro-immigration allies and become a force at pro-immigration events and the lobbying of Congress.

But questions remain.  Will this round of reform be episodic? Can it change at the local level? The latter will take a commitment to broad-based internal organizing that might involve more change than union leaders can endure. But it could unleash the formidable powers of a rank and file that has been beat down by concessions and anti-union attacks. But now, more than ever, they are ready to fight.

John Russo

Can California Dreaming Remain a Vital Part of the Future of American Labor?

Over the last decades in the most cynical hours in the latest nights of the seediest barrooms and meeting halls where organizers would inevitably gather to cry in their beer and gnash their teeth about the prospects for our movement and the legacy of our generation, we would still perk up our ears and gladden our hearts with hope when we listened to reports of work in Los Angeles.

We would do so with good reason.   Los Angeles had gone from a union free bastion 50 years ago, led by the Los Angeles Times and the world of Chinatown, to the place where the demographics and politics seemed to be coming together to create the shining union city rising like the waves on the Pacific Coast.  The LA MAP (Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project)  had offered a new way to frame and target the work.  The Los Angeles AFL-CIO had seemed to be a model for the future with its own organizing director, research department, and political program.  SEIU’s Justice for Janitors organizing campaign and its victory emboldened the city and the nation.  Immigrant, almost casual drywall workers were changing construction unions.  The largest union elections since the CIO drives enrolled hundreds of thousands of home healthcare workers.  There were organizing drives in hotels and hospitals; old CP organizers had pioneered public sector unionization and many of the locals continued to be progressive; resources were marshaled and spent; the labor movement was robust and confident; and mayors were made and broken.

Some of the romance and hope for the proposition that organizing in California, and especially Los Angeles, would lead the way for resurgence of the labor movement infuses the spirit and premise of Working for Justice: The LA Model of Organizing and Advocacy(Cornell UP, 2011), edited by Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom, and Victor Narro. If many of us did not believe this was true, or at least still possible, why would we give a second thought to a book that avowedly presents itself as offering a Los Angeles “model of organizing and advocacy?”  The book offers well executed case studies of organizing efforts among informal workers, like car washers and taxi drivers, who are among the constituencies that I firmly believe hold our future hopes, if we have any, as well as other essays on the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network (NDLON) worker centers and HERE’s hotel drives that are strong enough that we were proud to reprint them as excerpts in Social Policy magazine.  Having done so, I am unabashedly a fan and advocate of the book as an invaluable learning tool for organizers and any others with an interest in rebuilding the labor movement and its allied trades in related endeavors of social change.  Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom, and Victor Narro’s work here deserves our appreciation and close reading.

Unfortunately one of the book’s challenges is that while the “promise” may be in California, the premise that a model is being built seems overstated.  At the most basic level a model is something that can be replicated by others.  A model could be picked up by energetic community, labor, immigrant, and other organizers and transplanted to other soil outside of Los Angeles and California.  A model must be sustainable over time.  Searching for models in Working for Justice is a treasure hunt at the other end of the rainbow:  we can see the direction to go, but it is pretty clear that we will not find anything once we get there.

This is an issue that is left over from Milkman’s earlier volume, L. A. Story:  Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U. S. Labor Movement (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006) where we were inspired by the similar stories of drywall construction (1992) and janitorial organizing (1990) and the new dawn coming in that California dreamscape brought to us by dramatic strategies by unions like HERE, SEIU, UFCW, and surprisingly even the Carpenters.  Unfortunately, we woke up later, and those stories turned out not to presage the future but to be isolated castles in the darkening sky after all.  In the introduction to Working for Justice the authors indicate that these essays date to that period and gestated until published in this volume.

One almost might read the two books as companion volumes of a sort.  Both speak to a sense of California leading the way.  Milkman’s L.A. Story is different, though, in that it concluded, among other things, that victory came from top to bottom with a model that owed more to the “art of the deal,” than to a sense of a workers’ movement gaining power.  Working for Justice almost seems to be the antidote to that earlier analysis, changing the emphasis from the top tier of union leadership and mechanics to the bottom level of advocates and non-traditional methodology and formations.  Sadly, the case made twice is no truer than the same story told once, regardless of the direction of the analysis, and time has shown that models are still nowhere to be found in either instance.

No sense in quibbling though.  The labor movement needs direction signals badly in our current death spiral, and, arguably, given the turtle shell tendencies of most of institutional labor, we are as likely to find the path to new paradigms in the work of advocates as any others.  Unfortunately, too often communications between union organizers and labor advocates is a one-way conversation, partially because these are not chats among equals sharing a common language given the different definitions of “base” and disparate resources.  Working for Justice tries to force them to sit at the same table and learn.

An underappreciated, yet critical, element of the Los Angeles story and the California dream for labor has rested on two foundations that are now increasingly shaky.  One at the very heart of the California dream, and the one that brought my grandparents there from bankrupt farms in the Dakotas, held that California was the land of riches with money enough for all.  The other hardrock underpinning this structure was the belief that the continued high density of unions in the state would give sufficient political heft and resources to weld something sturdy and unique from the public and private resources of the state.  Seismic change has now crumbled some of these foundations, given the multi-billion dollar financial crisis of the state, the teetering real estate market, and the continued decline of labor density.  The rest of the country outside of a couple of other islands in our stormy seas, just does not look, feel, or operate like this, making “models” even more difficult to duplicate.   Relatively speaking, being an organizer in California has too often been the organizing equivalent of the old saw about George W. Bush having been “born on third base and thinking he has hit a triple,” meaning there were advantages that were just assumed in organizing in California that in other cities and states were past the wildest aspirations.

Where else but in California could we even imagine finding the hope and tragedy of the United Farm Workers Union recounted by Miriam Pawel in The Union of Their Dreams:  Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (Bloomsbury Press, 2009).   When everything was working, it was the stuff of movies, books, and, well, yes, movements.  Politics, charisma, Hollywood, religion, and the American agricultural dreamscape of climate, soil, and vast immigrant labor came together for a moment to win unthinkable victories, benefiting from the liberal politics, alliances, and special circumstances of California.  Few organizers have ever understood the chemistry of combining a mass base constituency with public and political support to leverage economic strength better than Cesar Chavez, as both advocate and organizer.

Yet, Pawel’s chapters on the purges leading to the fatal weakening of the UFW in the often rumored, rarely reported toxic brew of cultural contradictions, new age weirdness, and old fashioned power struggles and personalities, drunk on the dream and unable to resist its fascination even as it grew nightmarish and corrosive, are some of the saddest chapters on organizing any will ever read.   Despite the commonality of all stories of death, even organizational death, Pawel’s tales and those of the advocates, organizers, and leaders she followed in this story are also somehow both deeply human and uniquely Californian.  I would love to have known Eliseo Medina then as he emerged as an energetic, dynamic youngster in the fields!  On the other hand there is no way a non-Californian or someone from any other foreign country can even imagine the UFW experience with Synanon, the former alternative and controversial drug treatment center specializing in group dynamics and behavioral modification, or its impact in those crazy days on Chavez and his lieutenants.   What might seem in California as simply forward and far ahead to the rest of the world was simply far out.

Randy Shaw put the best spin on the hopes for the impact of the UFW on the organizing in California and beyond in his 2008 book, Beyond the Fields:  Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century  (University of California, 2008).  He argued strenuously, if not convincingly, that we should judge the UFW legacy not necessarily for what was left in the field, but more perhaps for the continuum in organizing that came out of so many organizers, boycotters, and others who were attracted to the movement and kept the flame burning.

In the same way, no matter how hard Steve Early tries, his book on the crazy internal conflict between SEIU’s healthcare local unions and their national union in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor:  Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or the Death Throes of the Old? (Haymarket Books, 2011) is also inherently an only-in-California story as well.  His story is the ugly side of the top-down model Milkman observed honestly and somewhat sympathetically in L.A. Story, when some of the giant fabricated locals created by all of the wheeling and dealing began to unravel.  Unfortunately, that story is often submerged as Early struggles, sometimes half-heartedly, to find a balanced perspective in following dissident leader Sal Rosselli with his narrow vision of “contract standards,” who is not as as right as Early would like him to be, versus Andy Stern, then president of SEIU with his equally small program of “McMuffin contracts,” who is not as wrong as Early believes either.  Early is also smitten by his romantic version of the California dream.   He wants a happy ending and concedes that he would have never believed 20 years previously that the future of the labor movement might be on the shoulders of lower waged, home health and home day care workers.

The future of the labor movement, whether anyone likes it or not, might lie precisely in our ability, as argued by Needleman, Bloom, and Narro, to both organize and advocate for just such non-traditional workers as these home based workers, casual laborers, and others.  Who would have imagined that the future of organized labor is with informal workers and new organizing directions that speak to the 21st century and not the great struggles, victories, and defeats of the 20th century?  The many authors of Working for Justice that’s who!

Working for Justice does what we need more books on labor and the labor movement to do:  present ideas, document the cases, and let leaders, members, and organizers see if new models for a new labor movement can be built from the little we now have left as well as the millions standing before us, many of whom work in hybrid jobs in often informal, difficult settings and previously unimaginable situations who desperately need the labor movement.  As Working for Justice points out, it won’t be easy or necessarily successful, and as other books detail, it also will be messy, loud, imperfect, and sometimes heartbreaking, but out of those struggles might just come a new labor movement.  Certainly, that’s worth the fight, and it makes the California story still worth following, even as the fight moves throughout the country and hope springs eternal.

Wade Rathke

Wade Rathke is best known as Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN from 1970-2008, and continues to serve as Chief Organizer of ACORN International working in 13 countries.

Rathke will be speaking at Youngstown State University on Tuesday, March 20, at 7:30 pm, in the Ohio Room at Kilcawley Center.  For more information on his talk, call the Center for Working-Class Studies, 330-941-2978.

Mourning and Organizing

The story has been told, and told, and told again.  A century ago this week, on March 25th, 2011, more than 500 sewing machine operators, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, were working on the 9th floor of the Asch building in New York City, near Washington Square Park.. A fire started on the eighth floor.  By the time the fire reached the 9th floor some workers were able to make it out using the building’s one elevator, while others escaped via one of the building’s stairwells before it collapsed under the weight of hundreds of panicked workers.  But the 9th floor workers who were left behind discovered that the door leading to the Washington Square stairway was locked—a common practice, designed to keep the young seamstresses from stealing factory goods or taking unauthorized breaks.  Trapped in the fire, many workers died in the flames; still others jumped from the 9th floor and died from their injuries.

146 workers died, most of them Jewish and Italian women in their teens and twenties. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, 400,000 New Yorkers, 10% of the city’s residents, assembled to watch the workers’ funeral procession, which took place in a pelting rainstorm.  Moreover, after the fire, city and state representatives went on to pass more than 30 pieces of labor and safety legislation—legislation that could have prevented the Triangle Factory Fire if it had been in place and enforced that day.

As we approach the centennial of the Triangle fire this Friday, the work of hundreds of artists, filmmakers, activists, and historians of the last few years is culminating in a flurry of cultural documents and events.  PBS produced a stunning documentary about the fire that can be seen on their website, and HBO’s documentary, which is also very good, airs on the cable channel this week (beginning March 21).  An entire organization has been created to commemorate the day, the Coalition to Remember the Triangle Fire, which is sponsored by City Lore, a New York City organization that helps to preserve New York’s “living cultural heritage.”

The story of the Triangle Factory Fire itself is so grisly that it is easy to get drawn into the pathos of the story—to be swept away by grief and even a sense of helplessness.  The girls were so young, so vulnerable;  their bosses were so cruel, so profit driven.  And American society, before the accident, was so unfeeling, so ignorant, and so unwilling to regulate the garment industry until it was too late—at least for those 146 workers.

But there are three concrete lessons to take away from this week’s many commemorations—lessons that acknowledge the tragedy of the Triangle Factory Fire, but that give us something to think about, and, perhaps, more importantly, something to do.

The first lesson is a familiar one;  don’t mourn, organize.  If that sounds a little cold, let me explain.  The PBS documentary, Triangle Fire, shows that the fire followed on the heels of two years of concerted union organizing in sweatshops across the city.  The owners of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory were particularly stubborn in their refusal to negotiate with the nascent garment workers union, even though some of the most militant union members were drawn from the Triangle Factory workforce.  The PBS film draws heavily on the work of David Von Drehle, now a Time magazine editor, who wrote Triangle Fire:  the Fire that Changed America in 2003.  In a recent interview he argued that we should not see the post-fire reforms as merely the emotional response of a city to the tragedy of the dead girls:

The reason reform happened was because those workers and their colleagues in the New York factories had begun organizing and had begun voting. They had organized an enormous strike in 1909-1910 and were forming coalitions with wealthy progressive leaders…The way change happens is not by having the best idea or by making the most emotional appeal. The way lasting change happens is by winning the attention of the vote-counting politicians, working the system.  Or as Mother Jones said, organize organize, organize.

The second lesson is related to the first: organize the mourning.  While Drehle is correct that the reforms were won as much by the 1909 picket lines as they were by the fire, the labor movement has kept the memory of the fire alive these last 100 years in order that US labor law not be dragged back to those darker times.  The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) especially, founded in 1900, has masterfully retold many elements of its dramatic history, including the Triangle fire, in stories, songs, films, art exhibits, photographs, printed material, and now in digital forms at the Kheel Center, where the bulk of the unions’ archives are housed.

In 1950 the ILGWU produced With These Hands, a feature film telling the story of the union’s first 50 years.  The film included the narrative of the great 1909 uprising, as well as the Triangle fire.  While some see the film as marred by its amateur production values and its Cold War rebuke of Communism, the film is still a remarkable effort, one of the only successful films of its kind made in the immediate postwar era.  It debuted to great fanfare (though admittedly lukewarm reviews) in 1950 but was then copied and used by ILGWU locals around the country.  After its production, the ILGWU stepped up its use of 16mm film as an organizing and recruiting tool.

Throughout the 1950s the ILGWU continued to produce union culture that was written by and for union members.  The Northeast division wrote a musical history of the union, My Name is Mary Brown, which was also turned into a booklet and a short film.  The ILGWU also produced a bi-weekly newspaper, Justice, which covered national labor news as well as the news of the union; the Triangle fire was frequently commemorated in its pages.  In the 1960s, the union also won PR awards for its use of its photography archive from the early 20th century to show its members, and the nation, what turn-of-the-century sweatshops looked like.

From the end of World War II to the 1970s, the ILGWU union lost US garment jobs as well as prestige;  the union organized sweatshop workers in Puerto Rico, but eventually lost the bulk of its members’ jobs to global capitalism.  Nonetheless, reorganized as UNITE in the 1990s, the garment workers union continued to commemorate, its history.  Today UNITE pays the salary of a researcher who is working to re-catalog and digitize hundreds of linear feet of ILGWU archives at Cornell University’s Kheel Center, bringing some of these centuries old materials into the digital age.

The third lesson is:  mourn the recent past, too.  If we want to follow the example set by the ILGWU, we have our work cut out for us.  According to a 2010 AFL-CIO report there were 5,214 workers killed on the job in the US in 2008 alone.  An estimated additional 50,000 workers died that year of work-related illnesses.  4.6 million injuries were reported in 2008;  however the AFL-CIO estimates that the real number of on-the-job injuries was between 9 million and 14 million.

So this Friday, March 25th, at 4:45 PM, as bells ring out throughout New York City to correspond with the time that the fire alarm first sounded one hundred years ago, I’d like us to ask ourselves:  what are we doing to commemorate these more proximate tragedies?  What are we doing to protect the vulnerable workers of today?  And whom can we organize so that we don’t have to mourn—so frequently and so profoundly—one hundred years hence?

Kathy M. Newman

Unions, Democrats, and Working-Class Interests

The labor movement has historically been the most effective representative of working-class interests.  The short list of labor’s achievements include ending child labor; establishing the eight-hour day and minimum and “living” wages, unemployment insurance and workers compensation, occupational safety and health standards; securing health care, sick leave, vacations and pensions; and helping create legislation to outlaw job discrimination against women, minorities, disabled persons, and older workers.

Union members receive 15% more wages on average than non-union workers, are 19% more likely to have health insurance, and are 24% more likely to have an employer sponsored pension. Despite the clear correlation between overall compensation and union membership, a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that union membership has dropped in most states. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 12.3% of wage and salary workers belong to labor organizations. This amounts to drop of almost 9% over the last 25 years. The greatest declines in unionization rates have occurred in private sector and non-agricultural employment, including manufacturing and construction.

The decline is significant enough that it is undermining the labor movement’s ability to advance the interests of working people. The real strength of the labor movement has now moved to the public sector; public employees now constitute more than half of all union members. Perhaps because they now dominate the labor movement, public sector unionists have come under attack recently, and some expect membership levels to drop as a result of the current economic crisis, as schools, cities, and other public employers cut the work force in response to declining tax revenues.

Union membership has declined for a number of reasons, including globalization, changes in workplace organization (ie. subcontracting, offshoring, lean production), the growing proportion of part-time and contingent jobs, employer hostility, legal and political opposition to labor unions, and the ineffectiveness of business unionism to provide improvements in wages and benefits.

Overall public support for labor unions has also declined.  The Pew Center for the People and Press found recently that favorability ratings have fallen sharply in recent years.  While 58% of those polled in January 2007 viewed unions favorably, by 2010 only 41% held that view.  Negative views increased, from 31% in 2007 to 42% by 2010.  Importantly, the Pew study found declines in union favorability occurred at similar rates across most demographic groups. Further, a recent Gallup poll found that 51% feel that unions hurt the general economy more than they help it.  Only 39% saw unions as favorable to the economy.

While the labor movement remains vocal and active on the political front, declining numbers and shrinking public support are undermining labor’s influence within the Democratic Party, which has historically relied on organized labor as the core of its support.  In the past two years, almost every political initiative by organized labor, from support for a public option in health care to labor law reform to simply naming of new members to the National Labor Relations Board has been all but ignored or put on the back burner. In turn, labor support for the Democratic Party has become lukewarm and fragmented at best.

What will the Democratic Party look like without the labor movement at its center? Two visiting international scholars at the Center for Working-Class Studies believe that it will come to resemble comparable political parties in the UK and Germany. Sociologist James Rhodes suggests that like the British Labor Party, Democrats will abandon organized labor and working-class issues. Geographer Eva Viertlböck thinks that, like the German Social Democratic Party, the Democratic Party will break apart as labor unionists and former working- and middle-class supporters move to the ends of the political spectrum.  Michael Lind, writing for Salon, sees something similar. He suggests that labor unions are unlikely to regain their position at the heart of liberal politics. Instead, he believes that liberal interest groups and social elites using new technology will replace unions as the new core of liberal politics and the Democratic Party. That is, the Democrats will become a party that practices the “politics of charity” instead of the “politics of solidarity.”

None of this bodes well for working people. Despite attempts by organized labor to organize the unorganized both politically and institutionally, working people are looking elsewhere for agency and voice.  In some cases, they are supporting groups that seem antithetical to their needs but capture their anger.  In the last year, one of the questions I was asked most frequently by reporters is “Does the working class support the Tea Party Movement?”  While it is difficult to determine how actively working-class people are involved, it is clear that some do support the movement, and that support may be growing.

Given the demographic declines and shifting political landscape, the labor movement needs to become more closely aligned with various social and economic justice movements.  These groups share with organized labor the growing sense of economic vulnerability, frustration with government, and the shredding of the nation’s social safety net. Labor unions must move beyond workplaces issues, openly support the interests of all working people, and engage in community organizing on both local and regional levels.  Put differently, it must refocus its energy and  mission and return to its traditional role of advocating for all working people.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

The House is on Fire

A few weeks ago, Charlie Rose facilitated a discussion about the perils of the U.S. national debt among a thoughtful, articulate group of one politician, two businessmen, and two economists.  Except for a brief discussion of the bond market, I was able to understand the various points of view about how menacing the projected growth of the debt is and the various things we might do about it.  Though tilted toward business-class conservatism, Nobel economist Paul Krugman ably presented a progressive view, and I found the conservatives thoughtful and sensible.

I came away from this discussion among what Rose likes to call “the smart people” convinced that we must address our ballooning debt sometime in the next decade or so.  I also came away wondering why the smart people are not devoting similar attention to the President’s budget projections that unemployment will remain around 10% (using the official rate) the rest of this year and not drop by much after that.  It strikes me that this is like carefully discussing cracks in the foundation while the house is on fire.

It’s not that the panelists were indifferent to unemployment.  Continuing high unemployment is one of the major contributors to our growing national debt.  When people are out of work, they don’t pay income taxes, reducing government revenues, and they don’t pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, bringing those entitlement programs’ long-term fiscal problems at us sooner rather than later.  Likewise, nobody in this group, not even the guy from the often shrilly conservative Peterson Institute, spoke against the need to increase social-safety-net spending such as unemployment insurance and food stamps in order to reduce some of the suffering among the unemployed.

But while not indifferent to unemployment, they conveyed no sense of emergency.  They didn’t seem to realize that the house is actually on fire and even if the fire is not spreading as dramatically as it was last year at this time, letting it smolder indefinitely will eventually destroy the house, even if it doesn’t reignite and burn the house to the ground.

This is why a recent story in The Atlantic, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America,” is so important.  Though much of the information and analysis in the article will not be new to readers of Working-Class Perspectives, it reaches the right audience: Charlie Rose’s “smart people.”  The author, deputy managing editor Don Peck, is a certifiably smart person himself who writes in a clear, compelling but relatively understated way.  The article has already gained a lot of attention among leading opinion-makers and, therefore, has a shot at generating a sense of urgency about what Peck very convincingly shows is “a slow motion social catastrophe.”

Peck is not predicting a second dip to the Great Recession.  He simply accepts White House projections of persistently high joblessness as the economy keeps “recovering.” Rather, he explains what social science investigation over the past half-century shows about the devastating long-term consequences of such sustained unemployment – its impact on individuals (even after they go back to work), on families, communities, and the nation as a whole, even the majority of those who stay employed through it all:

The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just  beginning.  Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades.   Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come.

The article is all the more effective, in my view, because it does not lay out its own or report others’ strategies for reducing unemployment.  Instead, Peck focuses on convincing us of the depth, extent, and urgency of the problem.  It’s like a 9-1-1 call reporting “the house is on fire,” and urging us, in Peck’s concluding words, “to do everything in our power to stop it now, before it gets even worse.”

The American labor movement has been making that 9-1-1 call to the White House for several months now, and not getting through.  Unions in coalition with the Center for Community Change and the National Urban League are backing variations of “A Five-Point Plan to Stem the U.S. Jobs Crisis”.   The plan would create (or save) more than 4 million jobs.  Though it would add $400 billion to the federal government deficit this year, it would be paid for over the next 10 years by a small (1/2 of 1%) tax on stock trades and other financial instruments — a tax initially proposed more than a decade ago to discourage speculative investment of the sort that led to the financial meltdown in 2008.  In other words, the tax is probably a good idea anyway, would be paid only by investors, and it would allow job creation now to reduce the national debt in the long run. Economists from the AFL-CIO and its rival Change to Win met with White House economists to advocate for this program about the same time as Don Peck’s article appeared.  The response, I’m told, was “politely dismissive.”

As a Chicagoan who roots for our home-town heroes, I’ve been especially forgiving of Barack Obama.  Most of his critics seem to me to underestimate the level of difficulty Obama has faced given the character, severity, and timing of the Great Recession, the anti-functional rules of the U.S. Senate, the complexity of health care economics, and many other things.  But it is not difficult for a U.S. President to prioritize a house on fire over a crack in the foundation.  Part of the President’s job is to set the agenda for what gets public attention.  By establishing a bi-partisan commission to address the national debt while presenting a budget that basically says double-digit unemployment is acceptable for the next couple years, the President is making errors of both mind and heart.  It also seems like really dumb politics.   Pick up the phone, Barack, the house is on fire.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

Deja Vu All Over Again

In mid-October of 1992 I was working as the Director of Communications and Public Policy for Local 880 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.  It was an exciting time.  A young, virtually unknown governor named Bill Clinton had used charisma, big ideas, and a sweeping vision of hope and change to capture the Democratic presidential nomination.  Now, with three weeks until the general election, he was poised to win the presidency and end the Reagan-Bush regime.

One evening following a meeting to discuss the get-out-the-vote plan that would enable Clinton to win Ohio and the presidency, a couple of union organizers and I were standing at the bar of the now-demolished Boatyard Restaurant on the north side of Youngstown.  Our mood was celebratory.  Great things were about to happen.  The world was about to change.

Suddenly, an extremely well dressed stranger made his way toward us through the crowd.  His look was intense.  He was pointing at my chest.  I was apprehensive.  He could have been the owner of a non-union grocery store, and many of them were fuming about the “Hold the Line” informational picketing program I had helped the UFCW develop.  He stopped inches from my face.

“I want that,” he said pointing at my Clinton-Gore button. “Can I have it?”

“You want this?  But you’re a Republican, aren’t you, I mean you look like one,” I said.

“Absolutely, lifelong.  But I have a Chamber of Commerce meeting tomorrow and I want to walk in wearing a Clinton button.  I’m a small businessman who is voting for Clinton because he’s going to fix the health care mess and that will save my company,” he said.  “And I want everyone at the Chamber meeting to know it.”

I gave him the button.  He beamed.  “This is an exciting time,” he said, shaking my hand. “We’re going to solve a real problem and make this a better country.  For the first time in my life I can’t wait to vote.”

I knew then that Bill Clinton would win the election based in large part on his promise to reform America’s deeply flawed health care delivery system.  A system bedeviled by exploding costs that threatened the viability of corporations like Chrysler and GM and that left 41 million people uninsured.

This encounter verified what the polls were saying: that health care reform was the third most important issue among likely voters and that, according to a survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, Clinton held a 55% to 27% lead on the issue, a margin that would grow to 42% by election day, even though his reform plan was a sparse outline at best.  People simply believed he would get the job done.

So did those of us in the labor movement.  The health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and yes, even Richard Nixon was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Clinton was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Now, flash forward to 2008.  Every Democratic candidate for the White House, including one named Clinton, vows to remedy the ills that afflict America’s health care system: exploding costs that will soon contribute to the  bankruptcy of  major corporations like Chrysler and GM and  a cadre of 51 million people who have no access to care.

It becomes the third most significant issue to voters, trailing closely behind concerns about the economy and the nation’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq.  The Party’s nominee, a young, charismatic, big thinking but virtually unknown senator from Illinois campaigns aggressively and effectively on the issue, although his reform plan is a sparse outline at best.

As in 1992, that minor shortcoming doesn’t seem to matter.  Voters simply believed he would get the job done.  So they made him president, and the health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Richard Nixon, and yes, Bill Clinton was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Obama was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Which brings us to where we stand today: once again on the precipice of disappointment.

That is because despite the President’s commitment to reform, including the development of the government-backed health care insurance option that is essential to holding down costs and providing universal access, we’ve already lost the first skirmish in the battle.  And that means we may not even have the war.

The skirmish broke out when the Congressional Budget Office released cost estimates for establishing the public plan and extending coverage to some, but not all Americans who don’t have it now.  The trillion dollar price tag choked pro-reform advocates in Congress and the White House and emboldened the coalition of opponents that has killed every attempt to regenerate our health care system over the last eight decades.

By week’s end Congressional Democrats were already in reverse, concerned, pundits said, that the president was “overreaching.” Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and the other intellectual Lilliputians who are the voice of the GOP were rejoicing, and the folks at the AMA, Pharma, and America’s Health Insurance Plans were smugly smiling—they’d seen this movie before and they really liked the ending.

Whether they will still be grinning a few months from now largely depends on whether those of us who supported Obama in 2008 are willing to jump into the fray in 2009 and help him write a new ending to the health care reform saga.  If we engage, educate, organize, and fight we may be able to win.  If we do not, well, sometime in the next 20 years, a story will be written about yet another charismatic candidate who won the presidency by promising to fix America’s broken health care system.

Leo Jennings