Posted by rflacks on:
We were in NYC at the end of March for a couple of days to take part in some of the many events observing the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire. An academic conference at CUNY graduate center, the official rally at the site of the fire off Washington Square and a rich program of performance and speeches at the Great Hall of the Cooper Union were some highlights.
The tone of these happenings was surprisingly invigorating. The focus was more on the meaning of the Fire today than on what happened then. The Triangle catastrophe was defined as the trigger for the New Deal and the massive immigrant based labor movement of the first several decades of the last century. And so, now, many were seeing the events in Wisconsin and the larger attack on collective bargaining rights as important potential sparks for a revival of a grassroots workers movement. Such a movement wouldn't just be about defending rights and gains of the already organized, but about fighting back in the class warfare that Warren Buffet says the rich have been waging against the working classes.
When we think about the power of the labor movement we focus on union memberships and what is called the ‘density' of unions-i.e. what percentage of the labor force in a given industry is represented by unions. As everyone always says, by the density measure, the labor movement is in its death throes. Here's the official story from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
In 2010, the union membership rate--the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union--was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier, the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 612,000 to 14.7 million. In 1983, the first year forwhich comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.
Equally striking, about 1/3 of public employees belong to unions while less than 7% of private sectors are now in unions. That statistic helps explain why Republicans are using the public workers as scapegoats-they're deliberately promoting division among workers based on the relative advantages public workers have achieved because they've been organized. A good friend, with a long record of major union leadership, recently told me he thought that public employee unions would soon be ‘untenable' because of this disparity.
The decline in union power is not helped by internecine warfare and the bad feelings and demoralization that come from intra-union battling. Such fighting, like the warfare inside UNITE-HERE which led to its recent breakup, and ugly struggles within SEIU, have affected some of the strongest and most progressive unions, and undoubtedly diluted their focused strategies.
It's these things that make the class struggle in the US look like a one-sided massacre.
But such appearances are not necessarily the real or only story. The spirit, size and impact of the well-publicized battle of Madison changed the tenor of talk about the labor movement. Talk of revival is much in the air.
Why is the Madison movement so inspiring? First, of course, because of the remarkable size and spirit of the demonstrations-people came and stayed and marched and organized for days (not just for a momentary protest spasm). They did this with a lot of creativity and humor that made it possible for them to seize the high ground. Their ranks were surprisingly diverse-not just the public workers themselves but lots of people representing private sector work of every age and background. Their determination had the immediate effect of compelling those Wisconsin Democratic legislators to stick out their exile (against the instincts of many of them)-and their sticking helped sustain the mass mobilization. The Madison protests had noticeable effects of public feelings in Wisconsin and nationally-and helped reframe the discourse about public unions and the budget crisis. And, accordingly, the political dynamic in the state and nationally seems significantly changed, as labor activists organize to recall the anti-union legislators in Wisconsin, and to repeal anti-labor legislation just passed in Ohio.
So, in the states where tea partying Governors have initiated attacks on workers and their rights, a real ‘fight back' spirit has come to the fore. The momentum continued on April 4, anniversary of the killing of ML King, with hundreds of local ‘we are one' actions led by union coalitions, on April 5 when dozens of campuses participated in a national teach in carried on the internet and featuring leading academics and activists. And today, tax day, Move-On and other groups called out dozens of protests targeting corporations like Bank of America and GE for their ability to evade tax bills. If you want to get a flavor of the scope of these three national days of protest, try Google News (putting in key words like ‘we are one', ‘teach-in', ‘protest banks')
I think the fight back moment needs to lead into examination of the potentialities for a workers movement that can transcend the limitations inherent in the conventional understanding of what unions do. The power of a workers' movement need not be measured by the ‘density' of union membership and bargaining representation.
We need to learn about the many experiments and ideas in recent years about forms of organization and strategies for worker action that don't depend on achieving contracts to defend people's needs and rights. Here are some:
1. Unions have political power because of their membership size and resources-power to affect elections, (this they do a lot of, of course) and to have impact on mass media (something they've done less of). To use union resources in the wider political arena is as old a strategy as collective bargaining, and in this point in history may be a lot more important. AFL:-CIO has been developing forms of organization aimed at political mobilization. WORKING AMERICA is a federation sponsored membership organization that anyone can join-and now claims 3 million participants. A recent development is STAND UP FOR OHIO-a facebook page aimed at mobilizing resistance to the efforts by Gov. Kasich to attack worker rights and standards-some 150,000 people have signed on to this site in recent weeks. Some central labor councils in various cities are experimenting along similar lines-i.e. creating a membership base not restricted to those who belong to established unions, but who want to connect to direct action and electoral campaigns aimed at social justice and ‘defending the working middle class."
2. In their negotiation strategy, unions are beginning to see the need to give voice and priority to the needs of the wider community, not just their own immediate wages and conditions. So the auto union is beginning to frame their goals to include influencing the kinds of vehicles they are building-and whether these meet the needs of consumers and of the environment. Teachers have begun to see that they can and must take leadership in fighting for educational quality and defining the ways their teacher members can be made accountable in partnership with parents. Public employee unions should be setting highest standards for public service, leading in sustaining a work culture that serves the people.
3. There are now more than 200 WORKER CENTERS providing support for rights of low wage and immigrant workers, dealing with individual grievances and workplace issues, and providing assistance for worker organization and mobilization which appear inhospitable to old style union organization.
4. National leaders of major unions-private as well as public sector-are clearly speaking the language of ‘social movement unionism'. Leaders like Richard Trumka (now head of the AFL-CIO) and Bob King, president of the UAW, actively acknowledge the fact that national labor laws are broken, and that labor action can no longer be constrained by them. They claim to be fostering member participation and the development of a young generation of union activists. And they claim to be seeking real alliance with wider community based movements.
5. Beneath such striking shifts in the stance of national labor leaders are efforts to promote local strategies of class struggle. A significant case is the effort by Steve Lerner, legendary organizer of Jobs for Justice, and then one of Andy Stern's right hand people in SEIU, advocating mass mobilizations targeting banks and demanding renegotiation of mortgages. Lerner is arguing that the basic strategy of the labor movement-to disrupt employers' capacity to conduct business as a way for workers to get leverage-can be extended to target banks so that communities and debtors can get some fairness. Lerner's ideas have been given much publicity by Glen Beck (defining them as the latest socialist plot to destroy America), and not much in the left media.
These ideas and experiments suggest the possibility that overt class struggle has begun. We could sense that mood in NY at the Triangle Fire observances, where a very diverse array of voices, representing global as well as US based worker organizations, spoke quite clearly in a language of ‘class' (without at all neglecting particular ethnic identities and traditions). It was inspiring in this regard to see young Latino, African-American and Asian performers and activists connecting to the historic struggle of Jewish and Italian garment workers, and defining that history as their own.
Share your thoughts (State St is the great street in Santa Barbara)