Readers may remember that in last year’s summer issue on labor we talked about a roundtable organized by MR for activists in the labor movement and held in our office in New York last March. The idea was to provide a forum for labor activists to establish connections among themselves and to discuss issues of common interest at a particularly important historical moment, at a time when the labor movement in various parts of the world, including the United States, is beginning to show signs of renewal. We also hoped to revive the long dormant connection between the socialist left and the labor movement, and we were very pleased to discover that people within the movement were anxious to work with us too.
The discussion, as we reported at the time, was very encouraging, and it was agreed that more such events should be organized in other parts of the United States. In January of this year, MR co-sponsored another roundtable, this time in Los Angeles. Fernando Gapasin (co-author with Michael Yates of the piece on “Organizing the Unorganized” in our summer issue), from the UCLA Labor Center and a long time labor activist and organizer, brought together a diverse group from the local labor community in a room provided by the Pilipino Worker’s Center.
With a caution that is customary for any such meeting, Fernando invited about 40 people, with the expectation that about 20 would show up. In the event, there were more than 40 people there. Two things were especially remarkable about the people who came: their ethnic diversity (as you might expect in Los Angeles) and, more surprisingly, the number of young people—lots of activists in their twenties.
MR was represented by Ellen, who made some introductory comments, as did Fernando, Bill Fletcher (Education Director of the AFL-CIO, who had been the moderator of our first roundtable and who is already busy organizing more such events in other cities—for instance, in Atlanta and the Bay Area in California), Eric Mann (L.A. Labor/Community Strategy Center), Jay Mendoza (Pilipino Worker’s Center), and Anibel Comelo (UCLA Labor Center, and actively involved in recruiting young labor organizers). The introductory remarks were short, followed by a lively discussion, with wide participation by most of those present. What was supposed to be a two hour session turned out to be closer to four hours, and every time Fernando suggested a break, the participants insisted on continuing the discussion.
Inevitably in such a large and diverse gathering, with so many urgent issues facing labor today, and so many people very eager to discuss them, the discussion ranged widely and freely. But some general and common concerns came through very clearly.
Much was said about the “window” opened by the recent changes in the AFL-CIO. But apart from the danger that the window may already be closing, with a backlash and renewed red-baiting already coming to the surface, people clearly felt that there was only so much that could ever be expected from the official labor movement. There were some hints of the tension that has always plagued the left in its relations with organized labor: the pressures operating on socialists who work within a relatively conservative union apparatus—on the grounds that, for better or worse, these are the largest existing organizations of the working class—and the requirements of activists outside the union structure, whether socialists or other kinds of militant movement organizers. But this tension for the most part stayed below the surface. What’s really needed, those present kept saying—and this theme may have been the most persistent of the whole discussion—was rank-and-file democracy.
It’s true that the workers represented at this meeting typically belonged to lower paid sectors often neglected by the mainstream labor movement, sectors in which people of color are, of course, disproportionately represented. So racial and ethnic divisions no doubt reinforced the sense of a division between labor “bureaucrats” and the movement’s rank and file. But though the problems of racism certainly represented an important undercurrent, it’s interesting that the issue was not formulated as a problem of racism but as a problem of democracy and power from below.
The other major point that surfaced repeatedly was the need for a “vision.” Before the meeting, we had been led to expect that there would be a division between those who were solely concerned with day-to-day organizational problems and the pressures of everyday activism, and those who were interested in larger questions and ideological struggle. But though one or two comments were made about the dangers of ideological abstraction at the expense of practical activism, in general that division was surprisingly muted. Many people insisted on the importance of a “vision”—the kind of larger vision that used to inspire socialist activists—in the process of organizing workers for day-to-day struggles.
This meeting in LA confirmed our view that things are happening, that there are new energies and new possibilities of struggle. We want to continue to help in any way we can.
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