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Labor Needs a Radical Vision

David Bacon, is a
west coast writer and photographer, and former factory worker and union organizer. His book, The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border, was published last year by the University of California Press. His photodocumentary project on immigration, Beyond Borders, Transnational Working Communities, is due next year from ILR Press/Cornell University Press.


For forty years, AFL-CIO leaders George Meany and Lane Kirkland saw unorganized workers as a threat when they saw them at all. They drove left-wing activists out of unions and threw the message of solidarity on the scrapheap. Labor’s dinosaurs treated unions as a business, representing members in exchange for dues, while ignoring the needs of workers as a whole. A decade ago new leaders were thrust into office in the AFL-CIO, a product of the crisis of falling union density, weakened political power, and a generation of angry labor activists demanding a change in direction. Those ten years have yielded important gains for unions. Big efforts were made to organize strawberry workers in Watsonville, California, asbestos workers in New York and New Jersey, poultry and meatpacking workers in the South, and health care workers throughout the country. Yet in only one year was the pace of organizing fast enough to keep union density from falling.

Other gains were made in winning more progressive policies on immigration, and in some areas, relationships were built with workers in other countries. Yet here also, progress has not been fast enough. Corporations and the government policies that serve them have presented new dangers even greater than those faced a decade ago.

The set of proposals made by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and now by other unions from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to the Teamsters, are a positive response to this crisis. They’ve started a debate labor desperately needs. And they all put the issue of stopping the slide in members and power—the problem of organizing—at center stage where it belongs.

Organizing large numbers of workers will not help unions alone. Wages rise under the pressure of union drives, especially among nonunion workers. Stronger unions will force politicians to recognize universal health care, secure jobs, and free education after high school, not as pie-in-the-sky dreams but as the legitimate demands of millions of people.

While the percentage of organized workers has declined every year for the past decade, unions have made important progress in finding alternative strategic ideas to the old business unionism of Meany and Kirkland. If these ideas are developed and extended, they provide an important base for making unions stronger and embedding them more deeply in working-class communities. But the AFL-CIO has a huge job. Raising the percentage of organized workers in the United States from just 10 to 11 percent would mean organizing over a million people. Only a social movement can organize people on this scale. In addition to examining structural reforms that can make unions more effective and concentrate their power, the labor movement needs a program which can inspire people to organize on their own, one which is unafraid to put forward radical demands, and rejects the constant argument that any proposal that can’t get through Congress next year is not worth fighting for.

As much as people need a raise, the promise of one is not enough to inspire them to face the certain dangers they know too well await them. Working families need the promise of a better world. Over and over, for more than a century, workers have shown that they will struggle for the future of their children and their communities, even when their own future seems in doubt. But only a new, radical social vision can inspire the wave of commitment, idealism, and activity necessary to rebuild the labor movement.

Organizing a union is a right, but it only exists on paper. Violating a worker’s right to organize should be punished with the same severity used to protect property rights. Fire a worker for joining a union—go to jail. Today, instead, workers get fired in a third of all organizing drives. Companies close plants and abandon whole communities, and threaten to do so even more often. Strikebreaking and union busting have become acceptable corporate behavior. There are no effective penalties for companies that violate labor rights, and most workers know this. In addition, there are new weapons, like modern-day company unions, in the anti-union arsenal. Chronic unemployment, and social policies like welfare reform, pit workers against each other in vicious competition, undermining the unity they need to organize.

Meanwhile, millions of workers are desperate because they have lost jobs or are in danger of losing them. Employers move factories and downsize their workforce to boost stock prices. The government cuts social benefits while driving welfare recipients into a job market already glutted with people who can’t find work. Without speaking directly to workers’ desperation and fear of unemployment, unions will never convince millions to organize and risk the jobs they still have. Government and corporations may treat a job as a privilege, and a vanishing one at that, but unions must defend a job as a right. And to protect that right, workers need laws which prohibit capital flight and which give them a large amount of control over corporate investment. In the meantime, organizing unemployed people should be as important as organizing in the workplace.

Since grinding poverty in much of the world offers an incentive for capitalists to move production, defending the standard of living of workers around the world is as necessary as defending our own. The logic of inclusion in a global labor movement must apply as much to a worker in Bangladesh as it does to the nonunion worker down the street.

U.S. workers, who saw jobs moving to the U.S./Mexico border in the 1970s and 1980s, had to learn this logic. U.S. government policy, under Democrats and Republicans, made Mexico a great laboratory for economic reforms enforced by loan conditions and international financial institutions. Ending subsidies and rural credit drove farmers off the land, creating vast numbers of job seekers. Thousands of workers lost their jobs and unions as state enterprises were privatized. While many traveled north as migrants to the United States, others went into the foreign-owned maquiladoras. There they faced a vicious triumvirate of rapacious employers, governments willing to do almost anything to encourage their investment, and compliant unions that maintained labor peace.

But in the wake of the debate over free trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), many U.S. workers found common ground between the defense of their own jobs and wages and the pitched battles being waged by Mexican workers for genuine unions, better conditions, and higher wages on the border. That experience of creating worker to worker, workplace to workplace, and union to union relationships became a model for building that global labor movement, from the grassroots up. It also challenged the old, failed Cold War policies that had betrayed workers’ movements in country after country, including the long-term interests of workers here at home.

Nowhere is the choice between these two alternatives clearer today than in the debate confronting U.S. workers and unions over the war and occupation in Iraq, and their relation with workers there. The occupation, at the point of a gun, seeks to transform Iraq’s economy, privatizing its factories, seizing its oil, and transforming its people into a low-wage workforce, in an extreme form of shock therapy. Meanwhile, the cost of this effort drains hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury, while schools close and economic crisis grips workers and unions at home. Ending the war and supporting Iraqi workers as they try to reorganize their labor movement is as much in the interest of U.S. workers as it is in that of Iraqis.

The two proposals at the end of the SEIU’s ten point plan, “Unite to Win,” begin to address these strategic problems, but they fall short of providing a new direction. They are the proposals on diversity or civil rights and on building a global labor movement.

Labor’s change in immigration policy was a watershed development, which put unions on the side of immigrants, rather than against them. The change provided the basis for an alliance between labor and immigrant communities based on mutual interest, and asked union members, and workers in general, to fight for a society based on inclusion, rather than exclusion. But this policy was usually implemented to win support for union organizing campaigns, and only rarely to defend immigrant communities as they were attacked in the post-9/11 hysteria. When 40,000 airport screeners lost their jobs because of their citizenship status, there was hardly any labor outcry or protest. For unions that want workers outside their ranks to feel they represent their interests, this was a terrible mistake. But it was compounded when Bush banned unions for the new screener workforce. Once again, an attack on the rights of immigrants led to attacks on the rights of workers generally—a move which called for mass opposition and was met instead with more silence.

Labor needs an outspoken policy that defends the civil rights of all sections of U.S. society and is willing to take on the Bush administration in an open fight to protect them. If the war on terror scares labor into silence, few workers will feel confident in risking their jobs (and freedom) to join unions. Yet people far beyond unions will defend labor rights if they are part of a broader civil rights agenda, and if the labor movement is willing to go to bat with community organizations for it.

Political calculations in Washington shouldn’t be the guide to labor’s policy on immigration and civil rights. Workers need a movement that fights for what they really need, not what lobbyists say a Republican administration and Congress will accept. The position won at the AFL-CIO’s Los Angeles convention in 1999—calling for immigration amnesty, the repeal of employer sanctions, and a halt to corporate guest worker proposals—has yet to be achieved in real life.

A new direction on civil rights requires linking immigrant rights to a real jobs program and full employment economy. It demands affirmative action that can come to grips with the devastation in communities of color, especially African-American communities. Some unions, particularly the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), have moved from rhetoric to actual contract proposals linking immigrant rights and jobs for under-represented communities. But this is just a step toward unity, and it is already endangered by proposals for new guest worker programs that will pit immigrants against the unemployed. As employer lobbyists continually point out, jobs and immigration are tied together. Corporations will either pit people against each other at the bottom of the workforce, or labor will unite them in a struggle for their mutual interest.

When Tom Donahue and the old Kirkland administration were defeated in 1995, activists on all levels of the labor movement expected that the AFL-CIO would take down the Cold War barriers. Labor’s Cold War foreign policy separated U.S. unions from workers around the world and often betrayed them in the interest of U.S. foreign policy.

The demand to change this policy was partly driven by the impact of NAFTA on both the livelihoods and consciousness of U.S. workers. For the first time in decades, pressure came from below, from local unions and rank-and-filers, demanding that the labor movement seek alliances with workers abroad based on common interest. In an era when the fate of U.S. workers is tied to the international system of production and markets, this is a survival question. A growing number of workers, both inside and outside unions, today understand that an effective response to globalization will affect their own welfare. For the first time since the 1940s, workers in the United States can be, and have been, drawn into the fight against the global free market economy, from Seattle to Miami.

The neoliberal policies imposed by the United States and other wealthy countries attack living standards, workers’ rights, and the public sector everywhere. Increasingly, they are imposed at the point of a gun, using the war on terror as a pretext to suppress opposition. The U.S. labor movement should be, and can be, the most outspoken advocate for peace, since eroded standards and privatization are used to attract corporate investment and further the exportation of jobs and production.

Instead, after expressing doubts before the invasion of Iraq, the AFL-CIO stood silent once it began. Some unions made opposition to the war part of their election campaign, but the official AFL-CIO apparatus accepted the false logic that speaking out on the war was the kiss of death. The opposite proved true. Some 10.5 million voters from union households said the war was the most important issue to them. To the 51 percent who voted for Kerry, the campaign had nothing to say. And for the 49 percent who voted for Bush—families with children in the service, or reservists, or honest people affected by national security hysteria—no effort was made to convince them that the war was as bad for working families at home as it was for the Iraqis whose country is being destroyed. Silence on the war had a high price.

The AFL-CIO needs a program that opposes the effort to implement neoliberal policies internationally, taking a consistent approach from Mexico to China, from Baghdad to Bogotá. Moving away from the Cold War past was a watershed development as important as the change on immigration, and related to it. But change in the labor movement’s international activity has been incomplete.

A new direction in international relations should be based on solidarity, and solidarity is a two-way street. The end of labor’s Cold War policy has to be made explicit, as part of finding a new set of principles for our relations with unions and workers in other countries. While some of those principles are embodied in the International Labor Organization’s labor standards calling for the right to organize, an end to child labor, and other protections, unions in developing countries increasingly demand a broader agenda. In particular, they want greater help in defending the public sector under attack from privatization and an international system for defending the rights of migrants. New international relationships need to be based on the ability of U.S. unions to listen to the concerns of labor in the developing world, rather than imposing their own agenda, however well intentioned.

A new, more radical political program runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of our times, which holds the profit motive sacred and believes that market forces solve all social problems. If labor’s leaders move in this direction, they won’t get invited for coffee with the president or included in meetings of the Democratic Leadership Council. At the beginning of the Cold War, the AFL-CIO built its headquarters right down the street from the White House, eloquent testimony to the desire of its old leaders for respectability in the eyes of the political elite. That dream may be difficult for some to give up. But labor can’t speak convincingly to the working poor without, at the same time, directly opposing the common economic understanding shared by Republicans and many Democrats. The labor movement needs political independence.

To organize by the millions, workers have to make hard decisions, putting their jobs on the line for the sake of their future. Unions of past decades won the loyalty of working people when joining one was illegal and even more dangerous than it is today. The left in labor then proposed an alternative social vision—that society could be organized to ensure social and economic justice for all people. While some workers believed that change could be made within the capitalist system, and others argued for replacing it, they were united by the idea that working people could gain enough political power to end poverty, unemployment, racism, and discrimination. The poor will not be always with us, they declared.

Today our biggest problem is finding similar ways for unions to affect workers’ consciousness—the way people think. A new commitment to organizing can’t be simply a matter of more money and organizers, or more intelligent and innovative tactics, or structural change, as necessary as these things are. During the periods in our history when unions grew by qualitative leaps, their activity relied on workers organizing themselves, not just acting as troops in campaigns masterminded by paid staff.

For workers to act in this way today, they would have to have a much clearer sense of their own interests, and a vision that large-scale social change is possible. Does the labor movement present such a vision of a more just society, capable of inspiring workers to struggle and sacrifice? Labor’s radical vision of decades ago made it a stronger movement. Losing it in the red scares of the 1950s deprived most unions of their ability to inspire. It’s no accident that the years of McCarthyism marked the point when the percentage of union members began to decline.

Our history should tell us that radical ideas have always had a transformative power—especially the idea that while you might not live to see a new world, your children might, if you fought for it. In the 1930s and ’40s, these ideas were propagated within unions by left-wing political organizations. A general radical culture reinforced them. Today most unions no longer have this left presence. Can the labor movement itself fulfill this role? At the very least, unions need a large core of activists at all levels who are unafraid of radical ideas of social justice, and who can link them to immediate economic bread-and-butter issues.

And since good ideas are worthless unless they reach people, the labor movement has to be able to communicate that vision to workers outside its own ranks. In an era when many unions have discontinued their own publications, or turned them into ones light on content, they need exactly the opposite.

This is a very important moment, in which a national debate and discussion can have real-life consequences for the future. It can provide a powerful impetus to organizing an anti-Bush coalition in the short term and a more profound political realignment in the longer term.

The present period is not unlike the 1920s, which were also filled with company unions, the violence of strikebreakers, and a lack of legal rights for workers. A decade later, those obstacles were swept away. An upsurge of millions in the 1930s, radicalized by the depression and left-wing activism, forced corporate acceptance of labor unions for the first time in the country’s history. The current changes taking place in U.S. unions may be the beginning of something as large and profound. If they are, then the obstacles unions face today can become historical relics as quickly as did those of an earlier era.