[I am reposting this from Freedom Road Socialist Organizaton's website to see if it will attract comments. I'd love to see this discussed. -SG]
27 October 2005
In early September 2005 labor activists in Freedom Road met for a weekend to evaluate the momentous changes organized labor has recently faced and to identify some key challenges and opportunities for leftists working within the trade unions and other labor formations (e.g. Jobs with Justice (JwJ), workers centers, etc.). What follows is a preliminary report on these conversations. We wanted to share our thoughts on this rapidly changing situation with friends and allies as soon as possible. For this reason some of the ideas presented here have not been developed as thoroughly as we might have liked. Your comments and criticisms are welcome as we all figure out what the implications of the AFL-CIO split are.
1. Details and analysis of the split in the AFL-CIO.
No one doubts that the situation in the union movement is desperate; it is undeniable that organized labor is under a massive assault from capitalist forces and losing the battle. What we are witnessing is siege psychology, where desperate people turn on each other. Clearly something needs to happen. Nevertheless, we must look deeper behind the sound-bytes from the Change to Win coalition (CtW), and ask the hard question of “change to what?” Change is, after all, in the specifics. Every worker can relate to that. For more than a decade workers and union negotiators have been swamped with management’s “We need to change to meet this new global world. Sure it won’t be easy, but we must do it.” The specifics of management’s change always means doing more for less.
So then what are the specifics of the CtW program of change?
* Vast resources need to be redirected from politics to organizing: When the New Voices slate of John Sweeney won election to lead the AFL-CIO a decade ago, a major component of their program was to persuade member unions to put 30% of their budget towards organizing. Although there has not been any kind of sum-up of this, and it seems to have gone quietly into the night, it is clear than too many unions are doing little organizing at all. The CtW is right to re-assert this challenge.
But what about starving the political/electoral arena to accomplish this? First there is a close relationship between organizing and winning legislative and electoral gains. Mass movements and organizing have brought about legislative change which then allowed further gains to be made: passage of initial labor laws and civil rights legislation are two examples. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) certainly understands that organizing is tied to the political process. They spent more than any union on the 2004 presidential campaign and election cycle. Members and staff of their union (and most other unions as well) pulled out all the stops, canvassing, house calling, phone banking and more. SEIU is known to spend significant amounts of money on local and state politicians to pave the way for organizing. Major contributions to Democrats in California paved the way to favorable legislation making it legal for home-health care workers to form unions is just one example. Posing politics vs. organizing seems to more of a Teamster (IBT) idea.
The problem in figuring out the balance between organizing and political work is compounded by the craven and generally inept Democratic Party. It’s no wonder CtW folks can get away with reasserting Gomper’s famous maxim, “Labor has no permanent friends, just permanent interests.”
* The union movement needs a strategic organizing plan: CtW’s critique that organizing has been too focused on the “low-hanging fruit” is on the money. CtW’s prescription to develop a strategic organizing plan and have unions collectively carry out this plan is also on the money. They have uplifted their joint IBT, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and SEIU plan to organize Wal-Mart as an example of what they envision. It is establishing workers associations (non-majority unions actually) at as many locations as possible, right now in Texas and Mississippi. While needed and commendable, the Wal-Mart strategic campaign is not new. For example the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and independent United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) have long practiced non-majority unionism. Let’s be clear, nothing in the AFL-CIO constitution would have prevented these unions joining forces for organizing, and multiple union campaigns. They have been tried in the past under the AFL-CIO banner (Teamsters, United Auto Workers and International Association of Machinists (IAM) in Los Angeles in the early 1990s is one example). CtW unions are as guilty as any other union of picking low-hanging fruit, or calling mergers with other unions “organizing gains” in membership.
The CtW founding convention, held last month (September 27th) in St. Louis, created 15 strategic organizing councils: Airline Catering; Food Manufacturing; Food Services; Gaming (both commercial and tribal); Health Care; Hotels; Laundry; Non-Food Retail; Package Handling and Delivery; Printing; Property. Plans to have these councils establish a system of accountability and set minimal contractual standards for the sector have yet to materialize. Nor has a meeting date been set to firm up or merge these sectors.
* The union movement needs to be restructured: This is probably the most talked about area of the CtW program. Details of it have been written up and critiqued in many places. The essence of the plan is to merge, by any means necessary, small unions into bigger unions, unions organizing in similar sectors with a concentration on core jurisdictions (ending general unions), locals into larger local units — all to create density and power for workers. The idea is to go from some 100+ unions to around 15. This plan remains a hallmark of CtW despite evidence that this type of reorganization will not necessarily stem the decline. Australian trade unions did precisely this — restructured from 100 to 10 unions. They have continued to suffer massive defeats and the losses seem to be mounting.
Even as the consolidation by core sector plan is being announced CtW unions have different structures for themselves. The Teamsters (IBT) have made it very clear that they will continue to be a “general union” for example.
The CtW coalition, in addition to creating the sector councils, agreed at its September founding meeting to institute 2 year term limits for officers, and that 75% of dues collected from member unions (based a proportional formulation) will go to the sector councils for organizing. So far, we’ve heard nothing about CtW creating entities to oversee work around political, international, educational or health and safety activities.
At the local level there is much talk about creating parallel formations to Central Labor Councils (CLCs), but open to non-affiliates, like the community non-profit ACORN, and possibly others unions not in the CtW camp. All sides are responding to outcry by CLCs of the desperate need to keep things together. The AFL-CIO’s proposed Solidarity Charters (pay same per-caps plus 10% to help defray costs of AFL-CIO research etc support) was at first rejected out of hand as a slap in the face. As discussions continue it appears that an agreement that would avoid the creation of competing formations is in sight, with Sweeny announcing on October 17 that the two federations had reached an “agreement in principle” on the matter.
Some unanswered questions remain: Will the split be permanent? Are member unions in the CtW going to embark on internal changes? SEIU has restructured and states confidently that it was the result of democratic, internal discussion at all levels. What plans does Joe Hansen, the recently elected President of UFCW have? UFCW has never been known to be especially accessible to its members. How much raiding will be unleashed? Even prior to the split, SEIU and American Federal State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) were engaged in a no-holds barred raiding situation in California, but their recent armistice is one hopeful sign. While it’s true that raids only succeed from a material basis (the original union is doing a piss-poor job), it isn’t necessarily true that “competition between unions” will be good for workers as some union leaders have stressed. Anti-union employers and legislatures are gleeful. If raiding rather than new organizing is the dominant trend there will be no progress, only set backs.
2. What do we make of this situation? Analysis of the current conditions.
* Structural changes in the economy have not been adequately addressed: From our perspective the discussion in the trade union movement about the need to change to meet the new economy seems shallow. Profound economic and political changes are taking place at the global level. Starting with Reagan and Thatcher and moving at a faster pace since 9/11, the dominant trend seems to be toward some type of global capitalist authoritarianism. Civil and personal rights are being curtailed; religious fundamentalism (and we ain’t just talking Islam) is defining cultural and educational standards; society is being militarized; notions of collective good have disappeared as individual gumption is triumphed; there has been a massive deconstruction of the public sphere (privatization, cutting of services all together, de-funding of most others, cronyism instead of professionalism in public agencies and institutions).
Economically, the nature of work has changed and structurally a large group of “surplused/redundant” people has emerged who have been written out of the capitalist political economy. That they are left to decay, fend for themselves or die is not so much conspiratorial as it is a structural feature of neo-liberalism. The League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA) refers to these people as the “new proletariat.” While we agree that there is a certain amount of redundancy caused by technological innovation and squeezing more productivity out of people, this isn’t the entire story. There are other aspects as well. One is how capitalism defines what it socially necessary and thus determines what kind of work is created and sustained. For example, the assault on the public sphere has meant fewer employment opportunities for building and improving schools, parks, or employment opportunities at all levels of education and healthcare. Another feature of redundancy is the increasing “casualization” of work (part-time) and the drive to make as much work as possible pay below a living wage. Given the white supremacist nature of capitalism, it is no accident that folks of African descent are prominent among the “redundant.” Katrina has laid this out for one and all to see. Black Commentator guest commentator Thulani Davis said, “We are witnessing in a matter of days a dislocation one-fifth the size of Middle Passage — which took place over more than 200 years.” Yet this analysis has eluded the trade unions. Folks wanting to sound radical, like democratic socialists, have claimed “well now it’s clear that Katrina is all about class,” largely ignoring the very deep connections between race and class.
Another area for deeper analysis is what the Tenants and Workers Support Committee (TWSC) of Alexandria, VA has posed as rethinking the privileging of point of production organizing in the working class. As commodification has invaded every sphere of life, including the reproduction of labor, more attention needs to be focused on organizing at this level, which they are calling “social production.” Unlike “point of production” work which refers to making things (cars, toasters, edible chicken) or direct handling of goods (transportation), “social production” includes jobs like child care, cleaning services, or domestics that are geared to being sure that humanity can reproduce itself. It is in this sector that women of color work predominate. We have valuable experiences gained from doing work within this sector, both in the trade union movement and within other working class spaces (e.g. workers centers, JwJ, etc.).
The legacy of organizing amongst public sector workers, especially in the south where such workers still lack basic bargaining rights and other protections fits within this framework. It’s no coincidence that these workers face some of the most severe threats to the aforementioned redundancy (look at city workers in NOLA), are largely women and people of color, and that both access to their jobs and the services they provide are the direct result of struggles rooted in oppressed nationality communities.
* Both camps in the trade union movement lack vision and are stuck in a capitalist model and ideology. Much has been written elsewhere (in Monthly Review, MRzine, and now New Labor Forum and Working America, etc.) about how neither the CtW nor the AFL-CIO unions have mounted an assault against capitalism. The CtW’s media savvy has enabled them to be portrayed as the “progressive alternative” to the pale, stale, and male AFL-CIO. This is hardly the case. Andy Stern has given numerous interviews (BusinessWeek, New York Times magazine, C-span) in which he has said things like, “We need to be partners with our employers.” Both camps seem to aim for alliances with enlightened, high-road capitalists around a return to the days of the New Deal tri-partite (labor, management, government) capitalism.
Aside from restructuring proposals — the creation of sector councils has been adopted also by the AFL-CIO — the programs from both camps are unremarkable: more of the same but better. Neither side is presenting workers with a “Big Idea” or “Big Vision” around which the working class can orient itself in global neo-liberalism. Neither side seems to make a substantial break from “my union, my members.” Take the example of Katrina. Those left behind in New Orleans were workers, even if marginal ones with sub-poverty wages. Initially both camps directed aid to their own members. Now it is somewhat better. The AFL-CIO — probably through CLCs — have set up workers centers in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Mobile, Atlanta, Baton Rouge and Pearl, MS. to help all victims. SEIU has an organizing drive among city worker in Jackson, MS. Both the AFL-CIO and CtW, along with Operation Push are planning a rally in Baton Rouge on October 29th for jobs and housing for the displaced. But neither camp has as yet seized this opportunity to collaborate with groups like the People’s Hurricane & Relief Fund (a broad based coalition of groups from New Orleans and Mississippi with roots in SNCC) for a large-scale union organizing campaign among the displaced.
Ideologically, both camps are still stuck in capitalism, but with some modern features and with different emphasis. Four different but related descriptions emerged from our conversation to sum up the phenomena: “post-modern Gomperism,” “militant class collaborationism,” “Alinskyism with a vanguardist twist” and “the marriage of neo-liberalism and business unionism.” Gomperism because of the narrow vision of focusing almost exclusively on the workplace (bread and butter unionism), removing themselves from the political level of struggle, and too much “my union, my workers.” “Militant class collaboration” because of talk about giving the high-road capitalists a better value for their money and getting feet in the street to do it. Alinskyism with a vanguardist twist, mostly characterizes the CtW forces. This description seems on-target because of a top-down hierarchical dictatorship enhanced with the stone pragmatism of Alinsky organizing methods and the ability to position themselves as the left.
A common feature among even of the best unions is a very hierarchical system of protocol with gatekeepers at every level. For example, the CWA has called for a re-examination of the union and wants the discussion to get down to the rank and file level. But too often it is hard to access that level without going through local Presidents who are more concerned about keeping their position than creating new leaders and possible challengers.
Trade unionism across the board has adopted corporate culture, unwilling to confront at a deep level white supremacy and patriarchy. Bold risk taking is missing at all levels, but more specifically when it comes to raising issues of race, gender, sexuality and their intersection with class in the labor movement. Class consciousness is not simply economic consciousness. Trade union consciousness is not class consciousness. When you talk about class consciousness you have to talk about issues that affect everyone including how racial and gender oppression affects the class. Everyone had positive stories to tell how well workers respond to such discussions, especially if issues of race and/or gender are framed as “right” vs. “wrong.”
* Diversity versus Power: Most unions, like most workplaces, have held “diversity trainings” and have a more diverse leadership. But this should never be confused with actually ceding power or supporting efforts of self-determination. But behind closed doors it’s pretty much only whites making the real decisions. This certainly seems to be evident in the CtW Coalition, both in their leadership and in the consequences of their merger plans (much discussed in other places). On the AFL-CIO side things aren’t much different. Even when unions place issues of race on their internal agendas the diversity mindset is overwhelmingly prevalent. The CWA is currently engaged in a year-long internal process of re-evaluation that includes issues of race and gender representation. Yet it is quite possible that this process could end without advancing the power people of color within the union’s rank and file or its national leadership.
3. What is to be done?
* Let the debate begin! The debate is not over, it’s just begun. We need to figure out multiple ways to begin to have the debate about the way forward for the unions in the context of organizing for working class power in a vastly restructured economy. Unions that can should urge their local or CLC to take up the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) proposal of debate and sum-up through all levels of the union movement. Other avenues for this are the “safe spaces” discussed below: JwJ, Labor Notes conferences, workers centers and emerging worker center networks, to name a few.
* Promote insurgencies: The baby boomers who have emerged as the new leaders of the labor movement (Stern of SEIU, Wilhelm and Raynor of UNITE-HERE, Cohen of CWA, et al.), despite their left history, are not the leaders the working class needs. Developing leaders from the class, grounded in a world view and sharp analysis of the global economy and the change in work, understanding and acting on the complex mix of race, class and gender is more needed than ever. Historically, such challenges have come in the form of rank and file insurgencies. Labor insurgencies have always been multifaceted, ranging from reform slates running in local elections, to formations like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and nation wide caucuses like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, New Directions, etc. As an organization we have experience with caucus-based insurgencies, their power and the difficulties associated with this work. The importance of such formations will only increase in light of the split. Given the fact caucuses often serve as key left poles within certain unions and the larger trade union movement, we must continue working with our friends on the left also engaged in such work. In addition we should understand that insurgencies will continue to take new forms. For example, the Rank and File Youth Project is an “insurgency” to get radical post-high school or college young folks to consider entering the work place directly as opposed to taking a union staff job.
* Using and creating open spaces for labor and community to discuss and plan together: Some CLC’s were actually becoming such places (a legacy of the Union Cities program), but all that is put into question now. We need to create spaces where affiliated and non-affiliated unions, grassroots based organizations like ACORN, workers centers, etc can begin to build relationships and plan for a multi-racial working class vision of local economic and political power. In general we view these spaces as workers’ assemblies, open places where working people can engage in programmatic conversations about what our class needs and how we collectively work towards such ends. How these spaces will be created, their actual formation and structure is very locally determined: it could be a CLC that ignores the AFL-CIO rules, it could be Jobs with Justice, it could be initiated from the community side (like Workers Centers.)
* Regenerate the intellectual life of the labor movement: The CtW-AFL-CIO debate has revealed another weakness in the labor movement — intellectual breadth and vision. All of us have identified anger, frustration, disengagement and bewilderment at the base. We need a coherent force that can articulate a vision and an ideological center to organize this. We are not talking about a mass organization, like a new Trade Union Education League (TUEL) as friends in UE and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) have proposed. The center should have some institutional expression (e.g. an office, phone and possibly some staff, possibly housed in some college or university), have some input from labor intellectuals, but needs to be centered among organic leaders from the class. To insure a steady stream of these leaders, Solidarity Schools are a must. This effort needs to be separated somewhat from the intellectual stuff which would be loose like a network but encourage and organize discussion. One of the lessons from the Labor Left, a now-defunct project that Freedom Road helped initiate several years ago and that aimed at bringing together labor activists from diverse sectors, was that people were interested in “safe space discussions” but not ready to set aside on-going work for coordinated national work. Initial discussions for such a center will be taking place in several weeks. We’ll see if they pan out.
Freedom Road Socialist Organization