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Organizing Alternatives: Toward A Labor Movement

Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

In a recent article in The Nation, two labor intellectuals—generally sympathetic to AFL-CIO President John Sweeny—wrote: “Seven years after John Sweeny’s ‘new voices’ team took over at the AFL-CIO, only 9 percent of private sector workers belong to unions—a lower proportion than when he took over, indeed lower than a century ago…Turning labor around will require more than simply doing more of what unions have been doing over the past decade.”

There is little to dispute in this, but it is unlikely that their open plea will reach too high up the AFL-CIO ladder. Despite all of Sweeny’s semi-progressive rhetoric and his push for affiliates to devote more resources to organizing, the problem of labor’s declining strength is unlikely to be resolved through the increased effort on the part of organized labor’s staffers and officers. More often than not the officialdom of many of today’s largest unions is part of the problem rather than the solution.

Even the leaders of the most progressive unions, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) still live in a world very different than that of their average member. Working in your own office, pulling down over $100,000 a year, and fielding calls from politicians and management takes it’s toll. Of course, it is not just a question of psychology but also a question of politics. The vision of unionism promoted by almost all of the leaders of the AFL-CIO, even the New Voices slate, has remained firmly enclosed in the boundaries of business unionism—even if some, at least rhetorically, go beyond it.

Sweeny has been one of the most enthusiastic promoters of labor-management cooperation programs, even secretly meeting with GE president Jack Welsh to find ways of “building bridges” with corporate America. The AFL-CIO remains as fully tied to the neoliberal Democratic Party as ever, despite recent attempts to build a Labor Party and the Labor for Nader campaign. Democracy is nearly non-existent in most unions, with rank and file members having little to no say in their decisions.

The rise of lean production, the wide scale use of outsourcing, the globalization of production, the internationalization of the workforce, and the rapid growth of the service industry have enormously changed the structure of North American capitalism over the last twenty years. This has made bringing a new vision and energy to the labor movement—that goes beyond traditional business unionism—a matter of survival. Like most of labor’s upsurges, it is the visionary activists in the field who will end up having to lead the way out.

Inspired by a domestic history of labor radicalism from the IWW to the Farmworkers in the 70’s, the traditions of revolutionary and democratic worker organizations from the nations of the global South that many immigrant workers carry with them, and the recent anti-capitalist upsurges in Seattle and Quebec, a network of activists, both inside and outside the AFL-CIO are laying the groundwork for labor’s revival. Their aim is not just to win elections in front of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) but to build a labor movement .

Left Turn recently spoke to some of these activists, from rank and file unionists on the shop floor to organizers building the bridges between labor and the community to hear about some of the more hopeful spots on the frontlines of a new labor movement.

Students & labor

“How are we (the student global justice movement and labor) all going to sit at the same table. It’s a question we need to answer.” Jackie Bray, a junior at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is one of those people who is working on answering it. Jackie is on the national coordinating committee of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and is a member of its Ann Arbor chapter, Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Justice (SOLE). “I think USAS is incredibly and uniquely positioned. We have an alliance with organized labor and September 11 didn’t shake that.”

One of the brighter spots in labor activism over the last five years has been the renewed interest among student activists in the labor movement. Starting with the small Student Labor Action Coalition which was formed in the mid 90s to build solidarity for the embittered Staley strikers in Illinois, and the launch of Union Summer in 1996 which involved college students in organizing campaigns, the student-labor movement took off in 1998 with the formation of the USAS. A wave of student sit-ins to force their universities to stop making their clothing with sweatshop labor hit dozens of colleges, often at schools with little history of student activism. USAS’s quick wave of victories brought it a high level of publicity and brought it to the forefront of the rising global justice movement.

What was unprecedented about this new wave of student activism was the close links with organized labor, in particular the clothing and needle trades union UNITE and the national AFL-CIO. Many of USAS’s initiators were veterans of Union Summer who wanted to continue their labor activism once they returned to school. Considering the AFL-CIO’s previous attitude toward student activists—which viewed them as naÔve hippies at best and dangerous subversives at worst—it was a remarkable turnaround.

Initially, USAS’s vision and organizing was almost wholly directed to overseas sweatshops. “For the first two years we focused on the sweat free campus campaign which was the packaged campaign of USAS,” says Bray. “One of the biggest wins we have is university disclosure, which let us know exactly where the sweatshops are.”

The last few years, however, have shifted from exposing sweatshops in the global south to supporting independent workplace organizing there. Over the course of 2000, USAS was instrumental in building public pressure on Reebok and Nike to force the recognition of the first independent trade union of workers in the NAFTA created “free trade zone” in Mexico. “Without strategic solidarity from students in the north this (victory) wouldn’t have happened” says Bray.

Perhaps more important has been USAS’s shift in focus from overseas exposure to building local labor solidarity on the campus and the community. “We’ve grown so much in the last five years that we are in a position to do both.” This shift was marked by the victory of the Harvard student campus occupation last spring to push for a living wage for campus workers. The occupation was led by the local USAS affiliate, the Progressive Student Labor Movement. Since then the student-labor solidarity movement, organized through the Student Labor Action Project, has grown into dozens of local campaigns across the US.

The breadth of this movement was on display this April 4 as over a hundred events were held to mark the third annual national student labor day of action, an event co-sponsored by Jobs with Justice, the US Student Association and dozens of local and national unions. In Ann Arbor, SOLE brought together both unionized campus bus drivers and non-union part time student drivers to fight the University’s attempts to contract out their jobs. In other locals, students have supported organizing drives, built living wage campaigns and fought alongside community activists for increased public services. “We have also looked into our communities and took a look at non-traditional labor organizing there,” says Bray.

The post September 11 drive to war placed a big wedge in the already shaky alliance between organized labor and the student movement. Most unions lined up behind Bush’s war drive while most student activists, including USAS, joined the emerging anti-war movement. Despite the initial parting of ways, Bray feels that the alliance between students and labor is still strong and will continue to grow. “We disagree with the AFL-CIO on some things, but we don’t disagree that our campuses should be organized…I think next year is going to be huge. I think that there is more energy. There are more unions that desperately want to work with students.”

Workers’ centers

Perhaps the most creative and innovative development out of the labor movement in the last twenty years has been the development of the worker center. Workers’ centers can vary greatly depending on where and who they organize, but they are usually defined by two criterion: “1) They are multi-trade, uniting workers across craft and industry, and 2) they unite workers where they live as well as where they work.” (Worker Centers and the New Labor Movement, a draft paper for a national meeting of worker centers, 1994.).

The first worker centers were created in response to two challenges. One was the issue of organizing immigrant workers, particularly those in small sweatshops, like garment factories and restaurants where the traditional union organizing drive had proven to be ineffectual. The other was the indifference and, sometimes, outright hostility by the trade unions towards organizing in immigrant communities. It is not surprising then that the first effort at organizing a worker center came in the late 1970’s out of New York City’s Chinatown.

Representing over 6,000 Chinese workers in garment, construction, and restaurants, Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA) has been successful at creating a strong base for workers’ rights in a community long ignored by the AFL-CIO. Its accomplishments include organizing an independent restaurant workers union (Restaurant Workers Union 318) in a handful of Chinatown’s restaurants, forming an alliance of Chinese construction workers to protest racism and exclusion in the industry, and mobilizing the Chinatown community against attempts to create off-track betting sites in the neighborhood.

Most recently, through the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, which is an attempt to bring Chinese Staff’s message beyond Chinatown to workers throughout New York City, they have organized public hearings to win compensation for workers who were victims of the September 11 World Trade Center disaster. Other workers’ centers that have sprung up in the last two decades include La Mujer Obrera, which organizes Latina garment workers in El Paso, Texas; the Workplace Project, which organizes immigrant service and farmworkers on Long Island, NY; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, based among farmworkers in Florida; and the Korean Immigrant Workers Center in Los Angeles.

Relations between the established unions and workers’ centers have been tense at best. Unions often use their superior resources and influence to dominate independent attempts at organizing. The CSWA argues that the trade-union structure in itself, limited by the legalistic framework of collective bargaining, holds back workers struggles. Others have more positive relationships with unions and encourage their members to join in organizing drives where possible.

The first wave of workers’ centers was largely based on an immigrant workforce that was all but written off as unorganizable by the AFL-CIO. Since that time, the aspects of sweatshop immigrant labor—subcontracting, low wages, temporary and part-time work—that supposedly made them impossible to organize have now spread to become the dominant feature of many US workplaces, whether it’s a restaurant, a call center or a public-assistance job. In response, the workers’ center model has spread in the last decade beyond the traditional immigrant neighborhood bases.

The workfare trap

In 1996, Bill Clinton added to the growing list of 90s dead-end, starvation-wage jobs by signing the “workfare act.” Arguing that it would help end “welfare, as we know it,” the bill forced thousands of welfare recipients into workfare—non-union, below minimum wages jobs that offered little to no chance of gaining any real employable skill.

In San Francisco, 3,000 public-assistance recipients work as bus cleaners, street sweepers, laundry room workers and city clerks. Despite doing the same labor as regular city workers, they receive lower wages and are officially classified as volunteers, which prevents them from being promoted into a regular civil service position. Over the last five years an organization called People Organizing to Win Employment Rights (POWER) has been building a labor-community center in the Bay Area to win rights on the job and in the community for welfare workers.

“We grew out of a welfare rights organizing project, We had always talked about us as low-wage workers. Welfare workers would be bouncing from one form of contingent work to another…We decided we were going to focus on the welfare-to-work side of things. It was at that time we started organizing us as workers,” says Steve Williams, the executive director of POWER.

POWER sought to organize workfare employees by signing them up with the organization in order to help them gain bargaining rights. They were able to get 2,800 signatures. “When the mayor caught wind of it, he called it the most ridiculous idea he had ever heard. He said if they wanted to be considered real employees, they should go get jobs at McDonalds,” says Williams. They are still in a struggle to gain recognition from the city.

Given that one of POWER’s goals has been to unionize all welfare workers, their relationship with local unions has not been a problem-free alliance. “Initially some of the relations was sort of rocky. They didn’t know what to do with a union of welfare workers.” Relations have somewhat improved, particularly with the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, HERE, but POWER still wants to maintain its independent character.

“We want to remain a community-labor center and act as a space for welfare workers to come together across industry lines,” says Williams. “We have been organizing welfare workers for over five years, so we want to consolidate that and focus on leadership development. For our next step we may begin to organize folks doing domestic work.”

Williams adds, “One of the central tasks for worker’s organizations is to develop leaders in their organization and as leaders in broader social movement.” To that end POWER has set up the POWER University which helps trains its members in everything from public speaking to writing press releases. In the meantime, POWER is keeping up the pressure on the mayor and city council through creative direct action to win public recognition of the right of workfare workers.

Vermont’s poor

Vermont is far removed from the urban sweatshops of New York City or Los Angeles—nearly all white and rural, the state’s popular image is that of Ben and Jerry’s, yuppie ski buffs and Burlington hippies. But beneath this image lies some of the worst rural poverty in the country.

“The Vermont Workers’ Center was started as a project by a volunteer community group of low wage workers called Central Vermonters for a Livable Wage in 1996. They wanted to start fighting for workers’ rights in their community, specifically helping support workers organizing unions to gain more power and rights at work,” says James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers Center (VWC) in Montpelier, Vermont. Since its formation, the VWC has been a leading voice in the state for workers rights.

“Some victories include our work with the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign which led to a $1.00 increase in minimum wage and earned income tax credit, affecting 30,000 Vermonters, some now earning $2,000 more a year than before. In 1999 we started the Vermont Workers’ Rights Hotline which workers around the state call to find out about their rights and what they can do when they’ve been wronged.”

“The very existence of this Rights Line, and the fact we sometimes get over 100 calls a month on it, represents a lot of what our organization is about. On a regular basis VWC volunteers are speaking to people who are getting screwed at work in our community…But much of our energy goes into solidarity campaigns for union workplace struggles. We’ve helped mobilize crucial support in a bunch of critical union victories over the past few years,” says Haslam.

Recently, The Vermont Worker’s Center affiliated with Jobs with Justice (JwJ), the national organization of union/community coalitions. “Since then we have increased our similarities with JwJ and have much of the same organizational structure of a traditional Jobs with Justice chapter. We operate as a coalition of unions, community groups and individual activists and have a democratic decision-making process where delegates from our coalition organizational members choose our campaigns and use of resources. Our relations with unions has grown stronger over the years, as struggles arise and we work in solidarity with the union leadership and rank and file members.”

Despite its close relationships with the AFL-CIO, both locally and nationally, Haslam values the Vermont Worker Center’s independent perspective in the labor movement. “Many people are working jobs which are really unorganizable under the current union models. In Vermont most businesses employ 8 people or less and almost all of our job growth is in service sector industries which are almost completely unorganized. For all of these workers to organize, new models must emerge.”

He adds, “Labor law really sucks, and given all the other challenges, such as the sheer power of corporations, the isolation of individuals, the destruction of community, the drastic changes in the economy and workforce, and the manipulation of peoples minds by the corporate media, it seems a vibrant labor movement is unlikely to happen under the existing models. For the labor movement to become a real movement, a social movement, it seems to me new models for worker organizations will once again have to be created.”

“We’ve got a long way to go—but just by trying to develop a culture of solidarity and letting people know about how some people organize, stick together and win real victories, it can and does give people hope. I think that’s what people need. They need to know that change is possible. I think lots of small victories can make the bigger victories possible.”

Part 2 of this article will appear in the next issue of Left Turn with coverage of a new rank and file movement in the United Auto Workers, a discussion with a Jobs with Justice organizer, and the work of Farm Labor Organizing Committee.