LABOR NEEDS A RADICAL VISION
By David Bacon
New Years Day, 2005
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
leftwing 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
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, asbestos workers in
New York and New Jersey, poultry and meatpacking workers in the south, and
healthcare 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, relations 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 SEIU, and now by other unions from 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 - in center stage
where it belongs.
Organizing large numbers of workers will not just help unions. Wages
rise under the pressure of union drives, especially among non-union workers.
Stronger unions will force politicians to recognize universal healthcare,
secure jobs, and free education after high school, not as pie-in-the-sky
dreams, but as the legitimate demands of millions of people.
But the AFL-CIO has a huge job. Raising the percentage of organized
workers in the U.S. 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
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
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 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
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 millions
of 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 is an incentive for
moving 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 non-union worker down the street.
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
The two proposals at the end of SEIU's ten points begin to address
these strategic ideas, 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-911 hysteria.
When 40,000 airport screeners lost their jobs because of their
citizenship status, there was hardly any labor outcry or protest. For
unions who 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 US 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 - 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 HERE,
have moved from rhetoric to actual contract proposals linking immigrant
rights and jobs for underrepresented communities. But this is just a step
towards 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
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 US unions from workers around the world, and often betrayed
them in the interest of US foreign policy.
The demand to change this policy was partly driven by the impact of
NAFTA on the consciousness of millions of US 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 millions of US 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, millions of
US workers 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 US 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 US 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
the further export 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% who voted for
Kerry, the campaign had nothing to say. And for the 49% 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
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 ILO 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 US unions to listen to the concerns of labor in the developing world, and
not just impose its 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 even more
dangerous and illegal 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
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 leftwing 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
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 leftwing
activism, forced corporate acceptance of labor 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.