The Lay of the Land for Labor in 2008 – Draft Pre-Convention Document

Posted August 1, 2008

by Mark B. (NYC) and Jane S. (Detroit)
August 2008

Download a PDF version of this document

Despite Weakened State, Labor Still a Key Force for Social Change

  • The labor movement is the largest mass of independent, working class organizations
    in the country, with over 10,000 local unions nationally counting 16 million
    union members
  • As the west coast dockworkers recent May Day work stoppage to protest the Iraq war indicated, some unions continue
    to wield serious economic leverage, capable of striking a blow to profits.
  • Unions also have tremendous financial resources, taking in close to $10
    billion in dues each year (and holding another 19 billion in assets).
  • Labor represents a key player in national elections, spending upwards
    of $250 million in 2008, and mobilizing tens of thousands of people to walk
    precincts, phone-bank, and do other voter education and turnout. In the
    2004 election 25 percent of voters came from union households.
  • Despite some unions’ history of racism and exclusion, unions have had
    an important positive impact on white working class consciousness. Although
    it’s admittedly an imperfect measure, white working class voters who are
    union members (and not evangelical Christians) support Democratic candidates
    60/40 in elections. Non-union white working class voters are the reverse,
    supporting Republican candidates by roughly the same margins.
  • Unions are also, of course, the workers’ organizations that are by definition
    and by law created to fight the boss, either a capitalist employer or a
    government one. They remain organizations where workers are forced to come
    together across racial and gender lines and where hundreds of thousands
    of workers have the experience of getting to know and working together with
    people of other races that they do not have in their communities. The union
    (and the workplace) is where the reality of “an injury to one is an injury
    to all” is there for all to see (even if it’s not always seen).

Economic Landscape for Labor: Global Integration, Rise of Finance and

  • With the entry of the former Soviet Union and China
    into the world capitalist market, together with the opening of India’s economy,
    we have experienced an effective doubling of the world labor market.
  • The rules of the global economy have been written by global corporations,
    though trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, and are now being enforced
    by the WTO
  • These two factors, together with the “logistics revolution” of the last
    30 years, have allowed corporations to truly globalize production, stretching
    supply chains across countries and regions. One stark measure of this trend
    is shipping container traffic in and out of the U.S:
    • 8.4 million in 1980
    • 15.6 million in 1990
    • 30.4 million in 2000
    • 45.0 million in 2007
  • While these trends have had a major negative impact on some sectors of the U.S. economy like manufacturing,they have also tremendously increased the leverage of workers positioned
    at the chokepoints of today’s cargo chain. Together, and in some cases individually,
    the clusters of ship hands, longshoremen, truck drivers, railroad operators,
    and warehouse workers have the power to cripple today’s “just-in-time” delivery
    networks, idling the ships, terminal yards and trucks now used as mobile
  • The evolution of financial markets in the last three decades, both globally
    and inside the U.S.,
    has changed the dynamic of profit-making, shifting resources and attention
    out of the sphere of production into what is often speculative activity.
    In the U.S.,
    for example, in 2007:
    • 5% of all workers were in the financial sector
    • 15% of gross value added came from the financial sector
    • 40% of total profits came from the financial sector
  • This has made capitalism, especially in the U.S., even more unstable and “irrational.”
    It has also removed some of the traditional leverage that workers have on
    the job (e.g., if GM makes most of its profits through its financial arm
    rather than making cars, this weakens the power of on-the-job activity by
    auto workers). It also has put workers involved in ‘production’ in competition
    not just with workers in other regions or countries, but with the choice
    of no production at all (that is, capital could choose to invest in speculative
    activity instead).

Economy Continues Long Trend of Getting Leaner and Meaner

  • The recession that marked the beginning of this decade never ended in
    some sectors, and the situation will only get worse given the current economic
    • We have lost over three million manufacturing jobs this decade
      • 2000: 17.2 million
      • 2007: 13.7 million
    • These losses have been especially concentrated in core union industries
      like automotive and heavy equipment.
    • Part has been due to trade, given the enormous increase in the flow
      of goods in and out of the country (see container traffic statistics above).
    • Also due to technology, owing to the heavy investment in capital equipment
      in the 1990s.
  • Recent trends are a continuation of ‘Lean Production’ – a corporate squeeze
    play that dates back at least 30 years. The results are now depressingly
    familiar. Lean production not only reduces the number of jobs through straightforward
    methods like speed-up, it also fundamentally changes the way the workplace
    is structured (both physically and in terms of the balance of power on the
    shop floor). Workplaces are redesigned to isolate workers and minimize opportunities
    for solidarity and collective action. Work processes are re-engineered to
    strip workers of discretion and reduce their power on the job,
  • Corporations have also found new ways to attack workers:
    • Gutting union contracts through the bankruptcy courts (e.g. Delphi
      and Northwest)
    • Shifting the social risks associated with pensions and retiree healthcare
      onto unions (e.g. VEBA at Goodyear, GM, Ford, looming proposal at Verizon)
      or eliminating pensions and retiree healthcare altogether for newer, second-
      tier workers.
    • Using large pools of capital (i.e. private equity), Wall Street investors
      are now capable of taking over major corporations (even giants like Chrysler),
      often pulling a quick “strip and flip,” chopping the company into pieces,
      and/or piling on debt to goose up stock prices and line their own pockets.
  • The place where unions have had success organizing in the past 40 years,
    namely in the public sector, is increasingly becoming an island of decent
    jobs, in terms of pay and pensions, in a sea of low-wage, no-benefit, non-union
    private sector options. Conservatives are gunning for public sector workers:
    • Exploiting the gaps between higher public sector standards and the private
      sector (for comparable work) to push for privatization, contracting out,
      and the creation of charter schools.
    • Using the poor pay, pensions, and benefits of most private sector workers
      to pit them against “overpaid” public sector workers, bolstering general
      opposition to taxes and public spending, and deepening the general cynicism
      and mistrust of many voters towards government.
      • Conservatives’ concrete strategy is to exploit this distain for taxes
        and mistrust of government to “starve the beast,” i.e., fight tax hikes
        or other means of increasing public sector revenue.
      • Choking off new revenue creates a material crisis for the state, forcing
        it to cut spending and services. These dynamics are only exacerbated
        by other conservative policies like balanced-budget mandates and new
        changes to pension accounting rules (which force governments to count
        all future pension obligations as current liabilities).
    • After decades of rightward political drift many public sector unions
      are too willing to accept the stereotype of voters as conservative and
      anti-tax. This has led many to shy away from high-profile “us-versus-them”
      campaigns—where the risks are high—relying instead on incrementalism
      and their status as “insiders” in the political process to protect members’
      standards. Not only has this reinforced many voters’ picture of unions
      as a special interest, it has also ensured that most public sector unions
      won’t touch the “third rail” of U.S. politics—the tax system—since “insiders”
      all agree that this is political suicide.
    • We can only expect these trends to intensify as the current recession

Private Sector
Remains Hostile Territory

for Unions, Low-Hanging Fruit in the Public Sector Has Mostly Been Picked

  • Private sector union density is at its lowest point in 100 years.
    • 12 % overall, 7.4% in the private sector
  • Large scale organizing in the private sector remains an elusive goal.
    • Where unions have succeeded it has often been by getting employers to
      agree to card check or neutrality agreements (see more below).
    • Another successful strategy has been to use the leverage that comes
      from ties to the public sector, such as forcing new publicly-funded construction
      to use union labor, or requiring vendors and contractors at public airports
      to remain neutral in union organizing drives, or even using zoning and
      permitting processes to extract “community benefits agreements” (which
      typically include neutrality provisions) from big developers.
  • Today most newly organized workers come into the labor movement outside
    of a typical NLRB election procedure, usually through a card check or neutrality
    agreement with the employer. There is wide variation in how unions secure
    neutrality deals and organize within them.
    • It is possible to win a card check/neutrality agreement through beating
      up on the employer.
      • The 1999 card check agreement that eventually helped CWA organize
        more than 17,000 retail workers at Cingular Wireless was the product
        of five years of struggle with Southwestern Bell,
        Cingular’s predecessor company.
      • The 2006 neutrality agreement giving San Francisco-based UNITE HERE
        Local 2 the right to organize in the suburban markets and outlying counties
        was the product of two years of “bargaining to organize” that included
        strikes, lock-outs, and civil disobedience the targeted hotels.
    • But in many of these agreements, the union explicitly or implicitly
      agrees to mute struggle against the employer, before or after the contract
      is signed, and to keep improvements in workers’ conditions minimal. Such
      agreements result in more members and more dues for the union involved,
      and may even beef up the union’s political muscle in elections, but the
      “union advantage” for new members is sub-par.
      • For example, in 2002 the UAW secured a neutrality agreement with parts-maker
        Metaldyne and agreed to wages $10 lower than Big Three standards. This
        included forcing UAW members at DaimlerChrysler’s New Castle, Indiana plant to take pay cuts
        when their portion of the operation was sold to Metaldyne (or to transfer
        out of town).
      • SEIU secured a quiet quid-pro-quo agreement with California’s Nursing
        Home Alliance that gave the union organizing rights at facilities the
        companies chose, provided the union help get more money into the nursing
        home industry through the state legislature. The union spread “template
        agreements” to newly organized homes that gave up the right to strike,
        limited workers’ ability to talk about patient conditions publicly,
        and contained wages and benefits below those in other SEIU-organized
        nursing homes. Ironically, SEIU organized more non-Alliance nursing
        homes during the time period of the agreement, usually with better contracts
        and standards.
    • While there is lots of variation with neutrality agreements, a few points
      are clear:
      • Sweetheart contracts, or playing junior partner with management,
        not the way to rebuild the labor movement.
      • The recent experience of the Steelworkers at Dafasco
        in Ontario also illustrates
        that employer neutrality is not enough. You still have to organize the
        workers and convince them that there are good reasons to join the union.
      • You also still have to build a union. And how you organize in the
        first place has a tremendous impact on what you are able to build down
        the road. If the union is a product of struggle, of grassroots rank-and-file
        involvement, then it will be a different organization than if it’s the
        product of backroom deals or sweetheart contracts.
      • Given the prodigious difficulties of organizing today, because of
        employers’ ability to break the law at will, it would not be tenable
        to dismiss neutrality agreements out of hand. The question is what kind
        of neutrality agreement is negotiated and, as always, the involvement
        of workers in fighting for their own union.
  • Given the hostile terrain, raiding between different unions will continue,
    and may intensify (e.g., the war between the SEIU and the CNA as seen in
    Ohio, California, Illinois, and Nevada and the recent raid on AMFA at United
    Airlines by the Teamsters). Raiding or unions fighting over the same members
    is very often unproductive and wasteful, a substitute for organizing the
    unorganized. But sometimes it makes sense for members to switch unions—to
    one that is more likely to fight concessions, for example (as when United
    Airlines mechanics left the Machinists for AMFA), or when the incumbent
    union is hopelessly corrupt or undemocratic. Union officials don’t “own”
    their members, and while the burden of proof may be on the raiders, raiding
    should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  • After decades of growth, new public sector organizing has also slowed
    • New, large-scale organizing requires moving into largely non-union,
      right-to-work states in the South and Southwest. It also requires actually
      establishing the right to collective bargaining for public employees (just
      over half of all states permit public employees to bargain collectively,
      with the rest either denying bargaining rights explicitly or offering
      limited “meet and confer” options).
    • Unions have also branched out in the public sector to organize new kinds
      of workers. In fact, it is important that the largest single chunk of
      new organizing in the last decade has moved unions pretty far away from
      their traditional model, namely, the organizing of more than half a million
      homecare and childcare workers. These workers have become new union members
      through ballot initiatives and/or gubernatorial decree. By creating public
      entities to serve as the employer of record for such workers—who ultimately
      receive their pay from the public purse—unions (usually SEIU or AFSCME)
      were able to sign them up as members.

Top Union Leaders Recognize Crisis, Abandon the Fight

  • For the first time in its modern history, the bureaucracy recognizes the
    crisis it’s in.
  • The first outward response was the contested election for AFL-CIO president
    in 1995, which brought John Sweeney and the “New Voices” slate into office.
  • But 10 years of trying to rebuild the labor movement “from above” brought
    few results, leading to the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO and formation of the
    Change to Win federation. In many ways, Change
    to Win is a paradox.
    • The public rationale for breaking with the AFL-CIO was the need for
      a stronger federation, one that could force affiliates into line and “on
    • But in practice CtW has even less infrastructure
      and resources as a federation than the AFL-CIO.
    • Despite their weak center, CtW projects an
      even more intense program of revitalization “from above” through its driving
      force the SEIU. Since the split in the AFL-CIO, for example, SEIU has
      created a wave of mega-locals—administrative units of tens, sometimes
      hundreds of thousands of members that often span multiple states—and the
      union has centralized more resources and control over bargaining in the
      hands of SEIU’s national leaders.
  • Now, top leaders of unions in both the AFL-CIO and the CtW
    are managing the decline of union standards (and sometimes the decline of
    unions themselves) as we’ve known them for the past 60 years.
    • Some unions are trying to manage the decline straightforwardly.
      • The UAW and the Steelworkers, for example, have argued that global
        competition is too tough, that U.S.
        workers can’t compete with workers in China who are paid so little.
      • The UAW has openly said that a large portion of its members in auto—parts
        supplier workers, “non-core” workers in the Big Three, and new hires
        in the Big Three—should not be paid the decent wages/benefits of the
        past, and has enshrined this point of view in every major contract negotiation
        in the last five years.
      • The spring 2008 strike at American Axle,
        was, on the level of International leaders’ wishful thinking, a last-gasp
        resistance to the pauperization of parts-sector workers, but in reality
        it had no strategy to win, with predictable results.
    • Some are trying to manage the decline via spin, accepting lower standards
      (which will ultimately serve as a drag on better union standards everywhere)
      and claiming they are immense victories. Unions in the “spin zone” are
      primarily associated with Change to Win.
      • At UPS Freight, a formerly non-union division of UPS, Teamsters refused
        to use their leverage inside the rest of the company to bring UPS Freight
        workers into the union and up to the standards of the National Master
        Freight Agreement. Instead, they won a neutrality agreement which forced
        them to organize each UPS Freight terminal one-by-one, with contract
        standards that will undercut Teamsters in other parts of the freight
      • In 2002 SEIU launched a janitors strike in Boston. Rather than organize an effective work stoppage (there
        was never more than 15 percent participation in the strike), the union
        waged a series of highly visible and even militant public actions in
        the streets, counting on political pressure from city leaders and state
        officials to coerce the contractors association into a decent settlement.
        While the strike was tremendously important in terms of making the work
        of Boston’s immigrant community visible, the contractors held out
        and the union took a weak settlement, which it trumpeted as a major
  • Where unions do exist they have continued to cede the workplace, not even
    showing up for the continuous bargaining that should be happening daily
    between workers and management, both over the ordinary give-and-take on
    the shop floor and over the changes that management is continually introducing
    (technological, workplace organization).
  • The most ominous trend is for outright acceptance of the corporate agenda,
    in hopes that corporations will let their “partners” survive. More on this
    below under “Survival Era.”
  • Meanwhile, many local leaders who have not given up the fight continue
    to try to represent their members, including through militant and sometimes
    innovative struggles. Unfortunately, their hands are often tied by their
    national unions’ policies or lack thereof.

Union Strategy in the ‘Survival Era’

  • The shift in union policy we are seeing today can be described as a shift
    from retreat to organized surrender. This shift is not a thorough one; there
    are still many areas where retreat—or even resistance—are still the order
    of the day. But the growing trend among top union officials is to surrender.
  • The “retreat” line that top leaders have enforced for over two decades
    says to the members “We have to take givebacks now because we’re not strong
    enough [though they usually don’t organize any fight to in fact test the
    balance of power between employer and union]. In order to level the playing
    field between employers and unions, we need to get the politicians to carry
    our water.” So unions have focused all their hopes (and their considerable
    financial and staff resources) on the political arena. The message is that
    “Organizing in the private sector is too hard. Corporations are too powerful.
    The deck is stacked against us. Congress needs to do something.”
    • That something is the Employee Free Choice Act, which is made to sound
      like a cross between the passage of the civil rights legislation in the
      1960s and the second coming of Jesus Christ.
    • The drumbeat has gotten even stronger with the Democrats in (bare) control
      of Congress and with a chance to win the White House. But there are a
      few holes in the logic:
    • First, these are the same politicians who gave us NAFTA, refused to
      ban permanent replacements for striking workers, and worked so hard on
      behalf of Wall Street during the Clinton
      years that we’re now left with the biggest gap between rich and poor since
      the Great Depression.
    • Yes, organizing is hard, but unions could do a lot of it with the quarter
      of a billion dollars labor will spend in the 2008 election.
    • This logic reverses the history of our labor movement, the civil rights
      movement, and every significant advance ever made in the U.S. We didn’t
      take those steps forward because a light bulb went off in somebody’s head
      in Washington.
    • They were the product of struggle: the hard-won fruits of millions of
      ordinary people, convinced of the righteousness
      of their cause, acting together, willing to face fire hoses, attack dogs,
      employer goon squads, Pinkertons, and even the
      National Guard. Politicians aren’t the motor force of history, people
  • While labor’s current knee-jerk spending on Democrats—usually with little or no
    accountability required—won’t get workers anywhere, it is certainly true that
    labor needs a political program backed up by mass action in the streets. Many
    of the battles workers are now in cannot be won workplace by workplace. Pensions
    and health care are essentially political problems.
  • There
    are also positive signs on the political horizon. Although DC insiders in
    both the AFL-CIO and CtW are maneuvering to sideline their efforts, more and more
    unions are endorsing single-payer legislation. In the same vein, the center
    of gravity within the labor movement is solidly against the Iraq war and occupation. In
    both cases, what is missing is any vision for how to spark a movement that
    can take these struggles into the streets and communities.
  • In
    the big picture, however, we still face an uphill battle, trying to foster
    consciousness for which there is no concrete political expression. The U.S. working class has no
    political party of its own, and when shifts do occur in working class consciousness
    they usually cross squarely through the Democratic Party. The Democrats remain
    stumbling block on the road to a socialist alternative, and labor’s allegiance
    is not just at the level of the officialdom but among most rank-and-file activists
    as well. Our task remains finding a working class solution to the current
    economic and political turbulence and achieving that task will force us to
    moves past the tremendous barrier of not having our own political organization.
  • The
    surrender mode of operation goes further than retreat. In this mode, unions
    volunteer to carry the corporations’ water. Go straight to the source,
    and try and prove your worth to the corporate bosses. “If we help you, you
    will let us live, right?” Everyone knows that CEOs are reasonable people,
    just looking for ways to “add value” to their bottom line—and unions are just
    the people to help them. This is the ideology of partnership that has infected
    nearly every corner of the bureaucracy. It comes in different flavors.
      • Old School: Union leaders surrender in two ways here:
        • At American Axle the union was so timid that it didn’t take the minimum
          steps necessary to win a strike. The Canadian Auto Workers’ early contract
          negotiations, before expiration, in order to make preemptive concessions,
          is another example.
        • At Chrysler during the last Big Three negotiations, union leaders
          put down rank-and-file efforts to fight back.
      • New School: Implicit and explicit promises are made to employers
        that if the union is allowed to sign workers up, it will help corporate
        profits. Not only will the union promise not to strike and not to disparage
        the company, and to keep wages down, it may also put its political apparatus
        at the company’s service.
        • For example, in California SEIU initially backed legislation to make
          it harder for nursing home residents to sue the homes, until their quid
          pro quo with nursing home operators was discovered and they had to disavow
          the deal.
        • SEIU represents the vanguard of this trend, with a well worked out
          and even public rationale that sometimes dismays (and shafts) even
          its Change to Win partners. SEIU puts itself forward as fighting for
          all workers, not just union members (“Justice for All”). But the more
          in bed the union is with the corporations, the less tenable that posture
        • It is important to note that the new-school surrender mode requires
          more discipline in the union, to carry the line and to keep resistance
          from breaking out. Megalocals, appointment of local officers from above,
          armies of appointed staffers, bullying, and a general corporate modeling
          of union functioning are almost a prerequisite for this survival strategy.

Can The Ranks Save Labor?

  • We can’t ignore the facts. Private sector union density is as low as it’s
    been in the last 100 years.
  • Worse still is action where it counts – strikes and work stoppages – face
    to face confrontation with the boss, wielding our economic muscle.
    • In this decade there were about 200,000 workers in any given year idled
      by strikes and work stoppages.
    • To put that in perspective
      • 1910s 581,000
      • 1930s 889,000
      • 1940s to 1970s roughly 2 million
      • 1980s 718,000
      • 1990s 384,000
  • What do ‘survival era’ politics at the top mean for rank and file activists
    and our interventions in the labor movement?
  • This moment coincides with the end of an arc for many of the interventions
    we’ve made in the labor movement:
    • New Directions in transit and various reform movements in auto.
    • Consolidation of Hoffa’s power inside the Teamsters
    • We’ve also seen the disappearance of some newer reform movements in
      other unions, and the immigrant rights movement that pulled off massive
      marches in 2006 has pulled back in the face of repression and political
  • What does all this mean for class consciousness?
    • Most workers have not had the experience of fighting back on the job,
      or any experience they had was quite a long time ago.
    • The 1970s upsurge is gone, and the generation who thought open combat
      with their bosses—or civil war within their own unions—was a
      sensible idea are
      now retiring or already gone.
  • Organizing and fight-back, however, continue, whether at labor’s grassroots
    or in new formations like pre-majority unions, or workers centers.
    • Rank-and-file union members and local leaders continue to prove that
      the fight—on the shop floor or in the streets—is not over and that winning
      is even possible.
      • On May Day dock workers up and down the West Coast shut down the ports
        to protest the Iraq
        war, a move initiated by rank-and-file longshore
      • Union reformers inside the 40,000-member Los Angeles teachers union
        put more than a quarter of their membership in the street demonstrating
        during their last contract fight, winning reduced class sizes and more
        control of school curriculums in some schools. Just last month LA teachers
        delayed the start of school to protest looming budget cuts, with close
        to 15,000 community members joining them on the picket lines.
      • Healthcare workers from Massachusetts to California have struck to protest mandatory
        overtime and unsafe staffing levels. They have also been at the forefront
        of political fights to save public hospitals in cities like Los
        Angeles and Buffalo.
      • A two-hour wildcat strike by 100 train dispatchers in Fort Worth,
        Texas in 2005 snarled train traffic from Seattle to Chicago, as union
        workers walked off the job to protest unilateral changes to the company’s
        vacation policy.
      • Even after losing two organizing drives, workers at Smithfield’s
        largest hog processing plant, in North
        Carolina, continue to fight for a union. The primarily African American
        and Latino workforce has staged wildcat strikes and walked off the job
        to win the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and workers are waging in-plant
        protests in support of the union.
    • Faced with intense employer opposition, some unions forego representation
      elections and contracts, organizing “non-majority” unions using Section
      7 of the National Labor Relations Act to “fight like a union” before they
      are recognized or have a contract.
      • Organized through Black Workers for Justice and UE Local 150, workers
        at the Consolidated Diesel engine plant in Whitakers, North Carolina,
        have gotten fired workers reinstated, forced the state government and
        the company to pay unemployment benefits during slow periods, won a
        paid holiday for MLK Day, and forced the company to deliver on its broken
        promise to pay out more than a million dollars in bonuses.
      • Philadelphia security guards, working with Jobs with Justice,
        formed a non-majority union for guards at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple
        University, winning paid sick days, significant
        raises and at U-Penn a new building for the guards’ office. They are
        now moving their organizing campaign city-wide.
      • In Texas nurses are organizing
        non-majority unions together with the National Nurses Organizing Committee
        (the national arm of the California Nurses Association), forming patient
        care committees inside the hospitals to fight for patients’ rights,
        and pushing for a safe-staffing bill in the state legislature.
    • And many entirely new workers organizations—mainly in the form of workers
      centers—are sprouting up across the country, primarily organizing immigrant
      workers or those in the freewheeling segments of the service sector (restaurant
      workers, domestic workers
      • Some worker centers have been able to win impressive victories against
        corporate behemoths, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who have
        forced Taco Bell, then McDonalds, and now Burger King to pay more for
        the tomatoes CIW members pick.
      • Others have won millions in back wages and overtime (e.g. the New York Restaurant Opportunities
        Center’s recent victory against the Fireman Hospitality Group).
      • These are organizations with strong internal political education,
        typically organizing workers of color (especially immigrant workers),
        and tackling the challenge of organizing where there are large numbers
        of workers in the economy overall (e.g. restaurants and retail). They
        are also more organically rooted in communities than most unions, despite
        their overall small size and limited leverage at any one workplace and
        their heavy reliance on staff direction and foundation funding.
  • At the same time that resistance continues so too does the development
    of working class consciousness. The reality of “us” versus “them” is still
    present, and if anything spreading. But collective solutions to what are
    indeed collective problems don’t seem viable, so people resort to individual
    • Looking up the corporate (and social) ladder, rather than to the people
      standing right beside them (going back to college, starting own business,
      going into management, making deals with supervisors).
    • Taking no action on the things that outrage and disgust them (war, healthcare,
      rich getting richer) because action doesn’t seem viable.

A Bridge to Socialism?

  • Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to transforming organized labor
    into a true social movement. This is an essential task if the U.S. working class has any hope of achieving
    its revolutionary potential. A militant, class-conscious labor movement
    is needed if we want to reconnect the U.S. working class to socialist politics
    in any large-scale fashion. (“Labor movement” is broadly defined to include
    not just unions but other kinds of workers’ organizations as well.)
  • The building blocks of union transformation are no mystery:
    • Struggling to defend workers’ gains against the employer offensive.
    • Expanding labor’s ranks through large-scale member-driven organizing.
    • Re-connecting labor to its community roots and linking it to other social
    • Enabling women and people of color to take the lead.
    • Re-creating unions as consciously pro-immigrant, LGBTQ-friendly, anti-racist
      and anti-sexist organizations.
  • All of this requires breathing life into limp local unions, rebuilding
    them as ‘instruments of struggle’ and equally importantly as ‘schools of
    democracy’ where workers become, in Marx’s words, ‘fit to rule.’
  • In the here and now this requires taking unions in a different direction.
    That is why we’re involved in building—or leading—reform movements within
    unions. Victories, even small ones, change consciousness, offer lessons
    and serve as building blocks for further organizing and organization.
    • Particularly important are winning shop floor victories—everyday skirmishes
      with the boss to try to make the work day bearable—because the workplace
      is typically where class conflict is most apparent, where workers are
      thrown together across racial, ethnic, and gender lines, and where all
      workers have a chance to participate in struggle, whether they are active
      at the union hall or not.
    • The fight for union democracy has a similar long-run impact, building
      the possibility for workers to look upon unions as truly their own organizations.
      This sense of ownership is a precondition for renewed engagement with
      the life of the union, and a necessary condition for workers to take the
      kinds of risks needed to win against today’s aggressive employers.
  • It also requires a different vision for the labor movement, which is why
    we’re involved in building cross-union formations and networks, like Jobs
    with Justice, Labor Notes, and the many local variants, together with projects
    that expand the political and social vision for labor— embodied in initiatives
    like the Labor Party, U.S. Labor Against the War, and the myriad labor-community
    and international solidarity campaigns that have sprung up in the past two
  • These efforts at sparking a grassroots labor revival stand in sharp contrast
    to other alternatives. For example, Steven Lerner, architect of SEIU’s
    Justice for Janitors campaign, has recently argued that their current “Justice
    for All” program is much bigger than their union, that in fact it represents
    a comprehensive vision for advancing the interests of the entire working
    class. While most of their goals (expanding healthcare, raising the minimum
    wage, making it easier for workers to form unions) are unobjectionable,
    their method for achieving these ends leaves members largely on the sidelines,
    and minimizes the role of struggle. Gains are secured from above, within
    the system, and the role of the rank-and-file as the agents of their own
    emancipation is short-circuited. This approach misses the critical point
    that how we get where we want to go matters. It also ignores the fact that
    struggle is the best school for socialism, not just because of its transforms
    consciousness, but also because it forces us to grapple with profound questions,
    like how to build a democratic movement, or what change do we actually want
    to see in the world.
  • Our job, as always, is to engage in struggle, whether it’s fighting over
    discrimination in daily job assignments, circulating a petition, spearheading
    a contract fight, organizing drive, or a strike, contesting in a union election,
    picketing a boss’s house, or arguing politics. Struggle changes consciousness
    on a scale and to a depth that we cannot match through any other means.
    It’s also important to recognize that even in better times we lose more
    fights than we win. As such, our challenge is to build struggles which offer
    a greater sense of power and a deepening sense of history and social purpose,
    even when we lose. Thus the way we build fights and organizations is not
    predicated only on winning a victory—though we want to win—but also on fighting
    in way that means we come out the other end with more committed fighters,
    a clearer sense of which side we’re on, stronger organization, and a sense
    of the bigger picture historically and socially, so that even if we lose
    today we are increasing our capacity to win tomorrow.
  • A socialist labor activist first and foremost is a reliable ally. We
    have our co-workers’ backs in a way that inspires them to have ours. We
    get to know what moves our co-workers and what gets in their way. We experience
    camaraderie not as a tactic but as part of our own survival. We know our
    co-workers quirks, their warts, and their sometimes astonishing moments
    of bravery, solidarity, and kindness.
  • We cannot necessarily foresee the clash of forces that will spur masses
    of workers into motion. What we do know is that we want to be there when
    they move.