Savvy Troublemaking: Politics for New Labor Activists

by Amy Carroll

MANY PEOPLE ARE surprised by the number of young activists who have become involved with the labor movement, through campus support work, organizer training, or rank-and-file activism. Not only had much of the public thought the American labor movement asleep indefinitely, but most assumed that this archaic dinosaur had little to offer youth today.

As activists new to the labor movement, we don’t find our involvement surprising. On the one hand, there is pragmatic self-interest: we are all too familiar with the prediction that, after 20 years of stagnating wages, ours will be the first generation whose living standard is lower than that of our parents’. Is it any wonder that we are concerned with fighting to secure our economic future?

But more than economic self-interest, our vision of social justice is what draws most of us to the labor movement. We come from a variety of activist backgrounds: immigrants’, women’s, and gay rights work; environmental activism; or international solidarity work. When unions protest NAFTA and California’s Prop 187 (which denies school and social services to undocumented workers), sponsor international solidarity actions, or speak out against workfare, the latent connections between the struggles of workers and all oppressed groups are obvious. During such moments of mobilization the shift to labor activism seems natural.

Such explicitly political work is still the exception for the labor movement. However, in response to management’s downsizing, outsourcing, and union-busting, a handful of more “traditional” labor disputes have provided similar inspiration. For many of us, our commitment to labor activism has come from the experience of joining rallies of locked-out Staley workers, walking all-night picket lines during the early days of the Detroit newspaper strike, or working with an organizing drive. Such experiences translate our abstract vision of social and economic justice into concrete struggles that have direct relevance to people’s lives. Labor work, at its heart, combines the best of vision and action.

Young people are joining the movement in numbers not seen in years. Student Labor Action Coalitions (SLACs) have cropped up at campuses across the country, and young people have flooded such AFL-CIO programs as Union Summer and the Organizing Institute. Eager to further galvanize this activity, the federation has been vocal in its advice to budding labor activists. The AFL-CIO advises young activists to “stay clear of internal union politics” and that it’s best to “go straight to the top elected official” when working with unions (Agents of Change: A Handbook for Student Labor Activists, from the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute).

New activists are encouraged to take jobs as staffers at the handful of “progressive unions,” or to become professional organizers. Such advice rings somewhat hollow, however, once an activist has had any real contact with the labor movement. The level of union complacency, the fact that “internal politics” often exist for important reasons, and the already sprawling nature of union bureaucracies make such advice too facile, for it misses many facets of the labor activist’s task.

Indeed, while the labor movement has the capacity to fight a number of battles-class inequity, exploitation, discrimination-this capacity is far from fulfilled. Likewise, the notion that labor activism involves only joining the fight of the workers against the boss is proven painfully simplistic. While our idealism and enthusiasm for organizing working-class power are not misplaced, the labor movement is far from a straightforward, much less uniformly progressive, institution.

From the corrupt old guard in the Teamsters union, to the stodgily bureaucratic Food and Commercial Workers, the politically conservative majority of American unions often fail to protect their own members, much less wage a larger, militant battle for all workers’ rights. All too often, the rank and file find themselves under attack from aggressive management and ignored or even disciplined by a complacent union bureaucracy.

But the problem is not that union bureaucracy holds back an otherwise militant, active membership. The movement as a whole has lost its activism, and union members are often as complacent as their leaders. Indeed, any romantic notions of a unified, militant, activist working class are quickly dispelled by a look either at attendance records for local union meetings or at the racist, sexist epithets sometimes used to insult scabs.

It’s quickly obvious that there are numerous conflicts within the movement: officials versus members; conservatives versus progressives; internal divisions of gender and race. These facts should not scare us away from what is a crucial effort to combat corporate attacks on workers. But they do complicate our approach.

The AFL-CIO tends to stress that skills, as an organizer or staffer, are what young activists need most of all. And while such skills are imperative, they are better derived from experience than through a pamphlet. Rather, the best tool of the activist is political savvy. Such understanding is derived from knowing the relevant questions to ask, both of ourselves and of the movement.

Towards the end of developing sophisticated politics, we tell here the stories of union reform caucuses, activist newsletters, community groups, and strikes that embody the best of vision and struggle, and are helping to rebuild the labor movement from the bottom up into the militant fighting force that it has the potential to be. The insights contained within come from the experiences of older, seasoned activists, as well as from a group of younger folks who have recently joined labor’s ranks. They come from those of us in the movement who have been called “troublemakers” for our efforts to fight for justice, and is aimed at those who have been similarly labeled.

Most of all, this pamphlet seeks to spark discussion in the hope that, rather than being simply troublemakers, we are, as Teamster activist Mike Ruscigno puts it, “educated troublemakers.”


While the term “movement” implies unity and cohesion, the American labor movement has a history fraught with continuing contradiction. Political, tactical, and ideological tensions have existed from the start, with contradictory positions coexisting during a given period, not to mention within a single struggle, union, or individual. The resolution of these opposing tensions, more a process than a condition, accounts not only for the current trajectory of the movement, but also for many of its limitations. Understanding the roots and effects of these contradictions gives us a context in which to choose our battles.

1. Exclusion vs. Inclusion

The labor movement derives much of its tactical and moral power from its ability to unite and benefit the entire working class. This is achieved by taking workers out of competition with each other through unionization, and more broadly by gaining social benefits for all workers, whether or not they are organized. The struggles for free public education, an end to child labor, unemployment insurance, and the reduction of the workday (first to ten hours, then to eight) are some of the battles fought by labor for the good of both union and non-union workers.

But deeply rooted in the movement’s heritage, and visible today, is the tendency of unions to lose sight of a working-class vision, and instead function solely and short-sightedly to “protect” union members. An early example of an exclusionary tendency was the dominance of craft over industrial unionism. Rather than organize entire industries, early trade organizations focused on the skilled trades. But throughout the latter half of the 19th century industrialization was undermining craft work, and by the early 20th century, deskilling through mass production meant unskilled work had come to dominate the job market. The mainstream of the labor movement, however, failed to adjust to the transformed economic scene, clinging to its shrinking ranks rather than moving to organize the unskilled.

This further polarized the union movement and American working class along racial lines. The white working class was born in America at a time when slavery was legal. Thus, from the start, part of white working-class identity was the coding of “free” or wage labor as white work, as opposed to Black, slave labor. The organized white working class and its institutions were largely absent from antebellum abolition efforts. After the Civil War, early trade organizations further institutionalized racism, both by actively excluding African Americans and by refusing to organize the unskilled jobs often dominated by Black workers. Usually relegated to the unorganized agricultural sector, Blacks who made it into service or industrial work were largely seen as enemies rather than allies in the fight for economic security.

In the 19th century trade unionist leaders attempted to bar and deport Chinese immigrants. In fact San Francisco labor leader Dennis Kearney led lynch mobs against Chinese workers. The only 19th century union to accept Chinese as members was the shortlived Colored National Labor Union (1869-71). Other Asian and Southern European immigrants also faced trade unions hostile to their very presence at the workplace.

Yet throughout this period, there were numerous dissenters. Anarchists, socialists, communists, and radicals of all types joined in many efforts at a universal, multiracial workers’ organization. These early activists pushed the budding labor movement to broaden its vision beyond bounds of race, skill, gender, nationality, or any barrier that divided a potentially united working class.

During the 1880s, the Knights of Labor were the first to organize both the skilled and unskilled, and the first to reach out substantially to African-American and women workers. At their height, the Knights had organized one of every ten U.S. workers around the notion of industrial unionism. The Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) never reached the impressive numbers of the Knights, but their program of “one big union,” their efforts to reach out to the most marginalized (women, immigrants, African Americans, the unskilled), and their radical vision made them among the most sophisticated, and most feared, labor organizations of the World War I period. Early industrial unions, such as the United Mine Workers, increasingly reached out to Black workers after witnessing how management was able to use African Americans excluded from the union as strikebreakers. The UMW and other nascent industrial unions were also instrumental in efforts to organize integrated locals in the Deep South.

By the turn of the century, however, the American Federation of Labor was the dominant labor institution. While some member unions were industrial or organized Black workers, in general, the AFL was a craft-based institution that either actively excluded African Americans or forced them into segregated, “Jim Crow” locals.

Only in the 1930s, when the Committee for Industrial Organization broke with AFL policy, and was subsequently expelled from the federation for its impudence, did the move to organize the unskilled gain a firm hold within the mainstream American labor movement. With the rash of sit-down strikes in 1936-37, CIO-affiliated unions such as the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers managed to win recognition, bargain national contracts, and break the open shop throughout heavy industry.

The efforts of the CIO were a significant victory in the effort to organize the unskilled and to bring workers of color into the movement. However, this did not mean the tradition of racial inequality was conquered either in the white working class or in the union movement. During World War II, “hate strikes” in a number of northern cities met Blacks who moved north to take industrial jobs. Some labor leaders were openly hostile to African-American workers; others were indifferent to their problems. “Progressive” unions spoke out against such racism but did little to effectively fight it. On the whole, unions did not promote Blacks either in the plants or within the union hierarchy. In general, the view within the labor movement was that questions of race were “social” rather than “union” or “labor” issues, and thus fell outside the purview of union activity.

Take, for instance, the supposedly progressive UAW. UAW leaders supported civil rights and marched at Martin Luther King’s side but failed to combat racism on the shop floor or promote people of color into union leadership. In the early 1970s, Black workers organized “revolutionary union movements” in Detroit auto plants to confront intense speedup, terrible shop-floor conditions, and racist officials in both union and management. These RUMs, and the wildcat strikes they sponsored, were met with stiff resistance from the UAW officialdom and eventually crushed. When a subsequent multiracial group occupied Chrysler’s Mack Avenue auto plant over safety concerns, more than one thousand UAW officials, armed with baseball bats, intimidated members and ended the wildcat.

The history of exclusion by skill and race, pointing to the crippling tendency within the labor movement to subscribe to a narrow vision of whom the fight should serve, continues today. Much of the public believes that unions are just another greedy, vocal special interest group trying to grab more for its members at the expense of the rest of us. This is not surprising, considering labor’s political record and the fact that nearly 85 percent of the U.S. workforce is non-union.

Even today, when people of color are more heavily unionized than white workers, one needs only to look at the extent of immigrant bashing, talk of “reverse racism,” or the glaring under-representation of women or people of color in union leadership to see signs of continued exclusion in the labor movement.

2. The Institutionalization of U.S. Unions

A second set of tensions has arisen in the friction between two conceptions of unionism: as democratic, activist organizations or staff-driven, bureaucratic institutions; more generally, between policies of confrontation and cooperation. Time and again, labor history proves that only through struggle and with unity and perseverance have lasting benefits been wrested from capital. For example, the reform of capitalism in the form of the welfare state was won during the Depression as the result of mass militancy between 1933 and 1937.

But also, from the beginning, labor leaders tried to manage struggle, to trade militancy for cooperation and respectability. Seeing a confrontational stance as “adolescent,” segments of the union movement have worked to shed labor’s militance. Terence Powderly of the Knights of Labor chose to sacrifice increased numbers when the ranks threatened activism beyond the bounds of the “acceptable.” Attempting to quash growing agitation for the eight-hour day, he placed a moratorium on new memberships in 1886. His efforts failed in that instance, and similar policies of controlling member activism crippled the Knights.

The clearest and most damaging example came with the entrance of the United States into World War II. The tendency away from confrontation with capital not only gained the upper hand but was quickly institutionalized. After the turbulent 1930s, CIO unions, business, and government united around the necessity of uninterrupted production for the war effort. Tripartite wartime production-planning boards were convened. The price labor paid to sit at the table was to end its raucous shopfloor disruption.

Excited by the opportunity to participate in economic planning, and wooed by this new-found respectability, labor leaders agreed to a no-strike pledge, wage freezes, and the bureaucratization of labor-management relations, in exchange for “maintenance of membership” agreements and union recognition. Power was lifted off the shopfloor, away from the rank and file, onto the negotiating table and into the hands of “professional” union bureaucracies. Whereas shopfloor conflicts had once been solved through direct action led by stewards at the workplace, now “industrial jurisprudence” removed authority from shopfloor leadership. The bureaucratic (and time-consuming) grievance procedure replaced direct action on the shopfloor, pushing power to resolve conflicts higher up the union ladder and finally into the hands of an outside arbitrator.

At the start of the war, most U.S. workers fully supported the fight against fascism and agreed to the sacrifices demanded at home. But increasingly, workers came to see wage concessions less as part of the war effort and more as guarantees of huge profits for industry. A layer of militant local leaders found a disgruntled membership ready to reject the demand for unending wartime sacrifice. In violation of the no-strike pledge, workers wildcatted throughout 1943 and 1944.

Following the end of the war, a huge wave of strikes paralyzed the country. Workers felt they had sacrificed long enough, and wanted a share of the profits reaped by wartime industry. But, as during the war, leaders of U.S. labor aligned themselves with the demands of government and business rather than the ranks’. Afraid of a recession, they policed their discontented members, preaching a return to “reasonable” relations. Labor leaders hoped that continued cooperation would mean a say in postwar production decisions, and a new age of a rational, planned economy in which labor and management were equal partners. Business, however, had no intention of continued planning. With the end of the war, the planning boards were quickly dismantled, and capital set about exploiting the opportunities for growth and profit in rebuilding war-torn Europe.

A labor movement tied to the Democratic Party had no leverage to push its demands. In addition, the movement had bargained away its shopfloor power and had crippled its militant, grassroots base. So when Walter Reuther, president of the UAW, demanded that wage increases come out of profits, rather than from consumer price increases, business laughed. And when union leaders suggested that conversion to a peacetime economy be planned, it fell on deaf ears.

The only option remaining was that offered by business: keep your nose out of production decisions, negotiate over economic issues only, ensure continued labor peace, and you will receive yearly wage increases and expanding benefit packages.

Union bureaucrats emerged from the war into the intensely anti-Communist 1950s, lacking both the imagination and the political basis from which to press for anything more. Internal debate was squelched and dissenters were red-baited into the fringes or kicked out altogether. Ten member unions, representing nearly one million workers, were expelled from the CIO because their leaders were members of the Communist Party.

The squelching of political and activist impulses throughout the postwar period resulted in the rise of what is termed “business unionism.” Unions developed into staff-driven institutions, concerned more with maintaining the status quo than with mobilizing the membership. The typical year-long contract was extended to two or three years to minimize “disruption” to labor-management relations. Full-time professionals were increasingly hired from outside the ranks to bargain, organize, and manage unions. Top labor leaders were rarely elected directly by the membership, and there were few mechanisms to hold leaders accountable.

What had once been social demands for the whole working class were now “privatized” for union workers. Thus, rather than demand comprehensive, national health care, which Canadians won in the postwar period, American unions bargained for coverage company by company.

Unions that had held the potential to mobilize a militant fighting force came to operate as vending machines: in go the union dues, out pop decent contracts. While there were few avenues by which members could question leaders’ decisions, there was little incentive to do so anyway. The postwar period brought unprecedented profits to business. As long as their own situation improved with each contract, most workers seemed willing to overlook anti-democratic union practices or the fact that union leaders had come to look and act more like the boss than themselves. These tendencies reached epic proportions with the outright corruption of union leadership in the Teamsters union, for example, where corrupt leaders “double dipped,” that is, collected multiple salaries, and, later, multiple pensions.

During times of general prosperity, the fact that cooperation really meant a slide towards complacency was tolerable to many. But with the recession of the 1970s, and the subsequent crunch on workers, unions’ inability to respond produced brutal results. Having thoroughly bought the notion of “cooperation” as the best means to satisfy both workers and capitalists, union leaders had no strategy when cooperation failed. Years of business unionism had crushed much of the grassroots militance and organization that might have formed a bulwark of resistance. “Cooperation” came to mean collaboration as labor leaders turned traditional pattern bargaining on its head: now the patterns governed givebacks and concessions. Even dressed up in militant rhetoric today by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, business unionism is no response to capital’s attack.

3. Bread and Butter Vs. Bread and Roses

Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912: Ten thousand women workers strike the textile mills over pay cuts and speedup. Many of them immigrants, most with little organizing experience, the women march through the streets. They sing not only of the need to improve the material conditions of the working class-bread-but also of their desire for leisure, art, love, and family-roses.

Bread-and-butter unionism has always been in tension with demands for larger social change, what we might call bread-and-roses unionism. Issues such as wages and working conditions are obviously of fundamental concern to the union movement, for they have direct relevance to workers’ lives and galvanize workers to organize and struggle. Whereas bread-and-butter unionism takes these efforts as an end in themselves, radicals see these struggles as important in the short run, but also as stepping-stones toward fundamental social transformation.

Although they disagree on many specifics, socialists concur that the problems in our society stem not from a few bad corporations, but from the whole system of capitalist production. Wage labor and a system of private ownership of productive assets means that the surplus created during production is skimmed off the top as profits. So while capitalism has radically increased our productive capacity, capitalist property relations mean that economic decision making rests in the hands of a relatively few stockholders.

Because maximizing profit is what drives capitalism, social needs such as protecting the environment, decent work hours, or a living wage have come second, if at all, to that overriding goal. Attempts by workers to better their lives are inevitably in conflict with this basic drive.

Though it might not be obvious today, this conflict between corporate and social needs has produced a long tradition of radical critique and demands within the labor movement. For example, the Knights of Labor, while calling strikes unnecessary rabble-rousing, were explicitly in favor of the abolition of the wage-labor system. The Wobblies, termed radical syndicalists, hoped that through building “one big union” they could eventually precipitate a confrontation with capital, bringing factories under the control of the working class. The Socialist Party, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, built a strong following among rank-and-file trade unionists at the turn of the century with its brand of electoral radicalism.

Individual radicals have also played key roles in labor history. After organizing for the eight-hour day protests in 1886, seven socialists and anarchists were hanged in Chicago on trumped-up charges in the Haymarket affair. Socialists and Communists were instrumental in efforts to organize the unemployed during the Depression and succeeded in winning unemployment benefits. Most of the organizers for the CIO were radicals of one bent or another. In the 1970s, many ex-students radicalized by the movements of the 1960s became socialists and took rank-and-file union jobs. Many other workers were themselves radicalized by the events of the 1960s and by their participation in their own union struggles. The lasting reform caucuses in the Teamsters and the UAW are partly products of these folks’ work since the 1970s. Young labor activists of the 1990s are part of a long tradition.

From capitalism’s earliest days, its defenders have claimed an “identity of interest” between workers and the boss. Workers’ history of radicalism has resulted from the inability to reconcile that claim with the reality of capitalism. The demands of profitability have inevitably led to conflicts not only over how the surplus should be divided-between wages and profit-but over how work itself should be organized. While the drive for profits may dictate a 12-hour workday, workers have resisted, demanding, as the Haymarket martyrs did, “eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours for what we will.” The conflicting needs of capitalists and workers means that class struggle is as fundamental a product of capitalism as profit.

So too, the claim that the benefits of capitalism will trickle down to the working class proves false. Periods of sufficient profitability mean that capitalists can “afford” to give something more to workers. But these periods of rising wages or increasing benefits screech to a halt at the slightest crisis of profitability. Such crises are inherent within the system of competitive capitalist production, as each bull market is followed by a slump, whether recession or depression.

While a strong union movement can help dull the sharp edge of capitalism, as long as maximizing profit drives the economy, even the most moderate attempt to improve wages and working conditions is necessarily a defensive, and in the long-run, losing battle. Arranging work to guarantee safe conditions or interesting jobs is most often in conflict with demands for increased productivity; the fruits of workers’ labor are always distributed as dividends to others; the dog-eat-dog ethic of competition means job security is always precarious. As necessary and important as it is to organize for further reforms and defend past gains, our steps forward within a capitalist structure are partial and often temporary.

Even as CEOs and the media crow over the victory of global capitalism, they cannot explain away the evidence that capitalism produces poverty and exploitation for most while it produces wealth for a few. The post-World War II boom has crumbled in the face of increased international competition, resulting in stagnant wages and worsening working conditions for American workers over the last 15 years. For the vast majority of people in the world, the increasing reach of capital means only increased misery. Division of labor between the First and Third Worlds; off-shore and maquiladora use of super-exploitation; environmental degradation-these are fundamental products of capitalism, not deviations from an otherwise humane system.

For years, the social-democratic wing within the American labor movement has hoped that government regulation and intervention could reconcile capitalism with social needs. They have pointed to the efforts of European countries to maintain extensive social safety nets and regulate industry. However, in the face of intensified international competition, those countries are now cutting their safety nets and sacrificing their workers’ protections. The unemployed of Europe find themselves in situations similar to their U.S. sisters and brothers.

The ideal of democracy is to ensure that those affected by decisions have a hand in their making. Under capitalism, however, power rests with the tiny minority who control production decisions. Our struggle for justice is in part an effort to make the environment, equality, leisure, and health primary concerns. This means extending democracy from the political to the economic sphere, transferring control of production from the capitalist minority to the rest of us: the working class. This is a vision of democratic socialism based on worker control of society, and is as different from capitalism as it is from the state-centered, repressive system that existed in the Soviet Union.

If worker control is the answer, it certainly does not lie around the corner. Understanding the process of change that will positively transform our society goes to the heart of the goal of the union movement and to our role as radical activists. Lasting change will not come from electoral or legislative efforts, nor from top-down reform. Neither will it be produced through the efforts of any crudely vanguardist tendencies remaining on the left that see their role as bringing to the unenlightened masses the blueprint for a new society. Certainly it will not come from simply implementing a more intense version of business unionism.

Worker control of society must come from class struggle that is rank-and-file driven. An old socialist saying claims that “the class struggle is a school for socialism.” Through creating and driving our own organizations, the working class learns how to “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,” as the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever” proclaims.

Such change is hard to predict and tends to come in bursts. It may be hard for activists motivated by a desire for radical change to reconcile their vision with such seemingly slow process. However, capitalism is not abstract “ivory tower” theory but the harsh everyday reality for the vast majority of the population. While the direction and tenor of change may be hard to predict, you can be sure that people are changed when their wages are cut or work hours lengthened, when they watch police escort scabs into their plant, or when a company busts their union.

Indeed, talk of Corporate America’s attacks on the American Dream is heard throughout the country, on picket lines and in locals. It expresses profound frustration at the fact that, while workers follow the rules, the benefits promised them fail to materialize. Giving your all to a company is supposed to provide job security and economic stability, even upward mobility. However, putting in your time guarantees nothing when companies can slash wages, bust unions, or destroy local economies by moving a shop with impunity.

A savvy labor movement should bring such anger into movement-wide discussions of why Corporate America is able, and reaps huge profits from, screwing the working class. Rather than isolated incidents of a few “bad” corporations, or the fault of workers in the Third World or Japan, capitalism itself could become the target of worker anger and mobilization.

A solely bread-and-butter labor movement is unable to link seemingly isolated events and point to the underlying systemic causes. Only a movement that can “act locally, analyze systemically” will provide the adequate framework to point to both the inherent failures of capitalism and the necessity of a democratic, worker-run socialist society. Such a movement can both mount a sophisticated fight for bread, and also strategize for the longer struggle for roses.

4. How Does Our Activism Fit into the Picture?

Exploring these contradictions provides a guidepost for our activism. Perhaps the best way to get at the needed distinctions comes from posing the question: Is our goal to build stronger unions or to build a working-class movement? The question isn’t as artificial as it might at first seem.

The goal of building stronger unions is a useful project indeed. A more densely unionized population organized into savvier unions is the best resistance against the current attacks on working people.

But the thought that stronger institutions are the only goal ignores the fact that even bigger, better institutions can be detached from their base. The struggle to build stronger unions too often means reinforcing staff-run, top-down organizations. Membership “involvement” may be on the list of tasks, but it falls below winning the organizing drive, a first contract, or establishing a grievance procedure-none of which are guarantees of true workers’ power on the shopfloor or real protection against the vagaries of capitalist competition.

An active membership is not simply a nice idea, for institutions are only as strong as the movement that supports them. Many claim that questions of internal union democracy and rank-and-file control should be left to later, that the primary goal is taking on aggressive management. However, these questions are inextricably linked to the ability of the movement to fight back. Any attempt to detach them is a crippling separation.

None of this is to argue that structure, leadership, or staff are handicaps. Far from it; only a movement with a strong infrastructure will last. Such infrastructure must not be an end in itself, but be formed towards the end of building a rank-and-file-driven movement.

Movement-building is a necessarily long-term process, stemming from work to build a heritage of democratic, grassroots participation that at times is at odds with the exigencies of short-run struggles. But by keeping the larger goal of transforming society through workers’ control at the heart of current projects, the necessity of building democratic and activist traditions makes sense. Such a commitment helps shape our activism, for we are forced to ask ourselves difficult questions:

Does our work institutionalize democratic, rank-and-file control or further detach unions from their base? Are struggles being managed from the top or is leadership being developed within the ranks? Are we relying on easy scapegoats or is our analysis pointing to the systemic causes of inequality and exploitation?

Many of the most accessible ways to get involved with the movement (staff jobs, organizer jobs, etc.) are not necessarily the only, or even the best, option. Rather than just focus on changing the leadership of the movement, some radical activists have taken ordinary jobs, working on the shopfloor and in their local unions to build political consciousness and membership involvement. Their commitment to change from the bottom up has sustained what otherwise might be seen as a small-scale effort within one local, workplace, or union. One needs only to look, however, at the changes within the Teamsters to see its transformative possibilities.

Such a commitment to movement building ensures the longevity of union strength. It rests on the belief that worker mobilization is the best weapon against corporate attack as well as a way to transform our society around the needs of the majority. This vision of change as a necessarily grassroots-driven process is both tactical and political.


What follows is a discussion of the challenges facing both activists and unions, along with examples of the struggles and groups who best embody a form of resistance built from a commitment to change from the bottom up. These stories show how people, organizations, and the balance of power can all be transformed when struggle is mounted from a set of progressive politics and a commitment to changing the labor movement, and society, through rank-and-file work. They tell of those who are waging the best fights against capital, and doing so in a way that puts the movement back in the labor movement.

1. The Shrinking Size of Organized Labor

Much attention has recently been paid to the fact that the unionized portion of the working population has fallen from 35 percent in 1955 to 15 percent in 1995. “Organize the unorganized” has become the mantra of all but the most backward union leaders, with the new AFL-CIO devoting $20 million to organizing and encouraging member unions to commit 30 percent of their budgets to the effort.

The money has gone to programs such as the Organizing Institute, where young people learn the basics of running an organizing drive and then join unions in the field as staff organizers. Another federation program that recently received a flurry of attention was Union Summer. Over one thousand students and young workers served three-week-long summer internships, getting a crash course in labor history and helping with organizing drives, voter mobilization, and strike support. The program got so much hype that a union-busting law firm went to the extreme of publishing a pamphlet titled “Employers’ Guide to Defending Against Union Summer” for its customers (Wessels and Pauchtsch, PC Attorneys at Law).

It’s fortunate that after decades of inaction, the movement is waking to the necessity of new-member organizing and resource consolidation. But the activity lacks both a coherent strategy and solid politics. The last decades have seen the advent of general rather than industrial unionism. Panic seems to guide unions as they merge without industrial logic (e.g. the International Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers with the Service Employees International Union) or compete to organize workers outside their traditional jurisdictions (e.g. the Steelworkers and UAW public sector employees).

In this scramble to consolidate their dues base, unions have ignored certain key sectors. For example, during the 1970s two-thirds of the non-Big Three auto suppliers were organized; today it’s slipped to one-fifth. At a time when outsourcing to non-union plants is a key weapon used against auto workers, strategic organizing of these suppliers should be the highest priority.

The desperation to add numbers to the movement has also resulted in less than ideal organizing strategies. “Blitzing” is the federation’s organizing model of choice (see “An Ex-Staffer’s Story”). An organizer blitzes a worksite, going door-to-door to interview workers. If enough interest isn’t drummed up within a short period of time, the blitz is ended and the organizer moves on to the next site. If there is sufficient interest, the organizer works toward getting enough workers to sign union cards to lead to a union-recognition election.

The point of blitzing is to hit hard and fast; unions expect the vast majority of blitz drives to fail. Because the sole focus is winning a National Labor Relations Board election, little time is spent educating, mobilizing, or even involving, the workers. In the best-case scenario, this would happen after the workers win representation. But in reality, this leaves workers who win recognition without the training or infrastructure to run their union after the organizer has moved on. Also, when blitzes lose, workers are left without continued support from the union. Any workers active in the drive are more vulnerable to retaliation. The workforce in general can easily become cynical about the goal of the union, and the employer’s line-the union just wants your dues money-seems to ring true.

Some unions have rejected the staff-driven model of organizing, instead harnessing the experience and creativity of their own members. The Teamsters, for example, are using rank and filers as volunteer organizers, encouraging members to bring their experience to organizing drives. The Laborers’ union has invited Guatemalan unionists to help organize Guatemalan immigrants in U.S. chicken-processing plants throughout the South.

But even where unions don’t rely exclusively on staff organizers, they often continue to blitz worksite by worksite. Three other models incorporate organizing as a long-term process of political mobilization rather than focus solely on an NLRB election.

SEIU’s national Justice for Janitors campaign is innovative on two fronts: it mobilizes workers and the community, and it looks strategically at a whole industry rather than a single worksite.

Janitors in Century City, Los Angeles, are called the ghosts of the town: usually immigrants, working for terrible wages, they emerge only at night to clean the offices of the sprawling financial Mecca. Over the last twenty years, firms have stopped employing union janitors and instead used non-union contractors to do their cleaning. A site-by-site campaign would have failed, for firms could have simply switched to a different non-union contractor.

Instead, the campaign took on the entire Century City complex, using union workers to help the unorganized build a movement. They took that movement to the streets, built community support, and, rather than wait for an election, they demanded recognition. After three years of organizing, the campaign won a Master Agreement for the Los Angeles Building Service Industry. Two thousand workers became union members and were guaranteed raises.

In recent years, the workers’ center model has helped the most marginalized and exploited organize for community and economic power. The Latino Workers Center in New York City works mainly with Central and South American immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, who are employed in the numerous garment sweatshops and restaurant services.

Because of their immigrant status and low-wage jobs, these workers are overlooked by the mainstream labor movement and thoroughly exploited by their employers. The Center’s legal aid has won thousands of dollars of overtime, backpay, and severance pay for immigrant workers who often don’t realize they are protected by labor standards even if they are undocumented. The Center has also supported unionized workers whose unions have done nothing to fight against their exploitation.

While its main activity is legal service, the center is forming “industrial committees” of garment, food-service, and other types of work. These committees are responsible for counseling new recruits, so that from the start, workers are involved in the process of organizing, and new members are able to hear stories of successful struggle.

The Center hopes to use the master-contract approach that scored a victory in Century City. A possible target are the hundreds of delis employing a few workers, often immigrants. Traditional deli-by-deli unionization drives are impractical: a bargaining unit of four has little power, and the thousands of delis in New York would make it an endless task. Instead, the Center hopes that by using the industrial committees as organizing cores, and with community support, contracts can be won for whole swatches of the city at a time.

The “minority-union” model is used when it’s not possible to win a majority to vote for a union. Black Workers For Justice, a community-based labor organization in North Carolina, has helped workers build minority unions that, while management refuses to recognize them as a collective bargaining agent, do represent what the National Labor Relations Act calls “concerted activity” and thus receive protections under labor law. Minority unions can maintain in-plant committees, designate union stewards, and pass out leaflets, establishing both an infrastructure of communication as well as a core that may be able to organize the majority of workers around specific campaigns. Through grassroots organizing, in both the plant and the larger community, minority unions have scored victories for safety, wages, and paid holidays through mass action.

Obviously, organizing is of utmost importance. But so too are strategic planning and political soundness. If we really want to enhance our strategic muscle against capital, we must target key sectors and return to industrially based logic for organizing and mergers.

And second, because we are not simply building unions but building a movement, we must rethink the politics behind our tactics. Organizing drives are usually the first contact workers have with unions, so the values we want expressed through the movement must be at the heart of this work. We should rely more on the skills and power of the rank and file, rather than further adding to the layer of outside professionals who run the movement. From the start, workers must be in control of the direction, pace, and tenor of their struggle.

Some have argued that organizing should come first, and questions of internal union democracy and rank-and-file participation can be solved later. But as one activist said, if you have a vat of flat beer, the solution isn’t to add more flat beer, but start it fizzing. Questions of politics go to the heart of organizing and must be addressed every step of the way.

2. Globalization of Capital

In the early 1970s, it became clear that America’s international economic dominance was faltering in the face of increased competition. U.S. companies desperate to guarantee profits set to cutting costs, starting with labor costs. First “whipsawing” communities against each other to see who would offer the most wage/benefit concessions and largest tax abatements, companies then moved production to the non-union U.S. South.

But with the development of better communication and transportation systems, companies could move production overseas to areas where wages were merely pennies, beginning with the Caribbean. Third World “free trade zones,” such as the garment maquiladoras in Mexico and Central America and the electronics factories in Southeast Asia, now produce items ranging from auto components to designer clothing. Developing countries, eager for any investment, compete in undercutting each other, all boasting the lowest wages, fewest environmental restrictions, most docile and industrious (i.e. exploitable) work force, and most lax labor laws. The passage of NAFTA and the lowering of trade barriers meant the acceleration of this process.

First ignoring the trend then panicking, the U.S. labor movement reacted against globalization with protectionism and economic nationalism. U.S. labor, missing the point that items “made in America” are often an assemblage of components manufactured overseas, mounted buy-American campaigns.

But many unionists have seen the limits of simple protectionism, realizing that dirt wages in the Third World not only super-exploit those workers and deliver huge profits to business, but keep American workers in check as well. Seeing internationalism as the only effective response to transnational capital, some currents in the labor movement are building international solidarity through grassroots education and cross- border organizing. In recent years, the National Labor Committee organized a series of campaigns that have brought public attention to the horrendous conditions in Central American garment maquiladoras.

Maquilas employ mostly young women at pennies-an-hour wages to work under terrible conditions and endure mistreatment and sexual harassment. While there are minimal labor standards in most of these countries, maquilas flout those that do exist with impunity. Women who have attempted to organize have suffered intense intimidation, and at times kidnapping and rape.

Activists have drawn attention to the disparity between the public image of “corporate responsibility” of companies like Eddie Bauer, Phillips-Van Heusen, and The Gap and the conditions in the factories where their garments are made. Public actions, along with a speaking tour of young women from the maquilas, have brought results. The Gap finally agreed to sign a statement of compliance, allowing international observers to inspect their contracted suppliers. The National Labor Committee will monitor to make sure inspections do take place. A similar campaign against Kathy Lee Gifford, whose low-price clothing line is made in Central American maquilas and New York City sweatshops, brought a tearful public apology and a short-lived bout of workers’ rights activism on her part.

Organizers are now targeting Nike, whose logo is an international status symbol. Its public image and campaign for PLAY (Participate in the Lives of America’s Youth) belie a horrendous record on labor practices. Nike is infamous for moving shop to whichever area of the globe offers the lowest wages and fewest restrictions.

Beyond boycott campaigns, the most impressive cross-border efforts have been toward organizing maquiladora workers and around union-to-union, company-based, or industry-wide organizing strategies. The best examples have involved rank and filers’ participation rather than paternalistic efforts by U.S. union officialdom, and have emphasized mutual aid between the United States and countries like Mexico and Guatemala.

Among the most impressive efforts at union-to-union organizing has been the Strategic Organizing Alliance, founded in 1992 by the United Electrical Workers union in the United States and the Frente Autentico del Trabajo in Mexico. The UE chose to work with the FAT rather than the government-sponsored union.

The first target for organizing was General Electric, which in the last decade has moved 10,000 jobs from union plants to the Southern United States and around the world. The bulk moved to Mexico, where 20,000 GE workers work in non-union plants.

Beyond efforts in Mexico, the UE has done much to educate its own members about the situation facing Mexican workers. Discussions, and visits by Mexican workers have helped show U.S. workers that the enemy is the transnational corporations, not workers in the Third World. The UE and FAT recently opened a workers’ center in Mexico as a base for organizing in the maquiladoras.

The American labor movement has a fairly despicable history when it comes to the struggles of workers in other countries. Rather than support independent or leftist workers’ organizations in the Third World, the AFL-CIO has helped the CIA and the U.S. government stamp them out. Official efforts by U.S. labor have sought to spread the gospel of business unionism. Attempts to build a global workers’ movement to fight transnational capital cannot rely on the AFL-CIO, but must be built through grassroots, cross-border efforts. This implies that there is a give-and-take relationship, in which U.S. workers have both much to offer and much to learn from workers in other countries.

3. The Lean Workplace

As companies discovered the benefits of exploiting low wages overseas, they also set about radically restructuring work at home. Beginning in the Japanese auto industry, “lean production” has spread to all continents and to most industries, including the service sector. The logic of the new system is to cut waste to the bone-waste defined as extra time, extra motion, extra workers-to increase productivity, and thus profit.

A key component is “just-in-time” production: employers hire just enough workers for just long enough to produce just enough components to be assembled just in time to meet market demand.

Such a system requires ultimate flexibility-the ability of management to change workers’ tasks and hours at will and to shed workers at a moment’s notice. Thus a key aspect of the system is the use of temporary and contract workers, and the outsourcing of as much work as possible to lower-paid, usually non-union suppliers. In the public sector, the push for privatization of government is essentially the “leaning” of social services through contracting out government responsibility to private firms.

The ability to change job descriptions at a moment’s notice means that jobs must be standardized, requiring further regimentation and deskilling of the work. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich called for workers to improve their high-tech skills to become fit for the workplace of the future. But for every high-wage, high-skill job created through the “information revolution,” many more become dumbed-down, low-wage jobs. Working with high-tech equipment does not equal being a skilled worker. In fact, management’s lean ideal is to transfer brainwork to the machine/computer, with “expert systems” that reduce any discretionary power on the part of the worker.

For workers, “flexibility” has meant insecurity, as they never know how much work they will get, what they will be paid, or what benefits, if any, they can count on. With more work outsourced to part-time contractors or temp agencies, Manpower Inc. has grown to be the largest private employer in the United States.

AT&T Vice President James Meadows praises these developments: “People need to look at themselves as self-employed, as vendors who come to this company to sell their skills. In AT&T we have to promote the whole concept of the work force being contingent, though most of our contingent workers are inside our walls.” (New York Times, 2/13/96)

Along with insecurity, the results of the “leaning and meaning” of production have been jumps in injury rates, especially repetitive strain injuries caused by performing an ever-growing number of standardized tasks over and over. Between 1980 and 1991, productivity rose 81 percent in auto. But injury rates in the industry jumped from five workers per hundred in 1980 to 28.3 in 1991, and then 32.3 the next year. Both of these trends are products of the lengthening of worktime and the intensification of work. Today, because of overtime, American workers work one month longer a year than they did in 1967. Workers are working harder and longer, but for less. While lean production has boosted company profits to unprecedented

levels (a 170 percent jump between 1982 and 1994 alone), workers’ real wages have fallen during the last two decades (Time Out, 32, 60).

Most union officials have bought the business logic that such sacrifices are necessary to save jobs. Others, though, have refused to sacrifice safety and wages, and have found ways to exploit the system’s vulnerabilities for the workers’ ends.

“Patient-Focused Care” in hospitals is an example of how lean production is being applied to the service industry. Under this misnamed system, as much work as possible is taken away from registered nurses and given to less-trained workers. Then, what were once distinct, specialized jobs are combined so teams of nurse’s aides can rotate through all responsibilities. “This new breed of generic healthcare worker,” wrote Trudy Richardson, Education Director of the United Nurses of Alberta, “would be a little bit of a nurse, a little bit of a lab tech, a little bit of a physiotherapist, a little bit of a housekeeper, a little bit of a clerk, a little bit of a transporter, and a big bit tired!” (“Reengineering the Hospital,” Working Smart, 118.)

Sold as a way to cut healthcare costs for the consumer, this leaning of healthcare in fact delivers increasing profits to health insurance companies, leaving nurses overworked and underpaid and patients at the mercy of an irrational healthcare system. In the 1996 elections, both the California Nurses Association and SEIU sponsored ballot initiatives in California aimed at protecting healthcare workers and the consumer against the leaning of service. Although both initiatives failed, they signaled the start of grassroots organizing by unions and patients against such attacks.

Recent strikes in the auto industry-the birthplace of lean production-further illustrate ways to fight back. In 1994, UAW Local 599 in Flint, Michigan rejected the logic of lean. Workers at General Motors Buick City complex in Flint had been working long hours of overtime, with fewer and fewer people, throughout the early 1990s. In 1994, Local 599, led by the New Directions reform caucus, fought lean production by putting forward a simple demand-hire more workers to relieve overwork. This went against GM’s stated policy: “No new Social Security numbers!” and would have required GM to de-lean many areas of the plant.

The local accumulated hundreds of grievances, which under their contract gave workers the right to strike. Just-in-time production meant that the complex was both a supplier and receiver of parts within GM, so a strike quickly shut down nine other GM plants. GM conceded in four days, agreeing to the union’s demand for new hires, 779 in all. They were the first new hires in production in the whole GM system since 1986!

Again in 1996, the UAW used GM’s lean strategies against the company to combat outsourcing production. A 16-day strike in Dayton, Ohio, shut down virtually all of General Motors and cost the company nearly a billion dollars. Because one plant supplied brakes to most of GM’s assembly plants, and because just-in-time production meant no plant had big inventories on hand, a single local was able to bring the system to a grinding halt.

The greatest gains against outsourcing, supposedly crucial to the lean system, were won by the Canadian Auto Workers. (In the 1980s, the Canadians split from the UAW and formed their own union because they opposed concessions and cooperation.) In 1996, CAW won contract language from Chrysler halting further outsourcing. When GM refused to follow the pattern, CAW struck. GM threatened to move equipment from a Canadian plant to the United States to compensate for the slowdown caused by the strike. The CAW leadership responded by sanctioning an occupation of the plant. With workers crowded inside, workers welded the doors shut and dismantled the dies GM had planned to take. The day-long occupation provided the union the extra leverage it needed, forcing GM to cave in and follow the pattern set at Chrysler.

CAW has also taken the lead on limiting overtime and shortening worktime to create jobs. Over the last several contracts, CAW has won five additional weeks of days off, creating an estimated 2,000 full-time union jobs at the Big Three. However, this trend was tempered by the fact that workers traded their vacation days for cash. Taking political heat in the process, the CAW negotiated mandatory time off rather than monetary compensation.

Both the U.S. and Canadian governments have recently pushed to privatize many of their services. While American unions have been slow to respond, they should take a lesson from their neighbors. Canadian public-sector unions in Ontario have mobilized thousands to shut down the province. Their message: privatization of services is an attack on both workers and the quality of social services, not the tax-saving measure billed by government. In October 1996, a city-wide general strike in Toronto shut down businesses, government offices, and the entire public transit system. The next day, a record quarter of a million people protested social-service cuts and anti-union legislation. The Toronto protests were the fifth in a series of general strikes held throughout the province, bringing together unionists and community members.

Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a community-labor coalition, has taken on another aspect of the lean system: use of temporary workers. JwJ has spearheaded the organization of a temp-workers’ center in Boston. By researching the nature and impact of temp work and counseling temp workers who suffer on the job, the center hopes to devise strategies to organize this huge reserve of labor.

When unions buy into the idea that the dictates of competition are inescapable and that lean production is unassailable, concessions and layoffs are the only results. However, savvy unions can find and exploit the weak spots of lean production to give workers leverage.

4. Labor-Management Cooperation

The implementation of lean production can be thought of with the carrot/stick metaphor. The stick is the wave of lockouts, layoffs, and plant shutdowns that have swept the country in the last two decades. The carrot that lures many unions into accepting the dictates of this system is the promise of labor-management cooperation. First called Quality of Worklife (QWL), then team concept, and now more commonly Total Quality Management (TQM) or re-engineering, workers and unions are invited to sit down with management and problem-solve. Who better than workers to tell business how to cut corners and increase productivity? On the shop floor, teams are assigned to aid in continuous improvement, and workers and supervisors cooperate to solve bottlenecks.

From the top of the AFL-CIO down, the labor movement has embraced the rhetoric of cooperation and employee empowerment. Hoping that increased communication and participation will allow the movement to blunt the sharp side of lean production, labor leaders, Sweeney included, have proclaimed an end to confrontation and embarked on a new era of partnership. They have called for management to take the high road of high wages and high performance, rather than the low road of shipping production overseas and union-busting at home, saying that “good corporate citizens” who employ well-paid and well-treated workers will be rewarded with greater productivity, quality, and competitiveness, and thus higher profits. The pie will grow for all.

But experience has shown this not to be the case. The rash of downsizing, outsourcing, and speedup are not instances of “mismanagement” that increased union cooperation and communication will solve. Rather, these attacks, often aided by the information obtained through cooperation, are rewarded by the market.

Unions get involved in labor-management problem- solving to have a say in the production decisions that can so negatively affect work life. The goal of such programs, however, is not primarily to rationalize production for the workers’ needs, but to iron out all the kinks, eliminate jobs, and improve productivity (and thus profitability). Indeed, a “say” more often proves to be about the need for a watercooler in the hall rather than an end to inhuman, yet highly profitable, speedup.

Teamwork similarly fails to deliver its promise. Instead of strictly defined job classifications won through years of bargaining, teams of workers rotate through a variety of jobs. While billed as a way to bring diversity to often dull jobs and to train workers at a variety of skills, in reality teamwork means performing a handful of dull jobs (requiring minimal skills) rather than one. Also, once all the team members know all the jobs, it is much simpler to cut a member off the team and force the rest to pick up the slack. In practice, teamwork and cooperation have resulted not in more interesting jobs or diverse skills, but in using the union to teach management how to downsize.

Before the Midwest was lit up by the War Zone of Decatur, both Staley and Caterpillar had extensive cooperation programs. Workers taught management how to downsize through cutting corners. The standardized manuals workers wrote were then used to train scabs. Management did not hesitate to throw cooperation out the window once it had achieved what it wanted.

Experience shows that a union dictionary should include translations such as these:

  • partnership = union gets left holding the bag
  • flexibility = insecurity
  • multi-skilling = deskilling
  • continuous improvement = speed-up
  • worker participation = telling the boss how to train your replacement

A few internationals have rejected partnership and fused to participate. Many more local unions have tried to resist such programs, educating members and voting no on partnership offers. Others have told management that they will “problem solve,” but have taken strong measures to maintain the union’s independence, treating every meeting in which workers and management are in the same room as an adversarial situation.

One example of resistance is Machinists Local 1293 in Iowa, described in the Labor Notes book Working
. First the union insisted on bringing in its own expert to help shape its “participation.” Then union negotiators demanded that every member of the bargaining unit receive eight hours of union-only “solidarity schooling.” This education, on company time, taught members what involvement programs were really about. The union reserved the right to appoint members to any joint committees, and developed a “union code of conduct” for participants. The code asserted, among other things, that “union members shall display loyalty and solidarity with other union members at all times.” Union leaders asserted the right to “caucus,” or hold union-only recesses, during joint meetings.

The union also insisted that the participation program could not replace traditional collective bargaining or contract negotiation. Whenever management violated members’ rights in any sphere, such as a new absence-control policy or employee “quality pledge,” the union pulled out of the joint program until the problem was resolved.

Local 1293 was able to use the structure of participation to reinforce union solidarity and maintain its independence. This, however, is an exception. The ideology of cooperation has settled into the mainstream of the labor movement. Insofar as these programs redraw working-class solidarity to mean worker-company loyalty, the unity and coherence of the movement are seriously threatened.

5. A Government of Capital, for Capital . . .

As capital wages its offensive against workers, it seeks to reshape the terrain, not limiting itself to the economic sphere, but exploiting political and social factors as well. The labor movement, already reluctant to confront capital on the shop floor, is similarly timid in terms of exploiting political tools. If labor really expects to make inroads in political battles, it must conceive of a comprehensive strategy rather than just throwing money at elections. Much like running a successful strike, political action must rest on two projects: involving members in the process of political education and rethinking our old assumptions about the best way to force government to respond to workers, rather than to capital.

Not knowing our own history of struggle, not taught how to decode propaganda, working people are disarmed. Noam Chomsky has made the point that on sports talk shows, callers make intelligent points about the history of the sport or the various players while an equivalent talk show about politics reveals how prejudice and disinformation rule. While the U.S. media and other educational institutions are teaching people to be dumb, the labor movement should be a place for alternative education, both for developing political tools and learning our own history.

Part of building a labor movement means learning how to become smart about a range of issues, from the shopfloor to political action. A new program of the Communication Workers union, District One, seeks to bring political discussion back into the heart of the labor movement. Rather than run TV ads discussing this or that political candidate, the program hopes to rebuild the political culture of the movement by helping rank and filers develop analytical tools.

In response to the fact that in 1994, 40 percent of its membership voted for the right-wing Republican candidate for governor, George Pataki, District One created a participatory workshop to engage members in dialogue about “hot” political issues such as a balanced budget, deregulation, tax cuts, and welfare reform. Workers were given the relevant facts and figures and an arena that fostered discussion. Many participants concluded that what politicians claim are efforts to save tax money and keep government off our backs actually mask a fundamentally anti-worker, pro-corporate agenda.

In one exercise, participants were presented with the problem of balancing the federal budget by cutting $200 million. After studying a chart listing each of the major government programs and its cost, the group quickly saw that military costs and corporate tax credits, not entitlements such as welfare, are the big-ticket items. In reviewing deficit growth in the 1980s, they found that the annual value of tax cuts for the rich exceeded the annual cost of the deficit.

Discussions of welfare turned on a presentation of facts about “typical” recipients, not stereotypes. Participants discussed how welfare reform often substitutes low-wage, no-benefit workfare jobs for union jobs. Suddenly, the real story wasn’t tax savings through spending cuts, but attacks on wages and benefits that will hurt all workers.

Participants then devised their own political program, which included proposals for radical campaign reform, restoration of corporate- and wealth-tax rates to pre-Reagan levels, universal health insurance, a public jobs-creation program, and the implementation of controls on overseas investment.

Fostering the ability to think creatively is fundamental to rebuilding a sophisticated political culture within the movement. And while the current political atmosphere is undoubtedly slanted in favor of business, the labor movement must be willing to find and exploit all the tools at its disposal.

A case in point is the efforts by the United Electrical members in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Typical of many American industrial towns, the 100,000 residents have seen 12,000 industrial jobs move out in the last twenty years. Remaining jobs tend to be low-wage service jobs, and the unemployment rate is three times the national or state averages.

Rather than sit by and watch the bottom fall out of their local economy, the UE chose to fight further plant closings with the principle of “eminent domain.” This principle, used throughout American history, allows a government to seize private property, with fair compensation, to serve the public good, usually to open space for building railroads or highways. The UE hoped to use it to seize plants slated for closing, to protect jobs. In the 1980s, the mere threat of seizure convinced another company in the area to keep operating.

The most recent attempt was to keep the century-old J.C. Rhodes eyelet factory open. Scoville, Inc. bought the plant in early 1996, and turned around a few months later to announce its closure. The community was eager to keep what were among the few remaining high-wage jobs in the area, and the local mounted an impressive campaign. In the end, the mayor, who had talked tough at first, scuttled the project, fearful of creating an “anti-business” atmosphere.

The UE’s struggle provides an inspiring example. They have published a pamphlet about it and have already been contacted by a number of unions interested in waging such fights.

But the UE’s failure to win also demonstrates how any political effort must be a part of a comprehensive strategy if it has any hope of changing the balance of power. This then raises the question of why labor is so tightly tied to the Democratic Party.

While the link has an almost timeless quality now, it was only established in the 1930s, when labor joined the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition. Before then, there were numerous attempts by workers and unions to form their own political party. Labor parties sprang up on a local and state level, existing for decades.

Perhaps the most notable attempt to form an independent party occurred when the Knights of Labor joined with the farmers’ movements in the late 19th century to form the Populist Party. But in the early 1900s the Socialist Party built a strong following in the working class; for example, labor-backed socialists ran Milwaukee for years. However, national attempts to build a labor party have been derailed by both the AFL and the CIO.

Thus the United States has been the only English-speaking industrialized country without a political party that, at least in name, is explicitly a labor party. Labor’s role, as it has been directed by the AFL-CIO, is to be a pressure group within the Democratic Party. But what does such effort get us?

President Bill Clinton, the golden boy of labor these days, had a pretty shoddy first term, and continues to lurch to the right. Contrast his extraordinary efforts to push NAFTA through Congress with his lukewarm support of an anti-scab bill, which never made it past the Senate. His Executive Order forbidding federal contracting with firms that hire scabs got good press, and ignored the fact that he allowed subsidies and grants to continue flowing to those same scab-employing firms. (Caterpillar was one of the biggest recipients of Department of Commerce research grants.) Rather than push for new legislation protecting the right to organize, Clinton’s panel on labor came out in support of labor-management “cooperation” as the best remedy for workers.

Maybe the AFL-CIO was willing to overlook these other failures, but it had vowed to punish those who passed NAFTA. Where did this bluster and strut go come the election of 1996? The federation gave the Democratic presidential candidate its earliest endorsement ever.

The dependence on the Democrats is ill-conceived because it doesn’t work. Whatever such an alliance may have brought in the past, today the Democrats have joined the GOP squarely behind a pro-corporate agenda. Besides simply not delivering, the alliance with the Democrats is a poor choice because it accepts the idea that, rather than build an independent party within our own class, we should petition a party built by corporate interests.

Thankfully, the history of third parties has recently opened its next chapter. In a recent Harris Poll, 82 percent of those surveyed said “the government works for the few and not the majority of people.” And in spite of unfair election laws, the idea of independent political action keeps growing. The Greens and the New Party have gained ballot status in a handful of states and sponsor candidates who run on pro-worker platforms. They have accumulated experience in a number of campaigns and have even won local office.

Over the last five years the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union spearheaded efforts to build toward the idea of independent, pro-worker political action. In June 1996, at a convention attended by nearly 1,400 people, the Labor Party was founded. Under the banner, “the bosses have two parties, it’s time we have one of our own,” delegates adopted “A Call for Economic Justice,” proposing a minimum wage of $10 an hour, a 32-hour work week, and a universal single-payer health program. The party is still new and has for now decided against running or endorsing candidates. Instead, it has launched a national education campaign for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to a job at a living wage. Its newspaper, Labor Party Press, is spotlighting major political issues such as why the “crisis” in the Social Security system is a phony issue.

If we hope to achieve a worker-friendly (much less worker-run) government, we cannot rely on a party that has failed us on almost every count. Rather, the key to changing the balance of power lies in rebuilding the political culture of the labor movement and developing our own independent political voice and institutions.

6. Pushing the Margins In

The mainstream labor movement has a terrible record on fighting for what have been considered the “social” issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Divorcing labor from the issues facing discriminated groups within the working class has resulted in the tendency today for “identity politics” to be separate from questions of class and to be largely ignored by the labor movement. But recent years have seen the growth of groups on the margins forcing their way into the heart of the labor movement.

Women have made great strides in the last decades towards workplace equity. In 1992, however, women still earned only 71 cents to every dollar men earned. Also, skilled trades and other “traditional” blue-collar jobs are largely closed to women workers. Those jobs in which women are over-represented, such as in the service sector, are often the last to unionize. A number of organizations have formed to fight for union protection for women workers and against the special obstacles faced by women on the job.

In 1975, women were 0.85 percent of workers in blue-collar jobs not traditionally open to women (construction, maintenance, etc.). By the late 1980s, that number was still under 2 percent. In Cleveland, women in the skilled trades formed Hard Hatted Women to force an opening for women in nontraditional jobs, such as construction work. The group expanded from skilled trades to aid women workers in factory-line jobs, maintenance, and a variety of other traditional blue-collar jobs, and now organizes against sexual harassment and intimidation of women at work.

The National Association of Working Women, 9to5, has over 15,000 members nationally and has developed a network of activists to help women office workers fight sexual harassment, electronic monitoring by management, and for better wages and benefits. 9to5 helps women whose unions fail to fight for them, and also aids those who want to organize.

La Mujer Obrera (The Woman Worker) Project in El Paso, Texas organizes garment workers, mainly immigrant women. The project teaches workers about their legal rights, and organizes workplaces to fight the intense sexual harassment, intimidation, and abuse they face in the sweatshops. From these struggles, the project hopes to develop organizing committees that will bargain with management. And through newsletters, murals, and plays, the project uses the workers’ culture and traditions to begin dialogue about their oppression as women and as immigrants.

It has always been a struggle to force the mainstream union movement to address race. During the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the civil rights and Black Power movements, workers of color organized caucuses in many unions to fight shop-floor and internal union racism. Today, some unions have awakened to the need to reach out to low-wage workers, often people of color. The SEIU-sponsored Justice for Janitors campaign and efforts to organize health-care workers have brought union protection to jobs where workers of color are over-represented. But as always, labor has been slow to join the progressive initiatives that come out of communities of color.

Black Workers For Justice has been instrumental in the South, both in protecting workers and in winning rights for poor communities of color. North Carolina is home to runaway auto and pharmaceutical plants that have relocated from unionized communities in the North. While the so-called “research triangle” where these high-tech plants are located is wealthy, the plants draw on the poor, rural surrounding areas for employees. BWFJ’s tactic is to focus not solely on winning union recognition, but on building worker power, both on the shop floor and in the community.

Only 6 percent of workers are unionized in North Carolina, and, under pressure from sophisticated anti-union campaigns, most union drives fail. Rather than organize plant by plant, BWFJ launched the Workers Want Fairness campaign to educate workers about their rights. Through community mobilization and direct action, victories have been won at a number of factories, including increased severance pay, improved working conditions, and protection from arbitrary harassment by management. As discussed earlier, BWFJ has also been instrumental in efforts to organize minority unions.

BWFJ has lobbied local governments to pass a “Workers’ Bill of Rights,” outlining standards companies must follow, even if their workers do not have union protection. In addition, BWFJ has helped poor areas “incorporate” as townships to gain government support for infrastructure, health, and education improvements.

Says activist Shafeah M’Balia of BWFJ’s unique approach: “We see the question of political empowerment, Black political power, as a fundamental issue in North Carolina and in the South. It is our view that you cannot address workers’ rights in the South without coming face to face with the powerlessness of the community.” (A Troublemaker’s Handbook, 183)

The labor movement has only recently, and very tentatively, addressed issues facing gay workers. Some unions, such as the Service Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, have had gay caucuses for a while, and Sweeney has been vocal in support of gay workers’ rights. But the labor movement as a whole either ignores, or is openly hostile, to gay workers.

Pride at Work is a national organization of unionists working for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender workers that supports workers who have experienced harassment and discrimination both on the job and in their union. Beyond this, PAW activist Vince Quackenbush says the group seeks to bring “class consciousness to the gay community‚Ķand to educate the labor movement about the needs of gay workers” (“Gay/Lesbian Activists Talk AFL-CIO Affiliation,” Labor Notes, August 1996). PAW has supported labor struggles, such as enforcing a Food and Commercial Workers-led boycott of a grocery store in the heart of San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, and hopes to start organizing drives in the large non-profit sector devoted to gay rights and AIDS.

Bringing together activists from the gay rights struggle with those from the trade union movement blends the best of militancy and politics. Complacent unions can learn a lot from the confrontational style of seasoned gay rights activists, while the gay community often needs a lesson in class analysis from union activists.

Efforts to bring the “margins” to the heart of the labor movement are growing, but forcing labor to fight all issues facing the working class, whether economic or “social,” requires rebuilding the political foundation of the movement. Issues of discrimination against segments of the working class must be seen as central to organizing for worker power. Racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and gay-bashing are all products of the same social and economic structure that oppresses all of us.

The labor movement must also rethink the nature and function of diversity within the working class. Rather than find diversity a handicap undercutting our unity, the movement must exploit it as a strength. To the extent that our goal is the self-organization of the working class against exploitation, the self-organization of exploited groups within the working class must be encouraged and supported. Caucuses of African-American, women, or gay workers are an asset to unions, both in terms of better fighting the employer and in facing internal problems of discrimination within our class and movement.

7. Just Another Special Interest . . .

The isolation of the union movement from the mostly unorganized working class has had countless crippling effects. The tendency of non-union workers to view unions as greedy, special-interest promoters is further reinforced when unions often fail to join progressive social causes. On the other hand, union members tend to view their interests as being with their particular employer rather than with the poor or unemployed. Fortunately, recent campaigns signal a move by some unions to join fights that protect both their members and the whole working class.

In a handful of cities, labor organizations have joined with community groups to campaign for “living-wage” initiatives. These laws require non-union firms receiving government contracts to pay workers the designated “living wage,” usually figured as the wage necessary to keep a family of three (sometimes four) at or above the federal poverty level. Living-wage campaigns guarantee non-union workers a decent wage and lessen the incentive to use non-union, low-wage contractors.

The battle is often uphill, for the opposition scares communities into believing that living wages will eliminate jobs. But the message that it isn’t necessary to trade off high employment for decent wages is finding a wide audience as more community groups and unions join in living-wage campaigns.

A recent victory was scored in Milwaukee where Progressive Milwaukee (the local affiliate of the New Progressive Party) and Sustainable Milwaukee won measures covering contract workers and school-system employees. In Los Angeles, an ordinance was passed requiring that companies taking over privatized government work retain the workers already on the job. Los Angeles organizers plan to pass a living-wage ordinance covering contract workers, whose numbers are growing as more services are privatized. Similar victories were scored in St. Paul and Portland, and campaigns are under way in cities across the country.

In response to the welfare reform that moves recipients into workfare jobs, some in the labor movement are joining with, rather than scapegoating, these workers. In New York City, the Work Experience Program has been nicknamed the “Work Exploitation Program” by its participants. WEP workers receive no on-the-job protection and thus are subject to abuses and safety violations some don’t even realize are illegal.

WEP Workers Together, a coalition of workers, anti-poverty groups, and locals of the Communications Workers and AFSCME, has begun monitoring abuses and organizing around workers’ rights, education, and job training. The group has also brought attention to the fact that many of the 75,000 WEP workers have replaced the 17,000 city workers downsized out of jobs in recent years.

AFSCME’s national leadership has called on the labor movement to mount national opposition to welfare “reform.” In addition, AFSCME is demanding tougher anti-displacement provisions, a national jobs program, protections for immigrants, legal protections for WEP workers, protections against privatization, and expansion of child care.

Unions and community groups hope to eventually unionize WEP participants. This will prove difficult, however, because WEP workers are not considered “employees” and are not offered the same protections or rights under national labor law.

Although regrettably without union involvement, working people in Los Angeles won a major victory this year. While money is poured into building trains that bring white, middle-class suburbanites in to their jobs, the bus service used overwhelmingly by the urban working class-80 percent of whom are racial minorities-decays from lack of funding. The Labor Community Strategies Center served as the organizing core for a bus riders union. Arguing that they were being illegally denied service on the basis of race, the Center won a legal victory in federal court, forcing the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority to put 152 more buses on the streets and freeze the fare at $1.35 for two years. The case sets a legal precedent that organizers hope can be duplicated in other cities-hopefully next time with unions playing more of a role.

In a country where 10 percent controls 77 percent of the nation’s wealth, the labor movement should serve as a uniting force for the vast majority of us who aren’t in the capitalist class. The stakes are obviously high. Outsourcing, downsizing, the “leaning” of production, concessions, and further economic polarization are exacerbating regressive tendencies within the working class (race-baiting, economic nationalism, etc.). If the labor movement is to present a truly progressive alternative, it must be rooted within the whole class rather than merely among union members. (“Wealth in America,” Left Business Observer, 4/3/96)


Things are changing: sleepy Midwestern union towns are turned overnight into militant working-class strongholds on the frontlines of the new labor War Zone; anger at the attacks by Corporate America on “the American Dream” increases as workers work harder and longer for less; young women from garment maquiladoras tour the United States; activists and unions set to building an American labor party; innovative alliances between community groups and labor score victories for living-wage campaigns.

These efforts are fragile at best, for this is also a period in which labor is on the defensive, and reactionary politics get plenty of air time. Pat Buchanan is able to sell his racist, nationalist economic talk as working-class politics. Labor leaders proclaim the movement’s new militancy out of one side of their mouths, while preaching cooperation with management out of the other. The scramble to organize usually means more intensive business unionism rather than grassroots mobilization. People of color and women are still essentially frozen out of union leadership, while the poor and the unemployed are often viewed as the tax-sucking enemy rather than as allies.

The future is far from certain as the dinosaur of American labor wakes up and reorients itself in this period of international competition, lean production, political conservatism, and social and economic polarization.

Much of the new labor movement is focused on short-term gains: increasing members, consolidating the current power base, winning better contracts. And all of these are important. But as activists motivated by a vision of a broad fight for justice, we have multiple tasks. Our politics in practice mean that short-run struggles to better workers’ lives are inextricably linked to the larger goal of transforming society. As important as better wages or working conditions are so too are environmental protection, an equitable distribution of wealth, and an end to all forms of discrimination. All these necessitate radically transforming the balance of power within our society by extending democratic control over the decisions we face, ranging from politics to the economy.

No matter what shape our work as labor activists takes-rank-and-file jobs, organizer jobs, community or student support work-the commitment to change through building from the ground up puts us on the soundest footing. Socialist politics are an indispensable tool for labor activists: they direct us in the short run, but, more importantly, sustain us over the long haul. The desire to build a society based on democratic control and grassroots participation directs our attention to where the action is-in the working class itself.


Against the Current (bimonthly,
subscription $20, 7012 Michigan Ave., Detroit MI 48210).

Agents of Change: A Handbook for Student Labor Activists. AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, 1996.

Boyer, Richard O. and Herbert M. Morais. Labor’s Untold Story. United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE): 1955.

Downs, Steve. Why the Jobs Moved But The Unions Didn’t: Capital’s Restructuring and Labor’s Crisis. A Solidarity Pamphlet.

Labor Notes. (monthly, subscription $20, 7435 Michigan Ave., Detroit, MI 48210).

La Botz, Dan. A Troublemaker’s Handbook. Labor Education & Research Project, 1991.

Left Business Observer, 250 W. 85th Street, New York, NY 10024-3217 (11 issues for $22).

Moody, Kim. Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism. New York: Verso, 1988.

Moody, Kim and Simone Sagovac. Time Out! The Case for a Shorter Work Week. Labor Education & Research Project, 1995.

Refuse to Lose: Eminent Domain and the J.C. Rhodes Campaign. United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), 535 Smithfield St., 2400 Oliver Bldg., Pittsburgh, PA 15222.



Labor/ Working Class History

Ashby, Steven, Lessons of the Staley Fight from Labor Notes, February 1996

Bigelow, William and Norman Diamond. The Power in Our Hands. Monthly Review Press, 1988. A curriculum on the history of work and workers in the U.S.

Foner, Philip S. Organized Labor & the Black Worker 1619-1973, New York: International Publishers, 1976.

La Botz, Dan. Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union. London: Verso, 1990.

Levine, Bruce. Who Built America: Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.

Preis, Art. Labor’s Giant Step. New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1964.

Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso, 1991.

Wertheimer, Barbara Mayer, We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.


Brecher, Jeremy and Tim Costello. Global Village or Global Pillage: Economic Reconstruction From the Bottom Up. Boston: South End Press, 1994.

Colatosti, Camille and Elissa Karg. Stopping Sexual Harassment. Labor Education and Research Project, 1992.

Moody, Kim and Mary McGinn. Unions and Free Trade: Solidarity Vs. Competition. Labor Education and Research Project, 1992.

Slaughter, Jane and Mike Parker. Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering. Labor Education and Research Project, 1994.

Yates, Michael. Power on the Job: The Legal Rights of Working People. Boston: South End Press, 1994.

Starter Kit For Young Troublemakers. Starting to SLAC On Your Campus How to Build a Student-Labor Action Coalition on Your Campus


Association for Union Democracy (AUD), 500 State St., Brooklyn, NY 11217, 718/855-6650.

Black Workers for Justice, PO Box 1863, Rocky Mount, NC 27802, 919/977-8162. Publishes Justice Speaks

Campaign for Labor Rights, 1247 E Street SE, Washington, DC 20003. Membership is $35 a year; publishes newsletter with updates on labor rights’ campaigns, especially in Central America and the Caribbean.

Center for Campus Organizing, P.O. Box 748, Cambridge, MA 02142, 617/354-9363.

Hard Hatted Women, 4209 Lorain Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44113, 216/961-4449.

Labor Notes/Labor Education and Research Project, 7435 Michigan Ave., Detroit, MI 48210. 313/842-6262. Offers four-month long internships.

Midwest Center for Labor Research, 3411 W. Diversey Ave., #10, Chicago, IL 60647. Publishes Labor Research Review.

Labor Community Strategies Center, 3780 Wilshire Blvd., #1200, Los Angeles, CA 90010, 213/387-2800.

Labor Party, PO Box 55177, Washington, DC 20009, 202/234-5190, fax: 202/234-5266, e-mail:

Regular membership $20 a year, $10 low income. Publishes bimonthly Labor Party Press.

La Mujer Obrera, c/o Centro Obrero, Inc., PO Box 3975, El Paso, TX 79923.

Latino Workers Center, 191 E. 3rd Street, New York, NY 10003, 212/473-3936.

National Labor Committee, 275 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001, 212/242-3002, fax 212/242-3821. Has videos and packets on labor rights’ campaigns in Central America and Haiti, with current focus on Disney’s sweatshops.

New Directions Movement reform movement in the UAW. PO Box 6876, St. Louis, MO 63144, 314/531-2900. Publishes Voice of New Directions and organizes solidarity schools.

9to5, National Association of Working Women, 614 Superior Ave. NW, Cleveland, OH 44113, 216/566-9308.

Pride At Work, PO Box 658983, Washington, DC 20035, 202/667-8237.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), PO Box 10128, Detroit, MI 48210, 313/842-2600. Publishes Convoy Dispatch, a monthly newsletter.

U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project, P.O. Box 268-290, Chicago, IL 60626, 312/262-6502, e-mail: Initiated Starbucks and Phillips-Van Heusen campaigns with Guatemalan unions.



The Global Assembly Line (1986). Directed by Loraine Gray. How women workers in Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States are affected by the international movement of jobs. New Day Films, 22-D Hollywood Avenue, Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ 07423, 201/652-6590, fax: 201/ 652-1973.

The Killing Floor (1985). Directed by William Duke. Chicago meatpacking plant during WWI organizing drive.

Matewan (1987). Directed by John Sayles. 1920s West Virginia massacre of striking coal miners.

Roger and Me (1989). Directed by Michael Moore. Documentary on the effects of a General Motors’ plant closing on Flint, Michigan.

Salt of the Earth (1953). Directed by Herbert Biberman. Striking New Mexico mineworkers, written by blacklisted Hollywood victims Michael Wilson and Biberman.

We Do the Work. Video group that publishes a catalog of labor videos. 5867 Ocean View Drive, Oakland, CA 94618. 510/547-8484. Produces 1-hour specials.

AMY CARROLL graduated in 1995 from the University of Michigan, where she was active in SLAC. During the 1996 Graduate Employees Organization’s contract negotiations, she coordinated outreach to undergraduates. Carroll is a member of SOLIDARITY.

The author would like to thank Dianne Feeley and Jane Slaughter for their suggestions and support. Without their work this pamphlet would not have been finished.

Also thanks to Mia Butzbaugh, David Finkel, Nancy Gruber, Julie Klinker, Henry Phillips, Kim Moody, Matt Noyes, Charlie Post, Craig Regester, and Erin Small for their work.

Finally, a big thanks to Huck/Konopacki, for permission to reprint their great labor cartoons.