From the realignments at the top of the AFL-CIO hierarchy to the immigrant-driven campaigns at the base of the movement, commitment to internationalist struggle provides a key measure of U.S. Labor’s efforts at renewal.
Published in the November 2002 issue of the New Internationalist.
December 1, 1999. Just one day after the U.S. labor movement mobilized tens of thousands union members to help score a dramatic victory against the World Trade Organization, its remarkable “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition with students and environmentalists threatened to fracture.
Speaking from Seattle’s drizzly docks, Steelworkers President George Becker veered from denouncing WTO offences against laborers worldwide, He pointed instead to an American flag label sown into the lining of his jacket, and attempted to lead the crowd in chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Soon a group of disenchanted activists split away from the rear of the rally.
The moment of division may have festered, if not for the Seattle police. Minutes after many of the workers joined an impromptu march into the city’s “no protest zone,” officers advanced indiscriminately against students and local labor activists alike. Provoked unions joined in outrage at the tear-gas laden police response. Steelworker John Goodman said simply, “I could not believe that this is happening in America.”
And as U.S. Labor emerged from Seattle celebrating the shut-down of the WTO meetings, the spectre that appeared in Becker’s speech—a near-sighted nationalism that too often defined the movement’s approach to foreign affairs—gave way to something different.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called it “A New Internationalism.”
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American Labor’s Road to Revival
Seattle is one of the key events that shows how far the American labor movement has come, and how far it has yet to go, in its efforts to revive itself over the past decade. In 1995 an insurgent slate led by Sweeney wrested control of the AFL-CIO from a conservative old guard that had presided over decades of union atrophy. Their election campaign represented the first-ever contested bid for leadership within the labor federation. It brought a dramatic change in the attitude and action of the American unionism at a time when the movement had little further to fall.
In 1955, when the country’s two largest labor organizations merged to form the AFL-CIO, unions represented 35 percent of private sector employees. By the time Sweeney was elected forty years later, the number had fallen to 14.9 percent of the overall workforce, with only 10.4 percent of workers in the private sector represented. Long gone were the days when employers and organized labor maintained a compact of shared postwar prosperity. American business had entered an era of mergers, downsizing, factory flight, and relentless union busting.
Numbers tell only part of the story of decline. Lost was the “culture of organizing,” where unions could boast of having in their ranks the individuals in the country most skilled at forcing social change. The legendary autoworker’s organizer Walter Reuther once impressed Martin Luther King by defining power as the ability “to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.'” But throughout the 1980s, AFL-CIO affiliates were the ones who practiced concession, accepting pay cuts and layoffs, and watching industrial unions crumble.
In order to address the realities of the globalized economy, Sweeney’s “New Voice” leadership vowed to reinvest AFL-CIO resources in new organizing drives, to reach out to community and social movement allies, and to mobilize thousands of worker-volunteers to build a political program more disciplined than the practice of handing large checks to the nearest Democrat.
Seven years later, this transformation remains a work in progress. As the economy expands and plant closings deplete union numbers, Labor must bring in some 500,000 workers a year just to tread water in terms of union density—a task it still regularly fails to accomplish. This year, with layoffs accompanying economic hard times, this grows even more difficult.
Nevertheless, since the start of the New Voice revival, it has become clear that Labor’s prospects for sustained viability will be tied to two factors: the movement’s ability to link itself with activists challenging corporate power on an international scale, and its responsiveness to immigrant-driven campaigns at its base that are shaping a new model of social unionism.
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Breaking Away From the AFL-CIA
“It didn’t start in Seattle,” is now a popular saying within the global justice movement. It serves as an important check against an American arrogance that says, “If it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t matter.” However, the slogan overlooks the fact that, in terms of domestic politics, the “Teamsters and Turtles” uprising did represent something new.
Only a few years ago commitment of the AFL-CIO to protests against the WTO would have been unthinkable. The labor federation under Sweeney’s predecessor, Lane Kirkland, had earned the nickname “AFL-CIA” with its adherence to Ronald Reagan’s Cold War prerogatives. Its International Affairs Department identified any union with presumed communist ties as the enemy. Shunned organizations included COSATU, South Africa’s leading center for black trade unionists and a key force in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Getting half your total funding from the U.S. State Department, as the AFL-CIO did at one point in the 80s, is just plain wrong. Recognizing that transnational corporate adversaries require transnational resistance, unions began to shift. Major affiliates vowed opposition to the WTO and, later, the FTAA. Representative of many member delegations abroad, displaced Steelworkers from Kentucky traveled in 2000 and 2002 to make bonds with workers at their relocated Hoov-R-Line factory in Sonora, Mexico.
Radical critics are right to question Labor’s avoidance of many post-N30 globalization protests. And they are right to charge that foreign policy statements like “Make the WTO Work for Working People” reek of moderation. “Did anyone really try to bring people to Seattle,” asked Jeff Crosby, President of Boston-area local of the International Union of Electrical Workers, “under the slogan, ‘We demand a working group?'”
At the same time, the New Internationalism produced statements that, in U.S. political culture, qualify as remarkably militant. In Seattle AFSCME President Gerald McEntee echoed a famous sentiment from the American New Left by calling upon demonstrators to “name the system” (corporate capitalism) that “commodifies everything from a forest in Brazil to a library in New Jersey.” Or take John Sweeney, commenting on recent corporate scandals: “Enron economics is just another name for what is being forced down the throats of working people across the world.”
More important than the rhetoric, the alliances seen on Seattle’s streets reflected Labor’s attempts at building sustained grassroots resistance to corporate dominance. For example, early investments by UNITE , the garment and textile workers’ union, helped nurture the anti-sweatshop movement and the college living wage campaigns that have exploded to prominence in recent years.
The Longshore workers, whose jobs intertwine with trade policy, have shown great vision in their support for the global justice movement. But the other unions in the U.S. that have consistently mobilized are those with the clearest self-interest: Steelworkers, embattled in disputes over foreign steel, or the Teamsters, feeling threatened by the Mexican trucking industry and burned by NAFTA. This can produce fickle results. Believing that the entry of a billion-person economy into the WTO would more immediately “sell out American workers,” these unions focused on a “No Blank Check for China” campaign rather than championing the protests against the IMF also taking place in April, 2000.
Yet for other workers in the U.S. economy, “self-interest” by definition defies a traditional nationalism. And, as much as the needed changes in AFL-CIO foreign policy, the immigrant-driven campaigns shaping a revival at the movement’s base are defining Labor’s view of global solidarity.
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An Internationalism From Below
In June, 2001, a crowd of over 16,000 packed the Los Angeles Sports Arena to capacity. Thousands of others swarmed outside, disregarding summer heat and trying to cajole the determined fire marshals into admitting more people. Inside and out, the sea of activists filled the air with a staccato chant of, “Si Se Puede!” According to Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) President John Wilhelm, the boisterous crowd “responded with equal fervor every time a speaker said ‘amnesty’ or ‘Mexico’ or ‘union.'”
With the AFL-CIO Immigration Workers Rights Forum, the labor movement officially recognized the importance of an internationalism that had long been rising from within its ranks. The event announced union commitment to a campaign to allow the estimated eight million undocumented immigrants working in the United States to achieve legal status. It was a remarkable position, considering that until just a few months earlier, the federation stood on record as supporting a 1986 law requiring verification of employees’ papers and sanctioning businesses who hired “illegal” workers.
The chant “Si Se Puede” (Yes, we can) gained popularity with the rise of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the 1960s and 70s. The organization at its prime defined a vision of social movement unionism by adopting mass protest tactics to continually build its core of Mexican-American activists, reaching out to allies in the civil rights and student movements, and focusing on the task of transforming lives as much as raising wages.
The importance of the UFW’s example has multiplied in recent years. More than a palace coup, the power shift in the AFL-CIO legitimated affiliate unions that had forged aggressive organizing programs in the 1980s. Prominent among the handful of unions now devoting substantial resources to bringing new workers into the movement are those unions reaching low-wage workers in the fast-growing service sectors of the economy.
Most notably, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), HERE, and UNITE have set out to lead janitorial, health care, hospitality, and laundry workers in a fight for dignity. The result has been the development of a new foundation for the labor movement amongst the women and people of color who, in the past forty years, have replaced white men as the majority in the U.S. workforce. The immigrants among them have infused into the American working class a renewed global consciousness reminiscent of New York City in the early 1900s.
Los Angeles has been a center of this new upheaval, hosting such actions as the militant 2000 Justice for Janitors strike. (The same workers previously inspired the Ken Loach film Bread and Roses.) A strong County Federation of Labor, led by UFW-bred organizer Miguel Contreras, has fashioned an emergent Labor-Latino alliance into a dominant force in city politics.
The change is not limited to California. Immigrant communities are transforming even once sheltered, racially-homogenous stretches of middle America. Seventeen different languages were spoken among the hotel workers in Minneapolis who recently demanded living wages and expanded health coverage from their employers. In the course of winning their strike, activists from Bosnia, Eritrea, and Somalia joined with Midwestern folksingers and Tibetan monks in leading chants on twenty-four hour picket lines maintained in front of seven area hotels.
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The Future of Rebirth
Welcoming immigrants from throughout the world into its ranks has helped American Labor make historic gains. However, while the movement has attracted hundreds of thousands of new members, it has only been able to reverse its loss of union density in 1999, and to hold steady in 2001.
While at its highest level the AFL-CIO has maintained a high-profile Organizing Department and distributed over $28 million in Strategic Organizing funds between 1997 and 2000, only a few of its member unions have followed its lead. The problem is that a majority of labor leaders, even those who profess change, are still locked by fear or by an intuitive sense of bureaucratic self-preservation into form of “business unionism.” They see their members as clients and operate their unions as service agencies. Former AFL-CIO organizing director Richard Bensinger reports that “Most union commitment to organizing is still at the level of rhetoric.”
This immobility compounds the crisis of union democracy, and makes the model of social movement unionism all the more important. Organizing itself may not be sufficient to establish sustained democratic debate in the labor movement, nor to elevate leaders that will represent the face of the New Internationalism. (Indeed, critics point to “blitz” strategies that parachute in teams of mobile organizers to produce workshop campaigns which, while energetic, make little investment in building rank-and-file leadership for the long-term.) But it is no doubt necessary.
Those unions committed to reaching new workers have pioneered strategies for engaging members in the constant evolution of their movement: organizing activist committees to take leadership in a workplace well before an actual election or negotiation is in question; training shop stewards to handle grievances and enforce contracts themselves; and recruiting campaign leaders as organizers.
These models, like the mass Labor turnout for mobilizations like Seattle, may remain the exception to the rule. But even so, it would be hard to find developments that have contributed more to the prospects of progressive resurgence in the United States in the past decade.
Whether American unionism will be able to sustain its revival may yet be undetermined. But this much is certain: the narrow nationalism of George Becker’s chant must be left behind as the posture of the old labor movement. And “Si Se Puede” must be the call of the new.