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The More Things Change . . .

Ten years ago, advocates of a revitalized labor movement heard our concerns echoed in the subtitle of Tom Geoghegan’s book, Which Side Are You On?: How to Be For Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back. Unions that had been at the center of the labor movement were shrinking in size and power, their members’ wages and benefits sliding backwards, their jobs in peril. The very names of these unions—the United Mine Workers, the United Steel Workers, the United Auto Workers, the United Packinghouse Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—sounded like a bad joke. Unity, brotherhood, and solidarity seemed to exist only in the pages of labor history books.

The labor movement was cracking under the pressure of a joint offensive launched by corporate America and the Reagan-Bush administration. Plants were being closed, strikers were being “permanently replaced,” and national union leaders appeared at a greater distance than ever from the men and women they were supposed to represent. The new jobs of the “Reagan revolution” were typically part-time, temporary, low-paying—and non-union. Year by year, the island of organized labor shrank smaller and smaller, while conditions on the island deteriorated. And the search for a viable response ran into one dead-end after another, leaving little but acrimony in its wake.

Here and there, rank-and-file anger and energy bubbled and threatened to break through the facade of impotency constructed by national union leaders. In 1985 and ’86, Hormel workers in Minnesota fought a dramatic struggle against concessions. Their outreach efforts attracted the support of more than 3,000 local unions across America and union activists in 19 countries. But national union leaders, with the support of AFL-CIO officialdom, undermined their campaign, undercut their strike, eventually placing the local in trusteeship. Other struggles fared little better.

A dark cloud settled around the men and women who cared about the labor movement. We became an audience for grim, cynical expositions like Geoghegan’s Which Side Are You On?, Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, and Bill Serrin’s Homestead. Documentary films—Michael Moore’s Roger and Me and Barbara Koppel’s American Dream—won acclaim while depicting workers as hapless victims of the late 20th-century corporate agenda, served up for the slaughter like rabbits and hogs.

In the early 1990s, NAFTA and GATT seemed to provide the final ingredients to a recipe for the eradication of the labor movement. Study after study pointed to lengthening work weeks, shrinking pay packets, growing ranks of working men and women without health benefits, the looting of pension funds, a growing contingent workforce, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. If there hadn’t still been union beer to cry in, we labor advocates would have been in an utterly hopeless situation!

But just as we seemed ready to give in to despair, the mass media and the AFL-CIO’s own public relations spinmasters have begun to inform us that the labor movement is back. For the sports fans among us, it has all the feel of a bottom-of-the-ninth rally, a Hail Mary pass into the end zone, a desperation three-pointer as the clock ticks off the final seconds.

Organized labor’s chiliastic revival supposedly began with the election of John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson to the leadership of the AFL-CIO in October 1995. The “New Voice” slate’s millennium would be ushered in with well-conceived strategies, militant tactics, energetic organizing, and new coalitions. The shame of the Caterpillar capitulation would be washed away with a tidal wave of “Union Summer” organizers.

They involve their communities in workplace struggles.

The prophets of a revitalized labor movement crowed loud and long this summer and fall. “Union Summer,” they claimed, would bolster the new leadership’s agenda to organize the unorganized. Bright, idealistic, energetic college students would help sign up thousands of new members. At the same time, the AFL-CIO would launch a $35 million campaign to defeat anti-labor congressmen and senators in the fall elections. The same prophets hailed the “new alliance” of intellectuals and labor leaders signaled by the October 1996 labor teach-in at Columbia University.

But recent events suggest that the words of the “New Voice” have a familiar, ashy taste. “Union Summer” may well have awakened an impressive coterie of college students to the potential power of a renewed labor movement, but there have been few tangible results to point to. Meanwhile, the corporatization of higher education itself continues, as public universities privatize hospitals, resist clerical workers’ demands for decent wages and respectful treatment, and crush graduate employees’ efforts to organize. The AFL-CIO’s electoral strategy bore little fruit, save for the backlash it provoked. The very Republicans labor failed to unseat have introduced a bill that would severely restrict unions’ right to spend members’ dues dollars on political activity.

Events so far in 1997 suggest that the changes in the AFL-CIO leadership are amounting to the “same old, same old.” The unions engaged in the prolonged Detroit newspapers strike have waved the white flag. Their offer of an “unconditional return to work” rings hollow, given that, with “permanent replacements” on the job, there is no work to return to. The unions now pin their hopes on favorable judgments on a long list of pending “unfair labor practice” complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Favorable rulings could mean sizeable back-pay settlements, to be sure. But ask any worker who has waited—or is still waiting—to receive justice through this slow, ineffective process. Just ask the Caterpillar strikers or the locked-out Staley workers about how assiduously the Labor Board protected their rights. They’ll laugh.

The Detroit strikers themselves and their many supporters around the country suspect that the “leadership” opted to end the strike rather than respond to the growing groundswell for a national labor march in Detroit. For months last winter, unionists and other activists wrote or called AFL-CIO leaders to demand that they call such a march. The federation relented, slating a march on Detroit for June, but only after union leaders called off the strike altogether.

The same week, President Clinton invoked the Railway Labor Act to block the imminent American Airlines pilots’ strike. I suppose it’s no revelation that: (1) in the new, “deregulated” economy, only labor is still regulated; (2) workers only have the right to strike when its exercise can be expected to be ineffective; and (3) the AFL-CIO leadership may be a “Friend of Bill,” putting material and human resources in the cause of his reelection, but Bill cannot be counted upon as a friend of labor. No revelation, perhaps, but surely disquieting for those who prophesy a new dawn for the labor movement. Rather than speaking of a cloud lifting, it might make more sense to speak of the smoke clearing. That is, at the top of the AFL-CIO, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Fortunately, however, this is not the whole story for labor in 1997, any more than the defeats of the 1980s and early 1990s were all there was to the Lane Kirkland era. Beneath the surface, outside of the media spotlight, a new labor movement has been struggling to take shape, to define itself, to burst forth. The Hormel strike showed some of the contours of this new movement—defined by the rank and file, militant, eager to reach out not only to other local unions but to organizations outside the labor movement, willing to experiment with tactics beyond picket lines, such as product boycotts and pressure on employers’ financial allies.

Other local unions adopted similar tactics in the late 1980s. Some were quite successful in energizing their own members, in building horizontal solidarity networks, and in forging local coalitions. Typically, however, they came up short. All too often, they engendered the enmity of their own international unions, who continued to resist locals’ efforts to militantly confront employers.

In some unions, movements blossomed to challenge their national “leadership.” The most impressive of these reform movements was Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which led the way in transforming their own union. When the government threatened to prosecute the Teamsters under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, TDU was able to push for internal reforms such as the direct election of the union’s national officers. They helped elect a reform-minded president, Ron Carey, and to push for additional procedural reforms and progressive measures that have made the Teamsters the labor movement’s biggest success story.

When the threat of NAFTA emerged in the early 1990s, several local unions broke with traditional protectionism to promote a new international solidarity. Several of these locals, together with the small but feisty United Electrical Workers, participated in international conferences, engaged in solidarity actions with Mexican and Canadian fellow unions, and undercut the nationalism and racism that had once been widespread among their own rank-and-file members.

Promising developments also took shape within unions whose members—white-collar workers, public employees, women, workers of color, immigrants—had never been part of organized labor’s mainstream and had never been completely integrated into the mainstream model of business unionism. These unions adopted techniques to promote rank-and-file participation, strategies to avoid reliance on grievance procedures and standard arbitration, and tactics that engaged the outside community directly. They found new energy in these efforts, and they became models for other labor activists who sought paths out of the darkness in which they had long been mired.

Even further out at the margins, new organizations are pushing at the very forms of unions, creating “workers’ centers,” “non-majority status unions,” and “unofficial central labor bodies.” Organizations such as Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York City, Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in Oakland, the Immigrant Workers Resource Center in Boston, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates in Los Angeles, La Mujer Obrera in El Paso, and the Southwest Florida Farmworkers Project reflect the self-organization of workers long ignored by the mainstream labor movement. They involve their communities in workplace struggles and bring workers as a collective force into community struggles.

Conferences of various sorts have brought many of these activists together to share experiences and learn from each other. In Detroit, Labor Notes magazine hosts a biannual conference that attracts more than 1,000 self-identified “troublemakers.” In panels and workshops, these men and women disseminate practical strategies, explore new ideas, and promote networking within industries and regions.

In the Twin Cities, the annual “Meeting the Challenge” conference has provided hundreds of Minnesota unionists with access to veterans of labor’s new wave—men and women, in the words of one conference organizer, who “do not live and work separately from the workers they are talking about.” In February 1997, as the AFL-CIO leadership was again stumbling, conference participants met others involved in the following: the Hotel and Restaurant Workers in Las Vegas, who have doubled the size of their local to 40,000 members in the past decade; the California Nurses Association, which has used the petition and referendum process to save nurses’ jobs and put forward health care reform that looks out for patients’ interests; an organization of 5,000 newly organized African-American women in the Mississippi catfish processing industry; and the clerical workers union at Harvard University, which has energized its membership with creative, even fun, tactics that remind the administration that workers make the elite university run on a daily basis.

As yet, these diverse grassroots movements have neither shifted the direction of the mainstream labor movement nor coalesced into a new movement of their own. But their vitality suggests that the labor movement is far from “flat on its back.” They may be outside the spotlight of the mass media, opaque to the academic cheerleaders for the AFL-CIO’s new leadership, but they hold our future in their hands. We need to learn more about these movements, help connect them with each other, and tell their stories every chance we get.