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Posts Tagged ‘labor union power’

Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Proponents of the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS) emphasize the need to lay the foundations of a revitalized labor movement through rank-and-file workers—as opposed to union staff or leadership. As Laura Gabby notes, this idea has a long history: In the 1970s, for instance, thousands of leftists (myself included) of both working-class origin and otherwise entered the workforce to build a real working-class Left and rebuild organized labor.

Though this rank-and-file emphasis is more of an orientation than a full strategy, it is good in that it encourages people on the Left to engage as rank and filers—to enter into the working class as coworkers rather than staff. The idea is not, as Andrew Dobbyn argues, elitist; instead, it suggests fellow workers have something to teach, rather than simply being vessels for knowledge from leftists.

But the current discussion has certain important blind spots. First, the mostly white socialists discussing the RFS often fail to recognize that leftist formations composed mostly or entirely of people of color have historically been instrumental in developing and leading efforts to retool the labor movement. The direction and character of these formations has frequently differed from that of white-led formations.

Peter Shapiro presents one example in his Jacobin article, “On the Clock and Off,” drawing on his work with the League of Revolutionary Struggle. He writes about the Mexican immigrant women who emerged as rank-and-file leaders in the 1985–87 frozen food strike in Watsonville, Calif. They were not part of their union’s progressive reform caucus, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, nor would they have been considered part of any conventional “militant minority”—which is why, Shapiro writes, “some strike supporters on the Left viewed them skeptically.” But these women established their own informal infrastructure, bound together through the solidarity of not just working together but the shared experience of racial and gender oppression, and propelled the strike to victory.

More broadly, proponents of the rank-and-file strategy must look beyond the clear, identifiable base of organic leaders and leftists and assess the forces within any workplace, including conservatives and pragmatists. As Fernando Gapasin and I write in our book, Solidarity Divided, to defeat the conservative elements, the Left must pull the center along. Advocates of a “militant minority” can be skeptical of such alliances, but this is a mistake.

William Z. Foster, a brilliant trade unionist who led the Communist Party USA, advocated a militant minority strategy but later adjusted his approach to pursue a “Left-Center Alliance,” recognizing that, even in the militant 1930s, the Left was not sufficiently powerful to act alone. Workers will not necessarily agree with the total program of a leftist, so it is unlikely that leftists will be organizing workers around an exclusively left-wing program. To the extent to which we ignore the center we cede territory to conservative forces that will build their own alliances to crush the Left.

Leftists in the labor movement must also look beyond the narrow objectives of trade unionism as we know it, centered on making gains within the workplace. In fact, the Left needs an alternative framework, a “social justice unionism,” with objectives focused on the larger working class—which includes, for instance, what Stephen Lerner and others refer to as “bargaining for the common good.” Here, the union takes issues of the larger community to the bargaining table. Unions, too, might provide active support to or establish shared agendas with other worker or progressive community organizations.

Lastly, rebuilding the labor movement requires recognition that labor, as Andrew points out, is not only trade unions. The rise of so-called alt-labor, such as worker centers and domestic worker organizations, is part of this rebuilding. Leftists play a major role in this sector, which is disproportionately workers of color. Unions can and should provide direct material assistance to this organizing; the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, for instance, has worked to ally with informal economy workers.

A Left without a working class base is not a Left, but a collection of advocates for change. Our mission is to rebuild that base, transforming the Left and the labor movement together.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.”and “90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer, activist, and trade unionist. He is the executive editor of The Global African Worker, a co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solitary Divided, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us”–Twenty Other Myths about Unions. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at http://www.billfletcherjr.com.

90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

My comrade Laura Gabby says that “supermajorities are necessary to raise class consciousness, fight capital, strike and win,” and I agree. But we diverge on how to get there.

She and other rank-and-file strategy (RFS) supporters suggest realigning internal union politics from the inside out through a “militant minority.” As Kim Moody argues in his seminal pamphlet about RFS, unions have to “take a central role … by virtue of their size and their place at the heart of capitalist accumulation.”But, in practice, attempts at union realignment through RFS have mixed results, while most workers remain without a union. What’s needed, instead, is a broad “yes, and” approach with an emphasis on new organizing.

Many unionists were first exposed to RFS in August through a series of unfortunate articles in Politico and the New York Times, detailing activities from the Labor Branch of New York City’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (Laura is a member.) These DSAers called for socialists to get union jobs in specific “strategic industries” to form a “militant minority” and change unions internally. This strategy was reiterated in the national RFS DSA resolution and in a pamphlet, put out by Young Democratic Socialists of America and Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, titled, “Why Socialists Should Become Teachers.”

While the news articles unfairly portray RFS as a devious plot, they highlight real failures in political strategy. NYC-DSA is, anecdotally, disproportionately white; the optics aren’t good for them to take over unions with membership that is mostly people of color.

Organic worker-leaders built our movement; if socialists want to lead, they must become organic leaders, not tack themselves on like some gaudy ideological accessory. Laura says organic leaders and socialists must work together, but the problem remains: The union realignment strategy treats union members as constituencies to be managed, rather than organic partners.

The strategy also leads to a militant minority divorced from the larger union, leaving the efforts of RFS reform caucuses decidedly mixed. While the rank-and-file caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union has seen success, New York’s Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) has seen less. MORE is a favorite of NYC-DSA Labor Branch members, yet its vote share in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) presidential election dropped from roughly 10,000 in 2016 to less than 2,500 in 2019, and the incumbent UFT Unity Caucus captured all 102 seats on the executive board.

If leftists want to transform the labor movement, there’s a much easier route: Unionize the unorganized. Surveys show that at least 48% of workers would like a union, but 90% do not have one. Unions enjoy high levels of public support, and millennials are joining in disproportionately large numbers.There is no better time for the Left to organize new unions or add new bargaining units. Leftists should focus on developing organizing committees before a union steps in, ensuring unions will actually commit resources to finish the job and that the workers joining do so on their own terms.

A partnership between the progressive International Longshore and Warehouse Workers (ILWU) and DSA San Francisco shows how this organizing can be done. DSA members spent months with Anchor Brewing workers developing the organizing committee, researching unions and writing the campaign plan, and only then reached out to the ILWU, chosen because of its democratic practices and militant politics. Together, they won.

As Moody himself admits, the conservative craft unionism of the Teamsters, for example, only changed because leftists organized huge swathes of new workers. These leftists weren’t outsiders, but organized their neighbors and coworkers. As the Anchor group put it, “We can’t be outsiders helping the labor movement; we have to be organic partners.”

The nature of new organizing reveals why this works: Because workers must take huge risks to form unions, newly organized unionists are likely to be active, politically astute and militant. The bonds forged in this struggle, between leftists and their coworkers, build the relationships necessary to transform the labor movement.

If we want to change the labor movement, our goal shouldn’t be internal realignment, but new unions for the 90%.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see “Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.” and “Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism.”

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Andrew Dobbyn is a rank-and-file elected leader in CWA Local 1104 and former co-chair of Suffolk County DSA.

Want To Build the Labor Movement? Get a Job at a Union Workplace.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Only workers themselves have the power to transform society, and workers must organize themselves to do so. Union staff and elected leadership can play important and sometimes pivotal roles, but in the fight against capital to win substantive, lasting gains, workers must be in the driver’s seat.

When workers are sidelined, at best we get staff-driven mobilizing, which Jane McAlevey describes as “dedicated activists who show up over and over … but [lack] the full mass of their coworkers or community behind them.” With an organized rank-and-file base, by contrast, ordinary workers themselves are the change agents, deeply involved in developing an analysis of what’s wrong in the workplace and a strategy for how to fight the boss (and, ultimately, capitalism). Their power comes from building majorities large enough to leverage militant action. Wins are less likely to be rolled back when a majority puts its own sweat into the process and stands ready to defend its gains.

The widespread teachers’ strikes of 2018 and 2019 and the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 illuminate the potential power of worker-led organizing, as they were primarily led and initiated by rank-and-file union members.

This deep organizing, however, does not yet exist in most industries. To build it, unionists and labor movement activists can look to the “rank-and-file strategy” (RFS). The phrase was coined by Kim Moody in 2000 but takes inspiration from 20th-century labor upheavals like those led by the Minnesota Teamsters in the 1930s and black workers at a Chrysler assembly plant in Detroit in the 1970s, when radical unionists and socialists were at the heart of big gains.

What socialist rank-and-file activists such as Moody identified was a gulf between the Left and the organized working class, developed under McCarthyism. The class character of this gulf—with leftists more often in the middle class and disconnected from the day-to-day struggles of the working class—has weakened the Left and the labor movement.

When class conflict and labor struggles arise, as they inevitably do under capitalism, they can expose underlying capitalist ideology—an opportunity for people in these struggles to actively raise working-class consciousness. RFS proponents have sought to close the Left-labor gulf by building a layer of workplace organizers—including socialists joining the labor movement and respected workplace leaders of all political persuasions—to heighten class conflict and develop this consciousness.

Part of the answer to overcoming the inertia that ails the labor movement may lie in a new, young and energetic Left—which already shows signs of being closer to the broader working class than other recent generations of leftists. However, this Left remains largely divorced from the organized working class, where RFS suggests young leftists would best be able to exercise real power alongside coworkers. (While young workers are fast joining unions, 2017 data shows only 7.7% of workers between the ages 16 and 34 were union members.)

Evidence suggests that young leftists are already playing key roles in labor struggles that produce wins and raise class consciousness. As Eric Blanc notes, “Though few in number, young socialists inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign played an outsized role [in the teachers’ strikes].”

But radical unionists acting by themselves aren’t enough to win.

At the core of any success are rank-and-file leaders, the ones coworkers respect and come to for advice. What’s necessary is a mix, working in coordination: organic, workplace leaders—able to move coworkers and fellow union members to action—and socialists, who can bring a broader analysis and organizing experience, and who are sometimes workplace leaders themselves. This layer of activists and rank-and-file leaders is sometimes called the “militant minority.”

The militant minority organizes and wins campaigns around workplace issues to grow its ranks and raise class consciousness through these practical struggles, and it fights for the demands of the broader working class by creating an ever-larger group of worker-organizers with a shared vision of class-struggle unionism.

The militant minority seeks to build supermajorities in the workplace. And supermajorities are necessary to raise class consciousness, fight capital, strike and win.

For alternate perspectives on the rank-and-file strategy, see “90% of Workers Aren’t in a Union. Labor’s Future Depends on Them.” and “Labor Needs To Embrace Social Justice Unionism.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Gabby is a carpenter in Local 157 and member of the Labor Branch of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America.

Will 2020 Be the Year Presidential Candidates Actually Take Labor Issues Seriously?

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

Call it a sin of omission, but the historic decline of labor union power was on full display during recent CNN town hall meetings with 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

All three nationally televised forums featured questions on a range of issues from students, nonprofit directors, community leaders and other traditional Democratic constituencies (including undisclosed lobbying firms), but not a single question was asked about national labor law.

It’s not just CNN, either. By and large, the announced 2020 presidential candidates have not spoken at length on the stump about their agenda for labor, at least not yet, instead sticking to broader themes such as economic inequality and policies like raising the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, free college tuition and universal child care.

“The candidates are making a distinction between labor policy and labor issues,” David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a leading expert on presidential politics, told In These Times. “It’s politically safer to talk about health care, expanded Medicare, and a higher minimum wage than it is to talk about things like card check.”

Most voters don’t understand the latter, even though you’ve got to do things like the latter to get the former,” Yepsen added. “If you don’t find ways to strengthen the labor movement, there isn’t going to be the political support to do the things needed to rebuild the working class.”

The failure of the Obama administration and a filibuster-proof Democratic congress to pass the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act is a good example. The legislation would have made it easier for workers to form a union with a simple 50 percent majority. But there was little political will by the Democratic leadership at the time to get it done given other priorities such as an economic stimulus, Obamacare, reining in Wall Street and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The issue agenda of the Obama White House was perhaps justifiable at the time, but it also came with a steep opportunity cost. The Democrats’ failure to strengthen union bargaining and consolidate a working-class base of political support when they had the chance helped lead to an eventual Republican takeover of government between 2010 and 2016, paving the way for future attacks on labor by right-wing governors and the Supreme Court.

Has the new crop of 2020 presidential candidates learned this lesson? All of the declared candidates who are considered front runners have strong ties to organized labor.

With the notable exception of Klobuchar, nearly all of the senators running for president— Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Booker—co-sponsored Sanders’ 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, which would overhaul existing labor law and make it easier for workers to form and fund their own unions.

“The Workplace Democracy Act is Sen. Sanders’ key labor union legislation,” a spokesperson for Sanders told In These Times.

According to Sanders’ congressional office, the Workplace Democracy Act would enable unions to organize through a majority sign up process; enact ‘first contract’ provisions to ensure companies cannot prevent a union from forming by denying a first contract; eliminate “right to work” laws; end independent contractor and franchisee abuse; legalize secondary boycotts and picketing; and expand the ‘persuader rule’ to weaken union-busting efforts.

As Sanders explained when introducing the latest iteration of the bill last year, “Corporate America understands that when workers become organized, when workers are able to engage in collective bargaining, they end up with far better wages and benefits… and that is why, for decades now, there has been a concentrated well-organized attack on the ability of workers to organize.”

Sanders, Harris and Warren have all also taken symbolic actions since announcing their presidential runs in order to highlight their close relationship with unions and the working class.

Warren, for example, formally announced her candidacy for president in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of the 1912 strike by textile workers known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”

“Supporting labor and making it easier for American workers to join a union is absolutely a priority for Sen. Warren,” Jason Noble, Warren’s communications director, told In These Times. “She is a co-sponsor of the 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, introduced a bill in 2017 to ban “right to work” laws, and has been very vocal about the need for stronger labor organization and wider access to unions.”

Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Actwould also allow workers at corporations with more than $1 billion in revenue to choose up to 40 percent of the company’s board of directors, shifting the balance of power toward the rank-and-file.

California is one of the last remaining union strongholds in the country, and Harris has hired the former president of the state’s largest and most diverse labor union, SEIU’s Laphonza Butler, to be her senior campaign advisor.

“Sen. Harris is a strong and passionate supporter of organized labor and workers’ rights,” the Harris campaign’s national press secretary, Ian Sams, told In These Times.

“She’s sponsored multiple bills in the Senate, including Workers’ Freedom to Negotiate Act, WAGE Act, Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, Workplace Democracy Act, and Protecting Workers and Improving Labor Standards Act.”

In February, Sanders publicly jumped in on the side of striking workers in Erie, Pennsylvania after announcing his own 2020 candidacy. Since 2016, he has also joined workers in fights against Amazonand McDonalds, helping them to win major wage increases.

“Many blue-collar workers supported Trump in the last election,” Yepsen, the Iowa-based national political analyst, said. “Both presidential candidates and labor leaders have to figure out ways and messages to move them back onto the progressive side if they hope to get 270 electoral votes for a presidential candidate. The phrases ‘labor policy,’ ‘labor movement’ and ‘organized labor’ aren’t well understood by voters. ‘Health care’ ‘minimum wage’ and ‘improved education’ are understood. So give the candidates some credit for talking about important issues in a way people can understand.”

As Yepsen previously noted, however, this kind of thinking may help win elections, but it can also lead to a paradox. Focusing on easily-understood, ‘bread and butter’ issues—talking about working families but not union power—and relying on congressional voting records and scorecards instead of stump speeches and bold new proclamations won’t build a popular mandate for labor law reform, or the long term working-class political power that comes with it.

“Most Americans take for granted the things the labor movement has done for them over the decades—child labor, minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, health care,” Yepsen said. “A lot of workers have forgotten that too. The good news for labor is that people seem to be waking up. The polls show support for unions increasing and look at the success teachers have been having.”

On another measure, worker militancy has been on the rise—a record number of workers engaged in strikes or work stoppages in 2018. This increased labor action will have to be harnessed by voters in order to push even the strongest candidates into elevating union rights as a priority issue on the campaign trail.

Workers in early voting states can help do so by attending campaign events and asking the candidates to publicly explain their support for the Workplace Democracy Act—or whether or not they back a national “right to strike” law for public sector unions.

The more explicit presidential politicians are about labor rights on the stump, the more likely union power will become a “day one” issue if a Democratic president takes power in 2020. In the long run, this may be one of the only effective ways to both win progressive social change and defend workers’ gains from the inevitable right-wing counterattack.

About the Author: David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City.
This blog was originally published at In These Times on March 6, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 
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