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Peering into the crystal ball: the future of the US labor movement.

In the wake of the NAFTA vote, many Canadians must wonder what lies ahead for the US labour movement. After fifteen years of shrinkage in both size and power, capped off by the failure to block NAFTA, its demise appears |round the next corner.

But the beginnings of a new labour movement, I would argue, might also he round that very same comer. While its development might be discernible only in faint outline, it is there nonetheless. This new movement can be found in efforts to organize the unorganized, to give greater voice to workers who have traditionally been silent, and to redefine the objectives of the already organized. This is neither a matter of the so-called |pendulum' swinging back nor of a |revival' of the existing labour movement. Rather, these developments suggest the birth of a movement which is as different from the one that currently exists, as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) of the 1930s was from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) of the 1920s.

Innovative organizing

Some organizing campaigns resemble social movements more than conventional trade unionism. For more than ten years, Black Workers for Justice, based in North Carolina, has simultaneously promoted community and workplace organizing. They rely on techniques such as |speak outs' and self-organized union elections held outside the auspices of the National Labour Relations Board, to build power in communities and rally public support for workplace grievances. Their successes have been measured not only in formal union recognition, but in a shifting balance of power in formerly corporate-dominated towns, and in the empowerment of working men and women, white and black.

In Southern California, Mexican immigrant drywall workers, many of them undocumented, have organized despite their |illegal' status, by using roving pickets who disperse to job sites and recruit workers. Last summer they extended their organization from Los Angeles to San Diego, attracting thousands of new members.

Similar elements characterize the Service Employees International Union's |Justice for Janitors' campaigns. They target building owners and subcontract cleaners alike, using mass protests to aim at a large part of the industry in a given city, rather than at individual employers. These protests involve workers' family members and neighbors - most of them immigrants, and often undocumented, too - and are solidly grounded in specific ethnic cultures. Since 1991, these campaigns have led to unprecedented contracts in Los Angeles and Washington.

Self-organization among immigrant workers has occurred in other cities, at times in contact with progressive elements within the local labour movement. In Boston, a union network has helped set up an Immigrant Worker Resource Center, which offers English classes and legal assistance, while also organizing picnics which celebrate ethnic cultures and disseminating labour news in Spanish and Haitian Creole. In New York City, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association has promoted independent unionization in the garment, construction and restaurant industries, while organizing protests in support of non-union workers as well.

Much of this and other innovative organizing prefigures new union structures: linking workplaces and communities; revolving around |worker centers,' as activists in La Mujer Obrera and Fuerza Unida have called their community-based labour organizations in El Paso and San Antonio. At the same time, these ventures infuse new cultures into the local labour environment, cultures drenched in ethnicity, grounded in communities of color, and often driven by the energies - and reflecting the concerns - of working women.

Women energize the


Some of the most significant union victories in the past decade have come on college campuses, where mostly female clerical and technical workers have added related, but different flavors to the labour movement. While various unions have formally organized in different places, a common thread and common organizers have connected these campaigns, to the chagrin of their respective internationals, who see their centralized control threatened by an independent network of women organizers.

In 1960, women accounted for 18.3 per cent of US union membership. By 1990, it was 37 per cent. In new organizations that are overwhelmingly female, from college campuses to Latino communities in the Southwest, it is not just a question of more women or more members, but of altered approaches, from the time of day they meet and the expanded role of small group meetings to the kind of literature they produce and the issues they address.

This organizing of the unorganized, and the different cultures and organizational structures they bring into the labour movement, would alone be significant in terms of foreshadowing a transformation of that movement. But there is more, in the efforts afoot to reorganize the organized, to shift from a culture of business unionism to what activists are calling an |organizing model' and' social unionism.'

Out with the old

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, the postwar |social contract' between business and organized labour, mediated and reinforced by the government, has been tom up. During its heyday, full-time officers, hired staff, lawyers and lobbyists had carried the responsibility for the union, while rank-and-file members were expected to do little more than allow dues to be deducted from their paychecks. Bureaucracy and apathy became two sides of the same coin. Economic growth and employer tolerance provided union members with a rising standard of living. But when the historical context changed, when economic growth and employer tolerance became faint memories, business unionism became as discredited as the deal that spawned it.

Activists, often fiercely resisted by union leaders who remain committed to the old order, have been struggling to develop new approaches to replace business unionism. In a variety of unions, they have developed a number of strategies, tactics and struggles, which have been lumped together as elements of an |organizing model.'

From the ground up

As yet, no national union has been wholly converted. The on-going transformation of the Teamsters, still incomplete but prodded by the grass-roots reform movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union, is the most dramatic example. Among rail workers over the past three years, a movement for cross-union solidarity has developed from the bottom up that would make Gene Debs proud. At a grass-roots level, from Montana and Nebraska to the East Coast, rail workers have been coming together regardless of specific union affiliation to call for a united front against both their employers and the government. In small rail towns across the country, workers and their families have reached out to farmers and small businessmen to build a movement to withstand the greed of today's robber barons.

What rail workers and the New Teamsters have in common with each other, and with less visible struggles in dozens of other unions - "New Directions" in the Auto Workers, "One Postal Union" among postal workers, letter carriers and mail handlers, the campaign for direct election of national officers in the Transportation Communications International Union, among dozens of local struggles against corrupt and out-moded leadership - is a newly energized rank-and-file and a shift of greater information, responsibility and power to it. As with the entrance of the newly organized into the movement, this has meant new culture and new structures.

This new activist unionism has developed vehicles for communication, such as videos and computer bulletin boards, and organizational networks for mutual support. These include local centers such as the Youngstown Workers' Solidarity Club and the Twin Cities Meeting the Challenge Committee; ad hoc labour solidarity committees, which have sprung up around particular struggles like the Hormel strike of 1985-'86 or the ongoing Staley lockout in Illinois; new regional bodies, like the Western Nebraska Central Labor Council, the Eastern Montana Central Labor Council and the Mid-State Central Labor Council in New York; national umbrellas such as Labor Party Advocates and the Rainbow Coalition, both of which seek to promote independent labour political action. The most important vehicle of all has been the Detroit-based Labor Notes, which has linked these new elements together in a monthly news magazine, bi-annual conferences which attract more than 1,000 activists (including more than a few Canadians), and a variety of educational programs and materials.

Moving beyond borders

NAFTA boosted these developments by promoting coalition building outside the labour movement and beyond national borders. At a national level, some US-based unions, such as the Teamsters, the United Electrical Workers (UEW), and the Communications Workers have developed on-going relationships with their counterparts in Canada and Mexico. Even more importantly, local unions and activists have greatly deepened their cross-border ties.

In the last year, the North American Worker-To-Worker Network has been organized to coordinate these sorts of efforts. Their very name grows out of its commitment to rank-and-file involvement as a basis for international solidarity. Their current priorities are to expand the |Adopt an Organizer' program initiated by the UEW and the Mexican Authentic Workers Front, to strengthen the ability of Mexican workers to organize themselves, and to build tri-national labour solidarity.

This commitment has already been put to a test. Shortly after NAFTA was signed, Honeywell and General Electric fired union organizers at their plants in Juarez and Chihuahua. The UE, the Teamsters, and the Canadian Auto Workers, who represent workers employed by these multinationals, sprang into action with shopfloor leaflets, petitions, and protest campaigns aimed at the companies and the US government.

Seeds of the future

Here, then, are the seeds of the labour movement of the future: the introduction of new forces into the movement, with new ways of seeing and representing themselves; the development of structures that link workplace and community, and that link workers in the same industries across national borders; the evolution of union cultures on the job and in the union hall; an energized rank-and-file in more and more unions, seeking an carrying a greater responsibility for their organizations; the building of coalitions with social movements outside of the |house of labour;' and new expressions of solidarity.

These seeds have a long way to go before they can bear fruit. In many unions they have not yet developed secure roots, and they remain in danger of being swept away. Moreover, they have developed only the most tentative connections among themselves, let alone significant cross-fertilization. And, quite importantly, they face powerful and determined resistance.

Employers now have a global arena in which to work their basic tactics of divide and conquer. They alternate between brow-beating and cajoling their workers to "compete" - to produce more while earning less.

These bosses, as ever, can count on the support of their government. Bill Clinton's agenda presents a more subtle and covert anti-unionism than his Republican predecessors, but it is no less pro-employer and anti-worker. In the interests of "competition," the Clinton administration seeks to enshrine "labour-management cooperation" as the centerpiece of its labour policy. The "reforms" they have in mind would undermine union organization where it currently exists and prevent it from taking shape where it does not yet exist.

Last, but not least, this new labour movement faces the bitter opposition of unions' bureaucratic leadership. These dinosaurs still wield control of substantial resources and they have no compunctions about using them to strangle manifestations of this new movement in their infancy. Indeed, about the only place they evince solidarity is when they stick together to protect each other from angry rank-and-filers and activists who are rocking their respective boats.

Despite these substantial obstacles, I remain optimistic about the prospects for this new labour movement. My optimism is not only grounded in my reading of the trends I have discussed in this article, or in that unquantifiable spirit expressed by these new ventures, but also in my reading of US labour history. Our labour movement has always progressed by great leaps forward, not by linear development. These leaps have typically emerged after a prolonged bleak period, but one in which new seeds can be seen to have been sown - often only after the fact, since hindsight is 20-20. This was the case in the upheaval of the Knights of Labour in the 1880s and the CIO in the 1930s.

So, while building a new labour movement is a tall order, as a historian I tell my friends in today's movement that it's certainly possible. Hell, it's been done before.

Peter Rachleff teaches US labour history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is chairperson of the Twin Cities Meeting the Challenge Committee. His most recent book, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labour Movement is available in paperback from South End Press. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Nation magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd.
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Author:Rachleff, Peter
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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