Cheerleading is not enough. It’s time for those scholars, artists, and writers to take another look at what’s happening in our labor movement.When John Sweeney defeated Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue to take over as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he proposed to lead the federation out of its doldrums. What resounded with promise was his call for “a reborn movement of American workers, ready to fight for social and economic justice … a new progressive voice in American life …changing the direction of American politics …a vibrant social movement, a democratic movement that speaks for all American workers.”
Sweeney’s program inspired an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the labor movement. Forty-three liberal and radical professionals, mostly from the universities, joined in a public manifesto proclaiming support for the new labor movement. “As intellectuals, educators, and professionals,” they wrote, “we want to play our part in helping realize [Sweeney’s] promise.” The 43 were followed by hundreds of others who led pro-union “teach-ins” in universities around the country attended by thousands who came to signify a newly found allegiance to organized labor: students, scholars, historians, civil libertarians, writers, free lance intellectuals, civil rights leaders, along with union staff professionals, labor leaders, and a multitude of reporters. Representatives of most worthy social causes were there. (Only grassroots union dues-payers seemed missing.) In the spirit of the times, new labor-oriented magazines proliferated in the universities.
…But this time, unlike 1995, there was no resounding echo from intellectuals to the renewed call for another crusade. What happened to SAWSJ? It seems to have vanished as quickly as it had appeared, but without fanfare. Apparently, life had become too complicated for mere enthusiasm.