Realism and the struggles of organized labor

IMG_1261cBy Duane E. Campbell

As I was having my morning cup of coffee, I looked again at the Labor Issue of Democratic Left ( Fall 2012). The titles as represented on the cover include, “ Can Unions Survive? Can the Left Have a Voice ? “ by Nelson Lichtenstein, “ Labor in the Labyrinth,” by Chris Maisano,  and others.   The articles in the Fall issue  and posted here on Talking Union were written in August or earlier.

I was pushed by the analysis.  It seems that the writers, along with a number of other  labor commentators, were overly skeptical of labor based upon the apparent conditions of labor in summer 2012  when the Obama campaign was not vibrant and visible.   Several of the articles reflect a pessimism of this time.

But – Obama won and the Democratic control of the Senate  remains strong, and labor won  – as a result of significant union mobilization in swing states.  In California a well funded, well organized labor effort handily defeated the anti union Prop. 32, and contributed to passing the important Prop.30 which put a floor under the state’s government’s austerity budgets.  Labor won these battles in conjunction with the Democratic Party of the state, but not controlled nor subservient to the D.P.   Like the battle for Wisconsin last year, Prop.32 in California was  a part of a sustained anti union effort on the part of right wing extremist forces well funded by U.S. billionaires.  In December 2012 the Republican legislature in Michigan passed so called “Right to Work” legislation and the governor signed the laws producing yet another serious defeat for labor.  Bill Fletcher in his fine book, “They’re Bankrupting Us” and 20 other Myths about Unions, (2012) traces the organized  major assault on unions back to the 1980’s and the Ronald Reagan presidency. 

Now we can  reflect on the earlier views presented in D.L.  Rather than reporting  on unions as near death, we need a more realistic analysis.  Part of this would include  considering the complex issues in Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell) My Decade of Fighting for the Labor Movement by Jane McAlevey and Bob Ostertag, and the harsh review of this book by Steve Early.  See also “ Making Unions Matter Again,’ in The Nation.  And there are  a number of initiatives discussing future structures and building toward a more coherent left.

In my reading I find a too strong sense of cynicism produced by several writers own pre-existing views  – usually that labor should break with the Democrats and that union leaders are well funded aristocrats, etc.  There is, of course, some sense to both of these views but we need an   analysis from realism, reflecting upon the real victories in November and losses last year in Wisconsin and this year in Michigan, rather than analysis  primarily devoted to defending  and  supporting  pre-existing viewpoints.  Such an  analysis would include the several substantive insights in the D.L. piece, “Triple Jeopardy: Women lose Public Sector Services, Jobs, and Union Rights,” by Mimi Abramovitz.

In addition to my own union I was on a central labor council for some twenty-five years.  My view is that most of labor is not made up of seething exploited workers who are about to break and form a left party.   On the contrary, most efforts to “break with the Democrats,” include  forces who would take union members to the right, to the Republicans, to  the NRA, or to non voting and alienation so that the organized right will win elections as in Wisconsin and Michigan.  Those who argue for a break with the Democrats need to explain how such a strategy contributes to the losses in the 2010 elections in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.     I am all for breaking with the Democrats when an organized, functioning left exists, but I am dubious of such a direction  at the present time.

Persons arguing for a left break need to understand the institutional components and structures of labor.  I recommend Solidarity Divided (2008) by Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin as well as “The Ugly Racial History of Right to Work” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit, on the Dissent  Magazine web site.

My argument  is not a statement of a “correct” position on labor, but a call for dialogue and analysis beyond the repetition of old slogans.  A blog like Talking Union can be a place for a pro-union, pro- working class dialogue.  There was some of this dialogue in the analyses of the Occupy Movement and labor.  See the tab above.

You, the reader, are invited to  participate by reflecting upon your own experiences and sharing your  views and ideas here on TalkingUnion.

This is a project of union activists in DSA and we welcome a broad and divergent sharing of viewpoints.


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