Labor Movement’s May Day Promise

LOS ANGELES, CA - 1MAY06 -  Copyright David Bacon

LOS ANGELES, CA – 1MAY06 –
Copyright David Bacon

Erica Smiley May 1, 2016
The American Prospect

Some cast the labor movement as dying or even dead, but even amid attacks on collective bargaining workers are finding innovative ways to organize.

General view of the great crowds of organized and unorganized workers who took part in the May Day demonstration in Union Square, New York, May 1, 1929. , AP,

On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of railroad, mine, and factory workers in the United States put their livelihoods on the line and participated in a national strike to demand an eight-hour workday. They were attacked by strikebreakers and police, but their uprising led to the creation of a holiday to honor workers—May Day—now known as International Workers Memorial Day in many countries around the world. Continue reading

Why Virginia’s Open Shop Referendum Should Matter to U.S. Labor Movement

The most important election in Virginia this year has no candidates on the ballot.
Douglas Williams
On February 2nd, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed the two-session threshold needed to put the open shop before the Commonwealth’s voters in November. You might be asking yourself, “Wait. I thought that Virginia was already an open-shop state?” Your inclinations would be correct: legislation barring union membership as a condition of employment was signed into law by Gov. William Tuck (a later adherent to Massive Resistance in response to Brown v. Board of Educationas a member of Congress) in 1947. As a result, Section 40.1-58 of the Code of Virginia reads:

It is hereby declared to be the public policy of Virginia that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization.

So why do this? The easy answer is that Virginia Republicans are fearful that, should the open shop meet a legal challenge in state court, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring would not seek to defend it. The sponsor of the bill and defeated 2013 nominee for Attorney General, State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), stated as much in the deliberations on the bill. In addition, should the Assembly find itself in pro-labor hands in the future, they could overturn the open shop with a simple majority vote. Never mind that the extreme amounts of gerrymandering in the Assembly (particularly in the House of Delegates) makes a unified Democratic state government unlikely for decades to come.

The vote this November will be the first popular referendum on the open shop since 54 percent of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 695 on September 25, 2001. In this, an opportunity presents itself to the labor movement in this country, and it is one that labor unions must take. Continue reading

Three lessons for young labor organizers

by Neal Meyer

Young activists seeking an introduction to the contemporary US labor movement have few places to turn. There are countless histories of labor’s golden age in the middle of the twentieth century. But there are too few analyses which have the courage to be critical and the perspective to place the movement today in the context of the last 40 years of struggle. Fortunately for activists in search of such an introduction, one does exist now in Steve Early’s latest book, Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013).

Save Our Unions is a collection of Early’s recent writing on the history and prospects of US labor. Spanning the heyday of the rank-and-file rebellion of the 1970s to the organizing battles of the Great Recession, Save Our Unions will help any new labor activist situate herself. A young organizer who seeks answers to where she should concentrate her energies, what values organizers need, and what prospects there are for labor in the next decade will find much to think over.

To give you a taste, I’ve compiled three of the most important lessons from Early’s new book.

 Union democracy is key

The rank-and-file rebellion has sadly been forgotten by most activists. But for a few years in the 1970s, democratic caucuses were launched by shop stewards and union members in many of the countries’ most important unions. Early’s first section, “Rebels with a Cause”, is a great introduction to the emergence of some of these caucuses and their fate.

The key lesson here is that when workers are engaged and participate in the life and decisions of their union their loyalty to one another and their capacity to fight their employers increases immeasurably. Early focuses in on the example of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, one of the most successful of the reform caucuses and one which actually succeeded in electing its candidate, Ron Carey, as president of the Teamsters in 1991. In 1997, Carey went on to lead one of the most successful strikes in an otherwise depressing decade. Carey and TDU were able to mobilize 185,000 teamsters to actively participate in a strike against UPS and built a 30 member bargaining committee which included rank-and-file workers for the first time, tactics which played a critical part in defeating UPS.

Too many unions today are content to substitute the organizing power of staff organizers for the initiative of shop stewards and members, and far fewer still have real contested elections for leadership. Early demonstrates how mistaken this strategy is. To combat cynics who will argue that this kind of participation is not possible, young organizers should approach the first section to Early’s book as a primer on really existing rank-and-file rebellions.

 2. Where you work matters

Eventually every college labor activist faces the question of what to do with themselves when they graduate. Should they try to get a job as a union organizer or researcher? If so, where should they go? Again, Early’s work will help give activists direction.

For the activist committed to working directly for a union the key question will be how democratic the union you are considering is. Are members an integral part of the life of the union, or are they cajoled into signing petitions and holding signs during contract negotiations and then relegated to the sidelines?

But Early also introduces an alternative to the union staff route, known as “industrializing” in the 1970s and as “salting” today. This is the practice of sending politically committed organizers directly into the workplace to get jobs and organize from within, and it’s one of the most challenging but potentially rewarding experiences a young organizer can take on. In Save Our Unions, Peter Olney, who after dropping out of Harvard had worked as a refrigeration mechanic and elevator operator in a unionized hospital before becoming a full-time organizer and eventual Organizing Director of the ILWU,  argues that in an organizing campaign “nothing can replace the presence of these politicized organizers in the workplaces of America.”

Although as Early notes salting has not yet become “sufficiently fashionable” to make a real breakthrough possible, it’s a route that more activists should consider seriously. Not only will they become more powerful organizers on the job to the benefit of their coworkers, but especially for college-educated activists from any class background, this strategy can be the best way to keep or find a firm political foundation in working-class communities.

  1. Vision is central

The most important lesson young activists can take from Early’s book is a constant refrain in each story. This is the importance of having a vision of what you’re fighting for and a political commitment to the cause. The heroes of Early’s stories are the radical organizers who make sacrifices for the labor movement because they see it as part of a long-term struggle. They are the socialists, communists, and anarchists who lead democratic reform caucuses, salt unionized and non-unionized workplaces, and champion unconventional, working-class electoral campaigns.

In the official history of the labor movement, and in too much of contemporary journalism around labor, union activists are depicted as bread-and-butter pragmatists fighting for higher wages and better fringe benefits. Laudable as these goals are, this approach misses one of the most important factors in what determines the success of organizers. Organizers need an ideological commitment to building a better society and a structural analysis of capitalism and the role that labor plays within contemporary society. It’s this vision and analysis that keeps salts and reformers in the struggle to build a better and more militant labor movement.

There is so much more to be gleaned from Save Our Unions. Activists of any age or familiarity with labor will benefit from Early’s coverage of battles in telecommunications, hospitality, and healthcare. Everyone should acquaint themselves with the latest developments in the multi-year fight between SEIU and the National Union of Healthcare Workers on the west coast. But especially for a young activist looking for lessons and an introduction to labor, Early’s book delivers.

Neal Meyer is a Brooklyn-based activist and member of DSA. He was previously an organizer for YDS.

Unity Is Strength for Progressives

by Amy Dean

Amy B. Dean

Business and liberal elites have long invested in developing collaborative leadership. In Occupy Wall Street and beyond, grassroots progressives are now getting into the game of working together.

Something huge is happening in this country. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this level of populist activity directed at the right targets: the big banks and the corporate elites that dominate our political system.

But there’s something else going on, behind the scenes. Though largely obscured by the Occupy Wall Street story, we are seeing a rare and welcome level of unity: progressive groups are maintaining a better level of coordination than at any time in recent memory. It’s a trend toward cooperation that should be recognized and celebrated.
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Cross Border Union Solidarity

BUILDING A CULTURE OF  CROSS BORDER SOLIDARITY

By David Bacon

In the period since the North American Free Trade Agreement has come into effect, the economies of the United States and Mexico have become more integrated than ever.  Through Plan Puebla-Panama and partnerships on security, the military and the drug war, the political and economic policies pursued by the U.S. and Mexican governments are also more coordinated than they’ve ever been.

Working people on both sides of the border are not only affected by this integration.  Workers and their unions in many ways are its object.  These policies seek to maximize profits and push wages and benefits to the bottom, manage the flow of people displaced as a result, roll back the rights and social benefits achieved over decades, and weaken working class movements in both countries.

All this makes cooperation and solidarity across the U.S./Mexico border more important than ever.  And after a quarter century in which the development of solidarity relationships was interrupted, unions and workers are once again searching out their counterparts and finding effective and appropriate ways to support each other in this new period. Continue reading

Liberals talk about what labor should do.

by Duane Campbell

Liberals discuss labor.  Decide labor is dead. And that “progressives” are an organized force.

Kevin Drum: In Mother Jones. Why the Democratic Party has abandoned the middle class in favor of the rich?

http://www.alternet.org/rights/151108/why_the_democratic_party_has_abandoned_the_middle_class_in_favor_of_the_rich/?page=entire

Robert Cruickshank. On Daily Kos. Responds to the Drum piece.  Several hundred responses.

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/05/29/980386/-Want-to-save-the-middle-class-Unite-the-left-and-labor#comments

Both of these essays describe what the authors believe to be the history of labor in the recent era.  Kevin Drum argues that labor is dead.

In my own view, both of these seem to be looking at labor from the outside, relying upon news reports and third hand opinions. Fundamentally, for example, their analysis treats labor as a single, coherent entity rather than the complex combination of unions and movements. See also prior post by Harold Meyerson, Labor’s Hail Mary Pass.

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Labor repression in Mexico

Official Seal of the Government of the United ...

Image via Wikipedia

From the AFL-CIO blog: by James Park

Over the past five years, the Mexican government has unleashed a systematic attack on workers’ rights. Despite the continuing repression, Mexico’s independent, democratic unions organize and represent the rights of workers. Some of the most egregious attacks have been on the Mine, Metal and Steel Workers Union (SNTMMSSRM), also known as Los Mineros.

The AFL-CIO is awarding Los Mineros and their leader, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the 2011 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award. The award will be formally presented later this year.  Click here to read the resolution in English and here for Spanish.

Gómez was first elected general secretary of the SNTMMSSRM in 2002 and immediately began challenging government policies of low wages and flexible labor markets, and building alliances with the global trade union movement.

When a February 2006 explosion at Grupo Mexico’s Pasta de Conchos mine killed 65 mineworkers, Gómez publicly accused the government of “industrial homicide.” In response to this criticism, the government filed criminal charges against Gómez and other union leaders, froze the union’s bank accounts, assisted employers to set up company unions in SNTMMSSRM-represented workplaces and declared the union’s strikes illegal and sent in troops to suppress them.  Continue reading

SEIU Massachusetts Hospital Organizing Campaign Director Resigns

The organizing director of SEIU’s successful hospital organizing campaign in Massachusetts has resigned to protest SEIU’s actions in California. Writing to his colleagues on May 11, Dana Simon submitted his letter of resignation, saying:

“I am beyond sadness in saying that I cannot in clear conscience continue working for SEIU, the union that I have fought for and helped to build since 1996.”

Dana Simon is now volunteering his support to the NUHW’s organizing campaign for homecare workers in Fresno, where he co-directed the original organizing campaign and led the negotiations for a first contract for the UHW in 2002-2003.

The full text of his moving letter follows.
Continue reading

Labor Strategies for Global Recovery

paul-garver-edited by Paul Garver

The most ambitious and far-reaching strategies for recovery from capitalism’s global crisis are not coming from the sluggish and clueless “socialist” political parties grouped in the Socialist International, but from the global labor movement. Behind the May Day message of ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder lies a consensus of the global labor movement advocating an extensive program for a full-scale transformation of the global economy built on social justice.
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