Sunday, March 06, 2011

Labor Movement — Flames or Ashes

I have been reading about and discussing the events unfolding in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio the last few weeks. There have been scores of articles pertaining to the unrest that has sprung to life over the issue of workers rights to organize and bargain collectively. The ideas and plans surrounding which is the best strategy have been numerous and most could be listed under two main headings. On the one side we have proponents who suggest we use this awakening to strengthen the existing ties between the Democratic political machine and the AFL-CIO/CTW labor umbrella organizations. On the other side we have those who propose to use this momentum to build a grassroots all encompassing worker movement apart from the business as usual compromises we have become so accustomed to seeing from the system over the last 40 years or more.

The Democrats and their allies have told the protesters to move along and thanked them for achieving something that hasn't been seen in decades. The protesters were told they have invigorated the progressive wing of the Democratic party and they will use them actively in upcoming campaigns. Upcoming campaigns? Can there be another campaign more important to the working people than this one that is happening right now?!! Will there ever be such a high level of active participation and wakefulness as what we are witnessing right now?!! From where I sit in this totally red state of Mississippi, this is a defeatist approach to forming any kind of labor movement. By taking the power out of the people's hands and trying to incorporate this energy into the structures that have either become neutered by corporate interests or have been basically destroyed by those same interests, I am afraid the spark that has been struck in Madison will never grow into the flame the people so desperately need. Removing the tinder from the spark is not the way to build a fire.

Of all the resources I have read lately concerning the upwelling of activism, a couple of articles by Dan La Botz stood out as shining examples of what is happening, and what should be happening during this time. The first by La Botz is A New American Workers Movement Has Begun. In his article La Botz lists four points concerning labor movements which deal with the known of the past and the unknown of our future. Here are the basic five points from the article:
1) First, we know that when masses of workers go into motion, as they have now begun to do, political consciousness grows and changes rapidly. Workers who today simply fight to defend their union rights will, if they succeed in resisting the right's attempt to destroy them, go on to fight to expand not only their rights but to improve their working conditions and standard of living. Most important, workers will fight to expand their power. We are just at the beginning.

2) Second, when workers discover the strategy and tactics of their movement, those quickly spread to other groups of workers in society. When the rubber workers in Akron, Ohio discovered the sit-down strike in 1936, it quickly spread not only to the auto industry leading to the great strikes of 1937 and 38. Remarkably, the sit-down also spread to such unlikely workers as the “shop girls” of department stores. During the 1950s and early 1960s, African American civil rights activists rediscovered the power of the sit-down, transforming it into the sit-in in lunch counters, bus stations, and other private and public places across the South.

3) Third, real labour movements ignore the artificial separation between economic and political, taking up either or both as they follow the logic of the struggle. Industrial workers' struggles for higher wages in the 1930s became transformed into struggle for the employers' recognition of the unions and labour legislation granting workers the right to organize. Similarly, public employees in the 1960s fought for the right to organize unions and collective bargaining which then flowed the other way, to a fight for higher wages. What is today primarily a political fight in Wisconsin, that is to defend the right of public employees to have a labour union, bargain collectively and enjoy the right to strike, will inevitably become a struggle for better conditions, higher wages, and health and pension benefits.

4) Fourth, when a real labour movement arises, that is, a movement not merely of thousands or even tens of thousands, but of millions, it necessarily becomes transformative. Labour union officials who hesitate, who waver, or who knuckle under will soon find themselves challenged by new, younger leaders who will either force those officials to fight or push them aside. Such a movement will change the unions – often by changing the leadership first and sometimes by changing the very institutions themselves. Such was the case with the rise of the industrial workers movement in the 1930s which broke the shell of the old AFL to create the new CIO.

5) Fifth, and finally, a new American labour movement of millions will challenge the old political relationship between the unions and the Democratic Party. The unions will fight at first to force the Democratic Party to give up its own conservative budget, tax and labour policies, and failing to do that, will seek another vehicle. Unions may first attempt to change the Democrats by running union candidates in Democratic Party primaries, or they may attempt to take over the state party. Whether the new American labour movement will have the power to put forward a political alternative remains to be seen.

The other essay by Dan La Botz I would like to mention is The New American Workers Movement at the Crossroads. In this La Botz mentions how organized labor continues to use the old models of organizing power which continues to plague them and actually help the organizations become irrelevant. Compromise, regroup, and begin a new campaign. Rather than play an active role in a movement of the people, the structures are content to turn it into a political rather than social battle. Anyone who is capable of even a small amount of critical thought, knows that both parties in our duopoly suckle off the same teats. This from the essay:

Following the model they use in political campaigns, they have reached out to established organizations to build coalitions. They have sent organizers in to take charge and to reach out to communities. Their goal is to rebuild their institutional power and their relationship with the Democratic Party, hoping to turn the upsurge in support for public employees into a political victory.


History will once again record the outcome of labor during this time of America's corporate/political influenced Great Recession. Whether it will be a positive force for change in our country or just another little section in the labor history books with a couple of paragraphs of unimportant facts and some commentary about a lost opportunity, we will have to wait and see!

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