Activists Offer Path for Labor’s Renewal

by Randy Shaw on June 19, 2008

In 2008, organized labor helped secure the Democratic presidential nomination of Barack Obama, who would become the most pro-labor President since Franklin Roosevelt. But despite labors’ political gains, the pace of organizing new workers remains slow. Less than 10% of private sectors workers are unionized, and labor’s manufacturing base continues to shrink. Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin are longtime labor activists who are among those who have concluded from these and other facts that the nation’s unions are in a state of crisis. Their new book, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice, offers a critical assessment of the labor movement while pushing unions to build a broader working class movement for social justice. The authors raise many provocative claims, some of which will prompt disagreement. Yet their aim appears less to achieve consensus than to provoke a reassessment of many of labor’s commonly accepted premises. The book will likely achieve this, and should spark considerable debate among those concerned about the labor movement’s future.

A More Progressive Movement

Fletcher and Gapasin have two goals. First, they lay out a broad-based and fundamental critique of the current direction of the United States labor movement. Second, they offer an alterative vision for this movement, one that they see as far more militant toward capital, far more class-conscious, far more inclusive, and far more willing to challenge the exercise of U.S. power in the world.

The two longtime activists recognize the inherent difficulties in moving labor to the left. For example, they provide an illuminating analysis of why so many moderate to conservative union leaders keep getting elected. They note how many union members prefer the stability of the ongoing operational practices offered by such leaders to left-wing candidate’s offering to radically change union procedures. While critics often focus on union’s “misleadership,” Fletcher and Gapasin show that labor’s problems have deeper roots.

Both want a labor movement that focuses as much on unorganized workers as it does on dues paying members. They want a movement that puts racial and gender issues in the workplace at the center, rather than the margins. They believe the labor movement should have made recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and opposition to the Iraq War, a critical part of its mission. And they want a labor movement that opposes U.S imperialism, and that recognizes the link between American foreign policy and the “free trade” policies that cost union jobs.

Most readers of this book will share the above vision. But many may differ over the extent to which labor is already moving toward the above goals, and will question whether labor has the resources to organize new workers, service existing members, mobilize politically and help lead a broader working-class movement.

The “Change to Win” Split

The last time organized labor attempted to address many of the strategic issues raised in this book was in 2005, when SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Teamsters and other unions broke from the AFL-CIO to create the Change to Win labor federation. And Fletcher and Gapasin see the months leading up to the split as a tremendous lost opportunity for the labor movement to have fully debated long-term strategies. The authors spend considerable pages arguing that Andy Stern and SEIU pushed for a split that could have been avoided, and are skeptical, and often critical, of Change to Win.

But this book actually makes a strong case for the AFL-CIO’s dysfunction prior to 2005, and makes it easy to understand why Stern and other union leaders backed the creation of a new federation. And because the newly released book does not contain almost any material since 2005—which is clearly its major shortcoming—the accomplishments and failures of the Change to Win federation since 2005 are not assessed. As a result, a reader who does not know this post-2005 record would have a difficult time deciding whether the authors are correct in questioning the benefit of the break from the AFL-CIO.

Although both authors describe themselves as formerly close to SEIU President Andy Stern, and while SEIU is often seen as the most visionary of today’s international unions, the authors see Stern as representing “quintessential “neo-Gomperism.” To those unfamiliar with early 20th Century labor leader Samuel Gompers, that is not a compliment. To the contrary, the authors see Gompers as representing everything that is wrong with the United States labor movement, and “Gomperism” remains primarily identified with non-ideological “business unionism.”

While the authors quote from Stern speeches and interviews to support their critique, the book does not discuss SEIU’s successful organizing of people of color in the South and Southwest. Nor does it discuss the successful efforts in Los Angeles to unionize African-American security guards. In fact, SEIU is often engaging in precisely the “social justice” unionism that the authors prescribe, and it would have been helpful to have the authors address these campaigns in light of their criticisms.

This is a book for those already highly informed about the labor movement. The authors may have recognized this, and spend fewer pages bolstering their arguments with abundant case studies than one might expect. And since their primary goal is to raise issues for discussion, one can accept the lack of sufficient evidence for some of their critiques. But it would have been helpful if the book discussed labor’s role in the passing of minimum wage initiatives across the nation, its massive support for immigrant rights, and its push for universal health care, all of which fulfill the authors’ desire of building a movement that incorporates the non-unionized working class.

Labor is in a state of crisis, and new strategies are needed. But Solidarity Divided struck me as a bit too pessimistic, which might reflect the fact that it primarily focuses on pre-2000 examples, with post-2005 events largely ignored. This means that such successes as UNITE HERE’s national hotel boycott and Hotel Workers Rising campaign, SEIU’s success in Houston, and labor’s key role in the immigrant rights movement are not included in the authors’ analysis. This would be a good topic for the authors to address in their public appearances.

Fletcher and Gapasin decry the lack of public debate in organized labor, and their book should help address this. It will certainly spark lively discussion among activists in the movement.

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