I’m Part of Today’s Unions, Ask Me Why

Vijay Prashad


to Elisabeth Armstrong and Brian Steinberg for discussions on this subject.


a somewhat recent issue of <Counterpunch> the editors quote a rather

obscure AFL-CIO official who is said to have commented that ‘grassroots

authenticity’ is overrated. The editors take this to mean that the ‘labor

bureaucrats’ at 16th Street in Washington are out of touch with, and indeed

detractors of, the militancy at the grassroots. This leads the editors to

question the authenticity of the changes from above wrought by the election of

the Sweeney slate in 1995. There is much merit in viewing the changes with

caution, but there is little to be gained by the ritual of denunciation indulged

by some figures on the Left. As it stands now, militancy from below (‘grassroots

authenticity’); is the engine for union democracy, but allies above should not be

discounted for this crucial struggle. To dismiss what is snidely called the

‘labor bureaucracy’ is to discount the value of many allies within the structure

whose commitment to union democracy is impeccable. That Richard Bensinger earned

‘early retirement’ from his job as organizing director of the AFL-CIO is perhaps

unfortunate, but this itself provides insufficient grounds for dismissal of the

entire organization.


and Militancy


the folks at <Counterpunch> avoid the trivial position of such as Manuel

Castells, that technological changes have rendered the proletariat

non-revolutionary (a position first enunciated by Marcuse in his famous 1965

<Praxis> article, where he called the communist parties ‘doctors at the

bedside of capitalism’);. Certainly the end of the Keynesian compromise (demand

management) means that the role of labor unions needs to be rethought – as firms

take advantage of the practice of ‘flexibility’ to their advantage, union

militancy can mean the transit of certain kinds of firms away from unionized

shops. However, vast sections of the economy are not so mobile, such as

municipal and service work. This is one reason why unions in these two sectors

are now stronger than those in industry (and not for any mystical shift in the

general tenor of the economy – industry continues in the US, but not in states

with a high union density). From above comes the message to target these sectors

of the economy to ensure that union resources are used to their maximum effect.

Invigorated Central Labor Councils and the Union City concept allows unions to

struggle within specific shops whose wages determine the earnings in a region.

To revitalize labor culture, the AFL-CIO’s concept of ‘street heat’ is crucial:

‘Street Heat is about mobilizing union members and the community around action -

a small but effective protest, a mass march and rally, a canvassing of

neighborhoods. Through mobilization efforts like these, we can activate the

power that exists within our ranks. We let employers and politicians know that

working families are watching and ready to respond. We spark a larger movement

by inspiring others to join the fight. And after years of being on the

defensive, we take the initiative, we restore the right to organize and we

revitalize the labor movement’ (this is from the AFL-CIO’s <Mobilizing to

Win> document from 1997). 157 Central Labor Councils are now committed to the

Union City concept.


recognize that the threat of ‘flexibility’ works most effectively with some

industries rather than others, and that international cooperation is often an

effective deterrent against transnational firms. Thus, in the International

Longshoremen’s Association Local 1814 ongoing fight against Domino Sugar’s

Brooklyn plant, the union contacted the International Union of Food,

Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers

Association which represents the workers of Domino’s parent company, Tate &

Lyle. The International sent a letter to its affiliates around the world on 25

August to put pressure on Tate & Lyle (who also own the notorious A. E.

Staley of Decatur, Ill.). This is one way to deal with ‘flexibility,’ to urge

for more international solidarity. That the AFL-CIO of Sweeney refused its CIA

subsidy of $10 million is a mark of its renewed commitment to genuine

internationalism. A second way to deal with ‘flexibility’ is to study the shifts

in the economy, to learn how to build workers’ power in this new context, and to

provide certain work services in the interim (such as the National Labor

College). In Seattle, computer software workers created WashTech last year as an

affiliate of the Communication Workers of America. The goal of WashTech is to

visit the problem of temporary work within the industry – a sign that labor is

aware of the shifts in the economy. Few intellectuals have answers to the

problems of ‘flexibility,’ but we do seem to make a career of mocking the trials

of labor in this conjuncture. The concept of ‘flexibility’ and management’s

creative use of technology has re-created the work structure in certain fields.

The challenge for unions is how to craft militancy in the age of ‘flexibility.’




food service workers at Trinity College (founded 1823), where I teach, are part

of HERE Local 217. They are in the midst of their first contract renegotiations,

one that is not coming easy from Sodexho-Marriot. As part of the fight, the

Faculty Labor Action Committee circulated a petition among the 160 faculty and

collected 105 signatures within a week. The Student Labor Action Committee did

much the same, and many staff members expressed their sympathy for and/or

solidarity with the workers. The culture on the campus has been decisively

altered by the presence of a workforce that is at once proud to be in a union

and not entirely distraught by its working conditions. This struggle, in many

ways, would not have occurred without the renewed pledge to organize workers

from the ‘labor bureaucracy.’ In previous years, so many union organizers waited

for workers to call them for a card count; now the organizers hustle to see what

struggle they might insert themselves into. The militant (mainly immigrant)

workers and the Sweeney slate rewrote the history of Local 217.


union, further, cannot afford to remain immune from the total struggle of the

workers. Take HERE’s Local 2 in San Francisco whose drive to organize Park 55

Hotel was aided by AIDS activists because the union negotiated the first AIDS

disability benefits in the country. ‘We have a pretty extensive community

support plan,’ reports Lisa Jacques of the Local. ‘We go out with the workers

and speak to local organizations about our campaign and how it fits in with our

community struggles. We commit to joining other people’s events. We can’t just

expect people to show up for our events without us contributing to the larger

struggle.’ In Philadelphia, the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust will use $123

million in pension funds to renovate low-income and moderate-income housing.

This is the tenor of the renewed AFL-CIO, one that cannot be entirely measured

at 16th Street, but whose dynamic needs to be gauged in such new developments on

the ground (if I had more room I’d elaborate upon the Campaign for a Sustainable

Milwaukee, a labor-community coalition).


above, Sweeney hired a slew of new directors and deputy directors for the

Department of Field Mobilization (1996). In the West, he brought in Mark Splain

and Pat Lee (founding member of the radical Asian Pacific American Labor

Alliance): if these people had been around earlier the Los Angeles Manufacturing

Action Project (LAMAP) may have been a true success story (as noted by Tom

Gallagher in <Z Magazine,> November 1998). New York’s Mary Fears Creighton

came to take charge of the Mid-West along with Milwaukee Central Labor Council’s

Bruce Colburn (also of the New Party, whose views can be gleaned from a notable

<Nation> article of 18 November 1996). To direct the South, Sweeney hired

Kirk Adams (then of SEIU, now Organizing Director) and Ken Johnson, director of

the Southern Labor Institute (founded in 1984 by people such as William Lucy of

the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. The Institute pioneered the Rural Coop

Democracy and Development Project). In the East, importantly, we have two

well-regarded progressives, Joe Alvarez (previously UNITE’s political director)

and Merrilee Milstein (once Connecticut’s Deputy Secretary of State and militant

Vice President of Local 1199, Connecticut). The presence of these veterans as an

alternative hub to the power of some recalcitrant Locals is a symbol of the

changes from above. To dismiss them cavalierly is to miss a chance to give these

progressives the kind of community support so integral to the reconstruction of

US Labor. In a recent issue of <New Politics> (vol. 7, no. 2, Winter

1999), Kim Moody argues that we stand before a choice. ‘We can tinker at the top

telling ourselves all the while that things are getting better in the house of

labor. Or we can lend a hand to those who seek a deeper change and are willing

to put up with debate, political conflict, an informed rank and file, and the

other facets of democracy because they know that ultimately that is where the

power of the unions will be found.’ I don’t see the logic of the binary offered

to us. We can do both – fight among the grassroots, the militant rank and file,

in the street heats, as well as work to give our allies who work within the

ensemble of 16th Street to shift resources the way of militancy.


Prashad Assistant Professor

International Studies 214 McCook

Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106. 860-297-2518.




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