A New Direction for Labor

President, Air Transport Employees Local Lodge 1781, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers

Beginning in 2003 with the declaration of bankruptcy by United Airlines (UAL), air carriers have been on a sustained three-year campaign to permanently lower wages and benefits of over 250,000 unionized workers in the airline industry.

In these three short years, over a half-dozen carriers, including four of five so-called majors, have followed UAL’s pattern of using a bankruptcy court to extract excruciatingly painful concessions. These concessions would otherwise have been impossible to impose through traditional collective bargaining.

While the standard of living of airline workers has been devastated rapidly and without precedent in the industry, we are not alone. Millions of American workers face termination of pensions, reduction of wages and loss of benefits. Meanwhile, corporate executives responsible for taking a wrecking ball to our dreams for a secure future and retirement give themselves windfall pensions and bonuses.

At AT& T, for example, 1,000 of its most highly paid executives claim 45 percent of its pension expenses, as the Wall Street Journal reported on June 26, 2006. The other 55 percent of pension money has to cover 189,000 employees. Is it hyperbole in the face of such facts to suggest the imagery of pigs at the trough?

Yet while our benefits in every sector of the economy fall like dominoes, American workers face these battles in relative isolation from each other. It ought to be the ABC of wisdom that the issues we face in common should be addressed in common. The attacks on our livelihood should be met by a wall of solidarity, guided by action campaigns based on the old idea that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’

Instead, we are distracted from focusing on this unity because our political efforts are mostly concentrated in campaigning for Democratic Party candidates, in the false hope that they will bail us out of our troubles.
Ironically, labor is most united only during election campaigns.

This has been the case for decades. It’s also the biggest factor leading to our decline. Truth be told, all we have ever found in the corporate politicians of the two major parties are empty promises. How much longer should we watch labor’s solutions to our problems dramatically modified or cast aside because our ‘friends’ in Congress believe them to be unrealistic?

We need to define labor politics more broadly than simply supporting Democratic Party candidates. We need the strength and unity of the labor movement to be expressed in renewed action in defense of our rights and living standards. Direct action politics is what originally built our unions, through the judicious use of demonstrations, rallies, strikes, pickets, and coalition building. Direct action politics is also what will revive our unions.

I am for speaking in labor’s own distinct name to the American people. I am for making labor’s unique perspective on the issues of the day a voice powerful enough it can no longer be relegated to the sidelines by those who want to portray us as some narrow ‘special interest.’

There are 120 million American workers who deserve a labor movement that defines itself on its own terms, unafraid to buck the established parties. There is an endless list of grievances suffered by the American people.

The Voice of Labor has to become audible in the public debate over all the issues of vital concern to the American people. That’s the first step. We spend more money and time speaking to the 500 members of Congress than we do to 120 million American workers.

It bears repeating: We have to raise our voice. Labor’s program is unknown to the average worker. It’s the best kept secret in America. That has to change.

In fact, both the AFL-CIO and CTW have a program to protect jobs, for an increase in the minimum wage, for single-payer health care and for expansion of social security. Labor has a program for funding human needs through corporate taxation, for enforcing trade union rights and for the rights of immigrant workers, and for ending the oil-soaked, lying war in Iraq.

This is a program and a vision that potentially will resonate with millions of workers. But to translate this program into inspiration in the streets and on the job, we in the labor movement have to begin to see ourselves as a social movement, as an impassioned social and political movement fighting for the cause of labor justice.

We can convince millions about labor’s program with a massive educational campaign. Brochures, videos and forums are some of our tools. There are others. We will invent new tools.

But we begin with ideas in defense of the working class; ideas undiluted by legislative compromise. That is how movements take seed.

I propose regular coalition building by unions with community, religious, women’s, civil rights and peace and justice groups. In this way, we can sponsor educational forums that give us opportunities to voice ideas, analysis, and political solutions that represent the vision and perspective of the labor movement.

Out of these efforts will possibly and hopefully develop new allies to broaden labor’s political base. This will be essential to mobilizing solidarity actions when the next group of workers are targeted by a corporation.

The past months have been truly exceptional in the political life of this country. On March 10, 2006, a mass mobilization in Chicago of up to 300,000 people ignited a New Civil Rights Movement in support of immigrant rights.

This march was the product of a series of meetings and initiatives by a coalition of immigrant right activists and trade unionists who gathered earlier this year in Chicago and cities in Southern California.

We should feel inspired and galvanized by the birth of this new movement. It’s a lesson to us that the time is right to step up and broaden our efforts to build stronger ties between labor and the larger working- class communities.


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