Seen as a pyramid, there are three elements to be considered in the context of the current discussion of the future of unionism in the United States: (1) the working class, (2) the labor movement, and (3) the unions. The unions exist because at a point in history the labor movement, proclaiming itself acting for the benefit of the working class, was born and set about to organize the working class; the form being trade unions. The challenge today, I suggest, is to respond to the needs of the working class (of which the unions today represent only a small part) and revive or re- launch the labor movement. Proposals that seek only to increase the number of working people in the unions do not respond adequately to the needs of the class; likewise proposals to merely adjust how the unions’ resources are utilized to maximize political influence.
The natural starting point for revitalizing the labor movement is the existing union structure. It has the resources, knowledge and personnel needed, and it would be absurd to think of starting all over from scratch. However, for a dynamic labor movement to arise it is obligatory that it proclaim its intention to act in the interest of the entire working class and actually set about to do it.
The starting point is the recognition that the working class is under attack. In the mass media account, the social programs that the corporatist and right-wing forces are trying to weaken or destroy are those of the ‘FDR era,’ the measures taken amid the Great Depression of the 1930s. It’s all a matter of framing. Give Franklin Roosevelt his due but retirement security, overtime protection, bankruptcy relief, social welfare and other programs were actually the priority items on the agenda of the labor movement, the attainment of which people fought for – and frequently died. Other targets of those who would turn all aspects of our social and economic destiny over to the market forces – like public education – date back even further, to the program of the European labor movement of the 19th Century.
Public education, Social Security, Medicare, bankruptcy protection, public transportation, public health, gender wage equality, and pension/retirement rights and things like clean water and air and national parks are issues that directly affect and confront the working class. A new or revitalized labor movement has to see its mission as one of not just protecting the position of the current union membership but of acting forcefully on all fronts in the interest of all workers.
Campaigning around Social Security, for instance, should not be relegated to the union retirees. Protecting Social Security and pension rights – public and private — is a class issue and the unions should take the lead – not just in testimony before Congress – but also in preventing the Bush Administration’s effort to hoodwink younger workers into thinking enactment of its privatization scheme would be in a their interest.
There is one area where an essential social program is not under assault – because it doesn’t exist. For historical and political reasons that can be debated forever, U.S. unions failed in the post-depression or post-war years to win a system of universal healthcare. The result is that millions of working women and men, and their families, are not covered by healthcare insurance. Leadership which favors just any kind of healthcare financing scheme as long as it would benefit a union’s current members – and maybe others in a similar situation – falls short and operates in counter- distinction to the interest of working people as a whole. The working people of our country need and want universal healthcare and a re-born labor movement would heartily champion its enactment.
U.S. unions have, by and large, failed to bring unionization to millions of workers in the newest, fastest growing and most dynamic sections of the workforce. One notable exception is healthcare where inroads have been made but where the portion of unorganized remains very large. While size and density are important factors in strengthening the power of individual unions, an effort to successfully unionize workers in the fields of electronics/information technology, tourism, distribution, retail, food processing and financial services should be seen not as solely an effort to ‘grow’ individual unions but rather as an imperative campaign to bring the blessing of unionization (a chance to advance economically and socially) to the millions of working women and men who today face capital as individuals – and to their communities.
Over recent decades, the unions have expended a great deal of energy and resources in political action intended to staunch the flow of goods into the U.S. market from ‘low wage’ areas abroad. This effort must be looked at in the context of the failure to bring unionization to those working in manufacturing facilities built by foreign or multinational corporations in ‘low wage’ areas of the United States. To eventually succeed in bringing unionization to workers in these areas will require not just the expenditure of union resources and assignment of personnel but, I think, more importantly, an organizing and political effort with full community involvement. This means (as with other elements of the political/social challenges described above) alliance with other sectors of society (i.e. African-American and Latino communities, women, Lesbians, gays and social and civil rights movements, environmentalists, etc.). It should also recognize and support forms of worker organization that are not unions but nonetheless constitute a sector of the labor movement.
What this all constitutes, of course, is social unionism. To successfully meet the challenges before the unions today it is, I believe, necessary to take the lead in advancing the interest of the working class as a whole. It will require a revitalized, indeed, a re-born labor movement. The answer to the challenges lies not only in the form of organization the union structure devises but as well – and more importantly – in the content of what it asserts and fights for.
[Carl Bloice is a freelance writer in San Francisco, California]