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Rebuilding the Labor Movement in the United States


Unions need to offer a vision of how a just society should be organized. We need to organize for real solutions like fair trade, national health insurance, labor law reform, internal union democratic reforms to re-engage the rank and file, and a multi-year, multi-trillion dollar public works program to create millions of new jobs building an ecologically sustainable infrastructure for our future.

Between the lack of room to grow for the old-line, high-wage construction and manufacturing unions of the AFL-CIO and the lack of power of the new, low-wage service unions of Change To Win to help their members, union membership is falling. From the high point 35 percent of American workers organized at the time of the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1953, we are now down to 12.5 percent (and less than 8 percent in the private sector). The business unionism of today has the culture of an insurance company, where the workers are clients and the officers are managers taking in our payments and doling out our benefits.

The recent split nationally among the labor union movement avoids the real issues confronting us as workers: declining real wages, jobs lost to outsourcing, the erosion of pension security and health benefits, legal barriers to union organizing, top-down union bureaucracies, and the mounting environmental and energy crises.

We know from talking to our parents and grandparents and from reading history that labor once was a spirited social movement with high ideals. The emancipation of labor was to be founded on a tripod: the union, the cooperative, and the independent labor party. I believe these are still causes worth fighting for.

The purpose of the union was to advance workers’ wages and working conditions in their jobs in the existing society by direct action. But unions have become very hard to organize over the last 25 years when employers have been able to break labor laws with impunity and fire tens of thousands of workers for trying to organize because the National Labor Relations Board acts too slowly and with too much bias in favor of the bosses.

And nonviolent direct action by workers in many of its forms was outlawed by the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act. For example, Taft-Harley outlawed sympathy and solidarity strikes and "secondary boycotts" where workers refuse to cross picket lines when they were not directly party to a labor dispute or refuse to handle "hot cargo" coming from or going to a struck enterprise. The major result of the Taft-Hartley restrictions on labor action has been to divert unions from direct action to cautious administrators of contracts with no-strike clauses so the company cannot sue the union for violating the contract. Unions now devote most of their resources to handling grievances through "proper channels" and defending themselves from lawsuits by corporations with far more resources to go to court.

The purpose of the cooperative was to organize economic enterprises that did not exploit workers. Workers would jointly and democratically own and manage their businesses without parasitic absentee owners. Each member of the cooperative would have one vote and would receive a patronage dividend: a refund of net earnings in proportion to purchases in a consumer cooperative and a share of the net earnings in proportion to labor contributed in a worker cooperative.

The purpose of the independent labor party was to organize the working class majority to take political power and exercise it for the benefit of the working class majority. If we are ever going repeal the Taft-Hartley amendments and have public policies that favor cooperatives instead of corporate welfare for absentee owners, it is going to come from a new political party.

The Democrats had repeal of Taft-Hartley in their national platform between 1948 and 1992, but never moved to repeal it when they had congressional majorities under Truman, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. Instead, the Democrats worked with the Republicans to limit labor’s ability to organize. The turning point was the busting of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, which was planned under the Carter administration and executed under the Reagan administration. The Clinton administration pushed through anti-labor polices such as NAFTA and WTO and the repeal of federal welfare guarantees after the Bush and Reagan administrations failed to do so. Robert Reich, Clinton’s Labor Secretary and his cabinet’s most liberal member, pushed job training instead of labor law reform to help unions organize.

The Change To Win coalition has criticized the AFL-CIO for "throwing money at Democrats" who then take them for granted. Change To Win has a point. Since 1980 when the anti-union offensive began in earnest, unions have spent $8-12 billion supporting Democrats through direct contributions to candidates, the Democratic Party, and pro-Democratic political action committees and internal mobilization of the union vote, according to Jonathon Tasini, president emeritus of the National Writers Union and the Democratic primary challenger to incumbent US Senator Hillary Clinton.

But rather than building an independent labor party, Change To Win unions like the Teamsters and SEIU are throwing money at Republicans, too. The Teamsters gave 11 percent of their federal contributions to Republicans in the 2004 elections cycle. SEIU spent 15 percent in 2004 on Republicans, from a $500,000 contribution to the Republican Governors Association to a $7500 contribution to my local Republican congressman in Syracuse, James Walsh. Worse, SEIU spent considerable resources to stymie Ralph Nader’s pro-labor independent candidacy in 2004, from sending SEIU staffers to counter-leaflet and heckle Nader speeches in New York to hiring lawyers in Oregon who threatened Nader petitioners in house visits with prosecution for fraud for any mistakes they made on petitions they witnessed.

Imagine if labor had responded to the anti-union offensive over the last 25 years by spending $8-12 billion building an independent labor party and movement, as the labor movement has done in every other industrial nation. We would have scores of labor party organizers in every state supporting a broadly based, grassroots democratic party of working people. We would have blocks of independent labor representatives in municipal, county, state, and the national legislatures. We would have a national labor daily newspaper and a labor news network on radio and cable presenting the public with an alternative to the corporate media’s slant. The two corporate financed parties, the Democrats and Republicans, would no longer monopolize US politics. Public policy would undoubtedly be more pro-labor and the majority of working people would not have seen their real wages and living standards decline over the last 25 years. 

The Green Party is best known for its environmental and peace advocacy. But in the absence of a labor party, the Green Party has also taken on the role of an independent labor party and taken up the labor demands the Democrats won’t, from fair trade to labor law reform. We are trying to bring the old emancipatory program of labor as a social movement back into the public debate: the union, the cooperative, and the independent labor party.

Thus, I support project labor agreements on public projects and oppose contracts, tax breaks, and corporate welfare for companies with a record of union busting and labor law violations. I support targeting public economic incentives to cooperatives and other forms of democratic local ownership so public investments are anchored to our community by ownership structures for the long-term benefit of the community. And I believe it is time for working people to break away from the corporate-dominated Democrats and start electing their own representatives to public office.

 

Howie Hawkins is a member of Teamsters Local 317 and active in the national Teamster rank-and-file reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Howie presently works unloading trucks and rail cars at UPS. He is the former Director of CommonWorks, a federation of cooperatives working for an economy that is cooperatively owned, democratically controlled, and ecologically sustainable. He is Green Party candidate for the US Senate.

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