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The Incredible Lightness of Vision In the US Labor Movement


Whoopee! The Change to Win Coalition has established itself in the labor movement! Happy Days are here again! Andy Stern’s going to lead us to the promised land!

And the overwhelming response by American workers: yawn.

At the time when American workers-indeed, US society as a whole-so much need a new labor center, to fight for economic and social justice, to challenge the policies of the Bush Administration, to challenge the worsening conditions for working people across the entire social order, and to challenge the US Empire overall, we get another AFL-CIO. Just under another name.  Please excuse me while I am underwhelmed.

Steve Early, a leader of the Communications Workers of America (AFL-CIO), writing in the October issue of Labor Notes, summed up the new developments nicely:

The CTWC’s break with the AFL-CIO developed out of inside-the-Beltway bureaucratic squabbles that union members have little interest in and no say about. The AFL-CIO and its defectors don’t have radically different workplace organizing or political agendas. Unlike the Knights of Labor, IWW, or early CIO, no labor grouping today is projecting an alternative vision of how the economy should be re-structured to aid and empower America workers.

And its founding was a “well-managed” event, according to Jerry Tucker, who was on hand for the founding of the new labor center in St. Louis on September 27 (http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/tucker041005.html ). And enthusiasm was high.  But Tucker noted the problems still not faced: after noting that we now have two labor centers in this country, he writes, “Yet neither represents a conscious break with the cultures, traditions and failures of the past which have pushed us so deeply into the crisis they have both acknowledged.” In other words, “their competition is still within the realm of business, or ‘partnership’, unionism.”

I hope I’m wrong, and that the good people within both sets of labor centers can straighten out the US labor movement. But, I am skeptical. (And in all fairness, however, I must note that we on the left of the labor movement have not been able to do better overall, but I will take US Labor Against the War any day against the AFL-CIO’s relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy, or the refusal by CTWC to take a position on Bush’s war in Iraq!)

There are two areas-one within the purview of even today’s business unionism, and one outside-that illuminate the almost total lack of vision coming out of the labor movement today, and especially out of the top levels of the labor movement.

The first example is within the realm of business unionism. That is labor communication.

At a time when labor is so weak, and so discredited within the mass media and much of the larger society, it would seem a “no-brainer” that labor would work to build up an alternative communications network to get labor’s news and views out to a larger audience. In fact, Tom Buffenbarger, President of the International Association of Machinists (IAM/AFL-CIO), has stated that labor should put up something like $188 MILLION to create a national labor TV network. That would certainly be an interesting development.

Yet, how many people know that there is currently a daily (five days a week) labor headline news service that produces news and information for working people across North America on the Internet, thus communicating throughout the US and Canada? And how many of those people know that it is carried on Eric Lee’s Labour Start in London, so it can be heard world-wide?

In addition to being available on the Internet, this labor news headline service, WIN (Workers Independent News Service, www.laborradio.org ), is also available on the radio in some areas of this country. WIN also is broadcast on the “Air America” radio network, as well as over 100 radio stations around the country on a daily or weekly basis. And in the Fall of 2004, WIN was on KMOX, the second largest commercial radio station in the Midwest, from St. Louis, every morning on drive time, when most workers listen to the news. Thus, this news was broadcast across most of Missouri, into a good part of central and southern Illinois, and into Arkansas?

Founded by long-time labor activist, former IUE local 201 union president (at General Electric in Lynn, MA), and currently Professor of Labor Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Frank Emspak, WIN has been in operation, on a shoestring budget, for almost four years.  Yet WIN is able to provide a top-flight daily news service, along with longer features, as well as material for printed material like local union papers, and do it from working people’s perspectives. In short, WIN has done an excellent job in getting working people’s news out-including union news-for an extended period of time: doing the work that the labor movement itself should be doing, but is not doing. [Full disclosure: I have been responsible for outreach for WIN for the last year and a half in Chicago.  I wrote this section concerning WIN on my own, and take full responsibility for it.]

Despite having established a high quality and on-going production for almost four years, not only getting on the Internet but an increasing number of commercial stations around the country, how has labor responded to WIN? Do you know that despite a number of approaches, Buffenbarger and the IAM have not-as far as I know-put a single cent into this operation? And that the AFL-CIO put only $5,000 into WIN last year, despite spending $44 million to get John “I’ll manage the war better” Kerry into office? (A few unions-both in the AFL-CIO and the CTWC-have made substantial contributions to WIN, and have members on the Board of Directors. But they remain a small minority.)

The point is why hasn’t the labor movement strongly backed WIN? Why hasn’t the labor leadership gone to their affiliated unions, told them the importance of WIN, and gotten them to seek the support of their membership in building up and listening to WIN? Why isn’t every Central Labor Council in the country supporting WIN? Why has this nation-wide news service had to scramble every month just to keep its doors open?

That’s one area where there’s been an underwhelming amount of vision and leadership exhibited.

Another area-this one a bit of a reach for business unions, but important nonetheless-is the widening family income inequality gap in this country.  As Hurricane Katrina revealed in New Orleans, there is widespread poverty in the US, and it’s racialized: African-Americans and Latinos have a higher rate of poverty, but yet 65 percent of all people in poverty are white. But not only is there poverty, but the gap between the rich and poor has become a chasm. Yet, I don’t remember hearing any labor leaders speaking about this!

How do we know the gap is widening? There is a measure used in the social sciences called the Gini Index (sometimes called the Gini coefficient), that measures income inequality. The US Government has measured family income inequality every year between 1947-2001 (www.census.gov/hhes/income/histinc/f04.html ). It is measured in thousandths, like a baseball batting average, and extends from 1.000, which would be “perfect inequality,” to .000, which would signify “perfect equality. In other words, the lower the score, the less inequality and, consequently, the higher the score, the more inequality. Thus, the Gini Index can illustrate whether income inequality is growing or shrinking over the years observed.

The Gini Index can be divided into two sections in the post-World War II period in the US. Between 1947 and 1968, the Gini Index descended from .378 to .348 in fits and starts, but never once reaching as high as .380. Since 1969, however, it has gone the other direction, again in fits and starts. In 1982, it reached. 380. Since then, it has never once been below .380. It has continued upward, indicating increasing family income inequality in this country, under both Republicans and Democrats. In 2001, the last available Gini score was .435.

How has this compared with other countries in the world? Are we mirroring what’s happening globally, or is something extremely unusual going on in the US?

I published an article on ZNet last year titled “International Income Inequality: Wither the United States?” (www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?sectionID=18&itemID=6061 ). In this article, I took the Gini scores for 110 countries that had been calculated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (at www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/fields/2172.html ), grouped them by World Bank income level categories so they could be meaningfully compared (at www.worldbank.org/data/countryclass/classgroups.htm , although they have been subsequently updated), and then created both a mean score (average) and a median score (50ieth percentile, so half the group scores were above and half below) for each of the World Bank’s four income categories.  This gave me representative Gini scores for countries of each income category.

The results were astounding. The mean score for the poorest countries of the world-in 2003, they had a Gross National Income (formerly, Gross National Product) per capita of less than $765 (little more than $2 a day)-was .431, and the median was .406. This is for countries such as Bangladesh, Ghana, Moldova, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. For the lower-middle category (GNI/capita of $766 to $3,085 per year), the mean was .429 and the median was .414. (Countries in this category included Algeria, Columbia, Honduras, Romania and Ukraine.) For the upper-middle category (GNI/capita of $3,086-$9,385), the mean was .385 and the median was .370. (Chile, Estonia, Malaysia, Panama and Venezuela.) And for the high-income country category (GNI/capita over $9,386-the US is in this category, with a GNI/capita approximately $40,000)-the mean was .313 and the media was .316. (Australia, Finland, Italy, Slovenia and the US.) Again, in 2001, according to the US Government, the Gini Score for the United States was .435.

In other words, in 2001, US income inequality was worse than the both of the representative scores for every one the four categories, and we have greater income inequality in the US than they have in some of the poorest countries in the world!

And while the Gini score for the US has not been updated since 2001 on the Census Department website, I did manage to find the score on the CIA website (same URL as above): in 2004, the Gini score for the United States was .450! Not only were things bad, but they were getting much worse.

And what are our labor leaders doing about this? Hell, what are they even saying about this??? Not a damn thing.

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It seems to this writer that if the labor movement would directly confront some of the glaring social inequalities/inequities in this country, and if they would fight corporate and governmental attacks on them and their members, then they would receive the attention and possibly win the support-and membership-of a growing number of working people across this country. Working people know of these things-they see them every day. But much of labor has done nothing to gain their confidence. Partnership with the corporations that are paying squat, with oppression and exploitation in the workforce running rampant, with pension plans going belly up without even a bleep, does not inspire confidence.

Yet, let’s be realistic. There aren’t all these class-conscious workers out there, straining at the bit to launch the “class struggle” upon command.

There are, however, growing numbers of working people who know things are going wrong, who want to understand why, who are willing to be educated, and who are seeking to be treated with respect.  For the unions to begin educating their own members on the current situation and the need to struggle, and who are willing to not continually “turn the other cheek,” they can get their members to respond. And if they will build relationships with unions and community-based organizations, they can gain members who trust that unions will provide leadership in fighting for a much better world. But all of that requires a vision, and I’m not seeing that from today’s labor leaders.

How much more do workers have to endure before they force their so-called leaders to lead, follow, or get out of the way….?

 

Kim Scipes is a member of the National Writers Union, and a long-time global labor activist in the US. He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. His on-line bibliography on “Contemporary Labor Issues” can be accessed at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm . He can be contacted at [email protected] .

 

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