KEY UNION leaders are finally sounding the alarm about the crisis in organized labor–and theyâ€™re calling for bold action to rebuild the movement. At a 300-person organizing conference May 14 hosted by the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), keynote speaker Bruce Raynor of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) tore into what he called the “vicious” bosses of Corporate America.
Rather than appeal to employers to take the “high road” of partnership with labor–a theme sounded by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney since he took office in late 1995–Raynor argued that employers, backed by the White House, are out to break unions in their few remaining strongholds. “They say we should be worried about Islamic terrorism,” Raynor said. “Iâ€™m worried about the terrorists in Washington.”
Scorning employer complaints that unions fight dirty, he said, “Brothers and sisters, we donâ€™t get dirty enough.” This more aggressive line apparently reflects the position of union leaders who banded together to create a new AFL-CIO executive committee in February.
UNITE, Raynor said, is concentrating on rebuilding its strength in a traditional base–industrial laundries–rather than among public-sector workers, who are generally easier to organize. This was a slap at unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW), which has recruited state government employees and graduate students, while making only weak efforts to organize nonunion auto plants. To that end, UNITE has launched an organizing drive at Cintas, the biggest industrial laundry company in the world.
But laborâ€™s drive to rebuild itself will depend not just on signing up new members, but projecting itself as a leader in the fight for social justice, he said. As workers suffer the effects of a stagnant economy, lack of health care and cuts in social spending, “itâ€™s about time the American worker–and union leaders–got mad enough to do something about it,” he said. Labor must put itself in the forefront of the fight for immigrant rights, he said–a theme repeated by other speakers at the conference.
AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff spoke about implementing this strategy. His central message was that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) doesnâ€™t exist to protect workersâ€™ right to organize, but acts as a tool of the employers.
Acuff pointed out that a study by Human Rights Watch found that U.S. workersâ€™ right to organize is effectively denied by firings of union organizers and employer intimidation–and that pro-labor NLRB rulings are rare and usually come years too late. Unions, Acuff argued, must therefore demand that employers recognize a union whenever a majority of workers sign union cards–a method known as “card check.” Failing that, unions must be prepared to strike to win recognition, he said. The AFL-CIO will make the right to organize the focus of International Human Rights Day December 10, he added.
Raynor and Acuff created a buzz in the crowd, which included a number of elected leaders and organizers from the Chicago building trades and other traditionally conservative unions. The reception was far different to that given former AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger, whose blunt words to national union chiefs in the late 1990s got him fired.
But today, laborâ€™s decline is forcing union leaders to face the ugly reality. Indeed, the fact that the CFL hosted the organizing conference is noteworthy, since Chicago has been a bastion of laborâ€™s right wing for decades.
While the conference played an important role in opening debate in the labor movement, some key questions were avoided. For example, although UNITE took one of the strongest antiwar positions of any major union, Raynor avoided the issue of the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq, other than to state that laborâ€™s patriotism shouldnâ€™t be questioned.
Moreover, another featured speaker, Laborers President Terry Oâ€™Sullivan, talked little about organizing, calling instead for a “revolution” to get Democrats into the White House in 2004. In reality, the money and activism devoted to getting Democrats elected takes away from resources that are badly needed to organize–leaving aside the Democratsâ€™ dubious record on unions and workersâ€™ rights.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness was that Raynor, Acuff and Oâ€™Sullivan failed to address the massive concessions that unions have surrendered to employers in recent months–with tens of billions in givebacks in the airline industry alone. This begs the question of whether labor can successfully reach out to the unorganized even as it surrenders decades worth of gains for those already in unions.
The question of concessions did arise in a workshop on manufacturing led by United Steelworkers of America District 7 Director Jim Robinson. Robinson, however, implicitly defended givebacks, arguing that joining with employers to press for restrictions on imported steel is the only course of action open to the union. Yet this is exactly the kind of labor-management partnership that Raynor and Acuff challenged.
Such contradictions shouldnâ€™t be surprising. After years of squelching debate, union leadersâ€™ efforts to open up discussion will be halting and uneven–but could possibly lead to a real fight over the direction of the labor movement. And thatâ€™s exactly whatâ€™s needed to turn labor around.