Oakland, California – Twelve unions met in Washington, DC, last week and announced they’re considering rejoining the two labor federations, the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Change to Win (CTW), which split apart five years ago. The initiative came from the incoming Obama administration, which told union leaders it didn’t relish the idea of dealing with competing union agendas.
Many progressive labor activists greeted the idea with a sigh of relief. "Dividing the labor movement was never a good idea to begin with," said Bill Fletcher, former education director for the AFL-CIO and now director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees. Fletcher and many others believe that, while US unions have big problems, they can’t be cured by division, competing federations or simply changes in structure. Instead, they call for a re-examination of labor’s political direction.
Unions are at their lowest point in membership since the 1920s, representing less than 10 percent of the workforce. Obama’s election, which they pulled out all the stops to achieve, promises some degree of change from federal policies that have accelerated that decline. The president-elect has appointed potentially the most pro-union labor secretary since the 1930s – Congresswoman Hilda Solis. A potential Congressional majority could pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make union organizing much easier and protect workers from retaliatory firings while they unionize. Obama has promised to sign the bill if Congress passes it.
In industry after industry, the impact of revived unions and growing membership could be enormous. For the first time in US history, for example, unions have gained the strength to organize the rest of the hospital and nursing home industries. That would radically improve the jobs and raise the income of hundreds of thousands of nurses, dietary workers and bed changers, in the same way the CIO and the San Francisco General Strike turned longshoremen from day laborers on the waterfront into some of the country’s highest-paid blue-collar workers. An organized health care industry, in alliance with consumers, could finally convince Congress to establish a single-payer system guaranteeing health care to every person in this country.
Yet, while the 12 leaders were sitting down in Washington to discuss unity, the health care division of country’s largest union, the Service Employees, may be torn apart in a fight between the union’s national leaders and its largest local, United Healthcare West. Such a fratricidal conflict would not only jeopardize hopes for organizing health care workers, but even labor’s larger political goals of the Employee Free Choice Act and single-payer health care.
Decisions made by unions often affect workers far beyond their own members. The labor upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s led to national contracts in the auto, steel, longshore and electrical industries, establishing pension and medical benefits, raising wages and forcing the creation of the unemployment insurance and Social Security systems. All workers benefited. And when many master agreements were destroyed in the early 1980s, workers’ middle-class lifestyle began to erode everywhere.
Joining the AFL-CIO and CTW back together is a sensible step in marshaling the resources needed to take advantage of the openings presented by a new Obama administration and begin rebuilding what was lost. But that larger sense of responsibility should inspire unions to face a basic question. They cannot rebuild their own strength, much less improve life for all workers, by themselves.
A new direction in labor requires linking unions with other social and economic justice movements. Defending immigrants from raids and helping them win legal status is just as important to the growth of unions as passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Health care reform requires an alliance between health care providers and working class consumers. The communities in which all workers live need real jobs programs and a full employment economy, especially Black and Latino communities. People far beyond unions will help win the Employee Free Choice Act and rebuild the labor movement if it is willing to fight for everyone.
Unions need not just more unity and better organizing techniques, but a vision that will inspire workers. They need to speak directly to workers’ desperation over insecure jobs, home foreclosures and falling income, and then lead them into action. As much as Obama has done labor a favor by forcing it to discuss reunification, political calculations in Washington can’t be the guide to what is possible. Workers need a movement that fights for what they really need, not what beltway lobbyists say legislators will accept.
In the period of its greatest growth, labor proposed an alternative social vision that inspired people to risk their jobs and homes, and even lives – that society could be organized to ensure social and economic justice for all people. Workers were united by the idea that they could gain enough political power to end poverty, unemployment, racism and discrimination. "Workers are looking for answers," Fletcher says. "Without them we’ll get further despair. What we need instead is to organize for an alternative."
David Bacon is a writer and photographer. His new book, "Illegal People – How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants," was just published by Beacon Press.