As one considers developments in and around the main currents of the US labor movement — the recent split in the AFL-CIO, and the reaction of both sides of the split to the ongoing strike by AMFA against Northwest Airlines, most particularly — it is difficult not to get discouraged by lack of leadership.
Let me be clear: there are people throughout the labor movement who are working their tails off to help overcome the current crisis. Some are even visionary (if you can use that adjective in conjunction with the US labor movement). These are leaders who are doing all they can to think through problems they confront and provide leadership to unions and their members today. I’m not talking about these people, for many of whom I have the greatest respect.
No, I’m talking about leadership at the top levels: the “big boys.” The ones who say they want to lead the labor movement to victory. The ones who have the delusion of adequacy.
At a time when American workers need the greatest degree of leadership possible, we are presented with Sweeney-McEntee on one hand and Stern-Hoffa on the other. John L. Lewis must be rolling over in his grave — I’m not a fan of his style of leadership either, but at least John L. knew how to lead.
Let’s talk about John Sweeney’s leadership. Sweeney came in with great enthusiasm when he was elected in October 1995 in the first contested election in forty years of the AFL-CIO. He made lots of promises — certainly promised more than he could deliver. He failed on some and came through on others. But while trying a number of innovative approaches, Sweeney has refused to address the 500-pound gorilla: the Empire.
We can have a US Empire that seeks to dominate the world in every way, or we can have a domestic economy that allows working people to survive and perhaps even thrive — but we cannot have both. (The days when we could have both, if such days had existed at all, are long gone — certainly those days were over by the early 1970s.) Sweeney has refused to confront this reality, trying to keep everyone’s eyes focused on the “prize” of high-paying jobs for working people. But we have not seen many such job lately, much less obtainable for the majority of working people. Instead, our young people, unable to find good jobs, go to fight, and possibly die, in the Empire’s wars.
Andy Stern and Jim Hoffa, ostensible critics of Sweeney, are huffing and puffing smoke, but, unfortunately, they are not doing much else. Supposedly they left the AFL-CIO over principles, but they really just want to run the show. Their program is just as limited as Sweeney’s: their goal is to rebuild the strength of the labor movement by organizing health care and protective service workers (like security guards). Now, there’s no question that unionization will help all of these workers, and that’s good — no problem with that. But are such service industries strategic sectors of the US economy, whose unionization can give the US labor movement leverage to say “no” to the idiocy of the powers that be?
Look at their respective responses to the AMFA strike against Northwest Airlines. There are many problems with AMFA — it being an elite craft-based union, which is almost certainly mostly white, if not overwhelmingly so — but let’s give AMFA its due: it didn’t just accept the insane attack on it and roll over; it decided to stand and fight. AMFA members saw that the attack on them was going to be followed by one on all of the many unions in the airline industry. They called for solidarity for their own efforts, and they have been waiting alone ever since.
All of our great labor leaders would rather see AMFA go down in flames than to stand and fight Northwest Airlines. Yet if Northwest wins, it will have shown the entire airline industry how to destroy every union in it. And it will do just that, one union at a time, while the others stand by and watch, hopelessly. It’s as plain as the nose on one’s face.
AMFA is the PATCO of 2005. PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential race and then got destroyed when then-President Reagan replaced them upon striking. The labor movement stood by and watched while it happened. Everybody said, “Never again.” Oops. Another strike in the airline industry, and it’s dÃ©jÃ vu all over again. In fact, inter-union solidarity is so scarce that, when one union issued a letter to members of its Executive Board not to fly Northwest to their meeting in St. Paul, some folks heralded this as a great act of labor solidarity. When you’re up to your ass in swamp, I guess any dry piece of land looks like paradise.
Lack of leadership, evasion of the Empire, and absence of solidarity — all these come together in organized labor’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Katrina has torn the myth off the US Empire (although I’m sure many people will strain not to understand what their eyes show them). Katrina exposed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had not only stolen money from civil defense (the levees) but also taken the National Guard away from our communities. It revealed the raw underbelly of racial oppression and impoverishment in one of America’s leading cities, the combination that has led to widespread destruction and death as poor folks could not escape the fate of neoliberal economics. It disclosed the inadequacy of the nation’s health care system and the nation’s inability to provide safe housing and jobs for those who lost them. And it again highlighted the utter disdain of many of our political leaders — most specifically, George W. Bush — for people of color and the poor.
Katrina demonstrated that Americans could respond to tragedy — many of them have made heroic efforts to aid their fellow human beings. Yet, I keep looking in vain for our labor leaders: where are they, where are their voices, pointing out to all Americans that there is a choice between the death of Empire and the life of solidarity? Katrina wasn’t an aberration — it simply pulled the cover off the reality of the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations, as well as the rest of the elites, and showed in unmistakable terms what life had become for so many over the past twenty-five years, and what the future holds for probably most of us if we continue along the same path. It is what we in education call “a teachable moment,” and yet I don’t hear labor leaders teaching. (The truth is that, because of their slavishness to the Democrats, most labor leaders have been complicit in twenty-five years of attacks on the American people.) If they can’t step up and teach at a time like this, can we ever expect them to lead?
Or is it simply time for working people to recognize that they cannot depend on their formal leaders? If working people want to build a labor movement worthy of its name — a labor movement joined in solidarity with people across the country and the globe and willing to fight for life even in the face of adversity — then they are going to have to quit waiting for their formal leaders to lead the change and begin to take responsibility to build it themselves. Because the big boys have shown that they won’t.
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. He published “Labor Imperialism Redux?: A Look at the AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Since 1995” in the May 2005 issue of Monthly Review. He can be contacted at <[email protected]>.