Labor Must Play Its “Wild Card”

As America’s working class struggles to eke out a precarious existence through the fourth year of the most severe economic downturn in 80 years, labor’s voice in the raging national debates on economics is almost inaudible and invisible. Yet labor’s message about the decline of real wages, the shrinking of middle-class job opportunities, the disappearance of affordable health-care coverage, and the offshoring of U.S. jobs is more compelling than ever. Polling shows that labor’s agenda reflects concerns broadly shared among the 88 percent of the American workforce not belonging to unions.


Even before the Wall Street meltdown of late 2008, American workers’ real wages were 18 percent less than they were in 1973, as Les Leopold points out in The Looting of America. To effectively address economic polarization, labor’s efforts are far too heavily concentrated in Washington, DC. A presence in the national government can be indispensable, but labor is hopelessly out-spent and out-gunned by corporate lobbies and marginalized by the mainstream media.


In sharp contrast, there is much more potential for positive impact in local communities where it can draw on the collective imagination and strength of its 15 million members. With greatly enhanced media capacity and assistance in coalition-building efforts, the AFL-CIO could create considerable momentum with a bold declaration of a National Economic Emergency and proclaim its intent to enforce a national moratorium against the highly-unpopular offshoring of jobs to places like Mexico and China.


But corporate domination at the local level has been too overwhelming without political redress. Corporations routinely blackmail workers into unjustified concessions despite massive profits (which rose 243 percent in 2009 and 61 percent in 2010) through threatening to relocate workers’ jobs. The right to strike is now rarely exercised because U.S. employers, unique among their counterparts in other democracies, are free to bring in scab “replacement workers.” Joseph McCartin noted in the New York  Times (8/2/11), “By 2010, the number of workers participating in walkouts was less than 2 percent of what it had been when Reagan led the actors’ strike in 1952.”


With sharply reduced possibilities for gains from collective bargaining, “Unions have turned their attentions to public policy,” labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein observed. “While unions have to legislate for the entire working class and not just their own members, there are problematic relationships with the Democrats.” However, this trend tends to turn unions into political lobby groups further detached from their members’ lives.


Labor’s populist and broadly inclusive message is now outlined by President Rich Trumka, the chief officer of the AFL-CIO. A typical Trumka line: “So how did we come to the point where our country’s ruling class thinks that firefighters…and teachers and nurses are the problem and people like Lloyd Blankfein [CEO of Goldman Sachs] and Rupert Murdoch [owner of NewsCorporation and FOX TV] are the solution?” But Trumka’s voice is rarely quoted in major news stories on the economy.


Similarly, the AFL-CIO’s intensified preoccupation with electoral politics and lobbying has failed to heighten labor’s leverage with President Obama or Congress, even when there were Democratic majorities in both houses in 2008-09. Labor has outlined one job-creation program after another, Trumka has repeatedly fulminated against the failure of the Democratic Party to stand with workers and asserted its political independence (with the International Association of Fire Fighters shutting off funds to the Democratic Party), but no positive response has been forthcoming from Obama.


A corollary of this legislative focus has been a distinctly dependent relationship with the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party in general, despite minimal returns on key issues like the Employee Free Choice Act, job-creation programs, and opposition to “free trade.” It has also corresponded with a loss of labor’s independent presence as a central moral force in American society, stresses labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein in his book State of the Union. This alliance has remained despite labor’s repeated betrayals by its supposed allies.“Labor has refused to make an enemy of Democrats even when evidence is lined up in the opposite direction,” observes labor historian and sociologist Stanley Aronowitz.


The dangers of labor’s reliance on President Obama were shockingly underscored in the negotiations over the debt ceiling. Pollster and author Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress notes: “The debt ceiling deal has been struck and the score looks to be in the neighborhood of Republicans: a zillion, Democrats: zero…. It is perhaps the inevitable outcome of a process in which Obama treated GOP default-threatening tactics as legitimate and accepted the GOP framework that cutting debt, not creating jobs, was the country’s central problem. As a result, we have a deal that severely undercuts Democratic policy priorities and cuts government spending just as the economic recovery is showing signs of tanking.”


Drawing On The Wild Card


To set a different economic direction, labor will need to draw on the rank-and-file in the workplace and at the local level, which Aronowitz has described as labor’s indispensable “wild card. This wild card suddenly appeared in Wisconsin earlier this year when newly-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker introduced legislation to effectively eliminate all meaningful rights to union representation for public workers. The response from public workers—teachers, nurses, sanitation workers, firefighters—was instantaneous as they began picketing anti-labor legislators and gathering at the State Capitol. The spirit of rebellion rapidly spread to private-sector unionists, university and high school students, and, eventually, to non-union middle-class citizens who saw Walker’s actions as a threat to democracy. The surge of energy in Madison produced extensive international media coverage, support from unions across the U.S. and the world, and a six-week siege of the State Capitol by crowds of 100,000 or more.


The events in Madison demonstrated labor’s power, inspiring labor activists beaten down by a one-sided class war waged by corporate America. Along with initially building an impressive level of sympathy from the public, the Madison protesters quickly and effectively de-centralized their movement around the state with a set of six efforts to replace Republican state senators who had voted to deprive public workers of almost all meaningful rights to a union voice. Polling in Wisconsin conducted for Build a Better Wisconsin showed a 66 percent level of support, running just slightly ahead of the 60-plus percent support for public-union rights shown in national polls by Gallup, the New York Times, and others. The labor-led coalition won two Senate seats for Democrats, slicing the Republican majority to one vote. Three Democratic senators challenged by the Republicans in recall efforts stormed to victory, giving labor six wins in nine races.


Moreover, labor and its partners in a new coalition have built up organizational strength in six traditionally Republican suburban and rural districts where residents rarely heard discussion about the shrinkage and declining prospects of the middle class. As Governor Walker’s budget cuts begin to take effect, organizers anticipate new upsurges of public anger in areas far from urban centers like Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, and others. We Are Wisconsin has already begun to hear from citizens heretofore untouched by citizen activism who are forming chapters of We Are Wisconsin,” according to a slightly incredulous Jim Cavan- augh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor.


Labor’s Response


While the six-day sit-down of Republic Door and Window by United Electrical workers became a huge news story in the U.S. and internationally, no further sit-downs have occurred in the U.S. In order to get any momentum going, workers must be persuaded that their collective action can win over significant elements of the community, generate media coverage, and exert pressure on the company to retain their jobs. This critical step has become more difficult in the face of incessant corporate-media messages about the inevitability and desirability of globalization (“Get used to it,” advised a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel news story).


Moreover, the labor movement has generally reacted passively to management announcements of job relocations to low-wage nations outside the U.S. The rest of the labor movement must also be persuaded that fighting this instance of offshoring is important and winnable. Further, a significant part of the broader community must believe the shutdowns and offshoring will have a devastating ripple effect throughout the community and must understand that there is virtually no realistic prospect of finding new employers paying comparable wages and benefits. Staughton Lynd, an activist in labor-community coalitions to save the steel industry in Ohio in the late 1970s and early 1980s and author of The Fight Against Plant Shutdowns, states, “We’ve had a catastrophic failure of the trade union movement in dealing with plant closings in one situation after another. A funeral director mentality has set in.”


Labor needs to replace that mentality with a mindset that every shutdown will be fiercely resisted especially those involving the relocation of jobs offshore. Here are four critical elements for creating a strategic focus on local militancy:


1. The long-term investment of resources in creating a strong, national media apparatus. While the Right has utilized talk radio, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, various Mur- doch papers, and a more significant presence on the Internet, the media resources of progressives and labor fall far short of the right’s media machine, says George Lakoff. “There’s no communication system on the Left. Who’s going to get the message out there 24-7 in the districts? Who’s going to fund that? Who’s going to train people to deliver the message?”


Meanwhile, progressive foundations have generally stressed face-to-face organizing projects over the development of a liberal/Left message apparatus. “The building of a strong media network is vitally important,” says Lakoff. 


2. Support for an Economic Bill of Rights to frame progressive activism. A crucial dimension of a labor resurgence is framing labor struggles in moral terms. For example, the union movement needs to popularize the idea that workers have made a huge personal investment in their jobs and workplaces and are owed a commensurate level of loyalty from management. Labor must argue that workers are far more legitimate stakeholders in the future of their plants and communities than faraway CEOs who may never even have visited the plants that they are choosing to shut down and move offshore. In stressing this point, workers can establish an alternative set of moral principles about the limits of what employers can do in the name of private ownership.


One means of spreading the notion of economic rights for workers may lie in reviving the Economic Bill of Rights outlined by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his January 1944 State of the Union speech in which he proposed a second Bill of Rights that would guarantee all Americans basic economic rights. One of the rights Roosevelt suggested—freedom from economic insecurity—is particularly important.


3. A declaration of a National Economic Emergency affecting all Americans outside the ranks of the very richest. The AFL-CIO—in coalition with respected allies like the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, La Raza, and other major national groups whose constituencies are suffering—needs to establish a new framework for discussing the economy in urgent terms. Hopefully, numerous city councils and other elective bodies would adopt the declaration.


With the declaration, the AFL-CIO would dramatize the stark choices the nation faces in the near future for all Americans—both inside and outside the labor movement. On the one hand, the nation can either lurch toward a recovery built on a further-enfeebled productive base, renewed exposure to what famed investor Warren Buffett called “the financial weapons of mass destruction,” and the intensified offshoring of U.S. jobs.


Alternatively, the nation could insist that corporations acknowledge this national emergency and act to advance the public interest or suffer the consequences from nationally-supported labor-community outrage. The declaration of a National Economic Emergency is a firm statement that labor and its allies will not permit major corporations to destroy America’s productive heart and the means of support for millions of families without facing militant action at both the national and grass-roots level.


4. The promotion of a national moratorium on plant closings and the offshoring of jobs. The AFL-CIO and allies need to establish, in line with their declaration of a National Economic Emergency, a complete moratorium on plant closings and the offshoring of jobs from both union and non-union workplaces. This moratorium would be a statement of determination to devote extensive AFL-CIO resources to assist local unions in building member mobilizations, coalitions, liaisons with elected officials, and media work. Staughton Lynd argues that the moratorium should also discourage unionized workers from accepting overtime when they have fellow union members on layoffs.


Outsourcing and  Jobs


Americans have been infuriated and distressed by disclosures that since 2000, U.S.-based multinational corporations have been cutting 2.9 million jobs while increasing their foreign employment by 2.4 million (Wall Street Journal, 4/19/11). A WSJ/NBC News poll conducted in September 2010 showed that 86 percent of Americans “agreed that outsourcing of manufacturing to foreign countries with lower wages was a reason the U.S. economy was struggling and more people weren’t being hired. No other factor was so often cited for current economic ills.”

While tepid legislation to discourage offshoring was defeated by a combination of Republicans, along with a few conservative Democrats, there is a vast potential for a massive outpouring of opposition at the local level. Pre-recession polls indicate that opposition to off-shoring is about 77 percent among Americans. “There’s a lot more unions can get through publicity campaigns than lobbying and campaign contributions to politicians and elected officials,” stated Immanuel Ness, former labor organizer and now a professor at Brooklyn College. Labor’s fight back efforts can be especially effective in medium-sized towns where there are a limited number of media outlets and residents are keenly aware of the economic dependence of the community on a particular factory or other workplace.


At the local level, there is much more chance for labor and its allies to persuade independents and Republicans to side with the moratorium, as both of these categories show a high degree of concern about the loss of jobs to overseas sites. “The program should be a moratorium that encompasses even non-unionized plants. Otherwise, the federation and unions as a whole will be seen as a narrower interest group, who they are not.” Based on recent observations at worker-occupied plants in Argentina, Ness foresees “greater traction” for labor through outreach to workers who do not belong to unions. 


Just as they previously assembled teams of people to help workers receive benefits and other assistance when plants closed, the AFL-CIO can develop and train teams of specialists ready to assist local unions with the media, coalition building, and strategy. But the purpose of these new teams would be the precise opposite—helping local unionists to learn media skills, build broad coalitions, and develop winning strategies. By creating these teams, the AFL-CIO will ensure that the lessons of various struggles against offshoring will be widely shared within the labor movement rather than each local needing to learn basic lessons on its own.


Firms shutting down profitable and productive plants could be confronted by local mayors, state legislators, and congresspeople demanding to see the company’s books and investigating alternatives to the closing. This initial pressure can be followed by news conferences, rallies, and other pressures leading to non-violent civil disobedience. Corporations—whether unionized or not—could be confronted with sit-downs and militant picket lines when they try to offshore work outside the U.S. In such situations, workers might not gain direct leverage from occupying the plant, but the symbolic occupation of a plant might drive home to both the public and elected officials that workers will assert their right to make a claim on the plant in which they have invested so much. 


Moreover, workers and the unemployed can meet with their congress- people and senators to demand support for legislation prohibiting corporations from removing equipment or demolishing productive plants with the potential to keep the facilities open. For example, several instances of profitable plants being needlessly demolished, with an interested buyer standing by, underscores the urgent need for the federal and state governments to develop task forces to prevent the further destruction of the nation’s productive base. Chris Townsend, national political director of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers union points out that, “President Obama could issue an executive order to secure the workplaces so that machinery isn’t moved out and plant demolished.”


While it is hard to imagine Obama taking such an almost-unprecedented move, the consequences of plant closings and relocations have never been higher for both working people and Obama’s reelection chances.”


“People would rise to this if the Obama administration showed that it was putting the machinery of the state to work for them and to defend their jobs,” predicts Townsend. “We are losing one industry after another and we can’t afford to lose any more.”


In other cases, workers may find it feasible to re-start production through democratic worker councils. This strategy has proved highly popular in Argentina and Venezuela. This approach would represent a sharp contrast to conventional corporate practices and exert pressure on both corporations and the Obama administration. Aronowitz suggests that, “Workers could form a co-op to produce needed products and ask for stimulus money from the government.” 


Local action can take a thousand different forms that can contribute to a renewed labor presence in local communities. But for such a campaign to be successful, it will require a dramatic kickoff independent from the Obama administration. It will mean demanding an end to offshoring jobs and a commitment from the AFL-CIO of staff and resources to carry it out. 


To move away from its dependence on the Obama administration and catalyze support both inside and outside the AFL-CIO, labor must recognize that the road to a more democratic, egalitarian society begins with engaging its members in fighting locally and nationally against increasingly rootless and ruthless corporations. 


Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer, publicity consultant, and former editor of the Racine Labor Weekly.