Labor Must Play Its “Wild Card”
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
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
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
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
The events in
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
While the six-day sit-down of Republic Door and Window by United Electrical workers became a huge news story in the
Moreover, the labor movement has generally reacted passively to management announcements of job relocations to low-wage nations outside the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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