Our labor movement and people are under the greatest assault in the history of our movement. The attacks are coming from the combined forces of the Bush administration, Congress, corporations and the ultra-right. Labor, as never before, is struggling to find answers. How can we grow our unions? How can we build a wide enough coalition to change the direction of our nation in favor of working people? How can we stop the attacks on our rights and living standards and obtain real rights for workers to organize?
It is a time of anger and deep frustration within our movement.
In the past few years we’ve developed wide coalitions and launched new initiatives to organize millions of workers not now in unions. We built and led the huge alliance that nearly defeated Bush and the ultra-right in the last election.
But, bottom line, we didn’t! Our enemies are still in power. Labor continues to lose numbers. Why aren’t we winning? There is real frustration and a searching for answers.
Some have suggested that the time has come to split our labor movement. Some have even gone so far as to compare this time with the birth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), saying labor grew then, why not now?
The analogy is way off base.
First off, let’s not ignore the obvious. Bush is president, not FDR (the president who stated publicly that “If I were a worker, I’d join a union”). Instead of the New Deal, which passed the Wagner Act to help workers organize, we have Bush and Congress working to destroy unions.
The political and economic ground we stand on today is different from the 1930s. During the CIO period, a huge labor-led movement swept the country, against fascism, for jobs, unemployment compensation and Social Security. Today, while labor is building movements, the ultra-right also has a base and is working against us. This very different economic picture includes transnationals, outsourcing, etc. These conditions call for more, not less, unity on our part.
More importantly, the CIO came into being as the Committee of Industrial Organizations, within the old AFL, in order to strengthen the whole labor movement by organizing industrial workers. The CIO only became independent when the AFL, under William Green, refused to organize industrial workers, even kicking CIO affiliates out of the federation. Nothing even remotely close to that is present in today’s labor movement. All agree that we must organize and grow. If we have different experiences and face different conditions in organizing, we need to learn from each other, not cut ourselves off.
We should examine what actually works when we organize. In the ’30s and now a common thread has resulted in success: a reliance on building wide coalitions and combining mobilizations with political action. During the ’30s labor worked successfully to elect Roosevelt and pro-labor candidates who supported workers’ right to organize. At the same time they mobilized workers and coalitions in support of union drives.
While our successes are fewer at this time, the same formula has resulted in success. Our big public worker organizing efforts have been successful only when combined with grassroots mobilizations and the election of pro-labor officials who were able to pass laws to recognize public workers’ rights to organize. In local strikes and organizing drives, the combination of mass mobilization with coalitions pushing for support from progressive representatives has been a winning combination.
Some of those talking of splitting our labor movement have condemned labor’s political efforts. Logic tells us that abandoning the fight against our main enemy, as tough and frustrating as it can be, cannot be a winning approach.
We should look at what our enemies are saying about splits in our ranks. Last week Ohio papers carried reports that Republicans are rejoicing at the prospect of a split in labor’s ranks. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chamber of Commerce called a split in labor “a boon to businesses facing organizing drives by unions or upcoming contract negotiations.” When our enemies rejoice, we aren’t on the right path!
What do we agree on? All in the labor movement agree that we must organize masses of new workers into unions and grow our labor movement. We all agree that we need to build coalitions to support a new progressive direction for our nation. We all agree that we need to defeat anti-labor treaties like CAFTA, defeat Bush and his buddies and replace them with progressive representatives.
Most important, our real litmus test must be: What will best help us win the next struggle in our hometown? When the rubber meets the road, and we have our next fight over privatization or union-busting, our next strike support battle or organizing drive, will it be easier to win if we’re divided?
The answer is obvious.
United we stand, divided we fall. An injury to one is an injury to all.
Bruce Bostick, a 30-year Steelworker union member, works on special projects for the USW.