May Day is a great time to think about labor unity.
It is not a static thing. Labor does not “arrive” at a final place called “unity.” Labor unity, like the broader fight for working class unity, is a constant journey. It is a continuous march up hills and around obstacles. At times it is a difficult hike over rough terrain, through rain, snow and sleet, against powerful headwinds. Talk about bad weather: think eight years of George Bush and 30 years of unbridled corporate attack on organized labor.
Nor is labor unity a big abstraction. Labor unity is motion. It is action and direction with purpose. It flows out of hard work around issues and program. Real labor unity is distilled from shared experience and estimates.
What I’m trying to get at here is that the current disunity in labor today is more a matter of form than of content. Yes, there remains a formal split in labor between the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win unions. But at the level of action there is incredible functional unity. While there is no formal statement of a united labor program, one clearly emerges on the action level. All of labor is united around a program of action that includes:
• Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
• Sustainable economic recovery that creates jobs and income.
• Solutions to the housing crisis that keep workers in their homes and provide affordable housing for working families.
• Real health care reform that is comprehensive and universal.
• Sustainable development that creates “green” manufacturing and other jobs and that protects and repairs the environment.
And just last week there was the incredibly important joint announcement of a unified approach to immigration reform by both federations and the National Education Association. This was not just a statement of agreement. It also signaled labor unity and support in action for the Obama administration’s call for Congress to act. Further it underlined labor’s determination to actively work to influence the debate and legislation in a direction that not only protects immigrant workers’ rights, but also promotes wider labor unity.
Labor’s experience with the 2008 elections has been critical on the road to unity. No one seriously challenges labor’s key role in electing President Obama, changing the balance in Congress and ending the far-right Republican grip on power. But while we celebrate the incredible role labor played in the elections, we also have to note the powerful influence the wider overall Obama movement had on labor. Work with the broader progressive coalition around Obama not only illustrated the power of unity, but also further developed the sophistication of labor’s independent political action while training thousands of new rank and file activists. Corporate, right-wing hysteria around the Employee Free Choice Act stems in no small part from their fear of this political awakening in the labor movement.
Labor unity is driven by all aspects of the class struggle itself. It is not just a question of will-power or of “correct” understanding and thinking. Unity is driven by the economic crisis. It is driven by the attacks on autoworkers. Labor unity is driven by job loss, the struggles of the unemployed, housing foreclosures and right-to-work laws. It is driven by attacks on immigrant workers and on workers’ rights, by racist attacks and discrimination against women. It is driven by inadequate health care and lack of funding for education. And labor unity is driven by all attacks on democracy. As the class struggle intensifies, the driving pressure for unity builds. The fierce urgency of now is building labor unity today.
Of course there are still real problems. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and ignore the current crop of inner union turmoil and infighting. But in each of these situations there is a struggle at the grassroots for unity, democracy and rank and file rights. These are issues that will be settled internally. The dominant, overall trend towards greater unity in labor will be a powerful influence in these situations.
Nor can we ignore the thorny structural and leadership questions that still hold back the creation of a single house of labor. We can, however, be assured that the overall pressures for unity are also driving the current talks between the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and most of the independent unions.
As we celebrate this May Day, we can and must redouble our efforts to promote the broadest possible labor unity. Not through abstract agitation, but by digging into action on the burning issues facing labor and the people. So much is happening at the local grassroots level. Every central labor council demonstration or rally for the Employee Free Choice Act, every joint action on any of labor’s issues is a powerful force for unity. Every act of solidarity, every picket line, every labor convention and conference, every tie we help build between labor and labor’s natural allies, every labor-community coalition strengthens and builds labor unity.
This May Day, the weather forecast is good. No matter how difficult the unity road ahead for labor, for the first time in a long while the wind is at our backs.
Scott Marshall (scott @ rednet.org) chairs the Communist Party USA’s Labor Commission. Read Labor UpFront — the Labor Commission’s blog, at laborupfront.blogspot.com.