Can labor recover from its critics? A reply to Francis Fox-Piven

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The labor movement has more than its share of critics. It seems like nearly everyone is ready to give it advice, whether solicited or not.

A case in point: Francis Fox Piven, the renowned sociologist known for her seminal work on social movements, gave a talk to a group of graduate students at the University of Chicago recently. Her subject: "Can Labor Recover?"

According to a (seemingly sympathetic) blog by David Moberg in In These Times, Piven argued that the transformation of the labor movement lies in building a "mass strike movement" in which trade unionists think beyond the narrow calculations of monetary gains and losses.

"Maybe the mass strike movement will well up outside the labor movement and incorporate it" she said, "I hope so, because I think that the future of the labor movement depends on it."

The Occupy movement, Piven went on to say, should work with labor but "on its own terms, not labor's terms."

The labor movement "is not a movement, but a constellation of competing interests groups."

Then she added, "Labor is one of my favorites; it can rebuild, but not with the same leaders and structures. Without pressure from below and outside, I don't think unions can save themselves."

Wow! Listening to Piven, one gets the impression that labor and its leadership, other than telling the Occupy movement what to do, are sitting on their hands - self satisfied, clueless, and in need of a takeover from the outside.

At its core this estimate of labor not only amounts to a misrepresentation of what labor is doing, but also expresses a patronizing attitude toward the organization that represents working women and men.

Piven, at least from the Moberg blog, presents no evidence for her sweeping claims. Nor does she indicate who is going to change labor from the outside. One can only guess.

From my observations and experience, many labor leaders and members are responding to new challenges, reaching out to allies, creating new forms of organization, solidarity, and unity, and not least, diversifying their leadership.

Consider the following:

Without diminishing the importance of the Occupy movement last fall - a movement that changed the political discourse in the country - what labor did in Wisconsin and Ohio was nothing to sneeze at. Indeed, it was of tremendous significance.

Hundreds of thousands were mobilized in a sustained, creative, and tactically varied way to fight the initiatives of the Republican right at the state level. And in both states, the struggle goes on.

The AFL-CIO, moreover, has embraced and incorporated workers centers and other non-traditional forms of organization that are linked to mostly very low paid super exploited workers - immigrant workers, day laborers, taxi cab drivers in New York, and carwash workers in Los Angeles, to name a few.

Unions have extended their ties with other unions and workers around the world to take on the global corporations, and labor has continued to grow its own structures for political independence, including workers running for office.

Trade unions have embraced the Occupy movement. It didn't tell Occupy what to do; in fact, the AFL-CIO sent out a letter to all its affiliates counseling the opposite.

Labor has plans to activate 400,000 trade unionists and friends to do door-to-door work to educate and get out the vote in the fall elections. Of course, some on the left may think that this form of struggle pales in importance to a mass strike.

First of all, it is wrong to counterpose a mass strike against a full-scale mobilization of labor and its allies in the electoral arena.

In fact, I would go a step further and say from a strategic point of view that nothing is more important than winning a decisive victory against the right at the polls this November.

And the left and progressive movements should wholeheartedly support whatever helps to achieve this objective. After all, such a victory carries the potential to fundamentally alter the terrain of struggle on which the labor and people's movements fight.

Second, a mass strike can neither be hot housed, nor it is a cure all. Sure it would shift the ground on which labor fights, but its full impact grows to the degree that it spotlights the main class enemy and combines with other forms of struggle to effect a realignment of politics in a consistently anti-corporate direction.

Piven's take on the labor movement is not peculiar to her alone, but rather is emblematic of a section of the left, academic and otherwise. Which I guess is not surprising, given the distance between the world of the university and the world of working people.

In any case, the left, including the academic left, should be knowledgeable about the labor movement. It should hail and join its initiatives.

This doesn't preclude criticism, but it should be done in a constructive, unifying, and partisan way. It should be always mindful not only of the very difficult circumstances in which labor fights, but also the necessary role that it will play in any progressive and socialist thrust in U.S. politics.

Photo: At the rally where thousands of Ohioans joined together to make history by turning in 1,298,000 signatures to repeal SB 5. Ohio AFL-CIO

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  • Tell it, Sam. The labor movement is not the BPOofElks.

    This is the way it works:

    class struggle > the labor movement
    not
    the labor movement > struggle

    The take on workers by Sociologist Francis Fox Piven, renown notwithstanding, brings to mind an observation made years ago by a friend and mentor, Jim Bourne, that academics and intellectuals tend to study struggle as something taking place in a "petri dish."

    And who of us doesn't remember George Meyers succinctly putting it this way: workers join unions because they have to.

    Posted by Bill Appelhans, 04/03/2012 3:36pm (3 years ago)

  • I recently attended a panel conference on left movements. Piven was on the panel.
    I sensed an overriding negativity in her comments about the future of the progressive movement because it seemed to me that she inferred it wasn't militant enough. Perhaps I'm being too critical here but that was my personal experience.

    Thanks for a great rebuttal!

    wage peace

    Posted by , 03/28/2012 1:29pm (3 years ago)

  • Well said !

    Posted by Bob Beachman, 03/27/2012 10:53pm (3 years ago)

  • Frances Fox Piven has made major, genuine contributions to the people's movement for social justice over the years. For this, she has been demonized (and red baited) by the right, especially on Fox cable programs.
    However, I have always found a weakness in her work is her overemphasis on the idea of spontaneous uprisings by poor people, and her tendency to discount the need for organization. This is another example.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 03/27/2012 10:35pm (3 years ago)

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