Unity and the grass roots are labors real power

It’s been a long time since the labor movement has been so united, so energized and so mobilized. This remarkable upsurge is based on fierce determination by union members to defeat George Bush and elect John Kerry.

This vital new level of activity and energy goes far beyond the elections. Labor will not stand down after a Kerry victory. Why? Because the driving forces behind this upsurge are critical issues for workers — health care, jobs, the right to organize, and fair trade, to name a few. Even with the best of election scenarios on Nov. 2, there will still be a large, viciously anti-labor, ultra-right Republican bloc in Congress.

A good indicator of labor’s stance is that the AFL-CIO has put the Employee Free Choice Act on the front burner of this campaign. This bill would return to workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively when a majority sign union cards. (Both Kerry and Edwards are original sponsors of the legislation.)

It is not only labor and the left who see this upsurge taking place. The big business media and the right, also, are taking note. And to be sure, they don’t like it. Just as the Bush campaign tried hard to find splits in labor, the right is itching to find ways to divide and divert.

So it’s no big surprise that a columnist for the Washington Post would pick up on remarks by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees union (SEIU), that, quoted out of context, seem to say that the elections and defeating George Bush don’t really matter. The story created quite a media buzz during the Democratic Party convention. Never mind that SEIU is in the thick of labor’s efforts to defeat Bush with millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers. That story is seldom told in the pages of the big business press.

The column got all the more attention because Stern and his union are part of a grouping in the AFL-CIO called the New Unity Partnership (NUP). The NUP unions are calling for major reforms in the AFL-CIO to make it more effective in organizing and in flexing labor’s economic and political muscle. Many of the questions that they raise are important ones that should be debated and discussed. Most in labor are also deeply concerned with these same issues. The big question is how and when to have the discussion.

The “how” has to include two cardinal principles.

Number one is unity. Everyone agrees that organized labor is too small. That makes unity all the more important. In the face of corporate globalization and big business attack there should not be even the hint of splitting labor. It is enough of a problem that the Carpenters, a NUP union, left the AFL-CIO. Any idea of further divisions in labor would be disastrous. Most in labor, from the AFL-CIO leadership to the rank-and-file, feel the need for big change to make unions more effective, more democratic, and more strategic, with the aim to organize the millions of unorganized. But those changes need to be debated out and made within a framework of guaranteeing unity. Unity is the heart and soul of union power.

Number two is rank-and-file power. The debate on necessary changes in labor has to come from the bottom up. That doesn’t mean there is no role for leadership in promoting and helping to develop the ideas for change. It does mean that the debate has to fully engage rank-and-file union members at all levels, from the shop floor, to the union halls, to the central labor councils. An idea only becomes a material force when it is the property of the grass roots. After many years of debate and agitation, industrial unionism only replaced narrow craft unionism when millions of workers in the basic industries were ready and convinced to organize on an industrial basis and give this new idea a try.

The “when” of this debate is also important. Right now nothing is more central than the November elections. Four more years of George Bush would be a train wreck for labor. Labor leaders and rank-and-filers agree that no debate, discussion or change is more important right now than total unity and mobilization to beat Bush and elect Kerry.

The good news is that most in labor understand and agree. The NUP and AFL-CIO leaderships have made this clear. In a statement at the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, Aug. 10, John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, put it very well, “Once this election has been won, we will focus with equal energy and commitment on the steps we know must be taken to strengthen the labor movement’s ability to fight and win for America’s working families.”



Scott Marshall is a vice chair of the Communist Party USA and chair of its Labor Department. He can be reached at scott@rednet.org.