Labor fightback in the Great Recession

“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.” – Eugene V. Debs

Reading this quotation today, over 100 years later, you are struck by two things. How appropriate, how up to date, and how well it fits labor’s situation today. At the same time, 108 years later, you are bound to wonder, how is it that labor can be so bruised and battered yet again?

Still as you digest the whole quote, you have to realize, as Debs did so many years ago, that the last sentence of this quote is the most important. “But not withstanding all of this and all of these…”

Any genuine assessment of the labor movement today has to begin with “… not withstanding all of this and all of these…” For over 30 years the labor movement has faced relentless corporate, political, and right wing attack. Since the beginning of “the great recession” this attack on labor and labor rights has risen in intensity and viciousness.

Of course the Great Recession, caused in large part by Wall Street greed and speculation, increased big business extremism. Capital has always been willing to use economic crisis as a club against labor. The crisis atmosphere is fertile ground for right-wing extremism, virulent racist movements, and attacks on labor.

The disastrous 2010 elections opened the floodgates for all-out corporate war on labor. Ultra right Republicans, organized and funded by shadowy think tanks, now nationally coordinate political and legislative efforts to destroy labor rights. “Right to work” for less laws and assault on collective bargaining rights for public workers, are front and center in a vicious Republican rightwing soup of racist attacks on immigrant workers, attacks on women’s rights and women’s health, and voter suppression laws aimed particularly at communities of color and the elderly. These billionaire and corporate funded anti-labor campaigns are at the heart of an overall rightwing attack on democracy.

As can be expected in this situation, the house of labor is responding in many different ways. There are so many tugs and pulls on labor. How to respond to political attacks and anti-labor legislation? How to respond to outsourcing and labor-cutting new technology? How to respond to outrageous wage cutting and take away demands in the current political climate? How to respond to lockouts? And central to all of this, when union density is at such a low point, how to organize the unorganized and mobilize declining numbers and resources for the political and economic fight back?

Much has changed in labor in the last 30 years. And that change has greatly accelerated in the last three years. It is beyond the scope of this article to chart all the changes, but suffice it to say that many of us have never seen a labor movement so ready to fight back, so ready to take on the system.

Most visible in recent months has been the explosions of activity and fight back in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and several other states. In Wisconsin hundreds of thousands have hit the streets to recall Gov. Scott Walker and some of the Republican leadership in the Wisconsin Legislature. This is Wisconsin workers direct challenge to the attack on public workers in their state. Well over a million people signed the recall petitions largely organized by labor. In Ohio hundreds of thousands of trade unionists took to the streets all over the state to collect over a million signatures to overturn a Republican inspired law to take away collective bargaining rights for public workers. And in Indiana the labor movement mobilized throughout the state to try and defeat a right to work law. This included tens of thousands protesting in Indianapolis.

In all of these situations not only was the labor leadership and membership mobilized, but significant support came from unorganized workers and local communities. Increasingly across the country the labor movement, small as it may be, is seen by unorganized as well as union workers as a bulwark against these attacks on democracy. In both Wisconsin and Ohio hundreds of thousands of unorganized workers joined the labor movement in these efforts and signed petitions.

The emergence of the occupy movement in the midst of these struggles has had an important impact. Not only did it change the national discussion on deficits and austerity, but it also introduced a new popular way of discussing the class struggle. The 99% versus the 1% in popular discourse deepens ideas about the need for the broadest possible coalitions led by the working class.

It’s true that at times occupy and the labor movement don’t see eye to eye. Nevertheless they work together in important ways that have benefited each movement. Much of labor clearly sees the value of militants outside support for workers. Many in the occupy movement have very little experience with organized labor. Indeed some are very suspicious and harbor ultra left antiunion ideas.

Nevertheless the occupy movement has brought hundreds of thousands of young people to support labor against right-wing attacks. Across the country many occupy groups have set up labor outreach committees to work with the unions and to support them. Young occupy activists can be found on picket lines, and labor rallies, and many other kinds of labor actions. Whole new generations of activists are learning about labor and its potential to lead struggles for change.

Some of labor’s critics on the left seem only able to see the old problems and weaknesses. Labor is too small. Some unions are hidebound and bureaucratic. Union democracy is a problem with some unions. Unions seem only concerned with their own narrow self-interest.

Of course these old problems still exist to one degree or another. But what is new and developing is far more important.

Those of us who truly want to solve the old problems need to focus on what’s new. The solutions to old problems will only be found in new approaches to struggle. It is the tens of thousands of union activists and union leaders who are fighting back that hold the key to the future of labor. It is these bright green sprouts of renewed struggle that need to be watered, weeded and sung about.

Important New and Developing Trends in Labor

Everyone in the labor movement understands that union membership is too low. Everyone understands the need to organize the unorganized and to grow. And increasingly many in labor understand that it will take more than the traditional methods to grow. Much of labor is looking hard at questions of globalization, of the changing nature of production, and the changing composition of the working class.

Of course there are no simple solutions to these problems. It will take a lot of experimentation, a lot of new thinking, and a lot of trial and error. No one can deny that these questions have been roiling labor for the last several years. And a lot of new answers and a lot of new approaches have emerged.

The growth of nontraditional union organizing

The AFL-CIO and many unions have worked and supported worker centers as a new way of organizing very low paid workers. Where possible, these worker centers are brought into central labor councils and other structures of the labor movement. This approach has helped place labor in the thick of the movements for immigrant rights.

Other non-traditional tracks have led to organizing home health care workers in California, Taxi drivers in New York and carwash workers in Los Angeles. All of these efforts have centered not only on the low paid workers themselves, but also in building support in the communities they live and work around.

Growth of International Solidarity

Several US unions, including private and public unions, are actively building new kinds of international labor Solidarity. The AFL-CIO and the Change to Win unions are paying greater attention to concrete efforts to coordinate international solidarity with unions dealing with transnational corporations. International trade federations are taking on new life that goes beyond just the sharing of information.

The United Steelworkers are on track to build the 1st North American wide industrial union. This effort goes far beyond talk and consultation. It has resulted in direct concrete solidarity activity in Canada, Mexico, and the US. The Mexican miners union, Los Mineros, have seen concrete solidarity from steelworkers in Mexico and Canada. And US steelworkers have been supported in contract efforts by the miners union in Mexico.

Another important example is attempts here at home to organize the T-Mobile wireless workers. Important solidarity from sister communication workers in Germany have been very helpful in this effort. And the UNI global public workers labor federation has helped build labor support from around the world for the T-Mobile organizing efforts.

Striving to Build Class Unity

The AFL-CIO took the lead in fighting racism in the 2008 election. It was electrifying for labor activists. Labor support played a very important role in the election of Pres. Barack Obama.
This was not just an election-year effort. It was a critical and vital part of labor’s efforts to fight for working class unity.

Over the last several years’ great attention has been paid by labor to the racial, national, gender and LGBT composition of labor’s leadership bodies. The AFL-CIO’s constituency groups like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and Pride at Work have all received special attention and help. A regular feature now of AFL-CIO conventions is a one-day preconference of the constituencies on questions of unity and the fight for equality and inclusion.

Special attention is also being paid to the role of young workers in the labor movement. The AFL-CIO’s Next Up organization of young workers is growing all across the country and bringing many new young workers into the leadership of the labor movement. Several unions have followed that lead by creating or reinvigorating youth councils of their own.

Much of labor has also become involved in fighting for immigrant’s rights. In many big cities around the country the immigrant rights movement and the labor movement have joined forces for impressive May Day demonstrations and marches in defense of labor and immigrant rights.

It is also important to note that the labor movement increasingly sees itself speaking for all of the working class. This is clear to see in fights to defend Social Security and Medicare. It is clear in the fight for healthcare reform. It is clear in the fight for minimum wage and livable wage laws and ordinances. And it is clear in labors fighting stance for what it calls the middle-class standard of living. In these broader economic, social, and legislative fights the labor movement clearly champions all workers and their families. This broader vision of labor’s role in society is also shown in labor’s embrace of the 99% concept.

Labor’s Independent Political Action

The 2012 elections are shaping up to be a monumental battle in the class struggle. All of the labor movement is gearing up for the challenge. Labor’s political independence in this election cycle will be the highest it’s ever been in our lifetimes.

Almost all of labor will come out in full support to re-elect President Obama. Labor unity on this election, like in 2008, will be truly historic. Despite the disappointment many in labor feel, labor will build genuine enthusiasm for this election. It will be because, despite setbacks, most in labor understand the playing field on which the Obama administration has had to fight. And most have learned that the second term of the President depends not only on what the administration does, but on what labor does to organize and mobilize around its issues. And most critically it is only with a resounding defeat of the Republican far right, including in Congress, that labor can win on working class issues.

Contrary to some of labor’s sharpest critics, labor is not pouring money into the Democratic Party. Continuing an important trend that began over 10 years ago, labor is putting its money mostly into developing its own independent political apparatus. The labor movement has pledged to put 400,000 union members in the streets for this election season.

Labor knows well that it can never outspend Wall Street and the corporate right wing in the elections. Rather labor’s strength lies in mobilizing its membership and working families with labor organized boots on the ground. In the 2012 elections the labor movement will continue to build a core of activists and experts in all phases electoral work – from managing campaigns, to getting out the vote, to voter education.

And yes this will be mostly working for Democratic Party candidates. Political independence is not always, nor only, the matter of the political party of the candidates. At this time in our history, neither labor nor the left have the power to determine the playing field for the coming electoral struggle. Standing on the sidelines is not an option. The day will surely come when labor can challenge capital and finance in the electoral arena. When that day comes today’s efforts at building labors independent political machine will produce the activists and the experts who can really make a third-party work.

Labor will emerge even stronger and more independent from the 2012 elections. Many new and developing trends will continue to develop and strengthen labor. Gene Debs had tremendous faith in the power of organized labor. Like Debs ours is not a blind faith. It takes the full support of the left and progressive movements gathered round the new and developing trends in labor. This is how we get to another famous Debs quote:

“The united vote of those who toil and have not will vanquish those who have and toil not, and solve forever the problems of democracy.” – Eugene V. Debs

This article was originally published on Political Affairs.

Photo: Occupiers show the solidarity present in the labor movement. John Rummel/PW


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.