The AFL-CIO’s uncritical support of the government’s war in
Afghanistan and sham “war on terrorism” has disappointed, if not
disillusioned, many activists, including progressive labor activists.
For some radicals and progressives, the organized labor movement is
seen as the most important social grouping in the country. As the late
Saul Alinsky put it in Reveille for Radicals, it is “the key to the
door of the future world of economic justice and the social betterment
of mankind. The labor movement has been as much of an ideological
foundation to all left-wing thinkers as the Ten Commandments and the
Golden Rule are to devout religionists. . .”
There are good reasons why activists on the Left hold this view.
Workers, after all, are approximately 75% of the U.S. population. They
are not part of the corporate elite which runs things. They are no
strangers, to put it mildly, to experiences of injustice, oppression
and exploitation, on the job and outside of it. They are “underdogs.”
If they got themselves organized on a broad scale behind a progressive
program for the country, great things would be possible.
Unfortunately, despite many decades of an organized labor movement in
this country going back to the latter part of the 19th century, we
seem to be far removed from such a development.
Maybe we need to take another look at this question of labor as our
I have problems seeing “labor” as THE key social grouping upon which
to base progressive calculations and strategies, because there is no
such thing as one, unified, labor movement. “Labor” can mean
predominantly white, male construction unions with a history of
blatant internal and external racism and sexism, or it can mean
predominantly black and Latino hospital workers who marched side by
side with Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s as if you were looking upon “the Left” as the hope of the future
without distinguishing between sectarian, narrow ideologues, and those
radicals and revolutionaries who are mass-based leaders of unions or
Another problem: 47 years after the merger of the CIO with the AFL,
the most significant social movements nationally since that time have
involved trade unions primarily in a support capacity, not in
significant leadership. The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam
war movement, the women’s movement, the welfare rights movement, the
lesbian/gay rights movement, the environmental movement, the
anti-nuclear power movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the Rainbow
movement of the ‘80s, the global justice movement of the past few
years—even though some of these movements included some unions and
individual union leaders in leadership, none of them, with the
possible exception of the global justice movement, originated in or
were led primarily by labor.
As far as the global justice movement, labor’s involvement has been
inconsistent. After playing an important role in the coalition which
rocked the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle in late 1999,
their participation since has been significantly less, although they
have activated their networks for lobbying campaigns directed at
Too much of labor continues to be mired in a culture, a way of
operating, that lacks the kind of spirit that movements based among
young people or people of color often have, a willingness to speak
truth to power, to push the envelope, to take risks.
What can change this situation?
What is needed is an on-going, popular alliance that brings labor
together with young people, people of color, women, community-based
and lesbian/gay/b/t groups, Greens, veterans, farmers and others. If
this alliance is truly popularly-based, it will involve many workers
and some of the best of the unions. By putting forward its program for
resolution of the crises of U.S. society, by organizing around that
program and in support of its immediate demands on the government, by
running independent candidates for office, masses of working-class
people both inside and outside of the trade union movement can be
educated and galvanized into action.
Within the context of the alliance, an alliance that, to be viable,
must be run on the basis of participatory and actively-involving
democracy, we can all learn how to work together in productive and positive ways. Low- and moderate-income workers, especially those who are young, of color, and/or women, can be supported and encouraged to help provide leadership so that we stay true to our best traditions, not get co-opted or sidetracked.
Such a democratic, participatory culture will provide a model for all
of us, from our mix of movements, sectors and organizations. Insights
gained from the process of working together in the alliance will be
taken back to its component parts. Labor, as with others, will be
affected positively, become more democratic, more open, with more
leadership from women, people of color and youth.
Perhaps then labor’s as-yet-unrealized potential will awake, like a
sleeping giant. Let’s speed the day!