“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Eugene Debs, 1918
A couple of days ago the Gallup News Service released a report on the attitudes of U.S. Americans toward unions. By a two to one margin, people said that they view unions positively, a margin that’s been relatively steady for 20 years.
However, in the words of the report, “only 33% of Americans believe unions mostly help workers who are not unionized; the majority (51%) say unions mostly hurt these workers. None of these attitudes has changed appreciably since first measured in 2001.”
The report goes on to say that “a solid majority of those in non-union households [over 80% of households] believe that unions are mostly beneficial to union workers.”
These statistics help to highlight a fundamental problem for U.S. trade unions: despite popular support for trade unionism in general, trade unions are, in essence, viewed as a “special interest group” by many people, including many workers.
To put it another way, far too many people do not look to labor as a leader in efforts to enact reforms that will benefit working-class people as a whole.
This is not a good thing, and it is part of the picture as to why the percentage of workers who are members of unions keeps going down, now at 13%.
A little less than a year ago, painfully aware of labor’s plight, a number of major unions split from the AFL-CIO to form a rival federation, Change to Win. Their mission, in their own words, is to “unite the 50 million workers in Change to Win affiliate industries whose jobs cannot be outsourced and who are vital to the global economy. We seek to secure the American Dream for them, and for all working people, including: a paycheck that supports a family, universal health care, a secure retirement and the freedom to form a union to give workers a voice on the job.”
However, although begun with high hopes and this broader mission, there’s little evidence that Change to Win has been able so far to fundamentally alter labor’s on-the-defensive dynamics, much less project an approach to organizing that has stimulated grassroots momentum and energy, an essential gauge as to things changing for the better.
For what it’s worth, here’s what I think is a primary aspect of what labor needs to do differently to transform this discouraging state of affairs.
I don’t think the labor movement is going to pull itself out of its decades-long decline until it prioritizes and understands the strategic necessity, the absolutely essential need, for the building of an organized, broadly-based, independent political movement, a movement/organization/coalition/party outside of the Republican and Democratic parties.
It’s not just that such a movement is needed in general, as has been true, and as I and many others have written about and been working for, for a long, long time. The “house of labor” specifically needs such a development to help it break out of an organizational culture, a way of doing things, that is very corporate-influenced, top-down and hierarchical. Labor needs the fresh winds of unionists and non-unionists coming together around a common progressive platform, getting organized to work for independent candidates who support it, and engaging in agitation and organizing in between elections to demand that candidates of all parties get behind that platform.
Labor needs the creative tension that comes with trying to figure out how to work together in a productive way with people who are different, people who have other top priority issues, people who are passionately committed to democratic process and leadership development, for example, as essential aspects of building a movement that can ultimately win.
Labor needs the kind of partners to interact with in an on-going way that some of us experienced during the few years in the 1980’s that the National Rainbow Coalition was a movement-building operation bringing together African Americans, Latinos, labor, farmers, students, environmentalists, women’s rights activists and more.
It is unlikely that this new political movement will emerge as a full-fledged alternative political party. It is much more likely that it will be a hybrid, a mix of people from third party groups, progressive efforts within the Democratic Party, and unions, community groups and issue- and constituency-based organizations. But it must be seen by the country as a whole and must operate internally as a distinct “third force,” an entity very different from either Republican or Democratic politics-as-usual.
Within such a formation the progressive trade unions that will be part of it will find inspiration, fresh approaches to organizing and new members. This in turn will have a leavening effect within the broader labor movement, play a catalytic role. For the first time in a long time, labor, not to mention all the others in this movement, will be liberated from the bad choices of supporting a Democratic candidate you know you can’t trust or supporting an independent you like but know has almost no chance of winning.
On this Labor Day, 2006, may the spirit and example of past labor leaders like Eugene Debs and Tony Mazzocchi inspire us all.