Labor Day 2010

In my lifetime there has always been a lot to say - mostly negative - about the American labor movement. I was born in the 50s and lived through the high point of organizing when almost 35% of the workforce paid union dues. Not only did unions set the standard for wages and benefits throughout the manufacturing industry - sometimes without a care as to the long term consequences - but also through a "trickle down" effect in other regions. Walter Reuther's UAW (United Auto Workers) were strong allies of Dr. King in the 60s and helped move labor from the sidelines to the forefront of progressive social policies. And I will always value the way organized labor supported Cesar Chavez and the emerging United Farm Workers movement: they not only kept many strikers families alive, but used their influence and clout during the boycotts of the 60s and 70s.

When my children were small, they learned the union versions of the old spiritual songs - Hallelujah, I'm a Bum instead of Hallelujah Thine the Glory - as well as Union Maid and all the rest. I'll never forget that when daughter number one graduated from high school - and each young woman had to give a senior speech - had the choir sing "Union Maid." And daughter number two's senior theme was Springsteen's "Badlands." Support for the labor movement was an essential part of growing up in our young family: we travelled with 1199 to support health care reform and joined the 20th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" rally with friends in the UAW. We bought and shopped union and made it a point to bank at the Amalgamated Textile Workers co-opt bank while in NYC.

In my experience, things started to go south when American manufacturing jobs plateaued in the 70s and labor started organizing within the public workers realm. Not, of course, that there wasn't a need - think MLK in Memphis with the garbage workers - but there is a big difference between public workers and private industry and that distinction was rarely appreciated. By the 80s, when steel production was disappearing from the USA and the last great recession was upon us, I know a lot of us in urban ministry thought: "Well, ok, but what about the greater good of serving the public?" as teachers and sanitation worker strikes brought our impoverished neighborhoods to a stand still. My first three churches were in strong union, urban communities - NYC, Saginaw and Cleveland - and a lot of my members were solid building tradespeople. But by the time Reagan broke the PATCO strike, it was clear that the once strong and innovative labor movement had become little more than a labor twitch.

What's more, in addition to losing public support, the labor movement was stagnating in its organizing efforts. To be sure, labor laws had changed since the 40s and 50s making it harder for organizers to be successful - or to effectively challenge employer intimidation - but the whole context for organizing had changed. Even the mood of the nation was different. Just watch the movie "Wall Street" for a sense of that era...

I know that by the time I was elected to the Board of Education in Cleveland, OH during the 90s, the unions were one of our biggest problems: archaic and punitive work rules made educational reform almost impossible. Janitors were the ones who determined how a building could be used - not principals and teachers - and the building trade unions had become the center of economic nepotism and graft. Additionally, a sense of entitlement and low expectations thrived among employees at every level while the educational level of the city's poorest children continued to go down the toilet.

"What an irony," I kept thinking. "I used to be an organizer for a union and now they are part of the entrenched enemy." From teachers unions protecting the jobs of their worst members - roughly the bottom 20% who held back not only the top 20% but the middle 60% of schools from embracing real educational excellence - to Board of Education secretaries who spent more time taking naps in the restrooms than supporting children, I experienced first hand the down side of labor's arrogance and myopic vision. Clearly, their status quo was no longer serving the greater good.

And now with labor representing less that 10% of the American workforce, the balance seems to be shifting again, yes? There are bold and creative organizing efforts taking place throughout the United States that are building community-labor coalitions - an especially important change given both the shift in the nature of job creation as well as the massive unemployment of this recession. Labor is articulating a clear need for greater government spending on infrastructure to address the crumbling roads and bridges that local communities can no longer repair. They are working with religious organizations, too to pursue national policies that broaden rather than restrict social justice. And in a time of fear and rising prejudice, labor is often making it clear that social progress is intimately woven into economic well-being of our ordinary citizens.

Today, President Obama announced his commitment for a new initiative that would unleash $50 billion for infrastructure jobs. ( No doubt the "no nothing" Republicans will not only thwart this effort at economic revival, but will continue to oppose supporting small business creation, too. They are revelling in both political obstructionism at its worst while nourishing a mean-spirited bigotry that they will not be able to contain. Add to it all the dangerous Glenn Beck/Sarah Palin uber-emphasis on a-historic individualism and... there is a real battle brewing. Dr. King got it right AGAIN as he said to the garbage workers of Memphis on the night before he was assassinated...


Black Pete said…
I have been a shop steward, local treasurer, and participated in 12 labour actions in my life.

It seemed to me that organized labour lost its creativity sometime in the 70s or 80s, and had no real idea how to confront Reagan/Mulroney (Canada's right-wing PM)policies and attitudes. The responses to these challenges were 30s rhetoric and 40s job action, and frankly, management ran rings around us.

I think there's a parallel with with the situation facing mainline church denominations (in Canada, at least), in which the old order is dying, yet people cling to its vestiges at the cost of effectively meeting the challenges. And maybe the thing has to die in order to be reborn stronger.
RJ said…
That is exactly right, Peter. I see something emerging now and rejoice in it...but it is a long time coming, for sure.

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