[Fwd: [BRC-NEWS] Rebuilding the American Labor Movement]

Carrol Cox cbcox at SPAMilstu.edu
Wed Jun 14 17:48:24 MDT 2000

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Rebuilding the American Labor Movement
Date: Wed, 14 Jun 2000 17:22:00 -0400
From: Bill Fletcher <bfletcher4 at compuserve.com>
To: brc-news at lists.tao.ca

Rebuilding the American Labor Movement

Speech at Merton Center "Celebration of Economic Justice"

Pittsburgh, PA, USA -- October 21, 1999

By Bill Fletcher, Jr. <bfletcher4 at compuserve.com>

Good evening and thank you very much for inviting me to
speak with you today.

We live in a paradoxical situation. Consider for a moment.
We have a polarization of wealth in the USA, the likes
of which we have not seen since the 1920s. We have the
production of jobs which few people relish since many of
them are part-time or temporary, but are creating a rather
tight job market. We have seen 25 years of a declining or
stagnating living standard, which has only turned around
recently with the tight job market. We now have a stock
market in flux and anyone's guess as to what will happen.

Yet despite both the good and bad economic times the
trade union movement -- irrespective of real excitement
and promise -- has not yet taken off as a mass upsurge.
Don't get me wrong. We have, at least for now, stopped the
decline in members and there has been some growth in absolute
numbers. The trade union movement is getting far more press
attention than at any point in the last 20 years. And there
is a growing favorability rating for trade unions. But what
we have not seen is the type of dramatic growth which one
witnessed in earlier periods, such as, with the Knights of
Labor in the 1870s and 1880s; the CIO in the 1930s and early
1940s; the public sector unions in the 1960s and early 1970s.
We have witnessed energy and dynamism from countless organizers.
We have witnessed important victories such as the Steelworkers
at Ravenswood; the Teamsters with UPS; and the UAW in `98. We
have seen important organizing victories, such as SEIU's
home-care organizing in Los Angeles which brought into the
union movement more than 70,000 workers. Yet this has not
translated into what can be described as a mass upsurge.

I am not going to spout platitudes about how victory is
inevitable, or how truth, justice and the `American way' are
on our side, because the reality is that while truth may be
on our side, there is little justice in the American way,
and the reality is that victory is never inevitable. So,
let's look at our situation and consider a few points.

Mass movements, and specifically mass upsurges, are never
planned events. If one looks at one of the premier examples
from our times, that is the Civil Rights Movement, one can
see how matters tend to unfold. First of all, too many
histories identify the start of the Civil Rights Movement
with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56.
Second, these histories make it all appear -- and this may
sound like a contradiction -- that this was all spontaneous.

The Civil Rights Movement, first of all, represented the
accumulation of struggles for African-American freedom
which, I would argue, go back to the end of the Garvey
Movement and the struggle of African-Americans in the 1930s.
It involved the struggles during the Depression concerning
the New Deal and its impact -- or lack there of -- on
African-Americans; the work of several CIO unions in
opposing racial discrimination in the workforce; struggles
during World War II which ultimately led to the desegregation
of the military; the March on Washington Movement; the
National Negro Congress; the Congress of Racial Equality;
the Supreme Court case of Steele v Louisville R.R, the
activities of the Communist Party and other Leftists in
the fight for equality; the growth and suppression of the
National Negro Labor Council ...I could go on and on... but
I think that you see my point. The Civil Rights Movement --
that is the events which we associate with the period from
roughly 1955 till 1973 -- did not come out of no where. They
were the result of various struggles and efforts taken by
countless organizations and individuals, often in relative

My second point is that conscious action was critical, at
each stage, in advancing the movement, but one could NEVER
predict the outcome of that conscious action. Let me give
you an example. Popular mythology says that on a particular
day in December 1955, one Rosa Parks got on a bus and got
tired. She refused to move when asked to and thus the
movement took off. This is entirely false. Rosa Parks was
part of an organization called the Montgomery Improvement
Association, one of whose leaders was one E.D. Nixon, a
trade union leader from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
Porters. The MIA had been looking for a way to demonstrate
against and overturn the segregation of transportation
facilities and Rosa Parks -- an activist who had attended
trainings at the Highlander Educational Center in TN --
happened to be someone who was willing to take the plunge.
There had been earlier examples of civil disobedience in the
bus system of Montgomery, but those examples did not catch
on for a variety of reasons. Rosa Parks' action did. She was
no victim nor an accident. She was an activist. And, neither
she nor the MIA, nor the relatively unknown new, young
minister, Martin Luther King, had any idea how this
incident would unfold.

So, drawing from this, let me make these points. The
creation of any upsurge is the result of activities where
those involved have no way of predicting the outcome. The
activities may help to lay the foundation for a massive
upsurge, or they may result in heroic activity which does
not translate into anything (there are many historical
examples of this, such as with the IWW in some of their
campaigns). But, second, one cannot then turn to fatalism
and say `...what will be, will be...' since it is the
conscious activity of the activists and the masses who
follow them which helps to advance the conditions,
leading to a social explosion.

When we look at the trade union movement, though, we have
to consider some other issues when one thinks about its
resurgence or transformation. The rise of any movement is
often tied to the existence of other movements. In other
words, a social upsurge does not happen in isolation. The
Civil Rights Movement, for example, helped to inspire the
anti-Vietnam War movement, but the two movements interacted
and helped to fuel other social explosions. The rise of the
CIO in the 1930s took place in the context of the rise of
fascism world-wide, and the international united front which
was emerging to counter it. It took place in the context of
a massive Depression, as well as the transformation of the
African-American movement.

Thus, when we think about the reawakening of the trade
union movement, it is impossible, or I should say, it is
fool-hardy to think of it in isolation from other social
movements and other domestic and international events. Part
of what seems to happen, during periods of upsurge, is that
masses of people (never the majority, but huge numbers,
capable of shaping opinions and reality) recognize that
existing conditions can no longer continue and that
something must be done. In that context they begin
looking for a variety of forms of expression for
their outrage, and for their hope.

I should say something about this thing called `hope'.
Many people looked skeptically, if not cynically, when
Jesse Jackson coined the slogan "Keep Hope Alive", but
I think that a critical point was missed. Without `hope'
people are almost incapable of heroic action. That `hope'
may be based on a vision -- without a vision the people will
perish -- or it might be based on faith, or it might be based
on some sort of historical analysis, but the hope lays the
foundation for people to take remarkable steps forward.

So, what is this all to say, besides the fact that I love to
speak about history? WE, meaning the collective WE of trade
unionists, need to rethink trade unions and trade unionism.
There are many labor leaders who think about the re-
emergence of trade unionism the way that one would think
about filling a balloon. You have the balloon and you
simply pump air into it. In time the balloon grows,
but it is always the same balloon.

What history teaches us is that mass upsurges have the
potential to transform or render irrelevant institutions and
bring into being or come to represent new social movements.
Mass upsurges do not accommodate themselves to that which
exists. Existing institutions may be able to help to shape
(and be reshaped by) these movements, but they do not
simply become the receptacles for the movements.

This point is critical when we think about where we are at.
It is very likely that as long as there is the capitalist
system, there will be resistance and organization by the
working class. There are countless historical examples
from the USA and elsewhere to support that conclusion. What
we cannot say, however, is whether the movement which we
currently think of as organized labor will survive in its
current form. There have been a variety of forms of labor
organization throughout US history going back to slave
insurrections, municipal labor parties, the Knights of
Labor, the IWW, the AFL, the CIO... There have been
independent unions and associations, all of which have
reflected varying degrees of working class consciousness
and organization. There is nothing, and I repeat NOTHING
which guarantees that the current form of organization
which we have will continue much into the 21st century.

If this depresses you it is not intended to do so, nor
should it. It is to say that we must look at the trade
union movement as the catalyst for the development of a
labor movement in the USA. It means that the work which
we currently do is actually aimed at laying the foundation
for the altering of class relations in the USA, principally
through the changing class consciousness and organization of
the US working class.

This is a mighty task and it necessitates a profound
commitment to labor education, organizing the unorganized,
and the transformation of our unions into truly fighting
organizations which embrace diversity and lock arms with
other social movements. The objective of this work is
nothing short of the creation of a social bloc of forces
capable of changing the politics and economics of the USA.

So, what does this mean for the everyday trade unionist?
Let me suggest a few things:

*** We Must Rethink Our Organizations:

We have so disconnected with our members that they tend not
to see the union as a vehicle for much more than the fight
for their benefits. I believe that we must ask ourselves
this question: Let's say that a space ship landed here in
Pittsburgh and the visitors came out and asked us how to
prove that the unions truly represented their members and
were controlled by their members. How would we do that? I
am not trying to be cynical. I am posing the question we need
to ask and to prove. How do we ensure that the organizations
we call trade unions are truly worker controlled? How do we
ensure that they fulfill the needs of their members?

*** Labor Education Takes On A New Meaning:

For nearly 50 years, our unions have acted like labor
education, if it has any importance, is about skills, e.g.,
how to be a good steward. We have so narrowed the parameters
of labor education, at least until fairly recently, so that
it is about technique. In many cases, it has been eliminated
entirely because it is thought to be unnecessary. Labor
education must take on a new meaning and that meaning needs
to be about class and social justice. People learn many
things from their own experiences, but those experiences
always need to be interpreted. I remember in the `60s,
some people said that people became radicalized if they
were beaten by a cop at a demonstration. Well, some folks
did become radicalized, but others drew very different
conclusions, e.g., stay away from demonstrations. Labor
education needs to be about interpreting the experience of
the working class, through their own eyes. It needs to be
about class and what that represents, and it needs to be
about struggle. But that struggle, as I noted earlier, is
not a struggle which takes place in isolation, and that is
where the matter of social justice emerges. The working
class struggle must be a struggle to change the larger
conditions of injustice. When that struggle remains a
struggle at a particular workplace it is important, but
does not resonate in the wider halls of society. But that
struggle, also, ends up having a limited effect EVEN on its
participants if it is disconnected from the larger struggle
for social justice.

*** Organizing The Unorganized:

I am sure that most of you have heard speech after speech
about organizing. I would say here that the first step to
organizing the unorganized is organizing the unionized. We
have an immense arsenal in our own members. Linked with my
earlier point of uniting with their hopes and ambitions, we
must utilize their skills and energy. Our own members are
the key to convincing the unorganized that they have a
future in the trade union movement and that they can
play a role in rebuilding a labor movement.

*** Transform The Local Union; Transform The Union Movement:

All of what I am talking about here is concerns the
transformation of the union movement. This is more than
about shifting resources into organizing, though shifting
resources is so critical. It is about shifting the focus
of the union so that it is about building working class
power...Power in terms of bargaining power...power in terms
of electoral power...power to truly improve the lives of
working class people. This does not mean that we give up
on representation of our current members. Rather, it means
representing our members in a different way. In fact, it
means that the members need to control their institutions
and organize themselves so that they are truly their own
liberators. I know, skeptics out there among you may believe
that this is somehow taking work away from union staff. Far
from it. There is simply too much work for any number of
staff, but more to the point, the union is the organization
of the workers; the staff work for the organization. The
staff are there to promote leadership development and to
assist the workers in the running of the organization,
but not to run the organization.

*** Linking With Other Progressive Social Movements:

Part of the point I raised earlier is that the emergence of
a truly mass movement is rarely something which takes place
in isolation from other social struggles. The mobilization
of our members needs to be seen in the context of their
responding not only to workplace issues, but to broader
social concerns. Their activism and mobilization needs to
be supported and encouraged by their friends and neighbors
who also believe in the need for social change and social
justice. We need living wage campaigns, for example, which
upset the entire notion of politics and economics in states
and cities. We need environmental justice campaigns which
mobilize masses of people to fight for their own survival.
We need welfare rights movements, which insist that there
IS a role for government and that role includes providing a
social safety net for the millions of victims of capitalism.
We need a parents movement which joins with teachers to
transform the schools from holding pens into institutions
for learning. We need a tenants movement which demands a
limitation on rents so that homelessness is ended and
everyone has a right to a place to live, free from
the forces of nature.


Let me bring this to a close with a final thought. We have
in front of us the task of organizing at least 20 million
workers if we want to achieve AT LEAST the same percentage
of the workforce unions represented in 1955. 20 million
workers! In order to do this we will be unable to operate
on the same basis upon which we are currently operating.
Usually in union audiences we discuss that this means
that the unions need to shift resources and concentrate
on organizing. This is all true, but I would argue that
this is insufficient.

In order to organize 20 million workers we must change the
climate in this country. That is more than advancing the
right to organize. It is about social turmoil. It is about
masses of people saying in chorus that they are as mad as
hell and will not take it any more. It is about masses of
people believing that there is a future which they can
achieve, a bright future for themselves and their families.

To create this climate we need more than audacious
organizers, though we desperately need them. We need more
than more money into organizing, though we desperately need
that as well. We need action, movement and creative thought
on so many different levels. In this sense, when one talks
about "an injury to one is an injury to all," it is not
rhetoric. Indeed, I would argue that it truly represents the
key to the future of trade unions and will determine whether
we can actually rebuild a labor movement in the USA. I am
confident that with the rising of new leadership and the
audacity which it takes to stand up to corporate America,
we can indeed make the slogan "an injury to one is an
injury to all" a reality which comes to be gripped by
masses of workers and asserted in their own voice.

Thank you.


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is assistant to the President of the
AFL-CIO, and the National Organizer of the Black Radical
Congress. The words written above are his own.

Copyright (c) 1999-2000 Bill Fletcher, Jr.

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