From email@example.com Fri Mar 17 04:51:07 2000
Date: Fri, 17 Mar 2000 00:54:17 -0500
From: David Bacon <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] INTERVIEW: Bill Fletcher (AFL-CIO, BRC)
X-Sender: David Bacon <email@example.com>
Interview with Bill Fletcher, Jr. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(AFL-CIO and the Black Radical Congress)
Conducted October 22, December 30 and 31, 1999
Interviewer David Bacon <email@example.com>
in The Progressive, March 2000
Bill Fletcher is an assistant to AFL-CIO President John
Sweeney. He was formerly the education director for the
AFL-CIO, and led the designing of the Common Sense Economics
program, an effort to begin teaching workers about how
capitalism works as a system. He comes out of the left, was
a principal organizer of the Black Radical Congress, and is
a contributor to Monthly Review and other progressive
The AFL-CIO hasn't had an overt left-winger in such a
leading position since the 1940s, before the merger of the
AFL and CIO. His views reflect the most progressive
thinking in the labor movement today, at the level of
national leadership, especially on issues of race and class.
They give some insight into the new possibilities for
leftwing politics in labor, and their limitations.
David BACON: Tell us a little about your personal history.
Bill FLETCHER: When I was a child, my great grandparents
lived in a famous building in Harlem - 409 Edgecomb Avenue.
At various times WEB Dubois, Thurgood Marshall, and Walter
White (former executive secretary of the NAACP) all lived in
that building. One evening, when I was 6 or 7, there was a
family discussion going on around the table. My
greatgrandfather, William Stanley Braithwaite, was talking
about the very beginnings of US intervention in Laos, when
the government was trying to keep the Pathet Lao out of
power. This was even before the Vietnam war started - it
must have been 1960-1, just after Kennedy took office. My
great grandfather turned to me and asked me if I thought we
should be interfering in the political life of another
country. I had, of course, no idea of where or even what
Laos was. But my father turned to my grandfather. Just give
me time, he said. He'll figure it out.
I just grew up in that kind of ferment. There was political
discussion in my family all the time. Eventually, of
course, I did become radicalized, just as my father had
predicted. My own politics developed in the anti-war and
civil rights movements. When Dr. King came out against the
war it really shook me up. I think I was like others at the
time, looking at the civil rights movement as though it was
something particular to the United States, separate from the
war, separate from Vietnam. Dr. King's speech got me
thinking in a new way.
I read Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of
Islan, although I never got into their mythology [about
whites?]. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. That
really changed my life. I came away from reading it with a
new understanding - that we have to fight for African
American freedom in a world wide context. And that fight
was my own - the struggle was where I needed to be.
Then the Panthers came, carrying out the legacy of Malcolm
X. By then, at 14, I was a student activist in my high
school in Mt. Vernon, New York, where we were then living.
The Black Panthers had a chapter there. My father, who lived
through the McCarthy years and remembered the devastating
impact that repression had on activists, was uneasy about
the idea of my joining the Panthers. I respected his
request and therefore didn't join them. But in my high
school, we formed a Black student organization, which was
very close to the Panthers and the Young Lords. We shut down
the high school in October 1970, joining in on national
Black Solidarity Day. We were trying to show that we, as
Black people, were together, and were part of the Black
power movement. We also closed the school down in May 1970
to protest the murders at Kent State and the war.
BACON: What did you get out of these early experiences?
FLETCHER: Well, what I liked most about the Black Panther
Party was that it saw that there was a world wide struggle
going on - that it wasn't just a fight of Black folk. When
I went to Harvard, that understanding grew deeper. I was
influenced a lot by Ewart Guinier, who was chair of the
African American Studies Department (and father of Lani
Guinier). Ewart Guinier had been the national secretary
treasurer of the United Public Workers, the union set up by
the CIO to organize public workers in the great industrial
Guinier taught African American studies from a class point
of view - that mass struggle was the most important thing
for our people. Growing up in New York, you couldn't avoid
seeing the importance and power of the labor movement, but
his point of view was broader than just that. He taught
that Black workers historically had played an important,
even a crucial, role in the labor movement. If we were
organized, we could change the way the labor movement
operated, and change the politics of the African-American
community at the same time. I still see that - it became a
basic part of my political framework for the rest of my
It was in that process that I started thinking of myself as
a socialist. I actually started thinking of myself as a
socialist in high school, but Guinier helped focus me on
integrating that self-conception with what I was going to do
after school. That process never stopped. I think my
notion of socialism, of what it is or could be, has changed,
but this is still at the core of the way I look at the world
- the connection between socialism and Black liberation.
BACON: Were you aware of the Black movements in Detroit -
the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement - and other
union-based ones like it?
FLETCHER: I was aware that those movements were going on,
but they were not well-publicized in New York and on the
East Coast. I was more aware of things like the Black
Panther Party and the Republic of New Africa. Locally, in
the city, we had the struggle around Lincoln Hospital in the
Bronx, and also supported the struggle of workers at
Charleston Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. There
were caucus movements in many unions - the post office, the
telephone company and others.
BACON: So what did you do with these ideas about the
connection between race and class once you graduated from
FLETCHER: At first, I did some organizing of unemployed
workers and families in Cambridge. Then I got a job as a
welder at the Quincy Shipyards, a division of General
Dynamics. It was the roughest job I ever had.
I lasted three and a half years in the yard. When I went to
work there, our union local was led by a very conservative
group of white officials, right wing as hell. They were
completely unprepared for the change that was going on in
the workforce at the time. I wasn't the only Black person
being hired - there were lots of people of color going to
work in the yard, as a result of the affirmative action
decrees. They didn't know what to do about us.
They were equally unprepared for labor relations in the new
era. General Dynamics was on the cutting edge of that
change too. Five thousand workers went out on strike at the
yard in 1977. General Dynamics was ready for us. Our local,
on the other hand, was completely unprepared, and we got our
asses kicked. Our leaders believed that General Dynamics
would bend once their workforce was in the street.
Instead, the company brought in scabs to run the yard. The
white scabs were taken in though side gates. But the
company also hired African-Americans, Latinos, Cape Verdeans
and other people of color. They were taken in through the
front gate, right in front of the strikers. It was really
inflammatory, designed to divide us.
I was involved in a reform caucus in the union, and we tried
to get community support for the strike, and to get
rank-and-file members active on the lines. Nowadays, that
seems pretty standard for union strike tactics, but at that
time, just coming out a period of relative stagnation within
the trade union movement, those were pretty radical ideas.
BACON: There were a lot of people in the 1970s who did what
you did - young leftists who went into plants and factories
to do political work. I spent many years myself working in
electronics and printing plants. What do you think the net
result of it all was? How important was that experience in
making you who you are?
FLETCHER: I absolutely believe that what we did was right.
In fact, we still should be doing that. It was the best
thing I could have done at the time, and I have no regrets.
I eventually had to leave the yard because I have sinus
problems, and I couldn't get well while I was working as a
welder. But the things I learned there will stay with me for
the rest of my life. I'd be a very different person if I'd
started off in the labor movement working as a paid staff
One of the most important things we learned was that there
are real consequences for people when they become involved
in struggle - organizing unions or going on strike. These
struggles aren't abstract, academic exercises. They have
real risks and costs. Today we have many young organizers
who have lots of enthusiasm, but no real experience of the
workplace. Without that experience, sometimes they don't
understand that struggles have consequences. People
sometimes suffer as a result, and you can't just have a rah
rah attitude, and then walk away if you're not successful.
The people in the workplace can't walk away. I think many
young people in the labor movement today need to understand
BACON: Sometimes people who went into the workplace were
criticized for not having a longterm commitment - that they
were just there for a while.
FLETCHER: I think the critique was wrong. Historically,
there have always been members of other classes who have
thrown their lot in with workers - middle class people,
intellectuals, students. It's true that sometimes they
carry a lot of baggage with them, and some have come with an
elitist attitude, and haven't stayed. Some of the words
we've used for that kind of thing have been pretty negative,
too. I don't like calling people salts, or colonizers, or
some of these other names. I look at them as in-shop
And lots of the people I knew who went into the workplace
are still there. Many, if they're not in the factory, are
still in the labor movement. I think we should encourage
in-shop organizers. Many unions today look at that in-plant
idea as too long-term. They're interested in staff-run
organizing drives, and in having a staff of organizers they
can move around. But in-plant organizing looks at
developing leadership in the workplace like a farmer who
raises a crop. You have to plant the seeds and then work on
them. In-plant organizing means that there is a commitment
to a particular workplace and the particular workers who
work there. Sometimes I think that unions themselves aren't
even the best vehicles to do this, because they have such a
strong bias towards organizing activity which meets their
own institutional interests.
When you look at big workplaces, like non-union auto plants
or the huge high-tech electronics factories, it's clear they
aren't going to be organized the way unions run campaigns
right now. I think that they won't be organized without
this in-plant approach.
BACON: Well, if unions aren't going to do this, then who
will or can?
FLETCHER: That's historically been the role of the left.
On campuses, for instance, young people become committed to
social justice for workers as a cause, not to a particular
union. People become committed to a left project, which
sees organizing in the workplace as part of a spectrum of
political activity, a project of social transformation.
And I think we in the left need to encourage labor to commit
itself to certain industries and workplaces in a much more
long-term way. Some unions are starting to look at
organizing like this. The building trades have a strategy
based on salting - putting union workers into unorganized
workplaces. Labor could move much more in the direction of
identifying core industries and core sectors of workers it
wants to concentrate on. There have been other experiences
as well - the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project and
others - where we've tried to form a multi-union commitment
to a particular region or city. I think that inevitably has
to involve people getting jobs in the shops.
You can't increase the size of the labor movement the way
you would blow up a balloon - keep pumping in air and the
balloon keeps getting bigger. We have to fundamentally
reconstruct the labor movement in this country.
Historically, any kind of large scale organizing has been
done in the context of great social movements. In the
1930s, the industrial union upsurge didn't happen in
isolation. It was part of the whole opposition to fascism
and the fight for democracy in the depression. In the
1960s, public sector and healthcare organizing was tied to
the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the
Chicano and Asian movements. Large scale organizing takes
place when there's a larger social upsurge, when a lot of
things are being questioned.
Today we're still attempting to transform this union
movement from one that was very complacent -- willing to
accept a slow death because it wasn't facing the horror of
an immediate extinction -- into a movement that has vision
and hope. That's hard. It's not simply a matter of
changing people at the top. We also have to change the
consciousness of workers at the base, to reconstruct a
vision of unionism relevant to the twenty-first century.
BACON: So what happened to you after you left the yard?
FLETCHER: Well, I got a job as a community organizer for a
short while with the Boston Jobs Coalition, to work on
desegregating the building trades. I'm not sure I was a
very good community organizer, but it led me to go to work
for Greater Boston Legal Services, which had filed a major
suit on behalf of Black workers against Local 7 of the
What happened to that union is a kind of metaphor for a
change that's taken place throughout the labor movement.
People of color didn't even work in that trade until 1968,
and Local 7 didn't have a single member of color until 1972.
It didn't change voluntarily - only after it lost the suit.
Then, over time and through a lot of struggle, it became
more integrated, and people of color were elected onto its
While working at GBLS I met Bobby Haynes, who is now the
President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. He was, at the
time, the Financial Secretary for Local 7, Ironworkers, so
you can imagine that when we first met it was not under the
best of circumstances. Yet, overtime his views changed and
our relationship evolved. Today I have the greatest respect
for him, and believe that he is has a very broad vision for
the trade union movement in Masschusetts.
Also at GBLS, I became vicepresident of our staff union,
which was affiliated District 65 of the United Auto Workers.
>From there, I was recruited by the union to come on staff.
I was very nervous at the time, because I was involved in a
lot of other activity in the anti-apartheid movement and
local electoral campaigns. I didn't know if there would be
conflicts, but I decided to throw down and get a job as an
organizer, even while I was working on even while i was
working on continued efforts to desegregate the Boston
building trades at the same time. Later, in the early
1980s, I was active as well in the the Black United Front,
Union Members for Jobs and Equality, and taught the history
of Black workers at the University of Massachusetts.
BACON: The fight over discrimination in unions didn't make
you bitter about them?
FLETCHER: My parents were both very pro-union, but they
weren't pollyannaish about it. They taught me from the
beginning that there were two wings to the labor movement in
this country. One, they said, was real unionism, and they
pointed to people like Harry Bridges, the legendary
longshore leader in San Francisco. Bridges, they told me,
fought for workers and fought to desegregate the docks. He
was a courageous, no-bullshit kind of guy. The other kind
of unions they said were the ones that were mobbed up, the
jim crow unions. So I didn't see that there was any
contradiction at all between being pro-union and being
against jim crow unionism and mobbed-up unionism..
I've been fighting for a better labor movement since I first
joined a union. I don't have any illusions. I've never
felt that unions were God's gift to humanity, but a very
contradictory social force. My idea has always been to
build up their righteous end. That's what's kept me going.
These days I tell young organizers that they can't think
that unions are a political party, or even a consistently
progressive social force, unless we fight to make them that.
They're united front style organizations.
BACON: How do you survive as part of the AFL-CIO
leadership, especially as an assistant to [AFL-CIO President
John] Sweeney saying all this, or do you?
FLETCHER: Well, I don't always agree with the direction,
but I make decisions all the time on when to express
differences, and how, and to whom. Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher
didn't raise an idiot. You have to decide which battles to
fight, and that's never easy. But my experience is that
President Sweeney likes having people around him with
different points of view, especially people who are
thinkers. He doesn't like dummies, and he's willing to be
BACON: After District 65, how did you get to where you are
FLETCHER: I worked next for the Mailhandlers Union, moving
to Washington DC. I was in charge of coordinating the
negotiation of their national contract. When the
then-president of the union sold us out in negotiations, I
got purged. I could see that coming, so by then I was
already looking for another job. In 1991 I was hired as an
assistant education director for SEIU, and it turned into
the best working experience I ever had. After John Sweeney
was elected AFL-CIO president, I became Education Director
for the federation, and now special assistant to the
BACON: So do you feel pretty secure now?
FLETCHER: Being an historian, I'm keenly aware of how
leftwingers in the labor movement were turned upon in the
1940s by their political allies, people who had praised them
to the skies. So it can happen, and people can leave you
hanging out there. When I was fired at the Mailhandlers, I
was given a letter at 2pm, thanking me for my services, and
telling me that at 5pm my job would no longer exist. So
I've never felt that any position I've held in the labor
movement was secure. But of course, no job today is secure.
This is lean and mean capitalism. I know that for people of
my parents' generation, this is really hard to understand.
They grew up thinking that you could have a job for life.
I don't know how the wind is going to blow, but at the same
time, I know how to do my job. No one will ever be able to
say they got rid of me because I didn't know how to do it.
I'm an unapologistic leftist, and I don't care who doesn't
like it. I'm very committed to redeveloping the pole of
Black radicalism, and equally committed to transforming the
trade union movement into a real labor movement. For some
people in the labor movement, union work is all they do. I
have multiple lives. For instance, I helped organize the
Black Radical Congress. Sometimes I feel like all these
different expectations are like worlds colliding.
BACON: At the AFL-CIO, you helped put together an
educational course for union members called Common Sense
Economics, and began setting up workshops, presentations,
train-the-trainer programs and study groups in unions and
labor councils. Many labor activists call it the first
attempt by the federation since the days of the CIO to
really teach workers how capitalism really works. Did you
get a lot of resistance when you were setting it up?
FLETCHER: We tried very hard to build a consensus in unions
about how to talk to members about the economy. I think the
bottom line was that we try to reintroduce dialogue about
class into our work, and from that perspective, we did a
pretty good job. I was actually astounded by how we
devastated the common wisdom on what workers are willing to
talk about. I really felt that the limits on how far we can
go with this are not those of workers themselves, but the
limits of the institution and the imagination of people in
many parts of the trade union movement - people who don't
get or who oppose educating our members.
It's so outlandish that for years we had a movement that
refused to use terms like class or working class, where
criticizing capitalism would automatically lead to
redbaiting. We have quite a history to live down, and in
order now to confront the problems that working people are
facing, we have to look at the system, at what capitalism is
doing to workers.
Workers turn on the television and what do they see? The
economy is great and everything is booming. So when they're
not doing so well themselves, they can think the problem is
with them, that everyone else is doing fine. Or that they're
nuts, that they're perceiving reality in a wrong way. But
there's a third conclusion. You're not crazy, and you don't
have an individual problem. The problem's in the system -
the great disparity of wealth at the same time that the
economy is booming. Reaching that conclusion is what we're
We don't get as far as the issue of surplus value itself in
Common Sense Economics. What we do is explain and critique
neoliberal capitalism, especially the attack on the public
realm. That's much broader than just public services and
the jobs of public sector workers - it's the enshrining of
private ownership and the attack on anything public at all.
Neoliberalism substitutes the view that the private sector
is the source of all wisdom, and has a take-no-prisoners
attitude on the accumulation of profit. That's what we take
Common Sense Economics does not really discuss the dynamics
of the workplace, which is something the left does need to
analyze and speak out on. It does discuss the dynamics of
the system. It's a good starting point, talking about how
to tell who your friends are, and who are your enemies.
But it's not the ending point - eventually we need a more
thorough analysis. We criticize successfully the
avariciousness of capitalism, but the danger is that it
leaves open the possibility of an illusion - that it's not
the system that's the problem, but bad people running it.
Workers understand capitalism in a very different way when
they understand the nature of value and where it comes from.
We were helped by the fact that some unions already had an
economics education program for their members. We tried to
build on that work and go further. This education requires
a commitment that we're going to have a real dialogue with
our own members, not simply give them the message. That can
be threatening, since it means people can speak back, or may
not agree with what we're saying. But we have to be open.
Education is critical for unions because we will never get
the commitment of our own members for the long haul if they
don't understand the source of our problems. Without that
commitment, we'll never be able to engage people in a real
struggle for power. We'll be stuck mobilizing people around
immediate actions and issues, without a longer range
The purpose of Common Sense Economics is to get people
thinking about the direction we should be going. What is
the alternative to neoliberalism? The U.S. labor movement is
not anti-capitalist. We're not like COSATU in South Africa,
or the CUT in Brazil. We're not even as radical as the
Canadian Labour Congress. So we need to have a struggle and
a discussion about the alternative, and rebuild that section
of our movement which is committed to one. This discussion
has to take place inside unions - we don't want it to go on
just in universities, and have it brought to us.
BACON: That seems pretty far in front of the current
thinking of the staff and leadership of the AFL-CIO. Is
this a discussion they're prepared to have?
FLETCHER: It's not really a question of the top leaders or
staff in the building in Washington. It's really about the
movement and its overall leadership, where they are at, and
the consensus which exists. But I'll tell you, at the base
people are champing at the bit. Look at what happened at
the WTO in Seattle. People are dying to talk about the
global economy. We can get to a discussion of the
alternative by talking about the world we live in today.
To many of our leaders, capitalism today is not recognizable
any longer. In the past, sections of capital were open to
labor as a junior partner in a corporate/government/labor
alliance. That's no long the case.
BACON: Yet sometimes I hear in Sweeney's speeches what
sounds almost like a nostalgia for that past - the idea that
capital should take the high wage "high road" rather than
seeking to cut labor costs by any means necessary, the idea
of the missing partnership for higher productivity, or even
just mutual respect.
FLETCHER: I don't think capitalism has ever been a moral
system. It's always been amoral. But even the idea of the
high road depends on our winning much greater power. It's
not inconsistent with rebuilding our movement - we certainly
can't ever get respect from the system by begging on our
knees. I don't think that these views are inconsistent with
those of President Sweeney.
There's really a larger issue out there, however. What is
the economic program of the trade union movement? Is it
possible for us to win significant concessions short of
socialism, and if so, in what direction? That's the notion
of the high road - that there are reforms which we should
fight for and can win. But in the end, reforms won't solve
the fundamental contradictions of the system, so we
shouldn't fall prey to illusions.
BACON: You say that you're committed to rebuilding a
radical pole among Black people. How big and effective do
you think the Black left is today?
FLETCHER: There's certainly a Black left, but it's weaker
than it was 20 years ago, and ideologically, it's very
diverse, with communists and socialists of various stripes,
feminists, revolutionary nationalists, liberation
theologians, and others. Part of what we've tried to do in
the Black Radical Congress is to rebuild the Black left on a
national scale, around the immediate issues in our
communities - police brutality, prisons, the struggle of the
poor and homeless. The left among Black people isn't
represented by a single organization, and no organization
has hegemony in our community. The Black Radical Congress
isn't attempting to build one. We're just saying that we can
do better if we work together.
There's a labor component to the BRC as well, and one
question we try to keep on the agenda is the organizing of
the South. We're trying to rebuild the relationship between
Black people and unions. Our community has a rich labor
history, and African Americans have been involved in unions
since the first ones were organized. As early as the Civil
War, even though African Americans were excluded from many
of the official, or white, unions, that didn't stop us from
organizing. We organized unions in the South during the
Reconstruction period. We embraced the Knights of Labor.
We even accepted horrible conditions in the American
Federation of Labor. But we wanted unions. We joined the
Industrial Workers of the World and helped to build it, and
set up independent unions. And then in the 1930s, along
with Chicanos and Asians, we contributed to the victory of
the Congress of Industrial Organization in the organizing of
the mass production industries.
Today there's a greater need than ever for African American
involvement. We have a greater proportion of our people -
about 18-20% -- in unions than any other racial or national
BACON: Even unionbusters commonly tell employers to avoid
hiring African Americans during union drives because
statistically they're more likely to vote in favor during
FLETCHER: That's absolutely true. There are remarkable
stories during the 1930s and 40s of white organizers in the
South who were confronted by this dilemma. Black workers
would respond to the union and white workers wouldn't.
Today the role of Black workers is even more important,
especially in terms of influencing change within the labor
movement. We're not just supporting what someone else is
doing. We need to be at the table. African Americans,
Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbians, women - we all need to
be at the table when decisions are being made, because we
need to reshape the labor movement. We need a cultural
change, where unions not only accept new people, but embrace
change itself, including new constituencies. When you're
talking about organizing 20 million workers -- what we're
really up against -- you have to talk about changing the way
A lot of people are going to be shaken by this. Many
leaders are comfortable with the idea of more people of
color coming into their movement. But they're not so
comfortable with the idea that maybe we're going to
BACON: So are you happy with how the labor movement is
dealing with issues of race, especially in terms of how they
go about educating or talking to members about it?
FLETCHER: The manner in which organized labor handles issues
of race is very uneven. There is a recognition that there
needs to be more diversity in staffs, and even, among some
unions, diversity within the leadership. But dealing with
race is more than dealing with diversity. It is also about
issues; it is about the role of the membership; it is about
who is at the table when key decisions are being made. On
this, the record is definitely mixed.
At the political level, unions are raising important issues,
like the question of prisons and their social cost. But the
real disconnect is between what's said at the upper echelons
and what's going on among our own members. If you look at
the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a racist ballot measure
directed against young people of color in California, the
big question isn't what position is being taken by Art
Pulaski, head of the state labor federations, or other state
labor leaders, although their stand is important. It's what
do our members think. Do they know about the initiative?
Are they engaged in discussion of it? Do they understand
what it will mean to them? That's why I get worried when
people in labor start to downplay member education.
Look at what happened in California with Proposition 226,
which would have ended our ability to support political
candidates. We did educate our members, and they did what
was necessary to defeat it as a result.
BACON: But we also had Proposition 227 on the same ballot,
which was directed at Latino and Asian immigrants, and
abolished bilingual education for their children. Labor
didn't speak out in the same way on that.
FLETCHER: Yes, the question of race and class keeps coming
up. We desperately need a dialogue on race, sex and class.
We're members of unions, but we're also members of the human
race. And on this I hold the leadership of our movement
responsible. Do our leaders have the political will to
meake this discussion happen on race and gender, and also on
international solidarity? Fundamentally, it takes the
courage and vision of our leaders to step out and call
things as they are, and talk with our members. There are
leaders who can give very radical speeches outside of their
unions, but say little to their own members. On 227, I know
there were leaders who were afraid to have a discussion of
bilingual education because they were afraid they might
lose. But we have to be prepared to take that chance. We
won't change anything if we don't do it.
BACON: Do you see more willingness in unions to talk about
immigration now? There was just a big debate at the AFL-CIO
convention in Los Angeles, and union leaders who said on the
record that they were wrong in supporting anti-immigrant
measures like employer sanctions.
FLETCHER: I definitely see more willingness to talk about
immigration than has been true for years. But we need more
than just political statements around employer sanctions.
What's really necessary is a longterm discussion about
immigration itself, and not seeing it in isolation but in
terms of its connection to other issues. Why do people
immigrate to this country to begin with? What's happening
in the countries from which they come, and what do the
policies of our government have to do with enforcing the
poverty which pushes people out?
Then there are even harder issues, like those of competition
between national and racial groups over ethnic niches in the
labor market - the issues of building unity among workers.
That problem - immigrant vs. non-immigrant - is very
explosive. At a recent building trades conference, one of
the participants told me they were making great progress in
dealing with race by talking about the importance of
organizing immigrants. This is a very important question,
especially in southern California, given the large number of
Latino workers. But there's another aspect of this problem
we can't ignore. For 40 years, non-immigrant African
American, Latino and Asian workers have been fighting to get
into the building trades. What are we going to do about
that? For years, in the African American community, we
discouraged people from working non-union, emphasizing the
importance of getting into the union. Well, the doors of
the union are opening, but still not to all. We won't
accomplish this just by organizing immigrants. We have to
look at the rest of the workforce that's been excluded too.
At the same time, I'm very upset by some anti-immigrant
sentiment among African Americans. We have to encourage
alliance-building among our communities.
As a labor movement, how do we fight for better job
opportunities? What kind of economic development strategy
is going to create job opportunities for workers at the low
end? It's not just African Americans against immigrants.
Competition affects non-immigrant Latinos and Asians too.
That's the story of capitalism - it fosters competition
between workers. So we can't afford just to wait for things
to shake out, as we've so often done in the past. We have
to fight for real jobs, for economic development that
benefits those on the bottom. And we have to be unionizing
those people - unions are the greatest anti-poverty program
going. If we want to fight for jobs, we have to fight for
the legitimacy of the public realm. I'm very confident that
ordinary people can get this connection. Look at the way
people get the whole notion of corporate welfare - it's just
a matter of understanding this in class terms.
BACON: What do you think are the main areas where the
Sweeney administration has made a change from Kirkland and
the old regime at the AFL-CIO?
FLETCHER: I think the most important has been changing the
whole atmosphere around organizing, and fighting to give it
greater resources. In the political arena, we've paid more
attention to education on the issues our members care about,
and we've received better press and media attention. Unions
have won some key strikes, although they're not the
victories of the federation itself, but of affiliate unions
- UPS, and the steel workers strike at Ravenswood have
certainly been a good change from before. Our executive
council is more diverse in terms of race and sex, although
there's still a long ways to go. We set up an education
program, Common Sense Economics, and are starting to
rejuvenate local labor councils and state federations. And
certainly a major change has been coalition building, both
domestically and internationally, reaching out to groups we
previously ignored. I think we're putting the cold war into
its crypt. That's a major advance - turning away from the
cold war, and developing new relations with labor centers in
other countries that were treated as pariahs only five or
six years ago.
BACON: What about electoral politics? With the early
endorsement of Al Gore, it seems like there's less change
there than in most other areas of the AFL-CIO's activity.
FLETCHER: The AFL-CIO and most of its affiliates, believed
that the stakes are very high in the 2000 election and that
labor could not afford to wait on the side lines during this
period. It was felt that mobilizing now around the
Presidential and Congressional races is critical in terms of
defining the issues facing working class people.
We still have a movement that has not really decided that
it's in a struggle for political power, and we act often
instead like a movement struggling for political influence.
Our movement has to decide if we really want power, and if
we want it, then I think the implication is that we have to
be more independent.
I think we've accomplished some important things
electorally. We're paying more attention to getting labor
people to run for office, and I think programs like Labor
Neighbor are very effective. But even when we elect people,
we still face the question of whether they will represent a
labor platform. What is that platform? How do we hold
people accountable to it? So we're basically still really
divided over our reliance on the Democratic Party.
BACON: What about the Labor Party or the New Party, or
other independent formations? Do you think that unions are
likely to make a much greater commitment to them?
FLETCHER: I think it's going to take a lot more struggle
and discussion at the base before there's substantially
greater support for the Labor Party or New Party. The
leadership of most unions are very comfortable with the old
way of doing politics, and if there's no demand, why should
we think they'll change? If there's a lack of demand at the
bottom, you get what you get.
Look at what happened in Seattle. There was certainly a
great outpouring of support for the demonstration, and
people are definitely up in arms. But it's not enough to
come back from Seattle fired up, without a program at the
local level. If people want independent political action,
they have to organize at the base. We don't need abstract
slogans. We need to know what independent political action
really looks like, that's not opportunistic. We shouldn't
take cover under Gompers old slogan that labor has no
BACON: So looking at your own situation, do you feel
isolated? What can a single individual like yourself
accomplish in the position you find yourself in?
FLETCHER: When I look around, I see people of various
political stripes around me. I don't feel isolated, but I
don't always think I'm surrounded by kindred spirits.
There are a lot of good people here, and I'm glad to work
But there are very real limits on what I as an individual
can do. Fundamentally, I think political change happens when
people organize at the base. People like me can help, speak
to folks, encourage them, but we can't replace movement at
the bottom. When people start believing their own personal
publicity, they're on the road to hell. That doesn't mean
we can't fight for important changes. It just means that at
the base, we need an organized left movement, which pushes
beyond the boundaries of traditional trade unionism.
Even in terms of the changes that have already taken place,
and the important contributions from the top in the AFL-CIO
- in the absence of an organized left, they're going to be
short-lived and stagnate.
We need a working-class left in this country. That could
alter the way unions operate, it could help labor build
coalitions and embrace other social movements, and encourage
many different forms of resistance to neoliberalism. If I
can help make that happen, I'll do it. That's how I see my
Copyright (c) 2000 David Bacon. All Rights Reserved.
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