Labor Day 1995: Turning potential into workers' power

By Shannon Spence, IBEW Local 3, in Workers World,
6 September, 1995

Labor Day 1995 takes place at a time of significant changes in the United States labor movement.

Each new development is promising. Each one provides an opening, an opportunity. Taken together, these changes amount to even more.

They herald the start of a new era for labor--an era when all the potential inherent in 130 million workers is expressed as power.

Labor power. Workers and oppressed people fighting back.

After a long period when it seemed there would never be a light at the end of the tunnel, something new is finally on the horizon.

What will these changes mean for the UAW members on strike at Caterpillar for over a year and without a contract since 1991? For the Paper Workers members locked out for over two years at A.E. Staley?

For the strikers at Diamond Walnuts and the Detroit newspapers? For those sewing in sweatshops, toiling in growing fields, changing sheets and changing bedpans? What about the hundreds of thousands who've lost good union jobs in manufacturing?

Around the country, these workers and others are watching, hoping, ready for a new day.


Barely a month ago the Steel Workers, Auto Workers and Machinists announced plans to merge into one giant union of almost 2 million members.

Earlier in the summer a new union, UNITE, was born of the merger of the Ladies Garment Workers and Clothing and Textile Workers. Other such mergers are in the works.

At the same time, both slates running for the top AFL-CIO positions have pledged to begin widespread campaigns to organize the unorganized.

The incumbents, President Thomas Donahue and Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Easterling, along with the current Executive Council, are creating an organizing fund that could grow to $20 million dollars. This is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed, but still a substantial increase.

They also pledge to raise the number of graduates from the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute to 800 in the next two years.

The slate of challengers is made up of Service Employees President John Sweeney, Mine Workers President Richard Trumka and AFSCME Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. They also focus on organizing, including a special emphasis on women and people of color, and plan a 1996 "Union Summer."

Both slates are exploring ways of organizing the growing number of "contingent" or "contract" workers, including those who have part- time or temporary jobs.

While only a start, these developments signify a shift, a turn toward mobilizing the workers. Once begun, such a process will have no way to proceed but forward.

The ramifications are very important for the entire working class.


The significance of these developments goes far beyond who wins the AFL-CIO election, although many workers certainly welcome the prospect of new faces at the top. Most important, these developments reflect pressure from the rank and file, organized and unorganized.

The emphasis on women and workers of color is especially important. For the first time in 14 years, union membership in the U.S. rose during the last two years--due to organizing drives in woman- dominated service- sector fields.

Women and Third World workers now make up the majority of the civilian labor force. In fact, seven of the top 10 fastest-growing occupations are low-paid jobs held mostly by women.

At the same time, over 84 percent of workers are not in unions. This includes the undocumented, who are mostly uncounted in all these statistics.

The changed character of the work force requires top labor leaders to pay attention to these sectors. At the same time, the relentless attacks on unionized workers demands a response from the unions.

Together, all this pressure is now bubbling to the surface. The labor movement will continue to be pushed forward.


At this point the number-one goal is to get the organizing under way.

This is no small task. The bosses, bankers and their partners in government will not allow millions of workers to be organized into unions without a fierce struggle.

Under any circumstances, organizing is a declaration of war. The workers are in essence demanding a measure of control over the conditions of exploitation of their labor.

Workers' labor is absolutely essential to any capitalist operation. The capitalists never relinquish control over any aspect of it without a fight.

At this time especially, the ruling class is in no mood for concessions. The bosses have been on a ruthless offensive against the workers for the last 15 years.

The drive to restructure capitalist enterprise has been based in large part on union busting, scab herding, layoffs and plant closings, which are in turn tied in with industrial retooling and modernization.

The most recent assaults have come at the hands of the likes of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and crew, with their campaign to gut all the social-service benefits won by the workers' movement in this century-- from welfare to health care.

The ruling class certainly will not welcome a national labor movement that is moving away from a defensive stance in a period of setbacks and defeats to an offensive based on an aggressive organizing campaign.

But for labor, this turn is the necessary first step.


A radicalization of the workers' movement is now on the agenda.

The process of organizing holds great promise, especially if there is a strong emphasis on combatting racism and building unity. The labor movement will build strong ties with oppressed communities and with the unemployed, welfare recipients, immigrants and the undocumented, women, lesbians and gays, youths, tenants--in other words, with all the sectors that along with organized workers make up the working class.

As the organizing expands, these relationships will be solidified. As victories are won, it will become more and more clear to those on the front lines that the real problem is capitalism itself.

Under capitalism the rich always get richer. The poor inevitably get poorer. And the "middle class" is all but an illusion.

With labor in motion, workers will see how the insatiable drive for profits is behind the restructuring that pushes wages down, kills jobs and fosters deadly competition among the workers at every level.

In such a situation, socialist ideas can emerge and flourish. A socialist movement, rooted in the labor movement, can grow.

The idea of building a society where technological innovation is used to improve people's lives and not just to amass profit for a few can take hold.


This same sort of process took place in the 1930s. The workers' movement was on the march. These great struggles were epitomized by the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Mich.

Fed up with horrendous working conditions and constant speed-up, General Motors workers took over and occupied the plant for 44 days. Thousands of women and men from Flint and around the country maintained 24-hour picket lines to protect the sit-downers from the armed militia and police.

The workers won their union.

In that period, the most dedicated and ferocious fighters were communists. They worked tirelessly. They made a central contribution to organizing the unorganized.

They were key to founding the CIO, which broke away from the "craft" boundaries of the AFL to organize workers on an industry-wide basis, fostering unity instead of division.

The radicalization of the workers was of great concern to the ruling class, and led to President Franklin Roosevelt's slate of social programs. In "America's 60 Families" Ferdinand Lundberg writes, "The New Deal was neither revolutionary nor radical ... [it] was a concession in the face of widespread unrest."

The owners essentially calculated that giving up a small piece of their wealth in the form of such benefits as Social Security, unemployment insurance, minimum-wage laws and so on was a necessary tactical retreat in the face of a strong mass movement of the working class.

Such a radicalization of the workers will happen again. The days of business unionism are ending. A new phase of the class struggle is beginning.


For the last 20 years the boss class has dictated the framework of the class struggle. It has put the workers and oppressed on the defensive here and around the globe, confronting them with one attack after another.

Now it is the workers' turn. Labor is going on the offensive.

It will no doubt be an organic process. There will be victories and there will be setbacks. But the working class will learn from its mistakes, and move forward once again.

With each new lesson more of the true nature of the capitalist system will be revealed. It will become clearer that the divisions that govern the world are not lines drawn on a map. They're not the lines of race, sex, sexual orientation or any of the other ways the capitalists lie and try to divide people.

Under capitalism, there are basically only two groups: the ruling class on one side and the workers and oppressed on the other. In the end it will all come down to one question.

Which side are you on?

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