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From: "Blascoe, Ronald" <BLASCRO@dwd.state.wi.us>
To: "'frank emspak'" <femspak@igc.org>
Sent: Tuesday, January 18, 2000 5:10 PM
Subject: RE: Electing eggs or organizing chickens?

Electing chickens or organizing eggs: Where to start rebuilding the labor movement? (draft)

By Ron Blascoe, Steward AFT Local 4848
18 January 2000

Organized labor is at an exciting turning point. We hear it all the time.

Our leadership has frankly recognized that the old course has failed. There is a commitment at the highest level of the AFL-CIO to a bold new direction. Alternative models are being developed, debated and implemented. A whole new strategy to...elect more Democrats?

If we are to begin anew, it's proper to ask, "Where to begin?" We need to change the laws so that we can organize strong unions. But we need to organize strong unions so that we can elect good representatives to change the laws. Which comes first, the chicken or with the egg?

Having posed the problems thus, the innovative thinkers in our ranks almost always choose to start with that side of the conundrum that has to do with electoral politics. And, while we devote generous amounts of lip service to organizing the unorganized, we focus our organizational strength and resources to elect "friends of labor" (read Democrats) who we hope will then change the laws and make it possible to organize stronger unions. Once that sequence of events is completed, the assumption goes, we can then turn to the task of rebuilding the labor movement and engage in direct combat with capital to improve the lot of our members and our class.

That this is the common point of departure among new thinkers is manifest in many ways. Analyses often hark back to two historical periods where labor is said to have made significant gains. The Progressive Era is claimed to have been a popular reaction to the excesses of big capital, which resulted in antitrust legislation and civic reform. These changes, in turn, somehow created a space for the growth of labor unions. The New Deal, in its time, is said to have passed sweeping legislation that made it possible for unions to organize. These changes, in turn, created the great leap forward for the working class that was the CIO. One thing these two historical examples of union success have in common is that they began with the election of labor-friendly officials. As I will note below, they also have in common the fact that they are historically wrong.

This electoral strategy of organized labor is also manifest in our obsessive pursuit of "labor law reform." There is no consensus on just what reforms we need and it gets a little vague when we get down to talking about specifics. The Democrats used to promise repeal of the Taft-Hartley law, but we don't hear much about that anymore. It is often suggested that we need federal legislation that would prevent employers from using scabs in a strike, although the likelihood of that happening does not seem to be a topic of discussion. "Living-wage ordinances" are currenly popular. These are a step removed from labor law reform, where we rely directly on elected officials to raise wages, without unions. There is also an apparent consensus that things were not all that bad until Ronald Reagan became president and that it was under the Reagan-Bush presidency that federal laws deteriorated. But, again, the details of just what the Republicans did to the laws, and what needs to be corrected, gets a little vague.

And, finally, this elect-friends-of-labor-first-and-fight-the-employer-later strategy is most evident in how we have mobilized in the past few years. Unlike the South Central Federation of Labor, many local labor councils across the country exist in hibernation for most of the year, coming conscious only for a month or two before election times. Then we see a flood of money and staff time and, for a brief season, volunteers are rounded up, coalitions are formed, phones are banked, ads run, literature gets dropped and voters get got out. Then after the elections, like frogs in a dry Serengeti water hole, the local labor movement goes back into hibernation for the next ten months. The fact that many local labor councils can not even be revived for elections is behind current drive to reorganize and revitalize them.

Reality check

The notion that law changes caused the great advances for the labor movement is just flat wrong historically. It is not necessarily our fault that we do not know our own history. It has been noted elsewhere that the history of the working class has been stolen from us and it is only with some effort that we can recapture it. In the case at hand, it is particularly important because systematic mis-telling of history leads us precisely down the wrong path as we struggle with the question of how to rebuild the labor movement.

It is true that Franklin Roosevelt proposed, and the Democratic Party-controlled Congress passed, Section 7(a) of the National Labor Relations Act that gave unions legal standing to organize. But, that legislation was passed in 1935, and the organizing drive that became the CIO was well underway by then. In fact, 1933-34 is generally regarded as the turning point for organized labor during the Great Depression. Three successful general strikes, in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco, and plant occupations in places such as Austin, Minnesota, electrified the labor movement and caused the organizing fever that spread across the country.

Roosevelt's labor law reform can best be understood as a means to head off and corral the burgeoning movement. Section 7(a) only recognized labor's right to organize if the workers adhere to the laws of the land and the rules set down by the NLRB. And, certainly, no law ever sanctioned such things as plant occupations, militant mass picketing to turn back scabs, defiance of court injunctions against picketing-the very tactics that were at the core of the successful organizing drives of the '30's. The workers who participated in those great sit-down strikes that came to symbolize the CIO were not protected by Roosevelt's labor law.

Examining the time order of events shows that unions first organized and won stunning victories through militant and illegal action and "labor law reform" only followed after it became apparent that the movement was growing out of control. Then the reforms, with all their institutions, legal procedures, cooling-off periods and binding arbitration, shifted the battles from the plant gates to the courts, Congress and, ultimately, to the polls.

A review of our history also shows that the politicians who came to be associated in the popular memory as "friends of labor" were not so perceived by the contemporary working class. Roosevelt's running battle with John L. Lewis and the United Mineworkers of America is perhaps best known. Throughout the New Deal Era, class conscious workers were ready to vote for the socialist left or, in Lewis' case, for Republicans as a "lesser evil" to Roosevelt.

Yet, the purpose of the periodic labor mobilization we see today is precisely to elect people like "that Great Friend of Labor" Bill Clinton. That is how AFL-CIO President John Sweeney assessed Clinton before the 1996 election and only shortly after he ram-rodded passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, over the AFL-CIO's objection. This of an administration that proposed no discernible labor law reforms, took a dive on universal medical care, pushed through GATT and WTO, eliminated welfare...you get the idea. Labor's big wad is shot every four years to elect more of the same.

Fuzzy thinking about just what we want in the way of legal changes also plays into the hands of those who would have us pursue the electoral strategy. For example, if we want repeal of Taft-Hartley-a fairly specific demand that could be introduced in Congress and on which voting records could be recorded-why not ask for it specifically and hold politicians accountable for how they respond?

Of course, if we made specific demands on the "friends of labor," it would upset that delicate apple cart that is the Labor-Democratic Party Alliance. If we demanded, for example, that Al Gore push to repeal Taft-Hartley and end the open-shop laws in the South, we would either be forced to endorse a candidate who flatly refused to support our position or we would not have a candidate. So, it is better to keep it all in general terms and without specific demands and somehow suggest vaguely that it was all the Republicans' fault.

What is to be done?

The electoral strategy-use union resources to elect "friends of labor" who will change the laws so that we can, in turn, organize unions-starts precisely at the wrong end of the chicken and the egg dilemma. It locks the labor movement in a pursuit that squanders our scarce resources and demoralizes our precious troops, and it keeps our attention focused away from those very strategies that have worked in the past and can work for us again.

We cannot organize the unorganized or win strikes if we play by the rules that have been set down for us. That is a simple recognition shared by sisters and brothers on all sides of the discussion. So, if we are to start winning, we need to either change the rules, which calls forth the electoral strategy, or to start making up our own rules, which is how unions historically delivered the goods.

Consider 1934 again. When the Autolite workers struck in Toledo, a local judge immediately issued an injunction limiting the union to a handful of pickets at each gate. It is a familiar story. If the union leadership had obeyed that injunction, the plant would have filled up with scabs and they would have lost the strike. But, instead of obeying the injunction, union leaders sent a public letter to the judge, calling him a strikebreaker and in the service of the company. Then they showed up with 10,000 people on the picket line. The strike at Toledo Autolite was a catalyst in the formation of the United Auto Workers union and the CIO itself.

When the mayor of Minneapolis organized special deputies to escort scab trucks into the city, the Teamsters local confronted them in the streets. Overwhelmed by strikers, the deputies broke ranks and ran away.

The union maintained control of the city until their demands were met. The strike at Minneapolis was the beginning of a campaign that built the Teamsters into a national organization and inspired CIO organizers across the country.

A few more historical notes. There never was a legal sit-down strike in the entire history of the CIO. No one need go to jail when 10,000 workers engage in concerted action. The Teamsters international refused to authorize that strike in Minneapolis, but the local went ahead and struck, and won, anyway. And Leftists-Communists, Trotskyists, Socialists, Wobblies and others-formed the core and leadership of those unions.

Those unions in the '30s went on to win and to inspire the generation of workers that built the AFL-CIO. And the labor movement went on to raise the standard of living for our members and our class. Some politicians were swept along and changed some laws in the wake of that great movement, but we should not be confused about which came first.

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