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Date: Sun, 5 Oct 97 15:15:51 CDT
From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher@igc.apc.org>
Subject: AFL-CIO Convention: Nation Commentary
Organization: ?
Article: 19362

Union Time

By JoAnn Wypijewski, commentary in the Nation
3 October 1997

Any week that begins with an invocation to resist "the tyranny of capitalism" and ends with a call to join "the class struggle" can't be all bad. Such were the sentiments bracketing the A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention in Pittsburgh during a week of news otherwise flecked with revelations and rumors about the increasingly messy Teamsters investigation. They were not union men who uttered those phrases--the first from Father Charlie Rice, Pittsburgh's legendary "labor priest," the second from Jesse Jackson--but they spoke the simplest, most fundamental truths to an institution still struggling with its identity and its future.

There were no partisan T-shirts in Pittsburgh as there had been in New York two years ago: John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson were re-elected by acclamation, their terms extended to four years. There were no debates to speak of, and on the one issue that might have drawn some fire--a 5 cent raise in affiliates' per capita assessment--there was no organized opposition. The slogan this year was "You Have a Voice, Make It Heard," and the opening scene of eighty rank-and-filers reporting on unionization victories involving tens of thousands animated the mantra "Organize, Mobilize, Energize" in a way that the most ardent of Sweeney's promoters could not have done two years ago.

But under the surface of good feeling and renewal--beyond the party spirit and new faces, the focus on cities and "street heat," the calls for public campaign financing and political independence, for diversity and a $1 billion organizing fund by 2000--the divisions that created the opening for this new era in the first place are as real as ever. And they're not nearly so neat as the split of forces that brought Sweeney to power.

"Ninety percent of organized labor is out of it," said one high-level partisan of the new program. "They don't know how to organize. They don't want to organize." Numbers tell part of the story. Since 1995 union membership has increased less than half a percent. Last year 2,792 union elections were held, a little over one-third the number in 1980. Of the A.F.L.'s 600 central labor councils, 105 have pledged as Union Cities to support local organizing and mobilize members on broad community class issues, but only about ten of those are really making anything happen.

Richard Bensinger, the A.F.L.'s organizing director, counters that "you can't just look at numbers; you have to look at the process of rebuilding organizing programs in thousands of locals with a law that's virtually useless and employers determined to fight." On the convention floor some of labor's most vigorous fighters argued that responsibility lies with locals and internationals; that building from the bottom, involving the base, reconnecting the lines between workers and the poor, appealing to the big issues--democracy, equality, respect--are all vital to labor's revival.

Who were they talking to? Inside the dark, almost disco-like hall there came and went the prickly relics of the "other" labor federation, the pie-cards and porkchoppers who cut the deals, sell out the members, welcome Union Summer for the P.R. it might bring their dues-collection machines, hate the left and long for nothing so much as a seat at the banquet table with a Democratic (or Republican) pol. They're the Hoffa Teamsters who sympathized with U.P.S. during the strike, and the many more in many unions who just can't be bothered. They're those who still fan the embers of a hundred-year-old debate about which sector of labor has the most legitimacy to lead. "Don't they realize," a delegate from the American Federation of Teachers murmured at one point, "if they really push this organizing, the labor movement is going to wind up being a movement of strawberry pickers and chicken pluckers?" Not for them the "socialism of the heart" that Billy Bragg sang of at a public concert sponsored by labor.

But they're also those more attracted to partnerships with business than to conflict, to the spins of media consultants than to the real power in the union. Two years ago labor militants passionate about Sweeney's victory distinguished institutional change from movement building. You can't have the latter without the former, they argued, but securing the institution is only one piece toward solving a very difficult puzzle. Today, it's clear just how difficult, especially in the absence of any broader left. In a sense, the problems besetting Ron Carey--a true working-class hero pushed to the lead by a ground-floor movement, faced with backlash by well-heeled Jurassic forces and now embroiled in scandal by a collection of consultants, liberal organizations and Democratic Party hacks who for too long have represented "progressive" politics in America--are indicative of that larger challenge.

People on labor's fighting side like to remind themselves that "the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice." Pittsburgh was a fine place to ponder that turn on Martin Luther King's observation--this city where the A.F.L.'s predecessor was founded as well as the C.I.O.; where blood ran in the national rail strike of 1877 and the Homestead strike of 1892; where the mixed curse of postindustrialism (underemployment and clean air) is on vivid display. Gesturing to this past, Jackson recalled the great combines of wealth and power in the Gilded Age and the struggles they aroused. "Now, as then," he said, "we see corporate capital unrestrained...and again we see political parties locked at the hip, two parties with one assumption, one party with two names--both captured by their wealthy campaign donors, both engaged in a search for what they call the 'vital center' while our people search for the 'moral center.'" President Clinton, he said, wants a conversation on race, but it's time to talk about class, about the great gap, "indeed the Grand Canyon of American life,...the vertical gap between wealth and workers, between rich and poor, the canyon between haves and have-nots." Yes, it's time, the fighting spirits agreed, a new kind of union time.

JoAnn Wypijewski

Copyright (c) 1997, The Nation Company

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