Can Labor meet the challenge?

by Jim Smith



The labor movement today is facing perhaps the strongest attacks in its history. Capitalists, particularly from the U.S., are consolidating their economic grip on most of the world. Capitalism's operating plan, neoliberalism, is determined to remove all restrictions from international investments and profits, including those that protect workers, the environment or individual nations control over their economy.

U.S. and transnational corporations are plundering not only the third world but the entire world, including the United States. Workers and their national, state and local governments are thrown into competition with each other to provide the most favorable conditions to big business in hopes of attracting or hanging on to jobs.

Entire countries are being forced, nearly at gunpoint, to give up their sovereignty and allow financial speculators and corporations free access to their national wealth. The past year has seen the financial surrender of South Korea and countries of Southeast Asia to the U.S.-backed International Monetary Fund and World Bank. As a result, millions of workers have lost their jobs and living standards have plummeted. Now, the U.S. Congress is demanding that Sub-Saharan African countries immediately capitulate to transnationals by removing any and all restrictions to foreign capital.

Neoliberalism will add these millions of newly jobless to the more than one billion people of working-age throughout the world who are unemployed and underemployed. Many of them will undoubtably join the 1.5 billion people, including children who live in extreme poverty. Clearly, the capitalist world order is not fit to continue to rule the world. It remains for the overwhelming majority of working people and their organizations to create a worldwide social system based on peoples' needs and wellbeing.

As capital's cancerous growth throughout the world gains momentum, the big losers are working people in every country. In the U.S., labor's share of the national income fell $20 billion during the past two years, according to the Department of Commerce. The top 1 percent of the population now control 48 percent of the nation's wealth, an increase from 19 percent in 1976. Not content with owning half, the corporate rich want to destroy even the safety nets of the poor and working people. The destruction of welfare, creation of millions of temporary workers and "independent" contractors, denial of medical coverage, efforts to privatize public education and social security are destroying the hard-won standard of living of U.S. workers. Women and workers of color are being even harder hit by the destruction of affirmative action in hiring, promotion and education. Social control of the jobless has become big business with the largest prison system and population in the world and huge expansions in the numbers of police, immigration and private security forces.



At the same time, leaders and members are trying to revive and expand the labor movement. The AFL-CIO 'New Voices' lead by John Sweeney, Rich Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson have finally freed labor from the inertia of the Cold War control of Lane Kirkland, its former president and George Meany's protege.

Organized labor has displayed its independence and potential power by leading the defeat of "Fast Track" free-trade legislation which would have been devastating for working people in all of the affected countries. The AFL-CIO won significant victories in the 1996 Congressional elections by independently targeting particular races. Most, but not all, of the cold warriors in the AFL-CIO international department have been discharged. There has been more discussion about the need to organize the unorganized than there has been in the last 50 years.

Today, labor represents only 10 percent of private-sector workers. If the labor movement is to revive, it must launch a massive organizing program equal to that in the 1930s which organized the mass production industries. While some local unions and internationals are making organizing a priority, most are lagging behind. Just as individual job security is at risk, no matter where one works, so too is the survival of individual unions, no matter who they represent. There are a million reasons not to organize - "the law's against us, it costs too much, it will bring in new leaders who will threaten the positions of the current office holders" - but there is really no alternative. Labor must go on the offensive or even the strongest bastions of unionism will crumble in time.

In addition, organizing committees are the liveliest and most democratic bodies in labor. The enthusiasm of new workers winning the workplace equivalent of a revolution can inspire and rejuvenate the entire union. Everyone who cares about their union should welcome and encourage new workers and leaders to participate in it.



The changes in the outlook of the AFL-CIO were initiated by top leaders who were convinced that labor could not survive many more years of the Kirkland regime. Thousands of rank-and-file activists supported the successful struggle to depose the old guard. However, the 'New Voices' leadership is still essentially a leadership body without a direct link to the rank-and-file. As a result, some of the new leaders have put their faith in consultants, focus groups and pollsters instead of mobilizing the membership. This attitude has resulted in the Teamsters' debacle in which reform president, Ron Carey, was barred from reelection because of fund-raising violations. This scandal has given aid and comfort to the right wing, the Hoffa forces and the old guard within the AFL-CIO who still long for the Kirkland-Shanker "good old days."

The right wing is also threatening to eliminate labor - and working peoples - participation in the political process with initiatives and legislation that would make it nearly impossible to use dues and political contributions from members for political purposes. The far right and leading Republican office holders are proposing laws that would require union members to "sign-off" each year with their employer to allow specific political contributions to be withheld from their checks. Federal legislation is pending and all 50 states will be targeted for this anti-worker legislation by 1999. In California, a ballot initiative would allow employers to withhold all union dues if they had "reasonable suspicion" that any unauthorized dues were being used for political purposes.



Laws like these can severely weaken the labor movement but they cannot break it. Labor can only be broken if it loses the hearts and minds of its members. Unfortunately, recent polls have shown a majority of California union members actually favoring anti-worker "payroll protection" initiative. This reflects a distrust and lack of confidence in union leadership. No matter what the outcome of this type of legislation, unions must pay more attention to the needs and interest of their rank-and-file. It is not enough for union leaders to work on "behalf" of the membership, leaders and members must work as one to promote their mutual interests. This can only be done by much more through-going democratic processes than many unions now enjoy.

Some of the distrust by union members is because of the close relationship between labor leaders and Democratic Party officials who are not respected by workers. Unions can help restore confidence in their political practices by displaying more independence, creating more involvement in the endorsement process, encouraging more union members to run for office and supporting independent political movements such as the Labor Party.

All the problems in labor's closet should be put on the table. Should unions have the same president for 20 - 30 years? Should there be direct election of all union leaders, including international presidents and leaders of the AFL-CIO? Should members have the absolute right to elect union stewards and bargaining committee members and vote on their contract settlement? Should the secret ballot be used in all elections? Should all delegates to the highest labor body, the AFL-CIO convention, have to stand for election instead of attending by virtue of holding another labor position?

Union democracy is not a side issue or a diversion as some leaders would have it. Union democracy is fundamental to any revival of labor's strength and its ability to win concessions from capital.



The creation of large urban areas during the last 50 years where union members do not live in the same community or have the same interests or outlooks makes union solidarity and involvement more difficult. In the face of a mass commercialized culture, labor must seek ways in which to use technological developments and the media to its own advantage to rebuild a working class culture.

Some initial steps have been taken toward creating cable TV stations or programs for labor. More and more labor radio shows are on the air, particularly on non-commercial stations. The world wide web now offers the ability to have an almost free world-wide "broadcasting" station, and more and more unions are taking advantage of it. As access to the internet becomes as common as owning a TV set, this medium will become increasingly important. "Distance learning" even now makes it possible to put a labor school inside a worker's home.

Meanwhile, print media is still the primary method by which unions reach their members. At least 20 million members and their families are reached by the labor press. Unfortunately, most newspapers and magazines or devoid of any class outlook or educational material beyond the immediate needs of the day. If unions are restricted from influencing elections by the use of campaign funds then they must do it by having a union-educated, class conscious membership that won't be swayed by a big-money media blitz.



While the U.S. labor movement has been battling to take the offensive, workers in other countries have been surging forward with massive general strikes and political initiatives. Class conscious workers throughout the world have shaken off the demoralization felt with the end of the socialist bloc. In the past couple of years, major international conferences have been held in a number of countries aimed at developing unity in the fight against neoliberalism and global capitalism. A "minimum program" was agreed to by unions from 62 countries last year in Havana, Cuba. The program defends workers rights to organize, their rights to employment and income, education, medical care and other benefits which many of us took for granted just a few years ago.

A revived, class-conscious labor movement in the U.S. can defeat the neoliberal attacks on working people, if it is part of the growing world movement against unbridled capitalism.



1. Let's remodel our unions to be strong, democratic, effective and coordinated tools of workers' interests.

2. Let's make "organizing the unorganized" the top priority from top to bottom in our unions.

3. Let's fight any and all attempts to downsize, privatize, erode or eliminate our rights. Let's adopt a "scorched earth" policy, that is, make every victory by capital, whether it comes at the workplace level or in the political area, as difficult and costly for them as possible. An injury to one must truly become an injury to all.

4. Let's build a labor-run political movement - in spite of any legal restrictions - that thinks and acts independently.

5. Let's reach out and join with the growing international labor movement, regardless of old political differences or governmental policies. The cold war must be laid to rest.

6. Let's oppose all efforts to enslave workers by freeing trade and investments from reasonable restrictions. Let's resolutely oppose any revival of "Fast Track legislation," expansion of U.S. free trade pacts and the Multilateral Agreement of Investments (MAI).