May 2011, Week 4


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Thu, 26 May 2011 23:52:56 -0400
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Change in Union Strategy? Returning Labor to Its Social 
Movement Roots or Labor's Hail Mary Pass (2 posts)

1. Is Richard Trumka Returning Labor to Its Social Movement
   Roots? (Roger Bybee - Working In These Times)
2. Labor's Hail Mary pass (Harold Meyerson in the Washington 

Is Richard Trumka Returning Labor to Its Social Movement

by Roger Bybee

Working In These Times

May 24, 2011


Let's hope so

Representing just under 12 percent of America's workforce,
unions must inspire others to fight for moral principles -
instead of just 5 cents more an hour - or face irrelevance.
Labor can rebuild its critical mass only by motivating
people with a compelling moral analysis of what's going
wrong for the vast majority of Americans, and outlining a
vision of a different and better America.

Last Friday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered a
thunderous speech to the National Press Club that captured
wide attention for its forceful assertion of labor's
political independence, widely seen as a warning to
President Obama and Democratic members of Congress, and
especially aimed at Democratic governors.

But it was also, in my view, an extraordinary step forward
in the AFL-CIO's transformation under Trumka's leadership
toward a social movement with a strong appeal to America's
insecure middle class and struggling poor people.

Trumka insisted that the budget deficit fixating politicians
of both parties should not be the focus of American
politics. Not only is repairing the budget deficit within
our reach if we restore a measure of tax fairness and begin
demanding that the richest 1 percent and corporations
contribute their fair share, but it is not our nation's most
urgent and glaring deficit:

    America's real deficit is a moral deficit - where
    political choices come down to forcing foster children
    to wear hand-me-downs while cutting taxes for profitable

    Powerful political forces are seeking to silence working
    people - to drive us out of the national conversation. I
    can think of no greater proof of the moral decay in our
    public life than that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
    would dare give a Martin Luther King Day speech hailing
    Dr. King at the same time that he drafted a bill to take
    away collective bargaining rights from sanitation
    workers in Wisconsin.


The same contempt for the basic democratic rights for
workers on display in Wisconsin is being extended to the
most fundamental human rights of marginalized and
politically powerless groups in budget proposals being
unfurled across the nation.

Together, these proposals outline not just a transfer of
resources away from those most desperately in need, but
reveal the kind of social cruelty in Charles Dickens' novels
about 19th century life.

These proposals reflect not only a sadistic willingness to
intensify the suffering of those already struggling, but
also an abandonment of investment in our future. This
parallels precisely the way that Corporate America has been
dis-investing in America's future success, offshoring U.S.
jobs in and hollowing out our productive base. As Trumka

    And not just meanness. Destructiveness. A willful desire
    to block the road to the future. How else can you
    explain governors of states with mass unemployment
    refusing to allow high-speed rail lines to be built in
    their states?

    How else can you explain these same governors' plans to
    defund higher education, close schools and fire
    teachers, when we know that without an educated America,
    we have no future?

The political-independence dimension of Trumka's message has
been  examined by David Moberg and Mike Elk here at Working
In These Times, and my old friend John Nichols at The
Nation. Moberg praises the speech but wonders how it will
concretely be put into practice, while Elk reminds us that
even conservative AFL-CIO presidents like George Meany
issued occasional statements about labor's political

Meanwhile, John Nichols outlines some of the ways that labor
can continue on the independent path it started to carve out
in Wisconsin by devoting money and resources to local
battles rather than merely doling out campaign contributions
and lining up volunteers to work for any candidate bearing
the Democratic label.


But Trumka's speech was much more than a declaration of a
new strategic direction. Most fundamentally, it was a
reinvigoration of labor's appeal to the public in profoundly
moral terms.

The labor movement desperately needs this kind of morally-
grounded fervor to re-fashion itself as a social movement
that speaks not just for its own members but also for the
poor and the middle class, and fights on the basis of social
and economic justice for all.

While president of the United Mineworkers, Trumka applied
this fiery, inspirational approach during the Pittston
strike of 1989-90. But until recently, he has not been able
to stir the AFL-CIO. But more and more unions, as evidenced
by the Fire Fighters union's withdrawal of contributions to
Democrats, are now recognizing that they can no longer win
by placing all their eggs in the Dems' basket.

As Trumka was clearly reminded during his visit to Wisconsin
at the height of the struggle over bargaining rights, the
future of labor depends on spreading a vision of fighting
for the vast majority and struggling for a new, more equal
and more democratic America.

[Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and
progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in
numerous national publications and websites, including Z
magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive,
Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign
Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly
newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis.,
where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor


Labor's Hail Mary pass

by Harold Meyerson

Washington Post

May 24, 2011


This is a maddening time for anyone concerned about the
lives of working-class Americans. The frustration and anger
that suffused AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka's declaration
last week that labor would distance itself from the
Democratic Party was both clear and widely noted. Not so
widely noted has been a shift in the organizing strategy of
two of labor's leading institutions - Trumka's AFL-CIO and
the Service Employees International Union - that reflects a
belief that the American labor movement may be on the verge
of extinction and must radically change its game.

It took a multitude of Democratic sins and failures to push
Trumka to denounce, if not exactly renounce, the political
party that has been labor's home at least since the New
Deal. In a speech at the National Press Club last Friday,
Trumka said that Republicans were wielding a "wrecking ball"
against the rights and interests of working Americans. But
Democrats, he added, were "simply standing aside" as the
Republicans moved in for the kill.

The primary source of labor's frustration has been the
consistent inability of the Democrats to strengthen the
legislation that once allowed workers to join unions without
fear of employer reprisals. American business has poked so
many holes in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act that it
now affords workers no protections at all. Beginning with
Lyndon Johnson's presidency, every time the Democrats have
held the White House and strong majorities in both houses of
Congress, bills that strengthened workers' rights to
unionize have commanded substantial Democratic support - but
never quite enough to win a Senate supermajority. And during
that time, the unionized share of the private-sector
workforce has dwindled from roughly 30 percent to less than
7 percent.

Many union activists viewed the 2009-10 battle for the most
recent iteration of labor law reform - the Employee Free
Choice Act (EFCA) - as labor's last stand. EFCA could never
attain the magic 60-vote threshold required to cut off a
filibuster, despite the presence, at one point, of 60
Democratic senators. Given the rate at which private-sector
unionization continues to fall (which in turn imperils
support for public-sector unions), many of labor's most
thoughtful leaders now consider the Democrats' inability to
enact EFCA a death sentence for the American labor movement.

"It's over," one of labor's leading strategists told me this
month. Indeed, since last November's elections, half a dozen
high-ranking labor leaders from a range of unions have told
me they believe that private-sector unions may all but
disappear within the next 10 years.

While some unions still wage more conventional organizing
campaigns, the campaign that best captures the desperation
of American labor today is that of the SEIU. Perhaps the
best-funded and most strategically savvy of American unions,
SEIU has embarked on a door-to-door canvass in the minority
neighborhoods of 17 major American cities. The goal isn't to
enroll the people behind those doors in a conventional union
but, rather, into a mass organization of the unemployed and
the underpaid that can turn out votes in 2012 and act as an
ongoing pressure group for job creation and worker rights
during (presumably) Barack Obama's second term.

"We realized we could organize one million more people into
the union and it wouldn't in itself really change anything,"
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told me earlier this year. "We
needed to do something else - something more."

The SEIU's program - like its semi-counterpart in the AFL-
CIO's Working America program, a door-to-door canvass in
white working-class neighborhoods - will surely help
Democratic candidates, despite the frustrations that nearly
all labor leaders feel toward the party. But, like Working
America, it signals a strategic shift by American labor,
whose ranks have been so reduced that it now must recruit
people to a non-union, essentially non-dues-paying
organization to amass the political clout that its own
diminished ranks can no longer deliver. Since labor law now
effectively precludes workplace representation, unions are
turning to representing workers anywhere and in any capacity
they can. It's time, they've concluded, for the Hail Mary

The unions' support for the Democrats' party committees has
already diminished considerably, though, as Trumka made
clear last week, they will continue to support individual
pro-union Democrats. But the greater change in union
strategy is the one that's been forced upon them. They are
going outside the workplace. They have no place else to

[Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that
appears on Wednesdays and contributes to the PostPartisan

Meyerson is executive editor of The American Prospect, as
well as a member of the editorial board of Dissent. From
1989 through 2001, he was executive editor of the L.A.
Weekly. From 1991 through 1995, he hosted the weekly show
"Real Politics" on radio station KCRW, the Los Angeles
area's leading NPR affiliate. Meyerson is a frequent guest
on television and radio talk shows. In 2003, he became a
regular columnist for The Post. He is the author of "Who Put
The Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz?" (1995), a biography of
Broadway lyricist Yip Harburg.]



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