CWA's Cohen: Can Labor and Allies Create an `American Spring?'
By David Moberg
December 11, 2012
Working In These Times
In These Times
Just before Christmas in 1986, Larry Cohen, having just
been named organizing director of the Communications
Workers of America (CWA) after stunning successes in
New Jersey during 10 years as a worker-organizer,
confronted a crisis that came to be known as "the
Workers at a MCI call center in Southfield, Mich., had
petitioned for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
election to certify CWA as their union. But rather than
let them decide whether they wanted a union, as the law
promises, or even fight for a "no" vote, as most
employers do, MCI instead simply shut down the center
and fired 500 workers, bringing each in separately to
retrieve personal property.
"I realized the success we had in New Jersey was not
really possible on a large scale if we didn't build a
broad movement," Cohen said. "The system was already
broken. It wasn't going to be fixed by one union. It
wasn't going to be fixed by the labor movement...It was
too late, and the fight needed to be about working
Americans, not about unions."
In response to the crises at MCI and other
corporations, such as Eastern Airlines, Cohen and other
labor and progressive leaders founded Jobs With Justice
the next year as a network of labor-community
coalitions - now numbering 46 in 24 states - that, most
significantly, asked every member to pledge to "be
there" in support of someone else's fight five times
over the next year. Jobs with Justice has evolved
since, most recently merging with American Rights At
Work, a primarily online group doing research and
advocacy for labor organizing rights. Today, its local
chapters vary in effectiveness but represent important
links to local communities in the broader movement for
democracy and economic justice. On Nov. 29, the
organization celebrated its 25th anniversary with a
tribute to Cohen, its funders and two exemplary
organizing campaigns - Justice for Janitors and Justice
Today, Cohen is president of the CWA and still building
coalitions. On Dec. 10 he met in Washington, D.C. with
leaders of the NAACP, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and
some 70 other progressive groups to convene a
"democracy initiative." The still-unnamed group will
flex its collective muscle around issues such as
campaign finance, voting rights and filibuster reform.
Cohen talked to Working In These Times about lessons
from the past quarter century and what he thinks labor
and allies must do now.
MOBERG: What did you hope Jobs With Justice would be
able to do when you started 25 years ago?
COHEN: We had three goals then: organizing and
bargaining rights, workers' standard of living, and
secure jobs. With hindsight that looks to be a pretty
good list, but sadly that list looms larger today than
ever, and we find ourselves, in our union at least,
arguing that we not only need to build a movement for
those issues but for democracy.
We have lower real wages today than we did then, not
just union wages - union may be a little better - but
for Americans in general. On the issue of job security,
we have the least secure jobs in the history of this
country - in terms of restructuring, offshoring and
outsourcing. And we have the worst organizing and
bargaining rights of any democracy. we're virtually on
the same level with Mexico and Colombia.
The good news Jobs With Justice can celebrate is lots
of good coalition work, lots of progressive voices like
your own over that 25-year period, but sadly by any
benchmark, while countries like South Africa and Brazil
rose up in that time, we are still going backwards.
MOBERG: What do you think were some of the high points
of the work Jobs With Justice did?
COHEN: The overall high point is that some of the local
leaders are selfless people who have done amazing work
in their communities, from Oregon to Boston, North and
South. The organizing lessons from that work are
stellar, and the results made a huge difference in
sparking our own bargaining and organizing campaigns,
most recently Verizon. But it was not just for our
union or just unions, but everything from the
partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance
to great work with Young Dreamers [fighting for
immigrant rights] to work on health care reform and
leading work on the Employee Free Choice Act and
bargaining and organizing rights for 25 years, and
building some great coalitions.
MOBERG: You launched the organization as a labor-
community coalition to support unionized workers at
COHEN: That was one of the triggers. The other trigger
- for me - was that MCI shut down the Southfield,
Michigan call center in the face of an NLRB election.
In the beginning the steering committee was mostly non-
labor. There were strong labor components, but anybody
could get active in this. It wasn't like an X-rated
movie when you were a kid and couldn't get in. Much of
the labor movement is like that. But anybody who was
committed and active could get involved, form a local
coalition, and be a leader.
MOBERG: How would you assess the organization's
success, lessons learned, things you would do
COHEN: The key [lesson from that for] today is
partnering, which is what we're trying to do, to build
a movement for democracy - that's the difference here
[from 25 years ago] - and economic justice with 50
million Americans. No one organization is going to lead
that [movement], and in fact we need millions of people
to organize in all kinds of ways to make that happen.
What we've learned is a plan was already underway by
the right-wing to, in my view, destroy democracy.
Collective bargaining rights were on the front end of
that attack. We would now say that the democracy
pieces are forerunners. We can't just hope that they'll
occur. they're fundamental, about as fundamental as
they've ever been in the history of this country -
getting the money out of politics; money is not speech;
corporations are not people. A lot of [the problems
with corporate political power] started with union-
busting in the `40s. Courts looked the other way and
said it was free speech rights, and now it has come to
haunt the entire political system.
We have the worst Senate rules ever today. We hope a
small step will be taken soon in that regard [to change
filibuster rules]. Reform [on major issues] has been
blocked for 10 years in any meaningful way because of
how the Senate operates.We have visions of what people
did in the 1960s with civil rights, not realizing that
our government doesn't operate the same way anymore
because of this pervasive influence of the super-rich
MOBERG: It seems that Jobs With Justice did not take
off as expected. What were the obstacles?
COHEN: Whatever obstacles there were, I don't think
they're there now. I think it's more about how do you
encourage people to stand up and fight back. That's a
problem we all face, not just Jobs With Justice.
Initially there were some internal [labor movement]
issues about creating this kind of internal space and
direct action. I don't think they are there now.
There have been lots of successes, but the real issue
is continuing to build new organizational forms that
convince people they can be one of millions, not one of
thousands. Twenty-five years ago being one of thousands
might have been sufficient to win certain fights, but
now it has to be millions. The frame is much broader
MOBERG: What's your hope for the labor movement going
forward, particularly the new democratic coalition you
are building with CWA?
COHEN: There are a lot of benchmarks along the way. The
amount of work it will take is monstrous, and I'm
pretty humble about the outlook for it.
But more so than twenty-five years ago, [in this new
democracy and economic justice movement] there would be
a link between the political movement in every forum -
not just elections - and the workplaces. And the
coalition movement has to come together to resemble
more the Arab Spring than anything we've experienced.
[David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has
been on the staff of the magazine since it began
publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he
completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the
University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has
received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T.
MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for
research on the new global economy. He can be reached
at [log in to unmask] ]
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