Sunday, October 26, 2008
Bill Fletcher Speaks on Labor at Activist San Diego
Promotes “Social Justice Unionism” to Heal the Labor Movement
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Organized labor in the United States is in its death throes as a movement, and the only way it can save itself is to renounce virtually all the core principles on which it was founded, said former AFL-CIO education director and presidential assistant Bill Fletcher at the Joyce Beers Center in Hillcrest October 24. There to promote a new book he wrote with former UCLA professor Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice, Fletcher said in no uncertain terms that America’s capitalist ruling class is committed to the utter destruction of the U.S. labor movement, and organized labor in this country will die within the next decade unless it takes radical steps to reform itself and regain relevance to ordinary working people.
“In the 1930’s, an important segment of the owning class saw a need to ally with labor in order to save capitalism,” Fletcher explained. “Today the capitalist class is unanimous about the need to destroy all organizations of labor. We are in a fight for our lives. Their objective is our total destruction. Those labor leaders who call for a ‘new New Deal’ are missing the point.” Fletcher unwittingly offered a measure of just how desperate labor’s situation is when he explained that his co-author Gapasin was also supposed to be at the meeting, but he’d had to cancel because he’s in the middle of fighting a decertification campaign in Oregon. One of the audience members asked what a decertification campaign was. It’s an attempt by workers — supported in this case, Fletcher said, by Right-wing religious groups — to hold an election to get rid of the union that currently represents them.
In his talk and his book, Fletcher presented a provocative historical analysis of where labor went wrong and the dramatic steps he feel it needs to take to regain its former influence and build a mass American Left. Surprisingly, his principal villain isn’t a capitalist or a politician. It’s Samuel Gompers, the late 19th century unionist who started the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and is generally considered the founding father of this country’s union movement. But, Fletcher said, Gompers built the U.S. labor movement on a set of principles that made sure it could never contend for real power in society or challenge the inequities of capitalism.
“Samuel Gompers represented a radical break from the union movement that preceded him,” Fletcher explained. “He abandoned socialism and introduced some very distinct ideas about unions. For Gompers, ‘class’ was a concept to be eliminated. His type of union represents only its members, not the working class as a whole. Gompers coined the slogan, ‘We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests,’ which sounds radical until you realize what a limited concept he had of who ‘we’ were. For ‘we,’ Gompers meant only those workers who were in AFL unions. It wasn’t Blacks, it wasn’t women, it wasn’t Asians, it included only a handful of Latinos, it didn’t include most European immigrants and it didn’t include unskilled workers. For Gompers, ‘we’ meant white male skilled workers.”
Fletcher said that Gompers’ narrow definition of his constituency meant that the U.S. labor movement would become a handmaiden for capitalist power instead of a significant challenger. “Gompers’ framework said ‘class’ is an irrelevant and almost un-American idea,” Fletcher explained. “Gompers rejected not only the idea of a labor party but any independent political operation for labor, aside from lobbying. Gompers’ view was that labor should unconditionally support U.S. foreign policy as a matter of patriotism, which in the 1950’s came to mean working with the CIA to destroy communist and socialist labor unions in other countries. On race and gender, Gompers could have taught Hitler some things. In the early 1890’s he had talked about cross-racial solidarity, but by the 1910’s and 1920’s he saw the willingness of Blacks to break strikes as genetically determined. He was also not a friend to women, though he tipped his hat to the Women’s Union League.”
The legacy Gompers left to the U.S. labor movement, Fletcher said, was a concept called “job-centered unionism.” It meant that unions service only their members — and in practice it meant at best “anemic” attempts to organize unorganized workers. There were competing unions with different philosophies, Fletcher explained — the Knights of Labor in the 1880’s, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the first two decades of the 20th century and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s — but all of them were smashed by an unholy alliance of the government, American capitalists and the AFL. According to Fletcher, the last real competition to Gompers-style “job-centered unionism” ended in the late 1940’s, when on orders of the U.S. government the CIO purged itself of communists and socialists, and the AFL absorbed what was left of the CIO in 1955.
What this meant historically, Fletcher argued, was that the AFL-CIO and the American labor movement as a whole were pathetically ill-equipped to withstand the steady erosion of the percentage of America’s private workforce that belongs to unions. For a long time, Fletcher said, they weren’t even aware of this as a crisis because the exodus of U.S. workers out of unions began as a trickle in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and only turned into a flood in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the 1990’s, Fletcher said, American labor leaders finally woke up to the depth of the crisis they face and started looking for a way out of it. But, he explained, “one trend was to look to history and try to apply things that had succeeded before — without any historical context.” For example, he said, unions decided to put money into major organizing drives — but without the mass socialist and communist movements that had poured shock troops and volunteer energy into the great organizing campaigns of the 1930’s, labor’s new efforts failed.
Fletcher’s argument is that the labor movement needs a sweeping new paradigm, which he calls “social-justice unionism.” He said that he became aware of this in June 2001, when he attended a meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa between leaders of the U.S. Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the South African National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) — whose members work in jobs similar to those represented by SEIU — and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), South Africa’s far more radical equivalent to the AFL-CIO. When one of the SEIU representatives said that the purpose of a labor union is to represent its members, a NEHAWU delegate to the meeting replied, “Comrades, the role of the union is to represent the interests of the working class.” To Fletcher, that is the key difference between a dying labor movement and a vibrant one.
“The focus of unionism can’t be just about the job, but about what is happening to the class,” Fletcher said. “You can talk about cities like Camden, New Jersey; Detroit and Flint, Michigan; East St. Louis, Missouri; or Youngstown, Ohio, where major industries [that once employed thousands of unionized workers at good wages] left and devastated those towns. The foreclosure crisis was irrelevant to Camden because there are no jobs there, and if it doesn’t have to do with jobs, who speaks for Camden, or East St. Louis, or the de-industrialization of California?”
What “social-justice unionism” means to Fletcher is bringing together various social-change organizations, not simply to work together as a “coalition” aimed at producing a single event, but on an ongoing basis. He cited the meetings Right-wing activist Grover Norquist holds every week or two to build communication and networking opportunities and give everyone “a good idea of what’s going down” as a model the Left should follow as well. “When we get together, we try to start ‘the mother of all coalitions,’ and when we want to share ideas we’re denounced as ‘armchair activists,’” Fletcher complained. “We’ve got to end this idea that we always have to do an action. Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is talk — or listen.”
One of Fletcher’s ideas is to hold “workers’ assemblies,” which would be called by unions but not be limited to unions or labor issues in general. “The Central Labor Council would reach out to PTA’s and soccer clubs to have discussions — not just the top leaders but all the groups within the organization. The price of entry is not to insist that you do or don’t work with the Democratic Party, but that your organization has these discussions towards developing a platform for working people in your city. It goes to the issue of building a real movement, not just getting our lobbying points together.” Among Fletcher’s requirements for this kind of organizing is that everybody, including the rank-and-file workers conventional unions tend to regard as passive consumers rather than potential activists, involved in the deliberations over what the broader movement should stand for and try to achieve.
Fletcher even cited one AFL-CIO campaign as a model for what he wants the U.S. labor movement to accomplish. It took place in Stamford, Connecticut in the 1990’s and is discussed on pages 172-173 of his book (but oddly, given the importance Fletcher attached to it, it’s not mentioned in the index). What made the Stamford campaign unique was, said Fletcher, it was about “not simply organizing union members but organizing the community, including investing union pension-fund money in new housing and telling people in Stamford that unions are about raising the living standards of the class.”
But, Fletcher added, “What’s missing” from efforts like these is a new “overarching narrative” of labor’s role in society, “a new way of doing things and new leaders.” What’s more, he said, social-justice unionism isn’t really a possibility “in the absence of a mass Left. Unions have thrived when there was an active Left, which not only brought shock troops but tied together movements, including farmers and unemployed workers, so people could feel they were part of a movement, not just an organization or a campaign.”
One of Fletcher’s fears is that in the absence of a mass Left and an alternative “narrative,” America’s working people will grab hold of what he calls “Right-wing populism” and seize on that as the explanation for the current economic crisis. “In the middle of an economic crisis, it’s easy to confuse people’s anger and despair with an anti-capitalist consciousness,” he explained. “Part of what our role in the Left has got to be is to unpack capitalism.” What that means in the current context, he explained, is to show that the collapse of the housing market and the resulting meltdown in the U.S. economy isn’t just the work of a few unusually greedy “bad apple” capitalists, but the inevitable result of the structure and workings of capitalism itself.
If that isn’t done, said Fletcher, the Right-wing populists will successfully get working people to blame their economic predicament on traditional scapegoats: people of color, immigrants and Jews. “In periods of severe economic downturn, Right-wing populism can be very effective because it draws from a narrative that has told people in the U.S. — white people, at least — ‘If you work hard, you will succeed, and your children will have a better life than you.’ The Right-wing populists step into that narrative and say, ‘You have been betrayed, and who has betrayed you? It’s the Jews; they’re behind this financial crisis like they’ve been behind every financial crisis. You’ve been betrayed by the people who let in all those immigrants — especially brown or yellow immigrants — who’ve been let in and aren’t giving anything back. You’ve been betrayed by Black people who are always complaining, and by women who should be staying home and not competing for jobs with men.’”
Fletcher cited one example of an economic crisis — the epidemic of farm foreclosures in the 1980’s — where the Left ceded the field to the Right and white supremacists successfully convinced a lot of dispossessed farmers that Jews and the so-called “Zionist-Occupied Government” were at fault. “We have underestimated Right-wing populism and not created a narrative to compete with it,” he said. “Right-wing populism, like fascism, grabs hold of issues of the Left and twists them around. Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs can use Left themes, and then a few minutes later they flip. The construction of a different unionism means the construction of a different narrative. If we don’t change what our members think about, the change of our leaders won’t matter.”