I agree with most of what Alyssa has to say here:
There is simply no precedent for the outpacing of C.E.O. compensation and other corporate profits in comparison to what the people who actually make companies run earn as it happens in America today. It’s telling that in the wake of major corporate scandals, rather than condemn Tyco executives, for example, for their terrible, destructive greed, jurors in their corruption trials dismiss accounts of profit gone mad as a waste of time. Our views on fair compensation, respect for employees, and the value of organized labor are vastly off-kilter.
…Unions will always have limited power if their strength is confined to the workplace, where they can fight employers, but lack the ability to define some of the structural constraints, like the minimum wage, that affect their members. It is vital that unions be organized well enough so they can make their members’ voices heard in both the workplace and the voting booth, and make sure that they are united behind strong, progressive policies.
I do have a couple points of disagreement or, at least, of divergent emphasis. First, I think Alyssa inadvertently minimizes the significance of the two moments she highlights which we agree offer new hope for American labor, the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides and the HERE – UNITE merger:
The former represents a willingness to be flexible in the face of party re-alignment and a recognition of the progress of globalization. The second represents a committment to getting leaner and meaner, and an understanding that you need both money and killer organizing to beat a strong resurgence of anti-union sentiment.
While there’s certainly a good deal of truth in the argument that the merger represented a union with members but no money and a union with money but no members joining forces, I think there’s a much broader point here, one that I’ve mentioned on this site before: Labor has to be as well organized and as unified as management, and as labor organizes across boundaries between nations, we must organize across boundaries between unions, something most folks who were watching and have the freedom to say so agree didn’t take place effectively in California. Nathan Newman has argued recently that union competition marked labor’s most effective period by providing a spur to all sides to organize; unfortunately, union competition also marked one of labor’s most tragic moments, its divided and self-destructive response to the growing Red Scare, in which all too often those very union competitions eased the process of conservative unions siding with Uncle Sam against their more radical counterparts. Among the biggest losers there, not surprisingly, were the workers of color whom only the left-wing unions of the CIO were effectively organizing. Of course there are good reasons for the AFL-CIO to be composed of different unions divided in some cases by job type, in others by region, in others by organizing strategy – but too often those barriers are arbitrary and costly. As has played out on Andy Stern’s blog and in its comments, finding innovative ways to foster broader strategic alliances while maintaining and building industrial democracy and democratic leadership on the local level is key (David Moberg explores this further in this week’s The Nation in an article which isn’t yet on-line). So the UNITE HERE merger, bringing together one union which launders the second union’s uniforms and a second union which serves the first union food at lunch hour, bringing together two unions with a proven commitment to progressive organizing, is an urgent model – although it may not have been carried out in a way consonant with the best values of these unions.
Speaking of progressive organizing, I think that to articulate the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides as a response to a shifting national and international landscape both understates their significance and lets labor off to easily for a historically (up to the mid-90’s) anti-immigrant stance that at no time was in the big picture interests of union members. Daivided labor markets – be the axis of divison race, religion, gender, or immigration status – have always been lucrative for employers, who’ve proven all to eager to exploit a vulnerable group’s marginal position in society (and too often in the labor movement as well) to drive down their wages and benefits, and to use the threat of that group’s therefore cheaper labor costs to drive down everyone else wages and benefits and pit natural allies against each other in an ugly race to the bottom. Historical examples of course abound; here in Philadelphia, a union movement which had succesfully organized and won the ten-hour day screeched to a halt as first-generation Catholic immigrants and second-generation Protestants in different trades started killing each other in the Kensington riots. Organizing the unorganized workers, rather than engaging in a futile campaign to stop them from working is the only morally defensible and genuinely pragmatic approach. God bless John Wilhelm, Maria Elena Durazo, and the unrecognized others who brought the AFL-CIO around.
The other area where my perspective may differ from Alyssa’s somewhat is on the role of unions in politics. I’m a major proponent of the New Unity Partnership, which would enshrine organizing in the workplace and political organizing as unions’ major functions and major expenditures. But while Alyssa urges unions
picking politically viable candidates and proving that they can turn out large numbers of supporters for them…severe layoffs, a slowdown in organizing, and bad choices of candidates have made unions look less credible politically than they did in 2000…
let’s not forget what the Democratic party, after the Clinton years, which on the one hand brought the Family and Medical Leave Act and an increased minimum wage, and on the other wrought NAFTA and Welfare Reform, has to prove to American workers and American labor. Labor has been most effective in this country not by letting its support be taken for granted by Democrats but by organizing so powerfully that the Democrats (read: FDR) feared that if they didn’t find enough to offer labor it would sink them. I’m glad Kerry wants a Labor Secretary from the “House of Labor.” I’d like to hear more about this legislation on the campaign trail though.
That said, I’m stoked for SEIU to make history by devoting its resources this election not into soft-money TV ads but by getting thousands of its members leaves of absence to organize their neighbors to vote Bush out of office, and to hold our national leadership accountable through November and beyond. The party machines could learn a lot from them; today’s New York Times suggests they’ve begun to already.