In this week’s American Prospect, Harold Meyerson considers the lessons of HERE’s triumph in making the Las Vegas hotels union business. Las Vegas is in today’s service economy what Detroit once was in an industrial economy: a demonstration that a strong labor movement is the route to a strong middle class. The approach Meyerson describes – directing resources towards organizing towards high density, creating broad-based organizing committees, training rank-and-file to shoulder responsibility, partnering with management for real vocational training – are at the heart of the New Unity Partnership HERE President John Wilhelm and others are pushing for the AFL-CIO.
Nathan Newman offers a new report on declines in unionization by state, and makes – by ranking states by unionization and coding them by 2000 election results – what should be a succinct, compelling, and visceral arguments for why progressives should prioritize unions and unions should prioritize organizing so that both can build over the next decades.
Much of the recent coverage of the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides has contextualized them as a last-ditch effort by an anemic American labor movement to scrounge for new members and national attention. They’re right perhaps to the extent that a departure from the priorities and strategies of the old CIO bears partial responsibility (along with hostile governments, destructive international trends, and such) for the weakening of American labor over the past few decades. What the corporate media tends to miss is that what the rides represent, as much as anything else, is a historic return to the values and approaches which have brought every triumph that labor has acheived – organizing the unorganized, whoever they are, wherever they work, and building durable coalitions based on common interest and shared vision. Has a sense of crisis in the AFL-CIO played a role in making the “old guard” receptive to the focus on organizing and political mobilization that Sweeney – who won the first contested race for his post in a while – and even more so the “New Unity Partnership” – represent? Certainly. But they stand for is an old idea, not a new one, and in returning to it, the AFL-CIO is only catching up with the locals that compose it.
This is the future of the labor movement.
Saturday’s rally was an incredible mobilization of support and solidarity, with – by police estimates – over 10,000 workers and students from all over the region and beyond coming together to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the movement for change. Yale students gathered in front of a banner towards the back; the front of the march was already at the Yale Medical school before we started moving. A dramatic presence of Yale undergrads was there to welcome huge students groups from Harvard, Swarthmore, and Columbia, as well as peers from just about everywhere else – including a few students from Florida and California. A significant number of the sixty-odd Internationals in the AFL-CIO were represented, including many more locals than I could count (Philly’s HERE Local 634, where I worked this summer, was out in full force). The strongest felt presences, besides AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, were the leaders of four of the “New Unity Partnership” unions which have been increasingly publicly working together to try to push the AFL to prioritize dramatic organizing for the labor movement’s survival – Andy Stern of SEIU, Bruce Raynor of UNITE, Doug McCarron of the Laborers, and Yale’s own John Wilhelm of HERE – all of whom, with Sweeney and over a hundred others, took arrests for civil disobedience at the close of the march.
Yale’s new PR line, faced with the infeasability, one figures, of telling the press that the rally was not disruptive, or that it didn’t really happen, or that Sweeney probably secretly thinks Yale’s offer is better, is to say that the University was simply a convenient staging ground for a “union recruitment drive” that had little to do with Yale specifically. This is perhaps marginally more convincing than Yale’s contention that Freshman Move-In Day went more smoothly than usual this time around and marginally less convincing than Yale’s recent contention that it had been planning for years to implement proposals to racially desegregate its workforce and unfortunately didn’t get a chance to tell the unions until the day after it was condemned for race-baiting by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Most of the organizing for this march happened over the course of about a week, and the thousands who gathered did so – as demonstrated by their speeches, by their signs, by their stickers – because they want to see justice for the thousands of men and women who make this University function, and for millions of working people in America as well. Like every vital and difficult labor fight, this one has vital broader implications – as did the 1984 strike, when newly organized clerical and technical workers wore buttons asserting that for women to make 59 cents on the dollar compared to men was unacceptable at Yale and everywhere else.
Yale University, and Yale – New Haven Hospital, are the industries – “eds and meds,” as Levin says – which will likely compose an even greater segment of the American workforce – itself increasingly a service economy – in this century. They possess, as my advisor Michael Denning argues, parallel structures, with low-wage service, maintenance, clerical, and technical workers at the bottom of a hierarchy with set-duration apprentice employees (graduate students, residents) in the middle and highly-trained “professionals” (Doctors, faculty) at the top. The prospects for decent contracts at these institutions are tied up in the prospects for economic justice for working people in this country.
The movement here in New Haven – an alliance of service and maintenance workers, clerical and technical workers, teaching and research assistants, students and faculty, and clergy and community, built around common interest and shared vision – represents a cross-section of the labor movement and a microcosm of the broad-based organizing strategies that have historically worked for the labor movement in the country, and that represent its potential to revolutionize this country in the future.
Yale’s relationship to New Haven is a dramatic microcosm of the yawning and deepening economc divide in this country. The United States is becoming a nation of prosperous Yales and struggling New Havens, and the labor movement has a central role to play in reconciling the two. Unlike many employers, Yale cannot feasibly claim that its contracts are restrained by competition from local alternatives or sweatshops, or by the difficulty of remaining financially solvent. And unlike other employers, Yale cannot easily escape or elude the deserved scrutiny it attracts – nationally and beyond – when it spouts the rhetoric of partnership while clinging to the vestiges of feudalism.
YaleInsider has a thorough breakdown of news coverage from the march, and of Yale’s public statements Saturday. Jacob Remes ’02, who came down to march with us, and who has been more skeptical of late of the prospects for victory at Yale, shares his experience of the march here.