United States: Solidarity sometimes (exclusive excerpt from Steve Early’s new book, Embedded With Organized Labor)

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[With the permission of Monthly Review Press, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is publishing an exclusive excerpt from Steve Early’s new book, Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home. Embedded With Organized Labor describes how trade union members in the United States have organised successfully, on the job and in the community, in the face of employer opposition now and in the past. Steve Early has produced a provocative series of essays -- an unusual exercise in “participatory labor journalism” useful to any reader concerned about social and economic justice. As workers struggle to survive and the labour movements try to revive during the current economic crisis, this book provides ideas and inspiration for trade union activists and friends of labour alike.

[Steve Early has been an organiser, strike strategist, labour educator and lawyer. He recently retired from his job as national staff member of the Communications Workers of America. Early's articles, reviews and op-ed pieces have appeared in The Nation, New Politics, CounterPunch, The Progressive, American Prospect, WorkingUSA, New Labor Forum, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and many other publications. He is currently completing a book on the role of 1960s activists in US unions.

[Links readers are encouraged to purchase a copy Embedded With Organized Labor, HERE.]

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By Steve Early

In May of 1970, hundreds of flag-waving construction workers—egged on by labor officials linked to the Nixon administration—attacked a crowd of antiwar demonstrators on Wall Street. As played up by the media, it became an encounter emblematic of the Vietnam era—a battle of political stereotypes in which hard hats showed their hatred of long-hairs, “patriots” were provoked by “kooks”, and real-life Archie Bunkers railed against a whole generation of spoiled “meathead” college kids. In some middle-class circles, the incident tarnished the image of unions for a long time afterward.

Nearly thirty years later, news reports from presented a different picture of organized labor. In the fall of 1999, Teamsters and sea turtle lovers, steelworkers and radical students were seen marching side by side (or at least on the same side) in street protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). There was no blue-collar cheering squad for the cops or the establishment this time; instead, top officials of the AFL-CIO proclaimed their support for alliances with feminist, environmental, consumer, and Third World groups. Even the ’60s-like atmosphere—street theater, body paint, tear gas barrages, and a few broken windows—didn’t seem to bother the union participants.

The contrast between these two scenes raises some questions: What has happened in the intervening decades to produce such an apparent “greening” of the labor movement? Has Seattle solidarity really replaced the brawls and catcalls of yesteryear? Coalitions across the Class Divide and Taking History to Heart will interest readers who believe, as Fred Rose does, that “the success of progressive politics in the US depends on reconciling the immediate needs of working people with the social, environmental, and peace-related goals often raised by middle-class movements.”

The authors offer varying assessments of how much potential for conflict still exists between “middle-class movements” and organized labor. Now a research professor at TuftsUniversity, Rose was an organizer for an economic conversion project at a shipyard in Tacoma, Washington. His case studies on relations between labor and non-labor groups involve industries such as logging, construction, or defense-related metalworking in Maine, Minnesota, and the Pacific Northwest. In such settings, local campaigns for forest conservation, limits on  development, or a shift in investment from military to civilian production frequently encounter blue-collar resistance because of the perceived threat to jobs. To defuse such opposition or, better yet, to turn unions into coalition partners, peace and environmental groups must modify their organizational style, broaden their agenda to include workers’ rights issues, and address the question of employment.

James Green has tried to find common ground with workers by way of labor history. A coordinator of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts, Green draws on twenty-five years of experience with a wider range of private and public sector employees who have participated in adult education programs designed to help them “discover and record” their own history as workers and union members. Around Boston such efforts have been aided by the area’s high concentration of labor activists formerly involved in the civil rights, women’s, and antiwar movements of the 1960s. Initially scorned and distrusted by AFL-CIO officials, these ex-New Leftists—along with their local working-class allies—have, over three decades, moved into positions of greater influence in organized labor. Along the way, they’ve played what Rose calls a “bridge-building” role—helping to link unions to broader causes like the nuclear freeze, the anti-apartheid movement, and campaigns against US intervention in Central America.

As Rose acknowledges, workers without an ideological predisposition toward coalition politics are more open to alliances when they’re engaged in a high-stakes strike or lockout. For example, prior to their 1987–88 dispute with International Paper, members of the United Paperworkers Union in Jay, Maine, “had long accepted polluted rivers, a high cancer rate, overwhelming smells, and toxic waste” as the price of full employment at the Androscoggin Mill. IP’s attempt to bust the union in Jay and elsewhere made workers and their families considerably less tolerant of the company’s environmental record. Meanwhile, IP’s hiring of inexperienced, poorly trained “scabs” put the health of the community at risk.

Aroused by such incidents as a chlorine dioxide leak and a waste treatment plant malfunction that dumped 16 million gallons of waste into the river, the strikers joined forces with Ralph Nader, Greenpeace, and other environmentalists in Maine to get the town of Jay to adopt an unprecedented local ordinance empowering it to monitor and enforce state and federal environmental standards. According to Rose, this labor and environmental alliance remains intact, aided no doubt by IP’s continued nonunion operation of the plant.

A more recent lockout of 3,000 steelworkers at Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, Washington, propelled their union into a united front with Earth First. The resulting Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment has gotten wide publicity for its activities directed at a common enemy, financier Charles Hurwitz. His Texas-based Maxxam Corp. owns both Kaiser and Pacific Lumber, a firm that harvests large tracts of Northern California redwoods. As part of the Alliance, United Steelworkers of America has filed suit to challenge Pacific Lumber’s logging. Meanwhile, environmentalists have backed initiatives to aid workers at Kaiser. Members of both groups played a prominent role in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle.

Still, there’s no guarantee that making new friends during a strike produces lasting changes in a union’s political orientation once its hour of need has passed. Green provides a stirring account of the United Mine Workers (UMW) strike against Pittston Coal Group in 1989. He describes how the union mobilized its own members, linked arms with Jesse Jackson, used civil rights movement tactics like nonviolent civil disobedience, staged the first plant occupation since the 1930s, and created an encampment in southwest Virginia (Camp Solidarity) that became a magnet for thousands of supporters from around the country. According to Green, UMW leaders, including current president Cecil Roberts, won the strike because of their willingness to take risks. “They promoted and supported a local culture of solidarity and consciously transformed a strike into a people’s resistance movement against corporate greed”, Green writes.

Today, this same union’s position on what might be seen as another manifestation of “corporate greed”—global warming—is not so inspiring. Fearing job losses due to legally mandated reduction of carbon emissions, the UMW has played a lead role in an industry-backed group called Unions for Jobs and the Environment (UJAE). As labor journalist David Moberg reported recently in The Nation, UJAE “was launched with a grant and loan from a consortium of coal, railroad, and related businesses that promote coal use.” Its membership includes AFL-CIO affiliates in the cement, utility, construction, retail, and trucking industries. The group “accepts the most exaggerated forecasts of job loss while disputing predictions of climate change and its adverse effects” and “has thus far driven labor policy on climate change.” In attacking the admittedly flawed Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the UMW and its new friends have, according to Moberg, taken positions even “less protective of the environment than those of big companies like BP Amoco.”

In 1996, two other Pittston strike leaders lauded by Green—Rich Trumka and Eddie Burke—teamed up with some of the key figures in the fund-raising scandal that toppled Teamster reformer Ron Carey, dealing a major setback to the “social movement unionism” that the author advocates. Taking History to Heart describes Carey’s 1991 election to the Teamsters presidency as “the single most important political event in the revival of the labor movement.” The product of twenty years of rank-and-file organizing by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), it tilted the balance of power within the AFL-CIO in John Sweeney’s favor, enabling him to unseat the incumbent leadership and begin to overhaul labor’s creaky central bureaucracy. But Carey’s own reelection effort in 1996 was hijacked by inside-the-Beltway types. A group of lobbyists, consultants, political operatives, liberal donors, and union headquarters staffers tried to convert more than $800,000 in Teamsters dues money into Carey campaign revenue. As a result, a union just beginning to shed the taint of past mob ties was corrupted again by alumni of Students for a Democratic Society, the Midwest Academy, Common Cause, Planned Parenthood, and the Democratic National Committee. (Central to their scheme was laundering money through Citizen Action, a now-defunct “good government” group.)

This criminal conspiracy ultimately led to the very result that the liberal activists were trying to avoid: election of Jimmy Hoffa as union president. Carey was barred from the union, TDUers were purged from the staff by Hoffa, and six upper-middle-class professionals have pleaded guilty or been convicted of illegally diverting money into Carey’s reelection campaign (including one who received a three-year jail term). Not surprisingly, Teamsters reformers have concluded that, with “progressive” friends like these, their movement doesn’t need enemies.[1] Most outsiders who seek to work with unions or rank-and-file groups are more principled than the crew that sunk Carey. As Green’s book shows, interaction between workers and intellectuals at the grassroots level is critically important because it can help counteract union parochialism—the tendency of labor organizations to focus on day-today workplace problems to the exclusion of the big picture. On the other side of “the class divide”, members of Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (which Green helped launch) have found that engagement with actual workers’ struggles, on campus or off, can be a welcome relief from the arcane discourse and hermetic politics of academia. For community- based organizations trying to challenge corporate power or make government more responsive, support from labor increases the chances of success. Despite their latter-day shortcomings, many unions can still deliver money, manpower, and, in some situations, much-needed political clout.

The political synergy on display in the streets of Seattle will be hard to duplicate in other locales and even in future national mobilizations related to globalization (although subsequent protests in  Washington against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund drew a similar eclectic mix of labor and nonlabor participants). The emergence of a post–Cold War debate about the merits of corporate-dominated trade deals creates a political opening for the left. This did not exist when protests against US foreign policy had to contend with patriotic fervor, from the flag waving of the Vietnam era to the yellow-ribbon fever of the Gulf War. Participation in popular resistance to unfettered global capitalism has been a learning experience for many trade unionists. It has enabled more than a few to move beyond nativist responses to a new understanding of the need for worker solidarity on an international scale.

[First published as “Solidarity Sometimes”, a review of Coalitions across the Class Divide: Lessons from the Labor, Peace, and Environmental Movements, by Fred Rose (Cornell University Press, 1999), and Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements, by James Green (University of Massachusetts, 2000), in The American Prospect, September 11, 2000.]

[1] For more on the cast of characters involved in “Teamster Donorgate”, and how that scandal came about, see the series of articles written under my pen name at the time, Jim Larkin: “What Went Wrong: The Campaign Money Scandal of Ron Carey,” In These Times, December 14, 1997, 18–21 ; “Teamster Tragedy,” The Progressive, January 1998, 20–22; and “Teamsters: The Next Chapter,” The Nation, January 4, 1999, 17–20.