Left behind: the working class in the crisis
Platypus Review 13 | July 2009
On April 23, 2009, a panel discussion titled Left Behind: The Working Class In The Crisis was held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The panelists were Abraham Mwaura of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, who has worked as an organizer at the Republic Windows and Doors Factory; Aaron Hughes, representative at the International Labor Conference, Arbil, Iraq, and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War; James Thindwa, Executive Director of Chicago Jobs with Justice; and Chuck Hendricks, an organizer for the labor union UNITE HERE. The following transcript represents only a portion of a more extensive and wide-ranging discussion. The comments edited and published here chiefly address the historical relationship between the labor movement and Left politics as a whole, the relevance of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in current organizing practices, and the state of international labor today. These were not the only themes the panelists discussed and the Platypus Review encourages interested readers to listen to the complete recording of the event available at the above link.
Regarding the Historical Relationship Between Labor and the Left:
Chuck Hendricks: I think that, broadly speaking, the Left and the labor movement were in an uneasy alliance in this country from the 1870s until the 1940s. With the Cold War, that alliance was broken. Socialists, communists, and anarchists, were, in some cases, chased out; in others, they fled; some simply went their separate way. The ideological Left abandoned the unions and the unions abandoned the ideological Left. And it has stayed that way for the past sixty years. Nevertheless, it is an oversimplification to say that the traces of that history have vanished. There are many union leaders today, from the shop steward to the top leaders of certain unions, who have very radical ideas about the economy and politics. While they may not call themselves socialist or communist, the idea of struggling against capital is still unmistakably present. The vision of what is truly accomplishable is what is lacking. When organizational capacity, the anger that drives us to organize, and the vision of what is possible are reintegrated, we will again have a Leftist labor movement in the United States. But we are not there now. In bits and pieces within labor, it is coming back together. But there are leaders in the labor movement that regard their function as essentially that of the Human Resources department for the bosses. Corporate unionism retains its grip on the movement. There are parts that do not want to do anything-that, frankly, have been stuck in their ways for fifty years. But, as I said, there are parts that really want to fight. The labor movement will have to figure out whether it wants to remain the stagnant labor movement of the 1960s or become more assertive like the labor movement of the 1930s. It remains to be seen by people in the unions whether or not working class leaders develop a vision and the drive to achieve it.
Abraham Mwaura: Our history has been surrounded by mistakes on all sides, from the sectarian Left, the communists, and the socialists to the House of Labor, the labor establishment. The constitution of my own union makes clear that we do not discriminate based on political beliefs. So, yes, there were many individuals in leadership who were active communists and belonged to Left parties. But the assessment that that is what our union was, or that that is what labor was, even at the height of communism and Left power in this country, is a mistake in my view. In regards to my union, it is a common outsider's perspective. But on the inside, the Communist Party and sectarian Left pushed our union to join with the House of Labor in order to fight off McCarthyism. But, had we chosen to go in that direction, we would have ceased to exist. This would have meant a loss to the labor movement as a whole, because it would have lost the last national union with rank-and-file militancy left in the country. Of course, now the IWW is organizing. But in terms of national unions, there would be no CIO, no militant rank-and-file led unions left, had we chosen to liquidate ourselves into the House of Labor at that time. So the attacks were coming from both sides, and the mistakes made were massive all over.
There is a story told over and over again in our union of GE's president at the end of World War II stating, "Our country has two giant enemies. The Soviets abroad, and labor at home." Then began in earnest the collusion between government and industry to squelch labor. Industry heads understood clearly that the problem was not really communism so much as labor. I think that is key to understanding what that time period was actually about. It was about class war first, and Left ideology second. We need to be careful in moving forward to reestablish Left politics in this country and to understand that that was what it was about. Those in power at the time were clear that it was a fight between industry and labor. It was never, or at least not in the beginning, about the communists at home.
The reason Left politics grew in our union was because of the tradition of militant struggle. That is what ultimately builds leadership and the capacity for political analysis: engaging people in militant, aggressive struggle against the boss. Against the boss, against the mayors, against the city halls. That is what builds leadership and, ultimately, people's politics. That is how people get engaged in radical politics, radical being an understanding of problems from the roots. As a Left union, we believe this is how we actually move people's politics. Militant, aggressive struggle against the boss is the key to moving forward.
Regarding the Relevance of the Employee Free-Choice Act (EFCA) to the Labor Movement Today:
Mwaura: EFCA to us is not a cure-all. Though we are putting a lot of resources into it and moving our members to ensure that this legislation gets passed, we also have no delusions about it. Still, it is an opportunity to build political power among the working people in this country. We need to understand that it is only a means to an end, that of rebuilding workers' power. It is really worker and community power, as we cannot separate those workers from the communities in which they live. The EFCA is one way to reopen the road to workers' power. We are far behind the rest of the industrialized world in terms of labor law that actually protects people when they choose to organize. We want good, living-wage jobs. The only way to really demand this is if we have power. Worker power is acutely tied to economic recovery. In the 1930s and 40s, the economy improved with increased union density. As union density increased, so did wages, so did working conditions, so did the standard of living. That has to be what happens again. Otherwise, we will fail at more and more bailouts, and the workers will suffer. We see EFCA as a crucial means of achieving true economic recovery, one that means worker recovery as well.
James Thindwa: Too often we fall victim to false choices. The Employee Free Choice Act is not a panacea. So the question is not whether it should be pursued or not. It is really about where we place our emphasis. The debate should be about priorities, about how much time and effort should go into ensuring the passage of the EFCA. But there is no denying that corporate strategies over the years, elaborate strategies to undermine labor unions, to undermine the right of workers to organize, have been very effective. 8.5% of the workforce in the United States is unionized, 11% if you throw in public sector workers. At the center of this de-unionization are the elaborate strategies corporations have pursued to undermine workers' right to organize. One out of five workers gets fired for trying to join a union. The penalties have become so miniscule, so negligible, that for most employers, penalties for violating labor law, penalties for firing workers who are trying to join a union, have just become another cost of doing business. There is no real deterrent. But union organizing is a fundamental right, a part of the constitutional right to associate and to free speech. These are rights at the center of democracy itself. We have to take seriously the effort to free workers to be able to form unions and to join unions without fear of reprisal.
If the Employee Free Choice Act fails to pass, that failure should prompt reflection on the relationship that labor has cultivated with Democrats in Congress. The amount of money that labor unions give Democrats should already have produced a cadre of leaders in Congress who are out front and talking about this everyday, cultivating other members of Congress, and building leadership. Really, the Employee Free Choice Act should be in the DNA of members of Congress who are getting union money. So, if EFCA does not pass, labor unions should consider whether it is really wise to continue to make this type of investment when we get so little for it.
I am disturbed by the premise that struggle needs to be hard and bloody all the time. If I have to run five miles, and a car stops by and picks me up, I do not have a problem riding in that car so I can get to my destination faster. We need to punish employers who get in the way of workers organizing. One out of five workers get fired for trying to organize. If you stop that from happening, you are not making the worker lazy. You are eliminating some of the impunity with which the employer class operates. There has been a cycle of impunity in which the employer class has done all kinds of nefarious things. For instance, they show these vile videos that suggest that labor unions are subversive or somehow un-American. This is antithetical to what most of us think of as democracy. Getting rid of that and easing the process of organizing is not going to spoil workers into thinking, "Great! Now I don't have to struggle anymore." But struggle is not an end in itself. I think we need to be careful with that.
Hendricks: I am not against EFCA. On the contrary, I want it to pass. But there are problems with EFCA. For example, one of the provisions of EFCA is that there will be binding arbitration. Right now, one problem unions face when they organize is that roughly half the time if a union wins an election to gain recognition, still they do not get a contract. This means they go through these massive fights and win recognition, yet this does not translate into palpable improvements in workers' day-to-day lives. The EFCA's provision for binding arbitration means that if an employee does not get a contract within a year, her contract will go before a judge, who will decide what the employee wins for the life of the contract. While I am aware that this is a compromise people fight for, I think it has a capacity to create a situation where unions come to rely on the courts. It is important that we do not give up our collective power to judges and politicians. I want people to have a better life. I was fired for organizing a union when I was 19. I think that it does really matter that the power we have as workers comes from ourselves, and not from the law. When I was young, I read a book called The Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer. In this book, it talks about how the law can be a shield, but your union is a sword. The union is a weapon you can use to fight, the law is something you can defend yourself with. And we need better laws in place to defend workers' rights. But we cannot rely on that alone. And it makes me nervous whenever unions do so little actual organizing. I want to build a movement where we fight as workers, relying chiefly on our own power and our own ideas, not on the law. Because the law can too easily change. Our organized union strength will always prove our most reliable support.
Republic Windows & Doors factory workers and supporters rally in front of the Chicago headquarters of Bank of America, December 10th, 2008.
In Response to a Question Regarding the State of International Labor, Mr. Hughes Gives an Account of His Work in Iraq:
Aaron Hughes: Humbling is about all I can say of my experience of returning to Iraq to participate in the first international labor conference held in Arbil. The conference took place thanks to U.S Labor Against The War, which organized for more than a year to put it on with the goal of bringing together as many labor constituencies in the country as possible. Since the invasion, we have helped Iraqi workers establish a new constitution that provides for their rights. However, the U.S occupation authorities and the new Iraqi government have carried over Sadaam Hussein's laws in regards to organizing, essentially denying workers all rights. In 2006, they froze all worker funds, and seized their assets. Yet, despite this, Iraqi workers continue to organize, and they are winning.
The oil workers in the south, a federation of over 25,000 workers, have the strongest union in Iraq. They went on a massive strike and kicked the British military and Halliburton subsidiary KBR out of their oil fields. The electrical workers in the central part of the country are another large, organized labor federation. When the U.S. military took over their power plant, and told workers that they could not bring their supplies to the power plant, the workers said, "We need our supplies to maintain this plant." When the military says that it does not matter, that it is a security threat, the workers went on a massive strike. They received calls from the central government, telling them to stop, because they are angering the U.S government and American soldiers. But they kept fighting. Why? Because they are fighting for their communities. Because they have seen how many other power plants have been shut down and blown up over the last six years of this occupation. They kept fighting, and they won. Eventually, the U.S. military left their plant.
There were over 200 representatives from all over Iraq at the Arbil conference. They came from many different sectors of the economy, including the Iraqi oil and gas industry, port facilities, electricity generation and distribution, construction, public sector transportation, communication, education, railroads, service and healthcare industries, machinist and metal-working sectors, petrol and chemical industries, civil engineers, writers and journalists, food, tailors, and students.
There were also multiple women's unions represented at the conference. These workers came together and expressed the following demands: 1) the rights granted to them by the International Labor Organization and by their national constitution; 2) no ethnic or sectarian government; 3) an end to the U.S. occupation; and 4) cessation of the privatization of the public sector, the granting of national assets to foreign corporations, and the bringing in of third-country nationals as esentially slave labor.
Thindwa: We are at a crossroads. Capitalism is discredited. Neoliberalism is discredited. But I worry that we are unprepared for this particular moment, unprepared to seize the opportunity it offers to put forward credible alternatives. But I also know that there are a lot of minds engaged. People are coming out to forums like this one, which are happening all across the country. We are having a large meeting on May 2nd here. I'm part of a group called Arc 109 that is bringing people together to imagine a different world, and to think strategically about how we capitalize on this moment by energizing each other and pushing for progressive, radical change.
Hendricks: While it is great to be able to have forums like this and to discuss our political ideas and aspirations, I think that the work required to fundamentally change the world is really very daunting. The most that I can say is I hope that each person who comes here takes it upon themselves to find their role in doing the organizing that is necessary. A lot of the talk has been about community and outreach, and how people outside of unions can play a role, and that is true. People outside of unions can be a large part of fights for worker power. I would encourage you all to find that place in the labor movement, whether in a union or a community organization, where you help to perform the difficult work that needs to be done to build worker power.
Mwaura: I agree that we are at a crossroads. The one word of caution I would state is that we have to be aware of the scale of the force we are up against. Neoliberalism has been shown not to work, to have unsurmountable contradictions within itself. But it is also a beast that has changed forms by absorbing and subverting the work we have done and gains we have won in the past. We need to be smarter. We need to be united, I think. If we are going to rise to this challenge, we need to clear our heads, be forthright about who are enemies are, and unite. |P