Helping America Get the Labor Movement It Wants
At this time of year, with the nation considers what it has to be thankful for, and what remains to be accomplished, we should pause and reflect about the Jewish contribution to a key component of America's well-being: the creation of the largest democratic labor movement in the world.
Philadelphia and its Jewish community have long been especially significant in the history of the American Labor Movement. The city was host to the earliest guilds of skilled workers long before the nation itself was created, and in the mid-1740s it experienced the first strikes ever on this continent. Throughout the 1800's Jewish immigrants, many of them Philadelphians, were instrumental in creating and adding sechel to America's first national craft unions (as in the Needle trades, etc.).
Legendary figures like Samuel Gompers, Emma Goldman, Morris Hillquit, Dave Dubinsky, Jacob Potofsky, Rose Schneiderman, and Sidney Hillman, along with contemporary leaders like Joyce D. Miller (Coalition of Labor Union Women), Morty Bahr (CWA), Larry Cohen (CWA), Andy Stern (SEIU), Jon Fox (UNITE), and hundreds of others have added unique value to the Movement. Were a bumper sticker needed to encapsulate their contribution, the ILGWU slogan can suffice: American Jews helped Labor understand it needed to emphasize both Bread AND Roses.
Today, as in decades past, we ask: What do we presently want from Labor? And why? In the aftermath of the August breakup of the AFL-CIO, the Gallup Organization immediately asked Americans what we thought would happen next, and what we wished might happen. We answered that we expected the split would weaken Labor, but as 58% of us hold a positive opinion about the nations' largest social movement, we do not want any further loss in Labor's strength. Quite the contrary! A plurality (38%) actually wish Labor's influence in American life would soon increase.
Why? It is not rocket science. Average Americans understand that in the nation's City Halls, State Capitals, and Congress it is Organized Labor that especially speaks for working class folk. When exploited workers (new immigrants, undocumented folk, high school dropouts) desperately need a defender, Organized Labor steps forward. When jobs are threatened with a wage-cut race to the bottom, Labor leads the response. When fierce competition tempts employers to cut corners in safety matters, Labor blows the whistle.
In the workplace, when employers need the cooperation of knowledgeable experienced employees, Organized Labor can facilitate it. When something goes terribly wrong at work, a Shop Steward bests the Personnel Department every time in assuring a fair hearing for an accused worker. In short, when the nation's non-union workers wonder what high-quality wages and fringes might look like, and what a written guarantee of respectful treatment at work might help assure, the sagest of them look enviously at unionized workplaces.
Given the strategic value of Organized Labor, how might it avoid the weakening the public expects, and achieve instead the renewal the public prefers? Four changes would seem required. First, unions in both the AFL-CIO and the Coalition for Change must resist the temptation to maul and raid one another, as only anti-unionists finally profit from such retrograde and tasteless misbehavior. Unorganized workers are put off by such antics, and dues-payers don't think much better of it. The paltry gains possible in the transfer of one's unions' ex-members to another never covers (often hidden) expenses, and leaves wounds behind that fester for decades.
Second, considerable power must be allocated back from union headquarters to union locals. Across the spectrum of unions power has been increasingly concentrated at the top, a power grab abetted by low morale in the trenches. Unless and until local unions are helped to remake themselves into vibrant and consequential organizations no substantial renewal of Labor is possible, since it is in the local that rank-and-filers "live" their unionism, or, slough it off. As the best organizers have always been the organized, no gains in numbers are likely without the emergence of grass-roots unionists newly energized by their empowered locals.
Third, there must be more value offered in exchange for dues dollars. In recent years past members could enjoy low-cost vacations at union-operated resorts (as in the Poconos), live in outstanding subsidized city apartments (downtown Philadelphia), expect first-rate care at union-operated health facilities, and retire to first-class projects in the Golden South. For a variety of reasons (only some of which pass muster), these and other like benefits are now only memories (or nearly so). Along with new timely options, such as subsidizing the purchase and use of computers, many of these benefits should be renewed. Likewise, storefront centers devoted to teaching English to newcomers, and others set aside for senior citizens, belong in an array of new goods and services for the rank-and-file.
Finally, every possible creative effort should be made to build an "electronic community" out of a local. Members should be asked to share their e-mail addresses with the local's web master (a volunteer), and the local should create a web site so inviting, so rewarding, as to earn almost daily visits from an appreciative membership. Labor must brand itself as modern, progressive, and technologically adept. Working class men and women increasingly use the Internet at home, and one of their regular surfing way-stations should be their local union, which, in turn, diplomatically pushes out to the members material likely to strengthen their attachment to the Labor Movement.
These four changes are affordable, doable, and available for initiation later today, if not sooner. They beckon both to unions that remain within the AFL-CIO and those now aligned in the Coalition for Change. Indeed, the American Labor Movement would be better off if the two rival organizations competed to outdo the other in advancing on these four fronts. Let them try and outdo one another at avoiding raids, empowering locals, expanding services, and upgrading their "electronic communities." In this way Labor might gain the influence many Americans tell Gallup they want it to have ... and we all might enjoy more Bread and Roses alike.
Art Shostak is a retired Drexel University sociologist and Labor Educator (firstname.lastname@example.org). He taught at the AFL-CIO George Meany Center for Labor Studies from 1975-2000. His books include CyberUnion: Empowering Labor through Computer Technology (1999).