Remaking Labor–From the Top-Down? Bottom-Up? or Both?

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  This is an amazing review which captures what many folks that I know have been saying since the early 2000’s. The writer, long time labor activist Steve Early, contrasts the perspectives between two recent authors and their analysis of the labor movement in LA Stories: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement by UCLA professor Ruth Milkman and US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above the Promise of Revival from Below by Labor Notes co-founder Kim Moody. It articulates well the critique of the professional staff driven “change from above” unions (such as SEIU and the unions associated with the Change to Win Coalition) which often brand themselves as progressive or social movement unions, or are characterized as such by their supporters on the left and academia. What the review unfortunately doesn’t do well is delve into the concrete of  Moody’s potentially alternative vision for “revival from below.” Early roundly criticizes Milkman’s support for SEIU and the “change from above” approaches in the labor movement:

Milkman “never addresses the serious concern … that SEIU growth has been achieved, in some sectors, at the expense of contract standards, community allies, workers’ rights, membership participation, and leadership accountability.” Milkman’s infatuation with the vanguard role of the union’s “innovators”—college educated organizers, researchers, strategic campaign coordinators, local officers and trustees—also leaves little room for examining more incisively how SEIU operatives actually interact with the working members who nominally employ—and, more rarely, elect—them.

  Unfortunately the boosterism and cheerleading on behalf of the “change from above” self-styled reformers that comes from academics like Ruth Milkman as well as other authors such as UC Berkeley professor Kim Voss (with her Hard Work, Remaking the American Labor Movement with Rick Fantasia)was parroted or perhaps reluctantly swallowed by many on the left so disappointed with the conservatavism of mainstream labor that any promise of change seemed better than nothing. Only with the recent moves by SEIU and the division between HERE-UNITE has the thin curtain been pulled away to reveal the situation that has been at hand for many years. Sadly I feel many radicals, myself included of course, missed the boat in not putting forward these criticisms sooner when they became apparent in the early 2000’s, perhaps even the late 1990’s. Let it be a word to the wise.

 

Remaking Labor–From the Top-Down? Bottom-Up? or Both?

By Steve Early (original link to this review online here)  

Review of: Milkman, Ruth. L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 244 pp.$24.95 (paper).

Moody, Kim. U.S. Labor In Trouble And Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above and the Promise of Revival from Below. New York, NY: Verso, 2007. 289 pp.$29.95 (paper).

From Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, March, 2008 Vol 11. Issue #1

The veterans of Sixties radicalism who became union activists in the 1970s belonged to a variety of left-wing groups. Regardless of other political differences, most of them shared one common belief—namely, that union transformation and working class radicalization was a bottom up process. As Stanley Aronowitz observed in Socialist Review (nee Socialist Revolution) in 1979—when Ruth Milkman, author of L.A. Story, belonged to its “Bay Area Collective”—young radicals usually became “organizers of rank-and-file movements” and builders of opposition caucuses. They immersed themselves in “day-to-day union struggles on the shop floor” and the politics of local unions, often displaying in the latter arena “almost total antipathy toward the union officialdom.” Because “union revitalization” also required organizing the unorganized, rather than just proselytizing among existing union members, Aronowitz approved, “under some circumstances,” leftists becoming “”professional paid organizers.” But he encouraged those who took this path to “see their task as building the active rank and file, even where not connected to caucus movements.”

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Outline of US Labor History with a Focus on the Role of the Left

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UPDATED and EXPANDED May 6, 2009. Below is a rough outline of the US labor movement that I created as part of a presentation. I’m attempting to periodize by decade, important organizations and broad trends. A particular focus I attempt to also give is looking at the changing relationship of the left within the labor movement. -AW

Outline of US Labor History with a Focus on the Role of the Left

· Colonial through Pre-Civil War Period– indentured servants, sailors and slaves organize minor labor protests and rebellions, and local level proto-union organizations. Some of these efforts included both white indentured servants and slaves cooperating together. Fearful elites grant privileges to whites servants and enshrined a harsh system of chattel slavery for Africans such as through the Naturalization Act of 1790 which granted citizenship only to “free white persons.” Also during this period sexual division of labor would produce laws, culture and practices of unpaid work for girls and women that would last for centuries.

· Race and Labor- Race plays a key role in US labor history whereas early white servants and later workers were granted privileges, access to land, and the right to vote (far before male suffrage was granted in most western countries). Leading into the Civil War period, many white workers cling to the ideology of “free labor,” seeing themselves as free whites and wanting to return to an imagined golden era of artisans, small farmers and shop keepers which they hold in contrast to unfree, slavish and permanently proletarianized workers of color. Because of this, much of the history of unionism has been of white, skilled male workers (though the definition of who was considered white changed over time to incorporate various European immigrants such as Germans, Irish, Eastern Europeans, etc) protecting their privileges against the unskilled, women and non-white workers. Also a much smaller current of homespun labor radicalism emerges, which is sometimes called a “proto-marxism” by historians.

Civil War is a defining conflict in US history over what type of labor system the country will have with Northern elites eventually imposing free labor in contrast to Southern plantation owners who wished to maintain race-based chattel slavery. Following the collapse of Reconstruction after Civil War, white elites impose the laws and customs associated with Jim Crow that creates an apartheid system that lastes into the 1960’s and making blacks the most exploited segment of workers. Laws created across the country during the Jim Crow era, such as for vagrancy, apply for all poor and non-white.      Continue reading

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