A Labor of Criticism

  The labor movement and criticism are certainly two things that are not usually found together. On the level of day-today functioning the internal culture of many leading US mainstream unions perhaps share a fair amount in common with the military or a centralized political party– where participants are expected to “toe the line” on key issues, and most forms of criticism are frowned upon, if not looked at as close to treason– instead of an open culture of debate and critical discussion. On the broader level, around issues such as strategy, organizing models and structure, any debate to be had is largely conducted in closed door meetings by top officials. In fact, authors Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin in their recent book Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice speak of a “toxic culture within the overall union movement that denies the importance of debate.” (124) 

  The recent conflict between the UNITE and HERE sides of the formerly merged HERE-UNITE, with SEIU teaming up on the side of UNITE, is a perfect example. Each party has cooked up more or less smokescreen issues to justify their power plays for control over members and organizing resources. In their attacks on each other members and staff have been bombarded with letters, flyers, mailings and even pre-recorded phone calls and some with ominous messages which take a page from the play book of union busting efforts. While I believe more more is yet to be revealed, we can gain insight into how some of this has playd out by looking at the PR battle of anonymous websites each side has used, such as HERE’s “One UNITE-HERE” and UNITE/SEIU’s project “Workers United,” which is threatening to raid HERE’s hotel and hospitality membership (who on their website reveal their affiliation with SEIU, but previously did not).

  As each side rallies its troops, demanding the loyalty of staff and members, it becomes harder to separate fact from fiction, though in the bigger picture a more true portrait of each player emerges. But amidst the intrigue, how can we develop a critical understanding of the problems the labor movement faces? And how can the labor movement develop a culture of criticism?

  I believe these two pieces are helpful starting points and examples. The following articles were published in Monthly Review’s webzine, which is a project of the same foundation that publishes the influential independent left/socialist magazine. Also see their listing of labor related articles here. The first piece, “When the Union is the Boss” by Kevin Funk and published in early 2006, is the story of a young left/radical-leaning college graduate who goes to work for SEIU as a staff organizer– which is the likely demographic of SEIU organizers. Here he tells his story of a backfired electoral campaign, which is not entirely untypical in my view of their approach to organizing, along with the fierce opposition he encounters to any suggestion that SEIU staff might form their own union.Solidaridad.jpg picture by adam_freedom

   In “A Union is Not a ‘Movement’” by Monthly Review Editor Michael D. Yates, is a 1977 reprint from their magazine of a very early criticism of the UFW under Cesar Chavez. While I’m not quite sure if I would agree with the authors characterizations of the UFW and its needs, it does take up the question of the autocratic leadership of Chavez. Also a useful read, perhaps more so than Yates piece from the late 1970s, are a links to more recent articles in a similar vein, including a 2006 seven part investigative series by an LA Times reporter that deals with Chavez’s legacy and the subsequent decline of the union.

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

J4J.jpg picture by adam_freedom

  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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