ADOLPH REED JR. replies
As is her norm, Kate Bronfenbrenner is right on target in her assessment of the challenges now facing the labor movement. She presumes that labor’s charge is, or should be, to “build a social movement powerful enough to take on global capital and win.” In light of this understanding, the internal limitations that she describes are mainly expressions of labor’s retreat from movement-building.
I imagine that Bronfenbrenner would agree that this retreat stems from several sources, perhaps most immediately the consolidation of the service model–often it seems more accurately described as an insurance company model–of unionism. This legacy of the postwar capital/labor accord devalues member education and mobilization, a tendency reinforced by the powerful inertia that characterizes unions as organizations that combine procedurally democratic accountability and centralized governance. Often it seems that the most incremental changes in union cultures are as difficult and come as slowly as turning an aircraft carrier.
In this context, the sea change in AFL-CIO leadership, while certainly significant, doesn’t get us to where we need to go. Bronfenbrenner accurately describes the limitations of the federation’s new commitment to organizing. It has been much more successful at projecting the imagery of social movement unionism–in large measure, instructively, by annexing the symbolism of women’s and black and brown people’s struggles for civil rights–than at acting as such a movement. This image consciousness gives the appearance at times that the new model is all tactics, no strategy.
As I read Bronfenbrenner’s argument, I was struck by an irony. Through the 1960s and much of the 1970s the orthodoxy was that organizing outside the industrial sector or trades was impossibly arduous. Justifications for this view ranged from the legal restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees to arguments about the logistical and ideological implications of the small, dispersed workplaces common in what were understood as service-sector jobs. Lurking beneath those justifications, it seemed at the time, were assumptions about the limitations, and maybe undesirability, of the kinds of workers who held those jobs–disproportionately women and nonwhites; “service sector” often seemed to be a euphemism for those workers. It is largely the cumulative success in organizing those once widely treated as almost unorganizable that has intensified the demographic disparity between leadership and rank and file that Bronfenbrenner notes as a current problem.