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.
Much of the relative success in organizing outside the industrial sector in recent years has resulted from factors that Bronfenbrenner indicates–perhaps chief among them relative immunity from threats of capital flight. However, another source of that success has lain in the extent to which organizing among women and Hispanic and black workers has been linked, even if only evocatively, to a larger struggle for social justice. Although it is certainly important for union leadership to look more like union membership, that goal is necessary but not sufficient for reinvigorating the labor movement as a broad, working-class-based social movement. It must also tie itself to a larger social agenda, and articulate and struggle for a political program that rests on a vision of what public policies would look like if society were governed by and in the interests of the vast majority of people who live in it. Only the labor movement has the resource base to conduct serious national education and mobilization in pursuit of “practical utopias” such as real national healthcare, removal of financial constraint from access to higher education, commitment of federal support for affordable housing and the many other concerns that are felt most acutely by working people, whether they belong to unions or not. This kind of broad fight for social justice could do more to open up organizing opportunities in all sectors than anything else that can be imagined.