Steve Early is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket). Early spent many years helping members of the Communications Workers of America bargain about health insurance issues. He moved to Richmond two years ago and is writing a book about the city. He belongs to the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
While fighting givebacks, unions can't lose sight of the big healthcare
LEGITIMATE? I THINK NOT
The Bronx, NY
Union members are making links between customers' concerns and their
American labor still pays lip service to the idea that it seeks "bread
and roses too"--a higher standard of living, plus the chance for workers
to enjoy some of the finer things in life. In reality, the famous
rallying cry of the 1912 textile workers' strike in Lawrence,
Massachusetts, is no more than a faint echo in today's unions. Few offer
what anyone would call a rich cultural experience for their members.
Most of the labor movement is no longer rooted in immigrant communities
or working-class fraternal associations of the sort that once supported
folk music, dance, theater and even literature in foreign-language
newspapers like the Forward, the Yiddish daily. Postwar
assimilation and suburbanization, the decline of indigenous
working-class radicalism and the rise of "mass culture" and
entertainment have left American workers with little claim to a culture
of their own. Beset with many current problems (including threats to
their very survival), unions are not inclined to embrace the additional
challenge of making drama, poetry or music--in new or old forms--part of
their internal life again.
The one AFL-CIO affiliate that has attempted this, on a large scale, is
the union of New York City hospital and healthcare workers, best known
by its number--1199. Now part of the Service Employees International
Union, Local 1199 launched a cultural program called Bread and Roses in
1979, with labor and foundation funding. Since then, B&R has
sponsored an impressive stream of union musicals and documentary films;
exhibits of paintings, poster art, murals and photography dealing with
workplace themes; poetry and writing classes for workers, oral histories
of their struggles--all of which help foster membership solidarity and
connection to the union.
Not for Bread Alone is the story of that effort and a brief
history of the union behind it, as told by 1199's longtime publicist,
campaign strategist and cultural impresario, Moe Foner. The book also
traces Foner's own career as a labor PR man par excellence and contains
much useful advice for today's "union communicators." The author was a
scrappy, streetwise hustler of the press who couldn't type but had on
his desk one of the most formidable Rolodexes in the labor movement. A
product of left-wing politics and CIO unionism in its Big Apple heyday,
Foner was far more effective than the AFL-CIO's current crop of
blow-dried, inside-the-Beltway "media consultants" (whose idea of"party
work" is introducing labor clients to the Democratic candidates served by
their firms, so that union treasuries and political action funds can be
milked simultaneously). Foner displayed a different kind of political
savvy, in countless picket-line battles and major lobbying efforts. As
journalist Jack Newfield says, he "could publicize like P.T. Barnum,
organize like Joe Hill and network like Bill Clinton."
For example, Foner's pioneering work on 1199 campaigns among private,
non-profit hospital workers--who didn't have the right to bargain with
management forty years ago--provides a good model for any union trying
to make organizing rights a higher-profile issue today. Not for Bread
Alone also reminds us about the important role played by the Labor
Leadership Assembly for Peace--the anti-Vietnam War coalition launched
by Foner, 1199 and their union allies in the late 1960s.
The author completed this memoir, with the assistance of former 1199
news editor Dan North, shortly before his death in January at age 86. As
the book recounts, Foner was born into a Jewish working-class family in
Brooklyn that produced not one, but four radical activists. A member of
the Communist Party from the mid-1930s "until the Khrushchev revelations
in 1956 about what went on under Stalin," Moe--along with his twin
brothers, Jack and Phil--was victimized by an early purge of leftists
from higher education. All three were forced out ofteaching or
administrative jobs at City College of New York (CCNY) in 1941. (The
resulting controversy led the highly musical Foners to change the name
of their dance band--already popular on the Catskills small-hotel
circuit--to "Suspended Swing.")
Despite their dismissal, Phil and Jack went on to have distinguished
careers as academic historians. Henry Foner--youngest of the four and
then a student at CCNY--joined the Furriers Union and later became its
president. And the author, for much of his forty-year union career,
became the living embodiment of the cultural politics that developed
during the period of the Popular Front, when American liberals and
radicals united to oppose fascism abroad and support Roosevelt's New
Deal at home. Some of the best material in Foner's book is, thus, like a
collection of old photos in a family album, faded but fascinating
because of what it reveals about the social and political milieu of a
now largely deceased generation of labor activists who managed to
survive both McCarthyism and the self-inflicted wounds of the Communist
In the 1930s and '40s, Foner observes, the left created "a vigorous
cultural life that became part of its mass appeal."
The most famous writers...appeared in the New Masses magazine,
which was close to the Communist Party. The Daily Worker had
great cartoons by people like Robert Minor, William Gropper, and Art
Young, but artists from the New Yorker also appeared there.
This was the era of the experimental Group Theater and...Waiting for
Lefty, the Clifford Odets play about striking taxi drivers.... The
International Ladies Garment Workers Union had already put on its
immensely successful musical revue, Pins and Needles, and on a
smaller scale, the American Student Union put on a musical every year.
One of them, called Pens and Pencils, was a takeoff on the Marx
Brothers.... There was a Theater Arts Committee that had a cabaret to
support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. And the YCL [Young
Communist League] was always putting on skits and shows.
Foner was hired in 1947 as education director for a department store
union. Many Manhattan store clerks of that era--like waiters and
waitresses today--were aspiring actors. So when Foner put out a call for
auditions for the union's first theatrical venture--a seventeen-song
musical review called Thursdays 'Til Nine--400 members showed up.
Through his dance band and party connections, Foner also "had access to
an unusually large number of creative people who were, because of their
political beliefs, more than happy to participate for little or no money
in union cultural events." For music, lyrics or other help, he tapped
show-business talents like Millard Lampell, later a successful Hollywood
screenwriter; playwrights Arthur Miller and Norman Rosten; film
producer/director Martin Ritt (who went on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae); comedians Sam Levinson and Irwin Corey; actors Jack Gilford and Zero
Mostel; and future TV writer Mel Tolkin.
Although professionally written and produced, Thursdays 'Til Nine
drew on the job experiences of store workers themselves and provided
humorous commentary on contemporary labor issues (in numbers like "The
Taft-Hartley Rumba"). Thousands of members applauded its performances,
and Foner's singular career was launched. The show cost only a few
thousand dollars, but in return it "reaped immense rewards in good
publicity, education on labor issues, and membership pride in their
These positive results became a hallmark of Foner productions for his
later union employers as well. The store workers soon merged with
District 65, another "center of left unionism in New York," whose
stewards were deployed in Peekskill in 1949 to protect Paul Robeson when
a right-wing mob attacked one of his concerts. At District 65, Foner ran
educational, social and cultural programs for 20,000 workers in retail,
wholesale and warehouse jobs. One of the first things he did was start a
nightclub on the top floor of the union's lower Manhattan office
Each week, a different group of members would be in charge of selling
400 tickets at fifty cents each. Rank-and-file committees would set up,
check coats, wait on tables, serve drinks, etc.... I'd line up a band.
And every Saturday night, I'd get a guest star to perform for free....
Harry Belafonte was just breaking in then, and he'd come down and sing
in his dark glasses. We were packing them in, the place was always full.
On Saturday mornings, District 65 also had a "kiddy program," which
featured sing-alongs with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, dance programs
conducted by Guthrie's wife, Margie, and magic shows by Doc Horowitz,
who brought along his daughter, a "terrific ventriloquist and puppeteer"
who acted as emcee. Her name? Shari Lewis, later the star of one of the
1950s' most popular children's TV shows.
In 1952 Foner moved to 1199, where he spent three decades--editing the
union newspaper, aiding strikes and organizing campaigns, advising union
founder Leon Davis and eventually creating Bread and Roses. At
midcentury, the union was quite different from what it is today; now it
has more than 200,000 members, most of whom are black, Hispanic and/or
female. When Foner was hired by Davis, a radical immigrant from Russia,
1199 had only 5,000 members and was overwhelmingly composed of Jewish
men working as pharmacists or clerks in New York City drugstores. But,
as Foner notes, 1199 had campaigned since the late 1930s for the hiring
of black pharmacists and was one of the first unions anywhere to
celebrate Negro History Week. When 1199 began organizing primarily
nonwhite hospital workers in the late 1950s--which led to its explosive
growth over the next twenty years--the union already had a strong record
of support for civil rights.
Commitment to that cause was symbolized by 1199's close relationships
with leading black artists and entertainers. Then relatively unknown as
actors, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (who contributed a loving foreword to
this book) became lifelong friends and collaborators with the author.
The couple directed or performed in a series of productions at 1199's
annual "Salute to Freedom." Much later they helped Foner create Bread
and Roses' best-known musical review, Take Care, which used
humorous songs and sketches to tell the story of hospital workers' daily
lives, their frustrations on the job and hopes for the future.
In 1199's initial hospital organizing and strikes, the union tried to
fuse civil rights and working-class consciousness. Several vivid
chapters in Not for Bread Alone describe how its "Union Power,
Soul Power" campaigns were built--first in New York, then in Baltimore,
Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, site of an epic 113-day
walkout aided by Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and
other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The
photographs accompanying Foner's memoir confirm the breadth of the
union's political alliances--with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr.,
Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Adam Clayton Powell.
If the 1960s and early '70s were years of triumph for 1199, they
culminated in a decade of byzantine internal feuding. Leon Davis
suffered a stroke in 1979 and decided, after nearly five decades as
president, to turn over the reins to Doris Turner, an African-American
and former dietary clerk who headed 1199's hospital division. At the
same time, the union's founder tried to realize his longtime dream of
creating "one big union for all healthcare workers" by merging 1199 with
SEIU. Neither the merger nor the internal transfer of power proceeded as
planned. Instead, the union was plunged into a terrible "civil war,"
replete with "bitter elements of racism, sexism, red-baiting, violence,
For a majority of 1199 members, two things eventually became clear:
Turner was an incompetent autocrat and their union had become a "busted
Stradivarius." Turner purged all staff critics, surrounded herself with
goons, moved the union to the right politically, engaged in vote fraud
to win re-election and then, in 1984, led "one of the most inept,
unplanned, and disastrous strikes in New York history." To get the union
back on track, Foner and other 1199 veterans joined forces with Dennis
Rivera, a staff organizer from Puerto Rico recently fired by Turner.
They created a dissident group called "Save Our Union," which ran a
slate headed by Georgianna Johnson in a federally supervised rerun
election for 1199 officers. Johnson narrowly defeated Turner, but her
presidency was only slightly less troubled. She was soon ousted by her
former backer, Rivera, who has led 1199 in New York since 1989 (and
engineered its long-delayed affiliation with SEIU three years ago).
On the subject of 1199's "self-destruction"--what Foner calls "the most
heart-breaking experience" of his life--Not for Bread Alone is
both unreflective and unrevealing. "To some extent, we all played out
events based on our backgrounds, and mistakes were made. But the union
survived," the author writes. Elsewhere, Foner admits that "the whole
affair had disturbing overtones" but claims, unconvincingly, that during
the union's 1989 leadership race he "was removed from the day-to-day
running of 1199, and [has] only a hazy idea of the details."
As a history of 1199, then, Not for Bread Alone is best read
along with Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg's Upheaval in the Quiet
Zone (which Foner, to his credit, helped the authors research,
despite its dissection of various 1199 flaws). Upheaval appeared
thirteen years ago, when the union's bloody and embarrassing leadership
succession fight was still unresolved. Yet it remains the definitive
study of what went wrong then--and its analysis is just as relevant
today, in light of 1199's recent right turn, under Rivera, into the camp
of Republican Governor George Pataki, a questionable ally for any
"progressive" trade union.
Fink and Greenberg criticize Davis not only for his disastrous choice of
Turner as heir apparent but also for functioning as a "charismatic
patriarch" whose "unquestioned authority verged on benevolent
despotism." According to them, even the 1199 bylaw reforms championed by
Save Our Union failed to address the problem of overly centralized
decision-making in a "local" union far larger than most national ones.
"Without provisions for an elected 'chief delegate' at each hospital or
elected area directors, there is still no structural accommodation to
pluralistic power centers within the union and little place for leaders
of the future to spread their wings," they contended. "Communication as
well as decision-making will still be formulated in a room at the top."
The local's history and internal politics aside, the main question
raised by Foner's memoir is whether Bread and Roses offers a viable
model for cultural programming elsewhere in labor. Or is it too much a
product of New York City exceptionalism--a unique expression of 1199's
interracialism and now-fading political traditions, including its
Popular Front alliance with artists and entertainers long in the orbit
of the Old Left?
B&R has, from the beginning, inspired other labor arts initiatives.
Just as 1199 once tried to spread its unique brand of hospital unionism
elsewhere in the country (with varying degrees of success), Foner helped
organize, in 1980, the first in a series of Bread and Roses cultural
festivals in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which have been held there on
Labor Day weekend ever since. For almost as long, the Labor Heritage
Foundation in Washington has hosted an annual Arts Exchange and
Conference on Creative Organizing, which brings together union activists
and entertainers. LHF also sells poster art, videos and CDs of union
music to help publicize the work of labor choruses and individual
singer-songwriters. At the local level, however, few unions have the
kind of membership base and staff support--or access to foundation
funding--that has kept B&R afloat for nearly twenty-five years.
(During his period of forced exile from 1199 during the mid-1980s, even
Foner found it hard to reproduce his past successes while working
part-time for a small Meat Cutters local in Queens.)
According to Esther Cohen, Bread and Roses' current director, the
project continues to achieve its founder's goal of providing
professional-quality programming and opportunities for creative
expression by 1199 members themselves. B&R's permanent art gallery
at union headquarters currently hosts eight exhibits a year, on topics
ranging from Haitian culture and Dominican religion to the lives of
Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Pennsylvania coal miners, and the
death-row experiences of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Once a month, Cohen reports,
the gallery becomes "a cozy nightclub" and cafe, with entertainment
provided by 1199 rank-and-filers. More than 150 members recently signed
up for a creative-writing workshop as well; and as part of an amateur
photography program called "Unseen America," Bread and Roses is helping
scores of its members--and other immigrant workers--record and display
scenes of workplace and community life rarely shown in the mass media.
However, in the issue of New Labor Forum that recently published
Cohen's account of B&R activity, the Queens College magazine also
bemoaned the fact that most professionals in the arts are no longer
stirred by "the plight of working people and the intoxicating promise of
their liberation." According to NLF's editors:
For two centuries, until now that is, there was always a cultural
alternative, a point of opposition that said no to the callous
calculations of the marketplace.... While many kinds of people and
institutions have, at one time or another, joined the opposition, the
labor movement was always part of the picture, sometimes at the center
of the canvas. No more.... The labor movement is at a cultural dead end.
It has been defeated in the struggle for the hearts and minds of our
Such funereal observations were not part of Moe Foner's game. He was
ever the optimist, the union survivor and upbeat promoter of new ideas
and causes. If still on the job at B&R, he'd be on the phone right
now buttonholing talent for its next production, badgering reporters to
cover it and rallying members to fill every seat in the house--while
organizing labor opposition to US intervention in Iraq on the side! He'd
also be applauding the role played by hip-hop stars in the mass rally of
New York City teachers (and thousands of their music-loving students)
held in late May during contract talks between Mayor Bloomberg and the
United Federation of Teachers. Better than some activists in his field,
the author knew that if "labor culture" is going to be sustained, it
must be periodically renewed--that Ossie and Ruby must finally give way
to the likes of Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and Erykah
Badu, all of whom graced the platform of the UFT.
As New York City union historian Joshua Freeman observed, in another
recent exchange about the future of labor-oriented art and
entertainment: "There is no going back in time, and no reason to do so.
The strength of mid-century New York left culture lay in its organic
relationship to the needs and tastes of the city's working class. It
remains for another generation, in its own way, to build a new culture
of labor and the left."
The fortunes of American unions have taken a turn for the worse. Thanks to terrorism and recession, union members are reeling from a series of economic and political setbacks. Nearly half a million of them now face unemployment in the hotel and airline industries, and at Boeing, Ford, major steel-makers and other manufacturing firms. Many public employees will be clobbered next, as state and local budget crises deepen around the country. Already, teachers in New Jersey and state workers in Minnesota have been forced into controversial strikes over rising healthcare costs--a trend that affects millions of Americans. The accompanying loss of job-based medical coverage by many people who still have jobs should be fueling a revived movement for national health insurance, but few unions bother to raise that banner anymore.
Promising new AFL-CIO initiatives on immigration--like its call for legalization of undocumented workers--have been undermined by post-September 11 paranoia about Middle Easterners and federal scrutiny of thousands of them. Union organizing is stalled on many fronts, and rank-and-file participation in protests against corporate globalization--on the rise in Seattle and Quebec City--has faltered amid the myriad political distractions of the "war on terrorism." While labor's nascent grassroots internationalism remains overshadowed by flag-waving displays of "national unity," trade unionists have yet to be rewarded for their patriotism, even with a modest boost in unemployment benefits. Instead, President Bush is seeking cuts in federal job-training grants for laid-off workers. He's already won House approval for fast-track negotiating authority on future trade deals that threaten even more US jobs--and expects a Senate victory on that issue soon. To insure that collective bargaining doesn't interfere with the functioning of various executive branch offices now engaged in "homeland security," the White House just stripped hundreds of federal employees of their right to union representation. As University of Illinois labor relations professor Michael LeRoy observed in the New York Times, "a time of national emergency makes it more difficult for unions to engineer public support."
Into this bleak landscape arrives State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein's intellectual history of labor's past 100 years. Readers might take comfort from the fact--well documented by the author--that labor has been down before and, as in the 1930s, bounced back. Nevertheless, Lichtenstein's book raises disturbing questions about when, where and how that's going to happen again in a period when "solidarity and unionism no longer resonate with so large a slice of the American citizenry."
The author's views on this subject are informed by both scholarship and activism. A professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Lichtenstein wrote The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, a definitive biography of one-time United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. In 1996 Lichtenstein helped launch Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), a campus-based labor support network. Through SAWSJ, Lichtenstein has aided teach-ins and protests about workers' rights and worked with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to re-establish links between unions and intellectuals that might help labor become a more "vital force in a democratic polity."
Consistent with this mission, Lichtenstein hopes to revive interest in what liberal reformers in politics and academia once called "the labor question." State of the Union is thus a history of the ideas about labor that animated much of the action--all the great union-building attempts during the past century. "Trade unionism requires a compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, to give labor's cause power and legitimacy," Lichtenstein argues. "It is a political project whose success enables the unions to transcend the ethnic and economic divisions always present in the working population."
He begins his survey in the Progressive Era, a period in which "democratization of the workplace, the solidarity of labor, and the social betterment of American workers once stood far closer to the center of the nation's political and moral consciousness." Politicians, jurists, academics and social activists--ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Louis Brandeis to Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League--all joined the debate about the threat to our "self-governing republic" posed by large-scale industrial capitalism. How could democracy survive when America's growing mass of factory workers were stripped of their civic rights, and often denied a living wage as well, whenever they entered the plant gates?
The Progressives' response was "industrial democracy"--extending constitutional rights of free speech and association to the workplace, enacting protective labor laws and securing other forms of the "social wage." Unfortunately, national-level progress toward these goals foundered after World War I on the rocks of lost strikes, political repression and Republican Party dominance in Washington. "Neither the labor movement nor the state, not to mention industrial management itself, generated the kind of relationships, in law, ideology, or practice, necessary to institutionalize mass unionism and sustain working-class living standards" during the 1920s, observes Lichtenstein.
The years of the Roosevelt Administration were a different story. State of the Union recounts how Depression-era unrest--plus the efforts of an unusual and uneasy alliance between industrial workers, labor radicals, dissident leaders of AFL affiliates, pro-union legislators and New Deal policy-makers--led to passage of the Wagner Act. It created a new legal framework for mediating labor-management disputes and boosted consumer purchasing power via the wage gains of collective bargaining.
As industrial unions experienced explosive growth before and during World War II, the previously unchecked political and economic power of the great corporations was finally tempered through the emergence of a more social democratic workers' movement, led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO spoke up for the poor, the unskilled and the unemployed, as well as more affluent members of the working class. Even the conservative craft unions of the AFL ultimately grew as a result of the CIO's existence because many employers, if they had to deal with any union at all, preferred one with less ideological baggage.
Then as now, the nation's manufacturing work force was multiethnic, which meant that hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants used CIO unionism as a vehicle for collective empowerment on the job and in working-class communities. Successful organizers "cloaked themselves in the expansive, culturally pluralist patriotism that the New Deal sought to propagate," says Lichtenstein. "Unionism is the spirit of Americanism," proclaimed a labor newspaper directed at "immigrant workers long excluded from a full sense of citizenship." The exercise of citizenship rights in both electoral politics and National Labor Relations Board voting became, for many, a passport to "an 'American' standard of living."
State of the Union credits some on the left for noting, then and later, that New Deal labor legislation also had its limits and trade-offs. Wagner Act critics like lawyer-historian Staughton Lynd complain that it merely directed worker militancy into narrow, institutional channels--soon dominated by full-time union reps, attorneys for labor and management, not-so-neutral arbitrators and various government agencies. During World War II, attempts by labor officialdom to enforce a nationwide "no strike" pledge led to major rifts within several CIO unions and helped undermine the position of Communist Party members who tried to discourage wildcat walkouts.
The "union idea" that was so transcendent among liberals and radicals during the New Deal underwent considerable erosion in the 1950s. Many leading writers, professors and clergymen had signed petitions, walked picket lines, spoken at rallies, testified before Congressional committees and defended the cause of industrial organization in the 1930s. These ties began to fray after World War II and the onset of the cold war, when the CIO conducted a ruthless purge of its own left wing. This made it much harder for "outsiders" with suspect views to gain access to the increasingly parochial world of the (soon to be reunited) AFL and CIO. As Lichtenstein shows in his survey of their writings, the subsequent alienation of intellectuals like C. Wright Mills, Dwight Macdonald, Harvey Swados and others was rooted in the perception--largely accurate--that union bureaucracy and self-interest, corruption and complacency had replaced labor's earlier "visionary quest for solidarity and social transformation."
Lichtenstein questions whether unions were ever quite as fat, happy and structurally secure as some economists and historians claimed (after the fact) in books and articles on the postwar "labor-management accord." If such a deal had really existed during those years, State of the Union argues, it was "less a mutually satisfactory concordat" than "a limited and unstable truce, largely confined to a well-defined set of regions and industries...a product of defeat, not victory."
Measured by dues-payers alone, "Big Labor" was certainly bigger in the 1950s--at least compared with the small percentage of the work force represented by unions now (33 percent at midcentury versus 14 percent today). But union economic gains derived more from members-only collective bargaining than from social programs--like national health insurance--that would have benefited the entire working class.
Labor's failure to win more universal welfare-state coverage on the European or Canadian model led to its reliance--in both craft and industrial unions--on "firm-centered" fringe-benefit negotiations. The problem with the incremental advance of this "privatized welfare system" for the working-class elite was that it left a lot of other people (including some union members) out of the picture. Millions of Americans in mostly nonunion, lower-tier employment ended up with job-based pensions, group medical insurance, paid vacations, etc., that were limited or nonexistent.
The fundamental weakness of this edifice--even for workers in longtime bastions of union strength--was not fully exposed until the concession bargaining crisis of the late 1970s and '80s. As Lichtenstein describes in painful detail, employers launched a major offensive--first on the building trades, then on municipal labor and then on union members in basic industry. Pattern bargaining unraveled in a series of lost strikes and desperate giveback deals. This allowed management to introduce additional wage-and-benefit inequalities into the work force, including two-tier pay structures within the same firm, healthcare cost shifting, more individualized retirement coverage and greatly reduced job security due to widespread outsourcing and other forms of de-unionization.
By then, of course, African-Americans in the South, who suffered longest and most from economic inequality, had already risen up and made a "civil rights revolution." Their struggle was one that unions in the 1960s--at least the more liberal ones--nominally supported and in which veteran black labor activists played a seminal role. Yet the civil rights movement as a whole clearly passed labor by and further diminished its already reduced stature as the champion of the underdog and leading national voice for social justice. In a key chapter titled "Rights Consciousness in the Workplace," Lichtenstein explores how unions, their contracts and their negotiated grievance procedures have been further marginalized by the enduring legal and political legacy of the civil rights era. According to the author, this has created "the great contradiction that stands at the heart of American democracy today":
In the last forty years, a transformation in law, custom, and ideology has made a once radical demand for racial and gender equality into an elemental code of employer conduct.... But during that same era, the rights of workers, as workers, and especially as workers acting in an autonomous, collective fashion, have moved well into the shadows.... Little in American culture, politics, or business encourages the institutionalization of a collective employee voice.
Now, every US employer has to be an "equal opportunity" one or face an avalanche of negative publicity, public censure and costly litigation. Discrimination against workers--on grounds deemed unlawful by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation--has become downright un-American, with the newest frontiers being the fight against unfair treatment of workers based on their physical disabilities or sexual preference. At the same time, as State of the Union and other studies have documented, collective workplace rights are neither celebrated nor well enforced [see Early, "How Stands the Union?" Jan. 22, 2001]. What Lichtenstein calls "rights consciousness" is the product of heroic social struggle and community sacrifice but, ironically, often reinforces a different American tradition: "rugged individualism," which finds modern expression in the oft-repeated threat to "call my lawyer" whenever disputes arise, on or off the job.
To make his point, Lichtenstein exaggerates the degree to which individual complaint-filers at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (and equally backlogged state agencies) end up on a faster or more lucrative track than workers seeking redress at the National Labor Relations Board. There is no doubt, though, that high-profile discrimination litigation has paid off in ways that unfair-labor-practice cases rarely do. Among other examples, the book contrasts the unpunished mass firing of Hispanic phone workers trying to unionize at Sprint in San Francisco--a typical modern failure of the Wagner Act--with big class-action victories like the settlement securing $132 million for thousands of minority workers victimized by racist managers at Shoney's. The restaurant case involved much public "shaming and redemption" via management shakeups at the corporate level; Sprint merely shrugged off allegations of unionbusting until a federal court ruled in its favor.
Lichtenstein's solution is for labor today to find ways to "capitalize on the nation's well-established rights culture of the last 40 years," just as the CIO "made the quest for industrial democracy a powerful theme that legitimized its strikes and organizing campaigns in the 1930s." He looks to veterans of 1960s social movements--who entered the withering vineyard of American labor back when cold warriors like George Meany and Lane Kirkland still held sway--to build coalitions with nonlabor groups that can "make union organizational rights as unassailable as are basic civil rights."
In so doing, Lichtenstein recommends finding a middle way between a renewed emphasis on class that downplays identity politics--"itself a pejorative term for rights consciousness"--and an exclusive emphasis on the latter that may indeed thwart efforts to unite workers around common concerns. In the past, Lichtenstein notes, "the labor movement has surged forward not when it denied its heterogeneity" but instead found ways to affirm it, using ethnic and racial pluralism within unions to build power in more diverse workplaces and communities.
Given the enormous external obstacles to union growth, the author's other proposals--summarized in a final chapter titled "What Is to Be Done?"--seem a bit perfunctory. His "three strategic propositions for the union movement" do point in a better direction than the one in which the AFL-CIO and some of its leading affiliates are currently headed. State of the Union calls for more worker militancy, greater internal democracy and less dependence on the Democratic Party. These are all unassailable ideas--until one gets beyond the official lip service paid to them and down to the nitty-gritty of their implementation.
Too often in labor today--particularly in several high-profile, "progressive" unions led by onetime student activists--participatory democracy is missing. Membership mobilization has a top-down, carefully orchestrated character that subverts real rank-and-file initiative, decision-making and dynamism. The emerging culture of these organizations resembles Third World "guided democracies," in which party-appointed apparatchiks or technocrats provide surrogate leadership for the people who are actually supposed to be in charge. In politics, it's equally disheartening to see that labor's "independence" is not being demonstrated through the creation of more union-based alternatives to business-oriented groups within the Democratic Party or by challenging corporate domination of the two-party system. Instead, it's taking the form of very traditional and narrow special-interest endorsement deals with Republicans like New York Governor George Pataki.
This is not what Lichtenstein has in mind when he urges adoption of "a well-projected, clearly defined political posture in order to advance labor's legislative agenda and defend the very idea of workplace rights and collective action." His book applauds the authentic militants who battled contract concessions and the labor establishment prior to the 1995 palace coup that put John Sweeney and his associates in control of the AFL-CIO. While the author backs "the new agenda of the Sweeneyite leadership," with its primary focus on the right to organize, he argues that the fight for union democracy is equally "vital to restoring the social mission of labor and returning unions to their social-movement heritage."
How labor is viewed, aided, undermined or ignored by men and women of ideas (including the author) is, by itself, never going to determine its fate in any era. Workers themselves--acting through organizations they create or remake--are still the primary shapers of their own future, whether it's better or worse. Nevertheless, creative interaction between workers and intellectuals has helped spawn new forms of workplace and political organization in every nation--Poland, South Africa, Korea and Brazil--where social movement unionism has been most visible at some point in recent decades. In the United States, unions--and their new campus and community allies--face the daunting task of developing ideas and strategies that will "again insert working America into the heart of our national consciousness." If they succeed in restoring its relevance, the labor movement may yet have a broader impact on our society, and Lichtenstein's State of the Union will deserve credit for being a catalyst in that process.
About every thirty years for the last one hundred, a crusading journalist somewhere has gotten the same idea: Abandon the middle-class literary life (for a brief period), get a real job, gain firsthand experience in the underclass, go home and write it up.
Not surprisingly, most practitioners of the genre have been left-wing whistleblowers--notably, Jack London and George Orwell. London's 1902 book People of the Abyss chronicled the misery of urban and agricultural workers, plus the unemployed, in turn-of-the-century England. "Work as they will," he discovered, "wage-earners cannot make their future secure. It is all a matter of chance. Everything depends upon the thing happening, the thing about which they can do nothing. Precaution cannot fend it off, nor can wiles evade it."
Already a renowned writer, London entered this new world of poverty and insecurity "with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of an explorer." Orwell's expedition, at the time of the Great Depression, followed in London's footsteps in the same East End neighborhoods, later ending up in Paris. Published in 1933 as an autobiographical novel, Down and Out in Paris and London records the author's experiences toiling under terrible conditions as a plongeur, or restaurant dishwasher, in the bowels of a great Paris hotel. In both cities, Orwell's narrator struggles to make ends meet--just like his co-workers and fellow tenement dwellers.
A plongeur is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. Except by a lucky chance, he has no escape from this life, save into prison. If plongeurs thought at all, they would strike for better treatment. But they do not think; they have no leisure for it.
T hree decades later, on the eve of the civil rights revolution in the United States, journalist John Howard Griffin was down and out in Dixie. His book, Black Like Me, featured the additional twist of an author trying to cross both class and racial lines. To find out, as a white, what it was like for African-Americans to live and work in the segregated South, the author darkened his skin and traveled about in the guise of what was then called (appropriately enough for Griffin) a "colored" person. Black Like Me had a great impact at the time because of the novelty of the author's assumed identity and the book's shocking (for many whites) account of the routine indignities and monstrous injustice of apartheid in America.
It took far less makeup for Barbara Ehrenreich, the well-known socialist and feminist, author and columnist, to "pass" among the mainly white working-class people she met while researching Nickel and Dimed. Between 1998 and 2000, she took jobs as a waitress and hotel maid in Florida, a nursing-home aide and a house cleaner in Maine, and a retail sales clerk in Minnesota. Her trip across the class divide did require that she temporarily leave behind most of the accoutrements of her normal existence--home ownership, social connections, professional status, "the variety and drama of my real, Barbara Ehrenreich life."
Retaining, as her private safety net, credit cards (to be used only in emergencies) and a series of "Rent-a-Wrecks" to make job-hunting easier, she set out to determine how a person with every advantage of "ethnicity and education, health and motivation" might fare in the "economy's lower depths" in "a time of exuberant prosperity."
Her attempt to "match income to expenses" on the $6-$8 an hour wages of the working poor succeeds only briefly, though--and then just barely--in Portland, Maine, where she is able to juggle two jobs at once. Like Orwell living in Left Bank penury in Paris, she quickly becomes obsessed with counting her pennies and staying within a daily budget that does not allow for any splurges or unexpected financial adversity. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of single mothers with children who've been dumped into the job market by "welfare reform," she doesn't have to worry about finding and paying for childcare while holding down a draining, low-income job (or two). Nevertheless, she ends up being defeated by the same fundamental obstacle they face: Despite much hard work, "many people earn far less than they need to live on."
"How much is that?" she asks. "The Economic Policy Institute recently reviewed dozens of studies of what constitutes a 'living wage' and came up with the figure of $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children, which amounts to a wage of $14 an hour." The problem is that "the majority of American workers, about 60 percent, earn less than $14 an hour," while 30 percent, according to the EPI, made $8 an hour or less when Ehrenreich joined their ranks in 1998.
At each stop on her low-wage tour, the author tests out local support services for the working poor. Not surprisingly, the things that people need most to make their lives better--health coverage, affordable housing and access to mass transit--aren't available at the agencies she visits. (Instead, she gets the occasional bag of free groceries, plus referrals for apartment rentals she can't afford.) She finds that many of her co-workers--particularly those without family support networks--lack sufficient funds for the rental deposits and one month's advance rent needed to acquire an apartment. As a result, they are forced into overcrowded, ripoff lodging arrangements at seedy residential motels, which charge by the day or week. Even trailer-park living, which Ehrenreich tried in Key West, is now prohibitively expensive in tighter local housing markets. The nation's widespread deficiencies in public transportation also limit workers' options about where they can live--and work--if they don't own a car.
Many low-end employers don't offer health insurance, of course. Even when they do, workers in places like Wal-Mart often can't afford the payroll deductions required for family or even individual coverage when their starting pay is only $7 an hour (rising to $7.75 after two years in the Minneapolis store where Ehrenreich worked). The resulting lack of preventive medical and dental care leads to a cycle of daily discomfort and, sometimes, life-threatening deprivation. The work that Ehrenreich describes in painful detail--scrubbing floors, waiting on tables, lifting Alzheimer's patients--is hard on the body. Years of it breeds myriad aches and pains, injuries and allergic reactions, which, left untreated, become a never-ending source of misery, not to mention missed work, lost income and potentially ruinous bills. As Ehrenreich notes, she held up as well as she did in several of her jobs only because she hadn't been doing them for long; without her personal history of regular exercise, proper diet and medical care, a woman her age (late 50s) would have been struggling to stay on her feet all day as a Merry Maid or Wal-Mart sales clerk.
What makes Nickel and Dimed so engaging, however, is not its tutorial on the economics and ergonomics of low-wage life and work. Rather, it is the author's insights into the labor process in the retail and service sectors, and into workplace power relationships. If Wal-Mart had been around in Orwell's era and he, rather than Ehrenreich, had worked there, he would have written 1984 much sooner. The private empire created by Arkansas billionaire Sam Walton boasts both a Big Brother figure--the late "Mr. Sam" himself--and a work force of "proles" (now 825,000 strong) whose docility, devotion and nonunion status are major corporate preoccupations. Entering this "closed system," replete with its own "newspeak" and "doublethink," Ehrenreich discovers that all the workers, like herself, are "associates," all the customers "guests," and the store supervisors "servant leaders."
One of management's top priorities, she learns, is eradicating "time-theft"--a crime most often committed by associates who violate Wal-Mart's strictly enforced "no-talk" rule, linger on their smoke breaks or otherwise dally in the never-ending task of stocking, straightening and restocking shelves. Potential malingerers (and others with rebel tendencies) are ferreted out during the prehire process of personality screening and drug testing. Once you're on the job, close surveillance by "servant leaders" and continuing "education"--via taped messages and training videos featuring Mr. Sam--are a constant feature of company life. To leaven this atmosphere of brainwashing and intimidation, "team meetings" for associates often end with a special "Wal-Mart cheer"--a morale-boosting device personally imported from Japan by the founder himself.
Given the widespread existence of such demeaning conditions and "the dominant corporate miserliness," why don't the wretched of this low-wage world revolt? What's holding them back? Nickel and Dimed offers several explanations for the absence of collective action: high job turn-over among the unskilled, their low self-esteem, the universal fear of being fired for speaking out or challenging management authority and, in some cases, actual workeridentification with corporate values or individual bosses. Even with a background quite different from that of her fellow restaurant workers, Ehrenreich finds herself being affected by the culture of low-wage work in ways that she doesn't like:
Something new--something loathsome and servile--had infected me, along with the kitchen odors that I could still sniff on my bra when I finally undressed at night. In real life I am moderately brave, but plenty of brave people shed their courage in POW camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace.
In the course of the book, after much buffeting by rude customers, abusive supervisors and unreliable co-workers, a kind of working-class alter ego of the author emerges--the "Barb" of her Wal-Mart ID who "is not exactly the same person as Barbara" (nor as sympathetic):
"Barb" is what I was called as a child, and still by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I'm regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the mines. So it's interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out--that she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped.
The author sounds more like her usual self when, as a house cleaner for Merry Maids--the McDonald's of its industry--she is forced "to meet the aesthetic standards of the New England bourgeoisie" down on her hands and knees, with a scrub brush. A particularly obnoxious client, the owner of a million-dollar condo on the coast of Maine, takes Ehrenreich into the master bathroom whose marble walls have been "bleeding" onto the brass fixtures--a problem she wants Ehrenreich to address by scrubbing the grouting "extra hard."
That's not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it's the worldwide working class--the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it.
Unable to deliver this political tirade--lest she blow her cover--Ehrenreich instead fantasizes about exacting revenge similar to that witnessed and described so memorably by Orwell in Down and Out (i.e., the disgruntled cook who spat in the soup, the waiters who put their dirty fingers in the gravy, etc.). "All I would have to do," she muses angrily in a gorgeous country house, "is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that's been used on the toilets and use it to 'clean' the kitchen counters." No one, she concludes, should be asked to wipe out someone else's "shit-stained" bathroom bowl or gather up the pubic hairs found in their "shower stalls, bath tubs, jacuzzis, drains, and even, unaccountably, in sinks."
Ehrenreich has long been a rarity on the left--a radical writer with great wit and a highly accessible style. While often sad and grim, Nickel and Dimed is nevertheless sprinkled with the author's trademark humor. She is, for example, frequently struck by the oddity of her circumstances. Sitting alone in a cheap motel, eating takeout food after a hard day at Wal-Mart, she watches an episode of Survivor. "Who are these nutcases who would volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive? Then I remember where I am and why I am here."
Half-assed as her attempts to learn unfamiliar jobs may have been--and as funny as she sometimes makes the experience seem--Ehrenreich is still engaged in a serious project. Nickel and Dimed may not be prime-time fare for millions. Yet, hopefully, it will still reach enough readers to expand public awareness of the real-world survival struggles that many Americans faced even before the current economic downturn. If anything, this book should command greater attention now because the life of the working poor--never easy in good times--is about to get harder in ways we'll never see on "reality TV."
In their campaigns for the White House, the major-party candidates--even the one backed by labor--spent little time debating labor-law reform.
Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO had hoped that a Gore victory and Democratic gains in Congress would lead to strengthening of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or, at least, union-friendly appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Continued Republican control of Congress now eliminates the possibility of the former, while Bush's court-won victory makes the latter highly unlikely. In fact, when our new President gets through filling three vacancies on the NLRB early this year, his appointees will insure that the failure of labor law--a scandal exposed in different ways by former NLRB chairman William Gould in Labored Relations and by lawyer Lance Compa in the recent Human Rights Watch report Unfair Advantage--continues to thwart union organizing for the next four years.
Since the AFL-CIO began putting greater emphasis on membership recruitment in 1995, there have, of course, been important new gains. But some of the most significant victories involved organizing campaigns in which unions used their bargaining or political clout--where they still have it--to secure recognition in new units without using Labor Board certification procedures. For tens of millions of workers in the private sector, bypassing the law is not an option--and, for better or worse, the sixty-five-year-old NLRA continues to shape organizing strategies in many key industries.
Long hailed as the "Magna Carta of American labor," the NLRA (or Wagner Act) is definitely showing signs of age. The act was designed in 1935 to promote collective bargaining as a peaceful alternative to the many violent, Depression-era battles over union recognition. Its New Deal sponsors viewed unionization as a necessary corrective to the "inequality of bargaining power" between individual workers and management. To referee workplace disputes, Congress created the NLRB, which conducts representation elections, awards bargaining rights based on them and investigates "unfair labor practices" by employers that might discourage organizing or prevent workers from negotiating a union contract.
But the limited remedies, light penalties and secret-ballot elections available under the NLRA are meaningful only if its administration is swift and efficient. In few other areas of the law is there greater truth to the axiom that "justice delayed is justice denied." When union votes are stalled for months, union victories tied up in litigation for years, bad-faith bargaining goes unpunished and fired union supporters get reinstated (if at all) long after an organizing campaign has ended, management wins--even if the board ultimately rules otherwise.
The selection of NLRB members--and the agency's influential general counsel--is determined by who controls the White House and what kind of nomination deals are brokered with the Senate. (Functioning at full strength, the board consists of three appointees, including the chairman, from the President's own party and two from the opposition party.) However, as the AFL-CIO argued in its last major campaign for labor-law reform in the late 1970s, unfair-labor-practice victims need more than a sympathetic NLRB majority or efficient functioning by the agency's 2,000 career employees around the country. The law itself must be repaired.
The enormous gap between workers' legal rights on paper and the reality of NLRA enforcement under Democrats and Republicans alike is most effectively documented in Unfair Advantage. Labored Relations also describes how bad substantive decisions, "the creakiness of the NLRA's administrative procedures" and its "lack of effective remedies" have undermined worker organizing and strike activity in recent decades. But the bulk of Gould's memoir is devoted to refighting the personal political battles that occupied him during his four and a half years as a Clinton appointee on the NLRB. Gould's book thus invites comparison with Locked in the Cabinet, Robert Reich's glibly amusing account of his stint as Clinton's Secretary of Labor. Both men assumed their Washington posts--Reich at the Labor Department and Gould at the board--after a career in academia. Even before Clinton nominated Gould in 1993, Reich had tapped him (based on his work as a Stanford University law professor and respected arbitrator) to serve on the Dunlop Commission, a panel of experts convened to recommend labor-law changes.
At the time, Gould had just offered his own ideas on this subject in a book titled Agenda for Reform. In it he called for many of the same corrective measures now advocated by Human Rights Watch: employer recognition of unions based on signed authorization cards rather than contested elections; imposition of first-contract terms by an arbitrator when the parties can't reach agreement by themselves; greater use of injunctive relief to secure quicker reinstatement of workers fired for union activity; a ban on permanent replacement of economic strikers; and heavier financial penalties for labor-law violators.
Needless to say, Senate Republicans weren't too keen on Gould's proposals and kept his nomination to the NLRB dangling for almost a year. In fact, even Reich's labor-law-reform panel--which Gould left prior to being confirmed as NLRB chairman--failed to promote these much-needed changes. Instead, the Dunlop Commission stressed the importance of amending the NLRA so management-dominated "employee participation" schemes could flourish even more widely as an alternative to unions. Repackaged as the Teamwork for Employees and Managers (or TEAM) Act and adopted by Congress after the GOP took over in 1994, this anti-union legislation was ultimately vetoed by Clinton--after frantic labor lobbying.
To survive his contentious confirmation process (and avoid the fate of fellow African-American Lani Guinier, whose nomination to a top Justice Department post was dropped by Clinton when her writings as a law professor were attacked by the right), Gould played up his credentials as a "professional neutral." He proclaimed that his goal in Washington would be "to reduce polarization both at the board and also between labor and management." Equipped with what turned out to be a serious lack of diplomatic skills, Gould might have had an easier time trying to bring peace to the Middle East.
During Gould's tenure, Congressional Republicans sought to cripple the NLRB's operations with budget cuts, harassing oversight hearings and nonstop political sniping. Positive initiatives, like general counsel Fred Feinstein's attempt to get more federal court orders reinstating fired workers while their cases were being litigated, became a lightning rod for conservative criticism. Under these trying circumstances, Gould, Feinstein and pro-labor board members like Sarah Fox and the late Margaret Browning needed to stick together and coordinate their strategy in the face of common adversaries. Gould, however, quickly fell out with his colleagues in a fit of pique over their failure "to accord me stature and defer to my leadership." His "leadership" soon took the form of public feuding with, and criticism of, his fellow Clinton appointees--combined with attention-getting public statements about many of the leading labor-management controversies of the day. Even when he was on the right side of these disputes, his ill-timed interventions had the effect of exacerbating the NLRB's political problems.
In 1998, for example, Gould injected himself into the debate about a state ballot initiative in California that would have required unions to obtain the individual consent of their members before using dues money for political purposes. Gould's statement of opposition to this Republican-backed "paycheck protection" scheme correctly noted that it would "cripple a major source of funding for the Democratic Party." When his testimony was briefly posted on the NLRB's website after being presented to state legislators, it created such a ruckus that even Congressional Democrats generally supportive of labor and the board raised the possibility that Gould should resign to avert further Republican retribution against the agency.
Ironically, Gould's batting average at the board shows that he was not as much a union partisan as his business critics claimed. According to a recent law-review analysis by professor Joan Flynn, Gould's "votes in disputed cases were considerably less predictable than those of his colleagues from management or union-side practice... [they] broke down in a much less lopsided fashion: 159 for the 'union' position and 46 for the 'management' position." In contrast, when Ronald Reagan tried to change the NLRB's alleged pro-union tilt during his Administration, his chairman was a management-side lawyer--Donald Dotson, a figure no less controversial in the 1980s than Gould was in the '90s. Did Dotson pursue Gould's stated goal of "return[ing] the Board to the center to promote balance"? Of course not. Despite equally hostile Congressional oversight by members of the then-Democratic majority, Dotson openly promoted a Right-to-Work Committee agenda, defending management interests just as zealously as he had when he was on the corporate payroll.
Naming Gould to lead the board was, thus, very much an expression of Clinton's own political centrism. Unhappily for labor, Gould's unexpected personal showboating, squabbling with would-be allies and what Flynn calls his "near-genius for irritating Congress" impeded, rather than aided, the administrative tinkering that Clinton appointees were able to do at the board during his tenure. Vain, impolitic and--in the view of some critics--hopelessly naïve, Gould often did as much harm as good. In this respect, he was not unlike the Dunlop Commission, in that Reich's vehicle for building a political consensus on labor-law reform instead fed right-wing attempts to weaken the NLRA.
Gould's defense of his record seems designed to avoid the kind of flak that Reich received over his memoir's fanciful reconstruction of private and even public exchanges with various Washington notables. Labored Relations quotes extensively from the author's minutiae-filled daily journal, leaving the impression that no such literary license has been employed. Unfortunately, Gould lacks Reich's self-deprecatory humor and acute sense of irony. The author's tedious recitation of his speaking dates, telephone calls, case conferences, lunch and dinner conversations, etc., will be a hard slog for anyone but specialists in the field or ex-colleagues searching for critical comments about themselves (of which there are many).
Outside the Beltway and the "labor bar," settling old scores about who did what to whom as part of the "Clinton Board" is much less a preoccupation than the difficulty of defending workers' rights under any administration. Unfair Advantage does a much better job of keeping this big picture in focus, in particular by documenting the rising toll of workers fired for what, in board jargon, is called "protected concerted activity." In the 1950s, author Lance Compa reports, "workers who suffered reprisals for exercising the right to freedom of association numbered in the hundreds each year. In the 1960s, the number climbed into the thousands, reaching slightly over 6,000 in 1969. By the 1990s, more than 20,000 workers each year were victims of discrimination for union activity--23,580 in 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available."
The "right to freedom of association" is, of course, enshrined in international human rights standards that the United States nominally supports and often seeks to apply to other nations. Compa, a former organizer for the United Electrical Workers who now teaches international labor law at Cornell, exposes the hypocrisy of this official stance in light of persistent NLRB enforcement problems and the structural defects of the NLRA itself. In this Human Rights Watch report, he concludes that "provisions of U.S. law openly conflict with international norms...of freedom of association."
Millions of workers, including farm workers, household domestic workers and low-level supervisors, are expressly barred from the law's protection of the right to organize. American law allows employers to replace permanently workers who exercise the right to strike, effectively nullifying that right. New forms of employment relationships have created millions of part-time, temporary, sub-contracted and otherwise "atypical" or "contingent" workers whose freedom of association is frustrated by the law's failure to adapt to changes in the economy.
The problem with Compa's sweeping indictment of the status quo is that it contains no strategy for change--other than elevating the debate about what should be done from the lowly sphere of labor-management relations to the higher moral plane of international human rights norms. At the local level, Jobs with Justice coalitions and some AFL-CIO central labor councils around the country are actually trying to build a long-term grassroots campaign to promote greater public support for the right to organize. Not unlike that of Human Rights Watch, their target audience is the same elements of academia, the arts, churches and the liberal middle class that have long displayed admirable concern about human rights violations abroad or discrimination against women, gays and minorities at home.
Public officials, university professors, the clergy, civil rights leaders and neighborhood activists are now being encouraged to intervene in organizing situations to help neutralize illegal management resistance to unionization. Workers' rights activists will find plenty of new ammunition in Unfair Advantage, and even some that's buried in Labored Relations. Hopefully, their community-based efforts will create an improved climate for organizing--in some parts of the country at least--and put NLRA reform back on the national political agenda of labor's putative allies in the Democratic Party. Yet while having a Democrat in the White House may prove a necessary condition for reform initiatives, it's hardly sufficient--as the Clinton era just proved. Workers who try to form unions will continue to be at risk until Americans elect both a Congress and a President willing to do more than just tinker with our tattered protection of the right to organize.
I first heard about Powers Hapgood while working at the United Mine Workers, an organization he had tried to change fifty years earlier.
The election of new AFL-CIO leaders more than three years ago ushered in an era of