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The recent decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Hoffman Plastic
Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board
makes it plain that
the Court's majority lives in denial of the social reality millions of
working people face every day. The Court began by making worse an
already bad precedent. As a result of a previous decision in the case of
Sure-Tan Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, millions of
undocumented immigrants lost the right to be reinstated to their jobs if
they were fired for joining a union. Now the Rehnquist Court says they
can also forget about back pay for the time they were out of work.

The decision rewards employers who want to stop union organizing efforts
among immigrant workers--the very people who've built a decade-long
track record of labor activism, often organizing themselves when unions
showed little interest in them. Their bosses can now terminate
undocumented workers who join a union, without monetary consequences.

But the Court's logic goes further, willfully ignoring social reality.
Today in 31 percent of union drives employers illegally fire workers,
immigrant and native-born alike. Federal labor law may prohibit this,
but companies already treat the cost of legal battles, reinstatement and
back pay as a cost of doing business. Many consider it cheaper than
signing a union contract. In the Court's eyes, however, retaliatory
firings are not even a violation of law.

William Gould IV, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board,
points to "a basic conflict between US labor law and US immigration
law." The Court has held that the enforcement of employer sanctions,
which makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job, is
more important than the right of that worker to join a union and resist
exploitation on the job.

According to Rehnquist, Jose Castro, the fired worker in the Hoffman
case, committed the cardinal sin of falsely saying he had legal status
to get a job. This lie, told by millions of workers every year, is
winked at by employers who want to take advantage of immigrants' labor.
It is only in the face of union activity that bosses suddenly wake up to
the fact that their workers have no papers (and usually then fire only
the ones involved with unions).

This decision isn't about enforcing immigration law, despite Rehnquist's
pious assertion that employers can already be fined for hiring people
like Castro. It's about money. When it becomes more risky and difficult
for workers to organize and join unions, or even to hold a job at all,
they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant labor goes
down, so do the wages for everyone else. The decision has already been
misused by some employers, who have told their immigrant workers they no
longer have the right to organize at all, or have illegally refused to
pay them the minimum wage or overtime.

A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust counts almost 8 million
undocumented people in the United States. They make up almost 4 percent
of the urban work force, and more than half of all farmworkers. The flow
of workers across the border will not stop anytime soon. The National
Population Council of Mexico reports that "migration between Mexico and
the United States is a permanent, structural phenomenon--the intense
relationship between the two countries makes it inevitable."

Sacrificing the rights of those workers will not stop people from
crossing the border, nor end the need for the work they do. If they are
to have legal status, the door to legal immigration must be opened and
sanctions repealed. But come they will, regardless. The Court's message
to them, however, is: Know your place. Do the work, stay in the shadows,
accept what you are given and never think of organizing to challenge the
structure that holds you in chains.

The Enron "outrage," AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told a rapt crowd of several hundred workers at Milwaukee's Serb Memorial Hall, is "not the story of one corporation's abuses, but sadly it's an example of business as usual in boardrooms and executive suites all across the country." Over the coming months, at a series of town-hall meetings around America, the AFL-CIO will warn workers that they, too, could be "Enroned," and it will call for "no more business as usual."

In an unprecedented way, argues AFL-CIO corporate affairs director Ron Blackwell, the Enron scandal "opens up a channel of public discourse on issues of retirement security and corporate accountability." In the booming nineties nobody wanted to hear why corporations and capital markets had to be better regulated, and reformers were left pleading for corporations to be "socially responsible." But today, "new economy" job-hoppers as much as steelworkers have good reasons to listen to union warnings about deeply flawed 401(k) plans and Social Security privatization.

The labor movement helped win millions in severance pay for laid-off Enron workers, provided legal counsel for workers battling Enron's creditors, sued Enron executives (through union-affiliated Amalgamated Bank) on behalf of pension funds that lost hundreds of millions of dollars in Enron's collapse and helped ex-Enron workers--both union and nonunion--tell Congress and the public how they were misused. The AFL-CIO requested new Securities and Exchange Commission rules and forced four Enron directors to withdraw from renomination at other corporate and public boards. Now labor is challenging Enron director Frank Savage's renomination to Lockheed Martin's board, sending the message that independent directors have a public trust.

Besides supporting auditor reform, the AFL-CIO is promoting legislation to strengthen the rights of workers in 401(k) plans--to a point. Senator Jon Corzine, backed by the Pension Rights Center, initially proposed prohibiting employees from holding more than 20 percent of their employer's stock in their plans. But after complaints from unions representing some workers who had bet big with their employers' stock, like pilots and GE employees, the AFL-CIO backed Senator Ted Kennedy's legislation, which places a less stringent limit on the employees' 401(k) holdings of their employers' stock but which, quite importantly, would require equal worker and employer representation in governing the plans. Enron worker Dary Ebright, who lost $300,000 from his 401(k), argues that limits make sense. "If that had been in place," he said in Milwaukee, "I wouldn't be here today."

Sweeney hopes that unions can use votes on Enron-related reforms to draw lines in this year's elections showing what candidates put first--corporations or workers. The AFL-CIO attacked Republican Representative John Boehner's legislation, passed in April, for "wip[ing] out existing retirement protections for workers under the guise of responding to" Enron. The House bill would permit investment firms to advise workers about financial products, like mutual funds, from which those firms profit--precisely the kind of 1990s conflict of interest that is under investigation at several Wall Street brokerages. While providing limited protections for workers and preserving executive privileges, the House bill would also make it easier for corporations to exclude most employees from retirement plans. Labor's advocacy for Enron workers and retirement security could also strengthen organizing, including efforts among white-collar workers, by sparking a more "enlightened" view of a collective voice at work, as it did with former Enron vice president Dennis Vegas, now a union enthusiast.

But a budding labor scandal threatens the movement's credibility on corporate accountability. It appears that a few labor leaders, sitting on the board of ULLICO, parent of Union Labor Life Insurance Company, personally profited from privileged deals in the Enronlike boom and bust of telecommunications upstart Global Crossing, while their unions' pension funds were denied the same opportunity. Robert Georgine, president of ULLICO and former president of the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades department, former Iron Workers president Jake West, Plumbers president Martin Maddaloni and Carpenters president Douglas McCarron are among those who got windfalls of several hundred thousand dollars. In March Sweeney, who did not take part in the deal, called on ULLICO, like Enron, to appoint an independent committee and counsel to investigate, but in mid-April Georgine said he would take a "somewhat different" approach. "We're not going to ask Enron to live by one set of standards and ULLICO to live by another," Sweeney insisted. Many union officials say they were shocked and disgusted by the news, a reminder that "no more business as usual" is a widely applicable slogan, even within union ranks.

A Mexican migrant acquaintance once told me that he'd love the opportunity to brief Congress on immigration policy. Let us imagine him now, walking into the hallowed chamber, dressed in his typical migrant attire: a fading Oakland Raiders jersey, oversized bright orange painting pants, imitation Air Jordans. He wears a baseball cap with the epigram ¡qué viva México, cabrónes! rendered in red, green and white--the colors of the Mexican flag. He reaches into his well-worn backpack and pulls out some handwritten notes on crumpled sheets of paper, and begins:

First, I would like to tell the distinguished sirs and madams a bit about the migrant life. I'm from a luckless southwestern Mexican town whose timber-based economy is in tatters--no sign of economic development on the horizon, NAFTA or no. I made my first trip to the States at 13, a solo journey that included a few months of indentured servitude to a "coyote," a real cabrón. I paid off what I owed him by picking aluminum cans out of the garbage. When I finally broke free, I took to the road.

I never had a problem getting a job. With a cheap forgery of a green card, the bosses never looked twice. As the years went by, I cruised from state to state. I got married to a girl from home and soon we were on the road together, hopping back and forth across the border that supposedly separates our nations.

Beginning in the latter half of the 1990s, our border-crossings became increasingly difficult. Suddenly, you built walls on the US-Mexico border. Big ones, made of coppery steel. These you have referred to as "interdiction measures," which include programs with names like Gatekeeper, Safeguard and Hold the Line. Since 1995 as many as 1,400 migrants died on that line, pushed by your Border Patrol into the remote, deadly desert and lonely stretches of the Rio Grande.

You recently deployed the first of more than 1,600 National Guard troops along the frontiers with both Canada and Mexico, to provide "tactical" support to the other agencies on the line. The last time you put the military on the line, the result was the shooting of an 18-year-old who was out herding his goats; you did the sensible thing and pulled them out. Now they're back; so far, thankfully, they are unarmed.

I tell you that this is a dangerous situation, and yet, in the wake of September 11--when I grieved as much as if Mexico herself had been attacked--I am mindful of your security concerns. I submit to you that you cannot secure your borders alone. I humbly suggest consultations at the highest levels between the federal law-enforcement agencies of our two countries, a starting point for recognizing that American homeland security is Mexican homeland security and vice versa.

We must re-imagine the border between us. All the money you've poured into "holding the line"--some $4 billion a year for the total INS budget--does nothing of the sort. Yes, it makes it more difficult, and sometimes deadly, to cross. But we still do cross back and forth over that line.

Dear legislators, I watch CNN en Español and have been following your recent debates over immigration policy very carefully. Let us speak frankly here: You've been playing an age-old shell game--appeasing the rabid dogs of nativism but leaving the border open enough to supply labor to big business, which keeps getting you re-elected.

What a great buzz there was in the migrant communities before 9/11! You were speaking (well, some of you) about an amnesty--pardon me, a regularization--of the immigration status of the nearly 9 million estimated "illegals" in your midst. Then for several months you shied away from such discussions. But now your President is on his way to Latin America, and he will meet with my President. It is clear to us, the migrants, that these men want to see some movement on the issue--Bush, to bolster his standing among Latinos and his business cronies, and Fox, to please paisanos like me--but this makes many of you uncomfortable. I know why. It's Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, I might look a bit like Caliban (especially in these surroundings), but I'm no Taliban, no terrorist! What are my weapons? Leaf blowers and dishrags?

You must place regularization and some version of a "guestworker" program back on the fast track. Everybody wins with real reform: Your labor-hungry industries will be happy, and you might even get some of that coveted Hispanic vote. But you need to understand one thing: We migrants will not accept any kind of program modeled on the infamous, exploitative Bracero Program. Braceros, my grandfather among them, had no right to leave an abusive boss, had no recourse to better their working conditions and wages, could not join unions. The guestworker program of the new century must give us the rights that all American workers enjoy. And there must be a mechanism for affording those workers who spend, say, six years living and working in your country the opportunity for permanent legal status.

When Vicente Fox rose to power two years ago, he made a statement that caused you much anxiety: He foresaw the border between the United States and Mexico disappearing within a decade. I tell you today that this prophecy will come to pass. There are no lines in nature, dear sirs and madams. The fact that I am here before you today proves that this is so. I thank you for your kind consideration in allowing me to speak before you today. ¡Qué vivan los mojados! Long live the migrants!

In early March, the Bush Administration adopted a policy that the steel industry as well as the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) have long been agitating for--tariffs on steel imports. The official reason is to give the industry some "breathing space," so it can restructure while shielded from foreign competition. It's more likely that Bush wants to carry some important industrial states in 2004.

Thanks to NAFTA, Canada and Mexico are exempted, as are some poorer countries. Imports from elsewhere will face initial duties ranging from 8 percent to 30 percent, though the levels will decline over the next three years as they are gradually phased out. This is less than what labor and management wanted, but it's still striking coming from a professed free-trader. The Clinton Administration never did anything remotely like it--and if it had, Wall Street, which was unfazed by the Bush announcement, would have panicked about the protectionist threat.

Loud complaints did come from abroad, though. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, usually found waving the Stars and Stripes with hysterical glee, denounced the move as "unacceptable and wrong." He urged the industry to restructure rather than hide behind trade barriers--exactly the prescription the United States usually gives other countries (with similar indifference to displaced workers). Blair was joined by politicians, businesspeople, unions and pundits around the world--and by Bush's own frequently indiscreet Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, who told the Council on Foreign Relations that the tariffs would cost more jobs in steel-using industries than they could save in steel.

Indeed the industry is in dire shape. It's lost 35,000 jobs in the past two years. Sixteen producers are operating in bankruptcy. Steel employed 1.5 percent of US workers in 1950, 0.6 percent in 1980 and 0.2 percent in 2000, versus 0.1 percent today. It's hard to believe three years of protection can reverse that long slide.

Clearly the Administration structured its tariffs with an eye on the political map. The kinds of steel offered maximum protection happen to be produced in the electoral battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. There's a political pattern to the victims too: Turkey, an important factor in the likely war on Iraq, was spared. Brazil, key to any future hemispheric free-trade agreement, got off relatively lightly, as did Russia, key to many things. The most affected producers are in South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and the European Union. Most have filed complaints with the World Trade Organization. The EU is also threatening to retaliate against US steel and textiles, which could limit Bush's political gain in steel country and alienate the textile-intensive South.

Defenders of the tariffs--from US Steel to the union-friendly Economic Policy Institute--argue that everyone subsidizes and protects its steel industry except us. As a result, the US steel industry is getting killed. So the tariffs are necessary to defend it.

Not everyone agrees with this picture of America as victimized innocent. According to the EU's count, the United States has imposed more than 150 measures over the years to protect steel. More than subsidized foreign competition, the US steel industry is suffering from the high value of the dollar, recession, global overcapacity and high pension and healthcare costs.

The United States could have filed a complaint with the WTO, but it would have had a hard time proving its case. Another multilateral route was available too--negotiations to reduce world steel capacity by some 12 percent are well under way. But the Administration and its supporters claim that having the tariffs will strengthen Washington's negotiating hand.

The USWA seems to have no idea of how offensive foreign workers find Bush's big stick policy. Most of the affected countries have higher unemployment rates than ours. The EU, Japan and Latin America haven't seen a boom in decades, and Asia is still recovering from its 1997 financial crisis. Gary Hubbard of the Steelworkers' Washington office conceded that the EU and Japanese unions were annoyed but wasn't sure whether the USWA had consulted at all with its counterparts abroad (no one had ever asked the question before). So much for solidarity.

It's nice to imagine another world, where we protect workers, not their jobs. If we had a good system of income support, retraining, job placement and job creation, we wouldn't have to disemploy foreign workers to fight what's probably a losing battle to save jobs here. Sweden has long had such an active labor market policy, as it's called. Workers wouldn't have to fear innovation if they knew they wouldn't end up on the sidewalk. But that's not the way the world works these days. It's all about market solutions--except when George W. Bush is cruising for votes.

Arriving in San Francisco after a ten-hour drive through a snowstorm, Lucas Benitez sounds earnest and exhausted.

There aren't many Democratic Congressional candidates who can claim that they personally thwarted the agenda of organized labor in the most critical legislative battles of the past decade, but former Clinton White House aide Rahm Emanuel can--and does. Northwestern University, where Emanuel has served as an adjunct professor of communications studies, identifies him as the man who "coordinated the passage of NAFTA." In addition to getting the North American Free Trade Agreement "ball across the goal line," as Emanuel likes to put it, Clinton's former senior adviser for policy and strategy was also a point man for the Administration in fights with unions over granting China most-favored-nation trading status and over fast-track negotiation of a hemispheric free-trade-area agreement that union leaders call "NAFTA on steroids."

That résumé might not sound like one that would be a magnet for labor support. Yet, as the millionaire investment banker seeks the Democratic nomination for an open Congressional seat representing blue-collar Chicago neighborhoods hard hit by the loss of industrial jobs, Emanuel is running with the endorsement of the Illinois AFL-CIO. Weirder still is the fact that Emanuel's opponent in the close struggle to win the March 19 primary, former State Representative Nancy Kaszak, is a lifelong backer of union causes who speaks with passion about the devastation wreaked on Illinois by more than 37,000 lost jobs directly linked to the passage of NAFTA.

What gives? The national AFL-CIO defers to state federations on local endorsements. And Illinois AFL-CIO spokesman Bill Looby offers a realpolitik explanation of his federation's stance in the Kaszak-Emanuel race: "She had the good labor record, but he had the record of knowing his way around Washington. The feeling was, he could be more effective in Washington." Illinois politicos argue, however, that the federation's endorsement resulted more from the machinations of the Daley political machine, for which Emanuel has been a fundraiser, strategist and well-connected ally.

Emanuel is just one of a number of Democrats who, despite playing premiere roles in pushing a trade agenda that AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has referred to as "an assault on American workers, their families and their communities," enjoy AFL-CIO support in tight primary contests with Democrats who oppose unrestricted free trade. As in the 2000 presidential race, when the national federation went all out for Al Gore--who had consistently opposed it on trade issues--several state and local federations this year have made endorsements that are causing a lot of head-scratching among union members who embrace the "fair trade, not free trade" line.

In Texas, for instance, Representative Ken Bentsen, a Houston Democrat who helped the Bush White House secure its one-vote victory in December for fast track, won a dual endorsement just weeks later for an open US Senate seat--even though the man he shares the endorsement with, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, clearly positioned himself on the opposite side of the issue. And divided labor loyalties in a freshly drawn Ohio Congressional district may well allow Representative Tom Sawyer, a frequent supporter of free-trade initiatives, to prevail over Ohio legislators with strong pro-labor records in a race to represent Youngstown and other steel-mill communities ravaged by the opening of US borders to cheap foreign steel.

When it's losing key Congressional battles over trade by a single vote, can labor really afford to send more Wall Street, not Main Street, Democrats to Congress? Paul Waterhouse, a top official with Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, doesn't think so. "Unions begin to lose faith with their members when you tell them year after year after year that trade is the central issue and then at election time say never mind," says Waterhouse, whose 21,000-member local is backing Kaszak over Emanuel. Trade was a critical issue in convincing the Teamsters, the Machinists and a number of other blue-collar unions to break ranks with the state labor federation and endorse Kaszak. Indeed, to the extent that there is union "street heat" working the district, it appears mostly to be for Kaszak, who is described by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal as having a record as "a genuine populist and community activist" that contrasts with Emanuel's "dubious claim that he has spent his life fighting for working families."

Intriguingly, the group that has placed an estimated $400,000 in advertisements on Chicago television complaining about Emanuel's support of NAFTA is not the labor federation that led opposition to the trade deal. It is EMILY's List, the national donors' network that backs pro-choice women candidates. EMILY's List was looking for an issue that would allow it to clearly distinguish Kaszak's Chicago roots from Emanuel's Washington-insider status. The Teamsters' Waterhouse says the group was wise to focus on trade policy. "Trade is an important election issue for working people in places where jobs are disappearing," says Waterhouse, who argues that unions need to recognize the power of the issue, as well as the importance of remaining consistent on it. "It really is a matter of credibility. We need to be the ones standing strong on these issues. If we say that trade is a central issue and then back people at election time who are on exactly the wrong side of the issue, we might as well say to politicians, Go ahead, screw us again."

On February 21 the California Public Employees Retirement System stunned financial markets in Asia when it said it would withdraw its $450 million investments in publicly traded companies in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia to comply with new investment guidelines on human rights, labor standards and other political factors.

But the new guidelines don't apply to the fund's substantial investments in private equity markets, including its $475 million stake in the Carlyle Group--nor does CalPERS, the nation's largest public pension fund, see any reason why it should. "I don't have any moral reservations at all" about Carlyle, said Michael Flaherman, chairman of the investment committee of CalPERS.

The $151 billion CalPERS retirement fund, the largest such fund in the world, is invested on behalf of California's 1.2 million state workers and includes $35 billion invested overseas. The fund's relationship with Carlyle began in 1996; over the next four years it invested $330 million in two Carlyle funds, including $75 million in Carlyle Asia Partners. The relationship deepened last spring when CalPERS invested $175 million to buy a 5.5 percent stake in Carlyle. The relationship--so close that CalPERS owns the elegant office building in Washington, DC, where Carlyle's headquarters are located--is far more important to Carlyle than it is to CalPERS, industry analysts said. "CalPERS is called an anchor investor," explained David Snow, editor of PrivateEquityCentral.net, an industry newsletter. "When Carlyle goes to other investors, they can say CalPERS is in."

Carlyle's experience with CalPERS has apparently whetted its appetite for labor pension money. According to an official close to Carlyle, the bank is raising money for a $750 million fund to invest in "worker-friendly companies." Of that total, Carlyle hopes to attract at least $250 million in labor pension money, the official said. Questions about pension fund investments in private equity have become more relevant since the collapse of Enron, with which CalPERS had extensive private business partnerships. Several unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), strongly opposed the partnerships as well as CalPERS investments in Enron stocks and bonds. Those concerns included Enron's support for energy privatization, its employment of former government officials to lobby for privatization and its sordid human rights record in India. (CalPERS made $133 million from one Enron partnership and may see a gain on another; it lost $105 million on its stock and bond holdings.)

Within the labor movement, CalPERS is highly respected for its cooperation in challenging managers and corporations suspected of violating human rights or abusing workers. In 1999 CalPERS supported two union-backed candidates for the board of Maxxam during a bitter strike by the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). Two years ago CalPERS joined the AFL-CIO in an investors' boycott when the Chinese government and Goldman Sachs took Petrochina, a state-owned oil company, public. The fund's new standards for public investments in emerging markets are the culmination of more than two years of sometimes fierce internal debate. CalPERS investment managers must now consider a wide range of non-economic factors, including a country's political stability, financial transparency and record on labor standards, workers' rights and building democracy. Based on a review by Wilshire Associates, the CalPERS pension consultant, thirteen emerging markets, including Turkey, South Korea and South Africa, passed the test, compared with four that failed. The fund had already banned its managers from investing in publicly traded companies in China and India. "CalPERS is taking more steps in this direction than any pension fund we know about," said Damon Silvers, the AFL-CIO's associate general counsel who focuses on investment strategy.

In December Carlyle sent its three founding partners to Sacramento to brief the CalPERS investment board. One, David Rubenstein, made passing reference to the budding media interest in Carlyle, noting that Carlyle's activities are "visible and under increasing scrutiny." To protect the Carlyle and CalPERS names, he assured the board that Carlyle is "following the highest ethical standards" by "avoiding investments in industries including tobacco, gambling and firearms."

But Carlyle's deep involvement with the military-industrial complex and its ties to the Bush Administration continue to raise questions. Both the SEIU and the Communications Workers of America are collecting information on Carlyle to provide to their pension trustees.

Down the road, Carlyle's investments in Asian companies facing downsizing, manufacturers in China and military conglomerates in Turkey could present serious dilemmas. It's not hard to find contradictions: Carlyle already has investments in China, which is on the CalPERS blacklist for public stock markets, and it is gearing up for more. Liu Hong-Ru, a former official with China's central bank who sits on Carlyle's Asian Advisory Board, is a senior adviser to Petrochina, the company whose public offering CalPERS boycotted in 2000. Until last year, Carlyle was the official adviser to Saudi Arabia's offset program, which allows buyers of US military hardware to use their purchasing power to pressure companies to transfer technology and jobs to their economies. "In effect, Carlyle was telling another country how to leverage their purchases of military equipment in ways that create the most jobs in that country, not this country," said Randy Barber, an expert on offsets at the Center for Economic Organizing in Washington.

Some trade unionists also know from experience that private equity funds aren't the best judge of what constitutes a worker-friendly environment. In 1998 several unions involved with CalPERS were shocked to learn that CalPERS was a partner with a private restructuring fund for Asia run by New York financier Wilbur Ross that played a key role in the suppression of a strike in South Korea. The strike led to the imprisonment of forty Korean trade unionists.

Investors in Carlyle's equity funds include state pension plans in Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, New York and Texas, as well as in Los Angeles County. Others are the Ohio Workers Compensation Bureau and Union Labor Life Insurance, a union-run insurance company. According to industry newsletters, union pension funds with significant holdings in private equity markets include SEIU, the USWA, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.

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.

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