Labor-backed politicians are being asked to return the favor in union fights.
Unions are gradually making fuller use of the Internet's capacities to
improve communication with their own staffs or members. But increasingly
they are also using the web to recruit new members or to establish
"virtual communities" of union supporters in arenas not yet amenable to
the standard collective-bargaining model.
Alliance@IBM (www.allianceibm.org) is an example of an effective
Net-supported minority union, operating without a demonstrated pro-union
majority and without a collective-bargaining contract at a traditional
nonunion company. The alliance provides information and advice to
workers at IBM through the web. A similar effort at a partially
organized employer is WAGE ("Workers at GE," www.geworkersunited.org), which draws on contributions from fourteen cooperating
international unions. The Microsoft-inflected WashTech
(www.washtech.org) and the Australian IT Workers Alliance
(www.itworkers-alliance.org) are open-source unions that are closer to
craft unions or occupational associations. Both are responsive to the
distinctive professional needs of these workers, such as access to a
variety of job experiences and additional formal education, and the
portability of high-level benefits when changing jobs.
The National Writers Union (www.nwu.org), a UAW affiliate, is another
example of a union virtually created off the Net. It provides
information and advice--including extensive job postings--to members,
and it lobbies on their behalf, most spectacularly in the recent Supreme
Court decision it won on freelance worker copyright rights. But most of
its members work without a collectively bargained contract.
In Britain, UNISON (the largest union in the country) and the National
Union of Students have a website that tells student workers their rights
and gives them advice about how to deal with workplace problems
(www.troubleatwork.org.uk). It is a particularly engaging and practical
illustration of how concrete problems can be addressed through Net
Finally, for a more geographically defined labor community, take a look
at the website of the King County AFL-CIO (www.kclc.org), the Seattle
central labor council that uses the Net to coordinate its own business,
bring community and labor groups together for discussion and common
action, post messages and general information to the broader community,
and otherwise create a "virtual" union hall with much of the spirit and
dense activity that used to be common in actual union halls in major
Let's create "open-source unions," and welcome millions into the
From Padua's Piazza Insurrezione, where I was standing at 11 in the
morning on April 16, the general strike--Italy's first in twenty
years--looked and sounded like a great success. More than 70,000 people
were already jammed inside the mid-sized square along with their broad
union banners and thousands of flags. Three immense vertical
standards--one for each of the labor confederations--loomed over the
crowd. The noise was deafening: drums, horns, gongs, a PA system on the
electronic equivalent of steroids and 70,000 voices cheering each
"We're ten million strong! More than half the labor force is striking
against the antidemocratic policies of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right
government! Three-hundred thousand are marching in Florence, two-hundred
thousand in Rome..."
The demonstrators in Padua--a university town forty minutes west of
Venice--weren't just striking, they were celebrating. Gathering together
70,000 adversaries of Berlusconi in the heart of the miracolo del
nord-est--the economic miracle of Italy's conservative northeast
where small- and mid-scale manufacturers have produced one of Europe's
greatest concentrations of wealth--was a miracle in itself. The union
banners identified the protesters: eyeglass assemblers from Santa Maria
di Salva, carpenters from Iesolo, leather workers from Verona (most of
them African immigrants), poultry processors from San Martino, hospital
workers and schoolteachers from Venice. But students, university
professors, insurance brokers and television producers also carried
union banners. Thousands of others--teenagers, homemakers, young
professionals--marched with family and friends.
The unions called the strike to protest a reform that would undermine
the 1970 Workers' Statute, the key guarantee of labor rights in Italy.
That's why Sabina Tonetto, a 26-year-old software consultant from the
town of San Donà di Piave, said she was in the piazza. Yet the
company she works for doesn't come under the statute's jurisdiction;
it's too small. And with her skills, she said, "I run no risk of being
laid off." She stayed away from work as a matter of principle: "Certain
things"--the Workers' Statute--"must not be touched. All of us have to
do our part."
Just a few blocks away, the stalls in the farmers' market in Piazza
della Frutta and the shops along Via Dante and Corso Garibaldi were open
for business. Well-dressed pedestrians perused the displays of
handcrafted shoes, silk scarves and designer jackets--variations of what
they were already wearing. The espresso bars were serving up sandwiches,
pastries and pricey chocolates. The streets were peaceful. Nothing in
the shoppers' demeanor, nothing in the merchants' conversation,
connected to what was happening nearby. The noise from Piazza
Insurrezione didn't carry. For anyone who wasn't right there, the
general strike might as well not have taken place.
That's Italy today. While much of Europe has been shifting rightward,
Italy tilted somewhat faster and farther and is now precariously poised,
its citizenry both evenly and deeply divided. About half voted
free-marketer Berlusconi into office in May 2001. His supporters include
the business elite and some workers disillusioned with the left, but
most are small and medium-sized manufacturers, store owners,
professionals and self-employed craftspeople. They are numerous in
Italy, prosperous and happy to have Berlusconi as long as he doesn't
raise their taxes. The other half of the citizenry is outraged by a
prime minister who aims to undermine the labor movement, dismantle the
public sector and foil the prosecutors who have indicted him for
After nearly a year of collective depression and political paralysis,
anti-Berlusconi citizens are starting to mount a credible opposition,
coalescing around the left wing of the labor movement but reaching
beyond to include intellectuals, students, media figures and ordinary
people who are getting involved for the first time. Since January not a
week has gone by without a rally or march or strike bringing anywhere
from 3,000 to 2 million people into the piazzas. The protests are
uniting generations and social classes. So far they've remained loose
enough to attract independents and broad enough to incorporate both the
center and left.
According to Valentino Castellani, a left Catholic and former mayor of
Turin, "The healthy parts of society are finally saying, 'Enough! This
can't go on.'" For Luciano Gallino, a prominent sociologist, the social
protest movements that have sprung up in the last few months represent
"an awakening of civic passion."
Berlusconi provoked the uprising by refusing to modify a series of
"reforms" custom-designed to protect his vast business empire and shield
him (and several Cabinet members) from prosecution for corruption. The
naked self-interest, the almost outlandish specificity of the
legislation, was too much for many Italians to take. One law (already
passed by Parliament) decriminalized the falsification of financial
statements in the private sector. This let Berlusconi off the hook
because he was under indictment for that crime. A second law, also
enacted, makes it difficult for Italian prosecutors to use "letters
rogatory," the standard instrument for obtaining evidence from another
country. This conveniently sabotaged a case in which Berlusconi was
accused of bribing judges, a case that depended on evidence from Swiss
Another law, which has passed the Chamber of Deputies, states that
owning a business does not constitute a conflict of interest for a prime
minister as long as he or she does not run the business. Since
Berlusconi has turned over the administration of his enterprises to
members of his immediate family, he would not have to sell any of his
holdings, which include three of Italy's four private television
networks, the nation's largest publishing conglomerate, Mondadori, and
an advertising agency that dominates the national market.
Although the left unions have been fighting Berlusconi's policies from
the start, the spontaneous street protests began in response to a reform
that would allow the government to exert political pressure on the
judiciary. When judges and prosecutors staged a walkout, two professors
at the University of Florence called on citizens nationwide to support
them. The response was overwhelming and persistent. By February a rally
in Milan's Palavobis sports facility, which holds 12,000, drew a crowd
of 40,000. That same month, leftist film director Nanni Moretti (Caro
Diario, The Son's Room) set off a political revolt when he
spoke to a rally in Rome's Piazza Navona organized by the center-left
Ulivo (Olive Tree) coalition. Instead of making the predictable rally
remarks, Moretti lambasted the coalition leaders, who were standing next
to him, for focusing on petty internal power plays rather than offering
an alternative to Berlusconi. He claimed that he no longer identified
with their politics. The crowd's wild applause and the ensuing debate,
which went on for weeks in the newspapers, embarrassed the Ulivo
leadership into admitting they had lost touch with their constituency.
In March the girotondi ("ring-around-a-rosy protests") began.
Resurrecting a feminist tactic of the 1970s, protesters, holding hands,
circle around a building that figures in one of Berlusconi's reforms. If
they are protesting his control over 90 percent of the airwaves, they
circle around the state broadcasting headquarters; if they are
protesting steps toward privatizing education or healthcare, they circle
around a school or hospital. Girotondi are taking place all over
Italy--often initiated by grassroots groups, announced just a few days
ahead of time, and advertised through leaflets and by word of mouth. In
addition to citizen protests against Berlusconi's reforms, there are
frequent demonstrations against corporate-led globalization and racist
treatment of immigrants.
According to Nicola Tranfaglia, dean of the humanities faculty at the
University of Turin and one of the opposition's prominent intellectuals,
"These movements don't trust the political parties. They are similar in
some ways to 1968, but then it was young people. Today you see people of
What anchors this spirited civic engagement is the labor movement--more
precisely, the largest and most left-leaning of the three union
confederations, the Italian General Confederation of Labor, or CGIL. "In
just three months, the CGIL has pushed the center-left so there's a
tougher opposition and greater unity," Tranfaglia said.
If any one issue unites the opposition to Berlusconi, it is the attack
on the Workers' Statute. Berlusconi wants to drop Article 18, which
stipulates that if a judge finds that an employer has fired a worker
unfairly, that worker can choose to go back to his or her job or accept
a money settlement. Italians in the opposition see Berlusconi's move as
an attack on basic individual rights. L'articolo 18 non si tocca
("Article18 cannot be touched") has become the central slogan of the
Berlusconi and his allies in the most powerful business organization,
Confindustria, argue that Article 18 creates labor market rigidity; as
long as it stays on the books, they say, employers will refuse to hire
additional workers, the economy will produce no new jobs and investors
the world over will shun Italy. Sociologist Luciano Gallino thinks this
is nonsense. "Eliminating Article 18 has nothing to do with creating
jobs. It's the first step in labor market deregulation. It would open
the door to creating a class of the working poor"--a phenomenon that
Italians on the left see as typically American. Berlusconi's attack on
Article 18 serves another purpose: "He is trying to split the labor
movement," former Mayor Castellani said. Everyone in the opposition
Italy has had three politically diverse and competing union
confederations since the onset of the cold war. Their ability to
cooperate is endlessly fluctuating. The Italian Confederation of Workers
Unions (CISL) is the second-largest confederation, the most willing to
compromise with Berlusconi's government and the least interested in
defending Article 18. The smallest confederation, the Italian Union of
Labor (UIL), was also inclined to bend on Article 18. But Sergio
Cofferati, secretary general of the CGIL, refused to budge an inch. He
ended up rescuing the entire opposition.
Cofferati is the new hero--patron saint says it better--of Italy's left.
When the other two confederations refused to support a protest march to
defend Article 18, Cofferati insisted that the CGIL hold the
demonstration by itself. Over a million people converged on Rome on
March 23 in the largest rally since the Second World War. Cofferati also
called for the general strike on April 16, and his March triumph
embarrassed the other unions into going along. By the time of the April
25 Liberation Day rallies and the May Day rallies, 200,000 people were
showing up wherever he spoke. The crowds chant "Sergio! Sergio!" no
matter who else is standing on the stage, senior citizens break through
the security lines and throw themselves into his arms, teenagers line up
Cofferati's second and, by statute, final term as head of the CGIL ends
in June. The opposition activists are begging him to lead the
center-left coalition of parties. But he has decided to return to
Pirelli, the giant rubber and tire company where he worked as a
technician two decades ago--to do what, he won't say. He claims that he
has no intention of withdrawing from politics. In April, he helped found
"Aprile," a group that will coordinate the work of the large left
faction within the party of the Left Democrats. But he'll make no bid,
yet, to lead the left formally.
Berlusconi may have made a mistake by going after Article 18. Two of the
several parties in his coalition--the National Alliance (the
ex-neo-Fascists) and remnants of the old Christian Democrats--have
criticized his hard line. Whereas Berlusconi considers himself a
conservative in the mold of Britain's Margaret Thatcher, the other two
parties are less ideologically pure free-marketers. It is difficult to
predict Berlusconi's next move. Some Cabinet members hint that he would
like to find a face-saving compromise on Article 18. His labor minister,
however, claims he will fight the unions to the end. If the reform
becomes law, the unions have vowed to collect signatures for a national
referendum. Organizing for a referendum to revoke the law on letters
rogatory has already begun.
With the right and far right in Europe gaining ground, the ongoing
protests in Italy look like a hopeful sign. But Berlusconi still has the
upper hand. He is the first head of government in post-Fascist Italy
ready and able to disregard "the piazza" and impose his will through his
solid majority in Parliament. "Berlusconi is setting up a regime for
himself. He's not a fascist. He's populist and authoritarian. A
Peronist. Liberal democracy in Italy is in danger," Nicola Tranfaglia
On May 26, about 11 million Italians will vote in local and regional
elections. Although these contests do not necessarily mirror public
opinion on national issues, everyone will interpret them as a showdown
between Berlusconi and the opposition. The center-left has a chance to
improve its standing. The far-left Communist Refounding party has agreed
to cooperate with the center-left coalition--something it refused to do
in last year's election, thereby assuring Berlusconi's victory.
In the meantime, citizens are rallying in the piazzas, collecting
signatures and marching around buildings. As a result, most Italian
small-d democrats would agree with Luciano Gallino when he says, "I'm a
little less pessimistic."
As a Russian studies major at Yale in the 1970s, I observed Soviet
"elections" that were conducted more fairly than the 2002 Yale
Corporation's board of trustees election. Why is the Yale Corporation so
threatened by the candidacy of a prominent New Haven pastor who cares
about Yale and its workers?
The last time a prospective trustee was nominated by petition was almost
forty years ago, when William Horowitz became Yale's first elected
Jewish trustee. Back then 250 signatures were required for ballot
qualification; that has since been raised to 3 percent of eligible
alumni--some 3,200 signatures today. The Rev. Dr. W. David Lee, an
African-American pastor of one of New Haven's largest churches and a
graduate of the Yale Divinity School, gathered 4,870 signatures. If
elected, he would be the only New Haven resident other than Yale's
president to sit on the corporation's board.
But he is also supported by Yale's employee unions, and the
university--one of America's great institutions of higher learning--does
not like that. Normally, the Standing Committee for the Nomination of
Alumni Fellows of the Association of Yale Alumni nominates two or three
alumni to stand for election. This year, apparently threatened by Lee's
grassroots efforts, the committee nominated only one, Maya Lin, creator
of the Vietnam War memorial, around whom the Yale Corporation and its
allies could rally.
As an alumnus, I received no fewer than six mailings--from the alumni
organization, from wealthy Yale alumni, from former corporation board
members--all criticizing Lee for failing to identify who paid for his
mailing, for his "aggressive campaign" and for his "ties to special
interests, labor unions."
In a campaign flier (containing no disclosure of who paid for it), the
Association of Yale Alumni quoted comments from Lee critical of the
university. It is not surprising that a minister of a large church at
which many Yale employees worship might at times express substantial
differences with a university that pays many of those workers less than
a living wage.
As if the Yale Corporation had not already made its interests known,
even the ballot package--paid for by the university and sent to all
voters--was slanted in favor of the corporation's candidate. The
official publication intimates support for its favored candidate from
"over 700 alumni," including the Association of Yale Alumni, the
officers of Yale college classes and Yale clubs and other alumni
associations. The other candidate, the Yale Corporation stated in the
ballot package, was "nominated by petition"--(as though Lee's 4,870
signatures did not indicate the support of those alumni).
Reminiscent of elections conducted in one-party states, the corporation
refused to allow an observer to be present when the ballots are counted.
It is not in the Yale bylaws, he was told.
It is unfortunate that Yale, which has produced so many national
leaders, has earned a widespread reputation for its antiunion activities
[see Kim Phillips-Fein, "Yale Bites Unions," July 2, 2001]. To all but
declare war on Yale's workers and its union, and on an outstanding young
New Haven leader, can only exacerbate city-university tensions and roil
Yale's already troubled labor-management waters.
How could one pro-worker candidate who aspires to a lone seat on a board
of nineteen of America's most influential people unleash the fury of an
entire university hierarchy? Why do powerful people--the kind who sit on
Yale's board--feel so threatened by a local minister? Why can't one of
the world's most prestigious universities--with a multibillion-dollar
endowment--pay its workers a living wage?
For God. For Country. For Yale.
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.
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.
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."
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.