Labor: In Fighting Trim

Labor: In Fighting Trim

In the wake of losses before and after September 11, labor unions gear up for the next tough fights.


This is a longer version of the comment that appears in this week's print edition.

The September 11 attacks spread their pall over the AFL-CIO convention in early December as union representatives touchingly remembered the dead–including more than 700 union members–and honored the everyday heroism of workers like firefighters, ironworkers and nurses. But unions also confronted the political fallout of the terror attacks, which undermined major globalization protests, dampened a new antisweatshop campaign, chilled labor's crusade for immigration reform and gave Bush new clout, which he used to eke out a one-vote House passage of fast-track trade-promotion authority that labor strongly opposed. The attacks also deepened the recession, thus making collective bargaining tougher and shrinking union treasuries.

The low-key mood at the Las Vegas gathering obscured the determination of the labor movement to fight vigorously on its major campaigns, not simply to play defense or hunker down and hope as many unions did in the 1980s. Delegates thunderously pounded their tables in approval as AFL-CIO president John Sweeney condemned Bush and "his corporate backers [for] waging a vicious war on working families." Firefighters president Harold Schaitberger similarly warned politicians, "We don't want homilies. We want healthcare for every worker."

While supporting the war against terrorists, the AFL-CIO strongly attacked the Bush Administration's antiterrorism measures for threatening civil liberties with only one dissenting voice in the executive council. Union leaders showed little enthusiasm for the war despite their statements of support, and there were indications that labor would not uniformly, if at all, back extension of the war. "Catching and dealing with bin Laden and Al Qaeda is one thing," UNITE (clothing and textile workers) president Bruce Raynor said. "Waging war on lots of other countries is another."

While labor grieved, corporate America attacked workers with plant closings, layoffs and pursuit of legislative favors in Washington, Raynor said, but now unions must "be more aggressive than ever" in organizing and mobilizing public sentiment against the "deceit" and "hypocrisy" of big business and the White House. The minority of unions that have been organizing–with recent large-scale successes among workers ranging from janitors and homecare workers to graduate teaching assistants, nurses and engineers–plan to continue, even intensify, their organizing campaigns. "We don't believe the recession will have any substantive negative impact on organizing," argued Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, which since 1998 has doubled its spending on organizing and quadrupled newly organized public service workers to roughly 50,000 this year. The AFL-CIO now is concentrating on helping unions that haven't seriously pursued organizing opportunities in their industries. For example, the Teamsters, who have had few organizing successes recently, announced a new pact with longshore unions to organize 50,000 truckers at the nation's ports.

Most important, the AFL-CIO and affiliated unions are increasing the use of their growing political clout and community alliances to try to counteract employer opposition to unions, perhaps the most important obstacle to union growth. With the help of state labor federations and metropolitan central labor councils, and through their own collective bargaining, unions are winning agreements that require employers to be neutral during organizing drives and that prohibit use of public funds to fight unions. Also, labor is telling union-backed politicians that "they need to help us increase union density," explained AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, who recently honed labor's already sophisticated operations in New Jersey, getting 73 percent of union members to the polls, with 67 percent of those voting for the new, strongly prolabor governor, James McGreevy. It's in the interest of Democrats: With just 3,000 more union members in five key districts, Rosenthal calculated, the Democrats would now control the House of Representatives. Unions have also decided that they want to double–to 5,000–the current number of union members in elected office, creating what McEntee called "sort of our labor party." But union leaders put off a decision about how much money to give the AFL-CIO for politics as well as its other work until next February, reflecting union leaders' desire to be more involved in developing a focused, efficient plan for the federation.

The momentum for immigration reform evaporated on September 11, but union leaders were determined to renew their campaign early next year with a series of forums and a push to make sure that survivors of the terror attacks and families of victims are eligible for the same benefits, regardless of immigrant status. HERE (hotel workers) president John Wilhelm still hopes to make immigration reform a major issue in next year's elections.

Nobody was sanguine about the prospects for next year, with unemployment growing, state budgets shrinking and double-digit healthcare inflation, but Minnesota public employees successfully went out on strike shortly after the terror attacks, and Boston hotel workers recently won a strong contract on the brink of a walkout. Union leaders think that their members and the general public are quietly outraged at the greed and excess of corporations and the Bush Administration, even during a national security crisis. Mineworkers president Cecil Roberts joined Jesse Jackson in a call for labor to march on Washington in protest that gained warm applause. If Bush and the corporations want to wage war, as Sweeney said, they will find that the labor movement is better prepared than it has been in many years to engage the fight.

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