Two days after the World Trade Center attacks, and without any notice by the press, a thousand or more people crowded onto the first-floor gallery of the AFL-CIO’s Washington, DC, headquarters to mourn organized labor’s soul-numbing casualties. The 350 missing New York firemen were all union members, as were sixty-three policemen and dozens of missing emergency workers. Fifteen unionized carpenters. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) lost almost fifty members who had been working a breakfast meeting at the top of one of the crumbled towers on September 11. Another sixty-two members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)–janitors, window washers, security guards–perished that morning as well. Perhaps as many as 800 unionized workers died in the twin towers inferno, the Pentagon attacks and the crash in Pennsylvania.
The body blow landed against labor provoked crippling pain and, among some, red-hot anger. Much of the new union leadership in place since John Sweeney took over the national federation six years ago are baby boomers whose politics were forged in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. But the prevailing mood among organized labor is not pacifist. On the same day as the AFL memorial gathering, the powerful Machinists union, whose members built, serviced and maintained the four hijacked jets, issued an incendiary statement vowing that it was “not simply justice we seek. It is vengeance, pure and complete.”
The Machinists’ saber-rattling was on labor’s extreme edge (that union also builds F-16s and F-22s). But, in general, labor’s attitude toward war mirrors the mixed views of most progressives: Some for peace, a few for all-out war and most for some sort of just response against the perpetrators of September 11, without giving a blank check to the Bush Administration.
Labor is not only grieving its losses but also bracing for a suddenly uncertain and problematic future. “Our people see all this as threatening: to us, our membership, our core industries, our core concerns,” says Bruce Colburn, midwest deputy director of the AFL-CIO. “Our people are consumed by just what all this will mean.”
It means, at the least, some readjustment of labor’s economic, organizing and political strategies. Says Andy Stern, president of the SEIU, “The political map has not been rewritten, but now you have to play with different rules and in a different context.”
“Before September 11, we had a comprehensive legislative agenda from the patients’ bill of rights, to minimum wage, to paid prescription drug plans, to immigration reform, to trade and fast-track policy,” laments Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, the country’s largest public employee union. “Now, the national agenda is all about bin Laden, terrorism, the military and defense spending. Meanwhile the economy is almost in a swan dive. Private sector or public sector–we’re getting hammered.”
Union losses climb almost hourly: one hundred thousand airline workers being laid off. A crashing tourism industry, with thousands thrown out of work in once recession-proof Las Vegas. The 300,000-member HERE girding for what may be a layoff of 30 percent of its membership. And all this with a ripple effect more like a tsunami-wave machine. Even the ASPCA is laying off workers, after the charity world was rescrambled by the collapse of the trade towers. Add to this more than a million job layoffs in the months preceding September 11 and you can understand why some union activists fear they are staring into the abyss. “The job-loss numbers we are facing could be simply staggering,” says Martin Ludlow, political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “Here in Los Angeles, we’ve got maybe a thousand people–parking-lot attendants, baggage handlers, sky caps–pushed out of work just at the airport.”
The SEIU’s Stern speaks of “looming crises,” noting that even at the high point of the US economy, little if any ground was being won in getting more American families covered by health insurance. “One study I have seen predicts that in a recession, those not covered will jump from 43 million to 60 million,” he says. “We need to slowly resume our agenda, but now in a new context of a declining economy, increased security and, possibly, a war.” At the top of labor’s newly refashioned political menu are the imperatives of recovery and relief. Union muscle is being put behind legislative proposals to extend unemployment insurance (for an extra year beyond the current twenty-six weeks), open more access to needed healthcare and give additional support to the legions of workers laid off in the hardest-hit industries.
The increased spending coming out of the crisis might offer a few rays of hope–for example, the massive recovery efforts in New York City are an opportunity for union labor. “And there’s also a new opportunity to change and reverse part of Bush’s tax plans,” Stern says. “He said he was returning the ‘people’s money.’ But looking at what is being spent now and what could be spent on the war that Bush is talking about means we no longer have the people’s money. So let’s not put the people further in debt to pay for all this. Let’s change the tax cut.”
The Machinists, fearing cataclysmic layoffs at Boeing, hope to make up those losses by enthusiastically supporting Bush’s plans for a National Missile Defense. The Teamsters, eyeing as many as 25,000 jobs, continue to side with the White House over drilling in the Arctic refuge. And the newest edition of the journal of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers celebrates a “New Day for Nuclear?”
Such departures from labor’s more progressive posture, however, put strains on the so-called Seattle Coalition–the alliance of unions and social activists that has been the motor force in the “global justice” movement. The AFL-CIO’s Colburn cautions, however, that it’s still too early for any wholesale strategic repositioning by labor, noting, “Many of us are still in survival mode.” His hope, he says, is that labor will resist being shaken off its current track of progressive coalition-building. “My attitude, until proven differently, is that we have fundamentally been right to open up the labor movement to immigration, that we are right in building a new internationalism, right in becoming more independent of the political parties,” he says. “It would be stupid to say we don’t need to make some adaptations–but if we don’t stick to these core principles, who else will?”
Certainly not the Democrats, who have rushed to offer often unconditional support for President Bush, provoking bitter disappointments among the party’s labor allies. “Traditionally, when you put an issue before the sort of ‘national unity’ government we now have, it becomes a two-way street,” says one analyst at a labor-backed think tank. “One side agrees to support the other’s legislation in return for some other concession. But this time around, at least on labor’s issues, the Democrats are not extracting any price from the Republicans.” Most egregious was the multibillion-dollar airline-bailout bill. “The Democrats did nothing for the tens of thousands of laid-off workers,” he says. “Nor did they do anything about the airlines’ virtually ripping up union contracts to lay off so many workers.”
Labor was enraged at the Democratic betrayal. According to one high-placed AFL-CIO official, president Sweeney “was literally screaming inside the Senate offices he lobbied on the bailout. Literally screaming. But to no avail.”
Yet labor has muted any public criticism of the Democrats, in part because it doesn’t want to antagonize those friends it still has in the party–including those who worked to prevent the GOP from ramrodding fast-track authority through Congress in the post-September 11 bipartisan love-in, and in part because labor–for better or worse–seems unwilling to transcend the lesser-of-two-evils dynamic. In labor’s logic, the Democrats may be fair-weather friends, but the Republicans are the enemy. “Before all this happened, 2002 was shaping up as a good year for Democrats taking back the House, for Democratic chances in gubernatorial races, and even in the Senate,” says AFSCME president McEntee, a key player in national labor’s political strategizing. “I think that has all changed now. The big question is, Will this last? I don’t know that anybody knows the answer.”
It’s not just relations with the Democrats that are troublesome for labor. Labor strategists are keeping a wary eye on the cohesiveness of the hard-built, more grassroots Seattle Coalition of “Teamsters and turtles.” Prior to the WTC attacks, the AFL-CIO was going all out to support antiglobalization protests set to take place around the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington, DC, on September 29. Those meetings were canceled after the attack, and so were the protests. But some of the nonlabor activists resurrected the protests and retooled them into antiwar marches and rallies, which could open a deep fissure in the movement for global justice. Veterans of the 1960s–mostly in labor–were stricken with flashback nightmares of the bad old days when hardhat unionized construction workers came out to bat around longhaired anti-Vietnam War protesters. Thirty years later, once again the youth and student sector of the antiglobalization movement is veering off into an undefined peace movement. And organized labor, which has yet to recover its victims, let alone bury them, while not fully embarked on the war caravan, isn’t exactly ready to start lighting candles and singing “Give Peace a Chance.”
McEntee describes his heavily African-American membership as feeling “very, very patriotic.” Martin Ludlow of LA’s left-of-center County Federation of Labor says that “while there isn’t any sort of war fever, even most progressives in labor support some sort of maybe surgical operation to bring those responsible for the [September 11] attacks to justice.” Even Jobs with Justice, one of the country’s most effective groups in forging cutting-edge labor/activist coalitions, was lying low on the peace movement. “It’s pretty delicate,” says Laura McSpedon, a co-coordinator of the group’s youth wing, SLAP. “A lot of our student labor activists have moved into peace projects, and we’re trying to work that out without damaging our coalitions.” Indeed, labor–specifically, any sizable Jobs with Justice contingent–was conspicuously absent from the peace marches that snaked through Washington September 29-30. “You can fairly say that the globalization movement is divided on the issue of war,” Massachusetts Jobs with Justice director Russ Davis told the press.
Some of the youth/environmental/labor coalitions were already under strain before September 11. While labor is the alliance partner with the most resources–financial and human–it is also the most cautious. Only in the past few years have significant portions of union leadership dared to seek the kinds of coalitions that have been in the forefront of the global justice movement. And even before September 11, they were concerned about the violence that erupted at antiglobalization protests in Quebec City and Genoa. Says a close adviser to AFL-CIO president Sweeney, “We are very concerned about some of the rhetoric coming out of the NGO sector, about bringing the war home and so on. How are we going to hold the progressive left together if the rhetoric from the nonprofit sector starts veering off the radar? We are not going to be able to bring working folks along on that.” The most anxious among labor’s ranks fear the fallout from a protracted war. Casualties and blood, they say, tend to polarize. If unions turn more pro-war while students dig in for peace, the past half-decade’s careful alliance-building will be fractured.
If any one person most feels the tensions crackling through the global justice movement, it’s Ron Judd, the Seattle-based Western regional director of the AFL-CIO. In 1999 Judd was running the King County Labor Council and was one of the founding architects of the Seattle Coalition. He doesn’t flinch at the conflicting emotions that roil his coalition partners. “Of course we are shaken and confused,” he says. “I have a side of me that, as progressive as I am, says I’d like to get back at those dirty bastards who killed our people. But another, less emotional part of me says it’s better to think things out, aid the victims and deal with this menace without causing immense collateral damage to people in this country and others.”
Judd says he’s sure that labor in general feels similarly torn and that some differences are bound to emerge in the weeks to come. “But remember, labor itself is a coalition,” he points out. “And while we are bound to disagree, I am equally confident that what is going to hold us together is what has gotten us this far. It’s realizing that in the progressive movement, none of us have such a powerful place in society that we can change things by ourselves. Serious people know that serious progress is made when we all work together.”