It seems to me that these times demand that we not collapse “labor movement” with “unions.” We cannot allow the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition, their institutional structures, and even individual unions, to monopolize our conceptions of “labor movement.” I want to give two recent Minnesota examples.
This past year has seen the largest workers’ demonstrations in the United States since the 1930s. These breathtaking demonstrations, decentralized but loosely linked, saw hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly Latinos, assert their class status (“We are workers, not criminals”), and demand to be treated with dignity and respect. While it has been tempting to bemoan the decline of the labor movement over the past 20 years, these demonstrations call for nothing less than the reconceptualization of our idea of the labor movement.
Can the existing institutional apparatus of the labor movement carry out such a rethinking? All evidence points to a negative answer to that question. Here in St. Paul, the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly, an organization within which progressive activists have devoted countless hours to internal education, cultural work, and strike suppoprt, has turned its back on the new immigrant movement. In the late 1980s, riding the crest of the activism generated around the Hormel strike and the influence of various committed activists, the Trades and Labor Assembly revived its annual Labor Day Picnic, an event more than a century old, which had lapsed during the Cold War and faded into memory. The revived picnic became a great success, drawing five to ten thousand workers and their families, including working women and men who did not carry union cards, to share food, ideas, music, and spirit, view labor history displays, and hear occasional speakers.
Starting with the 2000 election campaign, local and then national politicians began to visit the picnic, demanding speaking time and space. Sadly, labor “leaders” were all too willing to grant their desires. But, still, the picnics were a place of labor identity and community-building.
But this year, the Trades and Labor Assembly has chosen to cancel the picnic. Their excuse? That the withdrawal of those unions who constituted the Change to Win Coalition had cost the Assembly too much of their dues base to be able to “afford” the picnic, particularly the travel and safety expenses of big-name politicians. The sub-text? That the “leaders” of the Assembly felt unable to ask major unions to contribute funds for the picnic in light of an announced immigrant rights march, which intended to conclude at the picnic. Some of the building trades unions specifically said that their members did not want to provide resources to the immigrant movement, and there were those who also cautioned against “tying” the Democrats to the expansion of immigrant rights, which would be the message of this year’s picnic. And so there won’t be a picnic.
Another example. In August, the Minnesota state AFL-CIO held its annual convention, this time in St. Paul While we all know that the ranks of organized labor have continued to shrink, the Minnesota AFL-CIO chose to discuss “organizing” by praising themselves for the great job they have been doing. They claimed to have “organized” more than 10,000 new members in the past year. Among these “new” members, they were counting nearly 3,000 Northwest Airlines flight attendants who had switched their affiliation from an independent union, the PFAA, to the AFA-CWA. The latter organization had actually launched a raid on the PFAA while that union was trying to fight NWA’s demands for nearly $200 million in concessions, while in bankruptcy. Rather than help fight the employer, the AFA had put its own raid at top priority. It’s not surprising that they won, given that the flight attendants had seen the AMFA mechanics isolated by the AFL-CIO because they were unaffiliated and then crushed by NWA. But to call this “organizing”? To what levels of hypocrisy and cynicism will the “leadership” of “organized” labor sink?
These experiences require us to rethink what we mean by “labor movement” and to be willing to discuss this openly, with our fellow workers, our union sisters and brothers, our students, our neighbors, the media, and so on. That’s my message for Labor Day 2006.
Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul.