After Labor Day
Sometimes I just can't crank out an editorial on what should be an obvious stance on an issue or an event in time to make my regular deadline. Because I decide that I'm not in agreement with the obvious stance, and that I need to take extra time to formulate a different stance. Such is the case with this belated Labor Day editorial. Given this publication's left-wing editorial position, the obvious stance on Labor Day 2013 would be "yay, Labor Day, the nation's official holiday in honor of working people ... let me talk about all the great things that the American labor movement is doing this year ... woohoo!"
But in truth, I can't think of a single positive thing to say about Labor Day this year. The American labor movement continues getting weaker and weaker. Certainly in terms of declining membershiprelative to the total working population, but also in terms of political clout. There are bright spots of course. But they are bright only in comparison to the lackluster business-as-usual approach of most unions. Especially when it comes to electoral politics. Virtually all significant unions and many of their labor-community offshoots remain stuck fast to the Democratic Party - even as Democratic leadership backstabs working families again and again and again at every level of American politics.
Here in Boston, one only has to look at where the local labor movement puts its emphasis on Labor Day to see the problem. Several hundred staff and leadership from most unions in Massachusetts attended the annual Greater Boston Labor Council Labor Day breakfast at the Park Plaza hotel. There, sitting Democratic politicians and aspiring candidates held forth - making brave-sounding speeches to the people who provide the ground troops and ready cash that can mean the difference between victory and defeat in increasingly contentious elections. And many of these politicians - Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey first among them - are decent enough by the standards of American politics today. That is to say they're not sociopaths like so many other politicians around the country. I have no doubt that they genuinely care about their constituents and will try to help win some minor reforms that benefit working people. More than that they cannot or will not do. Because in this era, Democrats are happy to take whatever labor can give them, but no Democratic politician or strategist will ever forget for a moment who they are actually working for day to day ... big corporations and banks.
The business lobbies are spending several dollars on elections for every dollar that labor spends - on both Republicans and Democrats. So in any struggle where labor is making a demand - however small (like raising the Mass. minimum wage from it's current very low $8/hour to a better but still low $11/hour) - that involves a conflict between corporations and working people, the Democrats are going to close ranks behind the corporations every time. Labor leaders are therefore very careful not to push more significant demands or to fight too hard on the minor demands that they make. Or they lose even the weak influence they have over the politicians that they back.
In that context, and in comparison to the labor breakfast, consider the two Labor Day focused actions fielded by a segment of unions and allies locally in the last few days: the SEIU-led fast food workers walkout in several locations in and around Boston, and the SEIU Labor Day march in Cambridge. The fast food focused actions drew no more than 200 people to any one place, and in total likely involved no more than the numbers present at the Labor Day breakfast. The SEIU march drew around 300 people.
Are these actions - together with SEIU's leadership on organizing (middle class educated, working class waged) adjunct professors in Boston, DC and a number of other locations - indicative of a labor resurgence in at least America's largest union, SEIU? Sort of. But a resurgence of the kind of experimental strategy that myself and a bunch of others were pushing in labor circles over a decade ago, not a labor resurgence per se as some would have it.
And the lack of strong support for such actions from other quarters of the labor movement is both typical and problematic. As is the relatively low turnout for what should be much larger actions. Understanding that unions like SEIU don't always invite significant participation from other unions in every action they call (that is, you'll see speakers from other labor organizations at events like the SEIU Labor Day march, but you won't necessarily see massed ranks from those organizations present - which is due in part to lack of interest by some players or all the players involved depending and in part because labor organizations have trouble attracting massed ranks of their own members on a regular basis). And that unions fight each other over what amounts to turf from time to time. Which is depressing to watch and generally counterproductive.
Meanwhile, alongside but not overlapping the aforementioned Labor Day events, the local peace movement did a small rally against the unnecessary war on Syria that the Democratic Obama administration is on the verge of ramming down the American people's throats at the behest of the various industries that stand to make a profit off of another Middle Eastern war (and, of course, to "save face" with the "international community," whatever that means). But the AFL-CIO, still the main national federation of American labor unions, can't yet bring itself to say much in public against the proposed war on Syria. Nor can most of its constituent unions, or the schismatic national labor federation that's led by SEIU, Change to Win. Or even discuss the Syria crisis at all - with the notable and welcome exception of the Central Mass. AFL-CIO at their Labor Day breakfast in Worcester where Markey and Warren were questioned about the issue (the event drew 500 people, incidentally). Partially because anything that's good for the war industries tends to be good for the unions that still hold on in those industries, and partially because Democratic leadership wants the war and most unions have joined themselves to the Dems at the hip in hopes of being allowed to continue to exist in some form by the titans of capital. To her credit, Sen. Warren brought up the issue unbidden during her speech at the Boston labor breakfast, though carefully avoided taking a position. Sen. Markey meanwhile was badgered about Syria at the fast food workers rally on Boston Common last week, but refused to address the issue (with an unfortunate assist from the rally organizers) - and went on to take a dive by voting "present" on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolution on US military action against Syria (which passed).
So I couldn't help but spend this Labor Day worrying about labor's future, rather than writing some chirpy rah-rah editorial. The structural trends - various legal and legislative challenges to unions' very existence leading the pack - and the hard numbers point to end game for traditional unions in the next decade or so. And sure, I was predicting that labor would be doomed by around this year a decade back; so I should be happy that I was wrong. But I'm not happy. The downward slide may be slower than I (and the analysts I was listening to ten years ago) thought, but it's a downward slide nonetheless.
Unless something changes.
And what might that something be? I'm not sure. No one is sure. But I believe that the American labor movement can be saved by putting its role as the standard bearer of the American working class front and center - and ceasing to be the "handmaid of capital" that it has remained for decades now. That would mean biting the bullet and withdrawing its automatic support for the Democratic Party at all levels. Then using the tens of millions of dollars spent on the Dems in every election cycle for broad organizing campaigns that would be built around advancing working class interests more than around organizing people into the membership of one or another sectoral unions. While unions only spend a fraction of what corporations spend on electoral politics at the moment, the loss of millions of dollars would punish the Democrats for past bad behavior and force them to bargain in good faith for every future labor endorsement won.
Whether it would then be a good idea to build a Labor Party in the US or not, I'm not prepared to say at this juncture. I participated in the last attempt to make that happen back around 2000, but it didn't work.
My labor friends and I talk about whether its best to plug workers into loose decentralized networks and associations or strong centralized parties and revived unions, and it's far from clear what the best course is at this point.
Still, it's quite clear what happens if things don't change. American labor will be defeated at a time of global ecological crisis - which is already triggering resource wars and major crises in the provision of basic necessities like water, food, and energy worldwide.
I don't like to think of where American - and global - politics will go from there.
But I want OMB viewers to think about it.
Definitely let me know if you have any input. Our comment area, as ever, is open.
Jason Pramas is the Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston. Full disclosure: he spent a lot of time in and around the American labor movement ... blah blah blah ... see his many other full disclosure statements in past editorials for all the details. One new thing, he is part of the SEIU Adjunct Action movement at Lesley University where he teaches communications.