A Wisp of Hope for American Labor


Oakland, California. -- Few American workers expect to run their places of employment, even in these days of deceptive calls for labor-management cooperation. But workers do expect and want to run their unions. Since the earliest days of progressive unionism, workers have advocated direct election of officers, at all levels. Rank-and-file democracy makes unions strong.

That's what makes the coming election for leadership of the AFL-CIO a wisp of hope in what are grim times for America's labor movement. Breaking with 100 years of tradition, AFL-CIO chief Lane Kirkland has retired without naming his successor. While his long-time secretary treasurer Tom Donohue is the candidate Mr. Kirkland clearly favors, challenger John Sweeney has the edge among prospective delegates.

At stake is more than who takes over the nation's only labor federation. The contest offers an opportunity for workers to debate and propose a new political direction. This is nothing less than a life-and-death question for America's labor movement.

For two decades, workers have been trying to adapt to an era in which employers have declared class war on labor. During the fierce strikes in Decatur and Stockton, at Pittston and Greyhound -- in workplaces and picket lines across the country -- activists are rediscovering the radical traditions of the labor movement and adapting them to the modern era.

New organizing campaigns based on alliances between unions and communities recall the CIO's industrial battles of the '30s and '40s. Last year's huge march of native-born and immigrant workers in Los Angeles against Proposition 187 recalled the earlier interracial marches of workers under the slogan "Black and white, unite and fight." If former AFL-CIO president George Meany prided himself on never having walked a picket line, coal-miner activist Mother Jones was proud that she organized them. Workers must decide which model better serves today's union struggle.

But survival hinges not just on looking to the past. We live in the world of the global production line. U.S. unions can no longer halt the production of major corporations by their action alone. Cooperation across borders has become a matter of survival. Last year's wave of labor activism over NAFTA focused workers on a new question -- if corporations have gone global, why can't we?

Past and present AFL-CIO presidents have had enormous influence over labor's international relationships. They led U.S. labor into the Cold War on the side of government and corporations, at the price of building international solidarity. Now as the spread of maquiladoras, NAFTA and GATT threaten U.S. workers, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Four decades of Cold War politics have done little to help find allies in Mexico to organize in U.S.-owned plants, or to develop a common program to keep workers from being pitted against each other on both sides of the border. Meanwhile, the international department of the AFL-CIO spends $30 million a year in Moscow to prop up Boris Yelstin, to the anger of Russian workers whose falling wages make them increasingly attractive to U.S. investors.

The AFL-CIO presidency is a bully pulpit, if it's used to inspire and lead U.S. workers rather than make policies which play well in Washington. And U.S. workers want and need an alternative vision of how to restore a sense of inclusion to an economically polarized society. Labor's history of advocating radical reforms of capitalism never made friends in Washington, but it built a social movement and gave working families a dream to organize their lives around.

Today's workers don't suffer from expecting too much, but from expecting too little. In an era when the labor movement needs again to win the loyalty and sacrifice of millions of workers, the power of its social vision can't be underestimated.

The election of a new AFL-CIO president is a rare opportunity to articulate that vision, and find leaders willing to pursue it.

David Bacon, a veteran labor organizer, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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