Alternative Organizing for Workers
The following is the speech by Staughton Lynd, a well known US Labor activist. Staughton is the author of several classic books on US Labor. This speech was given at a Conference on Alternative Organizing for Workers NYC, June 28
Hermanos y hermanas, companeros y companeras, Lo siento que yo no puedo hablar espanol. Yo estoy barbero: yo hablo solamente una lengua. Entonces, debeo hablar ingles.
Brothers and sisters, comrades.
Forgive me, I do not speak Spanish.
I am a barbarian: I speak only one language. Therefore I shall have to speak in English.
This is the fifth in a series of gatherings on alternative unionism, or as we sometimes say, "solidarity unionism." The first three were in Youngstown. The fourth sought to honor the coming together of students and workers in Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa, and was held at Kent State University. I grew up in New York City and I am very pleased that the fifth gathering is being held here.
What do we mean by solidarity unionism? What is the core idea? In the history of the United States, there have been two kinds of labor unions.
First, there are traditional trade unions. Historically, they were often craft unions, because the skill of a carpenter or a roller in a steel mill
gave those workers leverage with the employer. But — very important — they
don't have to be craft unions. Today most traditional trade unions are industrial unions.
The defining characteristic of traditional unions is that they seek to
defend the short-term material interests of a particular group of workers, and to hell with everybody else. They don't try to change the capitalist system. They are part of it. They don't seek a more democratic society. National
trade unions of the traditional sort are among the least democratic institutions in this society.
The other kind of unions, alternative unions, differ in two ways. First, we seek what in the 1960s we called "participatory democracy." It's not enough every so often to vote for other people to make decisions in your name. People should participate in the decisions that affect their daily lives. As nearly as we can, we practice the idea that "we are all leaders." Second, we seek an economy and society based on cooperation, not profit. Alternative unions recognize that only basic changes in the structure of this society would make it possible for the union fully to achieve its goals.
I see three such alternative unions in United States history. The Knights of Labor flourished from about 1870 to about 1885. The Knights left us the vision of a society made up of producer cooperatives and the words, "An injury to one is an injury to all." (Pointing to these words on his T shirt.) There is a whole Old Testament and New Testament in those words.
Then came the IWW, founded in 1905 and still existing. The IWW is represented at this conference by its general secretary, Alexis Buss, and a number of individual members.
Finally the Farm Workers, in their early years under Cesar Chavez, are important to us this weekend for two things. 1. The boycott. Farm workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and are free to call for boycotts. 2. The blend of ethnic and labor traditions, as in the practice of making big decisions on Mexican Independence Day, September 16.
For workers who come to the United States from another country, it can
be very confusing to deal with traditional trade unions in this country. You remember the "Justice for Janitors" campaign of the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Many of the
janitors involved came from Guatemala and El Salvador. In those countries you could get killed for joining a union, as in Colombia today. So the janitors joined the SEIU and once they had joined, they had the idea: we'd like to have a voice in running this local. Together with Anglo hospital nurses they fielded a slate of candidates which captured every office on the local union executive board, except for president, which they did not contest.
This was in the early summer of 1995. In September 1995, in one of his last acts as SEIU president before becoming AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney put the Justice for Janitors local into trusteeship and removed all its elected officers.
To my mind what we have to understand is that, more and more, traditional labor unions — topdown, bureaucratic, business unions — no longer do the
minimum things that any kind of union must do to survive. Consider the textile workers union in New York City. I understand that more than half the employers under contract with UNITE actually pay their workers less than the wages called for in the collective bargaining agreement and less than the minimum wage required by law. For this, we don't need a union. Such a union is an obstacle to workers seeking the minimum wage. The union permits the employer to say, "Well, the union agreed to it." It's the same way with the steelworkers union in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The companies are shutting down and moving to low-wage markets, just like textile manufacturers in New York City. The union has no answer. So it joins with the bosses in lobbying to keep foreign steel out of the country. The union says that steelworkers in other countries have an unfair advantage and so can sell government-subsidized steel in the United States. What is meant by an "unfair advantage" is that these other countries are civilized. Instead of employers paying for the health care and pensions of certain groups of workers under the collective bargaining agreement, the state in those foreign countries pays for everybody's health care.
So is there an alternative?
Are we on our way to becoming a non-union society? What is to be done?
No one in this room has magic answers. Here are some clues, some hypotheses to be tested.
1. Most businesses are local and regional, not national or international. If you work for U.S. Steel or General Motors you need to have a way to hook up with other workers employed by the same company. I remember a man who started a local union at a U.S. Steel mill in Chicago in the 1930s telling me, in his Scottish accent, "Staughton, the only power we had was over the bars of soap in the wash room." But most businesses aren't like that. When you work for a local or regional employer there is no reason to belong to a national or so-called "international" union.
2. As the economy moves in the direction of service industries rather
than manufacturing, employers become more vulnerable to consumer boycotts. In situations where the union itself would violate the law by calling for a boycott, community groups can do it.
3. Boycotts and other forms of community support can most easily be organized when people who work together also live together in homogeneous neighborhoods near the workplace.
This is how it used to be in Polish or Italian neighborhoods near to steel mills. Everybody walked up the hill to the same neighborhood after work,
and kids were told to be quiet because the man next door might be working a different shift and need his sleep.
As I understand it, this is how it is today in many neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York City where folks from Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, or West Africa, or Pakistan, live near each other and near the places where they work together.
4. Even in manufacturing, just-in-time inventory practices make very large employers vulnerable to disruption by small groups of workers. A few hundred workers who make brakes in southwest Ohio were able to shut down the whole of General Motors when they went on strike a couple of years ago. 5. And most of all, as capitalism and privatization of public services are imposed on the whole world, more and more poor and working people rise up against it.
A non-traditional union like the IWW is not going to solve anyone's problems for them. It can offer support and encouragement. Fundamentally answers need to be found locally, and local groups — whether local unions, rank-and-file caucuses, parallel central labor unions or workers' centers — need to reach out to each other, horizontally (extending arms to either side of himself), for solidarity and support.
That is solidarity unionism.
It has one more element, which we shall be exploring tomorrow morning with JoAnn Wypijewski.
Traditional unions line up behind their respective national governments. This was true of European unions in World War I. It has been true of unions in the United States, in World War II and every subsequent war. Trade unions may talk a good game before the fighting starts, but after the first shot is fired, they crumble. War means more jobs and higher wages. Being against war means risking pressure from society around you to a degree that traditional unions fear.
We have a special responsibility in this regard. An injury to one — in Iraq, in Palestine, in the Congo, in Ecuador, in Colombia — is an injury to all. And these days a good many of the injuries are inflicted by what, for want of a better term, I will call "our government": the government of the United States. In 1968 French students said: Be realistic, demand the impossible. A generation later, students and workers affirmed: Another world is possible. Let us demand it.
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