A Real Alternative--Grassroots Organizing

IMMANUEL NESS

This article is from the September/October 2005 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2005/0905ness.html


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This article is from the September/October 2005 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The departure of SEIU, the Teamsters, and the UFCW from the AFL-CIO reveals narrow and superficial differences dividing the House of Labor, not a historic shift in the labor movement. In fact, it is hard to find any significant distinction between the unions forming the Change to Win Coalition (CTW) and those remaining in the AFL-CIO. The last important split in organized labor, which came with the formation of the CIO in 1935, grew from the refusal of AFL leaders to embrace industrial unionism. Today, however, the AFL-CIO fundamentally shares the CTW's vision of organizing new members to build power.

Change to Win represents a motley constellation of unions with checkered organizational pasts drawn together by a stated interest: building density. The leaders believe that structural consolidation will free up funds and resources to organize within discrete labor markets. Too many unions, they say, are organizing outside of their core industrial jurisdictions. By streamlining and merging unions in the same labor market, the union movement can become a stronger vehicle for workers.

However, it is likely that both CTW and AFL-CIO unions will continue to compete for members. As unions scramble to organize, jurisdictional conflict is inevitable inside and outside of the AFL-CIO. Indeed, CTW unions have waged scorching jurisdictional battles among themselves in the past decade. In the late 1990s, UNITE and the Teamsters struggled fiercely over representation in the beer distribution industry. Just last year, UNITE and the UFCW competed for members in a major New York regional drug store chain. And in the last decade, UNITE raided the Textile Employees Union using the fact that the TEU was not in the AFL-CIO as justification.

In the wake of the split, I see only one hopeful possibility: that unions might candidly reassess alternatives to traditional top-down organizing. One alternative--drawn from the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Trade Union Education League (TUEL) organizing early in the last century--encourages workers to organize themselves into grassroots, democratic locals capable of spontaneous action that changes power relations at work. 

By organizing bottom-up, independent local efforts with the support of community coalitions, workers can produce the strength that CTW advocates. This approach would be a major departure from the current practice of national unions imposing jurisdictional boundaries within their own organizations. Yes, density matters, but it is almost meaningless when workers cannot address their own immediate concerns. Furthermore, it means little to the two-thirds of all workers in small businesses who need workplace organization. If AFL-CIO and CTW unions are serious about building power, they must provide resources for independent local organizing that permits rank-and file workers to determine conditions and actions on the job. 

Unfortunately, Change to Win offers more of the same top-down, hierarchical control. Unions in the coalition prefer press conferences and scripted blogs to worker insurgency. Bent on building "critical mass" by increasing union density and leveraging power at the top, CTW leaders have ignored organized and unorganized worker demands for independence and power on the job.

Unions must also provide a vision of social justice. While workers want better wages and working conditions, most also aspire to a more just society based on greater racial and gender equality and a new vision for the future. Workers don't want Bush's ownership society but an inclusive, democratic, and independent voice in their workplaces. However, CTW does not offer any social vision that can inspire workers to join en masse.

The challenge today is to build working-class power at a time when U.S. workers face high levels of unemployment and jobs in which they are repressed and overworked. This challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that workers are disillusioned with the ability of unions to protect their rights in a politically hostile environment. If unions are to meet this challenge, they will have to provide an alternative to business as usual. It is not enough to fight for the right to organize if the upshot is wage slavery under better conditions. Unions must advance a new social contract based on democracy, participation, control, and worker rights.  And they must tap into workers' self-organizing, rather than simply looking to density to build strength down the road.

Immanuel Ness is professor of political science at Brooklyn College--City University of New York. His books include Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market and Organizing for Justice in Our Communities. Ness is editor of WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society.