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Building a rank-and-file union movement

Review by Peter Lamphere | June 24, 2005 | Page 13

Vanessa Tait, Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below. South End Press, 2005, 258 pages, $20.

Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss, Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. University of California Press, 2004, 244 pages, $20.

THE CRISIS facing the American labor movement has never been as sharp as it is today. Two new books, Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below and Hard Work Remaking the American Labor Movement, are useful contributions to the debate over labor's future.

In Hard Work, Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss take as their starting point the bureaucratization of the labor movement during the boom of the 1950s. In exchange for a steady pace of wage increases, the labor movement traded away shop floor power.

"In contrast to [European] unions, the U.S. labor movement was largely stripped of its ability to act like a social movement," they write, "...A new 'push-button' unionism characterized by an array of bureaucratic practices from formal labor board elections, routinized grievance procedures and automatic dues deduction."

And when the U.S. ruling class responded to the 1970s decline in profitability by attacking the unions, "most leaders were stuck in an organizational culture that was based on an economic reality and a labor-management-government relationship that no longer existed, leaving them utterly ineffective (and powerless) in responding to the crisis."

Vanessa Tait in Poor Workers' Unions looks at the experience of the most marginalized workers--those who make minimum wage, are unemployed or on welfare. And even though these workers were written off as unorganizable or not even workers, they have an inspiring history of organizing.

While both books emphasize mobilizing the rank and file, Voss and Fantasia stress the efforts initiated by a few larger unions in key campaigns, rather than movements initiated by workers themselves.

They focus, for example, on Hotel and Restaurant Employees efforts in Las Vegas led by now-President John Wilhelm, who put together a "1,000-member citywide Organizing Committee with an emphasis on having workers resolve grievances collectively, mobilizing group actions at the workplace, rather than through bureaucratic paperwork." Hard Work also highlights the movement for local living-wage ordinances and the campus anti-sweatshop campaigns of the late 1990s.

These are all positive examples of social-movement unionism, but too much emphasis is placed on the character of the union leadership, rather than on the politics of the organizing itself.

Fantasia and Voss also place much hope on John Sweeney's arrival as AFL-CIO president in 1995, who, despite his promises to turn the labor movement around, has failed to change the pattern of concessions and membership loss.

Tait, on the other hand, looks at examples that may not fall within the traditional boundaries of the labor movement. This includes the stories of civil rights campaigns for increased hiring of African Americans in San Francisco, a union of unemployed workers in Rhode Island and the United Labor Unions (ULUs), which pioneered organizing home health care workers

She also discusses caucus movements like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in the United Auto Workers and the organizing efforts when workfare programs were introduced in the 1970s and later revived in the 1990s.

The key to success for all these struggles was a bottom-up approach. As ULU organizer Keith Kelleher put it, "We do not approach people as 'salespeople' for the union trying to sell the union's benefits as if we were selling insurance or vacuum cleaners."

Also crucial was an approach that didn't accept divisions between workers. "One of the major mistakes of past organizing efforts was the failure to build bridges between organized and unorganized labor," argues a workfare organizer, "[and] we are committed to the task of building those bridges."

The contrast between these two strategies-- Fantasia and Voss's emphasis on changes at the top of the union movement versus Tait's accent on the politics of rank-and-file mobilization--provides a useful lens for thinking about the various reform efforts within the AFL-CIO.

Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern, for example, focuses on increasing money spent on organizing and the mergers of unions to build "industrial power."

Tait, on the other hand, draws on the example of the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA) in the 1970s--a coalition of the UAW and the Teamsters that split from the AFL-CIO and launched a "slick Madison Avenue-style campaign" to recruit members.

Tait writes, "The campaign showed that simply throwing resources into organizing would not turn around the trade union movement's fortunes. Rather than fostering a collective sense of solidarity and power by organizing from the ground up at the workplace or community level, this strategy made joining a union an individual and isolating process. The ALA's strategy was the antithesis of the approach embraced by movement activists in the plants and on the streets: bottom-up, highly political organizing."

This is a lesson the union movement will have to relearn to move forward today.

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