Sunday, July 8, 2012

Well, is Labor a "Lost Cause?"

Stephen Lerner and Bill Fletcher appeared on Bill Moyers yesterday. Moyer's theme for the show was "Is Labor a Lost Cause?".

I have to confess Having Stephen Lerner and Bill Fletcher on TV talking about the crisis of labor was enough to make my labor nerd head explode. Both of them have been thinking, writing and speaking about labor strategy for decades and both of their voices are welcome contributions to this discussion.

I came away from the discussion with a sense of clarity that while labor is not a "lost cause", we have a tremendous amount of internal self imposed conservatism that must be broke through at every level of the labor movement. Where the discussion comes up short is that while the ways in which labor is lacking are pretty clear (at least if you are looking), those of us thinking of how to carry out the type of needed transformation were probably still left with many of the same questions we had before.

How do we convince labor leaders at every level of the labor movement to get into "crisis mode" and begin to behave as though the destruction of labor can only be averted by their own bold decisive action? How do we make the case to leaders of union Internationals that they must more aggressively challenge the disfunction and atrophy that may be present among local unions who are more inclined to hole up and hold on to what they have hoping for the best instead of mobilizing? The internal political relationships of the various international are a minefield for a President looking to stay where he is. Not being dismissive of this dynamic and looking for solutions that take it into account are essential to any realistic approach to organizational change.

One difference I have with brother Lerner is his perspective that labor should move beyond traditional collective bargaining towards bargaining startegies that directly benefit large sectors of the non union population.While it certainly reflects a deeper sense that labor should be the voice of the entire working-class, demands such as these are an extremely heavy lift in terms of convincing members that they should lead the fight for the entire working-class by deprioritizing fighting to maintain their own wages and benefits. If labor's survival is deependent on our members reaching this level of consciousness in the near term, we are doomed.

Whether you agree or not with Fletcher or Lerner, you came away after watching their discussion with a greater sense of vision from two people who have spent their lives thinking through how we can fight and win. You also have the sense that both of them strove to frame any criticisms they made from a sense of real historical knowledge of how we arrived at this crisis devoid of the moralism or paternalism that have defined so many critiques.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Freedom and the Debate About Labor's Future

I actually felt a bit cheesy today as my family celebrated Independence Day the traditional way, poolside in the sun cooking out with family, while I type out my thoughts on the vanishing of real freedom for the American worker.

Labor's crisis is bound up in the dramatic expansion of corporate power. The same forces that have sought to villify and portray labor as a special interest group are the same forces that are hijacking American Democracy with a tidal wave of cash funneled through a variety of corporate sponsored front groups unleashed by the Citizen's United Decision.

Gordon Lafer's latest contribution to the post Wisconsin  debate "Labor's Bad Recall?" does an exellent job of pointing out how Doug Henwood and many of the other critics of labor fail to acknowledge the impact of corporate power and its ability to impact public opinion through media outlets and pundits.

It can't be overstated that it is IMPOSSIBLE to understand labor's steep decline in influence and power without looking and the dramatic increase of corporate influence over American politics. The 2010 election that ushered in so many of the Governors, Congresspeople, State House Reps and State Senators who launched the offensive across the country against unions, voting rights, and public services was the first election carried out under the principles of Citizen's United.

Has labor been in a crisis since before 2010? Yes.
Has labor made mistakes? Yes
Do changes need to be made ? Yes.

But the sharpness of the attacks launched have blunted labor's ability to organize it's way out of the crisis, no matter who is at the helm and despite the best efforts of even what the critics would consider to be model unions.

Lafer rightly points out that the poll Doug Henwood uses to demonstrate his thesis that labor is losing influence due to it's supposed longstanding opulence and lethargy shows what are in fact more recent phoenomenon that are more the result of external factors. There is much anectdotal evidence that the uptick in spending by corporate front groups like the Center for Union Facts , the Koch Brother-funded Americans for Prosperity and other Superpacs has been able to successfully influence public opinion through media saturation aided by entities like Fox News and a host of right-wing pundits.

It is fair to say that labor could have done more to confront its crisis and to push back on this new offensive. The fact that the more recent slew of criticisms fails to even acknowledge that corporate influence has had even the slightest effect is telling about their motives. I would say it suggests a more fundamental difference of political perspective than a competing view of strategy.

Any discussion of restoring labor's power must begin from the standpoint that the primary source of labor's woes lies in the boarddrooms of corporate America, not in the union halls and International headquarters of the labor movement. The corporate cabal that is plotting labor's destruction is the very same threat to American freedom we are fighting to stop from stealing democracy from the American people. The solution to our crisis and the crisis of hope in America lie in defeating those forces