Looking at the AFL-CIO, New Year’s 2002

A Labor Movement for the Likes of Lucy Parsons and Joe Hill?

by Charles Walker

[This article is from the web site “Labor Tuesday” for New Year’s Day, January 1, 2002. It has been edited slightly for consistency with the style and practices of Labor Standard.]

On this the first day of the New Year, it’s beyond argument that the AFL-CIO needs more members. But that’s always been true, even back in the 1950s and ’60s, when then-AFL-CIO President George Meany said that the size of the labor movement wasn’t all that important — at least not to him.

But size is important, because it’s virtually impossible to imagine a labor movement too strong. It’s impossible because there is so much that needs to be done to get humankind finally on the road to a world free of want, injustice, and war. And it’s impossible to imagine that the job can get done, or perhaps even begun, without the support and leadership of American workers.

So it follows that the size, the vitality, and the power of the U.S. union movement should be a concern to all workers, unionized or not. And given the unacceptable state of the U.S. labor movement, good sense requires that we ask ourselves what must we do to turn things around.

The answer to that all-important question was suggested by two popular actions that labor undertook in recent years, actions that seemingly were all but forgotten by the nearly 1,000 leaders and delegates at December’s AFL-CIO convention. Both actions mobilized thousands of union members in the streets of this nation, and each implicitly relied on the ability of labor to act successfully while independent of employers and their politicians.

Most importantly, the actions showed that unions still have the capacity to win important gains, despite harsh anti-labor laws and organized labor’s massive concessionary retreat of the past two decades. Moreover, the pair of actions clearly demonstrated the readiness of most Americans to support labor’s battles on fundamental issues.

Of course those actions were the 1997 Teamsters strike against United Parcel Service (UPS), the nation’s largest international trucking corporation, and the 1999 World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle.

Both events were partly rooted in the anxiety resulting from corporate America’s inability to provide decent, well-paying, secure jobs for the nation’s highly productive workforce. Both events implicitly challenged the priority of the pursuit of profits over the humanitarian need of providing for the general welfare, social and environmental. And both events seemed to promise hope for a better life to an emerging generation of workers and idealistic youth.

But part of that hope was thrown away when the AFL-CIO leadership turned its back on then-Teamsters President Ron Carey. In the wake of the electrifying UPS strike the government conducted a kangaroo court hearing and acting as prosecutor, judge, and jury ousted Carey from the union.

As welcome as is Carey’s recent vindication by a jury (in October 2001), it doesn’t change the consequences of Sweeney’s cold unresponsiveness. Indeed, thinking about what Sweeney did can’t help but bring to mind the fate of the air traffic controllers when Sweeney’s predecessor, Lane Kirkland, passively stood by as the Reagan administration crushed their union.

The president of a central labor council has written that prior to the AFL-CIO convention, there was a “consensus” at a Union Cities conference to shift away from mobilizing for bigger demonstrations at meetings of the WTO and other financial institutions. This proposed shift obviously means a wider fracturing of the coalition of forces formed in the streets of Seattle that inspired countless social justice activists, idealistic self-sacrificing youth, and union members.

The coalition earlier seemed in trouble when following the September 11 events the top AFL-CIO officials pulled out of Washington, D.C., demonstrations scheduled later that month. Nor was the coalition helped when several major unions signed on to Big Oil’s plans to expand oil drilling in Alaska. Perhaps, the longevity of the coalition was foretold when President James Hoffa draped a Teamsters jacket over Pat Buchanan‘s shoulders.

The abandonment of Carey and the fracturing of the Seattle coalition can’t be blamed on anti-labor laws or the decline in union membership to 13.5 percent of the workforce (9 percent in the private sector). For under far worse conditions — the Great Depression (1929–39) — organized labor rebuilt itself despite anti-labor laws and smaller resources at hand.

The folks in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco who in 1934 battled for workers’ very right to organize didn’t have huge treasuries, well-paid appointed staffs, and 13 million members to call on. But they did have leaderships with the will to fight. And with those leaderships the labor movement had victories. And those victories and others inspired millions of workers to flock to organized labor and radically change the relationship of forces, forcing bosses to retreat and politicians to seek labor’s backing.

Sweeney often says that U.S. workers need a raise. But more fundamentally, U.S. workers need a victory and a leadership committed to fighting for one. The UPS strike and the Seattle demonstrations could have been followed by still more popular actions designed to inspire people’s confidence and thereby mobilize the nation’s majority to counter corporate America’s anti-labor agenda. As evidenced by the popular response to the UPS and Seattle successes, similar actions would have received widespread support.

As in the 1930s the labor movement could have been rebuilt into a vehicle for realizing people’s hopes for a better life, a secure life. That’s the kind of labor movement that people sacrifice for and defend. That’s the kind of labor movement that creates self-sacrificing activists, militants, and leaders such as Lucy Parsons and Joe Hill, who left a precious legacy to all workers. That’s the kind of labor movement that has made a difference.

[Lucy Parsons (1853–1942), a Black woman, was a leader in the struggle for the eight-hour workday. On May 1, 1886, she headed a march of 80,000 thousand workers and fighters up Chicago’s main thoroughfare to demonstrate for the shorter workday. Her husband, Albert Parsons, a labor militant, was unjustly executed the next year and is revered as a Haymarket martyr. Joe Hill (1879–1915), a union militant (IWW) was framed up, and was murdered by a Utah firing squad. His battle cry — “Don’t mourn, organize!” — is as relevant today as it was the day he died.]