Working Americans have long understood the need for labor organization and action to protect their livelihoods, defend their rights, and effect social change to better their quality of life. Because of this, the American labor movement has played a colossal role in the country’s progress.
While the signing of the Declaration of Independence took place in Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall, colonial craftsmen and laborers were fighting in the American Revolution. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Philadelphia and New York were hotbeds of union activity, achieving many milestones for Labor: a weekly minimum wage, the first collective bargaining, and the closed-shop.
The history of the American labor movement is intimately connected with the history of the nation. The efforts of American workers are embodied in all the great achievements of our country. These efforts go beyond unmatched industrial production and extend to courageous strike-action and labor campaigns, which have advanced every meaningful economic, social, and political reform in American society.
But now all the accomplishments of American labor are being attacked. While politicians dismantle and cripple union-rights laws that generations of working men and women fought for, their friends in big business dismantle and export manufacturing machinery that American workers toiled so long to produce and perfect. Along with rights and factories go millions of jobs, access to health care, the eight hour working-day, and any resemblance of fair pay. The bosses of Washington and Wall Street stuff their bank accounts while American labor is weakened and America’s workers are put through horrible stress and privation.
The stalwart unionists of any past generation would never have stood for this. We should look to their legacy of daring, militant, independent action as our guiding example. But presently, this legacy seems far removed from the current mood. Today, union leaders aren’t only afraid of strikes and campaigns – they’re afraid to organize! We’re told that “bold” new plans to increase union membership are on the drawing board and that dues money is going towards organizing efforts. But instead of results, we get prattled excuses and promises to throw more money at the problem. But without the spirit, vision and tactics that unions had in the past, nothing can result – except further losses.
The best that the Sweeney clique offers in terms of real, practical, public activity is the election campaign for Kerry, which they say was the biggest union campaign in history.
Harry Kelber writes, “They sent close to 5,000 staff people to work full-time on the campaign. They mobilized 200,000 union volunteers to knock on the doors of six million voters to discuss issues that most concern working families. They distributed more than 30 million flyers. They set up phone banks, open 24/7, where calls were made to hundreds of thousands of voters around the country, but especially in the battleground states.” (www.laboreducator.org)
And so the union tops finally took the lead and mobilized a nation-wide, community-based campaign of action - but for a wealthy politician! Millions of union members put in countless hours and remarkable efforts – but sadly it was all to be for the sake of Kerry, who could only offer a minimum wage increase to a pitiful $7 an hour and a loophole-ridden tax-cut plan for corporations that limit outsourcing.
And what about beating Bush? If the leaders of the AFL-CIO had used their massive resources to unionize workers, organize the unions themselves into a new party, of and for labor, and then to run a labor candidate, organized labor would have made unprecedented membership gains and become an alternative to the likes of both Bush and Kerry.
You don’t think that the two bought-out parties can be beaten that easily? According to an official AFL-CIO survey, union households counted for a quarter of the votes in the 2004 presidential election. This puts the minimal number of potential labor candidate votes at approximately 27 million. With this number alone an American labor party, built by the unions, would be America’s most successful “third party” in history. But because a labor party would have a platform independent of big-business – for the right toquality jobs and benefits, for full freedom to organize, and for theinterests of working people, the majority of America – tens of millions of votes would be won from both Republicans and Democrats alike.
The result of the unions creating a party is clear: this party wouldn’t be merely “another third party” (like the Green or Reform Parties) – it would become the most popular political party in America. Working men and women would have a direct political voice and a vehicle for change. The dream of the pioneers of the American labor movement would be realized.
So why haven’t Sweeney & Co. done it? For the same reason that they refuse to give “one delegate, one vote” in the elections to the Executive body of the AFL-CIO, for the same reason that they conceal their expenses, for the same reason that they fear strikes, pickets, campaigns and every essential organizing principle that made the unions successful: because they have no real connection with working people or with the traditions of the labor movement.
The so-called “leaders” of today do not succeed in representing anybody’s interests other than their own. Similar to professional politicians, they are professional union “bosses” and negotiators who work side by side with big-business instead of with working people. America’s workers can rely on nobody but themselves to fight against corruption, big-business greed, and counter-reforms attacking the gains of 200 years’ struggle.
Working men and women have no representation. No solutions will be coming from the two big-business parties or from the unaccountable union tops. But we do have something - a proud tradition with a wealth of examples to guide us.
In the long line of Labor’s achievements, the tremendous task of building a party out of the labor movement falls to us. Working men and women can turn unions back into strong fighting organizations by restructuring the AFL-CIO from the bottom-to-top, ensuring that the rank-and-file enjoy a fully democratic organization. When the labor movement returns to the great traditions of its hey-day it will go on the offensive against the bosses; it will organize tens of millions into unions and campaigns, guiding whole communities to take a stand. A party of Labor can institute a bold program that will reverse the attacks on workers’ rights and proceed to rebuild America.
The job is tough but our tasks are clear. It’s our turn to make history, and to do it we have to rediscover our past. When we do, we’ll never again suffer meekness or hesitation. Labor will be stronger than ever before.