New Internationalist

Yes we can!

Issue 351

Mark Engler argues that immigrant-driven campaigns at the grassroots plus a dose of ‘new internationalism’ are key to reviving the US labor movement.

It’s 1 December 1999, just one day after tens of thousands of union members joined students and environmentalists in the remarkable “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition against the World Trade Organization (WTO). But now the fragile common front is threatening to fracture.

Speaking from Seattle’s drizzly docks, Steelworkers President George Becker points to an American flag sown into the lining of his jacket and attempts to lead the crowd in chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Soon a group of disgruntled activists splits away from the rear of the rally. The division might have festered but for a heavy-handed response to the demonstrators by Seattle police, which united the groups again.

As unions celebrated Seattle’s victory, Becker’s near-sighted nationalism gave way to a brand of solidarity that has defined the AFL-CIO’s efforts to revive itself in the past decade. In 1995 an insurgent slate led by John Sweeney wrested control of the AFL-CIO from a conservative old guard that had presided over decades of labor atrophy. It brought a dramatic change in US unionism at a time when the movement had little further to fall.

When the AFL-CIO formed in 1955, 35 per cent of private-sector employees were union members. By the time Sweeney was elected 40 years later, that number had fallen to just 10 per cent. During the 1980s AFL-CIO member unions who knuckled under to corporate pressure, accepting pay cuts and layoffs as they watched industrial unions crumble.

Sweeney’s “New Voice” agenda vowed to bring the AFL-CIO back to its roots. He pledged to direct more resources to organizing drives, to reach out to community and social-movement allies and to build a political program which amounted to more than handing a large check to the nearest Democratic candidate. He named union foreign policy “New Internationalism.”

Seven years later it remains work-in-progress. Labor’s prospects are tied to two factors: the movement’s ability to link itself internationally with activists challenging corporate power; and its responsiveness to immigrant-driven organizing campaigns that are shaping a new model of social unionism.

The alliances forged on Seattle’s streets reflected Labor’s attempts to build grassroots resistance to corporate dominance. For example, early investments by UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) helped nurture the anti-sweatshop movement and the college ’living-wage’ campaigns that have emerged in recent years. Select unions, like the trade-dependent International Longshoremen’s Association, have shown great vision in their support for the global-justice movement.

In June 2001, the AFL-CIO convened its Immigration Workers Rights Forum before a packed crowd of 16,000 in the Los Angeles Sports Arena as cries of “Si Se Puede!” (“Yes, we can”) filled the air.

Labor’s new amnesty campaign is aimed at allowing the estimated eight million undocumented immigrants working in the US to achieve legal status. This was a remarkable turnaround for the federation which only a few months earlier reversed its support for a 1986 law requiring verification of employees’ papers and penalizing businesses that hired “illegal” workers.

Prominent among the handful of unions now devoting substantial resources to bringing new workers into the movement are those reaching low-wage workers in the fast-growing service sectors of the economy. At the beginning of 2002, only 5.9 per cent of service-sector workers were in unions. Their jobs have traditionally been considered unorganizable — and with good reason. Managers treat “unskilled” employees such as janitors and hospital workers as easily replaceable. High turnover means waiters and retail clerks have little bargaining power. And anti-union employers can threaten to report undocumented workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they protest dangerous or miserable working conditions.

In spite of these barriers, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) and UNITE have set out to rally janitorial, healthcare, hotel and laundry workers. The result has been a new foundation for the labor movement amongst the women and people of color who, in the past 40 years, have replaced white men as the majority of US workers.

Los Angeles has been a center of this new upheaval; that’s where the militant Justice for Janitors strike took place in 2000 — the same workers who inspired the Ken Loach film Bread and Roses. A strong County Federation of Labor has fashioned an emergent Labor-Latino alliance into a dominant force in city politics.

But the change is not limited to California. Seventeen different languages were spoken among the hotel workers in Minneapolis who recently demanded better wages and expanded health coverage from their employers. In the course of winning their strike, activists from Bosnia, Eritrea and Somalia joined Midwestern folksingers and Tibetan monks in leading chants on 24-hour picket lines in front of seven hotels.

Organizing, on its own, may not be enough to rebuild democratic debate in the labor movement or to nurture leaders who will represent the face of the New Internationalism. But those unions committed to reaching new workers are breathing life back into the movement.

Mark Engler, a writer and activist based in Brooklyn, has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San José, Costa Rica, as well as the Public Intellectuals Program at Florida Atlantic University. engler@eudoramail.com.

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