Big Labor and a Mouthful of Words

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, September 5, 1994 | Go to article overview

Big Labor and a Mouthful of Words


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


"We were never meant to be beggars at the table of wealth. We were never meant to be the apostles of labor cannibalism on the world stage. We were meant for a higher destiny! We were never meant to be the lieutenants of capitalism. We were never meant to be the pallbearers of the workers of the world."

Not exactly your standard piece of A.F.L.-C.I.O. boiler-plate. But the speaker of these revolutionary sentiments was a mainstream Big Labor chieftain, Jack Henning, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, addressing the biennial convention of the state A.F.L.-C.I.O. at the end of July.

Casting aside his prepared text, Henning told the 346 delegates in the Radisson Hotel in Sacramento that he wanted to speak "on certain essential aspects of the labor movement in the present time."

Floyd Tucker, editor of the California A.F.L.-C.I.O. News, reconstructed Henning's informal remarks from notes and a tape recording. Henning began by citing the "never-ending conflict between labor and employers" that continues into the present era of globalization, in which American capital spits on the American flag" when this suits it.

"Now, it is the human disposition to resist tyranny," Henning went on. "In the cesspools of capitalism, there came a response, modern unionism....but there was another reply. In 1848 Karl Marx issued the Communist Manifesto, which called upon the workers of the world. He said, |Unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.' The resulting movement, however flawed, had a vision of global unionism."

Henning then narrated the collapse of Soviet Communism, but also the failure of non-Communist labor unions to build militant international solidarity: "When AT&T transferred all of its telephone set assembly to Singapore for the low wages, for the long hours, the Singaporean labor movement embraced that. In response to an A.F.L.-C.I.O. protest, they said what labor nationalism always says: |We take care of ours, you take care of yours.' We were meant for something more than that! The difficulty is, how do we respond?"

The titans of the corporate system - General Motors, General Electric, the big banks - bestride the world, Henning continued. Their power in Washington shapes trade policy. For labor Washington offers nothing: "The two-party system can't give relief because capitalism in large part finances both parties, in one way or another. …

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