A New Day for Labor

By Buhle, Paul; Fraser, Steve | The Nation, September 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

A New Day for Labor


Buhle, Paul, Fraser, Steve, The Nation


It's been an eventful year for organized labor. The unionization of 5,000 workers at a Fieldcrest Cannon plant in Kannapolis, North Carolina, cracking open the bastion of Sun Belt conservatism, has the sweetness of a Norma Rae labor victory delayed since the collapse of the CIO's Operation Dixie. Strikes involving immigrant drywallers, janitors and others in California have helped raise Latino membership to above 10 percent of the AFL-CIO total. Living-wage campaigns, which have succeeded in more than thirty cities, have brought unions, churches and community organizing groups like ACORN together for the sake of low-wage workers. Mainly symbolic in terms of total numbers, these campaigns nevertheless demonstrate labor's determination to address the shame of America's vast (perhaps 30 million) population of working poor. Meanwhile, as the June AFL-CIO mobilization fought to advance the right to organize in thirty- eight states, even the starchy American Medical Association voted in favor of unionization [see Buhle and Fraser, "Labor's Days of Action," July 5].

These various trends away from a narrow conception of unions as a "special interest" and toward something bigger and better converged in the biggest labor triumph in this half of the century. Los Angeles County's recognition of 74,000 homecare workers this past February-a larger victory in sheer numbers than that in the auto industry immediately after the volatile sitdown strikes of 1937-simultaneously helps keep old-timers in their own homes and saves taxpayers a bundle. Only today's hated chiseler, the for-profit health industry, loses out.

This victory-scored for president John Sweeney's home union, the Service Employees International, under unusual circumstances-cannot be a model for organizing everywhere, but it nonetheless shows the value of coalition- building. Likewise, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, joining hands in Wisconsin with environmentalists and homeowners, has gone after utility deregulation as a giant swindle of the public by profit- hungry corporations. New York's District Council 37, following a period of corruption and alliance with Mayor Giuliani, has thrown itself into the struggle against Thatcher-style privatization plans involving nonunion suppliers. On campus, the successful union vote of thousands of teaching assistants in the California university system offers a significant counterweight to the ongoing transformation of higher education institutions into servant-partners of giant corporations. …

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