For forty years, AFL-CIO leaders George Meany and Lane Kirkland saw unorganized workers as a threat when they saw them at all. They drove left-wing activists out of unions and threw the message of solidarity on the scrapheap. Labor's dinosaurs treated unions as a business, representing members in exchange for dues, while ignoring the needs of workers as a whole. A decade ago new leaders were thrust into office in the AFL-CIO, a product of the crisis of falling union density, weakened political power, and a generation of angry labor activists demanding a change in direction. Those ten years have yielded important gains for unions. Big efforts were made to organize strawberry workers in Watsonville, California, asbestos workers in New York and New Jersey, poultry and meatpacking workers in the South, and health care workers throughout the country. Yet in only one year was the pace of organizing fast enough to keep union density from falling.
Other gains were made in winning more progressive policies on immigration, and in some areas, relationships were built with workers in other countries. Yet here also, progress has not been fast enough. Corporations and the government policies that serve them have presented new dangers even greater than those faced a decade ago.
The set of proposals made by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and now by other unions from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to the Teamsters, are a positive response to this crisis. They've started a debate labor desperately needs. And they all put the issue of stopping the slide in members and power--the problem of organizing--at center stage where it belongs.
Organizing large numbers of workers will not help unions alone. Wages rise under the pressure of union drives, especially among nonunion workers. Stronger unions will force politicians to recognize universal health care, secure jobs, and free education after high school, not as pie-in-the-sky dreams but as the legitimate demands of millions of people.
While the percentage of organized workers has declined every year for the past decade, unions have made important progress in finding alternative strategic ideas to the old business unionism of Meany and Kirkland. If these ideas are developed and extended, they provide an important base for making unions stronger and embedding them more deeply in working-class communities. But the AFL-CIO has a huge job. Raising the percentage of organized workers in the United States from just 10 to 11 percent would mean organizing over a million people. Only a social movement can organize people on this scale. In addition to examining structural reforms that can make unions more effective and concentrate their power, the labor movement needs a program which can inspire people to organize on their own, one which is unafraid to put forward radical demands, and rejects the constant argument that any proposal that can't get through Congress next year is not worth fighting for.
As much as people need a raise, the promise of one is not enough to inspire them to face the certain dangers they know too well await them. Working families need the promise of a better world. Over and over, for more than a century, workers have shown that they will struggle for the future of their children and their communities, even when their own future seems in doubt. But only a new, radical social vision can inspire the wave of commitment, idealism, and activity necessary to rebuild the labor movement.
Organizing a union is a right, but it only exists on paper. Violating a worker's right to organize should be punished with the same severity used to protect property rights. Fire a worker for joining a union--go to jail. Today, instead, workers get fired in a third of all organizing drives. Companies close plants and abandon whole communities, and threaten to do so even more often. Strikebreaking and union busting have become acceptable corporate behavior. …