A New Generation, Fit for the Fight: A Campaign Based on Grass-Roots Activism and Young Blood Is Transforming the Profile and Fortunes of America's Trade Unions

By Lloyd, John | New Statesman (1996), August 16, 1996 | Go to article overview

A New Generation, Fit for the Fight: A Campaign Based on Grass-Roots Activism and Young Blood Is Transforming the Profile and Fortunes of America's Trade Unions


Lloyd, John, New Statesman (1996)


"I told the TUC: have your crisis early," says Richard Bensinger, "or it will get late in the day, like it is for us."

Bensinger is one of the main hopes for what is left of American organised labour. Now in his mid forties, he was a shop-floor militant hired as organiser by a garment-workers' union, who once disguised himself as a junior manager to discover a company's anti-union plans, then ascended to the AFL/CIO, the central US union federation, to head first its organisers' training institute, then a new organisation department. He is making a stir -- enough of one, anyway, to have been invited to talk to the British TUC earlier this year about his strategy and tactics.

His are, indeed, the tactics of crisis. Union membership in the US is 15 per cent -- with only 10 per cent of the private sector organised. The slide from a 40 per cent membership in the 1950s seemed both ineluctable and acceptable to the ageing men who headed the AFL and many of its affiliated unions. Last year, however, discontent began to surface, organised by the figures of Thomas Sweeney and Geral McEntee, leaders of large (and, unusually, growing) public service unions. Late last year Sweeney took over as AFL president.

He instantly launched a series of initiatives designed to turn around the AFL's style. Drawing on his own union's experience, he identified low-paid, marginal workers as the main targets for new organising drives. And in a speech in New York last December, he threw down the gage to employers, but also to his own affiliates, "to get busy doing what we are supposed to do . . . we're going to be stronger and we are going to take it to greedy employers who've been picking our pockets and then trying to tell us we stupidly lost our wallets."

Sweeney put Bensinger in charge of organising: Bensinger in turn presided over the development of a campaign, now running, called Union Summer -- the most visible sign of the new AFL.

Union Summer, run by a young Harvard Law School graduate named Andy Levin, is an effort to match the idealism of youth with the harsh realities of organising -- and in the process change the culture of both. Some 1,200 young people between their late teens and early twenties, most in some sort of college but one fifth in none, were enrolled earlier this year and sent off on three-week "internships" with affiliated unions, where they are expected to get out on the streets and organise.

They do. According to Levin, "they can be a bit shocked when they meet some of the sexism and racism in the union movement, like everywhere else in society. And some officials say, 'Why are you asking us to be babysitters?' But mostly it's worked."

They have been organising strawberry pickers in southern California, hospital workers in Boston and janitors in Texas. They carry boycott placards outside nonunion supermarkets and hotels. For $210 a week and free housing in hostels, caravans or, in one case in Boston, a convent, they travel across the country (at their own expense) having a good time and identifying with a cause from which their parents, even if -- especially if -- radicals themselves, had recoiled. "For the previous generation, it was Vietnam and civil rights that engaged idealism. For this one it's feminism and identity politics," says Levin. "We point out to them that now, labour stands up for the rights of women; now, racism and discrimination are labour issues.

"A generation was turned off labour because the AFL was a strong supporter of the Vietnam war. It also supported other issues -- mainly international -- that were anathema to the sixties and seventies generation. That isn't so for the college kids now. So we can reconnect."

In connecting, these students enter into a world they had not known. In South Carolina, the local of the Union of Operating Engineers and a community group called the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE) have been targeting resort workers on a strip of land offshore called Hilton Head, and on nearby islands. …

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