How to Save the U.S. Labor Movement

Re-unite the labor movement. It is long overdue for the Change to Win unions and the AFL-CIO to reunite. The progressive vision of the Change to Win unions did not materialize; the labor movement as a whole is weaker because of this divide. New campaigns need to be organized on a national basis, with all unions directing their energy in a coordinated fashion. If the major unions all wage separate campaigns they are doomed to failure.

Political Independence. Union leaders should realize that the Democrats don’t want to be friends anymore. How many betrayals must it take? The Democrats are attacking teachers’ unions across the country on the state level with “education reforms” that disempower union seniority and create non-union charter schools. On the national level Obama’s anti-union Race to the Top education reforms is a blatantly anti-union continuation of Bush’s No Child Left Behind program. 

Democratic governors across the country are passing “cuts only” budgets at the expense of labor unions and working people while refusing to raise taxes on the rich or close corporate loopholes.

Some labor leaders refuse to mobilize their members against these attacks because union members were mobilized to campaign for these governors only months before! The same is true for President Obama, who received hundreds of millions of dollars from the unions for his election campaign and gave virtually nothing in return.

Will Obama’s new promises in 2012 fool labor leaders once again or will they engage in self-deception? Sadly, the nation’s largest teachers union, the NEA, has pledged to support Obama’s next campaign. It is terribly demoralizing for union members to watch the candidate they endorsed attack their wages and benefits. The electoral strategy has failed — miserably. Union resources can be used in a multitude of productive ways instead of funding their attackers’ electoral campaigns.

Powerful slogans. Union leaders cannot inspire their members to be active in boring campaigns or by using watered down demands. To win any campaign unions need to be able to mobilize their members and the community. This effort requires that unions re-learn how to agitate around important issues while proposing real solutions. The Great Recession is posing this question starkly before the labor movement: how will labor unions fight back against the powerful corporate offensive that was unleashed with the collapse of the economy? How will unions save their members’ benefits while creating jobs for the community at large, when the media claims “there is no money?” Again, no radical solutions are needed. National Nurses United has already come up with the solution: make Wall Street pay! Tax the rich and corporations!

All the labor movement has to do is point to the historically high levels of income inequality and demand that the rich and corporations be taxed to pay for the recession that they caused. No other sector of society can afford to pay for this recession. Unions must point out that taxes on the rich have decreased dramatically over the past three decades, causing these massive deficits. A national campaign to tax the rich and corporations has the capacity to mobilize all working people so that the national and state budget deficits can be fixed — without slashing Social Security and Medicare — while a massive public works campaign can be started to create millions of jobs.

Take back the streets. None of the pressing social issues of most concern to working people can be addressed by politicians of the Democrat and Republican parties. We’ve entered a period where politics are being transferred to the streets, where politicians can only be influenced by the implied threat inherent in massive demonstrations, rallies, and mobilized communities. The power demonstrated in Wisconsin showed clearly the direction that labor unions need to go if they want to avoid extinction; the tactics of the last thirty years must be renounced and the strategies of the labor movement’s birth must be reclaimed. The massive power that labor unions accumulated up through the 1940’s by waging aggressive campaigns in the streets and workplaces was frittered away in consequent decades by union leaders content with making backroom deals with politicians. Labor can either be a friend or feared by the corporate elite, it can’t be both.

shamus cookeThe initiative to implement these common sense proposals must come first and foremost from rank and file members, since they have suffered the most from the current failed strategy and tactics adopted by top union officials. The rank and file must put unrelenting pressure on the officials to change course and begin to put up a real fight in defense of the membership. If the officials do not respond, then the rank and file can exercise their democratic rights and take appropriate action.

Shamus Cooke

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org) He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

Photos: Robin Doyno

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