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Labor Day Poses Hard Questions
by Peter Rachleff rachleff@Macalester.edu

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO celebrate Labor Day 2005 without asking some hard questions: How organized is "organized" labor? How much of a movement is the labor "movement"? The last six weeks have torn away whatever shreds of clothing the emperor might have been wearing. We can deny the crisis no longer.

In late July at the AFL-CIO's national convention in Chicago, the Service Employees' International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters announced their withdrawal to form the Change to Win Coalition (CtW). They were joined by the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, who had left the AFL-CIO four years ago, and, a week later, by the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union. Other unions are considering similar action. All told, unions representing more than a third of the AFL-CIO's 13,000,000 members have disaffiliated.

Inside and outside the labor movement, activists and observers have agreed more on the long term causes of the split than on the immediate issues which divide the two sides. Over the past fifty years, the ranks of organized labor have plunged from one worker in three to one in seven. With this radical decline in size, unions have lost power at the bargaining table, in the workplace, and in the political arena, while they have lost recognition within our mass culture, our media, and our community life. Both sides insist that they have the best interests of the labor movement and working women and men at heart, but they claim to differ in their responses to this long-term decline. The CtWers call for the redirection of union resources to organizing new members, the development of new strategies for organizing, and the merger of unions into fewer bodies, while the AFL-CIOers call for more emphasis on political work, campaigns, lobbying, and the like. Few activists or observers considered these strategic differences to be of an order that merited such drastic action as disaffiliation and splitting. Honestly, many of us are still scratching our heads.

In the ensuing weeks, leaders of both factions at the national, state, and local levels tripped all over themselves trying to explain the consequences of the new organizational arrangement. Some state and regional leaders insisted that nothing would change, while others predicted a surge of cannibalistic raiding. AFL-CIO President Sweeney first decreed that locals of the newly disaffiliated unions must withdraw from state and local bodies; later, he relented, sort of. He invited locals to remain affiliated if they would continue to pay dues and accept the loss of voting and office-holding status. I doubt that anyone has been surprised that his offer met with wholesale rejection.

In the midst of this organizational disarray, on August 19, more than 4,000 mechanics, cleaners, and custodians, members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), struck Northwest Airlines. They refused to accept the loss of more than half their jobs, a wage cut of 26%, and the replacement of their defined benefit pensions by a 401K plan. If they are forced to accept such terms of employment, other NWA unions the flight attendants, the baggage handlers and ticket agents, the pilots will find themselves, one group at a time, lowered into the same boiling cauldron. The issues they face contracting out within the global economy, the loss of earning power, the gutting of pensions are the very same issues faced by millions upon millions of U.S. workers. And now AMFA members face the added threat of the destruction of their union itself, via the hiring of replacement workers, the intervention of private security forces, and the extension of the contracting out of their work.

Here, it would seem, is a struggle around which both sides of the labor split could put their shoulders to the wheel. Here is the materialization of that old labor motto, "An injury to one is an injury to all," for what happens to the mechanics, cleaners, and custodians is bound to befall others, many others. And here is an opportunity for labor leaders to demonstrate their opposition to union-busting, their commitment to solidarity, and their understanding that history suggests the best way to revive the labor movement is by mobilizing around a specific group of workers who face the central issues of the era. Such was the case with the great railroad strike of 1877, the Pullman strike and boycott of 1894, the steel strike of 1919, the Minneapolis teamsters' strike of 1934, the meatpacking strike of 1948, the steelworkers' strike of 1959, and others. Some local labor leaders and activists here in the Twin Cities, and in Detroit, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere get it, and they have offered support and material assistance to the NWA strikers.

But most of today's labor leaders, especially at a national level, seem to be studying different pages from the labor history books, pages which detail the conflict between the Knights of Labor and the nascent AFL in the 1880s, the conflict between the AFL and the new Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 20th century, that between the AFL and the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s and 1940s, the refusal of labor officialdom to support PATCO in 1981 and the Hormel strikers in 1985-86. In these and similar situations unions crossed other unions' picket lines, encouraged the taking of striking workers' jobs, and signed contracts which undercut other unions. Here was and is the embodiment of the IWW's scorn of the AFL as the "American Separation of Labor." And in each of these cases, while some unions and some workers might have gained at the expense of other workers, these gains were of a short duration, and, in the long run, all unions and all workers lost ground.

These labor leaders are able to offer reasons for their refusal to assist the 4,400 mechanics, cleaners, and custodians, who belong to AMFA. AMFA did not affiliate with the AFL-CIO. It "raided" the International Association of Machinists, took away some of their members. AMFA advocates and leaders scorned other airlines workers, some say, even used derogatory terms, thought themselves "better" than other workers.

There is probably some truth to every one of these accusations, but how do they stack up compared to the damage that NWA management is doing to all of its workers and that other airlines and other employers will seek to do to theirs? And how does acting on the basis of this hostility to AMFA stack up compared to the possibilities of inspiration, mobilization, and "movement" that supporting those 4,400 mechanics, cleaners, and custodians that solidarity might generate?

Yes, it's impossible to celebrate Labor Day 2005 without asking some hard questions.

Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College and a specialist in U.S. labor history. In 1985-86, he was the chairperson of the Twin Cities Local P-9 Support Committee, which organized support for the Hormel strikers. He has been consulting with AMFA Local 33 for the past month.


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