Labor Movements and Universalizing Resistance

Political scientist Joseph Luders in The Civil Rights Movement and the Logic of Social Change reflects in an obscure footnote that “Curiously, the labor movement is conventionally ignored by scholars of social movements.” This stark observation is the starting point of environmental and labor organizer Jane F. McAlevey’s new book.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union participate in a strike on September 12, 2012, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Peoplesworld)Members of the Chicago Teachers Union participate in a strike on September 12, 2012, in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Peoplesworld)

Charles Derber offers a guide to the new era of organizing in Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times. With guest contributions from Medea Benjamin, Ralph Nader, Gar Alperovitz and more, this book makes a compelling argument about how movements must come together. Order your copy today with a donation to Truthout!

The following piece by John Trumpbour forms one of the guest “interludes” in Welcome to the Revolution.

Political scientist Joseph Luders in The Civil Rights Movement and the Logic of Social Change reflects in an obscure footnote that “Curiously, the labor movement is conventionally ignored by scholars of social movements.” This stark observation is the starting point of environmental and labor organizer Jane F. McAlevey’s new book on transforming the US labor movement, called No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age.

It is often forgotten that the US labor movement, despite having many elements complicit with white supremacy and interventionist foreign policy, played a critical role in advancing the civil rights movement. The original push for a March on Washington came from A. Philip Randolph, the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The labor movement’s involvement in so many civil rights struggles, including Martin Luther King’s last fight in Memphis for the city’s sanitation workers, has been largely erased from public memory.

In a speech to the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations] in 1961, Martin Luther King saw the connection between the denial of labor rights and degrading conditions for African Americans and for all workers:

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as “right to work.” It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective

New Orleans to Washington where they went on a hunger strike.” Singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hindi, they regularly invoked the words of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

The National Guestworker Alliance now builds solidarity with workers throughout the United States. One of the most successful initiatives was the Justice at Hershey’s campaign in which hundreds of students on J-1 cultural exchange visas from nations such as China, Turkey, and eight former countries of the Soviet Union fought back when they were compelled to work at the chocolate manufacturer or be deported from the United States. The National Guestworker Alliance connected the students with their heavily white working-class neighbors in Pennsylvania, and the students campaigned for these jobs to be restored as $18-an-hour positions for US workers.

The transformation of educational exchange programs into a labor supply chain for ravenous corporations may have been foreshadowed by the capture of many US public schools by politicians who hail business models as the cure for lackluster outcomes in the classroom. Out with music, theater, and the arts, and in with cramming for standardized tests and imposing discipline that will deliver a more docile, unquestioning pupil for the future workplace.

A labor union that has stoked the imagination of those seeking to universalize resistance is the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). In 2012, they confronted the foul-mouthed, F-bomb-dropping Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, who has fostered corporate models of education and routinely closes neighborhood schools. “These are our children, not corporate products!,” exclaimed teachers and parents in the resistance. They noted that Emanuel sends his children to expensive schools offering arts and music. But among Emanuel’s coterie, the creative arts became judged as luxurious frivolities unsuited for the children of Chicago’s inner cities. The CTU won parental and community support when they went on strike fighting to keep neighborhood schools and maintaining music, theater, and the arts for students in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Back in 1995, the election of the New Voices slate for the leadership of the AFL-CIO heralded what many believed to be a turning point in the labor federation. The more inclusive leadership seemed prepared to deliver a new epoch of universalizing resistance. But the decision of the current leadership to support with gusto the construction of a pipeline through the sacred lands of the indigenous peoples of the Dakotas has shattered lingering faith that the AFL-CIO can rebuild alliances of Turtles and Teamsters, the environmentalists and workers who in 1999 fomented the Battle of Seattle against the economic and ecological depredations of corporate globalization. And yet, some unions such as National Nurses United and the Communications Workers of America have risen up to rebuke the labor leadership for their capitulation to the fossil fuel industry. This short-term bargain has alienated labor from allies in the environmental movement and among the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

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Jane F. McAlevey’s new work (No Shortcuts) on revitalizing the labor movement notes that activist organizations commonly come in three forms:

1) advocacy, 2) mobilizing, and 3) organizing. She argues that the advocacy and mobilizing models have dominated social movements and too often bring with them control by professionals: attorneys, researchers, pollsters, lobbyists, staffers, and lifelong activists. In contrast, the organizing model seeks to get ordinary workers to take charge of their union and ultimately their destiny. For McAlevey, the recent revitalization of the Chicago Teachers Union is one of the best lessons. It demonstrates how labor organizations which are able to infuse ordinary members with a sense that the union belongs to them can go on to build powerful alliances with the community. This stands as a potent reminder of how universalizing resistance might give labor the audacity to overcome those forces plunging America into the new Gilded Age.

The organizing model thrived in the 1930s when labor leader John Lewis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations discovered that his most effective organizers came from Left-leaning backgrounds. The trouble for Lewis was that at heart he was a maverick Republican, and so he later sought to purge these rabble-rousers after they had triumphantly organized industrial workplaces. The ferocious Red Scares of the 1950s pushed many more of these successful organizers out of the labor movement.

In the 21st century, the 2016 Sanders campaign showed that young people could be turned on to politics The Pew Research Center surveyed the 18–29-year-old demographic in February 2011, and 58% had a favorable view of labor unions compared with only 37% of Americans aged 65 years and over. Sixty-two percent of African Americans judged labor unions as favorable to workers, in contrast to only 43% of whites. Forty-six percent of women regarded unions as favorable and 37% saw them as unfavorable, while men were deadlocked at 45% favorable and 45% unfavorable. The Pew data indicate that the organizing model will find a receptive response if the labor movement can reach out to young workers, African Americans, and women. Indeed, labor unions continue to gain in public support since the time of this in-depth survey (February 2011). For the new generation of organizers, the challenge is to connect with these labor-friendly communities, while showing disaffected white working-class males that solidarity trumps swashbuckling Trumpism when it comes to healing the wounds inflicted by capitalism in the Age of Goldman Sachs and the Fortune 500.


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