Back to Work

Only 10 years ago, organized labor was dying a slow death, but the obituaries seem now to be a bit premature. With economic expectations rising across the country, workers have begun reaching out for unions. And unions are finding allies outside the workplace among the progressive political activists from whom they’d been estranged since the Vietnam War. Stranger still, at the center of all this activity in many cities is the oft-maligned central labor council.

As David Moberg reports in The American Prospect (Sept. 11, 2000), labor and political activists in several dozen cities have reinvented these creaky outfits–traditionally focused on “golf outings, breakfasts with local business leaders, and photo opportunities with politicians collecting a campaign check”–as engines of a budding “union cities” movement. “Labor can become more of a social movement again–a working-class social movement that connects a multiplicity of workers . . . and also links their on-the-job interests with the needs of their home communities,” Moberg writes.

The Milwaukee County Labor Council, for instance, helped elect two union members to the county board of supervisors as part of a larger campaign for an ordinance outlawing anti-union harassment. The Cleveland labor council has fostered successful organizing efforts in a number of local companies by rounding up politicians, clergy, and community groups for rallies in the tony neighborhoods of executives who are trying to stamp out union activity. In the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa, the labor council has run teachers, mail carriers, and firefighters for local office. As Ron Judd, former executive secretary of the King County Labor Council in Seattle, tells Moberg, “If elected officials can’t support us on the basic right to organize, [if they can’t] stand up at their desk or on the back of a flatbed truck at the picket line and denounce employers who attack workers, I don’t know why we should support them.”

All these “union cities” sit in the old union heartland. Labor’s real survival test hinges on its ability to plug into the new economy and a business culture that considers unions as relevant to the digital age as the linotype. But labor is making inroads even in Silicon Valley. In San Jose, where half the jobs in the hottest employment categories pay $10 an hour or less, the South Bay Labor Council managed to push through a living wage ordinance for the city, reports Douglas Foster in Mother Jones (Sept./Oct. 2000). The council’s chief executive, Amy Dean, has even bigger plans: a think tank; a job-training and placement program for clerical workers; and a campaign to get better pay and working conditions for temps, the new white-collar proletariat.

The council is also beginning to hear from scientists and engineers, to whom union membership no longer seems out of the question, shell-shocked as they are by frequent job changes, no-benefits contract work, and employer surveillance. As Dean puts it, “The next generation of em-ployee organizations will have to be as flexible and as decentralized as the new economy itself.”

That’s sometimes a tough sell in a movement built on tight jurisdictional borders and closed-door political maneuvering. But if the growing influence of these open and innovative central labor councils is any indication, “union cities” may someday be more than a curiosity. They could be the harbinger of a revitalized labor movement.

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