Beyond the Lunch Bucket

Labor discovers community issues

| May-June 1996

These days, even talking about a labor “movement” sounds like whistling past the graveyard. Just over 10 percent of American non-agricultural private-sector workers belonged to unions in 1995, according to the Department of Labor—down from more than 30 percent in the 1950s. The service sector, the fastest-growing in the economy, has the smallest share of unionized employees. Transnational corporations need only to pack up shop—or threaten to—if they’re tired of uppity workers. Economists are proclaiming the end of the job as we know it. And in public opinion polls, union officials rank right down there with journalists and used-car salespeople in popularity.

And yet there’s this interesting little poll, conducted for the AFL-CIO by Peter D. Hart Associates and cited by David Moberg in Dissent (Winter 1996): While “only a slim plurality of those polled sided with unions over management . . . a solid majority (52 to 17 percent) said they supported workers against management.” Add the obvious but little-noticed fact that “worker rights represent a claim by the vast majority against a relatively small minority of managers and property owners,” and you’d think there still was power in a union—if, that is, a union means more than a distant bureaucracy indistinguishable from the managers and politicians with whom it negotiates. In other words, if unions could be important to American communities again.

There are, it turns out, signs that in some sectors of American labor, activists are exploring the boundaries between unionism and wider community issues. In California, notes Pacific News Service’s David Bacon, farmworkers of the Cesar Chavez era always referred to their union as la causa; their younger counterparts, Bacon writes, are tapping that tradition to explore new avenues for labor. The most high-profile result was union participation in the movement against immigrant-bashing Proposition 187, in direct opposition to anti-immigrant groups’ appeal to native-born workers’ disaffection. Taking the same concept a step further are growing efforts at “cross-border organizing” that consider workers in low-wage countries allies rather than competitors. A similar rapprochement occasionally is found between unions and environmental groups—which, after all, fight the same toxic chemicals that account for disproportionate rates of illness among workers who handle them.

Part of the reason for labor’s reaching out beyond lunch-bucket issues is simple, bottom-line reasoning: As the workforce becomes younger, poorer, less male, and less white, established unions must at least give token recognition to groups and concerns previously shut out of the old-boy networks. “It’s no secret,” notes Andrea Adleman in a piece for the alternative news service AlterNet (Nov. 3, 1995), “that the most successful organizers usually look and talk like the workers they’re unionizing.” The AFL-CIO, for one, has been working to reverse the plunge in union membership by recruiting young and minority organizers. Though the project, as Paul Johnston notes in Canadian Dimension (Oct.-Nov. 1995), still “operates on a relatively conventional model,” it may mark the beginning of a new approach—especially if new AFL-CIO president John Sweeney is serious about his vow to make labor a social movement again.

Social movements, however, rarely happen from the top down, and there are people arguing that the most interesting organizing in America isn’t happening in the workplace at all, but in places from which jobs have been systematically removed. Gangs, for instance, are a way for the dispossessed to gain power by association; and like any outlaw movement, they attract some of the best and brightest in their neighborhoods. The Chicago-based Vice Lords and Blackstone Rangers, to name only two, have a long history of political activism, usually with a focus on economic development far beyond what labor had to offer their communities. More recently, after the Los Angeles riots, the Bloods and the Crips prepared a complex proposal for addressing urban devastation, a plan dismissed by the powers that be in favor of the corporate “Rebuild L.A.” project.

“What if,” wonders Bill Fletcher, Jr., in Dollars and Sense (July-Aug. 1995), “the AFL-CIO had approached the Bloods and the Crips with a proposal to unite their efforts?” So far, established labor groups have run from such notions, loudly (and a bit ironically, given the record) proclaiming their disdain for organized crime. But whether the partners are gangs or athletic clubs, Green organizations or PTAs, there are growing indications that, as Johnston puts it, “workforces and communities devastated together by disinvestment” can either stand together or shrivel and die separately.