Tiny Labor

Tiny Labor
By Barbara Ehrenreich

From the August 2005 Issue

In the fifty years of the AFL-CIO’s existence, Big Labor has shrunk to a third of its former size, but it’s been clinging to its outsized clothes and outmoded habits. While membership dwindles, the AFL-CIO has continued to act like a big shot—doling out tens of millions to the Democratic Party and occupying a palatial spread located within kiss-blowing distance of the White House.

Nor has it budged from the style of “business unionism” developed by Samuel Gompers in the early twentieth century, in which unions act much like big insurance companies, offering their “consumers” the prospect of better wages and job security. It’s Tiny Labor today, and—split or not—the challenge is to make it also lean, mean, and scrappy as a starving terrier.

Herewith a few suggestions, culled from discussions with labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan and dozens of other labor activists around the country:

Organize, don’t subsidize.The amount spent on organizing is one of the key issues separating Change to Win from the rest of the AFL-CIO. Stern and the other dissidents want to boost the federation’s organizing to $72 million; Sweeney would increase it to $30 million out of a total budget of $125 million. Where does the rest of that money go now? Well, a lot goes to subsidize the Democratic Party, with a view to electing more labor-friendly candidates. But the best way to pump up the Democratic vote is, in fact, to organize. According to the AFL-CIO’s own statistics, nonunion white male voters went 69 percent for Bush in 2000, while white male union members went 59 percent for Gore. Put another way, union organizing adds more Democratic votes, at least among white males, than any number of television commercials. The best way to get union-friendly elected officials is to build the unions.

Open up membership to every pro-union American. If I want to support the women’s movement, all I have to do is send in my dues to NOW. But to join a union, most people have to go through the trial-by-fire of a union organizing drive in their workplace. This isn’t so in Germany, for example, where individuals can join a union whether their workplace is organized or not. Here, the Steelworkers have started opening up their union to unorganized individuals, but for most Americans the unions remain a distant, inaccessible fortress. Individual members wouldn’t be just dues-payers and supporters; they could be the seeds of organizing drives in their workplaces.

Advance the class, not just the membership. More than once, union organizers have told me that goals like universal health insurance are irrelevant because the union can win health insurance for its members, or at least those who survive the organizing drive. Maybe 1940s-style Big Labor could reasonably hope to improve life for the working class entirely by organizing, but today’s Tiny Labor has to take on class-wide issues now—or risk being the “special interest group” the right always claims it is. The unions should be spearheading the drive for universal health care, subsidized housing, and child care, adequate unemployment insurance, and all the other public benefits that would make low-wage workers’ lives more sustainable. At the local level, this might mean sending organizers into low-income neighborhoods to help people deal with TANF (the replacement for welfare) or the public housing authorities—just as, for example, the Swedish unions do.

Fight for workers’ democratic rights, and not just the right to organize. In complete disregard for international human rights standards, American employers have deprived workers of the right to organize, chiefly by intimidating and firing union activists. The AFL-CIO has responded with its “Voice at Work” program, which emphasizes community support for the right to organize. But that’s not the only right missing in the workplace, where workers have no freedom of speech or assembly, no privacy rights, and no right to any kind of due process before being fired. Without these other rights, organizing is almost impossible. Besides, it seems a little self-interested for the unions to focus on the one right (to organize) that brings them dues. We need a new civil rights movement for all workers, and the unions should be leading it.

Start seeing labor as a movement, not just an institution. In the business-union model developed by Gompers, workers are treated as consumers of union-won benefits. Maybe this made sense for Big Labor, which had more to offer in exchange for the risks of an organizing drive, but Tiny Labor has to start treating each worker as a potential activist and leader in a grassroots movement against corporate power. This means it has to be evangelical enough to inspire people who’ve been down all their lives to stop cowering and stand up. How? Well, sometimes labor seems to forget its own secret weapon—the uplifting force the corporate guys don’t know about and can’t even imagine—and that is solidarity. Tell people that the point isn’t just to gain a few bucks, important as that is, but to unite with other workers in the struggle for a better world, here and abroad, for themselves and their grandchildren. A surprising number of people will leap at the opportunity to be part of a world-changing, history-making venture, whatever the risks are.

Lose those buildings. Big Labor might have been able to afford them, but it’s unseemly for Tiny Labor to be sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of elegant real estate in D.C., and I mean the Teamsters’ building as well as the AFL-CIO headquarters. Sell off the buildings right now, at the height of the real estate bubble, and fan out into storefronts and church basements around the country.

And what’s this with holding this summer’s AFL-CIO convention in a hotel that charges at least $186 a night? Ever heard of Motel 6?

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive. She is the author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” and “Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War.”