Up Against the Polyester Ceiling:
The "New" AFL-CIO Organizes -- Itself!

Kim Moody

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]

Kim Moody, longtime labor activist, works for Labor Notes in Detroit. His latest book is Workers in a Lean World (Verso 1997).

IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE TWO EVENTS AS DIFFERENT as the August UPS strike and the September AFL-CIO Convention. The genuine solidarity of 185,000 striking workers forged out of years of grassroots organizing and workplace resistance versus the choreographed solidarity of the 22nd Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO. Real grassroots mobilization as an act of self-organization versus an act -- sincere, but scripted and directed. A rebellion wearing its heart on its sleeve versus a consolidation of regime and direction in the costume of rebellion.

What unites these two events is more than their common place in the labor movement. It is that both, in their own way, stand for change: in organized labor and in society. Both offer an orientation for the political left, inside and outside the unions, in its search for the lost path to social change and even socialism. What divides these two events and their significance are the methods and ultimately the goals they represent. One is slick, bureaucratic, top-down, and obsessed with technique. The other is straightforward, democratic, grassroots, and increasingly focused on the substance of power. There is more involved here than the "organizing model" versus the "service model," as the debate is often framed within labor circles.

The New Regime Theme

THE PRE-CONVENTION ISSUE OF America@Work, the AFL-CIO's glossy new monthly magazine, laid out federation president John Sweeney's program in a nutshell, "With the percentage of workers who belong to unions at a 60-year low -- and wages declining or stagnating for most working families -- organizing is the labor movement's top priority." Or, as he underlined this priority at the convention, "everything we do is connected to organizing." This was the central theme of the convention, followed by the new approach to politics. There is a message here that I will return to: it goes, first organize, then worry about the other stuff.

The message was powerfully highlighted by the tightly organized testimony of 80 rank and file workers. Though obviously scripted or at least edited, the show was moving by all accounts. It was moving because of the genuine diversity represented, because of the real sacrifice these and thousands of other workers like them are making to organize, and because there is actually more to put on parade these days. The AFL-CIO says it won 2,000 organizing drives in the last two years, though figures for 1997 show total union membership down another 100,000. The organizing message, nevertheless, is genuine and the claim that labor's future depends on its success real.

Even the triumphant UPS strike was framed in terms of organizing. Sweeney told the convention, "You could make a million house calls and run a thousand television commercials and stage a hundred strawberry rallies and still not come close to doing what the UPS strike did for organizing." This extravagant, almost self-deprecating praise was particularly compelling because it is (phone) calls, television commercials, rallies, and other techniques "connected to organizing" that are the heart of the Sweeney program, not disruptive national strikes.

To techniques, must be added money. The federation plans to see $1 billion spent on organizing by the year 2000 by its affiliates and itself. A raise of 5 cents a month in per capita dues was passed to finance the new "member mobilization and education fund," which will produce TV ads to promote unionism. It has already spent $5 million on TV ads run in five cities, described by some as "warm and fuzzy." If these soften the market for unionism, the federation is prepared to spend another $40 million. An additional one cent in percaps will go to spruce up the AFL-CIO headquarters. About $20 million has already been spent to bring the old building up to information age appearance.

The praise of the UPS strike was a matter of political expediency, related not so much to organizing as consolidation. Ironically, Sweeney's executive counsel majority and future electoral prospects depend on the Teamsters. At the time of the AFL-CIO convention Carey was in deepening trouble. His campaign had taken and even solicited illegal donations, including union funds. Eventually this would lead to Carey's downfall. Carey had made the mistake of choosing high-priced professional political consultants over the rank and file approach that won the 1991 election. These consultants brought with them the old political culture of business unionism as well as the Democrats' money-driven approach to politics. The result was a scandal and Carey and the reform movement paid the price. An intense media campaign with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times in the vanguard, along with Republican-led Congressional hearings directed at discrediting Carey and pressuring the court-appointed election officer to disqualify Carey bore fruit in November when he was disqualified as a candidate and forced to leave office in disgrace. The future of the reform movement fell once again to the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a development that must have dismayed Sweeney.

Carey had delivered the votes that put Sweeney, Rich Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson over the top in 1995. Carey's Teamsters formed a lot of the vertebrae in the backbone of the Sweeney coalition. Not only that, the Teamsters were one of the few unions actually doing the organizing that Sweeny wanted and needed. The image of the 1.5 million member union run by Jimmy Hoffa Junior, friend to Republicans and labor criminals alike, was too threatening. After all, Sweeney had more or less put his own Hoffa-esque friends, like Richard Corditz or Gus Bevona, behind or at least to the side. Lending moral support to Ron Carey was just good politics.

The other up front theme of the convention was, of course, politics -- external, not internal. Here the new idea is to emphasize issues rather than parties. This too came down largely to technique and money: TV ads about issues rather than candidates per se. Candidates will get direct contributions only if they "take a stand" against anti-union employers. No legislative stands are required it seems. In fact, labor spent much more on candidate contributions ($66 million) in the 1995-96 election cycle than on issue ads ($35 million). Traditional lobbying soaked up another $18.5 million. More radical is the idea of training 2,000 union members to run for office by the year 2000. Some see in this approach a step toward political independence. After all, Andy Stern, president of Sweeney's own Service Employees International Union (SEIU), had recently said his union would give to any candidate or party that deserved labor support -- Democrat, Republican, Labor Party or New Party.

What is tactically different about the media-heavy approach being advocated and tested by the federation is that while it will still favor the Democrats (Gee, who is more likely to favor an increase in the minimum wage?), it is also seen as a way to pressure on certain issues. Still, it seems clear no new departure in actual politics, as opposed to techniques and tactics, was on the agenda.

To prove it, there was Bill "fast-track" Clinton up on stage. A sign that change may lie down the road came from some delegates and rank and file guests who heckled the President of the United States. This caused Clinton to tell the assembled representatives of the working class that free trade "is about how 4 percent of the world's people can continue to hold 22 percent of the world's wealth," reports Labor Notes. No doubt those hecklers whose share of this 22 percent is meager and falling found this neoimperialist confession less than compelling.

What Sweeney and the new leaders are offering as the substance of their political approach was well summarized by Sean Sweeney in New Labor Forum (No. 1, Fall 1997), "The new AFL-CIO wishes to restore the type of essentially Keynesian 'social contract' that prevailed in the U.S. during the postwar expansion - the same arrangement, broadly speaking, that top social democrats in other leading economies consider gone forever." It is based on the further assumption that big business is somehow interested in such a national partnership - or that by becoming bigger labor can impose such a partnership on business. Indeed, as discussed below, the whole idea of labor-business partnership is central to the vision that comes from Sweeney.

The Consolidating Model

THE REAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CONVENTION, HOWEVER, WAS THE CONSOLIDATION of the now-not-so-new leadership and their approach to change and growth. There was no election contest at this convention. The Sweeney-Trumka-Chavez-Thompson team was re-elected by acclamation. Furthermore, the convention voted without dissent to extend the term of office from two years to four. No proposal from the leaders was opposed, while a resolution from the Alameda County Central Labor Council calling for democratic rights for all union members was opposed from the podium and voted down. The revolution moved from year one to Thermidor. The party of rebellion is now the party of order.

What is being consolidated, however, is not simply the positions of the top leaders, but a top-down institutional approach to change and direction. The Sweeney strategy is as Washington-based as Lane Kirkland's or George Meany's. Unlike the Kirkland regime, however, Sweeney has little interest in foreign policy per se, except when it is trade policy. The current AFL-CIO leadership is focused on domestic issues. These, along with organizing, it addresses through the proliferation of DC-based institutes and centers. It is a piece of Beltway culture in which labor tries to create its own think tanks and policy wonks in the image of the Washington professional policy/lobbying establishment.

This was spotted in the observation, cum prediction, about the original "New Voice" platform made by Suzanne Gordon in Labor Notes in October 1995:

For every union problem, there's a new Washington solution -- an institute, a task force, a monitoring project, a clearing house, and policy center, a training center, a center for strategic campaigns, a new organizing department (with a office of strategic planning), a strategic planning process ("Committee 2000"), two or three campaign funds, a labor council advisory committee, and a "strike support team of top people" from various union staffs...This platform proclaims that "we must institutionalize the process of change."

Here, right in the platform on which the new leaders based their rebellion, is part of the problem. The depth, breadth, and types of change needed to revitalize organized labor and bring in millions of new members cannot be accomplished by institutionalizing the process of change. The decisions about what kind of unions we want and need cannot be made in institutionally neat and controlled ways. Real change, whether in organized labor or society as a whole, just doesn't happen that way. To institutionalize a complex social process is to kill it. To see leadership as institutionalization is a classic malady of bureaucracy.

The vision of a social movement as institutes, centers, committees, task forces, media marketing, and symbolic (media ready) acts of solidarity is doomed to be a brake on the very process the AFL-CIO leaders propose -- including organizing the unorganized. As the rumblings and changes occurring in many unions and workplaces across America reveal, change is a messy process involving conflict within the unions as well as between them and the employers. To institutionalize this side of change is to suppress it, which tends to be the instinct of most union bureaucrats.

Reflecting this essentially bureaucratic vision of change is a deep ideological contradiction. The new leaders are willing to talk of conflict and even to support it, but they are equally committed to the idea of partnerships with business to make America "competitive." While the tone of the convention was combative, the themes of partnership and labor-management cooperation were there throughout. On the one hand, there is the vaguely class-oriented idea that the federation must speak for all "working families" and turn up the "street heat" to organize the millions. On the other hand, as Sweeney put it in his keynote address:

One of our paramount goals is to help the companies we work for succeed, to work with our employers to creatively increase productivity and quality and to help American companies compete effectively in the new world economy and create new jobs and new wealth for our families and our communities to share.

Indeed, a recent article in Business Week (April 7, 1997) cites the formation of the AFL-CIO's new Center for Workplace Democracy as evidence of the embrace of labor-management cooperation as a paramount goal. A more dramatic and cynical instance of this mood is the labor-management partnership between the AFL-CIO, six of its affiliates, and Kaiser Permanente, the nation's oldest and largest HMO. This partnership includes not only the usual commitments to improve the business, but a promise to promote Kaiser as the preferred HMO for union health plans -- not to mention the implication that HMOs, not single payer national health care, are labor's health care system of choice. This was announced in the midst of a life and death fight between Kaiser management and the California Nurses Association in 1996. It came only a year after Kaiser imposed a wage freeze of SEIU Local 250, which represents thousands of its nonprofessional employees.

This tenacious interest in labor-management partnerships is all the more baffling because of the clear track record of corporate double-dealing. A list of the some of the major companies with which unions had established cooperation programs or broader partnerships in the late 1980s or early 1990s includes: Caterpillar, A. E. Staley, Wheeling-Pittsburgh, Boeing, AT&T (which recently put Caterpillar CEO and arch-union-buster Don Fites on its Board), and General Motors to name a few. In short, all of today's most aggressively anti-worker major corporations are yesterday's cooperators.

A necessary corollary to partnership is the exclusion of the brutal reality of today's workplace from the agenda of the new AFL-CIO leadership. The road to competitiveness is being paved over the backs of the workers, as even Wall Streeter Stephen Roach notes. Roach made some waves a couple of years ago when he wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the current expansion was based on "slash and burn restructuring strategies that have put extraordinary pressures on the workforce" and predicted a "worker backlash." In the wake of the UPS strike Roach returned to the theme of a "labor-crunch recovery" and argued that this and other strikes meant workers were "saying 'no' to years of corporate cost-cutting directed primarily at the labor force."

While it is certainly true that "America Needs A Raise," as Sweeney argues, America also needs a break. More to the point it needs a unionism that will fight the harsh workplace regime that is the reality of lean production and high performance workplaces. It is inconceivable that the massive expansion of members labor needs to survive and renew can be accomplished by organizations that ignore today's working conditions. Building unionism on economic issues alone in the era of lean production, reengineering, casualization, and gender/race recomposition of the workforce is not likely to create the sort of momentum the leaders of the AFL-CIO talk about. Yet, very little has come from the AFL-CIO, or much of the rest of the labor bureaucracy, on these crucial issues beyond blanket condemnations of downsizing -- not even an institute.

Democracy & Organizing the Unorganized

SOMEWHAT MORE SUBTLE, BUT NO LESS IMPORTANT IS THE RELATIONSHIP between union democracy and mass organizing. Organizing on the scale needed to make the labor movement grow again has never been done primarily by professional organizers. It has always been a matter of workers organizing other workers, as it was in the 1930s and when public sector workers joined unions in large numbers in the 1960s. Even today, as the results of a study done for the new AFL-CIO leadership shows, rank and file union members make better organizers than pros. The study showed that unions won representation elections in 73 percent of the union drives conducted by ordinary members, but only 27 percent of those organized by professional organizers.

This would indicate that even spending millions of dollars in the next few years running hundreds of young people, many of them former students, through the Organizing Institute, and saturating cities with TV ads will not pay off nearly as well as putting some of these resources toward the mobilization of union members to organize their counterparts.

Indeed, some unions are beginning to experiment in member-based organizing drives. The recent and successful drive by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) at USAir, which netted the union 10,000 new members is an example. As a report in Labor Notes summed it up, "the drive did not utilize 'blitzes' by paid union staffers from out-of-town, or slick TV and radio ads produced at great expense by Washington, DC union consultants." Instead it relied primarily on a combination of CWA members from telephone and other units and worksite committees of USAir workers. The CWA has established an organizing network of member activists around the country to aid in new organizing.

Not surprisingly, the Teamsters have been using trucker members to organize workers at nonunion Overnite Transportation, one of a number of nonunion freight and package firms that grew during the old guard regime. Whereas the old guard's attempt to organize Overnite using its little army of time-serving "International Organizers" was a bust, Carey's use of rank and filers is working. Similarly, Teamster mechanics at Southwest Airlines helped Continental's 5,000 mechanics join the Teamsters. Now Carey is calling on the members to raise a volunteer "army of 10,000 member-organizers." This will be hard enough for the reforming Teamsters. For unions where democracy, membership control, and leadership accountability are stifled, the likelihood of such a sustained mobilization is slim.

Members who have an influence on the objectives, strategies, and tactics of their organizations are far more likely to devote their scarce free time to organizing others and to be more enthusiastic about their organizations. Unions, of course, can and do mobilize members for specific events or actions even where there is little or no democracy. But to sustain such mobilization over time requires rank and file involvement in decisions as well as specific actions. This kind of mobilization cannot be turned on and off like a water faucet or run by remote control from headquarters.

Organizing as PR and Technique

THE AFL-CIO LEADERS FACE A CONTRADICTION IN THE MATTER OF ORGANIZING. It is the affiliated national and international unions that do the organizing. The federation itself has no mandate to organize. It can train organizers at its Organizing Institute and use its bully pulpit to convince its affiliates to take up the cause. But it organizes no one. To get around this, the AFL-CIO proposes two tactics: pro-union TV ads in target cities, and coordination of individual unions in local labor market efforts, known as the Union Cities plan, through the Central Labor Councils (CLCs), which are AFL-CIO bodies. This approach appears to be working well in Las Vegas and may take off where CLCs have some semblance of life. But this strategy is, once again, institutional, top-down, and dependent on PR technique.

Whether or not TV ads will legitimize or enhance organizing drives remains to be seen. The problem, however, is that this approach introduces another piece of Washington, DC culture, the professional media consultant. These are the people implicated in the cesspool of political fund raising and the types who took the 1996 Carey campaign and eventually Carey himself into the dumper -- and who will not be found in the 1997 Carey campaign. They jack up the price of union organizing and politics, as they do U.S. politics. Far from mobilizing people to organize or struggle, these consultants reinforce a passive politics that goes around direct involvement to indirect media (or mail or phone) appeals. The promiscuous nature of these characters is indicated by the fact that one of the firms contracted by the AFL-CIO to carry out its pro-union media blitz is co-owned by a consultant, Carter Eskew, who worked for USA-NAFTA, the business financed, pro-free trade organization that campaigned for NAFTA passage in 1993. The problem here is not that the AFL-CIO made a bad choice, it is that there really is no choice if you go this route.

The AFL-CIO's approach to organizing also leaves in place the schizophrenia common to much union recruitment in recent years. Unions like the SEIU, the Hotel Employees, and more recently even the building trades are willing to use militant "organizing model" tactics, such as mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, and support mobilizations or "street heat." But once the new union members achieve recognition, the power passes to the hands of the existing union staff or officialdom and the "service model" recommences as ever. The radical organizers are gone and the Business Agents (BA's) and reps take over. The change that is supposed to organize millions is not a change in the unions, their internal culture, or the typical top-down methods of collective bargaining, but in the tactics of recruitment.

The point here is not that the consolidated leadership of the AFL-CIO is no different than their predecessors or do nothing new or innovative. To their credit, they have emphasized diversity and the need to organize low-paid workers of color and immigrant workers. They have done so in spite of the fact that much of the lingering old guard, while silent at the convention, dislikes the whole orientation toward organizing such workers. One AFT delegate, who expressed a particularly racist version of this objection, was quoted in Labor Notes as muttering, "Don't they realize that if they push this organizing, the labor movement is going to wind up being a movement of strawberry pickers and chicken pluckers." No doubt there are plenty of union officials who share this view. Or perhaps agree with a nameless Detroit labor official quoted in American Enterprise (according to In These Times, Nov. 2, 1997), "All the people we thought we got rid of 40 years ago are back in there. It's like the 1930s all over again."

Despite the potential backlash, the Sweeney team has pushed a progressive agenda on social questions. In a significant move the federation embraced the gay and lesbian trade union group, Pride At Work, as an official constituency group, for example. They also continued endorsement of the autonomous Jobs with Justice coalition that set the trend toward "street heat" a decade ago. As with Jobs with Justice, they seem prepared to allow more autonomy to some constituent groups like the Asia Pacific American Labor Alliance and, presumably, Pride at Work, than the Meany-Kirkland regimes allowed for groups like the A. Philip Randolph Institute. What has not changed and is not on the agenda is the bureaucratic reality of both the AFL-CIO and most of its affiliates or the basic distrust of the rank and file.

A sign of this is the fact that very little of all this change at the top filters down below the "suits" at the International Unions and the State and Central Labor Councils. As longtime labor educator Harry Kelber puts it, the AFL-CIO has a "communications problem." It may spend millions "communicating" with the general public, but members remain out of the loop. For all its cheerleading gloss, the monthly America@Work goes out to fewer than 1 percent of the federation's members, not even enough to cover the nation's local union officials. The readership of the weekly two-page fax, Work in Progress is certainly smaller. The more radical idea of union democracy is simply not in the official picture.

There is, unfortunately, an implicit message that does reach some of the rank and file of labor and which is attractive to many. The subtext of the DC-based approach with its emphasis on technique and expertise is that the business of change, of organizing, of union affairs is best left to the professionals -- the quintessential assumption of business unionism's "service model." The attractiveness of this approach was revealed in the large (48 percent) vote for Hoffa in the 1996 Teamster election. Hoffa presented an older cruder version of this message, the original Hoffa version of the "service model," when he said, "You want a union with a lot of money in the bank and a strong leader." The message from Washington is far more sophisticated, but essentially encourages a "leave the driving to us" mentality in spite of all the mobilization rhetoric. For many (current and prospective) members, trained for decades to see the union as a sort of insurance agency or at best a competent representative, and aware of the risks of militancy these days, the message is comforting.

The Polyester Ceiling vs. Brown Collar UPS -- Urge

ALMOST ALL UNION CONVENTIONS PRESENT A SYMBOLIC PORTRAIT of the problem. On the floor of the usually massive hall are hundreds or thousands of men and women dressed in jeans and T-shirts, baseball-style jackets and caps. It is a sea of blue denim topped by white or colored cotton (jackets on chair backs) with the occasional crest of colored caps. On the stage are a couple of dozen officers, commanders of the ship ("leave the navigating to us"), and accompanying staffers wearing suits (men and women). Only on some ceremonial occasion or solidarity photo op do these top officers remove the suit jacket and awkwardly pull a slogan T-shirt over their shirt and tie/scarf and don an out-of-character cap. At most times they crown the picture as a sort of polyester ceiling. The symbolism may be unconscious, but it is striking to see.

Like the glass ceiling that bars women and people of color from higher places throughout society, the real, everyday bureaucratic polyester ceiling presents a barrier to rank and file participation and power. This is not a matter of corruption and it is worse in some unions than others. There are even a scattering of partial exceptions. But it remains the inherited norm of decades of business unionism. It is the socio-political reality of contemporary American unionism that places most union leaders somewhere between the employers they deal with and the members they represent. It is the institutional constant in the equation of trade union conservatism.

The variable is working-class consciousness and self-activity. At most times this is composed of an uneven default consciousness informed by socially conservative ideas (including racist and sexist views) which are, in turn, buffeted or reinforced by social reality and economic circumstances. In the United States, the very concept of class is often buried beneath the surface of this default consciousness. When the social reality and/or economic circumstances become ones of conflict, the default ideas are challenged. Working class self-activity opens new vistas and new possibilities and inevitably comes up against the polyester ceiling. All the indicators point to the emergence of such a situation today and nothing reflects this more than the 15-day UPS strike of August 1997.

The UPS strike reflects three important aspects of change within the U.S. working class. Best known is the rise of the Carey-led reform regime. The Teamsters that confronted UPS in 1997 were very different from those who gave UPS what it wanted between 1982 and 1988. Scores of high-paid time-servers and multiple salary holders had been eliminated, officer and staff salaries reduced, new forums for rank and file participation created, and the top leaders rendered more accountable by the direct vote. Though never acknowledged by the likes of John Sweeney, the heart of this reform process was and is the Teamster for a Democratic Union (TDU), the rank and file organization that fought employers and union bureaucrats alike until 1991 and remains the bosses foe and the conscience and backbone of the reform movement to this day.

The significance of TDU, however, goes beyond its central role in the reform process -- as important as that is in prying open the polyester ceiling in that union. This second aspect of changing consciousness involves TDU's rank and file, workplace-based approach. UPS, along with freight, carhauling, and cannery, was one of TDUs main sources of support. For years TDUers fought "Big Brown," as it was known due to the brown uniforms worn by its drivers, as well as the old guard that dominated many UPS Teamster locals. Over a twenty-year span, TDU trained a core of workplace fighters in locals across the country. Unlike the old guard leaders, TDU took the part-timers seriously and taught higher-paid full-time drivers and low-paid part-time sorters to work together in local TDU chapters and on the job.

In the last few years, the TDU approach and the reform process combined to allow acceleration of this rank and file, workplace-based method of organizing. In 1994, when UPS attempted to double the weight sorters and loaders had to handle from 75 pounds to 150, Carey called a quickie strike. It was illegal and many of the old guard locals refused to take their members out, but it was strong enough to impact the company's tight operations severely -- a lesson for the future. TDUers, some now local officials, were instrumental in organizing the strike in many areas.

If the 1994 "wildcat" was a brief dress rehearsal, the real preparation came in the TDU/union response to UPS's attempt to impose team concept beginning in 1995. The attempt to introduce team concept across the UPS system was part of the company's preparation for 1997 bargaining. The company always believed that large numbers of part-timers would cross picket lines and that there was little real unity among its highly diverse workforce that was divided by wages and part-time-full-time statu on top of everything else. As in other companies, team concept was meant to cement the loyalty of at least some workers to company goals and further divide its employees.

As Mike Parker reports in Labor Notes, "TDU's emphasis on working conditions and contract issues helped prepare a large core of activists to take on company spokespersons. TDU also provided specific education on team concept programs in the industry, so the activist core avoided most of the seduction and traps in these programs." When UPS opened its team concept program in California in January 1995, TDUers were there with TDU and Labor Notes materials on the topic (shipped from Detroit overnight by UPS, of course). Soon members were disrupting team meetings and winning rank and file "team leaders" over to the union side. In at least one Michigan center, "team leaders" actually became union contract campaign coordinators -- UPS subsequently abolished the teams.

Partly because of the long work of TDU and Labor Notes in educating around team concept, and partly because of Carey's own "populist" approach and UPS background, the new Teamster leadership was one of the few in the AFL-CIO that rejected these programs outright. They launched an official, but grassroots educational campaign against their implementation. Teamster staffer Rand Wilson summarized the significance of this fight, "The team concept campaign foreshadowed the contract campaign. UPS geared up its team concept activity as its preparation for the contract and by necessity we had to take them on as part of our preparation." By the time 1997 bargaining came, the UPS workforce had a cadre of experienced rank and file leaders and a membership that understood the issues.

The third aspect was the response of other working-class people to the UPS strike. According to the oft-cited poll, public support ran two-to-one in favor of the strikers. While the UPS strike was not one in need of much outside support, given the leverage the workers had over the company, this support was forthcoming as UPS's non-Teamsters pilots honored and joined the picket lines, as did nonunion FedEx workers and activists from many other unions who visited the picket lines bringing food, drink, and enthusiastic solidarity. The impact on other workers was evident in the wake of the strike as well. One UPS driver told Convoy-Dispatch, the TDU paper, of his first day back on the job, "I left for my first stop. When I backed up to the dock at the federal building a group of employees taking their break nearby gave me a standing ovation."

In fact, this sort of consciousness was developing well before the UPS strike. A 1996 poll about support for strikes generally revealed that 46 percent sided with the strikers and only 25 percent with management. This finding was not only remarkably similar to the UPS poll, but in sharp contrast to a 1984 poll that showed 45 percent supporting management against 34 percent for the strikers. The 1996 results no doubt reflected the widespread support for the plant-level strikes at General Motors demanding additional workers and limits to outsourcing. These strikes began in 1994, where the New Direction's leadership of UAW Local 599 at GM's Buick City in Flint, Michigan, preceded the strike with a prolonged struggle and educational campaign around outsourcing, overwork, downsizing, and the whole conception of lean production, similar in some ways to what TDU had done at UPS. The 1996 Dayton, Ohio GM strike that closed down every GM assembly plant in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, save one, caught the public's eye and sympathy. So did the Detroit Newspaper strike over similar issues and, indeed, many others in the last couple of years.

There is a lesson here about the formation of class consciousness under contemporary conditions. It is generally assumed on the left that the mass media is a consciousness-killer, a purveyor of bourgeois ideology, and under normal circumstances there is a good deal of truth in this. But working-class people are not nearly as "hegemonized" as much of the left imagines and do not always filter the news the way it is intended. When the media portray "selfish" workers fighting to preserve "their" well-paid jobs, many working-class people no longer internalize the intended message. What more and more people see is themselves or their families -- part-timed, overworked, contracted out of work, insecure, and generally subordinated to some "competitiveness" agenda that happens to bring multimillion dollar salaries to top execs and the boot or whip to them. The goals of the UPS strike, full-time jobs for part-timers, limits to contracting out (of driver jobs), secure pensions, were issues in most recent strikes and close to home for million of working-class families. Workers fighting for decent paying full-time jobs are not seen as villains these days, but increasingly by working class people of all races and genders, as heroes -- someone you give a standing ovation. The brown collar workers fought the fight for blue and white collar workers across the economy and everyone knew it.

In its most basic form and content, class consciousness is not formed by propaganda or "discourse," but by a combination of self-organization and self-activity, on the one hand, and the experience and recognition of a common and changing condition (itself largely controlled by capital until the resistance grows) that the media may inadvertently spread the news about -- except when events are simply blacked out. These struggles and common perceptions are now part of working-class culture in America. They are fueled additionally by the now highly visible fact that the rich are, indeed, getting richer than ever before.

Opportunity for the Left?

THE DISTANCE BETWEEN THIS EMERGING CONSCIOUSNESS and the institutional mentality at the AFL-CIO is undeniable and wide. Insofar as they co-exist in America's only class-based mass organizations, they meet in both cooperation and conflict. They can cooperate in strikes, mass demonstrations, various issue campaigns, an effort like the Labor Party, and elsewhere. Sweeney's promise of financial support for the UPS strike was an example of convergence. The various types of support campaigns, from headquarters-managed corporate campaigns to more autonomous Jobs with Justice actions, are also points of cooperation. But the points of conflict are no less frequent and run deep beyond simply ideas and consciousness.

When Sweeney promised, but failed to deliver support to the locked-out Staley and Detroit Newspaper workers, conflict of interests were revealed. More generally, the willingness to make concessions, engage in partnership, and ignore the harsh realities of the workplace, creates an on-going conflict that sometimes surfaces as opposition movements among the rank and file. As often, it smolders as a cynicism that limits official mobilizations as much as opposition movements. This old conflict, inflamed by deteriorating living and working conditions, lies beneath what is basically different about the upsurge at UPS and the institutional changes in technique and tactics at the top of the AFL-CIO.

The return of class struggle and the emerging revival of organized labor offer the political left an opportunity to end its isolation and decline. But it also confronts the left with hard choices in political orientation: that between permeation from above and self-activity from below; the easy road to uncritical collaboration with the officialdom or the more difficult one to work with the rank and file.

The choice is not always an easy one for a left long isolated from the working class. The officialdom knows the lingo, most rank and filers don't. John Sweeney is, as a Heritage Foundation study ominously warned, "a card-carrying DSA member," most rank and filers aren't. And indeed, the best contributions to the new book based on the 1996 Columbia teach-in, Audacious Democracy edited by Steven Fraser and Joshua Freeman, argue or imply that the new leadership represents a social unionist alternative to traditional business unionism, particularly in upholding racial and gender inclusiveness. This is a mantle with considerable historic attractiveness, but also one that would require a major confrontation at the top not characteristic of this consolidating regime. The book, despite its title and like the real leadership, adroitly avoids the question of such a confrontation as well as of union democracy and membership power.

More immediately, the leadership makes the compelling argument: that organizing comes first if labor is to survive. Before we fret about rank and file rights and power in the unions we need to expand the rank and file in order to get real power in society. Right? Isn't that the way it worked in the 1930s? Wasn't it right to sign-up with John L. Lewis?

Without dragging up the whole permeationist record of the Communist Party of that era, and well aware that organizing really must take place, the answer is still no. No it didn't happen that way in the 1930s. The ranks were out there in the streets before John L. slugged Bill Hutchinson or hired back his old lefty opponents to reorganize the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and provide the bureaucratic framework for self-organized local unions in the steel industry. As for the leftists who thought staffing it guaranteed a radical future for the CIO: history is clear that it did not. It tended to be the bureaucracy that carried the left along on its agenda, not the reverse. As John L. himself said about hiring leftists as organizers, "Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?" While some Communists and a few other radicals actually became "hunters" in their own right, causing Lewis to have second thoughts, they too tended to take on the characteristics of the original "hunter." And, lest we forget, with the original pack of "hunters" still in charge, the social unionist agenda went down the toilet, national health care, racial equality, and all. Business unionism didn't lose, it simply modernized.

Major transformations in organized labor are often confusing to the left because, just as labor as a whole has internal tensions and conflicts, the bureaucracy itself is not a monolith. The split of the CIO from the AFL is a very clear example. But it is always the case that some union leaders are less bureaucratic and more progressive than others. There are social unionists, business unionists, and a lot in between. There are certainly times when the left ought to support one leader or group over another: Lewis over Green, Sweeney over Donahue, etc. So, even the current change at the top is welcome given what came before. At the same time, it should be recognized that the change at the top does not significantly alter the tensions between and different interests of the bureaucracy and the rank and file across the labor movement.

In so far as the "change" consolidates ("institutionalizes") a top-down method of operating and organizing characterized by media flash, technique, big spending, and a fundamentally bureaucratic approach to problems that leave the unions as they are, it will fail even in terms of the officialdom's own priorities. For one thing, it will tend to stifle the class consciousness and self-activity that is taking shape and spreading across much of the organized working class. It is this consciousness and self-activity that will bring about the level of organization needed to open greater political possibilities and alternatives.

All of this matters to the left if for no other reason than, like John L. before them, the consolidated leaders of labor are recruiting once again. They are recruiting not only or primarily to staff their institutes, centers, and organizing drives, but to their own political orientation and methods. The siren call of "organize now, leave the other stuff 'til later" is tempting. The desire to be relevant by linking up with a going concern is compelling. And, of course, it would be wrong to ignore the new developments at the top and limit our perspective to the workplace or union meeting, much less deny the central importance of new organizing.

The nature and difficulty of the choices that face the left can be seen in the development of Scholars, Artists & Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ -- pronounced "sausage"), the organization that has grown out of the labor teach-ins of the last two years. The AFL-CIO's reaching out to the left intelligentsia is rightly seen by the organizers of SAWSJ as a positive development. In a way, it is even potentially an alternative to the DC-based, institutional approach as a source of ideas, research, analysis, and expertise. But unlike the institutes and centers clustered around 16th Street in Washington whose staff is likely to be "on the program," SAWSJ inevitably experiences its birth as a combination of broad agreement on supporting the labor movement, on the one hand, and differences over direction, on the other. Debate, particularly public debate, is not something the labor bureaucracy is comfortable with or has a good track record on handling. It becomes even more difficult when the debates focus at least in part precisely on the top-down versus rank and file approaches.

Yet, the value of something like SAWSJ lies precisely in its ability to organize and foster such debate -- not to take a single line (uncritical support), but to incorporate different views by allowing SAWSJ members to express themselves. If, as seems likely, the main activity of SAWSJ will continue to be labor teach-ins, it becomes crucial that dissident voices, including actual rank and file voices, be heard along with the intellectual supporters of the direction of the AFL-CIO leaders. A movement of intellectuals and artists devoted solely to cheer-leading will lose its vitality before long. The temptation to suppress dissident views, however, is strong because the AFL-CIO is not seeking new critics, but more supporters for its approach and its priorities. How SAWSJ will handle this dilemma remains to be seen.

For those who want to go beyond debate, however, and do the work of bringing socialist ideas and organization to a working class, or activist layer of the class, whose consciousness is changing through struggle, making the choice is unavoidable. It is a choice of basic perspectives: bureaucratic or rank and file, top-down or from below, the glitter of influence now or the substance of power down the road. For those who see socialism as the democratic rule of the working class through its own conscious actions and organizations, there really is no choice.

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Contents of No. 24

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