Tuesday, January 30, 2007

An Unorganized History Post

Somedays, I could make 100 posts a day.

And somedays, I can't think of a word to say. Or I'm too busy. Or extraordinarily lazy. Like, I wanted to post about the Kappas who got sentenced to two years for hazing. But I'm too apathetic right now.

But I am reading and writing. I'm sitting in on a labor history class and loving it. I've just read Lichtenstein's State of the Union; Buhle's Taking Care of Business, and I'm about to read Labor Embattled. I also got a book from the library, Hard Work by Fantasia and Voss, that I'm liking it a lot. But I'm all disillusioned now. I have a very idealistic view of the possibilities of labor unions and yet, I can't see how they can ever live up to my dream. The overall feel that I get is that they settled. They became unwieldly old relics stuck in business unionism, an institution unto themselves, instead of organic, vibrant entities able to capitalize on opportunities and the strengths of their memberships.

Last week, the professor asked us did we think labor unions should be concerned solely with issues of wages and working conditions or should they be part of a broader push for social justice. Perhaps, suggested a classmate, we were placing too much on the shoulders of labor unions. Perhaps what we needed was a labor movement, a Labor Party. We spent several minutes wiping away the tears that resulted from our cynical laughter at the idea of the US having any such movement, of acknowledging any class conflict without having people labeled as dreaded socialists and the like (hell, we can't even get most people to vote or anyway advocate for their class interests!).

And then, most of us expressed the idea that labor unions could not fluorish if they do just as the companies who exploit employees do--namely, define their members solely as workers. The well-being of workers depends on much more than a higher wage.

Fantasia and Voss note that the labor movement was becoming more exclusionary just as immigrants from southern and eastern Europe started arriving in large numbers. The emphasis on craft unionism, bastion of skilled, white men, and the racism and sexism that permeated the unions rendered them incapable of reaching both these new workers and black workers. It also meant that union leaders, especially those of the AFL, had a narrow vision of unionism that never included the interpretations of what unionism meant to marginalized workers. For example, many historians have written about how black workers saw union membership as a step towards full citizenship, an avenue for agitation for civil rights. Both Buhle and Lichtenstein indicate that the inability, or as Herbert Hill would argue, the blatant unwillingness, of unions (with a few notable exceptions) to take the forefront in the struggles of the 1960s and beyond meant that they lost much of their appeal. Lichtenstein, using a quote from a young Bill Clinton, notes how the "new" radicals actually viewed the unions skeptically and as part of the establishment.

And that is something else that bothers me, the way that "radicalism" has been treated within unionism by business union leaders like Gompers. Gompers called the IWW (which I will admit I have a largely dreamy view of) a fungus. George Meany bragged that he'd never been on strike. Yes, it's easy to point to Taft-Hartley (an evil piece of legislation, if ever there was one) and blame the legislation for the expulsion of radicals (namely, communists) from unions, but Gompers and his supporters fought many battles against the IWW and later, the CIO, and derided methods like strikes and picketing and IWW members' willingness to get, um, physical. The expulsion of radicals meant the expulsion of the organizers who were most likely to try to reach the unskilled, racial/ethnic "minority" workers. These organizers were also the most likely to see unionism as part of a larger struggle and not an end, in and of itself. The result was an emphasis on bureaucracy and grievance processes and a sad, sad move away from the vision of "social democracy" unionism.

So what happens now? When unionism is at dismal lows among black workers and manufacturing workers, historically (well, since the mid-twentieth century) strongholds? Do unions have a purpose? Can they ever rebound? Will they learn lessons form "alternative" groups like workers' centers (e.g. the Center for Women's Economic Alternatives) and poultry justice alliances? Will they finally see their members' struggles in contexts outside the workplace?

I'm cynical, right now and I shared that in class. So the professor asked, "Elle, are you saying we're doomed?" And I said,"It would take such a radical shift in the mainstream mindset, in the ideology surrounding poverty and class and workers' rights that right now, I have little hope."

He looked at me and smiled and said, "A more radical shift than it took to overthrow slavery? To overthrow Jim Crow, legally? Remember, people thought those things were eternal, too."

And then, my silly old idealistic heart swelled.

7 comments:

ChasingMoksha said...

I just watched Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. There were some labor issues involved. Actually the union lost. Gaskell showed the tyranny of the unions and the masters. I know it is British and probably only a drop in the bucket with what you are studying but I did like the movie a lot.

Quinn said...

I miss the Knights of Labor.

petitpoussin said...

elle, I'm so excited you're posting about this. my mom was a union organizer in the past, and I have friends who are still heavily involved with unions in Europe, so I totally have that dreaminess about what unions can do. of course my knowledge of union history in the US is little-to-none. thanks for the education! talk more about your thesis! (pretty please)

Kate said...

What a great post. I like hearing your thinking.

As someone who was a union organizer for five years, I saw from the inside a lot of the concerns you had. Thankfully, I was part of a union that realized the problems of getting settled, and though I interacted with other unions that only concerned themselves with the workers they currently have, we organized immigrant workers and were constantly putting money into organizing new campaigns (not politics, which is where the union thug stereotype comes from).

I loved my union so very much. I do think a number of national unions are pushing the AFL-CIO (that's why they're all leaving) because the AFL isn't radical enough.

The thing that was funny from an organizer perspective is that grad students would find any excuse to not be in the union. Some would complain we didn't think broadly enough (with the social justice stuff) and some said we did too much and needed to stick to bread and butter issues. Some thought we should put all our energy into organizing people of color and immigrant workers, others thought we shouldn't be aligning ourselves with other locals. It just shows that as long as there is oppression and intimidation and fear, it's going to be really hard for people to stand up, no matter how hard that institution tries to cater to the workers.

Ok, I think I've blabbed enough :).

queer dewd formerly known as be elle said...

*my heart swells*

you know one book i liked about an alternative model? Dorothy Sue Cobble's work, _Dishing it Out_.

elle said...

thanks for all the comments and stories! i haven't really bean able to check in.

QD, I have Dishing It Out on my bookshelf, but I was planning on just using it to show difficulties faced by/in organizing women. Thanks for letting me know it presents an alternative.

kate, it sounds like i should interview you. seriously.

Texter said...

Sigh. That prof sounds great... I love when the classroom becomes an arena for genuine sharing and dreaming... one step closer to that "union" we imagine.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...