Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to support unions after breaking the labor taboo

I know there's been a lot of discussion (most of which I haven't been privy to directly) over the blog post I wrote about building trade union behavior at the Palmer Renewable Energy air permit hearing.  As I suspected might happen, my criticizing unions is of greater importance to at least some union members than the booing and bullying tactics of the building trades.  How quickly someone can move into the enemy camp by breaking a taboo: criticizing unions.

When I sat down to write my blog post, less than 24 hours after the hearing, relationships with unions was not the first thing on my mind.  Poor strategic thinking?  What very much was on my mind was the fear in the eyes of the children sitting in the Duggan Middle School auditorium who had come to talk about their own asthma.  They were bewildered.  They didn't understand what was happening.  I was ashamed that I had asked them to come only to be subjected to booing.  In fact I was furious, and still am.  But everyone who came to oppose the biomass incinerator felt attacked and traumatized-- even we relatively thick-skinned organizers

I admit I don't understand unions very well, beyond an intellectual level.  I've never been in a union, and most of the people in Arise, very low-wage workers, have never been in a union, either.  And yet we have never failed to support the organized labor movement.  Anyone who reads this blog, or my own blog MichaelannLand, knows that.  So a little context to the "Michaelann as enemy to the labor movement" might be warranted. And the rest of the labor movement, beyond the building trades who were present at the hearing, should be asking themselves: who really did harm to the public perception of organized labor on April 5?

At the same time, I could (and should)  have applied that context to my own blog post.  I wrote, " I will tell you that my first reaction was that you couldn't pay me enough for me to ever show up at another pro-union rally."  Well, yup, that was my first reaction.  But intellectually, I have not changed my mind about the absolute necessity of supporting organized labor.  Yesterday at Arise I was trying to explain to Ruben how unions help keep the wages up for everybody, not just union members, by using the fruit-picking story from The Grapes of Wrath.  He understood what I was saying, even though, at the air permit hearing, where he carried around our giant asthma inhaler, he got more than one sneer from members of the building trade unions.

After the air permit hearing, I asked a couple of my contacts in labor to explore three questions: 1. Is there a way that what happened at the air permit hearing could be used to build a bridge between the building trade unions, who often stand aloof from labor's larger struggles, and the rest of the movement?  2. How did the building trades so successfully mobilize at the air permit hearing, who paid for it, and were they likely to do it again at the still-pending city council hearing about PRE's local permit? And 3:  Is there any way that other unions could take stands against biomass? 

If any of these questions get answered in a way that moves us forward, then I'll try to decide if it's worth it to be viewed as the enemy by organized labor (although Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield and Arise shouldn't be tarred with that brush).. I'm not at all convinced that there would be much discussion among local labor going on at all if I hadn't written what I did, even though I wish I had been clearer about not indicting all of labor.  Too many times our movement, such as it is, avoids tough questions,  fails to think seriously about what divides us, and calls out for solidarity when the foundation is shaky and ill-defined. I don't know why I think it should be any different this time around, but I still have hope.

Solidarity mural: Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom mural on the side of the United Electrical Workers trade union building on West Monroe Street at Ashland Avenue in Chicago, Illinois-- photo from Atelier Teee's photostream at Flickr. Print Friendly and PDF


D.O. said...

Given the resurgence among the working class & their allies that took place in Madison and continues taking place around the nation, I believe the foundation for solidarity is stronger than it has been in decades. The question is: will people put aside their differences, come to the table and seize what may be the last real opportunity to manifest the progressive vision most of us share for this country. If we botch that, the corporados and their far-right enablers may well gain the final ground and seal this nation's fate.
After that, should it happen, solidarity will have little meaning. Today, the proverbial ball is in our court.

cuerda said...

So we have to support this so-called resurgence of the working class under any circumstances?

This argument reminds me of why we will feel compelled to vote again for Obama. It's a kind of blackmail. It's the same justification the US used during the cold war to justify the killing of Salvadorans and Chileans and supporting anti-democratic regimes. We just have to look the other way in the name of what is best - because we are in a war.

Solidarity is a two-way street. The fact that unions are under attack doesn't make it OK for them to attack others. And, progressive union members should be the first people to step forward and say, we don't tolerate these tactics.

I don't know if anyone from the local union movement has said a thing about what happened, either publicly or privately. But, until someone addresses how profoundly un-cool this was they have lost my support. If they can't react to this to say it was wrong - then they aren't worth supporting.

I'm really tired of having to swallow so much shit in order to get nothing in return.

BobUnderwood said...

I have belonged to Unions. I belonged to the United Auto Workers ( not an AFL-CIO union) during several summer jobs. Besides the limited thinking about their collective bargaining agreement they did publish positions and research about other things affecting working people. Walter Reuther, its founder, was beaten up during a strike. He died in an “accidental” plane crash.

During college I became involved with the anti-war movement ( Indochina ). The AFL-CIO chairman George Meany, the construction unions, and the Teamsters were pro-Nixon and pro-war. They simply supported the shedding of working class blood for the international bankers. At times they also conducted violence on behalf of the government. Construction workers, cops, and Truck Drivers are the best paid of American Labor. They are hardly down trodden workers, and the only time they want to disturb the status quo is to get more for themselves. They never bothered much with educating or trying to organize the lower wage parts of the American Labor force, which admittedly is a tough job.

Later as a sate employee I belonged to the Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and AFL-CIO union. The leadership did not seem to be as smart as the UAW, nor as aggressive in protecting the rights of workers in general. Keep in mind that other workers were taxed to pay our salaries, if they did not have money, we could not have money. But they never seemed to worry about that. There again the higher wage occupations seems to have better representation, police prison guards, etc. Other employees of the state of Massachusetts just eek out a living.

The Springfield Republican carried a story about large numbers of fuel rods that need to be encased in cement, which would generate a lot of construction jobs. The police and construction unions lobby for casinos because it tends to support their corruption. The construction unions also lobby for the wood burning plant ( biomass) . It is something simple enough for their leaders to understand, and someone is telling them to support it. Had they been paid to build and guard concentration camps, they would be supporting that also.

In general the AFL-CIO is led around by the nose by corporations. This has led to the type of government which Wisconsin has. I hope there is a resurgence of Organized Labor. We need it desperately. But the current leadership with its support of NAFTA and blindly following government needs to be put out with yesterday’s trash. Like everything else in politics incompetents and in some cases corrupt people have been put in control.