Tag: Labor

What Are Labor’s True Colors?

Re-published from Spring 2004

Recent strategic proposals to rebuild the labor movement largely overlook the crucial need to build black-brown coalitions and labor-community ties in communities of color. It may strike some readers as odd that a discussion of problems in the labor movement should focus on ‘people of color’ and race, but the oddness of it is just the problem.  Capitalism and work have always been structured through race (and gender) in the United States.[1] The failure of labor unions to recognize this, and to support the struggles of people of color as people of color, puts them in the camp of those who argue that the American Dream is color-blind and that the only real exploitation is that of class.  From this point of view there is no reason, other than nostalgia or primordial tribalism, for minorities to emphasize race. From here it is a short step to the conclusion that black ghettos (there have been only black ghettos in the United States) are caused by the (tribal?) behavior of ghetto residents rather than by racial oppression.  Contrasting oneself to those “savages” in the ghettos, rather than identifying with them, is an important part of the construction of white identity.[2]  Nonetheless, some argue that supporting communities of color as communities of color needlessly fragments working people.  However, there are different kinds of black racial ideologies and struggles just as there are different kinds of white racial prejudice (i.e., mean-spirited and intentional racism versus inadvertent and embarrassing racial slights.)  Racial struggles that aim to transform economic conditions causing poverty, and racial movements that are open to dialogue and coalition building, should be distinguished from black racial movements that are interested in neither.

Historically, only radicals on the edge of the labor movement have taken the struggle against ghettos and slums to be central to labor’s mission.[3]  Today is not so different.  Roughly one in four African American men under 35 years are caught somewhere in the criminal justice system, while three quarters of all prisoners in the U.S. are black and Latino.[4] This is largely a consequence of the persistent unemployment of people most vulnerable to “deindustrialization,” yet the mass incarceration of black youth has not been seen as a “labor” issue.[5]  For this and other such reasons poor black communities (and most Latino communities) do not think about labor unions when they imagine a better future.  Nonetheless, this is no reason for relegating black and Latino communities to the periphery of strategies for rebuilding labor.  It is impossible, from my point of view at least, to imagine a robust labor movement without the central participation of black and Latino communities.  Yet there has been little thought given to how current strategies for rebuilding labor unions connect to the history and current reality of deep racial division among working people in the United States.  A popular idea that I address at the end of this article is that communities of color can be brought in as allies by labor-led movements to rebuild labor unions.  I doubt this.  Labor leaders may know how to support this or that black or Latino politician, but I see no evidence that many know how to build solidarity with black and Latino communities.  A recent exception to this tendency is the immigrant freedom ride, which indicates that at least some labor leaders are thinking differently.  Its organizers attempted to use the AFL-CIO’s organizational infrastructure to support a campaign focusing on important community issues, using symbolic images from the civil rights movement.  This is a promising approach. Labor unions have a better chance of growing as a part of black and Latino community movements for power, when the latter see labor unions as allies in their struggles, rather than the other way around.  This is because low-income communities of color are not, as some labor organizers arrogantly presume, unorganized blank slates.  Their participation in community civic organizations, from churches to hometown associations, is far more active than it is in labor. It should be remembered that black and Latino civic organizations exist in part because of residential segregation and their feeling of exclusion from white civic organizations.[6]   So, while many of these organizations are not explicitly political, and should not be expected to act like political parties, A seed of political awareness is built into their civic activity, that can be, and often has been, nurtured.

Beyond the Black-White Paradigm

In 2002, the foreign-born population of the United States reached an all time high of 33 million people.  This group represents over 11.5 percent of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).  The two largest states, California and Texas, already have majority nonwhite populations.    The white share of the population in the 100 largest cities declined from 52 percent to 44 percent during the 1990s.  The top five cities in the United States (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia) alone lost one million white residents in the 1990s.  Cities in five Southern states (Mobile, Columbus, Montgomery, Norfolk, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Augusta, Fort Worth), four California cities (Sacramento, San Diego, Anaheim, Riverside), Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston, and Rochester were among cities that went from majority white to majority-minority.  Nearly one in four residents in the largest U.S. cities considers themselves Hispanic, versus one in ten elsewhere in the nation.[7]  The fastest growing Latino populations are not the old destination cities such as New York or Los Angeles (although these are growing too) but Atlanta and Orlando.  Ninety-five of the top 100 cities also experienced growth in their Asian population during the 1990s.

These demographic changes are a potentially grave threat to conservative political power.  We will reach a point where many states will have nonwhite voting majorities.  It is the political majority in state governments along with Congress that are true centers of power.  As excited as minority activists sometimes get about electing mayors, city governments are not, under our Constitution, true centers of power.[8]  Cities cannot raise taxes without state approval; cities cannot dump garbage or even elect mayors without state approval.  The last time people of color were in a similar position to possibly control state governments was Reconstruction South Carolina and Mississippi.   This is a demographic turning point of potentially major significance, but it is not certain that blacks and Latinos (and Asians in some states) will use their power for progressive ends.  They may instead fight each other.

Increasingly, how and whether blacks and Latinos get to exercise power in the states will depend less on their relations with whites than on how they deal with each other.  There are at least two problems here.  One is that the way many black leaders talk about race tends to exclude other people of color, the very opposite of the global perspective on race embraced by African American movements historically.  Some Latino leaders have unfortunately amplified the narrow-mindedness and me-first attitude of black leaders.  Another problem is that leaders of color today are not preparing themselves or their followers for leadership responsibility in keeping with their increasing numbers.  They are often more willing to accept side-payments from the establishment to maintain  status quo arrangements.

I will address each of the above problems separately.  On the first point, many Latino and Asian scholars and advocates have criticized what they call the “black-white” paradigm.  They argue that scholarship on race has tended to exclude Asians and Latinos from the history of racial construction.  This is undoubtedly true.  Latino and Asian activists have further suggested that black leaders act as though African Americans were the only minorities in America.  This is also a well-earned criticism.  However, it is an error for scholars and activists to think that the history of black political thought, or the aims of popular black political movements, is actually captured in the concept of a “black-white” paradigm.  For example, Frederick Douglass did not view the black struggle in a “black-white” paradigm.  He called the 1846-1848 war against Mexico racist and expansionist, a war against freedom and the interests of working people in both countries, and an exercise of “Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of domination.”  He noted that Mexico’s government, with “all of her barbarism and darkness” and lack of “devotion to republican principles” had nonetheless “wiped away the stain of slavery from her dominions,” but that after its conquest of Texas, “the enlightened, Christian United States had stained again what was washed.”  Douglass similarly strongly opposed efforts to restrict Chinese immigration during the 1870s, arguing that references to a “Yellow Peril” sounded much like “Black Peril.”[9] Douglass also was an outspoken supporter of Irish nationalists, whose support of abolitionists was returned in kind.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP and its leading publicist in the early 20th century, did not view the black struggle in a narrow black-white paradigm either.  The reason the NAACP is the association of “colored” people and not “black” or “Negro” people was, in the words of Du Bois’s preeminent biographer, “to promote the interests of dark-skinned people everywhere.”[10] Du Bois outlined his view of the relationship of black oppression with that of white workers and workers of color globally in his book Black Reconstruction:

…the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863.  The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over.  Thus the majority of the world’s laborers, by the insistence of white labor, became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression.  And this book seeks to tell that story.

Du Bois’s perspective was hardly a ‘black-white’ paradigm.  As Robin Kelley describes in his book Freedom Dreams, black activists in the 1950s maintained global perspective on their struggle.  They were deeply inspired by anticolonial movements in the Third World and thought of them as allies.  Malcolm X, comparing Vietnamese anticolonial struggle with the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion in 1954, supported an allegiance of the African American struggle with anticolonial independence movements worldwide.  Similarly, the African American civil rights movement learned about nonviolent methods of struggle from their close observation and solidarity with the Indian movement against British colonialism.  The movement, including SNCC and Rev. Martin Luther King, strongly opposed the Vietnam war, in sympathy with Vietnamese peasants.  Huey Newton, the Black Panther leader, argued in the late 1960s that black Americans should view their struggle as part of a world revolution because, he emphasized, there were no longer national economies and national corporations but a worldwide economy.[11]

Given a rich history of black support for struggling peoples around the globe, and the black movements’ historical understanding of their own struggle as connected to people worldwide, we have to question how a narrowly domestic and ethnically bounded notion of black politics took hold.  It came after the success of the civil rights movement in passing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.  With the ascension of African Americans into elected offices, and their success in securing some federal and foundation funds for fighting black poverty, suddenly there was turf to protect.  Quite a few black elected officials, and many Latino elected officials, learned from white conservatives that an easy way to stay in office was to mobilize the suspicions and prejudices that divide whites, blacks, and Latinos.  Many spread the idea that simply getting them elected was the key to solving black community problems.  It was easier to do this than to take on the challenge of eliminating poverty jobs and unemployment.  Instead of the election of black officials leading to an increasingly broad multiracial political mobilization of poor people, as the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements envisioned, black leaders frequently represented their own election as mayor, Congressman, or union local president as the grand victory and end of the journey for all black people.  Symbolic representation thus replaced substance.  For example, some leading black organizations and leaders have proclaimed that President Bush’s appointment of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice—leading supporters of a foreign policy nearly universally opposed in the developing world—is a strong indicator of black progress.  Blacks who challenge this notion of civil rights progress are sometimes accused of trying to divide black people so that whites can take over, or so that Latinos can take over.  Whites who challenge this view are easily dismissed as racists.  Even so, it is preposterous to think that black people fought the civil rights movement to get 8,000 blacks jobs as elected officials, or to put a black face on imperial foreign policy.  They had much more in mind.

African Americans are today a demoralized and demobilized people, alienated from politics.[12]  They are a people who sacrificed a lot for the right to vote but now mostly do not vote because they see no leadership worth voting for.  Their anguish was evident seven years ago when a million black men marched on Washington, the biggest black demonstration in history by a factor of four.  The march had no political agenda, no list of demands; it was a gathering of people who knew they were in trouble and were desperate to gain a sense of purpose and direction.  What did they get?  The keynote speaker gave them a lecture on numerology!  The March on Washington was a dispiriting loss of political opportunity, and a step backward in recognizing the importance of black women’s struggles in changing U.S. society.  But this was not just Minister Louis Farrakhan’s fault.  Farrakhan was one of the few black leaders attempting to organize anything, accounting for the massive turnout.  Many black leaders seemed to have forgotten that the majority of black people have dead-end jobs, and that millions of black people are wandering in and out of welfare and prison.

The ‘black-white’ paradigm remains acceptable to so many black leaders because the only good reason to undertake the difficult work of building strong cross-racial, cross-ethnic political ties is to organize a broad political movementand few of them are interested in building a movement.  The black leaders who rebuff unity efforts with Latinos and Asians for the most part are not trying to organize black people either.  It does not take much insight to recognize that doing something about lack of health care, prisons, affordable housing, and the collapse of public schooling in America requires building broad solidarity among the people who most suffer these problems.

Unfortunately, black leaders are not alone.  I have not seen many Latino leaders, including critics of the ‘black-white’ paradigm, criticizing Latino anti-black racism, or encouraging Latinos to form coalitions with black people.  A lot of Latino leaders have cheered the U.S. Census 2000 findings of a burgeoning Latino population with rhetoric sounding a lot like, “Get back blacks, I’m going to be a big shot now!”  While I believe that the ‘black-white’ paradigm has contributed to this reaction, there is no cause for sanctimony on the part of its critics.

Black and Latino communities are politically divided.  Antonio Villaraigosa, a very progressive pro-labor Latino mayoral candidate in Los Angeles lost when large numbers of black leaders supported his middle-of-the-road opponent.  A lot of black leaders were subsequently upset when the victor, James Hahn, dismissed the city’s black police chief.  But why were they surprised?  Hahn accused Villaraigosa of being soft on crime, and ran Willie Horton type ads with an image of Villaraigosa surrounded by drug paraphernalia.  Latino communities have the same basic problems with the Los Angeles police as African Americans, yet many African American leaders choose to align themselves with a candidate actively appealing to whites’ racial stereotypes.  Where is the black community’s political future in California?  Is it with Latinos who also need affordable housing, good jobs, good schools, healthcare, and need help getting it?  Or is it with people who have all those things and do not want to share them?

Labor unions could play an important role in steering the demographic transition underway in the U.S. towards greater inter-group solidarity and a substantive focus on the poor.

To play such a role, labor cannot constitute itself as a separate interest apart from black and Latino communities.  By constituting a ‘separate interest,’ I refer to the decisions of some unions to endorse President Bush in the last presidential election and New York’s conservative Governor George Pataki in 2002.  Union leaders defend such actions as responsible political leadership on behalf of their members who need material gains.  Still, one must ask, where do such endorsements fit in an overall political strategy for power?  I am not one to argue that unions should never make deals on behalf of their members.  But if unions think that it is in their strategic interest to be in coalition with poor communities of color, they risk losing their trust by making separate deals excluding the participation of their community partners.   Further, if Bush or Pataki promise deals for certain unions, the union should take the extra step of making sure that they will not finance it by cutting services and benefits from the communities where its workers live or from workers in a different sector.

Labor unions should go out of their way to cultivate solidarity between blacks and Latinos in and outside of the union.  It does not help matters when labor leaders encourage its black members to support a Latino candidate in one election, but then encourages Latino members to oppose an equally progressive black candidate in another election.   Latino candidates have also been burned in this way.  This means that labor leaders interested in long-term labor-community cooperation should carefully consider whether their support for a candidate (or policy) will build or undermine black–Latino political unity.    Responsible political leadership in these times goes beyond making ghetto life a little easier for the residents of a particularly strong voting district, or for a handful of workers in a local union; it means building a broad coalition for real power–the power to move entire states towards eliminating ghettos and slum wages.

Reparations: A Compelling Labor Issue

Race continues to play a major role in structuring U.S. society. Whites in the South are poorer than whites elsewhere in the country because slavery undermined their wages, Jim Crow kept unions out, and wages for all workers suffered as a consequence.  But this is the tip of the iceberg.  When the Reconstruction governments were violently overthrown in the 1870s, and the Confederates regained control of the South, they installed a racial dictatorship.  Reactionary Southern congressman from plantation districts had no political competition and tended to have long stays in Congress.   Because Congress was a more important branch of government {prior to} Until World War II—when the nuclear bomb strengthened the presidency—and because Congress allocated power according to seniority, Southern representatives dominated both Congress and national legislation through WW II.  This means that {when the} modern U.S. corporation, labor laws, immigration policies, foreign policy, and social welfare structures were {took shape, the United States was} crafted largely by Southern Congressional anti-democrats.  This is a major reason why America did not become a social democracy.  {The suppression of democracy in the South under Jim Crow has hurt working and poor families across America, not just black people.}  During Florida’s last presidential election, it was the suppression of black voters{–from voters eliminated through felony disenfranchisement laws to registration irregularities–} that swung the presidential election for George Bush.  The South is still crucial to conservative political power.

Building a progressive multi-racial labor-community movement in the South would clearly deliver a powerful blow to racial division in the United States.  There appear to be two strands of thought about how to do this.  One approach is organizing around ‘bread and butter’ issues while avoiding racially divisive issues.  In this view, after trust is built up through personal ties established during ‘bread and butter’ struggles, racial issues can gradually be addressed.  Another approach is organizing black and Latino communities around whatever issues come up, racial or not, and imploring whites to join a self-consciously anti-racist movement from the beginning.  I lean towards the latter.  The first reason is that there are lots of black community-based organizations and activists in the South that already deal with racial issues, and who are likely to be wary of organizations working in black communities who suppress racial issues by arguing that it alienates whites.  A second reason is that avoiding race robs the movement, of a deeply compelling moral vision.  For example, the recent black movement for reparations owed for slavery could be a labor-black movement.  It is striking, in fact, that in the 21st century the U.S. labor movement still cannot grab hold of the slavery issue.  What greater labor exploitation has ever existed in America than the kidnapping of tens of millions of Africans, the slaughter of many millions of them on the passage across the ocean, the forced labor of these kidnapped slaves for 300 years, and the systematic rape of slave women to breed more slave children who could be sold at auctions for more profit?  How is it that a labor movement that wants to unite people around workers’ material interests cannot not be in the forefront of a movement that is demanding justice and recognition for such shameful treatment of working people–dead or alive?

The model of the old labor movement, as Du Bois pointed out, was that labor unions would protect organized workers while giving employers license to super-exploit workers of color in the United States and the developing world.  That model is losing its utility for workers as global capital breaks down the old geographic distinctions.  Low-income service workers in the United States increasingly are the ‘Third World’ (and Eastern European) workers, transplanted here.  They are the super-exploited workforce of color.  They are the degraded women laborers.  Labor unions that are organizing these workers are doing so at the bottom of the workforce.  There is no group beneath them to pay for a sweetheart deal for other workers.  If workers try to organize Wal-Mart in one place, it shuts down and moves somewhere else where workers are less organized.  If a government official offers a union a sweetheart deal in the healthcare sector, they are likely to pay for it by cutting funds for other services—such as from the schools of the healthcare workers’ children.  If an official offers a sweetheart deal in education, chances are they are financing it by cutting poor peoples’ health insurance.  To make progress in this situation, labor more than ever needs a strategy for organizing that does not have workers in different sectors working at cross purposes, and does not leave any worker unprotected and cut out of deals.  If not, those who are excluded will quickly become prey for new rounds of exploitation and undermining of the more organized and secure sections of the labor force.

Labor needs bold and radical thinking about how to represent economic justice.  This is what makes reparations a good labor issue.  The issue is not about writing individual checks to descendants of slaves.  The U.S. treasury could not repay blacks for their labor even it wanted to.  What the reparations demand does is begin to expose the immorality of the entire economic structure in the United States at its foundation.    

Immigrant Rights

There are other articles in this volume devoted to labors’ work on immigrant rights, and I will not belabor the issue.  But I would be remiss to highlight justice for African Americans while ignoring the plight of low-income immigrant workers.  An issue that deserves particular attention is immigrant voting.  From the Colonial Era until the 1920s, immigrants voted in state and local elections in many states.  Since then, the vast majority of immigrants in the United States have been prohibited from voting by state restrictions imposed a century ago to weaken labor and community movements by Southern and Eastern European immigrants.  Immigrants now pay taxes and serve in the military yet they have no voice in politics.  It is a major mistake to think that immigrants are the only victims of their disenfranchisement.  Immigrants tend live in cities and inner ring suburbs with other poor people.  Because noncitizen immigrants cannot vote in state elections, all poor people in urban areas lose voting power.  Voters in wealthy suburban areas, with fewer immigrants gain disproportionate power in state budget contests.  The immigrant vote could aide low-income citizens in poor urban communities to win state and local political contests, and to fund needed services in their neighborhoods.

The issue of voting rights for immigrant taxpayers usually elicits the same response most people give to the black reparations issue.  It is too hard to sell politically; it is too controversial.  However, this is largely because the labor movement is decades late in fighting for these issues.  These will be uphill battles, but they would be the right battles, announcing a deep labor commitment to democracy and fairness for America’s most downtrodden people.  Perhaps this matters more than quick victories.  Moreover, immigrants are a large part of the bottom of the labor market, where labor hopes to establish a good reputation and grow.  Immigrants will no doubt bear in mind who supports their incorporation and who does not when defining their allegiances.

Models for Community Organizing

There have been spirited debates in this journal about how labor unions should reorganize.  I have little expertise to offer on this score; however, the debate seems to be too narrowly cast.  If organizing in low-income communities of color is seen as strategic for labor, as I argue it should be, then attention needs to put on organizing problems in those communities as well.  Building community-based unions, or community unionism, is an interesting approach.  However, there are community-based organizations (CBOs) in local areas struggling to survive, and adding a new labor-backed organization to compete for dues and loyalty may not always be well received.  Labor unions might consider, alternatively or conjunctively, supporting existing CBOs while convincing them to support labor initiatives.

Helping CBOs to become financially independent and self-sustaining is also the most important thing labor could do to win strong black community support (at least) and overcome a pervasive distrust of labor unions built over generations.  This is an entirely different approach than offering CBOs donations in exchange for their help in a campaign.  Rather, it is helping CBOs solve their structural problems in order to become strong institutions, just like unions are trying to be stronger institutions themselves.  It is also providing a way for CBOs to become independent political voices.

The area where labor unions can be of most help to CBOs  is in transferring their economic bargaining skills honed in production relations to consumer relations in communities.  The reasons are twofold: CBOs need economic liberation to free them up to pursue labor and political organizing, and communities are thoroughly disorganized as consumers.  CBOs need “liberation” because they are typically non-profits dependent on government or private foundation funding.  These are patronage relationships,  and the need to keep patrons happy explains why, despite the development of what is virtually a community building industry providing locally based social services and affordable housing, political participation in the low-income communities of color they serve has declined to abysmal levels.

One way to break free of this dependency  would be  to utilize their social networks and organizations in communities as the starting point for establishing cooperative purchasing units for utilities that all communities need.  Community bargaining units could negotiate prices and exact rents in intensively competitive telephone, internet, and energy markets.  There are already hundreds of cooperatives around the country that do this, but many are small and rural.  Dense urban populations are prime territory for consumer organizing, and they often have pre-existing organizational (and social capital) networks established in churches and CBOs.  There are also large concentrations of union members in many different kinds of communities, although these “densities” are seldom calculated, that could be supported by unions in their role as community leaders and participants.  As in labor organizing, the bigger the bargaining unit, the better.

There are literally thousands of cooperatives and community-owned enterprises in the United States.[13]  The vast majority are not involved in politics, however, some are.  Cooperatives were active in lobbying Congress to protect credit unions when conservatives targeted them for extinction a few years ago.  However, I am not arguing that a politicized cooperative movement already exists.  I am suggesting that labor unions are well-positioned to help develop such a movement.  This is because of the concentrations of union members residing in certain urban neighborhoods, the potential of labor-backed capital investments to support community economic investments, and the infrastructure of community development corporations and finance institutions that can partner with labor unions.

Inherent in this approach, is respect and a commitment to labor’s community partners.  This approach begins to deal with the structural inequalities between white and minority-led movements—labor and community respectively—and carries more weight than a thousand apologies or whipping sessions about racial inequality.  Lastly, this approach provides an organizational  mechanism for building ties within and across urban communities, as well as between urban/suburban communities with significant labor concentrations.  The powerful urban community movements of the 1960s and early 1970s could not sustain themselves financially, and they fell into the trap of patron-client relationships.  If they can climb out of that trap, I think that labor unions will have trouble keeping up with the pace of their organizing initiatives, and not the other way around.


[1] Jones, 1998. 
[2] For example, police harassment of blacks who were found “out of place” in predominantly white neighborhoods is common.  Sociologist Joe Feagin wrote that in his interviews of black men, many reported aversive reactions from whites when they walk down the street.  Feagin also noted that race continues to play a large role in white (’s) self-concepts, including the concept of a good family.  He quoted a white father and business person who responded to a hypothetical question about an adult child dating a black person, “I’d be sick to my stomach.  I would feel like, that I failed along the way…I’d feel like I probably failed as a father.”
Gerstle, 2001. 

[4] Mauer 1999. 
[5] As Zygmunt Bauman noted, the urban poor are not seen as a political agent, “…poverty is no longer associated with organized labor.  It has become much less romantic and politically interesting.  It is now a suffering that does not entail redemption but calls for more bureaucracy–if heeded– this call would only strengthen the oppressive grip of the capitalist state.” Wilson 1996; James H. Johnson 2000. 
[6] Williams 2002. 
[7] Alan Berube, “Racial and Ethnic Change in the Nation’s Largest Cities,” in Redefining Urban and Suburban America, edited by Bruce Katz and Robert E. Lang, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), p. 140. 
[8] Frug 1999, p. 140. 
[9] Waldo E. Martin 1984, p. 216-218.  
[10] Lewis 1993, p. 405. 
[11] Brown 1992. 
[12] Gilliam and Kaufman, 1998. 
[13] For an example of a community organizing approach to community enterprise, see the Market Creek project in San Diego, “http://marketcreek.com”.

Dr. Martin Luther King during Sanitation Strike Copyright Richard L. Copley

Rethinking the Problem of Alliance: Organized Labor and Black Political Life

The enduring problem of the relationship between leading political currents within organized labor, and those prevailing among African-Americans and black advocacy organizations, has once again become a central concern of the left.

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The AFL-CIO “On the Beach”

In the chilling 1959 cold war apocalyptic film, On the Beach, the entire northern hemisphere has succumbed to radiation sickness after a nuclear war. A few pockets of humanity remain in the southern hemisphere but, the characters in the film discover, their demise is inevitable as wind currents slowly move the nuclear fall- out toward them. Life goes on as usual, albeit at a more frenzied and desperate pace, as people await their doom while the radioactive cloud creeps toward them, silencing other outposts as it moves.

At the risk of being overly dramatic, it could be said that today’s AFL-CIO is “on the beach” and awaiting its own demise while attempting to carry on as if it still had a future. Formed in 1955 with a merger meant to end two decades of bitter infighting, the AFL-CIO’s primary purpose was to consolidate and administer the post-war collective bargaining regime. There was a reason why its new headquarters building overlooked the White House. The premise of that regime was that labor was a limited partner with capital in a relationship mediated by the federal government.

This arrangement made workers and their unions particularly vulnerable to the rise of neoliberal globalization. Moreover, a labor movement whose mission focused on collective bargaining with individual employers, and with many of the fundamental functions of working- class solidarity outlawed or constrained, left little scope for a national labor organization to mobilize and lead an organized working class in campaigns against capital.

Instead, we got a federation whose primary internal function was not to unite but to mediate between autonomous unions and whose exter- nal function was to intervene in a regulatory state and serve as a junior partner in a multi- class political party. (Until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. labor movement also performed the additional function of serving U.S. foreign policy interests.)

Today, labor’s influence has been reduced to a few diminishing private-sector outposts. Capital has long moved on, embracing a neoliberal world order with no place for unions or any restraints on its mobility or autonomy. The strange fruits of the November 2016 presidential election make a Friedrichs’-style open-shop public sector all but inevitable. The current Congress and Trump administration may well enact a national right-to-work regulation and do whatever else they can to undermine the right to organize and bargain.

The AFL-CIO has been grappling with this existential crisis since 1995 when, in the only contested election in the history of the AFL- CIO, the New Voices slate was elected with the promise to stop doing business as usual and implement an organizing-intensive program to revitalize the labor movement. The proximate cause of all of this ferment and change was the realization that the Democratic Party had also been captured by neoliberalism. This was driven home by the Clinton administration’s indifference to labor law reform, deference to the medical industrial complex, attacks on federal workers and abandonment of the New Deal/Great Society principles of a social safety net and its embrace of punitive models of social regulation.

Unfortunately, the New Voices leadership never addressed the need to break out of its entrapment within the neoliberal Democratic Party. They actively discouraged the significant union-sponsored effort to build an independent Labor Party that emerged in the late 1990s.[1]

Instead, they doubled down, giving more and more money and organizing resources to Democratic candidates and getting less and less in return. Each election was “the most important fight of our lifetime.” Each victory gave us nothing. Each defeat had disastrous consequences.

This political accommodationism meant that there would be no real improvements in the laws regulating workers’ rights to organize and bargain nor restrictions on plant closures and offshoring. The unrelenting decline in private- sector union density continued, creating a hollowed-out labor movement in all but a few northeastern and west coast states. Union density in Wisconsin in 2011 (the year of the pas- sage of the state’s anti-union public-sector legislation) was less than the union density in Mississippi in 1964.[2] First in Indiana and Wisconsin and then throughout much of the old industrial heartland, anti-union state governments began to aggressively dismantle public- and private-sector organizing and bargaining rights.

In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led five national unions out of the AFL-CIO and launched the Change to Win Federation with a promise to shift resources from politics to organizing. Despite its sound and fury, Change to Win failed to reverse the forces leading to the broad decline of the institutional labor movement. They tripled down on accepting the two parties of neoliberalism as the eternal and unchanging reality of American politics and adopted an instrumental politics that would make an old school building trades local proud: we offer this support in exchange for an agreement to unionize these workers under these terms.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. As union density and political clout diminish, a new cadre of anti-union politicians has abrogated these “organizing” agreements as quickly and as easily as they were established by their predecessors. Today, Change to Win mostly exists on paper while the SEIU spends more on political candidates than does the AFL-CIO.[3]

The logical conclusion of the SEIU’s organizing strategy has been described by “new labor” superstar David Rolf, president of Seattle-based SEIU Local 775, as the “nurse log metaphor”[4]  (a nurse log is a fallen tree in the forest that provides nourishment for other plants). Under this scenario, the institutional labor movement’s primary function is to trans- fer resources from organized, dues-paying members to new initiatives like the Fight for $15 campaigns that can rapidly improve conditions for broad sections of the working class without the hassle and difficulty of building a permanent workplace organization. The problem with this, of course, is that it fails to leave behind the type of organic working-class insti- tutions that can nurture leadership and a sense of collective power. At best, the end result is hollowed-out structures like those unions created by administrative fiat to “represent” home health care and family daycare workers.[5]

One alternative to this approach is what journalist Rich Yeselson has called “fortress unionism”6: Defend the remaining bastions of high-density unionism, strengthen existing union locals, build coalitions with other social movements, and then, “Wait for workers to say they’ve had enough.” This is not unlike the characters in On the Beach who wanted to believe that the radioactive clouds would dissipate before they got to them. Defending collective bargaining where it is still viable is a necessary but not sufficient response to the crisis. “Fortress unionism” as a strategy would merely replicate on a much smaller scale the post-war labor movement’s acquiescence to a non-union South after the defeat of Operation Dixie in 1946-1947.

This is the paradox of the American labor movement trapped in a dying collective bar- gaining regime. On the one hand, its very existence is an affront to the neoliberal consensus that views any effort to intervene in the market as parasitic rent-seeking. Its very survival requires that it mobilize workers to confront massive political and economic power, and the threat of that mobilization is what focuses the organized power of capital against it. On the other hand, on a day-to-day basis, the labor movement must deal with the quotidian concerns of its dues-paying members. This is the world of compromise and contract enforcement, of shift schedules and work boot reimbursements, and of defending the guilty so the innocent will not be harassed. They used to call this stuff industrial democracy but now it just befuddles and bores those staffers and “leaders” who never worked in a union shop or experienced what it is like to be a shop steward coming into work in the morning and seeing ten coworkers waiting by the time clock.

The growth of alt-labor worker centers and similar organizations offers some hope as groups such as the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance evolve from foundation-funded “set- tlement house-style” centers that treat workers as clients to membership-driven organizations intent on building worker power. They may very well develop new models that embed worker organizations into workplaces without relying on the legal entailments and formalities

of the collective bargaining regime. But most workers are not willing to sign up for a lifetime of guerrilla warfare. They want security, respect, and enforceable rights and conditions. It certainly makes for great visuals when fifty immigrant construction workers take the day off and picket the boss’ house when they are robbed of their overtime pay, but, I can assure you, most would rather pay union dues so that they could file a grievance under an enforceable labor contract.

What does all this portend for the future of the AFL-CIO? The Federation is being riven by barely acknowledged ideological debates. The dispute over the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline construction projects exposed the fault lines between those who saw labor’s future as linked to a partnership with capital in an expansionist and extractive economy model and those who saw the potential in a labor movement aligned with the advocates for a planned and regulated green economy. The 2016 Democratic primaries also heightened the contradictions between those who have accepted the neoliberal world order as inevitable versus those who want to build a new social democratic alternative to neoliberalism,  and  the  Trump  administration will certainly intensify these differences. So far, the AFL-CIO has not proven to be a good forum in which to hold these debates. It has taken a hands-off approach and tried to sweep the contradictions under the table. But these contradictions persist nonetheless. They show up in debates over who to support for DNC chair and in the growth of informal caucuses of the left, right, and center. The decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growth of these tendencies based on very different visions of the role of labor in the age of Trump can only accelerate the demise of a Federation model that was crafted in different times for different purposes.

In addition to the ideological pressures, the AFL-CIO is facing a huge financial crunch that will be made worse as the large public-sector unions reduce expenses in anticipation of the loss of agency fee revenue under a new Friedrichs decision. The Federation may soon no longer be able to afford its penthouse terrace overlooking the White House.

But there is something to be said for labor unity, especially in a time of crisis. Many of the central labor councils and state labor federa- tions play a vital role in bringing together the best and the brightest, supporting workers in struggle and engaging in ground-level political mobilization. Compared with the one-party states that characterize most unions, even many of the progressive ones, these structures allow leaders and activists to escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns. If there is to be a real debate about labor’s future, it has to be within structures like these.

If nothing else, this would ensure that the debate would take place within organic structures of leaders connected and accountable to real constituencies and capable of committing organizational resources to a common program. One of the temptations afflicting many in the nominal left is to substitute their own prescriptions for the kind of programmatic unity that can only emerge from such a process. There is no shortage of ideas, many of them quite good, about what the labor movement ought to be doing next. What is needed is not more good ideas but a unified left pole that can give life to a common plan for a revitalized labor movement. This can only happen if key national and local labor organizations are at the table from the beginning of the discussion and feel like they own the outcomes.

There will probably be an AFL-CIO until the radioactive clouds envelop the last outposts of unionism. But time is running short for those who would like to see the AFL-CIO as a catalyst for a revitalized labor movement. To move forward, the Federation must embrace the “spirit of 1995” and acknowledge that we are in deep crisis and need an open and wide-ranging debate about solutions. This must involve a recognition that a revitalized labor movement needs a new vision of politics and a commitment to shift resources toward transformational programs such as single-payer health care, green infrastructure development, and expanding the public sector to support collective bar- gaining goals while building new relationships with social movements and working-class constituencies. There are certainly leaders, staffers, and activists at all levels of the labor movement who recognize the urgency for change. As we deal with the fallout from the disastrous elections and prepare for the AFL-CIO’s upcoming quadrennial convention, this a good time to begin.

One more thing about On the Beach. At the very end, the camera scans the deserted streets of Melbourne, Australia and settles on a Salvation Army poster. “There is still time,” it says. . . .


1. See Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, “Labor Party Time? Not Yet,” 2012, available at http://thelaborparty.org/d_lp_time.htm.

2. Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/23/385843576/50-years-of-shrinkingunion-membership-in-one-map.

3. Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/big-laborunions-step-up-presidential-election-spending-1476783002.

4. Harold Meyerson, “The Seeds of a New LaborMovement,” American Prospect, October 30,2014, available at http://prospect.org/article/labor-crossroads-seeds-new-movement.

5. For further discussion of this tension, see Jane McAlevey, “Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing,” New Labor Forum 25, no. 3 (2016): 87-89.

6. Rich Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism,” Democracy,Summer, 2013, available at http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/29/fortress-unionism/.Response to Mark Dudzic’s”The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Author Biography

Mark Dudzic is a long-time union activist and former national organizer of the Labor Party. He currently serves as national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare.

Response to Mark Dudzic’s “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Julie Kushner with Kitty Weiss Krupat

There are progressive trade unionists (from the AFL-CIO down to the shop floor) who are engaged in debate about the future of the labor movement—a movement that is struggling to regain its power to defend the rights of workers against the overwhelming force of capital and corporate dominance. For over forty years, I have been part of those debates, as has Mark Dudzic. I began reading his article, “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach’” but almost stopped dead after his opening gambit, an apocalyptic vision from the film On the Beach as a metaphor for the AFL-CIO— all washed up and “awaiting its own demise . . .” But I read on and found myself in agreement with Dudzic on several points. That said, I think, in the main, his conclusions are unbalanced or unfair, dismissing too freely the complexities and contradictions inherent in any organization structured as a federation with voluntary membership.

His narrative begins in 1955, with another metaphor of sorts—the establishment of the AFL- CIO in a building overlooking the White House. What emerges is a picture of the AFL-CIO as a disembodied structure—an imposing marble building with a professional staff and a “marriage” of convenience with the Democratic Party. Largely absent from this picture are unions and the workers they represent. From this limited perspective, Dudzic places the burden of survival on the AFL-CIO, without fully considering the role of its affiliates or examining the policies, prac- tices, and actual campaigns carried out by individual unions and their members. I believe this is a common weakness in labor analysis.

Rightly, Dudzic warns against the danger of divisions within the AFL-CIO on ideological or political grounds, but he overlooks the impor- tant role the Federation plays in bringing unions together to support one another’s organizing or collective bargaining campaigns. He does not mention the enormous resources provided by the Federation, including statewide Leadership Institutes that bring union leaders together across jurisdictional lines to debate critical labor issues. He urges labor activists to “escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns” without reference to Working America, a community affiliate of the Federation that gives non-union workers opportunities to organize around such issues as health care, education, and housing.

We have to wait until the final paragraphs of “On the Beach” to learn something about the important work going on at state federations and central labor councils. Dudzic leaves the impres- sion that these labor bodies are somehow separate from the AFL-CIO. In fact, they are directly char- tered by the AFL-CIO, and many are financed by the Federation in the form of “Solidarity Grants.” These grants help to support the development of labor–community alliances around the country that have resulted in such campaigns as the Fight for $15. In his discussion of alt-labor groups, he points to the Taxi Workers Alliance as a prime example, failing to note that the Alliance is a char- tered member of the AFL-CIO, the first “non-tra- ditional” union of independent contractors in the Federation.

I share Dudzic’s desire for labor unity around a progressive social and political agenda, and I think his critique of the alliance between labor and government is a cogent one. But I also think it is unrealistic to suggest that we ignore the main- stream political arena. Dudzic carefully explains how the alliance has led labor into the neoliberal establishment, but he sidesteps the issue that immediate and constant pressure to save members’ jobs has often driven individual unions into the conservative camp on particular issues such as the environment or trade. I wish Dudzic had spent more time contemplating long-term solutions to that problem, rather than condemning unions for their failures to unite around a left political agenda. I also wish he had noted unions, such as the Utility Workers, who are committed to job creation through Blue-Green alliances and investments in infrastructure development as well as in education and training to help workers transition from old jobs to new ones. Dudzic’s failure to recognize the significant accomplishments of labor through the Working Families Party is also a serious omission.

I do not want to whitewash the weaknesses in labor’s political work. We have failed to convince union members to vote in their own interests, and that is a bottom line. Nevertheless, political action is a necessary part of our work, which can result in important benefits for workers. The 2016 Verizon strike is a good example. Because of its relation- ship to the Democratic Party, labor was able to call upon then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to facilitate a settlement that added 1,300 new jobs and created the first contracts at several Verizon stores—all without concessions on job security and flexibility. The appointment of a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration allowed university workers to regain rights to organize they had lost in the Bush era.

Dudzic suggests that low union density in Wisconsin and Indiana was the enabling factor in allowing state governments to dismantle organiz- ing and bargaining rights in the public sector. I do not think density can be isolated as the factor in that or any other labor struggle. We have to give the Koch brothers some credit. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates poured money and resources into the Wisconsin fight. Unions from around the country came together in the greatest show of labor soli- darity in recent memory. But the combined power of the national labor movement was no match for the power of accumulated capital in the hands of the Koch brothers.

Ultimately—and I am sure Mark Dudzic would agree—we need to encourage and stand with those of our members who are ready to persist and resist. More challenging and more difficult, we need to develop effective ways to engage with, and change the minds of, those members who allow race, gender, homophobia, and fear of difference to divide us. I certainly agree with him that wide-ranging debate is a necessary first step in that direction.

Author Biographies

Julie Kushner is the director of UAW-9A, a region that encompasses New England, parts of New York, and Puerto Rico. In this capacity, she is a member of the International UAW Executive Board.

Kitty Weiss Krupat, a union organizer and labor educator, recently retired as an associate director of the Murphy Institute. Her publications include Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance, co-authored with Patrick McCreery.


Mark Dudzic Respondes

Julie Kushner rightfully stresses the many impor- tant things that individual unions are doing to “defend the rights of workers against the over- whelming force of capital.” However, the intent of my essay was to focus on the prospects for the future of the AFL-CIO in light of the continuing decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growing differences among the national unions that make up the federation (her reference to the Utility Workers’ excellent work in promot- ing a Blue-Green Alliance in contrast to more conservative approaches taken by other unions exposes one of those fault lines).

Kushner agrees that the AFL-CIO has diffi- culty functioning as a unified working-class voice because of its federation structure, mak- ing it ill-suited to lead at a time when the con- tradictions with capital have intensified. This structure holds the AFL-CIO hostage to the effective veto of any action by any one of its affiliates. These limitations have convinced union leaders like Larry Cohen, former presi- dent of the Communications Workers of America, that “Too often a particular union’s stance may reflect a private employer’s growth plans, not the general good for working people” and that we should “. . . not necessarily focus on [labor] unity about political strategy.”1

Recent layoffs and reductions in programs at the AFL-CIO are indicative of the precarious- ness of its financial situation and are probably just the beginning of a painful process of finan- cial retrenchment. This situation creates its own death spiral. Will the affiliates continue to prop up the AFL-CIO as it sheds programs and services and is increasingly unable to rise to the challenge of opposing a sustained and concerted attack on the foundational rights to organize and bargain?

Moreover, the Federation has been unable to resolve the tension that Kushner identifies between transactional and transformative politics. The relentless drive toward the lowest common denominator means that the long-term interests of the working class—precisely what a national labor organization should, in theory, be consti- tuted to promote—are often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. At a time when right-wing populism poses an existential threat to the principles and values of an independent labor movement, these compromises can prove disastrous.

I agree with Kushner that perhaps the most important raison d’être of the AFL-CIO is the nur-turing of solidarity, discussion, and labor unity at the local and regional level. Like Kushner, I am not ready to give up on the promise of a unified and activist national labor movement and believe that the institutional labor movement continues to be the source of the resources, organizing capacity, and constituency without which any progressive change is inconceivable.

But time is truly running short. And we are not well served by any perspective that seeks to minimize the extent of the crisis or paper over the internal differences. We must begin by rigorous  self-examination  and  debate  led  by leaders and activists who actually have a stake in the outcome. In the end, a newly revitalized labor movement in the United States may look very different than today’s AFL-CIO.


1. David Moberg, “This Is What Progressives—Especially Labor—Can Learn from Bernie Sanders’ Campaign,” In These Times, July 27,2016, available at http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19330/this_is_what_progressives_especially_labor_can_learn_from_bernie_sanderss_c.

White-Working Class in Action

White Working-Class Voters and the Future of Progressive Politics

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there have been hundreds of reflections written on the behavior, attitudes, needs, and prospects of the “white working class,” a segment of the population that will prove vital to any progressive coalition that stands for both social and economic justice. But what do we mean by "white working class"?

Read more

Unions Weigh in on the Dakota Access Pipeline

Here’s a roundup of recent union statements regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline.


Pro-DAPL Statements

The AFL-CIO proclaims “Dakota Access Pipeline Provides High-Quality Jobs” and offers its full support of pipeline construction as it is “ part of a comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, makes the United States more competitive and addresses the threat of climate change. Pipelines are less costly, more reliable and less energy intensive than other forms of transporting fuels, and pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers.”

AFL-CIO acknowledged the concern of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the following terms. Exerpt:

“We believe that community involvement in decisions about constructing and locating pipelines is important and necessary, particularly in sensitive situations like those involving places of significance to Native Americans. However, once these processes have been completed, it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay. The Dakota Access Pipeline is providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs.”

Read the full AFL-CIO statement here.


LIUNA also released a statement of support for the pipeline construction project and included some angry words at other unions who have chosen to release statements of solidarity with the protestors.

Delegates unanimously passed a resolution condemning the attacks on the livelihoods of LIUNA members working on the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Communication Workers of America (CWA), National Nurses United (NNU), Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), and American Postal Workers Union (APWU) who have come out publicly against the pipeline. The resolution stated in this exerpt,

“These four unions have no equity in this pipeline, it will not put a single one of their members to work yet they choose to take food off of our members’ tables. A central tenet of the labor movement has always been that when it comes to a project in which you have no equity at stake, you either support it or remain silent. We look forward to reciprocating the “solidarity” shown to LIUNA members by these unions.”

Read the full LIUNA statement here.


No DAPL Statements

The Service Employees International Union issued the following statement in support of the Standing Rock Sioux’s efforts to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from disturbing their sacred lands and burial grounds and to avoid the threat of contaminating the Missouri River which provides the Tribes’ drinking water. Exerpt:

“Historical disregard for low income communities and communities of color, including those where many SEIU members live and work, has subjected them to toxic air pollution and contaminated waterways for decades. In these communities, asthma and other respiratory ailments caused by toxic air and poisonous toxins such as lead in the water supply, affect our children’s health and ability to thrive. As the nation’s largest healthcare union, we stand with the growing movement of environmental organizations, businesses, students, parents and others demanding cleaner air and water and to address the growing threat of climate change for the health and safety of our families and communities. As a union of service employees deeply committed to making sure all work is valued and respected, we know that workers employed by the fossil fuel industry are caught in the middle. SEIU members recognize the importance of these jobs for these workers and their families and we demand that our government protect all workers whose lives and livelihoods are impacted by a shift away from fossil fuels. Our government must make the needed investments into building a new clean economy, including a just transition of workers from the fossil fuel workforce, by investing in clean energy and rebuilding and repairing much of our nations aging infrastructure, including existing pipelines which are in great need of repair.  We will fight for an economy and democracy in which working families can live and work in a clean environment with good jobs for all.”

Read the full SEIU statement here.

National Nurses United has released a statement in support of the federal government’s construction halt and called for a permanent end to the project. Exerpt:

“We commend the leaders and members of the Standing Rock Sioux, the many First Nation allies who have joined them, and the environmentalists and other supporters who have participated in the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. The decision of the Departments of Justice, Army and Interior is a direct result of the efforts of the pipeline opponents who have taken this courageous stand on behalf of all of us,” said NNU Co-President Jean Ross, RN.

Read the full NNU statement here.


And the CWA Committee on Human Rights also released a statement of support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Exerpt:

“CWA, through our Committee on Human Rights, stands with working people and against corporate greed, whether we’re fighting for clean water in Flint, Mich., against bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would hurt U.S. jobs and communities, or the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to safeguard their community.
The labor movement is rooted in the simple and powerful idea of solidarity with all struggles for dignity, justice and respect. CWA will continue to fight against the interests of the 1% and corporate greed and firmly stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against the environmental and cultural degradation of their community.”

Read the full CWA statement here.


It also should be noted that the AFL-CIO constituency group, the Labor Coalition for Community Action, has released a statement in support of #NoDAPL. Exerpt:

“We remain committed to fighting the corporate interests that back this project and name this pipeline “a pipeline of corporate greed.” We challenge the labor movement to strategize on how to better engage and include Native people and other marginalized populations into the labor movement as a whole. Lastly, we applaud the many labor unions working to create a new economy with good green jobs and more sustainable employment opportunities for all. We also encourage key stakeholders — labor unions including the building trades, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others who would be impacted — to come together to discuss a collective resolution.”

The Labor Coalition for Community Action includes the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Pride at Work. You can read the full LCCA statement here.


The Black-Labor-Left Alliance in the Neoliberal Age

The report, A Future for Workers: A Contribution from Black Labor, brings together the perspectives and voices of significant black American trade union leadership to contribute to the important conversation concerning ways forward for labor and allied movements in these perilous times. The collective authors of the document, which was released in July 2015, bring a wealth of experience and standing in the trade union movement to ask: “What is it that workers need and want? How can this then become not the ‘special interests’ of an isolated labor movement, but a robust agenda that can rally the bottom 99 percent to collective action?” Their responses seek with mixed success to advance our strategic thinking with regard to building the broad movement necessary to “rally the bottom 99 percent.”

Those questions have occupied the labor-left for decades, at least since the systematic business attack on unions and social wage policies became visible in the 1980s. These issues drove the insurgent mood that grew out of the anti-concessions and NAFTA fights in the 1980s and early 1990s and the organizational expressions that emerged from the cauldron of those fights. The latter included the effort to build a politically independent Labor Party centered in the union movement, the more electoral, less specifically class-based approach of the New Party and then Working Families Party, the sometimes quasi-syndicalist styles of activist organizing and politics associated with the “new unionism,” and most of all the sea change in the AFL-CIO represented in the New Voices alliance embodied by John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson—who were swept into the Federation’s leadership in 1995. Of course, many, if not most of the authors of A Future for Workers were involved in some or all of those currents, and the analyses and strategic thinking they present reflect that experience.

The document has three components–an assessment of the political situation that confronts us; an extensive list of policy and program recommendations in the areas of Jobs and Economic Development, the Environment, Criminal Justice, Distribution of Wealth, Education, Tolerance and Equity, and the Labor Movement; and a more general argument about the approach necessary to build a movement capable of winning those objectives. A Future for Workers underscores the massive increases in inequality that have occurred since the 1970s and that have intensified since the 2007/08 financial crash. The policy recommendations are, for the most part, initiatives that would make life demonstrably better for working people and the society as a whole and that could be readily adopted with only a change in government priorities and the prevailing terms of political debate. Most of those proposals are in the vein of general policy directions rather than nuts and bolts initiatives, and they are in line with the broad current of progressive policy proposals that have been circulating for some time now. Among labor activists, they would not be controversial.

The specific reform proposals are less significant than their source, however. Especially in light of the controversy sparked in the past year by Black Lives Matter activists concerning the relation between black and working-class political agendas, a statement from black American labor leaders articulating a perspective that connects racial injustice and broader economic inequalities suggests a programmatic and interpretive framework that could help bridge tensions and divisions that only benefit corporate power and the political right. A Future for Workers points to challenges we face in generating and sustaining the broad solidarities necessary to turn the political tide in a direction that makes the interests and basic concerns of working people the top priority. It likens black workers to the “canary in the mine” because they commonly are hit earliest and especially hard by economic crises and assaults; yet what happens to them as the most vulnerable workers will before long affect those somewhat less vulnerable, and so on until all workers and our living and working conditions are under full-scale attack.

In linking race and class inequalities, A Future for Workers follows in a tradition of black trade union activism that reaches back to A. Philip Randolph and the black-labor-left alliance that was a crucially important force in American politics through the first three decades after World War II. In its understanding of what those links are and what we can do about them, however, it also reflects the degree to which neoliberal notions of equality and social justice have in crucial and unhelpful ways compromised the terms of working-class resistance to injustice. For example, embrace of the presumptions of contemporary anti-racist politics leads the document’s authorsto contend that increasing diversity in the union movement is pivotal for reversing labor’s decline, even though both membership and leadership have become more diverse precisely in the period of steepest decline. Moreover, it is unclear even what a “genuine national dialogue on race and racism” could be, much less how it could proceed and what impact it could have on congealing a broadly based working-class movement.

Randolph and his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led the original March on Washington Movement that pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to issue Executive Order 8802 barring discriminatory employment practices among defense contractors and federal agencies. The 1944 volume, What the Negro Wants, a collection of analyses by prominent leftist, centrist, and conservative black public figures edited by historian Rayford Logan, indicated a consensus among black racial advocates across the ideological spectrum that a strong industrial union movement and expansion of social wage policies were essential for black Americans’ continuing success in pursuit of racial justice and equality.[i] That alliance was crucial in winning the major victories of the civil rights movement–from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was pivotal, through Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council (NALC), in mobilization for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, and in the struggle for state and federal Fair Employment Practices legislation. The alliance was also instrumental in the struggle for social wage policies such as Medicare and the War on Poverty.

In 1966 Randolph and the AFL-CIO’s new A. Philip Randolph Institute published A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, anchored by the objectives of reducing unemployment to less than 3 percent by 1968 and poverty to no more than 1 or 2 percent by 1975.[ii] The Freedom Budgetcalled for: increase of the federal minimum wage to a level that would lift the working poor out of poverty, provision of guaranteed income above the poverty level for those unable to work, guaranteed access to affordable, good-quality housing for all, access to proper medical care for all, as well as educational opportunity for all “up to the limits of their abilities and ambitions, at costs within their means,” expansion of funding for the public sector to repair and improve physical infrastructure, maintainenance of adequate environmental standards, and expansion of public transportation.[iii]

Randolph had pointed out at the March on Washington that the “Civil Rights Revolution is not confined to the Negro; nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty…Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white? We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education–all forms of education.”[iv] In publicly introducing the Freedom Budget he stressed that, although blacks would benefit disproportionately from its proposed interventions, the Budget should not be seen as a civil rights initiative. He noted that “while most Negroes live in poverty and desperation, it is not true that most of the poor are Negroes. We must not forget that 75 percent of the poor are white. No less than Negroes are they denied adequate income, decent housing, quality education, sufficient health care and security.”[v]

Arguably, that mid-1960s moment was the apogee of the social-democratic black-labor-left alliance as the social movement that Randolph and others had struggled for so long to build and sustain. The Freedom Budget can be seen, although only in retrospect, as a last-ditch effort to assert a politics based on commitment to full employment against an emerging Democratic liberalism that began moving away from that commitment in the Kennedy administration, when policymakers began to disconnect both poverty and racial inequality from the larger dynamics of American capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget initiative did not gain traction, and by the middle of the 1970s the germs of what would later become neoliberalism had begun to take shape. Our current political situation–including the dominant perspectives on the relation of race and class in American life and politics—has evolved from that shift, which solidified as a new regime based on the absolute priority of business- and investor-class interests under the Reagan and Clinton presidencies.

One difference is that today it is no longer true that the poor are 75 percent white. The waves of immigration initially made possible by the Act of 1965 have changed the racial make-up of the American population, with the result that in addition to the over 18 million white and the over 11 million black poor, around 5 million Latinos and 2 million Asians and Pacific Islanders are living in poverty.  Which makes it even more urgent that we recognize the need to galvanize a broad political alliance capable of shifting the center of gravity in American politics to give priority to the interests, needs, and concerns of working people and their families—who are the substantial majority of the American population–of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and every immigration status. Randolph and the black labor-left of his time proceeded from a political understanding that racial inequality is most consequentially rooted in the workings of capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget advanced that view, for example, through an argument concerning the disparate impacts of increases in unemployment, which, it notes, tend to be concentrated among the most vulnerable populations.

These would be the older workers; the young people seeking to enter the labor force for the first time; the semi-skilled and relatively unskilled; the nonwhites rather than the whites, and the women rather than the men, insofar as discrimination against nonwhites and women remained, or because discrimination during the past century and longer has prevented nonwhites and women on the average from having the degree of training and education which others have. But to say that this would be the reason why they became unemployed would be like saying that, if half of the people in a lifeboat died from exposure because they were not as strong as the others in the boat, the cause was the condition of their health, not the shipwreck. Likewise if there were too few lifeboats, and the strong kept the weak out….

To state all this in a different way, the fact that Negroes tend to be the first fired and the last hired when jobs are insufficient should not prevent us from recognizing that this phenomenon, so central to the racial problem, would not exist if there were jobs for all. This, of course, does not deny the need for anti-discrimination efforts; excessive unemployment is no excuse for discrimination in the imposition of the evil.[vi]

A very different perspective on pursuit of racial justice has arisen since the 1990s. As with any ideology, one element of neoliberalism’s triumph, its broad internalization as unreflected-upon common sense, has been its success in reinterpreting the past in ways that read its worldview back and forth across historical eras as the deepest truth of social life. That is one mechansim through which the infamous TINA–There Is No Alternative –dictum is implanted and reproduced. In light of that dynamic, it is significant that the dominant interpretive tendency in both scholarship and commentary concerning black American politicsstresses celebration of black “agency” and reduces black political history to either inspirational stories of individual triumph over obstacles,accounts of “resistance” to an essentially unchanging, transhistorical racism or white supremacy or pursuit of fundamentally quietistic goals such as “autonomy,” “community,” and “family.” This perspective severs black politics from its historical and social contexts and to that extent fits comfortably with and reinforces–in line with Margaret Thatcher’s quip that “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women andthere are families”[vii]–the neoliberal denial of historical specificity, the significance of political institutions, and, most of all, class dynamics.

In particular, a revisionist understanding of the heroic period of postwar black political struggle airbrushes out its class character and reinvents both the civil rights insurgency and the Jim Crow social order without their political-economic foundations. The reinvention projects instead a purely moralistic conflict between racism and its victims, a narrative of generic black suffering and occasionally overcoming, sprinkled with encomia to the accomplishments and magnetism of larger than life, great black individuals.[viii] That could not be more fundamentally at odds with the vision articulated by Randolph and the black labor-left. Yet it is perfectly compatible with neoliberalism’s market-based moral order of a world made up of good people and bad people and in which the social collectivity is replaced by voluntarism and self-reliance led by exemplary individuals.

In the same vein, during the last decade or so an antiracist politics that stresses exposing and challenging apparent racial disparities has risen to the fore in public discourse as mediated through the corporate mass information industry, including the blogosphere. This politics, as exemplified most recently in the current associated with the Black Lives Matter slogan, rests on a racial expressivism that is at least evocative of the race-first Black Power nationalism that emerged from the defeat of the black labor-left alliance in the late 1960s. And, like Black Power, it is more performative than strategic. It also insists, perhaps even more emphatically than Black Power radicalism, that all apparent injustices experienced by black Americans must be understood to stem most fundamentally from reified notions of racism or white supremacy–ideas stripped from historical context and treated as forces capable of acting to produce outcomes in the world.

But the black political insurgency of the 1950s and 1960s did not battle an abstraction like racism. It certainly congealed around a commitment to improving black Americans’ circumstances.  However, the objectives that mobilized and sustained that insurgent politics as a movement were concrete and historically specific: from challenging segregation of public transit in Montgomery and in public accommodations generally in Greensboro and elsewhere, to the ongoing fight for legislative and judicial prohibition of codified racial discrimination in employment, education, housing (including state enforcement of nominally private discrimination, as in restrictive real estate covenants that depended on legal sanction of housing discrimination and the federal government’s subsidy of the real estate industry’s racialized system of valuation and mortgage brokers’ racialized system of financing) and other areas, as well as for federal civil rights and voting rights legislation.  As Randolph and others made clear, the movement’s objectives were not reducible only to specifically racial issues because most black Americans are working class, and therefore anything that advances the interests of the working class is pertinent for them.

As Randolph observed, a focus on disparities without simultaneous attention to the larger structures of inequality and dispossession is self-defeating. That criticism should have more force now than it had then because overall inequality has intensified exponentially, and challenging disparities does not address that intensifying inequality.[ix] Instead, contemporary anti-racist politics proceeds from a notion of justice based on the premise that social and economic costs and benefits should be distributed on a principle of racial parity, which is consistent with the liberal anti-racist ideal of genuine equality of opportunity. That view sidesteps the class-based political vision articulated by the black labor-left, and in some cases actively rejects it as a racially inauthentic, “white” or “brocialist” expression of white supremacist privilege, and thus a discourse of oppression. As I have pointed out elsewhere, according to that anti-racist perspective, the society could be just if one percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the resources so long as 12 percent of the one percent were black, half were female, and so on. That is the quintessence of what we might call the left-neoliberal ideal of social justice–sharp and intensifying inequality combined with (more or less sincere and enthusiastic) commitment to diversity. [x]

Randolph, his and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s associate Bayard Rustin and others also understood that attacking the larger dynamics of capitalist inequality requires a broadly- based social and political movement anchored to a social-democratic agenda. That sort of movement can be built only on the basis of solidarities grounded and cultivated on perception of shared social position, experience, and objectives, and that perception can take hold only in the context of common struggle for shared goals. However, a politics that elevates challenging disparities over fighting for broad social wage policy and redistribution along social-democratic lines is incompatible with the project of building those solidarities. And that incompatibility stems ultimately from the fact that anti-disparitarian anti-racism is not an alternative to a class politics; it is a class politics. It is just not a working-class politics.[xi]

In reasserting the project of that historic black labor-left politics, A Future for Workers can encourage us to consider carefully the nature of the system and regime we are up against, how the structures of intensifying inequality are reproduced, and in particular, how it makes sense to think about the relation between racial and class inequalities and how race and class dynamics–including how we think about race and class dynamics– can affect our sense of the political options available to us and the directions we should pursue.



[i] Rayford Logan, ed., What the Negro Wants (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).

[ii] For a  very good discussion of the Freedom Budget, its genesis and the politics around it, and the defeat of the campaign for it, see Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget For All Americans (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).

[iii] A. Philip Randolph Institute, A “Freedom Budget” For All Americans: Budgeting Our Resources 1965-1975 to Achieve “Freedom From Want,” (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1966), 2-3.

[iv] “Address of A. Philip Randolph at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in For Jobs and Freedom: Selected Speeches and Writings of A. Philip Randolph (Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 261-262.

[v]For Jobs and Freedom, 286-287.

[vi]Freedom Budget, 29-30.

[vii]Margaret Thatcher interview, Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987, p. 18, at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689  .

[viii] I do not intend to suggest that the dynamic generating this cultural hegemony is orchestrated, though it sometimes is advanced through self-conscious propaganda, as in films like the pro-charter school documentary, Waiting for Superman and its fictional counterpart Won’t Back Down. Perhaps more meaningfully, though, the ideology travels through more naïve repetition of common sense narratives. I have discussed the role of widely disseminated black-themed popular culture in illustrating and propagating neoiberal common sense dressed up as racial pride and authenticity in several essays in recent years. See Adolph Reed, Jr.: “Three Tremes,” nonsite.org, July 4, 2011; “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why,” nonsite.org, February 25, 2013; “The Real Problem with Selma: It Doesn’t Help Us Understand the Civil Rights Movement, the Regime It Challenged, or even the Significance of the Voting Rights Act,” nonsite.org, January 26, 2015 and “The Strange Career of the Voting Rights Act: Selma in Fact and Fiction,” New Labor Forum 24 (Spring 2015): 32-41 and “The James Brown Theory of Black Liberation,” Jacobin # 18 (Summer 2015).

[ix] The late historian, Michael B. Katz provides a useful and accessible account of the evolution of urban and metropolitan racial and economic inequality since World War II that decomposes the historical and political-economic processes driving it in Why Don’t American Cities Burn? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[x] Adolph Reed, Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum 22 (Winter 2013): 53-54. Also see Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[xi]See, e.g.,  editorials on “Reparations and Other Right-Wing Fantasies,” at nonsite.org, February 11, 2016.


Author Biography

Adolph Reed Jr. Reed is aprofessor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is completing a book on the decline and transformation of the U.S. Left since World War II, and recently co-authored, with Mark Dudzic, “The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States” in the Socialist Register.