Thursday, January 08, 2009

Labor Leaders : Obama, We have your back

Labor Leader to Obama: "We Have Your Back; We Will Not
Let You Back Up!"

The African World

By Bill Fletcher, Jr., Executive

January 8, 2009 - The Black commentator, Issue 306

The president of the Maryland and DC AFL-CIO, Fred
Mason, had an idea. Following the electoral victory of
Barack Obama he found himself perplexed by the
enthusiastic, yet very unfocused, response of organized
labor as to what should happen next. While there was
optimism in the air, what was missing was real content.
But what was especially missing was any sort of public
display of both support AND concern by US workers for
an incoming Administration at a point of significant
economic and political crisis.

The traditional labor union response to incoming
Administrations, particularly those viewed as favorable
by and towards unions and workers, has tended to be
side-bar meetings where an agenda is discussed. These
behind-the- scenes gatherings might have worked when
unions were in a stronger position, but the diminishing
power of workers and unions has resulted in such
meetings having limited impact.

Mason, a long-time progressive, African American union
activist and leader, started suggesting a different
course of action. Why not have unions hold or sponsor
celebratory parades around the USA to make plain both
their support for President-elect Obama, but also the
important issues that the incoming Administration must
address that have a direct impact on working people?

Mason received two responses to his suggestion, which
is what makes this commentary a 'good news/bad news'
piece. On the one hand, there were few takers on the
idea of nation-wide rallies. True to form, there were
no explicit objections raised to the suggestion;
instead, silence. The failure to respond is
illustrative of the crisis facing organized labor and
the challenge to overcome it. A movement that has over-
relied on lobbying and small meetings has strayed light
years from the notion that a movement is disruptive and
challenging. A social justice movement cannot always
play by the rules, but has to call upon its members and
supporters to make their voices heard - publicly and
defiantly. In fact, mobilizing our base(s) is often the
only weapon we have in order to win in the court of
public opinion.

The silence that Mason encountered represented
something far more dangerous than what at first glance
could appear to be timidity. Rather, the silence was
the result of years of defeat that have been
rationalized away. The decline of the union movement,
largely the result of mega-economic factors (for
example, globalization) combined with vicious political
assaults (such as the mass firings of the air traffic
controllers in 1981 by then President Ronald Reagan),
is as well the result of internal problems that inhibit
many leaders and members from understanding the global
economic and political battlefield on which we operate.
Thus, when Mason suggested a nation-wide mobilization,
the leaders' collective silence in effect said the
following: 'If we can even mobilize our members - which
many of us think that we cannot - we run the risk of
antagonizing political and business leaders. If we
antagonize them, we will not be invited into meetings
and we will be condemned to the wilderness.'

What Mason recognizes, along with some other key union
leaders and activists, is that the union movement was
condemned to the wilderness a very long time ago by
political and business leaders in the USA. The problem
that the union movement confronts is how to change the
terms of the discussion and ensure that the voices of
the voiceless are heard on a national stage and can
actually shift reality.

Though Mason was unsuccessful with his first proposal -
and here comes the good news - he won support for 'Plan
B': a union contingent in the 56th Presidential
Inaugural Parade on January 20th under the banner
'America's Workers United for Change.' What makes this
contingent of more than 250 workers of particular
interest, in addition to its historical significance,
is that it brings together union leaders and activists
from the AFL-CIO unions, Change to Win, the National
Education Association, and constituency groups
affiliated with the AFL-CIO. In other words, despite a
painful split the union movement suffered in 2005,
Mason was able to bridge the divide and help
representatives from both sides, plus the independent
NEA, join together to convey critical messages to a
nation-wide audience:

Workers, through their unions welcome the election of
President Obama.

Workers, through their unions, are demanding immediate
action by the incoming Administration to support an
economy that works for all; equitable economic
development through the creation of GOOD JOBS - GREEN
JOBS; and creating GREAT PUBLIC SCHOOLS as a critical
to enhancing the participation of American workers in
the global economy.

Workers, through their unions, will support the
Administration in taking on the task of reforming our
healthcare system to provide healthcare for all.

Workers, through their unions and community allies must
demonstrate that they will prepare to support the
administration in meeting the great challenges ahead,
but that they are unwilling to retreat in the face of
the onslaught of employer attacks being felt, be they
the auto loan issue - which is a de facto attack on
auto workers - or the threats in state governments
across the country to layoff workers and cut back on
public services.

In this sense, this contingent is not the equivalent of
a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. While
union members can look at this contingent with pride
and see themselves after years of being treated as both
disposable and invisible, this contingent is not mainly
about making people feel good. This contingent, more
than anything else, is a public statement. Just as the
workers at Chicago's Republic Windows made a statement
in their takeover of the plant when Bank of America
initially cancelled loans and denied the workers the
compensation they were due, this labor contingent is
putting the incoming Administration on notice: workers
in the USA have had enough, and are not prepared to
fall any deeper into despair; further retreat is simply
not an option.

[ Executive Editor, Bill Fletcher,
Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy
Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica
Forum and co- author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis
in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice
(University of California Press), which examines the
crisis of organized labor in the USA.]


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