Don't Mourn—Reorganize!

Unlikely Alliances With Activists and Immigrants Help Unions Stage a Comeback

The contract deadline was nearing at the end of June when General Electric workers from Lynn, Massachusetts, decided to travel down to GE headquarters in Boston to demonstrate for wage increases, better pensions, and more job security. Forty middle-aged white guys from the International Union of Electronic Workers headed into town. There, as IUE local 201 president Jeff Crosby recalls, 'we saw this skinny kid in one of our t-shirts. Who was that guy? He couldn't be one of us—our average age is 55. Plus, he was wearing a mohawk.'

Turns out he was a puppeteer from the guerrilla theater group organized by Boston's Global Action Network—the umbrella formed in the wake of the Seattle WTO protests, which Crosby and tens of thousands of other trade unionists also joined. Back home in front of GE, the troupe performed a street skit featuring robotic execs with cell phones, 'and our guys thought it was hilarious.' The much touted 'blue-green alliance'—between organized labor and the grassroots groups it was once so suspicious of—was beginning to bear fruit.

This collaboration is just one of the marks of labor's resurgence. The era of defeat that began with the crushing of the Air-Traffic Controllers' Union in 1981 seems finally to be coming to a close. Strikes, though hardly always a sure thing, are once again proving viable, whether for janitors marching past cheering throngs in Los Angeles, actors demanding 'pay for play' from AT&T in New York, or 17,000 engineers in Seattle walking out at Boeing in the largest strike by private-sector professionals America has ever seen. But strikes and mass demonstrations are just the most visible forms of dissent. The act of forming a union remains, itself, a powerful protest against unbridled corporate power. With poverty increasingly "a matter of work, not just of unemployment, in the so-called booming economy," as labor scholar Steve Fraser puts it, labor has made a new push into the low-wage service sector, and that has meant reaching out to women and immigrants.

Though only 14 percent of workers belong to unions, the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 1999 showed the first increase in union membership in decades. In Los Angeles alone, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) signed up some 75,000 home-health-care workers—the largest number of workers organized in a single local campaign since 1941. This boost, coupled with community living-wage campaigns and more active alliances of nonunion workers such as taxi drivers and freelance artists, has positioned labor within the new and still inchoate, broad-based social justice movement—a place it dared not occupy a generation ago.

It's not just that when John Sweeney took over as president of the AFL-CIO four and a half years ago, he poured resources into organizing that labor hadn't seen in decades—creating the federation's first organizing department, initiating Union Summer to bring young people into the fold, and fostering rank-and-file leadership in the locals. Union activists around the country speak of a new openness in the bureaucratic behemoth. Even the entrenched traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party is beginning to be questioned by factions that just can't let Gore slide on the China trade bill. (There's no top-sanctioned participation planned for protests at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, but the Pennsylvania chapter of the AFL-CIO will be mobilizing for the Unity2000 rally before the Republican convention.)

In any case, because globalization has redefined corporate ownership, the nature of employment, what constitutes a workplace, and the workforce itself, labor has had to respond with innovative, even revolutionary strategies. "It's not the 1930s," explains Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Trade Union Program at Harvard. "You can't just stand outside the plant and leaflet. The work site might not be the place where the employer of record is. Janitors might work in a fancy office building, but it's a cleaning service that hired them; it's some payroll agency somewhere that hired the nurses in a hospital."

That's one reason that what longtime labor activist Lisa Fithian calls "the janitor model" has been so effective and so galvanizing. In their astonishing victory in Los Angeles last spring—which had repercussions in cities across the country—SEIU organized janitors into an industrywide attack, in which they often massed in the streets rather than straggling into pickets at particular buildings. Meanwhile, they developed community support in the churches and other institutions in the neighborhoods where the workers live, and pressured elected officials to rally around their cause. Throughout the campaign, they figured janitors as a symbol of the country's widening economic disparity. The idea that a worker's weekly pay for cleaning dozens of hotel rooms was less than what one such room costs to stay in for one night powerfully crystallized the issues at the core of the new movement against corporate greed. "And unions are still the only mechanism we have in this country to redistribute the wealth to those who actually do the work," says Fithian.

The point, increasingly, is not lost on professionals. "The ties of the middle class to capital are loosening," says scholar Stanley Aronowitz, citing new and resurgent unions among physicians, insurance agents, engineers, and others. "In the global economy, that sort of work is hanging, too, and professionals are being cast adrift as adjunct, part-time, and contingent workers." At the same time, he adds, many unionized public employees have elected progressive new leaderships after "a long period of being beat up on ideologically and at the bargaining table." As a professor at CUNY, Aronowitz is observing such change close-up: He's on the recently elected executive council of the faculty and staff union, which replaced a more conservative leadership that held power for more than two decades.

But by all accounts, the most momentous change in organized labor's strategy has been to embrace immigrants. Only 15 years ago, the AFL-CIO helped draft laws to penalize employers for hiring undocumented workers; now the federation is supporting amnesty for the estimated 6 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. "Organized labor has come to understand that immigrants are not taking away from the movement, but have the potential to add a great deal," says Maria Elena Durazo, president of Los Angeles's local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), which recently won a contract provision stating that an employee who is detained or deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for up to a year may return with full seniority to a job.

This new understanding is also beginning to extend to workers overseas. When the aerospace company Ametek announced that it will move 74 jobs from Wilmington, Massachusetts, to Reynosa, Mexico, later this summer, local 201 of the IUE responded by bringing a leader of the Mexican trade union movement to speak to the workers in Wilmington. "There wasn't an ounce of hostility," says local president Jeff Crosby. "It's not the Mexican workers taking those jobs; it's the company."

So, will the workers of the world unite at last? "It's one thing if your company is losing money or closing and you get laid off," says Crosby. "It's another if they're making billions of dollars and looking for cheap labor where people can't organize unions. That just pisses you off and makes you want to fight back together."

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