After Michigan: A Proposed Path Forward For The Labor Movement

Emergency Labor Network

Enactment of right-to-work (for less) legislation in Michigan was not only a momentous blow to that state’s trade unionists but also to the entire organized labor movement and the working class. By way of response, it should certainly be an occasion for galvanizing labor’s troops, allies and supporters in demonstrating an intention to mount an all-out fightback struggle. What better way to respond to this kick in the teeth to working people than organizing a march on Lansing in support of the demand to rescind Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act and with it the law rammed through the Michigan legislature under the authority of 14(b). As a key part of this, the question should be squarely put to every one of Michigan’s state legislators ─ Democrats and Republicans: “Do you support  recession?” and each should be held accountable for the answer given.

When on December 11, 2012 ─ a day that will certainly live in infamy ─ Michigan became the 24th state in the country to adopt “right-to-work,” it sparked a long overdue and urgently needed debate on the future of the labor movement. Two things we know for sure, especially after this latest defeat: first, corporate America is out for blood in its campaign to weaken, undermine and destroy the labor movement and, second, labor’s fightback strategy to date has been inadequate to stem the tide and beat back the assaults.

The Emergency Labor Network (ELN) earnestly wishes to be part of this debate and we very much hope that our views will be considered.

We believe that a four-fold approach is needed: mass action on a scale we have not seen before, political action in a way we have not conducted it before, forging relationships with our community allies and partners to a degree we have not sufficiently done before, and unifying the labor movement as an indispensable step if we are to move forward effectively on behalf of the working class.

Let’s explore each of these as a strategy that in combination can not only beat back the attacks against us but enable labor to take the offensive in building a discrimination-free, full-employment society in which all receive good wages, quality health care, retirement security, and a society in which our people can live in peace, not with the endless wars and occupations pursued by the Democrats and Republicans.

Mass Action

We start with the proposition that even in its present crippled state, labor has available to it any number of weapons that can be employed to bring to heel the reactionary forces bent on our destruction.

We had an indication of this in the great struggle Wisconsin workers waged during the early months of 2011, when over 100,000 took to the streets, occupied the state Capitol building, and raised the level of the fight to such an apex that the South Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, passed a resolution calling for exploration of the feasibility of a general strike. What was needed in the critical March days of 2011 was for the entire labor movement to express its solidarity with Wisconsin workers not only by resolutions of support but by organizing a “March on Madison,” and an occupation of that city, which could possibly have mobilized such gigantic numbers as to turn the tide. Unfortunately, this golden opportunity was missed and instead the ill-fated electoral strategy was adopted.

Think back to the August 1981 PATCO strike, which Reagan broke by firing 11,345 air-traffic controllers out of 13,000. To its everlasting shame, labor let him get away with this, when a united movement could have shut down airports all over the country and brought the nation to its knees, with the fired controllers reinstated.

Here was the difference: Corporate America, whose interests Reagan ruthlessly served, showed its readiness to use its iron heel to throttle labor, while labor held back and allowed the union busters to get away with it.

In Michigan, right-to-work was rushed through in violation of all the established procedures, which include committee hearings and legislatively mandated open meetings. This is just another example, and there are many others, of the lengths the anti-union forces are prepared to go to crush labor and drive down the wages, benefits and working conditions of millions of workers. If we in labor do not match or exceed their resolve with resolve of our own in these daunting showdown battles with capital ─ if instead we play by the corporate rules in each situation ─ we will lose every time.

In response to the Michigan vote, Rev. Jesse Jackson proposed a march on Washington. The ELN supports this proposal, as we do with the march on Lansing, with the understanding that if it is called, it will not be just “another march,” but will have as its goal to mobilize millions, with every effort made to reach out not only to our allies and partners but also to the 90 million Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid beneficiaries. Such a demonstration should be planned with a program of action that will demonstrate to ruling circles that cutting these cherished programs will not be permitted. We are the majority and there is no reason in the world why the bi-partisan politicians should be given license to cut our earned benefits.

We also need to be out in the streets in cities and states throughout the country demanding: NO TO UNION BUSTING AND RIGHT-TO-WORK! RESCIND TAFT-HARTLEY! NO TO GUTTING SAFETY NET PROGRAMS! MEDICARE FOR ALL! EXPAND MEDICAID IN ALL STATES! PROTECT RETIREMENT SECURITY! REDIRECT WAR SPENDING TO FUND HUMAN NEEDS!

Political Action

Once again, in the immediate aftermath of the November 6 election, many of those politicians elected with labor support are turning on us with a vengeance. Leading Democrats in the House of Representatives ─  Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn ─ have expressed a willingness to significantly cut earned benefits. In the Dec. 1-2 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Nancy Pelosi is quoted as saying, “Everybody knows that we have to have cuts, we have to have growth, we have to have revenue. So why are we stalling?”

Pelosi is expressing the dominant sentiment of Wall Street, certainly not the sentiments of the great majority of the population, who oppose cuts (according to the December 15, 2012 Gallup Poll, 74% of respondents oppose cuts to Medicare as a way of coping with the deficit/debt problem).

President Obama has several times made clear his readiness to support major cuts in the safety net so long as he gets increased revenue along with it.

Labor has made no headway in winning its top priorities under the Democratic administration. These include a jobs program that would put 25 million workers back to work; card check legislation; labor law reform; Medicare For All; trade agreements that guarantee enforceable workers’ rights, especially the right to collective bargaining and the right for workers to form unions of their choice in all the signatory countries; etc. This again underscores the need for a new kind of labor politics, one based on organizing as a class, not in coalition with the big business forces that control the Democratic Party. A first step is to run independent labor/community candidates for public office, which could help lay the groundwork for forming our own labor party, as the labor movements in other industrial countries have done.

As we go forward and ponder the Michigan experience, let us also keep in mind that it was the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947 that allows states to pass right-to-work laws. And let us never forget that when the struggle to defeat Taft-Hartley was reaching its climax, with the organized labor movement denouncing Taft-Hartley as a “slave labor law,” a majority of Congressional Democrats went right ahead and voted for it anyway!

Community Allies

It is crystal clear that labor cannot go it alone if it is to defend its interests and the interests of the working class as a whole. For this it needs to coalesce in a new way with communities of color, civil rights organizations, the women’s movement, the immigrant rights movement, unemployed workers councils, environmentalists, faith community, retiree formations, peace groups, the health care for all campaign, student groups, the LGBT movement, and other progressive forces. If, for example, there is to be a march on Washington, wouldn’t the best course be to bring representatives of all these groups together to join in the planning and have joint ownership of the event?

Unity

The right wing is famous for uniting all the reactionary forces to work their will. A comment in Common Dreams, reporting on what happened in Michigan, stated that “Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of now familiar right wing millionaires … have banded together to pass right-to work legislation in Michigan, the birthplace of the United Autoworkers.” While much of the Michigan labor movement came together in this struggle, the fact remains that nationally our movement is divided and this remains a costly detriment to rejuvenating and reinvigorating our ranks.

Given the gravity of the situation, it would seem that at the very least the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, National Education Association and other independent unions could form a council to advance the cause of a united labor front around issues and campaigns that all would agree to. The best thing that such a Council could do would be to call an “Emergency Congress of the U.S. Labor Movement” to plan a program of action that would permit the full power of labor and its allies to be brought to bear.

Conclusion

Mass action, political action, community alliances, and labor unity ─ these are the components of a strategy that we believe are needed to turn back the tide of reaction that will continue to sweep the country if we carry on with a “business as usual” approach. After all, we are faced with nothing less than a fight for survival of the labor movement. We can and must make the needed changes, and there is no time to lose in putting them into effect.

 

 

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