Friday, January 18, 2008

After twelve years: Where is that labor-intellectual alliance?

The following piece first appeared in the current issue of New Politics. Comments are invited.

By Herman Benson


Cheerleading is not enough. It’s time for those scholars, artists, and writers to take another look at what’s happening in our labor movement.

When John Sweeney defeated Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue to take over as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he proposed to lead the federation out of its doldrums. What resounded with promise was his call for “a reborn movement of American workers, ready to fight for social and economic justice … a new progressive voice in American life …changing the direction of American politics …a vibrant social movement, a democratic movement that speaks for all American workers.”

Sweeney’s program inspired an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the labor movement. Forty-three liberal and radical professionals, mostly from the universities, joined in a public manifesto proclaiming support for the new labor movement. “As intellectuals, educators, and professionals,” they wrote, “we want to play our part in helping realize [Sweeney’s] promise.” The 43 were followed by hundreds of others who led pro-union “teach-ins” in universities around the country attended by thousands who came to signify a newly found allegiance to organized labor: students, scholars, historians, civil libertarians, writers, free lance intellectuals, civil rights leaders, along with union staff professionals, labor leaders, and a multitude of reporters. Representatives of most worthy social causes were there. (Only grassroots union dues-payers seemed missing.) In the spirit of the times, new labor-oriented magazines proliferated in the universities.

Those who organized the rallies united to create a new organization to cement their unity with organized labor: Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ, affectionately, Sausage). It was a moment of great expectations.

Three years later, in “Falling in Love Again? Intellectuals and the labor movement in post-war America,” Nelson Lichtenstein, history professor at the University of Virginia, an author of the 1995 declaration of 43, and a founder of SAWSJ, wrote of “this alliance between a leftward tilting labor movement and a social democratic intelligentsia,” an alliance that was being consummated after decades of estrangement. He recognized that differences were inevitable. “A certain distance will … always exist between America’s critical intellectuals and the trade union movement.” Nevertheless, he reflected, it was a “healthy tension from which we can … ‘bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old…’.”

After a few years, the euphoria dulled somewhat; and then along came Andy Stern around 2004.

Stern, who had replaced Sweeney as president of the big Service Employees International Union, set out to do unto Sweeney what Sweeney had done unto Kirkland and Donahue. Under Sweeney’s stewardship, Stern declared, the AFL-CIO had failed to fulfill its promises; labor continued to decline in numbers and political power. He and his SEIU would lead the way where Sweeney stumbled. When Stern failed to convince a majority of top union leaders that he had an effective plan to rebuild and reorient the labor movement, he led a formidable group of unions out of the AFL-CIO, and along with the Carpenters which had left earlier, he founded a rival federation, the Change to Win Coalition.

But this time, unlike 1995, there was no resounding echo from intellectuals to the renewed call for another crusade. What happened to SAWSJ? It seems to have vanished as quickly as it had appeared, but without fanfare. Apparently, life had become too complicated for mere enthusiasm.

For a group that staked a claim to leadership in reinventing labor and restoring America, Change to Win was an odd multi-coupling, Earlier, three of its major affiliates had been on the Department of Justice’s list of unions most heavily infiltrated by organized crime: the Teamsters, Laborers, and Hotel workers. The Teamsters union is still under active federal monitorship. The former suspect presidents of both the Laborers and Hotel workers, under pressure of law enforcement authorities, had been forced out and replaced by leaders with a reputation for integrity; but neither union experienced any internal reform upsurge. UNITE, another C to W affiliate, defunct as a clothing union, took refuge in a merger with the Hotel Employees. The Carpenters union, even before linking up with Stern, had already reinvented itself as a model of bureaucratic super-centralization.

While Sweeney’s insurgent rise in the AFL-CIO was greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm by intellectuals who welcomed the opportunity to serve a reinvigorated labor movement, Stern’s emergence as a new kind of leader meets with a muted reception because his promise for Big Change carries a mixed message: On the one hand, his drive to organize immigrants and minorities, the super-exploited of America, inspires a sympathetic response from social-justice liberal and radical intellectuals. On the other hand, his vision of the future labor movement (if you can properly characterize his erratic oscillations as “vision”) evokes puzzlement. It projects a highly bureaucratized top-down labor movement in which the influence of the rank and file is limited. Insulated from democratic control, its leadership is free to move unpredictably. While Stern’s Change to Win delegation in China stands together with the dictatorial government’s sponsored labor organization in a slap at Wal-Mart, Stern stands together with Wal-Mart in the United States, in a joint declaration for a never defined government-sponsored universal health care system.

For unions in the Change to Win coalition, a concentration on organizing low-paid service workers comes naturally. The big industrial and manufacturing unions, which remain in the AFL-CIO, face a crisis of survival. They represent a layer of the working class that had once been reasonably well-paid and secure but now faces cutbacks in wages and jobs, global pressure from low-paid labor, plant closures, and a sharp drop in union membership. But the C to Win unions are concentrated in the expanding service sectors free from foreign competition. The Laborers – a C to W affiliate --- organizes the unskilled section of the construction industry where minorities and immigrants, legal and illegal, can find work. The Carpenters union is reaching out to organize immigrants, documented and undocumented. (See Wall Street Journal12/15/05)

The call to organize the unorganized has always been a motherhood affirmation, often proclaimed, seldom achieved. Back in 1961, in “The Decline of the Labor Movement, and what can be done about it,” Solomon Barkin, issuing an early warning signal, wrote of the need for a “transformation …as radical as that of the Thirties, when the dominance of the old crafts, with their ‘aristocrats of labor’ viewpoint, was swept away in a flood of industrial unionism.” “Ethnic, color, and religious discrimination within unions must yield before the insistence on equal opportunity for all. Unions must intensify their pressure for economic, social, and political uplift for minorities, with special vigor for our current largest minority, the Negroes.”

“There is no area,” he concluded, “where the shift in power and initiative is more urgent than in the field of organization…. Vested rights of national unions must not be allowed to stand in the way of the transcendent interests of the movement as a whole.” Barkin was the prototype intellectual, serving as research director of the Textile Workers Union. His 75-page work was published by the Fund for the Republic’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. No one seemed to pay attention. For forty years, the downward drift continued.

But now? At last there was a difference. Stern’s SEIU and others in the new coalition actually set out to put words into action. They insisted that the labor movement had to address the needs of those sections of the workforce neglected and most exploited: racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, healthcare workers.

In its concentration upon the most neglected sectors of the working class, in words and deeds, Stern’s appeal resonated among intellectuals, especially those who had criticized the labor movement precisely because they felt it had neglected the most oppressed. Many of those who had come out of the radical student movement of the sixties or were inspired by its tradition, had once looked down with disdain upon the organized working class as a privileged minority whose comfortable status depended upon sharing in the exploitation of the oppressed masses. And now, a labor movement under Stern’s guidance was directing itself precisely toward those oppressed! It was only natural that Stern would begin with the moral support of intellectuals who had responded to the early appeal from Sweeney. He could enroll in his campaign civil rights campaigners and students who had been active in a roster of worthy social causes.

But it turned out that there are more things in the Stern-SEIU philosophy than enrolling the oppressed.

Stern emphasizes that the labor movement must increase its numbers massively if it is to be taken seriously as a political force. He is determined to get those numbers willy-nilly, not bound by any rigid preconceived rules on how that mass is to be recruited, retained, and deployed. It seems like a variant of an old watchword: peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must; almost anything goes.

If employers resist, Stern’s SEIU will mobilize mass demonstrations, call strikes, and rally support from the community groups like ACORN to pressure them to accept unionization. In the course of those battles, the union usually does more than improve its enrollment statistics; it raises the wages of those immigrants, women, and minorities who serve as underpaid janitors, sweepers, cleaners, and semi-skilled maintenance workers. It is this aspect of life in the SEIU-inspired Change to Win assemblage that has impressed older radicals and has provided young idealists with the opportunity to do something socially useful. But nothing is perfect --- there is the other side.

For employers who are willing to cooperate, Stern displays a soft side. If they accept unionization peaceably, he will hold out the hand of cooperation and provide a pliable brand of unionism. As he told reporter Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal, “We want to find a 21st century new model that is less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.” That spirit of making unionism acceptable to employers was incorporated into agreements he signed with a West Coast nursing home employers association which agreed to accept the unionization of 42 of its affiliates if the SEIU agreed to stay away from 185 of its nonunion affiliates.

Stern looks to work with amenable employers to restore union power. On a broader arena, he hopes to join with big business somehow to restore America’s economic position in the world. And not with your ordinary CEO. “Mr. Stern told me,” writes Alan Murray in the Wall Street Journal (5/30/07), “that he much prefers working with the buyout kings than with their public company counterparts. ‘Í’ve been incredibly impressed,’ he said, ‘Compared with most of my meetings with company CEOs these men… have much more understanding of what we are trying to accomplish’.” It makes sense. Freewheeling managers of masses of workers and freewheeling managers of masses of capital can understand one another.

This is a man hard to pin down. He is, by turns, militant and acquiescent. He is for “social change” but in close cooperation with buyout capitalists. He renounces labor’s dependence upon Democrats --- which warms the blood of many progressives --- but he projects not a rebellious surge toward independence but a willingness to work with Republicans. The element of ideological consistency that holds these contradictory ideas together is some notion of restoring labor’s power, but in concert with cooperating employers. The cement that solidifies his base and enables him to fly off in all directions is good old-fashioned centralized bureaucracy. .

Consider Stern’s dismissal of the importance of “individual grievances.” In a reasonably democratic union, dues paying union members will naturally demand proper attention to their grievances, a concern which may not seem vital to impatient leaders who, remote from the job site, are preoccupied with what they are convinced are bigger things. If job stewards are elected by the rank and file (in an honest count), if local officers are truly dependent on the members because they face the real possibility of organized opposition, they will be sensitive to membership demands and less likely to jump to attention at orders from above. That helps explain why the Stern forces disparage the advocacy of union democracy and rely heavily on appointing officers of huge new locals.

Stern wrote, “Workers want….strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual historical, mythical, democracy.” As Steve Lerner, a Stern braintruster, put it, “Considering union democracy as only a question of how a union is governed is too narrow…. If only 10% of workers in an industry are unionized, it is impossible to have real union democracy because 90% are excluded.” However, if members must wait for democracy in their unions until democracy permeates industry, they may have to wait forever.

To pursue a flexible maneuverist course, to be free to jump from here to there, Stern would create or recreate the labor movement in the kind of bureaucratic mold that allows the leaders on top to free themselves from interference by the rank and file below and deploy the new union power as they see fit, presumably in the best interests of those oppressed and voiceless masses below awaiting liberation into the future industrial democracy. In that view, industrial democracy appears not as an achievement of democratic unionism but as a far off pie-in-the-sky substitute for it.

To achieve great goals, Stern seems convinced, unions must be bureaucratized. Locals are merged into new huge sprawling units with geographically extensive jurisdiction; and, as permitted by federal law, the officers of these new locals are appointed, not elected. The structure becomes so broad and so complicated that it is difficult for any local-wide caucus, independent of the officialdom, to take shape. The room for rising outside of the power structure is narrowed. It becomes increasingly difficult to achieve any paid position without approval of the top officialdom.

Monopoly control over all paid staff is carried to ultimate perfection in the Carpenters union, an affiliate of Change to Win. In that union, no one, appointed or elected, can hold any paid position in the locals or councils without the endorsement of the top Executive Secretary Treasurer of the council. Locals are not permitted to pay their own elected officers. The SEIU has not reached that peak of organizational perfection, but it moves inexorably in that direction.

In June 2006, the SEIU announced that its International Executive Board had decided to merge all 600,000 members in California into a few new mega locals. The decision was to be submitted to a statewide membership referendum. We have heard of show-trials. This was a projected show-referendum. Anyone in a position of authority was required to support the IEB decision; none of them could oppose it. As the directive put it:

“All local unions, union officers, and assigned staff must fully cooperate in the implementation and transition process to assure that this decision is carried out in an orderly fashion…. No union funds, resources or staff may be used to oppose, interfere or undermine in any way the IEB determination in this matter.” We assume that any rank and filers, without office, could use their limited individual resources to campaign against the plan on their free time and try to reach those 600,000 scattered over the whole state.

Local 521, with over 45,000 members is one of those new locals with an appointed, not elected, leadership. (Five two one = five locals into one.) Applicants for appointment to the new executive board must signify their acceptance to an eight-point “Code of Conduct” which in addition to various harmless declarations includes the following: “2. I will not …engage in personal attacks on other members, staff, or leaders at union meetings, in the press, or other literature or venues. I will be mindful that e-mails could become public, and will not disparage other leaders, staff, or members in any such way that could become public either intentionally or not… 3. …Once a decision has been made, I will support that decision to members and others. I am not giving up my right to speak and make my position clear, but as a member of the board or committee, I will support the decision once it has been made. 4. I will not …take … legal action against the union or its leaders and other committee members for actions they take in their legal role as leaders, as long as I remain a member of this appointed board or committee.”

Where critics are effective in making their case, unload the opponents. In Massachusetts, where the SEIU completed its familiar surgical process of carving up and rejoining the parts of nine locals into one new 13,000-member Local 888, complete with an appointed officialdom, University of Massachusetts employees organized a caucus to campaign for the kind of democratic setup they had enjoyed in their old locals. After a thousand members petitioned the international for the right to elect officers and stewards, the SEIU solved its problem by getting rid of 2,300 of those university employees. They were subtly encouraged to leave the SEIU and join the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

As small locals were merged into large locals and large locals into jumbos, complaints mounted from rank and file activists and local officers of a “top down” management style by condescending leaders, often appointed from above. But these objections could be discounted as gripes from the usual suspects: from inveterate malcontents or from old-fashioned dreamers who are comfortable only in intimate units and who feel out of place in the newly centralized power machines.

But others began to ask questions. Under the auspices of the Committees of Correspondence a group of two dozen labor activists, a few in the upper ranks of their union hierarchies, met in New York in February 2007 for a full-day discussion on how labor could advance an effective program on health care, immigrants’ rights, and the war in Iraq. This is a group that enthusiastically shares Stern’s emphasis on the need to organize minorities, women and immigrants. Nevertheless even though the subject was not on the agenda some participants, according to an official report on proceedings, expressed misgivings over “some leaders” embracing “partnerships with employers– possibly another term for class collaboration.” One union official feared that “some unions which have a militant history are losing their democratic and militant character.” Another “addressed ‘commandism’ on the left and within labor.”

Jerry Brown was president of the SEIU’s big New England Health Care Local 1199 and prominent in progressive causes. He is not keen about opening disputes in the labor movement to public scrutiny. In a review of a book by Andy Stern, Brown writes, “My only caveat about leaving the AFL-CIO was that the dispute was carried out in the pages of the New York Times, on 60 Minutes, etc.” Now retired however, he seems somewhat free, if reluctantly, to mention some of what’s been bothering him. After paying due respect to author Stern, his talents, and his contributions to the movement, Brown speaks his own mind on the key issues where he thinks Stern “goes off track.”

On partnership with employers: “What is not explained is that the most successful efforts are the payoffs for years of struggle, strikes, and other conflicts with employers, conflicts that engaged many members and built strong membership organizations. In contrast, the SEIU recently has entered into cooperative relationships” that deny “employees many of the basic workplace protections and rights that most traditional union contracts provide.”

“Unfortunately, some of these ‘alliances’ are highlighted by Andy as examples of a new way of thinking about our role and mission.”

On democracy and the rank and file: After paying tribute to Stern for leading “rallies, sit downs, marches, and even strikes,” Brown goes on, “Unfortunately, our approaches in other industries does not involve the members at all until…. we deliver the employer some benefit…. We have to ask ourselves if these methods can produce a real democratic workers organization or if it is more likely that they will produce a ‘membership’ that is as alienated from the union leadership as it is from the employers…. the very antithesis of true rank and file unionism.”

On “consolidation of unions into ever larger units”: “Larger is often better…. But how do we do this and still have workers make the crucial decisions in their own workplaces…. How do we make sure there is real democracy in choosing and electing union officials? Andy continues to stress the importance of consolidation…. He does not address the necessity of preserving effective democratic processes….”

Summarizing the issues: “Without a question …discussion and debate should take place at every level of SEIU.” [Extrapolating the advice for the intellectuals, discussion should flow at every level in and around the labor movement.]

But how many troops do these critics have? So far, all these complaints might be ignored by Stern or others impressed by raw power. Rank and filers speak with a small voice; radicals are reduced to strong opinions; Brown has moral force but no continuing clout. But what cannot be shrugged off is an insistent dissent from within the SEIU itself, from the United Healthcare Workers-West, a 140,000-member local in California.

According to the UHW-W, the SEIU agreement with an association of 284 nursing homes in California was not simply unacceptable; it amounted to “company unionism.” By implication, the criticism transcended the immediate issues of the California agreement; and the charge came not from perennial malcontents but from the responsible leaders of a major SEIU affiliate.

In a detailed analysis of the agreement, UHW charged that negotiations had “evolved into a substitute staff-driven process” and “a fundamental lack of membership involvement, running contrary to our constitution and bylaws as well as our standard practice.” According to UHW the agreements banned the right to strike and provided only limited provisions for arbitrating disputes; employers retained the unilateral right to change the economic terms of the agreement; no provisions for paid vacations, holiday, or sick leave; no seniority; strict limits on the number of stewards, undermining “work site member empowerment and activism in the union.” In summary, according to the UHW, the units created under the agreements “may come close to becoming … company unions.”

Twenty thousand members signed petitions backing the UHW. The protests were so overwhelming that the SEIU was impelled to backtrack and reject renewal of the agreement. When so many unionists, directly affected, repudiate a key element in Stern’s way, can our labor intellectuals fail to notice?

Back in 1995, when that gathering of radical and liberal academics and their thousands of sympathizers rallied for labor “teach-ins” around the country, life seemed simple. No need for intellectuals to over-intellectualize. They responded to Sweeney’s call for change; they offered moral support to the new labor movement; they volunteered services; they helped restore labor’s image as a force for social justice.

But now there are more things than were dreamed of in 1995. Now come Andy Stern, the Teamsters, and Change to Win. They may succeed in building a stronger labor movement. Maybe. That is for the uncertain future. What is certain for the present is that they are already constructing the model of a new labor movement: more bureaucratic, more highly centralized, and more remote from the grassroots than ever before.

At other times, such a trend might have provoked concern from freedom-loving, social justice intellectuals. So far, no. If the future of the SEIU and of our labor movement merits “discussion at every level” so does the future of the intellectual-labor alliance.

A special dilemma confronts those who were drawn to Stern and the Change to Win by their experiences in the New Left or out of its tradition. They sought social change through participatory democracy. They turn now to the labor movement, especially to Stern and the SEIU, to find a powerful force for social change. But where, they might ask, is the participatory democracy?

Where do intellectuals fit in? In 1999, with the help of SAWSJ and its affiliated professors, the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute published “Faculty @ Work,” a 74-page letter-size, how-to manual for professionals in the universities who want to help restore workers’ rights to organize. The guide offered a wide-ranging program of activism: classroom inspiration for students, opportunities for internships and jobs in unions, unionization of faculty, blue and white collar staff, and adjunct teachers in universities. Above all, educators could use their prestige to rally community support for union organizing campaigns, and put pressure on anti-union employers.

Linda Chavez Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president, called upon “faculty and staff” to join “in making the world a little more humane, fair, tolerant, and equitable.” Sweeney wrote that “SAWSJ, students, and faculty are pumping new life into our movement.”

In the euphoria of those days, little debate was in order; everything would surely work out; labor was newly on the march; it was enough to rally support. But that was ten years ago. Since then, with a split in the labor movement, what was once posed so simply has become complex. Are those SAWSJ enthusiasts to be public relations cheerleaders? Are they to offer their talents as professional technicians? What is their role as independent-minded, critical thinkers?

Discussion on the fit between labor and intellectuals has persisted ever since there has been a labor movement.

Back in 1923, along with pamphlets by Scott Nearing, Stuart Chase, Norman Thomas, and Harry Laidler --- intellectuals all --- the League for Industrial Democracy published a 33-page work by George Soule entitled “The Intellectual and the Labor Movement.” As a guide to how intellectuals might serve unions, it is remarkably similar in spirit to the AFL-CIO manual 76 later. In his brief introduction, Laidler reminded readers that “many years ago… Peter Kropotkin wrote his famous appeal to young ‘intellectuals’ to cast in their lot with the labor movement.” I remember Kropotkin’s “Appeal to the Young,” --- which is still buried somewhere in my library--- because, at 16, I found it so inspiring. “The never-ceasing struggle for truth, justice, and equality,” wrote Kropotkin, “ will give you powers you never dreamt lay dormant in yourselves.”

But author Soule was not to be diverted into any extended discourse on misty ideals. He was preoccupied with how intellectuals might find practical entry into the labor movement and how they would handle themselves once there. He cautioned, “…the intellectual who has a romantic picture of the labor movement should remember that the rank and file of those who compose it approach it from a different ground and with a somewhat different purpose.” Once the intellectual sheds his illusions, “In the fields of trained technical assistance labor ought to expect much of the intellectual.... the intellectual can better aid the union by doing his own job well for the union than by trying to do the union’s job for it.”

Soule goes on to tell intellectuals, much like the AFL-CIO 76 years later, where they can find opportunities for professional service to unions: teach classes, provide legal, editorial, and accountancy expertise, publicity. Thirteen pages from commentators offer addresses for job opportunities and where to turn if intellectuals want to form their own unions. But in this preoccupation with technical and professional services, something was missing.

Labor needs intellectuals; intellectuals need labor. That their interdependence is once again accepted as established truth is one lasting benefit of Sweeney’s rise in 1995. But no need for a union job mart for intellectuals. In the search for a practical niche for intellectuals in and around unions, the danger is that both sides will lose sight of the basic force that binds them together.

Gus Tyler is an intellectual who was embedded in the labor movement as assistant president to David Dubinsky in the ILGWU. Back in 1973 in the American Federationist he wrote (even while cautioning against exaggerating the power of intellectuals) “… the anti-establishment intellectuals who can be found on the campus, or in the media, or in social work…. are educated, fairly affluent, articulate, and genuinely influential, they are a meaningful force in shaping public opinion in this country….” It is that ability to help shape public opinion that makes intellectuals so valuable an ally; they provide a public stamp of moral approval for unionism and thereby reinforce its political and social power in the nation.

Liberal and anti-establishment intellectuals share with labor the goal of social change; they want a more just, more democratic, more equalitarian society. The labor movement offers the social power that can transform ideals from dreams into reality. That combination, the power of unions and the aspirations of intellectuals is the basis of their alliance.

In January 1997, the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations invited academics who were in New Orleans for the annual conference of the Industrial Relations Research Association to a discussion on how to participate in “restoring and renewing historic ties between the labor and academic worlds.” In issuing the invitation, Sumner Rosen wrote of the hunger among students and teachers for a force on the side of economic and social justice with which they could connect.”

The intellectuals’ chief value to the labor movement derives not from their talents as professional technicians or skilled PR writers --- unions have been hiring all that kind of help they need--- but from their reputation for sharing peoples concerns, for impartiality, for independent-mindedness, wearing no one’s collar. (By jealously defending their “tenure” rights, academics preserve that reputation.) With their endorsement, the labor movement frees itself from the image of a narrow self-interest group and comes forward as a broad people’s movement. That contribution is the intellectuals’ key service to the labor movement; no other group can provide it as effectively.

Unions cannot buy that kind of service because once bought, it depreciates. People who suspect the motives of a hired mouthpiece can respect an independent voice. Intellectuals remain a valuable ally only by remaining independent and critical. Once they become kneejerk apologists, their value deteriorates. A successful alliance requires mutual respect: allies working in unison, but freely and independently.

There’s the rub. Can union leaders, always super sensitive to anything that might challenge their authority, even remotely, tolerate intellectuals who feel free to speak their mind. On the other side, will intellectuals, (aware of that depressing quality of labor leadership) refrain from speaking out frankly for fear of losing access to established union power? These questions are posed now precisely because this is a time of rapid change in the labor movement when discussion should be free and frank. There is the opportunity: expansion of union economic and political power. There is the danger: intensified bureaucracy and the suppression of union democracy. These are serious questions.

Intellectuals spring to the defense of one of their own against attack from employers. Kate Bronfenbrenner, an academic at Cornell, is one of the most prolific and insightful commentators on our emerging labor movement. Around 1998, she testified at public hearings on a bitter strike at Beverly Enterprises and sharply criticized the nursing home company. Outraged by what it charged was irresponsible meddling by an academic, the company delivered a stinging protest and filed suit against her. Because she was not a tenure-track faculty member at Cornell she was vulnerable; the fear was that the university might buckle under company pressure and invent a pretext to drop her from the rolls. Hundreds of professors, around the country, signed petitions on her behalf. Cornell got the message: it ended by coming to her defense; her job was saved.

But how different the course of events when the need was for protest against pressure from influential labor leaders.

In 1988, after another series of building trades scandals, the Cornell ILR Press published the interim report of the governor’s Organized Crime Task Force on corruption and racketeering in the New York City construction industry. It was a remarkable product. It placed the blame for corruption impartially on crooked employers and union officials; if anything, more on employers: “Corrupt contractors are equally, if not more culpable than corrupt union officials.” It noted that union members themselves were victimized and recorded the efforts of reform leaders to oust racketeers. It pointed to union democracy as an antidote to corruption: “One possible strategy involves fostering union democracy by assuring workers control over their unions and assisting them in imposing accountability on their union officers. Democratic structures and procedures …can make more likely the election of officials who work on behalf of their members rather than their own self interest.”

Two years later, the task force’s final report was ready, but this time Cornell refused to publish it. High officials of the New York State Federation of Labor had denounced the publication of the earlier interim report. Cornell yielded to the pressure. No outcry of protest from academics, not even a public whisper. The final report had to be published by the NYU Press. (Its author, James Jacobs, is an NYU law professor.)

(In some respects, the final report was more remarkable than the first. It concludes with a tribute to union reformers: “…’dissident’ workers in many construction unions are willing to raise their voices against incumbent racketeers…. We conclude by dedicating our Final Report to these courageous men and women whose faith in American values, institutions, and laws has been an inspiration to us during our labors on this project.” P. S. Governor Cuomo postponed publication of the report for many months until an election was over. Then it was released without fanfare, filed, and forgotten.)

No academic protest against Cornell’s cave in? But, one might demur, that was five years before those 43 intellectuals cemented their alliance with labor. Consider then the case of Robert Zieger, who, in 2001 submitted a paper to Labor Heritage, entitled “‘Black and White, Unite and Fight’? Race and Labor in American History.”

Labor Heritage is a glossy official AFL-CIO magazine that exudes a scholarly aura and makes space available to academics, especially to those who recount great labor struggles of the past canonized by time. Robert Zieger, a labor history professor at the University of Florida, is the author of “The CIO: 1935-1955,” (a 500-page major work acclaimed as a “classic” by David Brody) and of “American Workers, American Unions, 1920-1985.” His credentials as acceptable writer for Labor Heritage received an inadvertent boost from Dan LaBotz who, reviewing Zieger’s CIO book in the Marxist Against the Current, (9-10/95) criticized him as a labor establishment spokesman. “This …history is fundamentally an apology for the labor bureaucracy,” wrote LaBotz.

He had presented his piece, Zieger explains, “to promote dialogue between academics such as myself and men and women active in the labor movement.” It was accepted by Labor Heritage ---at first. But to his surprise, some months later, Michael Merrill, director of the George Meany Center, informed him that, in an editorial change of heart, it was rejected. What bothered Merrill was not some individual inadequacy of Zieger’s work but a heretical deviation from what was acceptable to the AFL-CIO. Merrill conceded that it “does clearly and concisely present the currently prevailing conventional wisdom within the academic community about the labor movement's record on race.” But he noted that the paper “does not fit with the new editorial direction” and that it “does not …give sufficient credit to the diversity of [the labor movement’s] record, especially in the AFL era.” It was a blunt warning to “the academic community” to toe a politically correct line if they want access. The implication is depressing: if labor’s keepers of the seal cannot permit criticism of its past record, how much more intolerable will they find any frank criticism of its current practice.

Zieger suggested that fellow academics “take my sobering experience into account.” They didn’t. There was no petition outcry against this union-imposed censorship.

What is the role of intellectuals in the new alliance? As hired hands or volunteer professional technicians, their value is minimal. In all their books and articles that abound from university presses, we don’t read much about their practical work out in the field. They don’t go out to organize. They don’t spend time in the union office. They don’t handle grievances. They don’t canvass for votes. Some of their students, while still young and vigorous, may volunteer for the grueling work; but those professors, those academics, are celebrated for their writings and lectures on labor history, on the significance of new trends, estimates of progress, on the broad future of the labor movement as a force for social justice. They can best fulfill a role as labor’s advocate when they also serve as labor’s conscience.

Both sides of this alliance have a problem. Labor leaders want to bask in the glow of support by eminent intellectuals. But, jealous of their power in their unions, they are sensitive to anything that might question it. They set limits; they want unalloyed endorsement, not frank criticism.

Those professionals and academics who have answered the union call --- in the hundreds or thousands --- are convinced that the labor movement, at last, is going their way. They are eager for access to that power. Unions pay tuition fees for union members to attend their classes. They direct their students to unions as paid interns. Unions back their publications. Eminent labor leaders endorse their conferences. Unions finance research projects. To safeguard those connections, which seem so vital to the cause of social justice, they need only to submit to a measure of censorship, preferably self-censorship, which is something that Robert Zieger discovered to his dismay.

But there are flaws in the adjustments so essential to this happy coexistence. If labor leaders insist that intellectuals toe the official line, they risk destroying their credibility as impartial advocates in the public arena. If intellectuals submit to those limitations, they risk losing their soul.

All these overhanging questions arise because Andy Stern, a would-be savior of the working class, is constructing a new labor movement based on ambiguous and contradictory principles: organize the oppressed but insulate union power from the influence of the rank and file.

The rising sector of the labor movement can be aggressive and then compliant; it focuses attention on neglected minorities and then treats them with contempt; it declares independence of the Democrats and seeks arrangements with the Republicans; it hails democracy in industry but derogates democracy in unions.

Objections can be anticipated: “We must be realists, not dreamers. There can be no perfect democracy. Unions must be centralized for battle against a powerfully organized foe. If workers can sometimes be manipulated into unions from above, why not? Sometimes it is necessary to maneuver or compromise or cooperate with employers. If in this dog-eat-dog world all this is necessary to build a stronger labor movement, so be it. Etc., etc.”

It is not merely a question of scrutinizing the validity of the details of Stern’s program or practice. Obviously I have my opinion; others will have theirs. Each move taken by itself may be the cleverest scheme in the world. There have always been persuasive arguments for freewheeling realism, compromise, and opportunism. However, after all is said, intellectuals must ask, “Is this what we had in mind? In this what those Scholars, Artists, and Writers expected when they responded to Sweeney’s call for “a reborn movement of American workers, ready to fight for social and economic justice…a new progressive voice in American life …changing the direction of American politics …a vibrant social movement … a democratic movement that speaks for all American workers.” In short, what kind of labor movement are we building?

Intellectuals are ready to serve the labor movement. But can the labor movement adjust to an alliance with outspoken, independent-minded critics. SAWSJ, where are you when we need you?

2 comments:

workingwriter said...

Very interesting post. One small correction: Zieger's Marxist critic is Dan LaBotz (not Botz).

dog_eat_dog said...

Loyalty oaths? Wow. That's so 1955.