Unions in America have traditionally stood on the side of social justice. This is one of many reasons the mean right wing spin machine has spent billions to destroy unions and eliminate organizing. Those of us who band together have been under attack. Some resistance to progress comes from racists and corrupt union leadership too willing to snuggle up to bosses and corporate cons. The only answer is courage. We have to stand up, fight back and keep our eyes on the prize: universal social and economic justice. Lois Weiner helps explain these issues:
A Labor Movement That Takes Sides
Unions must act on the principle that if it’s a social justice issue, it’s a labor issue.
Striking members of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, one of the most progressive US unions (1948). John Savage / Omaha World-Herald
Here’s an urgent Labor Day challenge for organized labor: grapple with the simultaneously heroic and sordid history of unions in America, and use the past to inform the fight to revive the labor movement today. The emergence of Black Lives Matter demands that we remember not just those unions who fought for principles of racial equality, but those that capitulated to racism.
Too many of labor’s supporters won’t criticize unions for their lack of internal democracy, seeing it as airing dirty laundry in public and thus weakening an already enfeebled progressive force. The fear is understandable, but labor’s desperately needed revitalization is unlikely to occur without unions and their supporters facing what is essentially an identity crisis.
Labor’s opponents, who see, correctly, that unions have tremendous potential to derail the project of increasing wealth for the few at the expense of the many, are quick to expose labor’s dirty laundry. Our best defense against this is to confront the problems openly.
As it stands, unions can’t be counted on to be on the right side of the struggle between wage earners and the boss. What Kim Moody wrote in 1998 remains true: the AFL-CIO has the “vaguely class-oriented idea that the federation must speak for all ‘working families’ and turn up the ‘street heat’ to organize the millions.” But they simultaneously cling to the illusion that they will be rewarded for cozying up to capital, accepting all but its worst excesses.
…To be sure, there is positive change occurring in organized labor, as seen in the Fight for 15 campaign, the new understanding of and support for immigration rights, and the greater willingness to recognize systemic racism in response to Black Lives Matter. But these are constrained by the unions’ lack of internal democracy and unwillingness to break with business (unionism) as usual.
Unions can’t fix every social problem, and ought not be expected to do so, but to win the loyalty and trust of working people, labor has to embrace and act on the principle that if it’s a social justice problem, it’s a labor issue.
When AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka acknowledges the contradiction of police unions’ membership in AFSCME, that both Michael Brown’s mother and killer are union members and “our brother killed our sister’s son,” he begins to do that. However, it’s not enough to talk. We need to enforce the principle that solidarity, social justice, and democracy are as “union” as wages and benefits. When unions make these labor issues, they become the connective tissue of a broad social movement that wins public loyalty and trust in labor battles.