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The Radical Labor Challenge

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Responding mostly to Doug Henwood’s piece (I think), Corey Robin asks the labor-left a hard question:

This is a challenge to the left.

Not the left that’s out there already doing the hard work—the labor movement, the Occupiers, the immigrants rights’ organizers—but the left that’s like, well, me: the academics, the writers, the bloggers, the journalists, the think tankers, the kibbitzers. The people who talk too much.

My challenge is this: If you’re calling for the labor movement to be more radical—more adventurous, more willing to get out into the streets, to break laws, to challenge the social order (and let me be clear, that is an aim I share)—I want you to stop and ask yourself a question.

Have you ever organized a majority, even a plurality, of your co-workers—in an academic department, at a newspaper, in a think tank, at the little non-profit where you work—to confront the boss, whoever that might be, in such a way that all of your jobs were put into jeopardy?

There are many ways to answer this question so let me slightly rephrase the challenge to focus on the overall exhortations from people that workers should take more radical actions. Most of the time, this is an irresponsible thing to say if tied to specific workers. Urging these workers to strike and those workers to organize is an easy thing to say if your job isn’t on the line. Most people are, rightfully, fearful for their future. And it’s easy for labor radicals to look back to an idealized past of Haymarket and Pullman and the IWW, when workers were really radical–except all of those things were mostly horrible disasters for workers that people turned to out of sheer desperation to do anything to improve their lives.

If labor is to be more “radical,” however we choose to define that, it probably needs to come from within a union structure, very carefully planned out with a large solidarity network in the community and with other locals and unions, a media strategy, etc. Moreover, the urge to take more radical action has to come from the workers themselves. Any other source is probably illegitimate because it will amount to people whose jobs are not on line exhorting reluctant workers to risk their livelihoods for reasons not clear to them. And that would be a bad thing.

But let’s also be clear–workers can be pretty radical on their own. A story. In 1999 and 2000, I was in Knoxville, Tennessee working on a number of campaigns after I concluded my master’s degree. We worked on a living wage campaign, some student organizing, etc. Our group was getting very heavily involved in labor issues. This received a serious assist from the nearby Highlander Center, whose head at the time was Jim Sessions, a major figure in the labor world who was the minister who sat in with workers at the Pittston coal strike. We began to meet local union leaders through Jobs with Justice, etc. We decided we wanted to have a labor teach-in at the very conservative campus of the University of Tennessee. We planned it over the year and thanks to Sessions, were able to get some big names to come–Elaine Bernard, Bill Fletcher, and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. Not bad for a bunch of kids, no.

As the time came to hold the teach-in, we were very aware that a labor event without workers lacked legitimacy. So we put fliers around campus about it, gave a number to call if workers were interested in talking. We get a call from a group of housekeepers. For whatever reason, I am sent over to talk to them. And boy howdy are they fighting mad. They are ready to tear down the university. Their primary complaint, as I recall 12 years later, was working conditions–including that they feared for their safety because they kept getting pricked with hypodermic needles cleaning the dorms and the university didn’t care. And that was the Eureka moment for everyone–we had done a ton of work preparing for an organizing campaign and there was a large group of workers very much ready to be organized. I don’t know how many came out to the teach-in rally, maybe 80-100 housekeepers and a few other workers too. Having Trumka rally the troops was a good start. We marched over to the administration building, gave them a set of demands, and started organizing.

I left soon after to start my Ph.D. program, but I am proud to say that this event, and years of hard work by others after it, led to the creation of the United Campus Workers which became CWA Local 3865.

I tell this story not to laud myself–it was a long time ago and my role in this was limited. But I want to point out that sometimes workers are quite ready to lay it on the line and if properly organized, the labor left can help shape that discontent into productive activity that leads to long-term improvement to workers’ lives that they themselves lead and create.

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