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“Big Labor”–Another Example of Right-Wing Terminology

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Given its namesake, Mother Jones is not exactly great on labor issues. I want to point out this problematic article by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella about AFSCME’s opposition to closing an Illinois prison. The problem isn’t that they are wrong to criticize AFSCME. Although it is the primary job of a union to fight for their members’ jobs, supporting terrible social and political policies is hardly the way to do it, not to mention hardly the way to build alliances with other groups to fight for a better future.

No, the problem is tainting all of labor with the charge that, “It was perhaps the most visible and contentious example of a phenomenon seen, in one form or another, around the country: otherwise progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration. In terms of prisoners rights in general, and solitary confinement in particular, unions are seen as a major obstacle to more-humane conditions.”

The authors provide absolutely no evidence for this statement. I’m not even saying it isn’t true. But they need to show their work in order to make such broad-based claims. The authors talk about SEIU and the Teamsters but offer no concrete examples. They talk about the AFGE’s support for solitary confinement, but that’s different than opposing all prison reforms. Are “progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration?” I’m pretty skeptical of that claim.

In addition, it is completely unfair to dismiss union’s claims of security for prison guards. I know that prison guards often do bad things. I know the system has a lot of corruption and that guards can abuse their power. I also know that profit margins for privatized prisons and underfunding for public prisons means that guards can be overwhelmed. Solitary confinement is bad public policy. But from the perspective of the prison guards, I don’t doubt that they are genuinely very scared when dealing with some of these prisoners. Part of a union’s job is protecting its members. We have to respect that position.

Again, none of this is to say that AFSCME is right or that any of the union stances are per se correct on this issue. I am saying that this is poor labor reporting.

The entire term “Big Labor” is terrible. It assumes that all labor unions are the same, which is absolutely not true. It assumes that the AFL-CIO leadership sets all policies and acts as a monolith, with a white guy in a big cushy office telling everyone what to do. This is most definitely not how the AFL-CIO operates. It also repeats right-wing talking points about organized labor and obscures both the movement’s complexity and reinforces stereotypes.

And lo and behold, who should pick up on the story but a writer for Reason, an already anti-labor publication.

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