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A CIO Moment?

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Sarah Jaffe has a typically excellent piece at The Progressive discussing whether we are presently in a moment akin to the development of the CIO in the mid 30s. I was able to offer some thoughts that she included in the piece.

The Depression, notes labor historian Erik Loomis, professor at the University of Rhode Island and the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, “changed the political perspective of Americans.” It opened them up to a different way of looking at the world, and that helped spread the practice of building workplace and community solidarity beyond existing unions and radicals. Today, in contrast, solidarity is often gestured to, in memes and hashtags on the Internet, but it is not always connected to a real, deep practice in one’s offline life. “Twitter is not organizing culture,” he says.

In other words, there’s a way, both Loomis and Sneiderman note, that the rose-hued memories of the past can constrain today’s organizing.

Organized labor, Sneiderman notes, was for many years deeply anti-immigrant, committed to the argument that migrant workers undercut pay and conditions for U.S.-born workers. The stereotype is by no means gone, nor are other forms of racism—the recent battles over whether police belong in the labor movement is a good example of the ongoing tensions—but hard work has eroded it.Many of the places where union organizing is taking place, Loomis points out, are those that have professed commitment to some sort of progressive values, and yet are falling short. Starbucks is one such “performatively liberal space,” as is Trader Joe’s, but so is The New Yorker and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, both of which are, or were, engaged in protracted battles with their staff unions.

But the real change, Sneiderman says, is in taking the needs and demands of those groups of workers seriously and turning them into strategies for winning power. “Employers want us to be in a narrower fight. They’re succeeding the more unions talk about wages and benefits,” she notes, because then they can pit union workers against those who are less well off and divide the working class. But strategies like bargaining for the common good, most famously practiced by the Chicago Teachers Union but spreading through the public and private sector, bring demands from the entire community to the bargaining table, using the power that they have to strike to win victories for those who have less leverage.

Kinema agrees: “You cannot decouple good labor movement organizing from that political context. People don’t organize for money. Every campaign is always built off of dignity and agency and respect in the workplace.”

No one has the one answer for what it will take to rebuild the labor movement. Key to any organizing upsurge will be listening to a new generation of workers about what they want and need; about what excites them and what will get them to take bigger risks.

“When I teach labor history now,” Loomis says, “it isn’t just the story of Pullman and Homestead, and the big events. It’s how did workers actually think? Because if we don’t get to that, then we’re never going to fix this problem in the future.”

And a lot of that thinking is about race and how racism has constricted cross-class organizing in American history.

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