For a stronger labor movement: Half-price tools wont do the job

“Shit!” I hollered at the top of my lungs. When you work in a sewage treatment plant like I did, this four-letter word is not always a curse. In fact, some of my smart-aleck co-workers used to delight in grossing out high school students on field trips by declaring solemnly, “Shit is our bread and butter.”

But on this day, looking at my busted and bleeding knuckles, I said the word with its full weight as an angry expletive. My right hand had just crashed full force into a steel pipe when the socket wrench I was pushing on suddenly stripped out.

My co-worker Ralph looked at me without a hint of sympathy. “That’s what you get for buying that cheap-ass nonunion socket set, Roberta,” he said. Ralph was referring to my recent Kmart half-price-sale tool purchase.

I recalled that painful lesson this week when I read a report about a disturbing new proposal in the ongoing discussions about the future of our country’s labor movement. The new proposal would result in cutting the budget of the AFL-CIO almost in half. The AFL-CIO is funded by contributions from each of the 60 or so unions affiliated with it. The unions pay 61 cents per member per month to the federation. By pooling their resources this way, America’s organized working class has built a powerful organization capable of running the kind of massive political efforts which made it the backbone of last year’s historic voter education and mobilization actions. And this pooled power also gives it the potential to maximize the working class’s power in organizing drives.

A united federation of the nation’s unions is the most powerful tool we as the working class have in our toolbox. Buying a half-price version of this tool could result in disastrous consequences.

But the new proposal would cut the per capita contributions of individual unions in half, rebating the funds to each individual union to use in their own separate organizing campaigns. This, understandably, is a very enticing offer for organizations struggling to make their budgets stretch to match all of the demands on them in the current anti-worker environment.

But, if you ask me, while getting individual unions to spend more on organizing is a worthy goal, experience in recent years has shown that spending alone is not the determining factor in achieving organizing success. Indeed, it’s strategic outlook, coordination, and rank-and-file involvement along with financial commitment that lead to victory. It’s reasonable to ask how much of the rebated per capita will go into duplicated and even destructive union-versus-union turf battles. With a weakened central labor federation, what would happen to the emerging powerful political initiatives we saw go into action in 2004?

With all its room for improvement, it’s in a stronger, more united, more class-conscious AFL-CIO where the potential for solving labor’s problems lies. It’s more coordination, not less, more solidarity that’s needed, not less. That, coupled with mobilization of the rank and file, is what’s needed to take on the Bush corporate outrages.

Let’s not come up bloodied and bruised because we thought the way to get the job done was to buy cheaper tools.

rwood@pww.org