Labor alive and well as new year arrives

A review of the recent past and a peek into the nearby future of the labor movement reveals a level of activity reminiscent of the militancy that built industrial unions more than half a century ago.

From breaking the GOP grip on Congress in 2006 and the current wave of strikes to new mobilizations for a fundamental shift in the balance of political forces in 2008, labor is proving that — despite a 30-year, right-wing corporate/government assault — it is alive and well.

Workers and their unions increasingly see themselves now as fighters in a full-fledged class war. This attitude is perceived, surprisingly, by people in corporate boardrooms more than by many workers themselves, even in the current strike by the nation’s writers against the big media moguls.

Writers have turned that six-week strike from a fight over pay formulas into an epic battle to force media conglomerates to cede some real power over that industry to their unions. Their demand of union representation for thousands of writers on reality and animated shows who are not yet organized would create a major shift in favor of workers in the entertainment industry.

The pressure on the centers of power is so strong that individuals like David Letterman are starting to break with the production conglomerates they are hooked up with and are attempting to talk separately to the union.

Even in unsuccessful contract battles, this year workers showed both a high level of willingness to fight and an attitude that their battles were part of something much bigger. Perhaps the best example of this was in the auto industry. Autoworkers shut down GM and Chrysler plants all across America in two short strikes this fall as they battled to maintain jobs and health care. Although the final auto contracts were serious setbacks, with the union taking on responsibility for retiree health care and with the loss of jobs and the establishment of a two-tier wage system, there are forces in the union that appear ready to build for a comeback and to fight another day. The workers, in any case, have shown that they are ready.

The strike wave of which their actions were a part continues. In New York City alone, several strikes are ongoing as this article is being written. Paratransit workers (who provide transportation for the disabled), writers, and cafeteria workers are on strike. The taxi drivers have just come off two of their “rolling strikes” and are planning for a third in January. The janitors are planning for a possible strike and the contracts for tens of thousands of city workers are just about up. The union leaders involved openly talk to the memberships about the need to emulate the militancy of Transport Workers Union Local 100 which struck in 2005. In Los Angeles, where some 30 important contracts are running out, union leaders are talking the same way.

Labor refused this year to allow itself to be divided by so called “wedge issues” frequently used by the right wing. The United Food and Commercial Workers has been running major organizing campaigns in nonunion meatpacking plants where the companies have responded by cooperating with government raids that round up immigrant workers. The government raided union plants all over the country and detained thousands of workers. The union responded aggressively with a campaign defending the right of all workers to decent wages and working conditions and with a massive lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security.

Many argue that the response of labor against this intimidation, including the AFL-CIO’s strong defense of immigrant workers, has contributed to the fact that the polls now show that the economy, the war in Iraq and other issues far outweigh the immigration issue in the minds of voters.

Labor aims to increase significantly the Democratic Party majorities in both houses of Congress and, of course, to elect a Democratic president in 2008. The reasons why are obvious.

2007 started off with a legislative bang as the new, labor-backed and Democratic-run 110th House began passing pro-labor bills. Chief among them was an increase in the minimum wage for the first time in 11 years and the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows workers to form unions when a majority indicate their desire to do so by signing pledge cards. This avoids having to go through elections that are dominated by the companies.

Labor is seeking to increase the pro-worker majorities in Congress because current majorities are not big enough to overcome presidential vetoes or GOP filibusters in the Senate. Bigger progressive majorities and a Democratic president can end the deadlock.

Virtually the entire labor movement has now come out against the war in Iraq, calling for the use of the money spent on the war for useful domestic purposes. Labor sees bigger progressive majorities and a Democratic president as essential to ending the war.

The labor movement also called this year for universal health insurance that would cover all Americans, with the government playing a major role in controlling costs. The unions see success of their electoral plans as key to passage of a new national health insurance plan.

Strikes and electoral activity are not the only way that labor has shown new militancy. Rulings by the Bush controlled National Labor Relations Board that took away from millions of workers their right to unionize by re-classifying them as “supervisors” literally brought thousands of workers all over the country into the streets in November. The AFL-CIO, which led the outpouring, said the NLRB had become so biased against workers that it should be completely shut down until a new president who can appoint a new majority is elected.

If anyone has doubts about labor’s ability to turn things around in the 2008 elections, he or she needs only to look at what happened in the 2007 off-year elections. Unions ended the 16-year GOP grip on the Virginia state Senate, they elected a Democratic governor in Kentucky, and in Utah, the most Republican of states, they smashed a right-wing initiative for a statewide voucher plan.

The right wing likes to portray the labor movement as out for the count or as a thing of the past. As workers ring out the old and ring in the new this year, they send a message that says nothing could be further from the truth.

John Wojcik (jwojcik @pww.org) is labor editor at the People's Weekly World