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Friday, December 6

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Airbags

When you hike up a mountain — winding paths, rough terrain, challenging grades, the occasional half-threatening animal — the view from the top awes you not only for its own grandeur but because in a way, you earned it — and you can cast your glimpse across the whole terrain, take it all in, see everything.

On the other hand, you're exhausted, the sun is scorching you, and the air is so thin that you're kinda light-headed. So maybe it isn't quite so easy to look out at the world and be quite so sure what you're beholding.

On Sunday, "60 Minutes" aired a special on the head of the nation's largest labor union, the Service Employees. Andy Stern, dressed in the purple that has become the service employees' trademark, went on national television and talked about the "new" labor movement, and the future of labor and union organizing, in a time of globalization and labor's general decline.

Stern led the service workers, along with six other unions, out of the AFL-CIO last year, sparking ill will and debate throughout not only labor but also the progressive movement generally. Suddenly, everybody had an opinion about the solutions for labor, or, indeed, about whether labor was even relevant any longer. Stern and his lieutenants repeated, ad nauseum, the mantra that the AFL-CIO was not dedicated to organizing new workers, that they were too cozy with politicians generally and the Democratic Party specifically.

Some argued that Stern was the rightful heir to John L. Lewis, the Mineworkers boss who lead his union out of the AFL in the '30s because of their perceived lack of commitment to organizing new workers. The Mineworkers bankrolled and sparked a wave of organizing under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO; the AFL responded by adopting their tactics and organizing like crazy themselves. Twenty years later they would merge into the AFL-CIO, natch. Many see in Stern a slavish devotion to organizing more and more workers through whatever means necessary — most famously recently through a hunger strike of janitors — and damn the labor bureaucrats who tried to stop him.

Others, in the AFL-CIO and elsewhere, argued that Stern was a hypocrite and an egomaniac, that his coalition of breakaway unions — the Teamsters, the Food and Commercial Workers, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and the Textile workers, the Laborers, the Carpenters, and the Farm Workers — were hardly pristine models of "organizing unions;" that Stern's critiques of the AFL-CIO were nothing more than public relations spin to cover a power play; that Stern and company's plans were nothing new under the sun, and leaving the AFL-CIO would only make things more difficult; and lastly, as was argued by a union leader on "60 Minutes," that the service employees' method of organizing new workers, which relies on a combination of community, corporate and media pressure to leverage agreements with corporations that allow for easier organizing, was ultimately a betrayal of union organizing in the first place.

Make deals with the boss...but also growing by leaps and bounds... well, it's fun to debate, but meanwhile? Americans need labor more now than perhaps any time since the Gilded Age.

Well, where was the argument happening? Way up there, generally, in the rarified air, between people who had long ago become bosses themselves. It was going on at the heights, where men and women who, in some cases, had made the long, difficult hike to the top, and thought they knew the whole terrain — thought they could look out and, given their great height, could understand and soak in all they surveyed.

Unfortunately, most of them were sucking wind.

The arguments on both sides often fell flat. Who was right, who was wrong — who cares?

Arguments about the need for worker radicalization and democracy, championed by the various labor thinkers who clashed with grander ideas of Stern and company regarding massive union consolidation and the need for some unions to "give" workers to other more appropriate unions.

The reality? Neither side was right; neither method will always work, neither strategy was perfect nor one size fits all.

Blah blah blah. As with everything, up at the top things look one way, or work one way, or seem this way or that way. Meanwhile, a hundred million Americans workers couldn't care less, had no idea who the service employees or most other unions were, and the middle class workers, for whom it is most important to unionize, by and large didn't seem to want them.

So the "60 Minutes" report by Leslie Stahl has unleashed another spate of criticism and infighting. Whether it was brought on by jealousy or sincere ideological or pragmatic differences, many throughout labor, up as high as Stern and his allies, reclined and complained.

But here's the thing: "60 Minutes" did a profile of a labor leader. "Sixty Minutes" had a feature on somebody who said things like:

"When unions were strong, they raised everyone up. Look at what's happening in America. The gap between the rich and the rest of the population is growing so wide and so fast that even Alan Greenspan says it threatens democratic capitalism."

and

"I think unions are the best anti-poverty program that America's ever had,"

and this favorite little ditty,

"Workers of the world unite."

While the report could have done without all of the silly potshots at other labor leaders — Stern's assertion that they shouldn't drive around in chauffeured cars, perhaps forgetting his own quarter million a year salary — look: "60 Minutes" talked about labor, millions of Americans had it beamed right into their homes. That can only be a good thing. Whatever else, that can only be a good thing.

The last time labor's profile was this high, ironically, was probably when Stern's once-mentor, now-nemesis, John Sweeney, ran for the presidency of the AFL-CIO. Sweeney's campaign slogan was "America Needs a Raise."

At the end of the day, after all the talk about workers movements and organizing models and all the labor theologians with their hands clasped, palms together, casting their gaze skyward and chanting about worker democracy, that's it, isn't it: America needs a raise. And we need people out there saying it, who people will listen to.

America needs a raise. America — us, out here, the people who work for a living, paycheck to paycheck, we're America — we need a raise.

So whether it's the bosses of the AFL-CIO or the breakaway unions muttering and bitching at each other, having arcane arguments and personality disputes, taking credit or giving it where it is or isn't due, their bickering up there, in the rarified air, is just silly squawking on the mountaintop — among the waving trees and crisp clean snow, as isolated and alone as you can imagine.

For those of us outside of it, here at the bottom, all we want is a raise.

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Comments

Noah / May 18, 2006 2:36 PM

Your point? That there is a debate among elected labor leaders and among academics about how best to organize is just so much blather? There is something inconsistent about being pleased that labor is getting press, then stating that the subject of that coverage is just so much hot air. What you label as "bitching" is actually quite critical to whether and how the American labor movement advances or becomes a footnote in history. Want a raise? Get involved, get organized, get a union - whether AFL-CIO-affiliated or not. Want to live in a shack, way in the back, awaiting that pie in the sky that you'll get when you die? Dismiss the debate and wonder when manna from heave will fall or that raise will magically appear in your paycheck.

 

About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at rfc@gapersblock.com.

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