By Kurt Stand
Strands of different conflicts are simultaneously pulling working people together and apart; whether threads being woven prove stronger than those being untangled will determine the future of the US labor movement and of US society as a whole. The current flashpoint is the campaign by Native Americans to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built. Running 1700 miles from North Dakota to Illinois it carves a path of destruction across tribal land, leading to the largest, most unified tribal resistance in decades. Environmentalists have joined the protests, as the pollution of water and land likely to follow pipeline construction will also contribute to climate change. Mass non-violent protests to stop the work have been met by police violence and arrests. In response, communities of social justice activists have extended the web of solidarity.
Joining those demanding respect for Native lives and respect for the earth have been progressive unions that supported Sanders such as the Nurses, Communications Workers, United Electrical Workers — and the Service Employees, more mainstream in its electoral politics, but a strong supporter of low-wage worker and immigrant rights campaigns. The AFL-CIO, however, has been on the opposite side of this fight. Bowing to internal pressure by “pro-growth” unions, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a statement that echoed the logic of those who want the pipeline built, criticizing protestors for their sit-ins and picket lines designed to keep construction workers from the job site.
Therein lies the heart of the conflict — for laying the pipeline means thousands of jobs. The building trades unions who represent those hired view any attempt to prevent them from working as being anti-worker. Such unions are a powerful force in the AFL-CIO and have all but threatened to disaffiliate if the Federation did not support them. And their members do have a right to work in their trade; the loss of a job is as devastating to a well-paid welder as it is to a low-paid janitor. But jobs for some can’t be at the expense of rights for others. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate of any community in the country, yet when unions supporting the pipeline speak about jobs, they do not have in mind projects to lessen unemployment on reservations. Nor do they recognize the greater job growth that would occur if money were invested in alternative energy in poor urban communities rather than funneled to the oil industry.
Yet this is more than a dispute between alternate visions of unionism. What makes the current difference so fraught is that it reflects a divide that sets working people against each other on virtually every public issue, be it education, healthcare, housing, policing. Some in labor see in renewed social protests from Occupy to Black Lives Matter as the basis for a revitalized trade unionism. Others see the fracturing of US society that has accompanied decades of deteriorating working conditions and living standards as a problem caused by demands made by the poorest, most dispossessed, caused by unions fighting on issues unrelated to jobs, wages, benefits.
This division in outlook within unions is sharpest — and most personal — when it comes to police violence. Former Amalgamated Transit Union President Roger Toussaint noted that Eric Garner, whose cry, “I can’t breathe” before he died was ignored by police officers beating him, and police union chief Pat Lynch, who justified Garner’s murder, “grew up as sons of NYC transit workers and [Lynch] himself worked briefly as a conductor. Eric Garner’s mother is a retired train operator, his sister is an active duty bus operator.”
Trumka remarked upon a similar connection when addressing labor council members in Ferguson, Missouri — where the Black Lives Matter movement was sparked by street protests after the local government announced that the police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager would not be prosecuted. Noting the union background of victim and victimizer, he declared: “Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, is a union member too, and he is our brother. Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.”
Displaying courage and integrity, Trumka recognized that though union families were impacted on both sides of the shooting, there was no equality between the two, and he joined others in demanding justice for Brown. Naming the cause of what happened in Ferguson, he stated, “ … we [must] clearly and openly discuss the reality of racism in American life. We must take responsibility for the past. Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans. Every city, every state and every region of this country has its own deep history with racism. And so does the labor movement …”
His words mark a sea change for AFL-CIO leadership; for years most national union leaders would tolerate (or support) police actions without question, would never acknowledge racism as a problem within the labor movement. Yet while a corner has been turned the journey is far from completed, as is evident in the pipeline controversy. Union solidarity requires that those with more rights stand with those whose rights are most in jeopardy, for a united labor movement must be grounded in genuine — not purely verbal — equality. Trumka’s speech in Missouri was built on that understanding; his statement on the pipeline moved in the opposite action. Clouding his — and other unionists vision in that instance – is the need for jobs.
It is an uncontested truth that as employment rises, union strength increases. However, that strength becomes a source of weakness when jobs are created in opposition to community needs. Unions that decide to go “it alone” are unions that have decided to tie their fate to companies that have as little regard for the labor they employ as for the earth they desecrate. An example of this is the United Mine Workers, which has seen its strength and membership drop as the industry contracts. Although it has a history of fierce strike struggles (including under Trumka’s leadership when he was UMW president) and in all other respects remains a militant, progressive union; it has allied itself with its corporate enemies against environmentalists. Such alliances have saved neither jobs, nor communities, nor union contracts.
Unlike the miners, the building trades unions hoping to benefit from the pipeline have a conservative heritage that includes a legacy of racial exclusion that hasn’t been fully overcome. Only court action forced them to integrate their ranks in the 1970s/80s, when their corporate “friends” began to hire immigrants – immigrants those unions wouldn’t organize – to drive down wages. That lesson was learned, and today they no longer defend a “white’s first” policy. But the mindset remains, as seen in the pipeline fight where they demonstrate greater militancy against community activists than against their employers.
Unionists trapped in the past believe that demands for an end to racism, (or for gender rights, marriage equality, the rights of immigrants), are a source of working-class division, holding onto a false nostalgia of better times in the 1950s (before the protests of the 60s/70s). Yet, in fact, protest movements of the excluded makes possible a genuine and organic working-class unity. Organized labor was strengthened when the AFL-CIO joined calls for an end to mass incarceration and police violence, heeding calls for justice that have been raised ever more insistently in the streets, classrooms, in public forums and public confrontations, and at workplaces. Protests spearheaded by those with a different memory of the past, different experience of the present.
But every step forward heightens contradictions; unions supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline are drawing a line in the sand to prevent the labor movement from embracing social change and social movements. And it would be a big mistake to not see that many workers embrace that outlook. But the labor movement is not a monolith; it is ever-changing. Differences of opinion on all issues occur within unions more than between unions. One expression of this is the AFL-CIO’s six constituency groups. With members in virtually all labor organizations, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Pride at Work serve as labor’s voice to those who suffer from discrimination and as a voice to challenge union acquiescence to such discrimination. They do not have much formal power in the AFL-CIO, but they represent a powerful current amongst present members, are critical in organizing new members, and so cannot be ignored.
They demonstrated their power and independence by issuing a joint public statement in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline shortly after Trumka announced his support, declaring: “As organizations dedicated to elevating the struggles of our respective constituencies, we stand together to support our Native American kinfolk — one of the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in our nation’s history — in their fight to protect their communities from further displacement and exploitation.”
The problem is the structure of capitalism that, in essence, blackmails workers, forcing them to choose between jobs and health, between today and tomorrow, between themselves and their families and other workers. This is the same challenge every worker faces during a strike — risk losing job and income by joining others or risk losing self-respect and workplace power by becoming a scab. Taking jobs at the expense of another community, at the expense of the environment, taking jobs without concern for those who remain unemployed is its own version of “our brother killed our mother’s son.” How working people resolve that contradiction will determine the future course of US society.
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