Unions and the movement

Unions and the movement

Howard Zinn on class in America Pt4: A reinvigorated labor movement needed for a great social upheaval -   April 11, 2009
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Howard Zinn was an American historian, political scientist, social critic, activist and playwright. He is best known as author of the best-seller 'A People's History of the United States'. Zinn has been active in the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements in the United States. Howard Zinn passed away on January 27, 2010. Zinn was raised in a working-class family in Brooklyn, and flew bombing missions for the United States in World War II, an experience he now points to in shaping his opposition to war. In 1956, he became a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for black women, where he soon became involved in the Civil rights movement, which he participated in as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee SNCC and chronicled, in his book SNCC The New Abolitionists. Zinn collaborated with historian Staughton Lynd and mentored a young student named Alice Walker. When he was fired in 1963 for insubordination related to his protest work, he moved to Boston University, where he became a leading critic of the Vietnam War.


Unions and the movementPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network, coming to you from Boston, Harvard University Law School, is Professor Howard Zinn.


JAY: I should say filmmaker Howard Zinn; [inaudible] movie, based on the book, coming out soon, A People's History of America . It's called—tell us. Plug your movie. It's called—the name of the movie is—.

ZINN: The People Speak.

JAY: The People Speak.

ZINN: Yeah. If people go to the Web site thepeoplespeak.com, they will get a little glimpse of this coming film.

JAY: So our conversation has led us to the point that if there's going to be pressure on the Obama administration, there has to be some kind of mass movement. If there's going to be that, the only organizations I can see that have the scale and national size to create that are the unions. But the unions are to some extent split. They're relatively weak in terms of numbers from where they used to be. I think only 7.2 percent [inaudible]. So how did we get here? Why are unions so small these days compared to where they were?

ZINN: Well, I mean, you know, we had a great change in the American economy from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. And therefore what was the heart of unionism, and that is, you know, the factories and mills and mines, they're no longer the key elements in the American economy. And the American economy has become, you might say, a service and white-collar economy. These are the people that are hardest to organize. You know, imagine, it's hard to organize taxicab drivers and nurses and, you know, people who do menial work, and hard to organize white-collar people who somehow think they're beyond organization. So the change in the economy to a service economy has been an important factor. And I suppose the other factor has been, well, the administration starting with Reagan's, remember, firing of the air controllers. The administrations, not just the Republican but even Democratic administrations, have not done—. What the Roosevelt administration did was to encourage labor unions, you know, and the Roosevelt administration had passed the National Labor Relations Act. And since then that has been weakened and weakened by the people who are appointed to the National Labor Relations Board. And so the government itself has played a role in weakening the unions. But it will take—and you're right about this—it will take a reinvigorated labor movement if we are going to have a great social upheaval in this country that can turn things around. And I must say this parenthetically, because we talk about the crucial nature of the labor movement and how you can't have a national labor movement. I might point out that the black movement in the South took place without the benefit of trade-union involvement. The antiwar movement, the movement against the Vietnam War, took place without the benefit of great union participation. So I want to make a point that there is energy beyond the workplace for the creation of social movement. There's energy in the communities, in the neighborhoods, energy among consumers. Consumers have the power of boycott, which is tantamount to the power of strikes in that they can bring big corporations to their knees and make the nation stand up and take notice. But, yes, it will take a reinvigorated labor movement. Now, what does that mean? And how can that come about? You can't say—if the union leaders knew how to bring that about, I think they would work at it.

JAY: Well, is some of the problem the union leaders? One of the critique over the years has been going as far back as [Samuel] Gompers, where Gompers actually represented the United States in the negotiations of the Versailles Treaty. That whole section of the labor movement, you know, taking back to your People's History, had become merged with the elite, and many of the labor leaders lived like the elite. They got paid salaries at the level of CEOs.

ZINN: Exactly.

JAY: And so maybe—and I know you can't apply this to all union leaders, 'cause there's many who are not in that category, but how much of that is an issue?

ZINN: No, what you say is true. And when you think about it, that is the situation we were in at the beginning of the 1930s. If you look at the trade-union movement then, what do you see? You see the trade union movement consist of the American Federation of Labor. The American Federation of Labor organized a very small percentage of the American labor force. It wasn't until the CIO came into being—first the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL, then the Congress of Industrial Organization outside of AFL. When they came into being, the CIO, they began to organize all those workers who had been shunned by the AFL because they were unskilled workers, they were immigrants, they were black people, they were women. There are all these unorganized. Well, today, as you point out, 90 percent of the workforce is unorganized. They're organizable. This 90 percent of the workforce are not people who are rich. They're people who need unions. They need to raise their wages. They need to be able to face their employers with some strength rather than the weakness of an individual facing a corporation. So there's a reservoir of possibility there for organizing. And, you know, what will it take? I don't know. It will take an enormous initiative on the part of maybe not the top leaders of the unions, because, [as you] pointed out, there's a kind of a stagnation of energy in—

JAY: In some of the unions.

ZINN: —in some of the unions, not all of them. But it will take middle-level unionists and shop stewards and people at the lower levels and community leaders to set about to organize the unorganized, to organize the immigrants. I mean, we have a huge amount of immigrant labor that's unorganized, and this ties in with the anti-immigrant feeling that is prevalent in too many parts of the United States. It's hard to organize immigrants because there's fear there. The immigrants are in constant danger. And yet they, if organized, would constitute a very important force. So the people in the communities, people who are themselves immigrants, or people whose fathers or grandfathers were immigrants, they really have to organize for immigrant rights in order to make these immigrants available for organization in a new labor force.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk about looking eight years down the road. Is there any possibility for a different kind of Democratic Party? And if we are looking at a situation [inaudible] eight years has led to what's considered unsuccessful, at least in economic terms. Is there any opening for a real third party, or do you think we'll still be locked into this same two-party system? So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Howard Zinn.


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