Fletcher: Unions should take up the cause of the unemployed
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re joined again by Bill Fletcher. He’s the executive editor of BlackCommentator.com, and he’s the coauthor of a book, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice. Thanks for joining us again.
FLETCHER: Glad to be here.
JAY: So in the first segment of the interview we were talking about the union movement and President Obama and his administration and the lack of leverage they seem to have there. If they’re going to have leverage, there needs to be some national movement with legs to it. And it seems if there’s going to be one now, the obvious one would be the movement of unemployed people for rights. But there doesn’t seem to be a heck of a lot happening. What’s your opinion about that?
FLETCHER: Well, there needs to be, and, in fact, I would argue that there has needed to be for quite a while, organizations among the unemployed, an organizing effort that is by the union movement, ’cause there had been various organizations that have been organizing unemployed people. Here’s the problem, and then there’s some things that can be done. Each individual union is not going to be able to do it, resource-wise. At best what they do, as you saw, like, in the 1980s, was that the United Auto Workers, for example, did some work around the people that they lost, you know, in auto plants. The United Electrical Workers did something similar. But what we need now is not a sectoral thing of just, like, organizing other workers, organizing machinists; we need something that’s across the board of the unemployed. The ideal vehicle for that are central labor councils that bring together unions in cities or counties, generally, bring them together in an essentially united front. And most central labor councils primarily focus on electoral politics, but there’s nothing that says that they couldn’t serve as a basis for organizing the unemployed, and particularly if they reached out to community-based organizations that many times lacked the resources to pursue this.
JAY: As part of the problem, too, in terms of articulating a demand that would inspire people to get behind such a motion or movement, is that they’re so tied up with the way the Obama administration is structuring the jobs policy, the stimulus package. You know, other than going to states, it’s all—they keep bragging about how 90 percent of the jobs are going to be created through the private sector. The idea of a direct direct government jobs program is not considered. I mean, the sort of demands, you would think, that would come from a progressive trade union movement representing unemployed people aren’t heard, because they need to support whatever Obama’s doing.
FLETCHER: That’s right. I think you summed it up right, correctly, that the union leaders, for whatever reason, don’t want to jump too far ahead of Obama. And right now, as crazy as it may sound, is an ideal time to invent radical proposals with a small “r”. I mean, this is a time—.
FLETCHER: One of the ideas that’s been promoted by several people out of the auto industry, auto unions in Canada and the United States, is nationalizing auto plants that are closed down—take them over and retool them. So you have in many cases modern plants. You have a workforce that’s skilled. They need to be retooled in much the same way that plants needed to be retooled in the beginning of World War II.
JAY: And this would be part of, like, a whole green economy.
FLETCHER: Precisely. Precisely. You know, building, you know, buses, trains, windmills—whatever, right? It could be done by retooling. There’s no reason that that can’t be done with the existing infrastructure in manufacturing.
JAY: Another proposal that’s out there is that there’s a little bit of it going on now they’re talking about, but not at the scale you would think the union movement would be demanding, which is millions of workers hired to refurbish federal and other buildings to make them green and energy-efficient.
JAY: They don’t seem that radical.
FLETCHER: Right. Exactly. But, I mean, in addition to that, there are all of these infrastructure issues that we face, bridges, tunnels that are collapsing, that need to be rebuilt. The challenging thing, though, is that such job efforts need to be constructed in a way that it’s not simply to the benefit of the building trades unions. It needs to be—they need to be constructed in a way that certainly helps people unionize, but that you touch the chronically unemployed, not just the people that lost their jobs within the last six months or a year. You take a place like Flint, Michigan, or Camden, New Jersey, or East St. Louis, Illinois, and these are places that are in Depression-like circumstances and have been for years. Nobody is speaking for them; no one is speaking about economic development there.
JAY: Now, the unions movement is anything but monolithic. So where are there some examples, in your opinion, where something good’s happening that might be a model for others?
FLETCHER: I’ll tell you some of the central labor councils and state federations that I think are really doing some forward thinking. The South Carolina AFL-CIO, as small as the labor movement is in South Carolina, you have a very progressive leadership that is right now in the midst of thinking about new organizing efforts in South Carolina and around the South that bring together unions and community-based organizations. You have central labor councils, one of the most famous being the South Bay Central Labor Council in San Jose, California, that has experimented with various kinds of labor and community partnerships. You have state federations—.
JAY: But talk about—do you see examples where some of the union or central councils are dealing with unemployed people? And what are they doing?
FLETCHER: Well, they’re not doing enough. That’s the problem. I’ll tell you who seems to be doing something, though, and then I want to get back to something relative to an experiment that took place in Connecticut a few years ago. The Machinists Union has embarked on an effort to organize the unemployed. They’ve created some sort of structure to tap into the unemployed. There is at least one central labor council in Indiana that’s doing experimentation along the lines of organizing the unemployed. And then the AFL-CIO has this very interesting organization called Working America, which is—I think it has a couple of million members. It’s not—it’s individuals who are not in unions but want to be part of the union movement. And so people join through door-knocking, basically. You know? Canvassers will go and knock on their doors and talk with them. And part of what they’re looking at is organizing among the unemployed as well, because that is a very obvious constituency.
JAY: And that’s coming out of AFL nationally?
FLETCHER: That’s right; that’s coming out of the national AFL-CIO.
JAY: So, in a sense, anybody can join a union in terms of being part of the culture.
FLETCHER: That’s right, exactly, which I think [is] a long time due, great effort. More needs to be done. But I’m somewhat orthodox, I have to admit, and I think that what we need are unemployed councils, much like in the 1930s. We need organizations that are sponsored by the union movement but build up their own identity. There’s other parts of the world, actually, where there’s been experimentation. In southern Africa there’s been a whole series of experiments around union movement reaching out to the so-called informal economy and encouraging informal economy organizations to build and to unite with the established labor movement. So there are these experiments that are taking place. This is not something that’s not been done before. We can do much of this work here.
JAY: Okay. Well, we’ll see whether the unions do it.
FLETCHER: I have my fingers crossed.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
FLETCHER: My pleasure. Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.