#116 Mar/Apr 2001

Keep Growing the Grassroots

The Bush administration, in its first appointments and executive orders, has made it clear that labor unions, and working people in general, will be primary targets. Conservatives are worried about […]

The Bush administration, in its first appointments and executive orders, has made it clear that labor unions, and working people in general, will be primary targets. Conservatives are worried about the improved political effectiveness of the labor movement.

At the same time, there is a growing sentiment in the labor movement that the rights of workers must become the focus of a new, broad-based civil rights movement. The Service Employees Union (SEIU) Justice for Janitors campaign has achieved dramatic success over the past decade largely by adopting this strategy, combining a public effort to claim the moral high ground with a militant effort to challenge both employers and the ultimate powers in their industry.

Part of this strategy involves creating links with the communities in which union members – or potential members – live and work. The labor movement, especially since the election of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in 1995, has given renewed emphasis to doing this, in part driven by the desperate recognition that it needs allies to defend its members and regain its ground.

For example, in the summer of 1995, management at the Miramar Sheraton Hotel in Santa Monica, California, attempted to decertify its employees’ union. But the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) allied themselves with community groups like the new Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART), local public employee unions and Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, and fought back. With critical help from these allies, HERE strengthened Miramar’s very weak union, proposed an innovative tourism living wage ordinance, defeated the hotel industry’s sham living wage alternative (and most of the industry-backed city council candidates), and launched an aggressive organizing campaign at Santa Monica hotels that has already succeeded at one location. The new coalition not only has bolstered a key private sector union but also has breathed new life into the long-established community progressive movement.

Other examples are far-ranging:

  • Central labor councils – local federations of unions – have become far more active through the AFL-CIO’s “union cities” initiative that emphasizes aggressive actions of mutual support by unions and local allies.
  • The labor movement has worked closely with new groups of clergy, academics, students and other groups to defend worker rights, fight sweatshops and improve community living standards.
  • Last year the labor movement reversed its longstanding policy of supporting sanctions against employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Now the whole movement is following the lead of HERE, SEIU and UNITE (apparel workers) in working with immigrant groups to organize new immigrant workers, defend immigrant rights and press for amnesty for undocumented immigrants
  • In political campaigns, many local unions and central labor councils are increasing their door-to-door campaigning in working class neighborhoods, often under the banner of “labor to neighbor” organizing, and they are demanding that labor-backed elected officials actively support workers who are trying to organize unions.
  • The living wage movement, started through an alliance of the public employee union (AFSCME) and an affiliate of the community-based Industrial Areas Foundation, has swept through dozens of cities, propelled by the community organizing group ACORN and a variety of unions.

While national alliances, such as a broad-based progressive effort to oppose Bush’s proposed tax cuts, will remain critical parts of a liberal strategy, the long-range future for labor – and ultimately progressive politics in America – will rely as much, or more, on the success of grassroots alliances of unions and community organizations, together expanding their agendas and the range of people whom they organize.


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