Labour allies with intellect

October 3, 1997

AFTER a generation of defeat and retreat, American labour is fighting back. Remembering a time when industrial and cultural workers marched together, labour's leadership has invited intellectuals, artists and students to join in the reinvigoration of the United States progressive tradition. Excited by labour's call, we have begun to mobilise.

Twenty-five years ago, American capital reneged on its postwar "social contract" with organised labour - the unions of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) - to pursue a class war from above. Corporate bosses sought to roll back workers' wages and benefits and, if possible, to "bust" their unions in favour of increased profits and greater management control.

Bankrolling the ascendancy of the New Right and Reaganism, business has succeeded in advancing its cause on all fronts. Ill-prepared for the offensive, the organised share of the labour force has fallen back from 25 to 14 per cent.

Today, capital rules and, while the rich have grown richer, working folk have grown poorer.

Down, but not out, in October 1995 the AFL-CIO unions elected John Sweeney and his "new voice" team to lead them. Sweeney promised a fresh commitment to "organising the unorganised", addressing the needs of women and minorities, and promoting the interests of all working people. In speeches and a book, America Needs a Raise, Sweeney spoke of seeking allies and placing labour at the heart of a new progressive movement. He publicly positioned himself on the left by joining Democratic Socialists of America.

Sweeney and his lieutenants quickly moved to restructure the AFL-CIO. They gave top priority to organising and began to try out new ideas, like "Union Summer 1996". Modelled after Freedom Summer, the 1964 civil rights drive, Union Summer successfully recruited more than 1,000 college students to serve in community and workplace organising efforts. This year they added "Senior Summer" in which retired folks worked with the younger recruits.

Inspired by labour's actions, Steven Fraser, a New York editor and writer, and Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of Virginia history professor, organised an autumn 1996 "Teach-In with the Labor Movement" (fashioned after the Vietnam teach-ins of the 1960s). In addition to Sweeney, a host of scholarly "celebrities" including Betty Friedan, Eric Foner, David Montgomery, Frances Fox Piven, Norman Birnbaum, Cornell West and Richard Rorty addressed a crowd of 2,500 at Columbia University in New York City.

Opinions at the teach-in diverged on questions of race, gender and "identity politics". Nevertheless, every speaker welcomed labour's new militancy and progressivism, and each reiterated the call for an alliance of unionists and intellectuals. No doubt, they all had in mind the 1930s when intellectuals had rallied to the cause of the labour movement and also the 1960s when, sadly, the Vietnam war had deeply alienated the academic left and students from organised labour.

Those of us who have sought to serve as democratic public intellectuals, and to break out of the trap, realise that we need to reconnect with the union movement. We appreciate the intimate connection between the class war against labour and the concurrent culture war against academic humanists. We have seen the subordination of our own "trades" to the imperatives of capital, entailing budget cuts, downsizing, and the spread of part-time labour.

Liberal and left periodicals such as Dissent, Lingua Franca, DoubleTake, Boston Review, Monthly Review, The Baffler, Bad Subjects, Mother Jones, New Politics, Social Text, Tikkun and The Nation have taken up the "labour question" in a big way in 1997. Entire issues have been devoted to work, the working class and the new labour movement. In fact, publishers M.E. Sharpe have launched a new bi-monthly magazine, Working USA.

A further hint of a new national mood was the special spring issue of Life, dedicated to "Celebrating Our Heroes", included labour organisers and activists like Mother Jones and Cesar Chavez in its pantheon. Here in Wisconsin the state legislature is near to passing a bill which would require schools to teach the history of the labour movement. The popular nightly television quiz show Wheel of Fortune recently saluted "Working Families and their Unions" with a week of "union-member only" contestants. Most notably, the August strike and victory at the giant United Parcel Service by the (hitherto scorned) Teamsters Union received wide support.

Perhaps the best evidence of change is the renewed attention the right is paying the labour movement. Rightwing columnists have returned to bitterly attacking labour's new leadership and union-busting law firms have started to advertise their skills again. Conservatives are worried that their celebrated "end of history" has itself come to an end.

Indeed, a movement might actually be in the making. The Columbia teach-in instigated 20 other similar events across the nation and still more are scheduled for this coming semester.

Thrilled by developments, the organisers of the first teach-in called together 60 of us - known for our pro-labour writings and activities - in the hope of forming a national network of intellectuals and artists in support of the new labour movement.

Meeting in late May at American University in Washington DC, participants ranged from veterans of the postwar progressive campaigns, 1960s radicals and twenty-somethings involved in graduate-student or off-campus initiatives.

I could not recall a more hopeful assemblage of left intellectuals. Both Sweeney and the AFL-CIO's new executive vice president, Linda Chavez-Thompson, spoke. They were clearly delighted by our eagerness to work with them and the greater part of the meeting was spent discussing projects. A new organisation was launched. Twenty of us "met" during the summer via email, and a couple of times in New York, to work out the basic details. Finally, on September 1 - America's Labor Day - we launched "Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice".

We have received a tremendous response. In the months ahead, we plan to convene a national meeting, likely dedicated to "The Rights of Workers", and, in tandem with labour unions and other progressive groups, we envisage formulating an Economic Bill of Rights. Together, workers and intellectuals might yet make history anew, audaciously and democratically.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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