Here are some imponderable questions: what role should big labor play in progressive coalitions? If so, how? What about Occupy?
If we look at the political landscape in recent times it is clear that there is not one answer. On one hand, labor unions are most definitely not the voice of the 1% – they have been the voice of the working people they represent at a time of cutbacks and increasing austerity, and often one of the only voices of reason as cities and states decimate all kinds of public services. And, from Los Angeles to Madison to New York City there are all sorts of examples of community-labor coalitions that have been for the good. On the other hand, the big labor unions seem to be stuck in a co-dependent and abusive relationship with the Democratic Party. And if you speak to progressives and radicals within those unions, you don’t have to dig too deep to learn about undemocratic practices, hierarchical leadership structures, and an instrumental relationship to communities. It sometimes seems that for every inspiring example you hear about a progressive coalition you then you also hear about unions playing hardball with community groups. The charge you sometimes hear – that “unions only care about their own,” seems to find evidence in the checkered record some of the big organizations have with regards to immigrant and not-documented workers, temporary laborers, and youth.
One of the things I have been writing about, here in Spain, has been the way that the 15M movement has maintained a distance from the labor movement, which is seen as in the pocket of one of the political parties, as well as made up of anti-democratic and hierarchical organizations. In an essay coming out in the next Boston Review, Ernesto Ganuza and I close the essay with some reflections on this very theme:
In spite of the strict ban on special-interest promotion, the lesson from the Indignados of Spain is not that unions or other groups have no part to play in a radically democratic movement. Rather, to play a part, they need to make their demands for just democracy more than a slogan or an election strategy. Yes, unions need to focus more on speaking for the common good, as some leaders have acknowledged in efforts to connect with Occupy. But they need to understand that ossified leadership structures and dependence on political parties are at odds with the larger goal of achieving a genuinely democratic renewal.
Recently I received a story from “Truthout” about a recent primary election in my hometown of Providence. The article, called “The 99% takes Office” tells one version of the story of the special election to replace city councilor Miguel Luna, who unexpectedly passed earlier this year, leaving us with a huge gap in the world of social justice. Miguel – whom I’d had actually the privilege of working with earlier this year, had been city councilor for Providence’s Ward 9 for eight years. A leader in what seems like every meaningful struggle in the city in recent years – affordable housing, workers’ rights, police misconduct, lead poisoning, he held the distinction of being the first Dominican elected to political office in Rhode Island and was a founding member of DARE – Direct Action for Rights and Equality. Miguel was also fiercely independent.
I was stunned to read the story, and given its tone it is not hard to understand why so many people in the social justice world of Providence are furious at its publication.
What the story does not tell, in its effort to make the winning candidate a “voice for the 99%,” is what actually happened in the election. The article says that the winning candidate,
drew support from the Laborers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Painters, SEIU and the Teachers Union, as well as from the city’s Central Labor Council.
Another way of putting it is that Local 217 of UNITE HERE and its allies above, put tens of thousands of dollars into an election, and bringing scores of out-of-town white organizers into Ward 9, a primarily Latino and Black area, so as to support one of its members in the election. UNITE HERE did this against the wishes of very many progressive community organizers who had come together in near-consensus around the candidacy of Rochelle Lee.
In what is, unfortunately and sadly, not a new turn of events, organized labor steamrolled community. The campaign of Rochelle Lee, which was essentially unfunded, lost in the end by only 29 votes. A participant in her campaign recalled:
it was one of the most beautiful examples of Black/Latino (and Asian and White) unity ever in Providence politics, again, part of Miguel’s legacy. We know that we won in many ways, not the least of which was dollars per vote. We were also able to keep Miguel’s broad vision and menu of issues, his revolutionary spirit, and especially his heart front and center during the campaign.
And then, to add insult to injury, is the spin-piece going around by Truthout. There are several inaccuracies in the piece, and most of the details won’t concern people outside of Providence, but for example, the winning candidate, who never had much to nice to say about the late Miguel Luna is quoted as being his “best friend.”
And then, of course, it ignores how the election was won. Here is what we take to be UNITE HERE’s election playbook during this election: Steam-rolling community folks; using professional organizers; winning a campaign with dollars; following it up with cynical propaganda pieces like this one. Shame on UNITE HERE: this helps give labor bad name, and this kind of thing goes some way to explain why people are hesitant about unions. But the very worst inaccuracy is the claim that is somehow the spirit of Occupy. This behavior is, in every way possible, business as usual. The chant comes to mind: “You do not represent us!” And the question comes to mind: is it time to occupy big labor ?