OPINION | Wanted: Young Labor Leaders

Whether it’s marching off to war or finding ways to combat climate change, the ideas for addressing the ills of society, the damage to our planet, or the inequality of resources, always come from the young. Student uprisings have focused the world’s attention and forced change on a complacent, stagnate status quo. An old man grows accustomed to his world and hopes it never changes. A young man inherits the old man’s world and dreams of how he can change it.

The young are new to the world; prejudices are unlearned, life has no limitations. Scary words from a scarier time when the world looked locked into mutual destruction bring old men nightmares. Socialism still threatens and the very word conjures up missile silos and bread lines. “Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years,” said President Truman in 1952. But the young haven’t inherited that fear.

Socialism to the young is Denmark and Sweden, co-ops, fire and police departments, public schools, Social Security.  Along came Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist to spur their imaginations and hope. Young people flocked to him and his message of “not me, us” and radical ideas like tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage, and Medicare for All. And it may invigorate a new youth-based union movement. 

For the last forty years pundits have wondered if labor unions are still relevant. Millennials will answer in the affirmative. The idea of a world without unions would be their last, dying capitulation to a rigged system that has created a fragmented job market (see gig economy) with no stability and has made their hopes for home ownership an impossible dream.

Why a Labor Union?

The young see unions as an obvious means of economic power and social mobility. Some have seen the benefits of belonging to a union from their parents or grandparents, but as union density drops to about nine percent, those tenuous connections to our post WWII prosperity are dying. The corporations that employed them are gone or reoriented to a faster paced world where you do more with less.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal and the National Labor Relations Act gave the middle class the ability to buy a home and a new car with money left over to send the kids to college, all on a single breadwinner’s salary. Two years after FDR’s death, his wife Eleanor found herself battling Big Business’ revenge, the Taft-Hartley Act. They wanted to take back their absolute power in a way that was probably supposed to kill labor unions for good. Section 14(b) is called Right-to-Work. 

Right-to-Work is the antithesis of socialist ideals like the right to form associations. It guarantees that no person can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment or even pay dues. Union members call them “freeloaders” because non-members receive the same benefits bargained for and on behalf of their dues-paying members. Those dues allow a grievance to be escalated to outside mediation, to prepare for bargaining and for training the next generation of labor leaders. Without those funds, a union withers and dies.

Eleanor fought against Right-to-Work, but it passed and has now spread to 26 states, including Michigan where Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers built a win-win coalition with the Big Three – Ford, GM, and Chevrolet and secure, well-paid jobs for generations of working families. Now, many plants sit idled and empty. The city of Detroit, faced with unfunded union pensions, spearheaded the effort to pass Right-to-Work. 

Big Business Plan

In 1971, the US Chamber of Commerce attempted to put the final nail in labor’s coffin. Lewis Powell, an attorney for the tobacco companies, was asked to draft a document calling for business conservatives to imprint their views for America’s future. No more trash-talking about America from college students, anti-Vietnam protestors and the radical left. He created a blueprint for business that addressed every institution from colleges to think tanks to the media. Richard Nixon was so impressed he appointed Powell to the Supreme Court. Every Republican president since has adopted the Powell Memo as the ultimate Business Plan. Ronald Reagan handed out copies to his cabinet.

The Powell Memo spawned the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC  created a template for writing legislation that does the bidding of business. Once that legislation becomes law, ALEC shops it around to another state where they continue to patiently move the bill from a statehouse to Congress where it can do the most for their clients. 

The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court in 2010 validated corporations as people, opening the floodgates for unprecedented, obscene campaign contributions. 

As business continues unfettered, emboldened by their successes and a weakened labor movement, what should labor do? Labor was not doing itself any favors. Numerous attempts to form a labor party have been defeated from within and,  with labor’s dwindling numbers, there was neither the will nor the muscle to mount another charge up the hill. No leverage, no money, no power.

There are two factions within labor and it may be as old as the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations divide pre-1955. There’s an Old Guard and the impetuous youth. The Old Guard maintains the status quo. They were okay with the war in Vietnam, they protect the politicians who are content with baby steps and incremental change. A union to them is part of the business transaction. They’re there to guarantee their boys get a piece of the action.  

The progressives, the impetuous youth of the labor movement, think a union meeting should be like going to church, in awe of those who came before and sacrificed so much, calling each other “brother” and “sister” without a hint of irony. They’re “one for all” and “all for one.” “One member, one vote.” They’re always challenging the chair, forever being called out of order. Change is never comfortable and sometimes it’s painful but change we must. These progressives with their demand of principles over protocol remind us of our history and our longtime connection to socialism.

Labor’s history is full of these anti-establishment heroes, hell-raisers and working-class warriors who believed that people of vision, together, could fire up the masses and bring about real change. not timid gestures at the feet of our corporate masters. 

Labor’s Socialist History

The Socialist Party and labor movement have a long history together.  In the 1870s, they were known as the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, eventually calling themselves the Socialist Labor Party. In 1899, there was a falling out with the Old Guard and the young firebrands left the SLP to merge with the Social Democratic Party of America. 

The party advocates “socialist industrial unionism,” the belief in a fundamental transformation of society through a combination of political involvement and action of the working class organized in industrial unions, representing a particular industry such as telecommunications or the automobile industry.

Big Bill Haywood, Harry Bridges and Helen Keller were all believers in socialism, spurred on by the fiery speeches of Eugene V. Debs, a former railroad worker who landed in prison for speaking against the first World War. Debs would garner almost a million votes in a US presidential election while he was behind bars. 

Current Workforce and the Gig Economy

As the young leaders enter the workforce, where are the jobs of tomorrow? Looking for a job today in the L.A. metropolitan area, there is a need for front line workers in supermarkets, driving, and warehouses. The FBI is hiring. Then there is the gig economy. Working for Uber and Lyft can give the illusion of entrepreneurial endeavor with the ability to set their own hours. They can pretend they have autonomy. There is a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of workers and the gig economy obfuscates the real issue: Are drivers employees or contractors? AB 5 in California’s state legislature attempted to deal directly with the exploitation of workers in a variety of industries by defining who is a contractor or employee. 

Labor unions, looking to organize outside their typical base, were first approached for help by freelance truck drivers. The courts ruled in their favor. Millennials and others who drive for Uber, Lyft and the food delivery services see this attempt by labor to intervene on their behalf as an intrusion by the government. It might be said, however, that those who drive for these companies know that often this work is a side hustle while they’re really going to school or supplementing income from another job. 

Organized labor has been after companies who were classifying gig employees as contractors to avoid the costs of everything from workers compensation to unemployment insurance. The California Federation of Labor argued that if a company had the right to hire and fire, those “contractors” were, in actuality, employees. 

Some freelance work was inadvertently captured in the net. Freelance writers were given an arbitrary number of articles (35) they could publish with any one publisher. So it was back to the drawing board to exclude those that really had no intention of ever becoming an employee of a client. The legislature attempted to deal with the unintended consequences of AB 5 with AB 2257 several months later to further clarify the issue and provide a carve-out, an exclusion, for those freelancers who wanted to remain contractors. 

In a last-ditch effort to circumvent the will of the California legislature, Uber and Lyft have brought the issue to the voters in the form of a ballot initiative. Their TV ads opposing Prop 22 were effective; their own “employees,” young and clean-cut, stated emphatically they were contractors and had no wish to be employees. The voters were hood-winked; Prop 22 passed, giving these companies the special status they were seeking. They’re taking their template initiative to other states that are trying to follow California’s example. 

What lessons will young labor leaders take from this confrontation? You don’t always get it right the first or second time, and then you lose anyway. They have also learned that this is a time for bold action. And the window of opportunity is now.

A New Labor Movement

Where will the next generation of union members come from? We need to look at ways we can be more responsive to rank and file and those that have never been union members. We want them to see that the union movement looks out for ALL workers. The issues raised by the attempt to organize and protect workers in the gig economy in California point to ways the labor movement is trying to adapt and address concerns that could affect workers for generations. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers are organizing pot shop workers as marijuana has moved from decriminalization to legalization. “Budtenders” earn from $10 to $20 an hour. The National Writers Union has eschewed organizing in the traditional sense, trying to establish guidelines for freelance writers with magazines rather than deal with stationary workforces and the confines of the National Labor Relations Act. The NWU has also penned letters for O1B candidates who are recruited overseas for jobs in the U.S. “We encourage all the recipients of these letters to consider joining the union,” said President Larry Goldbetter in a conversation with the author. Many union locals have expanded in size, gobbling up other locals to increase their muscle in a particular industry. SEIU-UHW (Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers) is one of those. The drawback is a built-in bureaucracy that may keep members at arm’s length instead of minding the shop floor.   

A new Labor Movement will embrace change rather than stifle it. They will be bold innovators, intent on leaving no one behind in their quest to better the lot of all workers. A bottom-up labor movement will train the next generation; leaders won’t fear possible opponents. Power, brothers and sisters, was meant to be shared.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.

Dan McCrory
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Dan has been writing professionally since the 80s, even before he graduated with a BA in journalism from Cal State, Northridge. His recent book, Capitalism Killed the Middle Class: 25 Ways the System is Rigged Against You, is an examination of the obstacles Capitalism throws our way in our quest for a better life. Dan is currently conducting research for its  sequel, Capitalism: the Global Edition, comparing and contrasting how France, Norway, Thailand, and Morocco treat their working/middle class.

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