The Labor Movement: Is Anybody Home?

The Labor Movement: Is Anybody Home?

Labor movements are remarkable modern institutions. All over the world, they have fought for what Marx called “the political economy of the working class.” They have transformed exploited workers into active citizens, and Social Darwinist battlegrounds into civilized and decent places whose members can count on public education, public housing, public health. Hundreds of millions of people who never give unions a thought stand in their debt.

But, although this progress is real, it isn’t guaranteed. Half a century ago, Albert Camus rewrote the myth of Sisyphus, whom he portrayed as “proletarian of the gods.” This hero rolls an enormous stone up a mountain—participates in grueling but satisfying work that leads to social progress—only to see it roll down again. Anybody close to American labor knows this story all too well. In the long years of George Meany’s hegemony, the AFL-CIO lost its collective drive and its care for public welfare. It devolved into a bunch of particularist protection agencies for certified members. Without its civic leadership, America collapsed into the concrete jungle we all know, with thriving sweatshops and penal systems and people sleeping in the streets. (Weep for Michael Harrington, Cassandra of this modern tragedy.)

John Sweeney & Company could seize power because it was clear that workers were politically isolated; the labor movement would have to reach out and organize the rest of American society or it would die. The AFL-CIO’s Union Summer project reinvented the occupation of organizer, and thousands of young people are organizing, above all in our ever-growing “human service” industries. Other people are working with on-line workers, many of whom don’t know they are workers at all, even after they have been atomized, downsized, outsourced, and re-engineered into the ground. Other people are developing coalitions with environmentalists and trying to give labor a global horizon. That’s the point of those thrilling protests against the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. These different strokes attract different folks; but they are all trying to roll that stone uphill once more.

SO WHERE are they now? Why has W. gotten such a free ride to the right? When his people hit the ground running, how come nobody hit back? The Democratic Party seems even more clueless in 2001 than it was in 2000. These guys actually won the election, yet they are still shaking as if the Big Unit has just struck them out. People all over the country are fed up with W.’s Gilded-Age deference to capital and his cowboy environmentalism, but the party seems to have no idea of how to reach them. A little power—say, control of the Senate—might concentrate their minds. But unlike the GOP, which knows it is the party of the rich, the Democratic Party has a notoriously shaky idea of what it’s there for. It can’t be trusted to pull itself together unless there is a labor movement p...