Labor: Take the Responsibility Gehan Perera lays out youth's stake in revitalizing the U.S. labor movement. I walked into a college lecture hall the other day to give a talk on the state of the labor movement, in particular how it relates to communities of color. The class in which I was lecturing dealt with the role of race and class in protest movements, and the students were largely young people of color. Some of them were friends of mine. The teacher's assistant had informed me that many of the students were radical in thought or had become increasingly radical through the course of the semester. He added that few of them had any avenue to direct their energies and vision. I was curious as I began. I wondered and asked how many of them had family members in unions? What did they picture when they thought of unions and union members? What type of workers were in unions? Of what race were they and in what occupations? What about union leaders? Their answers were not surprising. Nearly a third indicated that they had a family member in a union (a higher number than I expected.) In terms of union members, a few said that there were janitors, hotel workers, teachers, farm workers and garment workers. The majority associated unions with autoworkers, factory workers, heavy industry and white men. As for union leadership, one woman said they look like politicians. "Bureaucrats," said a young man. In regard to the labor movement as a whole, they said it generally seemed to cooperate with business, and to not really fight for the interest of workers. The consensus was that the labor movement was not very powerful. These would have been my thoughts exactly, and woefully, they seem to be not far from reality. The labor movement is in decline. Only 15 percent of the total workforce is in unions, and the percentage is even lower in the private sector alone. Much of the decline can be credited to years of government anti-union action as well as to increasingly vicious and sophisticated campaigns by employers. At the same time, the mainstream labor movement has done a terrible job in adapting to the changing face of capitalism. Bill Clinton illustrated this point at the AFL-CIO's national convention. Clinton claimed that labor's major accomplishment has been in trying to attain and maintain middle class jobs for Americans. However, middle class jobs are simply not being recreated in this country. Capitalism is not at a point of expansion. Since 1979 60 percent of all jobs created have paid less than $7,200 per year, and there has been a 47 percent increase in the number of full-time workers living under the poverty level. Capital is expanding globally while divesting in domestic manufacturing: between 1981 and 1985 alone, 20 million jobs have been eliminated due to plant closures. Service sector jobs paying half of manufacturing wages seem to be the only positions available. Since 1987, service and retail jobs have made up 94 percent of the new jobs created. This has been coupled with a dramatic increase in part-time work: people who work part- time due to the lack of full-time work has risen an amazing 151% in 15 years. Part-time jobs pay only half per hour of their identical full-time counterparts, two-thirds provide no health benefits and four-fifths no pension. Furthermore, two-thirds of these jobs have been taken by women, and one- third of all Latinos and African Americans are forced into working part-time. The labor movement has been slow to respond to these developments. Only five percent of the service sector is organized and virtually none of the part- time work. A GENERAL CRISIS All this adds up to a general situation of crisis not only for the labor movement but for U.S. society in general. We are at a point of heightened tension between the globally operating captains of capitalism and their victims. Such a situation may seem despairing, but crisis is also a breeding ground for transformation. There are more people than ever for whom the system is failing and who would be willing to partake in a mass movement for a just society. For an established institution like the labor movement, this crisis affords political space. There is a need for somebody, anybody, to do something, anything, to jump start the labor movement from its current state of demise. For many the struggle around labor seems non-relevant. The brunt of the system seems to bear on people who have little or no connection to the economic system at all. This seems to put the battle for social change somewhere other than labor. But the current exclusion of so many from employment is not new. There has never been a time when capitalism has provided full employment except artificially during war. There has always been unemployment, and people of color, youth, and recent immigrants have consistently been afflicted worst. It is crucial to not isolate the unemployed and structurally oppressed as groups separate from the working class. The unemployed and employed make up one class. Those with power have been able to successfully divide and create artificial contradictions amongst people who are basically in the same position. Bosses use the perceived and real desperation of the unemployed, particularly youth and immigrants, to keep workers' wages down and stifle worker resistance through threats of replacing them with the vast pool of jobless souls. It's an artificial division. On both sides of the split it is the moneyed classes which benefit. The downward pressure on wages and conditions through the persistence of sub-standard jobs and the maintenance of poverty and unemployment provides an upward push for profits. Similarly, the squashing of worker resistance facilitates global expansion and complete corporate control of society. The truth lies in the commonalty of the interests between the unemployed and employed. So we face both crisis and possibility. And a revived labor movement is in an ideal candidate to participate and take leadership in a revived mass movement. But for the labor movement to step up to this task would require a radical departure from the way unions in this country operate and perceive themselves. ORGANIZING MISSION First, the labor movement must re-commit itself to prioritizing organizing as its central mission. This is the only way that it can rebuild power, adapt to the current state of the economy, and be in touch with the issues and conditions of today's workers. But simply organizing people into the present structure is not enough. In order to be a relevant force, the labor movement must fundamentally redefine itself as a social movement with a mission. This means departing from the tradition of "business unionism," looking beyond each particular workplace and going beyond pure economism. It means taking up the cause of the most exploited workers, linking the unemployed and the employed. It means thinking systematically and supporting and building a broad united movement that looks to transform the entire society. The plight of youth in today's economy is a prime example of the importance and possibilities in creating a new radical labor movement. All too often young people are overlooked or dismissed, although they play an incredibly important role both in their being the next generation of adult workers and also in their present relation to the labor market. As mentioned, young people are often used to undercut the standards of other workers. The main reason is that young workers -- particularly those of color -- face the highest unemployment. This predicament leads youth to take jobs at whatever cost or whatever pay and with whatever conditions. Although many youth think short term in taking such positions, the long term result is that many find themselves permanently in positions with low wages, high turnover, underemployment, terrible conditions and little room for improvement. Given youth's greater condition of desperation and super-high unemployment, traditional organizing of job sites is not the most feasible. What is needed is to organize for the right to a job as well around specific issue at particular workplaces. This would mean striving to remove the competition for jobs and thus beginning to eradicate the artificial division amongst the people. It would also signify a whole other form of unionism. The door would be opened to move away from purely company-by-company campaigns and take on societal campaigns -- to organize broadly, in mass, and on a large scale. Unions would thus be in a position to move to a more social or community unionism in which the labor movement can then position itself to contribute to the transformation of society. For the young, this is particularly important because youth issues are often broader than just those at work. If unions look beyond narrow workplace issues, they can be an important ally and vehicle for addressing these issues as well. In doing this, labor has the potential of becoming a relevant force in the totality of peoples' lives and in society at large. Labor must take the responsibility to provide vision and a movement to capture the growing aspirations of young people to revolutionize this society.