Labor: Take the Responsibility
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
     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
     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
     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.


     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.


     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
     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
     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.