David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Book Review: "Audacious Democracy"
Steven Fraser and Joshua Freeman, eds.; Houghton Mifflin, 1997
Book Review by David Bacon

In October 1995, John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO in the federation's first contested election in almost a hundred years. For two decades, U.S. unions have faced an increasing crisis - the inability of cold-war business unionism to respond effectively to growing corporate attacks on labor and declining union membership. Sweeney promised a change in direction.

Audacious Democracy, a selection of essays by labor academics and high-ranking AFL-CIO staff (including Sweeney), offers a good insight into what the new AFL-CIO reformers have in mind. It illuminates the ongoing debate over how far the change in U.S. labor needs to go for unions to regain their former strength.

Finding the source of labor's decline is a key to rebuilding it, and the volume presents what is becoming a clear difference of opinion on this question. Bill Fletcher, the AFL-CIO's education director, writes the seminal contribution, tracing the existence of two trends in U.S. unionism..

His clear view of labor history describes the historical demand of one trend, a class-based economic program benefiting all workers, encompassing a fight against racism and the inclusion of immigrants and the unemployed. Fletcher contrasts this approach to business unionism, the idea that labor should only defend its own members, and avoid challenging an economic system based on inequality. Neoliberal economics, he points out, marginalizes millions of people as the price for rising profits. Labor's political fortunes are tied to its willingness to fight for those at the bottom, he says, rather than treating them as a threat to a privileged caste.

Fletcher's analysis is supported by important contributions from Manning Marable, Karen Nussbaum, Francis Fox Piven and Mae Ngai. Ngai in particular calls for unions not only to organize immigrants, but to reverse past AFL-CIO support for anti-immigrant policies, especially employer sanctions.

AFL-CIO President Sweeney denounces the human cost of corporate downsizing, in an economy in which profits have risen sharply. "For American workers and their families, these are snapshots from hell," he thunders.

He recalls the strength of the unions of his youth during the 1950s, asserting that management had a fundamental respect for labor of that era. Unions became complacent, he believes, and stopped organizing the workforce as it changed.

David Montgomery, a labor historian from Yale, however, warns against this view of history. He recalls that a militant, left-wing CIO emerged from World War Two demanding radical social reforms, including democracy in the South, national healthcare and childcare, the right to a job, nationalization of power producers and other industries, and overall economic planning. This program fell victim to the McCarthyite purges of communists and left-wing activists. The business unionism of Sweeney's youth was built on an abandonment of that program.

The accommodation to corporate domination, Montgomery asserts, led to labor's decline. Labor today can't inspire the social movement necessary to organize millions of workers without a radical social vision, he says.

Ron Blackwell, director of the corporate affairs department of the AFL-CIO, provides some examples of the federation's thinking about how such a social movement can be built. He describes the campaign against The Gap over the abuse of workers in Central American sweatshops, the United Farm Workers organizing drive among immigrant strawberry pickers in Watsonville, California, and tire workers' defense of their working conditions against the Japanese owners of Bridgestone/Firestone Corp.

A global economy, Blackwell says, whipsaws workers against each other from country to country. Immigration, he points out, is a product of economic policies facilitating the movement of capital and production. Unions must have an international perspective to fight effectively.

Debate over these issues of changing direction is vital to the survival of unions in the U.S.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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