David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Unions and the Fight for Multi-Racial Democracy
by David Bacon

BERKELEY, CA (2/6/99) - Address to California Studies Conference, University of California at Berkeley

California, like many other states, already has a multi-racial working class. Very soon in the next millenium, the state will become a majority-minority state, in which white people will no longer make up a majority of the population. This is already true in Hawaii, and is likely to become the case in other states in the coming decade.

But while we have a multi-racial working class, working people still have little political power -- a democracy in form, but not in substance. How well our class is organized, how successfully it battles for political representation and its own political interests, will determine what kind of democracy we have. Working-class power will determine especially if this democracy represents the needs of African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American and other people of color, who are overwhelmingly working-class themselves.

In California, changing demographics in population are changing the face of the workforce, and because of that, the labor movement as well. These changes are giving immigrant workers in particular a powerful tool for winning greater economic power and increasing their ability to participate in politics.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Local 6 -- the warehouse union of the ILWU -- was a union in danger of disappearing a decade ago. Many of its shops had closed and run away, a common experience for many industrial unions. Latino organizers in Local 6 made an alliance with immigrant workers already unhappy over their conditions. That alliance is saving their union.

At Rubberstampede, a toy sweatshop in Emeryville, the union lost an election in 1996 because of promises of wage raises from the boss. When those promises were broken, a spontaneous 16-week strike won a contract for over 300 workers. At Mediacopy, a tape duplication plant in San Leandro, the union defied immigration raids, cooperation between the INS and the company, and a terror campaign by unionbusters. Again the local lost an election, but eventually won a bargaining order, and a contract for over 700 new members. Then in Oakland, garbage recycling workers became angry at their employer on finding out the company that had a city contract requiring it to pay $8 an hour, while giving workers minimum wage. Workers struck and won. Now a hundred new members belong to Local 6.

Local 6 organizers began to use the combination of the militancy of this new workforce with the union's own tradition of solving problems through direct action on the job. At the Altamont garbage dump, and on the waste recycling lines in San Leandro, workers started solving grievances by having safety meetings on company time, and refusing to go back to work until the company negotiated directly with them. Some people were fired, and the INS raided one of the sites. But the union and workers haven't been intimidated into silence.

These are not just instances of savvy organizers manipulating a passive workforce. This movement is based on a democratic upsurge among workers themselves, angry over their exclusion from the economic and political process generally. While their efforts won contracts and better conditions, they've had a profound effect far beyond that, on the union itself. In December Local 6 elected its first Latino president -- Roberto Flotte. It was an historic achievement. Almost two decades ago, Roberto Flotte's father, the first Latino business agent in Local 6, was assassinated in the union hall. Now one of his sons is the local president, and the other is its organizer.

Local 6's experience epitomizes a dilemma for many unions. On the one hand, their leaders see organizing immigrants as the answer to declining membership and power. But the militancy of this workforce, which unions depend on for success, and the expectations these workers bring with them as new members, can upset the established political structure and leadership.

In Los Angeles in early 1990s, Mexican and Central American immigrants battled police and won contracts in Century City, and rebuilt the janitors' union. But then a group of those workers ran candidates for office, and beat the old guard. In the midst of internal turmoil, the international union placed the local in trusteeship.

That didn't happen in Local 6, because the democratic structure of the union helped it survive. The ILWU is a union with roots in the democratic upsurge of the 1930s. The rank-and-file run it as a result. Internal democracy helped the local survive the transition and grow.

White workers, who have been the majority population in California's labor movement, and still dominate its leadership, have had some hard choices to make. Many unions have seen conflict over racial, national and gender representation.

In San Francisco, Painters Local 4 is trying to get rid of its first elected Latino business agent, Lucho Mauricio. Mauricio helped to save the union, almost doubling its membership by bringing in primarily Latino immigrants and African-American workers. The threat posed by this change in demographics to the existing local leadership was heightened by the fact that Lucho defended the conditions of these new workers against contractors with longstanding ties to officials. Local leaders and the international union have made wave after wave of charges against him, suspending him from office.

In the local carpenters union, however, the reaction has been different. At BMP, a large earthquake retrofitting company, the union helped the company's immigrant workers to organize in a militant, direct action campaign. In the middle of the drive, the union picketed the company's offices. On the picketline, an older white man, a union member for many years, looked at the Mexican workers around him and observed that "these people are going to save our union, We've been shrinking for years," he said. "and losing control over our work. If we survive, it's going to be because they get organized and join us." Implied in his comment is the understanding that his local may become, if it survives, a majority-Mexican union. And to him, the survival of the union is the important thing, not the race or nationality of its members.

The lesson is that unions only survive by opening their doors and giving the members control, not by barring them.

Today the ILWU is a multi-racial union. In the longshore division, Harry Bridges made a commitment to the African-American community of the Bay Area during the 1934 longshore strike in which the union was organized. Side with us, he said, with the primarily white workers on strike, and we will bring down the color line imposed by the shipping companies. Black workers fought alongside white, and the union lived up to its promise. Today, Local 10, the San Francisco longshore union, is a majority African-American union. It has higher wages and a better standard of living for its members than most other unions in northern California, black or white. In Los Angeles, Local 13, the LA longshore union, is a majority Latino union. And in Hawaii, the huge Local 142, with half the whole international union's membership, is made up of mostly Japanese- and Filipino-American workers.

But Bridges always said that the purpose of gaining control over jobs wasn't to create an island of high wages and privilege in a sea of poverty and powerlessness. The purpose is to gain power to change society. This is the challenge for unions generally.

African-American longshore men and women have a high standard of living now, much higher than the general population of the Bay Area. But their jobs are few today -- less than a thousand. In the meantime, the African-American communities of East Oakland, North Richmond and East Palo Alto have depression levels of unemployment, and a generation of young people are being locked away in prisons. Winning good conditions for longshore workers is only part of the battle. The challenge for the union is finding ways to use its power to organize and fight for better conditions in the whole community.

The same challenge exists in Hawaii, where the growth of the ILWU changed the island's politics profoundly in the 40s, 50s and 60s, ending the virtual dictatorship of the five sugar and pineapple families. But now the sugar and pineapple are gone, replaced by tourism. And while the union has many new jobs in that industry, the heady days of its political dominance are fading.

Democracy is not possible in this country without a strong labor movement. But the labor movement cannot survive and win political power by itself.

There are two simultaneous requirements for the growth of the movement for multi-racial democracy. First, the labor movement must be rebuilt. It is in the interest of working people and communities of color in general to fight for the right to organize, and that right can't be won without a general commitment far beyond labor's own ranks. Organizing has become a war in the workplace. Democratic rights -- to speak, to hold opinions, to associate freely, to publish what you think -- stop at the door to the job. One worker in every ten participating in a union organizing drive gets fired.

For immigrant workers, the risk is even greater. Those who have no documents cannot collect unemployment, cannot be reinstated if the National Labor Relations Board holds they were fired for union activity, and cannot legally find another job at all. There is no democracy where the right to a union is concerned.

Yet it is in the broad interest of communities in general that workers organize. There would be no debate of the privatization and gutting of Social Security if the labor movement represented half the workers in the U.S., instead of an eighth. If the workers of Silicon Valley, mostly immigrant women and people of color working in the bastion of the union-free environment, had strong unions, they could have stopped software billionaire Ron Unz from organizing the Proposition 227 campaign to gut bilingual education.

Strong, democratic unions can be the bastion of the movement for social change. That gives the majority of people, white and minority, an interest in defending workers on the front lines, trying to organize on their jobs. To succeed, these workers need an environment in which their whole community supports them, and will take action to protect their rights.

But community/labor alliances, the backbone of the movement for multi-racial democracy, are two-way streets. Unions have to become social movements, defending the rights of workers and communities in general. This is not easy either.

California's labor movement can take credit for holding many socially progressive positions. So far, the state has the only state federation which calls for abolishing employer sanctions against undocumented workers. When the state's unions fought to preserve Cal-OSHA and won an increase in the minimum wage, they helped defend the interests of all workers, especially those on the bottom, not just union members. Local unions of janitors and teachers turned their offices into campaign headquarters to defeat Propositions 187 and 209. California labor bankrolled much of the campaigns against these racist wedge initiatives.

But tension still exists between narrow self-interest and social movement unionism. In November's election, local unions and activists on the ground struggled to link the campaigns against Propositions 226 and 227 together. Both were attacks on working people. But 226 was much more directly an attack on the power of unions themselves, hitting at their ability to participate in election campaigns. Basic democratic rights were the target of Proposition 227, which denies the right of immigrant children and their families to use their native language in the classroom.

On the statewide level, many labor campaign strategists decided not to link these issues together, or campaign against them jointly. This kind of realpolitik places immediate tactical advantage over the long-term necessity of building a stronger movement. It assumes that white workers in particular can't be educated in the course of a campaign to defend immigrants or women or communities of color.

Yet the right educates workers all the time in elections, convincing people, for instance, that immigrants are a drain on the economy instead of a source of fabulous profits for employers. This short-sighted strategy undermines the equality and mutual interest necessary to build a strong alliance between unions and working-class communities, especially communities of color.

But two long-term changes point to ways of resolving these problems. First, unions are being forced to change by their need to organize to survive. The racial, national and gender composition of labor is changing, from the bottom to the top. It is already a big contrast to the majority-white, conservative complexion of the unions of the 1960s and 70s. In a decade, the labor movement will be even more different.

The power of changing demographics in the voting population will change the political playing field profoundly as well. California will be a majority-minority state. That general shift, and the sharp increase in the number of new-citizen voters in particular, will put an end to the era of the racist rightwing initiative.

Both developments only create better conditions for the development of progressive politics. Objective conditions can't substitute by themselves for the education and political discussion needed to make workers aware of their own interests as a class. Better conditions only make it even more necessary for progressive, leftwing and class-conscious activists to organize and struggle for a more far-sighted political agenda. But these changes make it much more possible to fight for profound social and economic change, the foundation for multi-racial democracy.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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