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Working In These Times

Monday, Sep 6, 2010, 8:14 am

What’s Missing From the Movement? Leaders!

BY Richard Greenwald

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They're needed more than ever this Labor Day

There will, no doubt, be lots of posts and articles about Labor Day, many of which will offer prescriptions for labor. Many will stress needed political and economic reforms, or focus on rank-and-file or the unrepresented majority of the working class.

These are important areas, clearly. But, what about today’s labor leaders? A vibrant movement needs and deserves leaders. Where have all the leaders gone?

I am a New Yorker, a city with the highest percentage of unionized workers in the United States. But, even in Gotham, labor has lost its muscle. And it can’t be attributed solely to a decline in union density or membership.

There was a time, as recently as the 1970s and even the 1980s, when New York’s labor movement could swing elections, when its leaders commanded public attention and were civic leaders. Feared, hated or loved, they mattered.

In New York City, Victor Gotbaum, Executive Director of DC 37, AFSCME, Albert Shanker, President of the UFT/AFT, and the Central Labor Committee’s Harry Van Arsdale, were part of the city’s power structure. They represented workers, and because of their clout, they could deliver. When New York City almost went bankrupt, it was the Gotham’s unions who used their pension funds to save the city.

And what did unions get for it? Who remembers the risks they took for their city?  

Now what? Where are the leaders? Sam Roberts, writing in The New York Times in 2007 said, “What of Gotbaum, Shanker and the other labor lions of yesteryear? They’ve largely been succeeded by cubs.” That's a powerful charge.

The labor movements needs much, but this Labor Day my hope is that a new generation of leaders, representing today's workers, will soon command the attention Gotbaum received in his heyday. Wouldn’t it be nice to see that?


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Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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