Union Makes Us Strong

Joel Bleifuss

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With this issue “Can Labor Lead Again?” In These Times celebrates its 27th anniversary by examining America’s unions and the role they play in leading a progressive movement.

With more than a century of success at bettering the lot of working people, labor provides progressives with a vital lesson. At its heart, the union movement is an exercise in democracy—people joining together to exercise their collective will to improve the lives of themselves, their families and their fellow citizens. Similarly, only by coming together as an organized and strategically focused political force will American labor and progressives be able to change the current political system that puts corporate interests above that of the public good.

In the first editorial focusing on labor and written just weeks after its founding, In These Times underscored the importance of labor unions to developing a united progressive movement. In “Labor and Electoral Politics,” published on November 29, 1976, we observed:
For the left as a whole, the trade union movement is centrally important. Unions are the largest and most consistently active organizations of working people. … The labor movement has provided and continues to provide the richest experience of working people cooperating across lines of race, ethnic origin, sex and age in a common organizational framework and toward common goals.
In the first issue of In These Times, David Moberg critiqued the United Auto Workers’ 1976 contract with Detroit automakers. He followed up in our second issue with the first story in a series on American unions, in which he wrote: “Unions or, more accurately, unionism does give workers a sense of ‘we’ that is one of the main balances to the American cultural emphasis on ‘me.’ … The impact of unions in America today is not only to win wages and benefits but, perhaps even more important, to give workers a small measure of security, a feeling of power, a sense of self worth, defense against arbitrary management authority and a belief in solidarity with other workers.”

With this special issue on labor we continue that tradition of giving the labor movement the coverage it’s due.

Moberg writes today that labor is unified by a “new sense of urgency about organizing,” but “will have to confront serious restructuring, expand its organizational options, and reconcile internal democracy with the need for industrial democracy if it hopes to create its own new tidal wave of expansion.”

Andy Stern, president of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union, writes that “revitalized unions are crucial to a revitalized progressive movement” and that for labor to revitalize it must learn to function as a “united workers’ movement” rather than a “loose trade association of 65 disparate unions.”

Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, writes: “To really improve the lives of working men and women, and build lasting power, we must grow our unions by organizing. … [A]nd it is the best way for us to bolster the efforts of the entire progressive community.”

Dorian Warren, of the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies, writes that while the current discussion focuses on how unions can grow and mobilize, the labor movement must learn to recognize that the multiple ethnic, racial, gender and sexual “identities of workers—and the varied and overlapping injustices they face as a result—bring valuable and often underused resources to a union.”

Adam Werbach, former president of the Sierra Club, writes that the Bush administration is compelled to find wedge issues that divide the labor and environmental movements because if “these two groups joined together to support an agenda for working families that included ecological protection, the president could find himself out of a job.”

These stories are followed with snapshots of current labor struggles that illustrate the challenges labor faces today.

This issue of In These Times also celebrates another kind of union, the community of readers who donate above and beyond the cost of their subscription and thus publish this magazine. On page 38 we thank you for helping us through our 27th year.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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