Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Cultural Divide and Union Organizing

As part of the discussions over the last few days over the left blogosphere and the role of labor in society, Brian noted in a comment:

I'd also add that most of the younger union staff I know all realize that their only future lies in organizing women, young workers and minorities. Of course, easier said than done.

That also squares with my experience. Most young union organizers conceptualize the union movement as a multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-sexual orientation movement that fights for social as well as economic equality.

And that's obviously a good thing.

It is absolutely though a near-180 degree turn from pre-1960s union organizing. And there are some negative implications for it, not that union organizers are to blame.

Most union organizers originate from two places--the shop floor and the college campus. It used to be that, with the exception of some committed radicals coming from outside the workplace, the majority of union organizers were people (almost always men) who worked on the shop floor with the people they organized. Sometimes, college graduates would step into that role, but beforehand they usually acquired jobs in the factory. Not surprisingly, this system tended to replicate the social norms of the shop floor and the broader mainstream society of the early to mid 20th century--racist, sexist, homophobic.

In the 1960s, a new generation of radical came into existence. I hardly need to explain this. We know of the tension between so-called hardhats and the hippies. That divide was primarily cultural rather than policy-driven. Sure, a lot of white working-class men were upset that young people weren't supporting the war in Vietnam, but then after Tet, a lot of people thought the war was a bad idea. More profound was the radical social changes the hippies embodied--freer sexuality, new personal styles, racial equality, drugs.

Despite the fact that by the mid-1970s much of working-class culture had embraced many of these changes on its own terms (think of the 70s trucker image in popular culture for instance. Or, related, Burt Reynolds movies), the resentment remained among a lot of white men.

On top of this, a lot of the most established unions essentially stopped organizing by the late 1950s. The shop floor was no longer a place where workers pushed economic envelopes. The unions provided a great deal to workers and some had high level of member participation.  But real organizing of the traditionally white male workforce at stopped, in no small part because the unions themselves believed that they had achieved a permanent stake in a relatively equitable economic system. And when companies began leaving the unionized North in the 1960s and 70s for the non-union South and then overseas, unions were caught flat-footed.

At the same time, you had a new generation of activists joining a new generation of unions, organizing public sector workers as well as traditionally non-union jobs such as hotel workers and nurses. This led to the rise of unions such as SEIU, AFSCME, and HERE in the 1980s. Because these unions had a more diverse workforce and attracted a diverse set of organizers, they became hotspots for all varieties of social change and economic justice movements in addition to the business of forming and operating a union local.

Even today, the older unions have trouble moving toward new organizing models. And not surprisingly, only 7% of private sector workers are members of a union. Those unions are also not nearly as white as they used to be, though the old AFL craft unions remain pretty male. But they still have the reputation of not only being staid, but politically and socially conservative. I think a lot of young union organizers see these older models of unionization as hopeless. And they see that white men, now very few of whom are union members, as hostile to not only their entire agenda of racial, sexual, and economic democracy. So they see the future as the people they organize--women, non-whites, immigrants.

I'm not sure there's anything to be done about this. But I do find it absolutely remarkable that the 60s cultural divides still have implications not only in broader society and how left-of-center people think about unions, but within the labor movement itself and among its organizers. And it is deeply problematic that the young, most energetic union organizers have a difficult time even speaking to the white male working-class, not to mention organizing them.