Stewart Acuff

Mar 18

The Future of the American Labor Movement (Part 1)

This is the first of a series of blogs written by Stewart Acuff titled The Future of the American Labor Movement.

With the AFL-CIO and the American labor movement announcing at the winter meeting in Florida that they are going to take a good, hard look at themselves and their institutions, I offer a few humble suggestions. The future of the American labor movement and its impact on the lives of workers, American politics, and the American economy is too great not to be the subject of a positive and supportive broad ranging discussion.

First, do not ever give up the fight for full organizing and collective bargaining rights for all American workers. And, when we say all, we mean all, including all those left out of the 1935 Wagner Act, now the National Labor Relations Act. Most left out, of course, were left out to appease southern Democrats and include all public employees – victims of the 10th Amendment and states’ rights, agricultural workers and domestic workers victims of the peonage that replaced slavery.

And, of course, for those covered by the National Labor Relations Act, the law no longer works and must be amended to protect those who try to form unions and bargain collectively. We came very close to fundamental changes in labor law with the Employee Free Choice Act. Whatever we may call it today, our country and our economy need workers to have the full, unabridged, unmitigated freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

The lack of a real and full freedom to form unions and bargain collectively is the core of our economic crisis. 35 years of assaults on workers and unions have led to 35 years of stagnant wages, very weak consumer demand, an 800% increase in incarceration. In effect our anti-poverty program is hustling for cash, then going to prison for three hots and a cot.

The right to organize a union and bargain collectively is accepted by every democracy in the world including South Africa and Brazil. The right to organize and bargain collectively is enshrined in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights created to define the rights of free people after the World War II destruction of Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese Imperialism.

What does the absence of organizing and collective bargaining rights say about freedom and democracy in the United States?

And how can we recover from our ongoing economic crisis caused by the 1 or 2% without greatly increased consumer demand and regular raises negotiated and guaranteed through collective bargaining?

The awful irony is that an almost completely free and unregulated financial sector on Wall St. nearly destroyed the economy of the United States and the world. We bailed them out with our pitiful wages and they continue to rake in cash while we are forced to deny our kids.

No one will campaign for this critical, fundamental right if the labor movement doesn’t. Social change in America takes a very long time – often generations. But what if Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman had given up? What if Gene Debs or A. Philip Randolph or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Harvey Milk or the millions of average Americans who risked everything for a better, freer, more just, more perfect Union had given up?

We call it a struggle because it is one.

The future of America as a great country is dependent on this change. We cannot afford to stop our efforts – or our intensity in our efforts.

When organizing and collective bargaining rights are challenged anywhere we must respond with our entire enraged movement.

The campaign to win these rights and freedoms must not be a Beltway or DC based effort. This campaign must be based on grassroots union activists and non-union workers. Unless we have a strong electorate, we will ultimately be sold out in a political deal.

Union workers must understand that they have an investment in organizing, that the more union members in their firms, their industry, their country the more bargaining power we all have.

And the labor movement cannot be lackadaisical in the fight.

What institution would allow the government to keep people from joining the organization or entering their institution?

This potential major change in all aspects of our society must be pursued with all the passion we can muster and all the passions our foremothers and forefathers brought to the fight for an 8 hour day and the right to have a union.


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Stewart Acuff is the former organizing Director of the AFL-CIO. Acuff has also written two books: Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life in Organizing, and Getting America Back to Work.

Playing Bigger Than You Are - A Life in OrganizingGet the e-book edition of Playing Bigger Than You Are by clicking here!

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