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Labor in a Moment of Crisis

Peter Brogan, Andrew Cornell
Date Published: 
November 1, 2008

“Crisis” seems to be on everyone’s lips in recent weeks. Though the term evokes both common sense notions and the complex formulations of Marxist economists, perhaps the most useful definition is the one professor and prison abolition activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore provides: crisis is simply the inability of an organization or system to continue achieving acceptable results by continuing to act in the same way it had been.

This idea applies to the current financial crisis, where a resort to massive public funding has exposed the hypocrisy of neoliberal ideologues, who for decades have forced through privatization and deregulation policies domestically and in the Global South, declaiming the evils of state intervention in economic affairs. But Gilmore’s definition is equally apropos for US labor—a movement which, until recently, has doggedly clung to old strategies in the face of a hemorrhaging membership and a drastic decline in political power. With the labor movement in such a weak condition, left forces have not been able to adequately leverage the current moment of capitalist crisis to assert solutions favorable to poor and working people in the US or abroad. As one healthcare organizer told us, “Neoliberalism is crumbling and the only people out in the streets are the ones rushing to take their money out of the bank!”

But this isn’t the whole story. Across the country, working people are challenging old assumptions about how to organize, experimenting with new methods, and winning real victories. The following articles examine the state of workers’ movements in this period of dual crises. With this section, Left Turn hopes to begin a more sustained exploration of labor struggles, both within the trade union movement and among less traditional workers organizations that have emerged in recent years. In doing so, we seek to highlight those organizations developing broader visions of what a labor movement can and should be.

We begin with a brief investigation of reform movements within SEIU. Looked to by many as the best hope for a progressive revitalization of “big labor,” the union’s leadership has nonetheless faced withering criticism in recent months—much from its own membership—for the top officers’ increasingly autocratic and accomodationist tendencies. Fortunately, workers are also organizing outside the confines of the AFL-CIO and its rival Change to Win Federation. Independent workers centers have played increasingly important roles in recent years, as B. Loewe demonstrates with regards to the Latino Union of Chicago’s successful efforts to organize immigrant day laborers. Morrigan Phillips reports on the inspiring campaign of Boston’s City Life/Vida Urbana, an organization known for its innovative attempts to integrate community and labor organizing strategies to block the transfer of wealth out of poor communities through mortgage foreclosure, using legal and direct action tactics. Finally, Manju Rajendran explores how members of Black Workers for Justice and United Electrical Workers Local 150 have made the fight against racism an explicit aspect of their organizing activity, even in the harsh environment of a “Right to Work” state like North Carolina.

We hope these and future articles will spark new insights into the project of building participatory and militant labor struggles fully integrated with other struggles for equality, so that the resolution of the current crisis of the labor movement may promote a radical resolution to the continuing economic crisis that is capitalism.