|/* Written 1:11 PM Jun 11, 1998 by email@example.com in igc:labr.all */
/* ---------- "A Question of Class" ---------- */
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 11 Jun 1998 13:07:22 -0600 (MDT)
From: ANDERSON DAVID
Subject: A Question of Class (fwd)
Speech by Bill Fletcher, Jr. at Organizing for Keeps Conference
AFL-CIO director of education
[A presentation to the University and College Labor Education
Association/AFL-CIO Conference in San Jose, CA, May Day, 1998.]
Good morning, sisters and brothers. I want to begin my presentation with a
358...358 people, on this planet of ours, have a total combined wealth
greater than the poorest 45% of the world's population. That's right ....
358 people have a combined wealth greater than 2.3 billion people!
This figure speaks volumes about what is taking place on this planet. It
speaks about a spectre which is haunting the world, and that spectre is
neo-liberalism. Privatizing water treatment plants in France; shifting
industry from Sao Paulo to the Amazon in search of cheaper labor, throwing
welfare recipients into the twilight zone of indentured servitude across the
USA, the spectre of neo- liberalism is haunting us and hounding us.
We're dealing with a phenomenon which relishes greed; which encourages us
all to war against one another in the interest of profits; a system which,
as Margaret Thatcher so blatantly put it, does not believe in the existence
of 'society', but instead views us all as a collection of individuals who
have no responsibility for others than ourselves.
358 people .... We're living through a vast polarization of wealth,
justified and upheld as the only way that an economy can function.
Multi-national corporations and their political allies have been doing
battle to eliminate all vestiges of the welfare state so that nothing stands
in tile way of profits. One such example here in the USA is the often
quiet, yet persistent call by right- winger for mandatory competitive
bidding on contracts in the public sector. Though they are starting at the
national level, if it succeeds it will work its way to every level of
government. In other words, any job which can be carried out by the private
sector will be. And, with unionization levels in the private sector at 12%,
the impact will be catastrophic as non-union vendors compete on the basis of
low wages with unionized public sector workers for jobs.
There is no question but that we are in a crisis! There is no question but
that workers are in the fight of their lives!
But here is the irony. Despite the cold facts of our situation, not
everyone acts as if we are in a crisis. It always reminds me of Malcolm X's
famous speech where he stated that some people use the word 'revolution' too
loosely ... revolutions, he pointed out are bloody and far more than fancy
words. Well, my friends. I think that too many people in organized labor
use the terms 'crisis' and 'war' too loosely. Too many of our leaders talk
about corporate America's war against workers; corporate America's war
against trade unions. They talk about 'crisis'...but do they mean it? At
the end of the day does it change the way that they think or the way that
our movement does its work? Or, in the alternative, are we facing a
situation where too many of our leaders and staff are counting the days to
retirement, hoping and praying that they can get out in time ... hoping that
they are not trapped in the empty room as the lights are turned off and the
door is shut.
As many of you know, the AFL-CIO and its affiliates — along with help from
many of you — have initiated a program called Common Sense Economics, a
program which aims to promote a dialogue with our members about capitalism;
about what corporate America is doing to them as workers; about who are our
friends and who are our enemies; and the need — the desperate need — to
fight back and reject despair. In this program we ask the following
question: "Given over 25 years of declining living standards for the average
worker, why has there not been greater levels of resistance to this attack
by workers?" The discussion which proceeds front this question is fascinating.
Declining conditions do not automatically lead to collective resistance.
Many workers and too many of our members turn inward, either blaming
themselves for the situation or blaming someone else next to them as being
the source of the problem. In an eroding situation, the fight for survival
prevails, that is prevails in the absence of leadership which puts 'class'
on the table and holds struggle in its heart.
It is hard to compete with right-wing irrationalism. It is difficult to
compete with a set of slogans and sound-bites which play off our prejudices
and fears. It is difficult to compete with half-truths which are simple,
yet wrong. It is particularly hard because it demands courage on the part
of leaders. Courage to speak truth, not just to power — as the slogan goes
— but to our members. Courage to speak the truth about the situation facing
workers when it is not always politically popular to do so. Courage to
confront the realities of the situation facing us.
The Common Sense Economics program has received a very good response. But
there are 2 points which workers regularly offer at the end of it. The
first is that they want more. Contrary to what had been the ‘conventional
wisdom,' workers don't find this abstract, but rather enjoy the opportunity
to understand and discuss what is happening to them and their families.
The second point, however, is particularly profound. They ask the question:
"...why didn't we know this, before?... " Normally I let people answer that
question themselves or I suggest that they speak with the leaders of their
But today, I want to speak with you about it.
Our members have been trapped in a 'cone of silence' for all too long. Many
of our leaders, particularly after the purges of the CIO in the late 1940s,
deceived themselves into believing that they had a love affair with
corporate America, albeit torrid and quite complicated.
So, by ignoring member and staff education. and narrowing trade unionism to
industrial jurisprudence, we set the stage for our own demise ... or,
perhaps less gloomy, for our fundamental crisis. We just about guaranteed
that we would be unprepared for the rise and blitzkrieg of neo-liberalism.
So, what does this mean, and how does it relate to our theme of 'organizing
for keeps'? Bluntly it means that we must return to 'class' and facing the
realities of 'class struggle, a theme which is most appropriate given that
today is May Day. As a side note, on this issue of class, I would like to
mention the following. You know, that in the process of building the Common
Sense Economics program there were those who cautioned us that we should not
use terms such as 'working class' or 'capitalism'. They said that these
terms were too inflammatory, and, in fact, dated. But greater numbers of
workers are using the term 'working class', including as part of their
self-definition. They are talking about being working class. And, with
regard to the term ‘capitalism', if the organs of capitalism, such as
Business Week can use the word, I will be damned if we duck from the term.
In saying that we must re-embrace 'class', let me quickly offer a word of
caution. I am not speaking about a narrow concept of class. I am not
talking about narrow economics, and simply getting workers to understand
that it is them and the boss. Such a framework is completely insufficient
to confront the world of globalized capitalism and neo-liberalism.
Rather, I am suggesting that in order to truly build unions for keeps; in
order to organize and sustain those new members, we must be about building
class consciousness ... a class consciousness which openly recognizes that
the antagonism between capital and labor is built into the very framework of
capitalism. It is not something which needs to be imported, it exists in
the power relationships of the workplace. This is no tactical prescription
as to how to deal with each and every situation, but it is a framework for
understanding and answering the eternal question: which side are you on?
I am suggesting a class consciousness which is not narrowly economic, hoping
to shield workers from so-called 'wedge issues' by pretending that issues
such as racist oppression, male supremacy and homophobia don't exist. I am
suggesting that class consciousness means understanding the tensions and
competitiveness which exists within the working class. Class consciousness
must admit that the historic fight between inclusionism and exclusionism
within the worker's movement has a material base in the fight for survival:
it is just that two very different answers are offered to the same question.
The class consciousness we need is that which admits, from the beginning,
that the labor movement is not the same thing as the trade union movement.
There are workers organized in many different ways out there who are already
fighting. We need to join hands with them, and see their interests as ours.
This is especially critical in the era of welfare repeal and reborn sweatshops.
Organizing-for-keeps is not solely about techniques; nor is it solely about
strategies and tactics. It is about an entirely different framework for
looking at our tasks. It is about the process of building a new crop of
leaders who are won to a new analysis and a new mission for the labor
movement. This task is one where labor educators can and must join hands
with worker-leaders and help them put the pieces together.
While it has often been the case that educators have thought of themselves
as the sole repositories of the truth, it is actually the case that we
should see ourselves as colleagues of or partners with worker- leaders. The
class consciousness we are discussing will be constructed as an outcome of
organized discussion, real-world practice and critical summation. As labor
educators we can play an integral role in moving that process. We should be
helping to build and strengthen new leaders, and not thinking that we can
Organizing-for-keeps means that we need to help to build this new echelon of
leaders who understand the battlefield between labor and capital at the tail
end of the 20th century. We need to build leaders who can transform
organizations to meet the demands of this battle, leaders who recognize that
first and foremost, the existence of a trade union is predicated on the need
to defend and advance the interests of workers, not to justify and
legitimate the interests of management.
There is no silver bullet to defeat neo- liberalism. What there is, is the
process of identifying and building new leaders who can start to transform
our existing organizations OR create new ones if the current ones are too
ossified, to meet the needs of the millions of workers who cry out for
justice; who cry out for equity; who cry out for power ... and who demand
[The text of this presentation was provided by Bill Fletcher, Director of
Education, AFL- CIO. It has been reformatted and is reproduced with his