Saturday, January 08, 2011

Solidarity With Whom?

A meeting between U.S. and South African labor leaders in 2001 sets the tone for this book.

A young progressive SEIU local union leader from the West Coast, commenting on the role of the union in political action, noted what must have seemed obvious to him: that the role of a union is to represent the interests of its members. The representatives of [the South African National Education, Health & Allied Workers Union] offered a careful and diplomatic reply: "Comrades," they began, "the role of the union is to represent the interests of the working class. There are times when the interests of the working class conflict with the interests of the members of our respective unions." Silence descended on the room.

Solidarity Divided provides some good detail on organized labor in the U.S. from the twentieth century into the previous decade. Its history is a bit AFL-CIO centered, which is not entirely surprising since one of the authors (Fletcher) worked for the AFL-CIO.

There are surprising exceptions to the above, however. NAFTA does not get as much attention as I would have expected -- this surely merited a chapter of its own, both in how it was marketed to labor and the actual results. There is also little or no mention of efforts to organize workers outside of the NLRA process, such as Starbucks Workers Union shepherded by the IWW.

They make a good argument for what is here called "social justice unionism," openly acknowledging class struggle and organizing not for the benefit of an organization and its members, but for the working class as a whole.

Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice. B. Fletcher and F. Gapasin. University of California Press, 2008.

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