Organized Labor and Bilingual Education: Any Cooperation?

Michael Eisenscher meisenscher at
Sat Jun 6 20:28:39 PDT 1998

At 08:50 PM 6/6/98 -0500, Yoshie Furuhashi wrote:

>On the whole, I agree with you. A push for union democracy has to go hand
>in hand with long-term organizing and educational efforts, without which
>anything like 'social movement unionism' is impossible. Did you also take a
>look at Tom Condit's post today?

The figures he cites came from longer articles I posted to my distribution list, of which he is a member. What I put on PEN-L and lbo-talk is only a small portion of what goes out to that list daily. In this case, it was five messages relating to 226 and 227.

The Latino vote was strongly against Prop
>226 as well. It again clearly shows, as you must be aware, that Latinos
>(along with blacks) are far more in favor of unions than whites.

This has been known via various studies for some time by scholars of labor relations and for even longer by any organizer worthy of the name. But DuBois's aphorism about the color line is glaringly demonstrated by the racial/ethnic and gender divisions within the labor movement, which are reinforced by the broader ideology of business unionism and class collaboration/accommodation. Racism and anti-communism are the mainstay in the arsenal of employer weapons against organized labor. As an older Black union rep with whom I once worked put it, "Scratch a racist and you find an anti-communist; scratch an anti-communist and you'll find a racist. The venom that flows in their veins is the same."

This, to
>me, says something about the importance of educating white workers as to
>why they must make alliances with Latinos and other people of color and of
>pushing for Latino and black leadership for unions at all levels, from
>local, regional, to international.

I am not sure that "educating" white workers is the answer, if by that you mean explaining the underlying connections in their oppression to those of workers of color or giving them more information and facts about the nature of capitalist exploitation. That form of education generally in the left has led to proscelytizing, lecturing, haranguing, and leafleting, which is not the way most workers learn life's lessons. I think more meaningful learning goes on when workers can draw conclusions from life experiences, from engaging in activities from which they can make their own connections. Let me suggest one example. In the United Electrical Workers, for which I worked for a dozen years (and probably the most all-round leftwing union in the U.S.), the concept of international solidarity was widely recognized. A resolution was adopted at every convention. Yet few of its members actively engaged in or even understood in anything but an abstract way what their responsibilities were and the necessity of their personal involvement in solidarity activities. At best they might support a motion to authorize a contribution to some group of workers struggling against dictatorship and oppression somewhere else in the world (which often can come off as charity rather than solidarity). Then their jobs started to be relocated to Mexico, Central America, and Asia. The ugly face of ethnic bigotry began to appear among many of the white workers who were being bombarded with gingoistic "buy America" campaigns from the AFL-CIO on top of the propaganda in the media. Then the UE entered into a relationship with FAT in Mexico. An agreement was reached to send exchange delegations of rank and file workers to visit one another's countries, to live in the homes of workers, to visit factories and union halls. It was in the course of those people-to-people connections that the meaning and necessity of solidarity came through. The idea of a united struggle against a common enemy, corporate capital, took on real content identified through the relationships that were established between workers across national boundaries and language barriers. Now workers from each union maintain ongoing communications and attend each other's conventions. The bonds of solidarity have been translated from paper resolutions into real life activities and relationships.

>Also, it's about time for organized labor to recognize that what may look
>like a 'culture war' or a 'race issue' at first sight, more often than not,
>is an attack on unionized or unorganized public sector workers and
>educational institutions. Joining a fight on behalf of students + teachers
>is a great way to introduce labor movement perspectives into public
>education. It's my impression that hardly any labor history and
>working-class perspective on social studies + economics is taught in public
>schools, despite the fact that teachers are highly unionized. This can and
>must change as well.

You are absolutely right on both counts. Regarding the issue of the schools, here in the Bay Area, in part through the efforts of the California Federation of Teachers and some of the better central labor councils (we have 7-8 within 75 miles of San Francisco), a program of "Labor in the Schools" was initiated. It is still modest and at best token, but at least once or twice each year union volunteers go into the classrooms to talk to students about work, about workers' rights, and about the struggle for dignity and justice on the job and why unions are essential to win basic rights and fair treatment. Fred Glass at CFT in Oakland has developed curriculum materials and some wonderful videos about labor in California. He also worked with the Oakland Museum to create a multimedia exhibit on the 1946 Oakland General Strike to which teachers could bring their classes.

While most union leaders will agree on the need for locals and labor councils to establish organizing and political action committees, few -- a rare few -- recognize and act on the need for education committees. Every local should have a committee that does taped oral interviews with the oldest members of the local and retirees about the history of their struggles and how the union got founded and what it was like before there was a union. Every labor council should have a committee of education committee chairs and directors of their affiliates, with additional volunteers, to develop discussion materials on critical issues, to sponsor forums and debates, to invite speakers, and organize other activities. Partnerships can be developed with sympathetic college and university faculty members in labor studies, economics, political science, history, sociology and anthropology to help with research and others skills. To the extent possible, such partnerships should be established on the basis of participatory action research that involves the workers themselves in doing the work and learning the skills. College students can be assigned internships in local unions. Art, cinema and theater departments can be enlisted to help translate information into skits, videos, cartoons, theater pieces and musical performances. Connections can be made with groups like Just Economics and the Center for Popular Economics, to name but two, that have developed techniques for presenting economic analysis in ways that workers can integrate into their own lives and connect to their own experiences that will give them a deeper understanding of how capitalism works as a system of exploitation. In that respect, the economics education program developed by Bill Fletcher, Dir. of Educ. at the AFL-CIO, is an immensely important step forward. They are training trainers across the country so that union members can teach themselves the basics of how the system works.

Well, I've ranted enough for one night. I'm sure others have things to say about this.

In solidarity, Michael E.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list