Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Tue Feb 16 06:21:59 PST 1999

[Ravings from former leftist turned high-tech booster Joel Kotkin.]


By Joel Kotkin, The American Enterprise magazine - Jan.(?), 99

Tom Hayden, an old friend, is wandering around the circle, looking for my house in the Hollywood hills. The street is blocked by a Los Angeles city sanitation truck--a union sticker slapped on its side--performing its appointed rounds. A young Latino sanitation worker comes leaping off the vehicle and approaches the graying '60s icon.

"Hey, Mr. Hayden, we're for you," the worker says, grasping the slightly rumpled mayoral candidate by the hand. "We're handing out literature, walking precincts."

Hayden seems pleased. He's been having a rough time in his quixotic campaign to dethrone L.A.'s Republican businessman mayor, Richard Riordan. Polls show he's down some 20 points, and even among organized labor and the minority community, most of the endorsements are going to Riordan.

Yet in the garbage worker--and other still largely unorganized low-wage laborers--Hayden sees the potential base for a revitalized radical movement. "Labor's been losing members and clout, but now we're seeing the rise of militant minority workers, mostly Latino, and a decline in the old labor establishment," Hayden insists. "Militancy is in the blood of these minority workers. It comes straight from Mexico and El Salvador."

As is true of many veterans of the 1960s, Tom Hayden's conversion to union backer has not come naturally. During the '60s, radicals more often saw organized labor as the enemy, the staunch ally of pro-Vietnam War Democrats like Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley, Washington's Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, and the great B-52 dispatcher himself, Lyndon Johnson.

Yet even then a smaller group of college radicals, rejecting hippie garb for blue work shirts, decided that the future of the movement lay not with their long-haired schoolmates but with the laboring class. These included people such as David Wilhelm, a former student leader from Yale, who saw in the organizing of low-wage workers the best path to achieving radical social change. In contrast to the more lifestyle-oriented sdsers such as Hayden, the blue-work-shirt crowd eschewed the "individualism" of the "do your own thing" baby-boom generation and embraced a proletarian us-versus-them ideology redolent of the Depression era.

Now, with the support of an increasingly left-wing AFL-CIO, Wilhelm and other former student radicals are no longer on the fringes but in the mainstream of a movement that's bringing class-warfare politics to the l990s. "This period," says Wilhelm, who at 50 directs the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' highly successful Las Vegas operations, "now resembles the late 1920s and early 1930s."

The Long Slump and the Zealots

The penetration of labor by 1960s radicals, insiders note, came largely as a response to labor's diminishing clout during the 1970s and 1980s. Under Carter, whom labor largely despised, and even more so under Reagan, unions saw their numbers plummet. From 34.7 percent of the work force in the mid-1950s, union membership has fallen to less than 15 percent. Even worse, the shrinkage has affected many of the strongest and best-financed industrial unions--steel, autos, and, in the 1990s, aerospace workers. The United Auto Workers, a bastion of progressive unionism, has dropped from over a million in 1987 to under 800,000 today, despite the recovery of the American auto industry. The United Steel Workers, a million strong in 1975, now number less than half that. Other unions, such as the construction trades, have also declined as employment migrated from the Northeast and Midwest to far less union-friendly regions such as the South and the mountain West.

As the traditional industrial unions, with their intrinsic interest in economic growth, have declined, power within organized labor has shifted to the rising public-sector unions representing government workers and teachers, whose agenda, logically enough, centers on keeping the state large and well- funded. Since 1975 AF-SCME, the leading public employee union, has grown from a quarter-million to 1.2 million members. Forty-two percent of union members are now public employees, the most important shift in the labor movement in generations.

Like the industrial unions in the 1930s, the public-sector unions have pushed the entire labor movement to the left. The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, has embraced organizations with a New Left origin, such as ACORN and Cleveland's Nine to Five, and has even set up its own gay and lesbian caucus. "Most of the radicals who went into labor ended up in the public employee unions," observes one labor official.

The rise of these unions led to the elevation of SEIU's boss, John Sweeney, to head of the labor federation. No George Meany-style bread-and-butter unionist, Sweeney is an advocate of European-style democratic socialism. He has opened the AFL-CIO to participation by delegates openly linked to the Communist Party, which enthusiastically backed his ascent. The U.S. Communist Party says it is now "in complete accord" with the AFL-CIO's program. "The radical shift in both leadership and policy is a very positive, even historic change," wrote CPUSA National Chairman Gus Hall in 1996 after the AFL-CIO convention.

That alone is enough to send shivers down the spines of many labor activists, particularly those old enough to remember the earlier struggles against the totalitarian left. "All the people we thought we got rid of 40 years ago are back in there," complains one Detroit area labor lawyer close to the United Auto Workers. "It's like the 1930s all over again."

The elevation of Sweeney swept in remnants of the old blue-work-shirt wing of the 1960s radical movement. After the Vietnam War era, many of these militants--people like Andy Stern, now a top official at SEIU--went to work inside the bureaucracies of the public employee unions, focusing particularly on agitation and media relations. Others forayed into organizing the growing number of low-wage workers, many of them black, Hispanic, or female. They joined such insurgent movements as the Janitors for Justice in Los Angeles; UNITE, the militant rump of the once-powerful garment workers' unions; and Wilhelm's Hotel and Restaurant Employees.

One result has been that U.S. unions are now active partisans in a variety of left-wing causes that have nothing to do with collective bargaining. Some recent examples include: fighting the California Civil Rights Initiative and other measures to end racial quotas, pushing for recognition of homosexual marriage, opposing the $500 per child tax credit, trying to block time limits on welfare payments, funding pro-choice abortion groups, and opposing English as America's official language.

Even moderate labor organizers admit that the enthusiasm and organizing savvy of these '60s kids, as well as their genius for theatrics, have helped resuscitate the image, if not the power, of organized labor. "How does labor get back into the game?" one union consultant asks. "We were getting beaten down so much, we needed to get the zealots out there--people who could communicate with the media. Sweeney represents the ascendancy of the zealots, and those zealots are virtually all from the left." Marginalized during the anti-communist Meany and Kirkland era, leftists are now increasingly running labor's asylum. They include such diverse figures as ultra-militant United Mine Workers head Richard Trumka, now AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, Karen Nussbaum, head of the AFL-CIO's new Working Women Department, and the AFL- CIO's executive vice president, Linda Chavez-Thompson.

Yet if labor has gained much from the enthusiasm and media shrewdness of the zealots, it may come to regret embracing their political perspective. In contrast to Meany-style unionists, the retro-'60s radicals bring with them a far more extreme, neo-socialist perspective. With roughly three-quarters of union members describing themselves as moderate or conservative, Sweeney's embrace of the New Left could prove difficult to explain to the rank and file.

To date, however, Sweeney shows no signs of abandoning his radical allies. His love-ins with leftist intellectuals, first at Columbia late last year and again at ucla, tied the union movement to such race and gender activists as Katha Pollitt, Betty Friedan, and Cornel West, as well as to Marxist radical Mike Davis, who boosts L.A.'s murderous gangs as proletarian exemplars.

Tom Hayden has also joined the lefty-labor love-in. But at least--perhaps because he hails from the Irish working class himself--Hayden appreciates the humor in the situation. "It's pretty amazing," Hayden says, smiling between bites of a microwaved bagel, "to see the AFL-CIO head up there on the podium talking with a bunch of sdsers and people from the gay and lesbian community. I never thought I'd see something like that."

Southwest Shutdown?

Hayden and many other radicals believe it will be among workers in the southwest that labor--and radical politics--will find its new base. The decision to hold the AFL-CIO's convention in Los Angeles this year reflected a calculation that the West will emerge as the primary battlefield for labor's future.

Why? For one thing, the Southwest contains the highest proportion of Latinos, whose numbers last year increased more--in absolute terms--than did the region's whites. The Latino population is heavily involved in generally low- wage industries--hotels, textiles, garments, plastics manufacturing--that form a potentially deep source of new members. With more than 600,000 industrial workers, Los Angeles County has become the country's largest manufacturing center, nearly three times the size of New York City.

Of course, the Southeast and the mountain West also have surging populations and expanding industries. But those regions are solidly Republican and--with the exception of the booming casino business in Las Vegas--extraordinarily hostile to organizing. Between 1985 and 1995, as employment surged 23 percent in the old Confederacy, the proportion of unionized private-sector workers in the South actually dropped from 7.1 to 4.7 percent.

By contrast, Los Angeles, with its left-leaning media and politically powerful public employee unions, seems an ideal target. Though never a union town on the scale of New York or San Francisco, Los Angeles boasts a labor movement that became a political force in the mid-1970s through alliance with longtime Mayor Tom Bradley. Dominated by hard-headed but highly pragmatic individuals drawn largely from the industrial and building trades unions, it has exercised a strong influence on various important boards and commissions, including the Redevelopment Agency and the Coliseum Authority.

But the economic collapse of the early 1990s devastated many old-line unions, particularly the building trades, the Machinists and Auto Workers, the latter two being all but wiped out. With private-sector, high-wage unions in retreat, only 8 percent of Los Angeles private sector work force is now unionized-less than the national average of 10 percent.

As a result, even more than nationally, labor's focus in the region has shifted to the increasingly militant public employee unions, which have fought off all attempts by the county and by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to downsize government to levels appropriate to economic realities. These unions--led by Sweeney's SEIU--have established an alliance with labor groups focused on low-wage, largely minority sectors, such as the garment, hotel, and restaurant unions.

Thus the L.A. labor movement is now dominated by '60s-era militants such as UNITE organizer Steve Nutter and Miguel Contreras, an acolyte of the late '60s icon Cesar Chavez. These leaders are both more visible than their predecessors and much less adept at building alliances with other power groupings in the city. "We used to have very sophisticated leaders who were not very militant," explains one prominent economist with close ties to organized labor. "Now we have very militant leaders who are basically lacking in any real economic sophistication."

The new left-leaning labor leadership has formed close ties with fringe groups such as the Labor/Community Strategy Center, an organization run by free-lance Marxist Eric Mann, who vociferously defended the 1992 riots as a justifiable "rebellion." A more important ally is City Councilmember Jackie Goldberg--a veteran, with her more colorful brother Art, of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement. An ardent lesbian feminist, Goldberg possesses strong union credentials, having been a leader in the United Teachers of Los Angeles and later president of the L.A. Board of Education.

Like Tom Hayden, she is described mindlessly in the local media as a "liberal," but in truth she pursues a more militant, left-wing course. On the school board she was a vociferous defender of aids education, bilingualism, and busing. Since being elected to the council, she has become the darling of the radicals for her successful support of the nation's most comprehensive "living wage" measure for city contract workers--as well as for her bitter opposition to virtually any attempt at privatizing or seriously streamlining the city's cumbersome bureaucracy. Businesses fear, with justification, that the living-wage effort will be preparatory to an even more radical step--the imposition of a county-wide minimum wage and mass unionization backed by governmental edicts. These developments could undermine the relatively robust recovery the region had been experiencing, by driving business elsewhere.

But such practical considerations are unlikely to effect a labor, media, and intellectual elite that shares a '60s-bred sense of permanent moral outrage. Nor can much critical scrutiny be expected from the press--a haven to boosters ranging from the L.A. Weekly, the city's leading weekly free paper, to the far more powerful Los Angeles Times, whose labor writer, Stuart Silverstein, as one labor official proudly asserts, has been "totally converted" into a Pavlovian advocate for labor's cause.

The labor left's icons--such as Contreras and his radical wife Maria-Elena Durazo, president of District Eleven of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' Union--have been the subject of more gushing profiles in the Times than the hottest starlets or rock bands. Like revolutionary blacks in the 1960s, radical labor in L.A. today is very in. This positive image-building extends even to openly revolutionary Marxists like Yanira Merino, an organizer for the local Laborers' Union, who, in the Times, told of her past affiliation with El Salvador's Marxist fmln guerillas and her passion for the ideas of the late revolutionary Che Guevera. "Che," the 31-year-old organizer told her adoring chronicler, "really goes into what we have to do."

A Faustian Bargain

Labor's new leftward course poses serious problems, particularly for cities and for the future of unionism itself. After all, in America, "being like Che" isn't a formula for total success. The peculiarly solipsistic moralism of '60s radicalism often works against the practical political needs of labor. While labor grows more committed to '60s-style struggle, the Los Angeles area is experiencing the emergence of smaller firms, which, along with larger and better-established companies, may feel threatened by such things as local minimum-wage laws. With nearly 37 percent of American households now engaged in some small-business activity, touching off a mobilization of entrepreneurs against labor could prove a drastic miscalculation. "You can't send this kind of hostile message in this environment and not expect people to react," observes Linda Griego, the former head of the development organization Rebuild L.A. "There's a sense that these people feel a tremendous suspicion towards small business--they don't even want to nurture it."

Meanwhile, labor's emphasis on organizing low-wage workers could prove both futile and extremely expensive. After a decade of much-ballyhooed agitation, Latino immigrants in Los Angeles still enjoy a unionization rate less than half that of Anglo workers. Several well-publicized attempts to organize Latino workers in L.A.'s vast industrial belt--including the California Immigrant Workers Association and the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project--have ended up being terminated by local unions.

Even when such workers are organized, labor insiders suggest, their ability to contribute to union coffers is extraordinarily circumscribed. "You can't sustain a union movement by organizing people at McDonald's," says one consultant from the Washington, D.C., area who has worked for several major industrial unions. "You build a strong union movement on the backs of auto workers, steel workers, people who build aircraft."

Labor's shift in emphasis from middle-class workers to poor "people of color" could ultimately threaten the union movement's ability to practice realpolitik, as opposed to mere theatrics. In Los Angeles this spring, for example, the AFL-CIO attempted to regain its political standing by endorsing Riordan, who is expected to trounce Hayden. Much of the pro-Riordan sentiment came from building trades, food processing, and even the militant hotel workers, all of whom feared Hayden's opposition to job-creating public works projects.

"This mayor is for development in this city," notes Dick Slawson, executive director of the 100,000-member Los Angeles-Orange County Building Trades Council. "That's important to the building trades people who have been out of work in this town, while Hayden is opposing all the projects we've been pushing." Riordan even managed to win support from the left-leaning Durazo in exchange for agreeing to press local hotel owners to accept union workers. Soon, however, the AFL-CIO was forced to rescind its endorsement because of attacks from the passionately pro-Hayden SEIU and media-smart, but member- poor, unions such as UNITE.

Having relied on radicals to rescue itself from the dead, labor may have handed the militants an unexpected veto power that will sharply circumscribe the unions' flexibility. "Here we had a chance to make a deal with a pro- growth guy who's going to be mayor for four years, and the zealots make us break the deal," a traditional labor official complained. "We could have been real players and now we just look foolish."

The radicalizing tendency could also hurt labor in the long term by driving yet more economic growth out of urban regions such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where labor still wields some power, and into the nonunion hinterlands. As corporate demographer David Birch has suggested, cities are evolving a kind of "self-destructive political economy" in which public employees, left-leaning media, and race/gender-issue groups call the tune, to the detriment of the private economy. "These are the kind of things that make big cities uncompetitive," observes Cooper Union urban historian Fred Siegel. "It's a typical '60s radical attempt to help poor and immigrant workers that actually hurts them. It's good intentions gone awry."

All of this could pave a disastrous course in which labor, increasingly militant and isolated, becomes little more than the voice of a motley coalition of taxpayer-financed workers and the poor. Cut off from Middle America in both a geographic and a psychic sense, unions could become virtually irrelevant nationally. Or, increasingly desperate, militants could turn to the kind of theatrical tactics-such as the heckling of elected officials, slashing of "scab" workers' tires, and even outright political violence--that characterized the New Left at the end of the 1960s.

Some conservatives may regard labor's potential self-destruction as a welcome development. But in a country where mediating institutions--churches, neighborhood groups, and employee organizations prominent among them--provide a critical shield against the ferocity of both the state and the marketplace, the prospective decline of organized labor as a mainstream force ought to give citizens concerned with the functioning of our democracy little cause for celebration.


Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Pepperdine University Institute for Public Policy and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He is a dues-paying member of AFTRA, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

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