Labor Stumbles

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

There were cheers and brave talk almost four years ago, as new leaders took over the AFL-CIO. Yet this spring has marked an awful defeat for the very campaign intended to symbolize labor’s resurgence: the United Farm Workers’ campaign to organize the strawberry workers in Watsonville on California’s central coast. There were serious miscalculations right from the start. They are but part of the reason why a militant labor movement can’t come out of Washington. Here’s a short history.
Fall 1995: John Sweeney is elected AFL-CIO chief. “Organizing” is his campaign mantra, mimicked in the last-ditch days before the election even by his opponent, Lane Kirkland’s crusty lieutenant.

Spring 1996: AFL HQ sponsors a series of organizing conferences in cities throughout the country. The theme is “The Right to Organize”, and then-organizing director Richard Bensinger declares that this will be the next great civil rights movement, a fight for organized and unorganized workers alike; not just a union thing, but a class thing.

Spring 1997: The United Farm Workers decides to take on the strawberry growers in California, and the AFL makes that drive its number-one organizing priority, flooding Watsonville, California, with money and people. Steve Lerner heads the federation’s campaign. His wife, Marilyn Schneiderman, heads the AFL’s department of field mobilization. All other organizing activity on the West Coast is put on the back burner to build for the kick-off demonstration in Watsonville; 30,000 people participate in the march. Local activists worry that because of its long absence from the fields the UFW may have miscalculated in picking the strawberry workers for their fight and that, because their only informant is the UFW, the AFL people, who might easily be attacked as “outsiders”, won’t know the difference until it’s too late. [See Frank Bardacke’s report in CounterPunch at the start of the campaign.]

Fall 1997: “Organizing” and “Union Cities” are the big themes of the AFL-CIO convention. Some 400,000 workers joined unions in the previous year but because of shutdowns, downsizing, electoral challenges, decertification, etc., the total number of unionized workers in America still dropped. Union Cities, the project to energize local labor councils, is represented at the convention by four labor councils that were hot even before Sweeney took over the helm. Bensinger “confides” to journalists that out of more than 100 councils signed on to the program, these four and maybe one or two others are the only ones where things are really shaking.

Winter 1997/1998: As a thank-you for the AFL’s tremendous effort on the party’s behalf in 1996 and a form of down payment for 1998, Democratic leaders (viz. Al Gore) help broker a deal whereby Monsanto will sell Gargiulo, the world’s biggest strawberry grower, to investors who promise to be neutral toward unionization efforts. The company is renamed Coastal Berry. The UFW changes course: instead of trying to organize the whole industry based on winning some immediate concessions in the fields, it will turn all its attention to Coastal Berry and gear up for a representation election.

Spring 1998: In Avondale, Louisiana, site of the AFL-CIO’s other high-priority Right to Organize effort-a campaign to force Avondale Shipyards to accept the decision of the workers to unionize, a decision supported by the National Labor Relations Board in the biggest case in its history-grinds on with no foreseeable end. In New Orleans, the ongoing federation-sponsored campaign to organize workers in the tourist industry is high on rhetoric and vim, low on well-focused, disciplined, strategic organizing.

Spring 1998: Richard Bensinger, whose tenure as organizing director was marked by helpful cheerleading, distracted hops from one project to the next, emphasis on recruiting college students with no real experience as workers into the AFL’s Organizing Institute, and schmoozing with the press, is fired. He is replaced by Kirk Adams, a diligent bureaucrat with little substantive organizing experience.

Winter 1998/1999: Despite the AFL’s overwhelmingly successful efforts to defeat Republicans in the 1998 election, the Clinton administration does nothing to force the Navy’s fourth largest contractor, Avondale Shipyards-a company that could not survive without Pentagon contracts-to abide by the expressed will of its workers and the rulings of the NLRB.

June 4, 1999: Strawberry workers at Coastal Berry vote 688 to 598 in favor of a company union called the Coastal Berrry of California Farm Workers Committee. It is a staggering defeat for the UFW and the AFL. The Committee’s vice president, Sergio Leal, tells journalist David Bacon that Coastal Berry is “a great company…the people have no complaints. We’re not going to change anything”. The defeat of the UFW represents a many tentacled strategy by the Western Growers Association against unionization efforts, involving harassment, intimidation, firings, cooptation, financial backing of the Committee by growers and indifference to impropriety by the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board toward those improprieties.

But it also represents the failure of deal-making at the top. The neutrality agreement at Coastal Berry was paid lip service at the highest corporate level, but lower down the ladder, the company did nothing to disturb its network of anti-union foremen, whose control over the pickers’ labor gives them direct power to threaten workers. Because the union had identified Coastal Berry as a good company by dint of its neutrality agreement, it never mounted the all-out campaign against the bosses that might have got the workers’ blood up.

Then, too, growers and foremen alike were able to exploit Chicano/Mexican tensions between UFW organizers and strawberry workers, and outsider/insider tensions between AFL organizers and the local people. Finally, because the union abandoned its industry-wide strategy to focus on Coastal Berry, its future in the strawberry fields is murky to say the least. The AFL spent $12 million on the campaign. In the absence of building an organization of and by the workers, the federation would have been better off just distributing $20,000 to each of the 600 strawberry workers who gave the union their votes.


June 19-25: The AFL-CIO’s week of action on organizing takes place, with hearings, rallies, demonstrations and other public actions in cities across the country. The project originally commenced under the title Right to Organize, with its straightforward reference to the civil right most consistently ignored and legally flouted in this country. Late in the game, AFL HQ announced a new name for the week-long project-Voice @ Work: Freedom to Choose a Union. The name change, brainchild of AFL communications director and longtime Washington pr exec Denise Mitchell, came as a result of the labor bureaucracy’s favorite pastime: poll-taking and focus-grouping. Local activists and leaders (and even some HQ staff) complain that “Freedom to Choose a Union,” with its evocation of individualism and its retreat from the basic principle of rights, is defensive in nature and not too far a throw from the slogan of labor’s most vicious opponents, “Right to Work”.

Four years into the Sweeney regime, the AFL’s organizing department continues to be filled with people who are not organizers fundamentally and who have never been able to draw up a clear, bold, focused strategy and stick with it. The department of field mobilization is staff-heavy and seems dedicated mostly to self-promotion and arrogant, bureaucratic one-upmanship. Meanwhile, local unions and labor councils struggle along, most of them with little money and less staff, to make something happen at the roots. They have victories that no one reports and that get little support from Washington because they don’t reflect glory on the HQ staff. (The silver lining: they also don’t get red-baited or otherwise attacked.) The hope for movement rests only with them-and with the links they can make with close-to-the-ground fighters beyond organized labor-just as it always has.

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