There are only two flashpoints in American history where labor unions became center stage in politics.
I will call these “Big Bang” moments because they propelled the American Federation of Labor (AFL) after 1886 and the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) after 1935, from fledgling organizing committees into mass organizations directly impacting and attracting millions.
In the case of the AFL, it was due to avid support for the eight-hour day and in the case of the CIO, it was due to resolute support for union organizing of millions of previously excluded industrial workers.
There has never again been such mass acceptance and relevancy for labor, mostly because of numerous failures to grasp the historical moment.
I believe today is another such “Big Bang” opportunity for organized labor to throw its vast resources behind the massively popular minimum wage “Fight for $15,” something the national AFL-CIO has not done but clearly should.
The campaign has already won major legislative victories in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angele and is “turning an unthinkable demand into reality” in the words of Karl Kramer, a leader of the San Francisco Living-Wage Coalition.
It’s true, organizing is picking up steam with walkouts of fast-food workers occurring in a record-breaking 270 U.S. cities on Tues., Nov. 10.
In San Francisco, the full day of actions began at 6am as 75 activists huddled together before peacefully occupying for 30 minutes the busy McDonald’s in the heart of the working-class Mission District chanting “Hold the Burgers, Hold the Fries, We Want Our Wages Supersized!”
“This energy was exhilarating,” said Conny Ford, vice president of the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. And, she believes the movement will continue to grow because it is “connecting the dots on issues vital to working people who suffer from racial discrimination, housing displacement and inadequate family healthcare – all very much related to poverty wages.”
That’s why, Living Wage’s Kramer told me, the Nov. 10 San Francisco “Fight for $15” demonstration through the Mission District specifically addressed the “epidemic fever of housing displacement by calling for both ‘higher wages and lower rents.’”
Eight Hours, Industrial Unionism, Fight for $15
To their credit, the very powerful SEIU international union and its local units have thrown enormous resources into the “Fight for $15.”
But, having the far-larger national AFL-CIO involved on a grand scale would certainly add sizeable reinforcements and, in return, surely strengthen and revive the anemic union federation itself.
As mentioned earlier, the dynamic convergence of labor with the immediate, urgent needs of the working class has happened before in our history, if only twice at that. But, both times, labor grew tremendously in numbers and influence.
Even though my examples are spread across 150 years, all share in common something very fundamental to every successful social movement – an idea whose time has come.
In the case of the AFL formed in 1886, its precursor, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, voted unanimously in 1884 to set May 1, 1886 as the date for a general strike calling for the eight-hour day.
The actions set off a loud national clamor for the shorter work week at a time when manufacturing workers labored an average of 100 hours a week even as late as 1890 when the government first began tracking hours.
No doubt, the AFL’s full embrace of the eight-hour day touched a nerve and launched it into a mass organization virtually overnight, displacing in a few brief years the 800,000-strong Knights of Labor who refused to endorse the May 1, 1886 protest.
Worse, after reactionary backlash to “eight-hour” protests amid accusations they were led by anarchists and socialists, the Knights cautiously backed off their support for an eight-hour workday to more tentative and ambiguous proposals for the “gradual reduction in the work week.”
This equivocation cost the Knights dearly.
Once the dominant voice for labor, the Knights almost immediately experienced a mass exodus and shriveled to less than 50,000 members in only a few years. There were certainly other contributing factors, but the Knights’ vacillation on the eight-hour day certainly was a major reason dooming the organization to its ultimate demise.
Such is the power of history’s verdict on organizations who ignore the pounding heartbeat of urgent social necessity.
In the 1930s, the AFL was on its way to such oblivion when they stubbornly and continuously refused to organize unskilled industrial workers even when confronted with a challenge by the CIO who pledged to organize all industrial production workers.
For example, conservative AFL Teamster leader Daniel Tobin opined on the debate with the CIO over union inclusion of unskilled in this way:”The scramble for admittance to the union is on. We do not want to charter the riff-raff or good-for nothings.”
But, even these encrusted bureaucrats soon changed their tune after anguishing over the enormously successful growth of their rival upstart in steel, auto and rubber that catapulted the CIO in a few short years to nearly equal the 4,200,000 members the AFL reported in 1940.
Soon thereafter, the AFL kept pace and grew even more when their craft-union affiliates reversed gears and took up organizing workers regardless of skills.
Nonetheless, the brief but momentous success of the CIO is due to Mineworker union leader John L. Lewis and his allies seizing the moment.
A New Labor Policy
What did our review of labor history tell us about today’s political opportunities? I spoke with Shum Preston about that question.
He is spokesperson for SEIU 1021 and speaks with some authority since his northern California union of 54,000 strong was a major sponsor of the Bay Area’s full slate of actions on Nov. 10.
Preston said it means all unions should get involved in “lifting the minimum wage to $15 because we have once again an issue that is extremely relevant to millions of working-class Americans.”
He pointed to 2015 statistics showing over half of women and people of color fit into this under $15 an hour low-wage strata as do, incredibly,42% of all U.S. workers.
These miserable national poverty rates mean that almost 50 percent of workers in the large city of Los Angeles and around 100,000 workers in the small city of San Francisco earn under $15 an hour.
These numbers are truly an astonishing reflection of our nation’s income collapse and it’s why “the Fight for $15 is resonating so deeply among the population,” as Tim Paulson, executive secretary of the San Francisco Labor Council described it to me.
Paulson added his prominent voice to the other unionists interviewed by also calling for organized labor to be “a leading partner in this national fight.”
Hopefully, the activist influence of leading unionists will make an impact. But it will not be easy. The plodding AFL-CIO has shown itself to be neither daring nor bold in any sense since the depression era.
For example, under George Meany’s conservative leadership in 1968, the Federation shamefully refused to endorse the extremely eventful national Poor Peoples’ Campaign (PPC) led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The multi-racial PPC staged a “tent city” encampment in front of the White House to expose poverty deeply embedded in urban centers and, across color lines, in Appalachia and the south.
We see how union influence and power has gone downhill since. But, it just doesn’t have to be this way. It is a matter of policy and leadership.
Without a doubt, history sends a clear and urgent message. Either the national AFL-CIO expands the “Fight for $15” outward with a “Big Bang” burst of energy or, it collapses inward, further and further into its own “Black Hole.”