Labour and Human Progress


The AFL-CIO, the United States’ main labour union confederation, has given  support for Bush’s war. Ted Glick discusses.

The AFL-CIO’s uncritical support of the government’s war in Afghanistan and sham “war on terrorism” has disappointed, if not disillusioned, many activists, including progressive labor activists. For some radicals and progressives, the organized labor movement is seen as the most important social grouping in the country. As the late Saul Alinsky put it in Reveille for Radicals, it is “the key to the door of the future world of economic justice and the social betterment of mankind. The labor movement has been as much of an ideological foundation to all left-wing thinkers as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule are to devout religionists. . .”

There are good reasons why activists on the Left hold this view. Workers, after all, are approximately 75% of the U.S. population. They are not part of the corporate elite which runs things. They are no strangers, to put it mildly, to experiences of injustice, oppression and exploitation, on the job and outside of it. They are “underdogs.” If they got themselves organized on a broad scale behind a progressive program for the country, great things would be possible.

Unfortunately, despite many decades of an organized labor movement in this country going back to the latter part of the 19th century, we seem to be far removed from such a development.

Maybe we need to take another look at this question of labor as our “ideological foundation.”

I have problems seeing “labor” as the key social grouping upon which to base progressive calculations and strategies, because there is no such thing as one, unified, labor movement. “Labor” can mean predominantly white, male construction unions with a history of blatant internal and external racism and sexism, or it can mean predominantly black and Latino hospital workers who marched side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s as if you were looking upon “the Left” as the hope of the future without distinguishing between sectarian, narrow ideologues, and those radicals and revolutionaries who are mass-based leaders of unions or community organizations.

Another problem: 47 years after the merger of the CIO with the AFL, the most significant social movements nationally since that time have involved trade unions primarily in a support capacity, not in significant leadership. The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s movement, the welfare rights movement, the lesbian/gay rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-nuclear power movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the Rainbow movement of the ‘80s, the global justice movement of the past few years—even though some of these movements included some unions and individual union leaders in leadership, none of them, with the possible exception of the global justice movement, originated in or were led primarily by labor.

As far as the global justice movement, labor’s involvement has been inconsistent. After playing an important role in the coalition which rocked the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle in late 1999, their participation since has been significantly less, although they have activated their networks for lobbying campaigns directed at Congress.

Too much of labor continues to be mired in a culture, a way of operating, that lacks the kind of spirit that movements based among young people or people of color often have, a willingness to speak truth to power, to push the envelope, to take risks.

What can change this situation?

What is needed is an on-going, popular alliance that brings labor together with young people, people of color, women, community-based and lesbian/gay/b/t groups, Greens, veterans, farmers and others. If this alliance is truly popularly-based, it will involve many workers and some of the best of the unions. By putting forward its program for resolution of the crises of U.S. society, by organizing around that program and in support of its immediate demands on the government, by running independent candidates for office, masses of working-class people both inside and outside of the trade union movement can be educated and galvanized into action.

Within the context of the alliance, an alliance that, to be viable, must be run on the basis of participatory and actively-involving democracy, we can all learn how to work together in productive and positive ways. Low- and moderate-income workers, especially those who are young, of color, and/or women, can be supported and encouraged to help provide leadership so that we stay true to our best traditions, not get co-opted or sidetracked.

Such a democratic, participatory culture will provide a model for all of us, from our mix of movements, sectors and organizations. Insights gained from the process of working together in the alliance will be taken back to its component parts. Labor, as with others, will be affected positively, become more democratic, more open, with more leadership from women, people of color and youth.

Perhaps then labor’s as-yet-unrealized potential will awake, like a sleeping giant. Let’s speed the day!

Ted Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network ( and author of Future Hope: A Winning Strategy for a Just Society. He can be reached at or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J.  07003.