See What I Mean?

Labor Organizing

Dallas: This all seems like “I’ll scratch yours, if you scratch mine,” I realize, but the definition of serendipity is nothing more than a happy coincidence, and sure enough, no sooner had I written about Hugh Jackson and his Las Vegas Gleaner , than I get a note from him that he has responded to a local op-ed by the great D. Jackson, head of the mighty Culinary Workers 226 , and darned if he doesn’t shop around a little in one of my recent blogs as well. Have a read and see what you think?

Model union city, take two 

In a former life as policy wonk with a paycheck and everything, Gleaner management had to travel a lot. Upon learning that Las Vegas was home, people in other cities would often point and laugh and make stupid remarks about gambling and mobsters blahblahblah. At which point they’d hear something along these lines:

“All that stuff you hear about Las Vegas being shallow and kitschy? That’s all true. But in Southern Nevada people with a high-school education–and sometimes less–working in the service sector can make a decent living, drive a dependable car, own their own homes, have a retirement plan and get great health care for themselves and their families without paying any premiums–all thanks to organized labor. How’s your city doing?”

Due to the nature of the aforementioned travel-demanding job, this spiel, or a variation of it, was usually delivered to lefty progressive types. And it never grew tiresome to see the light bulbs click on in their lefty progressive noggins. Unload on Las Vegas? The Gleaner is happy to oblige. But when others do it, it’s awfully satisfying to set them straight on a thing or two.

A couple items brought all this to mind. First, there’s D. Taylor’s piece  in the Sun this weekend. Taylor is the long-time secretary-treasurer, i.e., honcho, for the Culinary union here. The Culinary , as part of UNITE HERE , was among the organizations that boycotted the AFL-CIO  convention and has been reportedly considering joining the SEIU  and others in leaving the AFL-CIO altogether–though UNITE HERE hasn’t done so. The recent split in the AFL-CIO, Taylor wrote, is:
“a wake-up call to the U.S. labor movement to confront the crisis facing working people — union membership at historic lows. The labor movement is barely visible nationally and the result is soaring health care costs, growing numbers of uninsured, disappearing retirement benefits and declining incomes.

But, Taylor reminds the community, the story has been different in Las Vegas. Culinary membership “has tripled to almost 60,000 casino workers since the mid-1980s…” Union members “enjoy free family health care paid for by their employers.” Wages “have increased 55 percent over the last 14 years and there have been increases in employer pension contributions.” Taylor concludes:

The Las Vegas example of a growing and vital labor movement, in partnership with responsible employers, shows that the grim reality of economic insecurity and declining living standards facing working Americans across the country is hardly a fait accompli.

Clearly, what happens in Las Vegas should not always stay in Las Vegas.

Much of organized labor’s growth in recent years, inasmuch as there has been growth in organized labor, has been in the public sector. That makes the Culinary’s growth in a private -sector industry all the more remarkable, and all the more relevant an example for hard-pressed communities nationwide where wages and job quality are eroding, dragging local economies and quality of life in a downward spiral.

The second thing (Remember? There were a couple items driving this rant) was a post on a site run by an ally of the Gleaner during the aforementioned policy wonk period. Wade Rathke is a leading SEIU organizer and also founder of ACORN%nbsp;. Recently, he published his take on the AFL-CIO split ; an excerpt:

This had been a move to division that was hard for me to support with any enthusiasm. I have spent a career over many decades building organizations and stopping internal conflict that would rend them apart, so it is unnatural for me to rally behind a walkout. I didn’t like the personal elements, the bad messaging, the arguments about structure and mergers that had no mass base, the general lack of argument or vision for a different way of doing things or other organizing models. Too much of this dispute read and felt like an insiders’ battle and not the class war that we call on unions to lead, so I kept thinking — hoping! — that in the tradition of the federation, a deal would be made at the last minute. And, that was my position and the advice I gave.

Not because I was a fan of the AFL-CIO. No question the federation was part of the problem, and not the solution, but in some ways it was a haven for the problems, rather than being the problem itself. It is hard for me to blame John Sweeney for the moss backed, head in the sands, refusal to change of the building trades, though certainly he needed to do more on that and many other fronts.

So, I am not a fan of this walkout. But, I’m all about organizing, and if somewhere behind all of this smoke really is some fire that we can finally change organizing so that we actually start to really work to create a union for the majority of American workers, rather than the same losing strategies that dominate our current work, then I am absolutely committed to seizing this opportunity to try to make the right thing happen, even if this may have been the wrong way to go about it. 

Both Taylor and Rathke are perhaps among the most successful organizers in the country today, influential in their organizations and in the movement as a whole. In the wake of a divided union, they both express a mixture of sadness, reluctant understanding and the organizer’s determination to forge ahead. That determination, especially, is going to be crucial as the movement goes forward. Because it’s going to be a long hard slog.