The Decline of the California Model of Union Organizing

Ideas and Issues
Working for Justice

New Orleans   A funny thing happened to this piece on the way to the journal, New Labor Forum.  Invited by the book review editors to do an essay that started as Working for Justice: The LA Model of Organizing and Advocacy, Editors:  Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom, and Victor Narro (ILR Press, Cornell University Press, 2010), the piece ended up being problematic because too many of the books mentioned and authors sourced were connected to the editorial board of the journal – who knew?  A dividend was that I ended up reviewing Joe McCartin’s Collision Course about Reagan and the PATCO strike for New Labor Forum, and in the end the review became part of the blog series and promo for my talk as part of the Working Class Studies Lecture Series for 2011-12 at Youngstown State University next Tuesday evening.

FWIW:  for what it’s worth, you now have it just as Youngstown State ran it on their Working Class Perspectives blog on Monday, March 12th:

Can California Dreaming Remain a Vital Part of the Future of American Labor?

By Wade Rathke

Over the last decades in the most cynical hours in the latest nights of the seediest barrooms and meeting halls where organizers would inevitably gather to cry in their beer and gnash their teeth about the prospects for our movement and the legacy of our generation, we would still perk up our ears and gladden our hearts with hope when we listened to reports of work in Los Angeles.

We would do so with good reason.   Los Angeles had gone from a union free bastion 50 years ago, led by the Los Angeles Times and the world of Chinatown, to the place where the demographics and politics seemed to be coming together to create the shining union city rising like the waves on the Pacific Coast.  The LA MAP (Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project)  had offered a new way to frame and target the work.  The Los Angeles AFL-CIO had seemed to be a model for the future with its own organizing director, research department, and political program.  SEIU’s Justice for Janitors organizing campaign and its victory emboldened the city and the nation.  Immigrant, almost casual drywall workers were changing construction unions.  The largest union elections since the CIO drives enrolled hundreds of thousands of home healthcare workers.  There were organizing drives in hotels and hospitals; old CP organizers had pioneered public sector unionization and many of the locals continued to be progressive; resources were marshaled and spent; the labor movement was robust and confident; and mayors were made and broken.

Some of the romance and hope for the proposition that organizing in California, and especially Los Angeles, would lead the way for resurgence of the labor movement infuses the spirit and premise of Working for Justice.  If many of us did not believe this was true, or at least still possible, why would we give a second thought to a book that avowedly presents itself as offering a Los Angeles “model of organizing and advocacy?”  The book offers well executed case studies of organizing efforts among informal workers, like car washers and taxi drivers, who are among the constituencies that I firmly believe hold our future hopes, if we have any, as well as other essays on the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network (NDLON) worker centers and HERE’s hotel drives that are strong enough that we were proud to reprint them as excerpts in Social Policy magazine.  Having done so, I am unabashedly a fan and advocate of the book as an invaluable learning tool for organizers and any others with an interest in rebuilding the labor movement and its allied trades in related endeavors of social change.  Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom, and Victor Narro’s work here deserves our appreciation and close reading.

Unfortunately one of the book’s challenges is that while the “promise” may be in California, the premise that a model is being built seems overstated.  At the most basic level a model is something that can be replicated by others.  A model could be picked up by energetic community, labor, immigrant, and other organizers and transplanted to other soil outside of Los Angeles and California.  A model must be sustainable over time.  Searching for models in Working for Justice is a treasure hunt at the other end of the rainbow:  we can see the direction to go, but it is pretty clear that we will not find anything once we get there.

This is an issue that is left over from Milkman’s earlier volume, L. A. Story:  Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U. S. Labor Movement (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006) where we were inspired by the similar stories of drywall construction (1992) and janitorial organizing (1990) and the new dawn coming in that California dreamscape brought to us by dramatic strategies by unions like HERE, SEIU, UFCW, and surprisingly even the Carpenters.  Unfortunately, we woke up later, and those stories turned out not to presage the future but to be isolated castles in the darkening sky after all.  In the introduction to Working for Justice the authors indicate that these essays date to that period and gestated until published in this volume.

One almost might read the two books as companion volumes of a sort.  Both speak to a sense of California leading the way.  Milkman’s L.A. Story is different, though, in that it concluded, among other things, that victory came from top to bottom with a model that owed more to the “art of the deal,” than to a sense of a workers’ movement gaining power.  Working for Justice almost seems to be the antidote to that earlier analysis, changing the emphasis from the top tier of union leadership and mechanics to the bottom level of advocates and non-traditional methodology and formations.  Sadly, the case made twice is no truer than the same story told once, regardless of the direction of the analysis, and time has shown that models are still nowhere to be found in either instance.

No sense in quibbling though.  The labor movement needs direction signals badly in our current death spiral, and, arguably, given the turtle shell tendencies of most of institutional labor, we are as likely to find the path to new paradigms in the work of advocates as any others.  Unfortunately, too often communications between union organizers and labor advocates is a one-way conversation, partially because these are not chats among equals sharing a common language given the different definitions of “base” and disparate resources.  Working for Justice tries to force them to sit at the same table and learn.

An underappreciated, yet critical, element of the Los Angeles story and the California dream for labor has rested on two foundations that are now increasingly shaky.  One at the very heart of the California dream, and the one that brought my grandparents there from bankrupt farms in the Dakotas, held that California was the land of riches with money enough for all.  The other hardrock underpinning this structure was the belief that the continued high density of unions in the state would give sufficient political heft and resources to weld something sturdy and unique from the public and private resources of the state.  Seismic change has now crumbled some of these foundations, given the multi-billion dollar financial crisis of the state, the teetering real estate market, and the continued decline of labor density.  The rest of the country outside of a couple of other islands in our stormy seas, just does not look, feel, or operate like this, making “models” even more difficult to duplicate.   Relatively speaking, being an organizer in California has too often been the organizing equivalent of the old saw about George W. Bush having been “born on third base and thinking he has hit a triple,” meaning there were advantages that were just assumed in organizing in California that in other cities and states were past the wildest aspirations.

Where else but in California could we even imagine finding the hope and tragedy of the United Farm Workers Union recounted by Miriam Pawel in The Union of Their Dreams:  Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (Bloomsbury Press, 2009).   When everything was working, it was the stuff of movies, books, and, well, yes, movements.  Politics, charisma, Hollywood, religion, and the American agricultural dreamscape of climate, soil, and vast immigrant labor came together for a moment to win unthinkable victories, benefiting from the liberal politics, alliances, and special circumstances of California.  Few organizers have ever understood the chemistry of combining a mass base constituency with public and political support to leverage economic strength better than Cesar Chavez, as both advocate and organizer.

Yet, Pawel’s chapters on the purges leading to the fatal weakening of the UFW in the often rumored, rarely reported toxic brew of cultural contradictions, new age weirdness, and old fashioned power struggles and personalities, drunk on the dream and unable to resist its fascination even as it grew nightmarish and corrosive, are some of the saddest chapters on organizing any will ever read.   Despite the commonality of all stories of death, even organizational death, Pawel’s tales and those of the advocates, organizers, and leaders she followed in this story are also somehow both deeply human and uniquely Californian.  I would love to have known Eliseo Medina then as he emerged as an energetic, dynamic youngster in the fields!  On the other hand there is no way a non-Californian or someone from any other foreign country can even imagine the UFW experience with Synanon, the former alternative and controversial drug treatment center specializing in group dynamics and behavioral modification, or its impact in those crazy days on Chavez and his lieutenants.   What might seem in California as simply forward and far ahead to the rest of the world was simply far out.

Randy Shaw put the best spin on the hopes for the impact of the UFW on the organizing in California and beyond in his 2008 book, Beyond the Fields:  Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century  (University of California, 2008).  He argued strenuously, if not convincingly, that we should judge the UFW legacy not necessarily for what was left in the field, but more perhaps for the continuum in organizing that came out of so many organizers, boycotters, and others who were attracted to the movement and kept the flame burning.

In the same way, no matter how hard Steve Early tries, his book on the crazy internal conflict between SEIU’s healthcare local unions and their national union in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor:  Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or the Death Throes of the Old? (Haymarket Books, 2011) is also inherently an only-in-California story as well.  His story is the ugly side of the top-down model Milkman observed honestly and somewhat sympathetically in L.A. Story, when some of the giant fabricated locals created by all of the wheeling and dealing began to unravel.  Unfortunately, that story is often submerged as Early struggles, sometimes half-heartedly, to find a balanced perspective in following dissident leader Sal Rosselli with his narrow vision of “contract standards,” who is not as as right as Early would like him to be, versus Andy Stern, then president of SEIU with his equally small program of “McMuffin contracts,” who is not as wrong as Early believes either.  Early is also smitten by his romantic version of the California dream.   He wants a happy ending and concedes that he would have never believed 20 years previously that the future of the labor movement might be on the shoulders of lower waged, home health and home day care workers.

The future of the labor movement, whether anyone likes it or not, might lie precisely in our ability, as argued by Needleman, Bloom, and Narro, to both organize and advocate for just such non-traditional workers as these home based workers, casual laborers, and others.  Who would have imagined that the future of organized labor is with informal workers and new organizing directions that speak to the 21st century and not the great struggles, victories, and defeats of the 20th century?  The many authors of Working for Justice that’s who!

Working for Justice does what we need more books on labor and the labor movement to do:  present ideas, document the cases, and let leaders, members, and organizers see if new models for a new labor movement can be built from the little we now have left as well as the millions standing before us, many of whom work in hybrid jobs in often informal, difficult settings and previously unimaginable situations who desperately need the labor movement.  As Working for Justice points out, it won’t be easy or necessarily successful, and as other books detail, it also will be messy, loud, imperfect, and sometimes heartbreaking, but out of those struggles might just come a new labor movement.  Certainly, that’s worth the fight, and it makes the California story still worth following, even as the fight moves throughout the country and hope springs eternal.