Labor at the Crossroads

December 8, 2004
Five hundred people who care about the future of the labor movement gathered at the City University of New York on December 2nd and 3rd to discuss what that future should look like.

There were some rank and file members in the crowd, but mostly it was made up of those who work for or write about labor. Perhaps the only points of universal agreement among the speakers and participants of the “Labor at the Crossroads” conference hosted by the Queens College Labor Resource Center and the New Labor Forum were, first, that the labor movement needs to stop shrinking and start growing, and, second, that George W. Bush is bad news.

There was disagreement over whether restructuring the labor movement along the lines of the SEIU’s “Unite to Win” proposal would help the movement grow. And there was disagreement over many other issues, including what emphasis to place on democracy and activism within the labor movement, including in labor media. But there was not much discussion of democracy and activism as tools to make the movement grow and gain power. The SEIU’s proposal for restructuring was the main focus of a plenary in the main auditorium, while such issues as union democracy were discussed in small rooms at times when conference participants split up into several simultaneous panels.

The New Unity Partnership (NUP) framed the debate at this conference so that many topics were treated as after thoughts to the main project of growth (understood as restructuring). These included: democracy and activism, labor media as a shaper of public discourse, labor media as a builder of union democracy and activism, political strategy, coalition building, and international organizing. Democracy was treated as an objection to a top-down model of restructuring, and therefore as an impediment to growth, or something with which growth must reach a compromise. Rarely were democracy and activism presented as a way to achieve growth.

The project of building national labor media, promoted at this conference by, among others, Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, was also not presented as a key to growth, but as something for its own sake. While labor media was mentioned in various plenaries and panels, not a single session was devoted to the topic.

Politics, too, was a separate topic. While the plenary on the first morning was called “Leadership Plenary: What Will it Take to Bring About Labor’s Revival? Competing Visions,” the plenary on the second morning was “Labor and the 2004 Elections: What Happened and What Next?” This second discussion focused on the work that labor had done for John Kerry, not on whether a more aggressive political agenda and endorsement process could help build a bigger movement.

The first plenary included remarks from UNITE HERE General President Bruce Raynor, IFPTE President Gregory Junemann, SEIU International Executive Vice President Gerald Hudson, and CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen. Raynor opened by describing how grim things now were for American workers and suggesting that labor needs “the kind of change that leaders of the CIO brought.” He noted that the idea that manufacturing jobs were high-paying jobs “was not handed down from Mt. Sinai