Labor Turns Left

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2m 48sec

"The New Left Takes Over American Unions" by Joel Kotkin, in The American Enterprise (May–June 1997), 1150 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

While most New Left radicals of the 1960s had only contempt for organized labor and its conservative, anticommunist leaders, some activists saw the organizing of low-wage workers as the best path to fundamental social change. Today, former student radicals such as David Wilhelm, who directs the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ highly successful Las Vegas operations, are riding high, reports Kotkin, a Fellow at the Pepperdine University Institute for Public Policy and a dues-paying union member.

The ascension of John Sweeney, head of the Service Employees International Union, to the presidency of the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) last year has brought leftists from the labor movement’s fringes into positions of prominence, Kotkin reports. Among them: "ultra-militant" United Mine Workers head Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretarytreasurer; Karen Nussbaum, head of the AFL-CIO’s new Working Women Department; and Linda Chavez-Thompson, the AFL-CIO’s executive vice president. Especially disturbing to veteran union members who remember labor’s struggles with the totalitarian Left, Kotkin says, is Sweeney’s opening of the AFL-CIO "to participation by delegates openly linked to the Communist Party."

Labor’s diminishing clout in recent decades has made the radicals’ gain in influence possible, Kotkin says. From nearly 35 percent of the work force in the mid-1950s, union membership has fallen to less than 15 percent. "As the traditional industrial unions, with their intrinsic interest in economic growth, have declined, power within organized labor has shifted to the rising publicsector unions representing government workers and teachers." Forty-two percent of union members today are public employees. Most of the New Left radicals who went into organized labor ended up (unlike Wilhelm) in public employee unions.

"Even moderate labor organizers admit that the enthusiasm and organizing savvy of these ’60s kids, as well as their genius for theatrics, have helped resuscitate the image, if not the power, of organized labor," Kotkin notes. But the zealous activists have also involved labor in a host of causes (e.g., funding pro-choice abortion groups) that have nothing to do with the bread-and-butter issues of collective bargaining.

The AFL-CIO believes that labor’s future will be determined in the West, says Kotkin. It is holding its convention in Los Angeles this year. The growing Latino population of the Southwest is heavily involved in lowwage industries such as hotels, textiles, and plastics, and could be a rich source of new union members. Los Angeles County, with more than 600,000 industrial workers, is now the country’s largest manufacturing center.

The L.A. labor movement, to an even greater extent than labor nationally, is dominated by public employee unions and by former ’60s radicals, Kotkin says. These leaders have formed close ties with such "fringe" groups as the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which is run by Eric Mann, a Marxist who defends the 1992 riots in the city as a justifiable "rebellion."

Labor’s new leftward course could well prove self-destructive, Kotkin believes. "Cut off from Middle America...unions could become virtually irrelevant nationally." That prospect, he concludes, is no cause for celebration.


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