Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to support unions after breaking the labor taboo

I know there's been a lot of discussion (most of which I haven't been privy to directly) over the blog post I wrote about building trade union behavior at the Palmer Renewable Energy air permit hearing.  As I suspected might happen, my criticizing unions is of greater importance to at least some union members than the booing and bullying tactics of the building trades.  How quickly someone can move into the enemy camp by breaking a taboo: criticizing unions.

When I sat down to write my blog post, less than 24 hours after the hearing, relationships with unions was not the first thing on my mind.  Poor strategic thinking?  What very much was on my mind was the fear in the eyes of the children sitting in the Duggan Middle School auditorium who had come to talk about their own asthma.  They were bewildered.  They didn't understand what was happening.  I was ashamed that I had asked them to come only to be subjected to booing.  In fact I was furious, and still am.  But everyone who came to oppose the biomass incinerator felt attacked and traumatized-- even we relatively thick-skinned organizers

I admit I don't understand unions very well, beyond an intellectual level.  I've never been in a union, and most of the people in Arise, very low-wage workers, have never been in a union, either.  And yet we have never failed to support the organized labor movement.  Anyone who reads this blog, or my own blog MichaelannLand, knows that.  So a little context to the "Michaelann as enemy to the labor movement" might be warranted. And the rest of the labor movement, beyond the building trades who were present at the hearing, should be asking themselves: who really did harm to the public perception of organized labor on April 5?

At the same time, I could (and should)  have applied that context to my own blog post.  I wrote, " I will tell you that my first reaction was that you couldn't pay me enough for me to ever show up at another pro-union rally."  Well, yup, that was my first reaction.  But intellectually, I have not changed my mind about the absolute necessity of supporting organized labor.  Yesterday at Arise I was trying to explain to Ruben how unions help keep the wages up for everybody, not just union members, by using the fruit-picking story from The Grapes of Wrath.  He understood what I was saying, even though, at the air permit hearing, where he carried around our giant asthma inhaler, he got more than one sneer from members of the building trade unions.

After the air permit hearing, I asked a couple of my contacts in labor to explore three questions: 1. Is there a way that what happened at the air permit hearing could be  used to build a bridge between the building trade unions, who often  stand aloof from labor's larger struggles, and the rest of the  movement?  2. How did the building trades so successfully mobilize at the air permit hearing, who paid for it, and were they likely to do it again at the still-pending city council hearing about PRE's local permit? And 3:  Is there any way that other unions could take stands against biomass? 

If any of these questions get answered in a way that moves us forward, then I'll try to decide if it's worth it to be viewed as the enemy by organized labor (although Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield and Arise shouldn't be tarred with that brush).. I'm not at all convinced that there would be much discussion among local labor going on at all if I hadn't written what I did, even though I wish I had been clearer about not indicting all of labor.  Too many times our movement, such as it is, avoids tough questions,  fails to think seriously about what divides us, and calls out for solidarity when the foundation is shaky and ill-defined. I don't know why I think it should be any different this time around, but I still have hope.

Solidarity mural: Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom mural on the side of the United  Electrical Workers trade union building on West Monroe Street at Ashland  Avenue in Chicago, Illinois-- photo from Atelier Teee's photostream at Flickr.

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