LA Unions March in March

Posted on February 16, 2011 by

The tea party has taken on the appearance of a mass movement with real political influence.  Whether it’s a genuine home-grown insurgency or the creation of corporate interests (or both), it has certainly shaken up the system.

There’s a lot of talk on the American left about why high unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and growing economic inequality haven’t sparked large protests and a political re-alignment in the other direction (click here for a very sensible article on the subject).

Progressives do pretty well organizing around a wide range of everyday matters – opposing cuts in library hours, preserving open-land, advocating for better treatment of laboratory animals – but have trouble getting traction on big-picture issues.

A possible exception is the Los Angeles labor movement which turns out hundreds – sometimes thousands – of activists for marches and rallies (some actions are designed to fit into your lunch-hour; others require days and several pairs of shoes).

These demonstrations promote a pro-worker message and bring together veterans of the “protest culture” – who gain a sense of purpose or an emotional lift from participating – and union and nonunion workers who are putting their jobs on the line (hold March 26 for a big-time, downtown LA, supermarket workers rally).

But so few modern-day American workers have contact with unions – or have ever been on strike – it’s hard to find the formula for turning local actions into a national movement. And even the well-organized and politically effective LA labor movement is comprised of a relatively small core of organizers and regulars.

Another difference is that unlike some of the protests outside the U.S., American workers don’t want to tear down the system.  They just want a bigger piece of the pie.

Isn’t that right?

Comments (7)


  1. Steph B. says:

    I’ve been a part of the Labor Movement since birth. I just turned 62 and will proudly walk with my sisters and brothers on March 26 in L.A. I am aware that unionization among the working population has dropped to less than 7%. I attribute this to Unions doing a poor job of educating their own members to the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement, (“Why do I have to pay dues? What does the Union do for me?) and to the consistent, persistent Union bashing from the Right. Sure we want a bigger piece of the pie, but ,as anyone in the movement can tell you, when we do achieve greater benefits, the general public’s attitude is ” Why do they get more? They shouldn’t get more than us, it’s unfair?”, instead of agitating for a bigger piece for themselves too, they tear down the success of the collective bargaining process. Witness the ongoing, vicious attacks against Public Employee Unions and their pension benefits. My Dad, a Union organizer for 55 years, told me” My gereration got to move the flag forward during the 30′s , 40′s and into the 50′s; since then, it’s plant the flag and prevent the bastards from taking away everything we’ve achieved.” That has been the whole of my career and if walking on Wilshire on March 26 convinces just one more person to take up the cudgels against corporate fascism, I’ll consider my small effort worthwhile.
    regards, Steph B.

  2. Gavin says:

    I think labor suffers from it’s successes over the years in geting labor laws enacted such as the 40 hour / Overtime, FMLA, safety laws, and etc.. which has assisted many who are not working under union representated employment. It give many the impreseeion of why we need labor unions. Espicially when compounded the poor public image labor currently has – Labor needs to better educate/inform what we are, what we have done, and why we are relevant.

  3. John Connolly says:

    Because the Labor Movement has ghettoed itself into being a mere pressure group inside the Democratic Party, it has allowed itself to become defined in popular political parlance as a “Special Interest” — read “Greedy, Selfish, Self-Interested, Special Interest”.
    For a long time Organized — or “Big” — Labor has seen itself as less and less representing the Working Class as a whole –organized or not– and more and more, quite reasonably from a “business” point of view, simply as representing each union’s membership.

    This has proved a terrible trap.
    Over time Labor has lost the authority of representing all working class Americans, and has become viewed as something much more narrow, lacking in vision, but ever-grasping for “more” for a shrinking number of “privileged” workers. Not very appealing.
    Is this an accurate view? Not really, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and other Change to Win unions too, have re-broadened their vision over the last 15 years which has helped to revitalize our movement in many ways with a much more profound social vision.
    But has it been too little, too late?

    For many of the Meany-Kirkland “Business Unionism” years, unions were successful in securing “more” for their members while practically ignoring the un-organized, the unemployed, oppressed minorities … in fact sometimes injecting racist themes into union politics.
    This narrow “success” was based on the reality of having a significant sector of the working class organized into unions … as much as 35% of the workforce. As the world economy developed and it became possible to outsource great portions of high-wage industrial US output to Mexico and Asia, “Big Labor” lost leverage. But the Labor “Leadership”, snug-as-a bug-in-a-rug with fat pay packages and Bal Harbor-ish perks, didn’t seem to notice … until PATCO and eventually NAFTA hit the fan.

    Labor began to reform with the Sweeney revolt in 1995.
    Too little too late?
    Even with much better leadership, we’ve been fighting a rear-guard action for nearly 20 years.

    The Hard Right in its many years of exile has learned some lessons that Labor would do well to ponder now.
    Tea Party fearlessness about wrecking Moderate Republicans’ electoral potential through vicious Primary fights has been alternatively a scorched-earth loser in the US Senate, while proving a winner against moderate or conservative House Dems and Governors … and pretty devastating in state legislatures too.

    The Teas have seized upon the politics of rage and righteousness and created a weird hallucination of capturing moral high ground in American Politics by claiming they represent the Middle/Working Class. The Tea Party image of dynamism and momentum may in part be a media-inspired illusion, but when contrasted to the apparently ineffectual squawking of the Labor Movement … who can’t even get the Dems to pass modestly progressive labor law reform — the Teas look pretty tough, savvy and principled.
    Not only Liberals, but Labor often comes across in the current fights as mamby-pamby whiners.

    A lot of this flows from the Teas success with thinly-masked racist appeals to white workers and petit-bourgeois. But Labor has not found a way to counter this sufficiently and effectively among white workers.
    To its immense credit the Labor Movement has become the main champion of African-American, Latino, and Women’s rights, as well as solidarity with immigrant workers. But it is a constant puzzle that — even in our reduced state — Unions remain the largest mass democratic institutions in the country … and seem to have less power every day.

    In the final analysis, the position of working people, our unions, our rights and social power, will rest on vision, message, and politics.
    Perhaps the lowest return-on-investment anywhere in the US political-economy, is that which the Labor Movement gets for the tens-of-millions of dollars and millions of person-hours we’ve “invested” in the Democratic Party over the last 40 years — the 40 years previous to 1970 can be discussed too, but the more recent balance sheet cries out for analysis.
    Sooner or later the Labor Movement must confront the smothering influence of the Democratic Party, and what alternatives must be explored.
    I’ve heard all the arguments against a Labor or Social Democratic Party. As long as Labor remains the abused step-child of the Dems, those arguments will seem to hold water and appear eminently sensible.

    The Teas apparent willingness to see Republicans go down to defeat in order to impose their “values” on the Party longer-term appear to have worked in significant measure. The Republican Party has moved steadily rightward since (at least) Reagan. The Teas will either be (hopefully) the final nail in the Right’s coffin, or (sadly) the key to its long-term governing success.

    If we on the Left and in Labor believe that our vision and message can carry the day among the American people, and win the war against working people, we may have to risk standing up independently of the Democratic Party, as it cowers and kow-tows to the Right, in order to clearly deliver a vision and message that the Dems don’t really believe in anyway.

    Meanwhile talk about a model …
    Go Wisconsin Workers, Smash State!

    • John Connolly says:

      Tonight on TV I saw a quick clip of hotshot so-called fiscal conservative US House Member Paul Ryan (R-WI) smirking about the workers demonstrating in Madison, WI: “Yeah!”, he laughed, “Kinda looks like CAIRO, eh? Ha-Ha-Ha!”
      Last laugh’s on you, Schmuck.

  4. Aaron Sicoff says:

    Hi Lou,

    This one is close to my heart because I experienced a very big disconnect with the members of my union. Essentially, they did not know what being a union member was about even though they are union members. When I was President of my union and first started my term I had to cancel several general meetings due to not enough members showing up to have a quorom to conduct buisness. Eventually, we moved to tactics of putting controversial topics on the agenda of our meeting notices to spark interest, outrage or whatever type of interest we could to try and get a better turnout. It worked! When we listed the raising of dues as a topic we got our quorom. Of course we only discussed it and never intended to raise dues but it got us our meetings. I think, reminding people that if you do not participate in the union (Meetings, community outreach, voting for ratifying contracts, voting in elections etc.) you lose touch from the very positive democratic process of what the union stands for. You then also allow the few to make decisons for the whole. Being on the board of my union made me a smarter member / employee and I took greater pride in what I contributed to my union and employer as well. Most people clock in / out and just accept things for what they are and never step foot in a union meeting. I was always told that if you want change or to make a difference you need to stand up and get involved. If more people took on this attitude we may see a bigger impact with the public and the sometimes negative light shined on us by the right can be changed to a more positive one. If only someone could fund a special on TV to demonstrate what the history of the labor movement has done for the workers of today and just how broad the slice of the pie really is not a slice anymore but a mere taste of the pie now. I could go on and on just like everyone who posts on this page but I will save it for the next one as I always look forward to the topics.

    Thanks Lou for continuing this blog. In my opinion it is a great way to spread the word.

    Take care,


  5. don newton says:

    although i am really enthusiastic about the history of labor in this country and throughout the world, it seems like an academic subject to many workers. the really important thing is moving large numbers of people into action, getting the juices flowing as we would say about exercise and health. mass marches are very good, as are strikes, in this regard: but we have to increase the pressure on the large corporations who are now determined to squeeze us out of existence. they have the money (almost ALL of the money) and we have the potential for popular support… maybe this is simple-minded but changing the focus from collective bargaining to workers’ control might resonate with younger workers, who too often are offered the choice between participation in messed-up working conditions and unfair promotion schemes — as opposed to really putting up a fight for safety and dignity on the job. the focus of our unions has been set by suit-and-tie international organizers for too long. we need real rank-and-file leaders as well as support for these people from the central office. although i am a retired older worker, i feel that there is a very great potential in our young workers of all races and genders that is not being moved into the front lines at this time.

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