Saturday, May 30, 2009

L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement

by Ruth Milkman (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 244 pp.)

This book is co-reviewed with another US labour writer's book here (thanks to Ernesto Aguilar for posting the link on Facebook):

Here's a quote from the review (by Steve Early):

Now a professor of sociology at UCLA and director of its Institute of Industrial Relations, Milkman has watched how the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), and Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) have revitalized themselves and/or the L.A. County Labor Federation. In her view, looking to union members to rebel against corrupt, ineffective, or undemocratic unions and refashion them into something better is an exercise in wishful thinking and existential frustration—”Waiting For Lefty” reborn as “Waiting For Godot.” According to Milkman, proponents of the rank and file approach long championed by Moody naively assume “that if only the legions of top union brass would step aside and allow the rank and file’s natural leaders to take command, labor would no longer be so impotent.” In reality, she writes, “this approach glosses over the complex and multi-layered character of union leadership and various political configurations that are possible across those layers."

Milkman believes “that, when International leadership is progressive, it can be a powerful force for promoting innovation at the local union level” and rooting out “business unionism.” “As is now well documented, many of the most successful initiatives of the SEIU [and other Change to Win affiliates] have actually been ‘top down’ efforts, engineered not by the rank and file but by paid staff in the upper reaches of the union bureaucracy…The recent ascension of leaders with both extensive formal education and activist experience in other movements to high-level positions in key unions has injected dynamism into the labor movement….The most vibrant and innovative unions are those that combine social movement-style mobilization, with carefully calibrated strategies that leverage the expertise of creative, professional leaders.”

I was especially interested in the serious discussion of the Janitors for Justice movement, which was seeded by organizers in the way Milkman describes. There's a Hollywood film I recently found at a VHS sale, about the Janitors for Justice strike. It stars Adrien Brody and Pilar Padilla, was directed by Ken Loach, and produced by Rebecca O'Brien. It's called Bread and Roses (2001). The film shows the victory of the strike, but not the later erosion of the victory, as described in this review:

Milkman regards SEIU’s Justice for Janitors (JfJ) campaigns to be an unqualified success and model for union-builders everywhere. “Justice For Janitors originated as part of a strategic union rebuilding effort,” she explains.” It was conceived by SEIU’s national leadership and relied heavily on research and other staff-intensive means of exerting pressure on employers.”

To their credit, JfJ organizers helped pioneer comprehensive, community-based campaigns that by-passed the NLRB to win union recognition via card check and neutrality—by targeting building owners who were the real power behind cleaning service contractors. SEIU employed direct action tactics, including civil disobedience, built strong ties with immigrant communities, and presented the workers’ cause in a way that elicited sympathy and support from that part of the broader public concerned about social justice and better treatment of oppressed minorities.

According to Milkman, in the original JfJ struggle in Los Angeles in 1988-90–plus subsequent efforts in many other cities–”rank-and-file mobilization played a critical role in its success.” Nevertheless, as Moody notes, this “mobilization” has rarely translated into a leading role for immigrant janitors in managing the affairs of their own SEIU locals. By the mid-1990s, JfJ activists in Los Angeles were complaining about Local 399’s out-of-touch leadership, its neglect of day-to-day workplace issues, and the lack of rank-and-file participation in union decision-making. Many supported a successful electoral insurgency, led by the “Multiracial Alliance Slate.” But, in 1995, the SEIU national leadership quickly nullified the Alliance’s election victory by throwing the local into trusteeship and later moving L.A. janitors into a much larger, regional building services local. In L.A. Story, Milkman barely acknowledges that there was “widespread criticism” of SEIU over this pivotal development. She dismisses “Multiracial Alliance” organizing activity as an unfortunate “outbreak of factionalism” that, only “on the surface, appeared to involve rank and file rebellion against the local SEIU officialdom.”

In both Canada and the US, depiction of labour is very scarce - in the news, in academia, and in the movies, so I was happy to get the link to this information.

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