An Uneasy Marriage in the House of Labor

The union organizer ... is a counselor, lawyer, teacher, missionary... is able to inspire confidence in others, speaks well, is a leader, is sincere and patient with the employees with whom he deals, and exercises judgment, initiative and imagination in his job.... Perhaps the organizer's outstanding characteristic is that he is extremely dedicated.... His views may at times be radical, but he fully believes in the trade union movement."

That description comes from one of the top union-busting manuals in the country. Trust management to know a good organizer when they see one. Too bad you can't always trust unions to recognize the same.

Yet it's the promise of organizing that brought me into union work more than sixteen years ago, along with the belief that the most basic goal of the labor movement -- empowering workers to control and benefit from their own labor, free from exploitation or abuse was worth fighting for.

And I believe it still. At 42, I'm part of a cohort we've dubbed the "new leftovers," one of the generation of activists who migrated into union work after participating in the civil rights or anti-war movements. Most of us didn't know each other in the beginning. Yet we came with a shared need to hang on, somehow, to the passions that the sixties had kindled -- for racial and gender equality, for the lifestyle and camaraderie of activism itself. We were the first substantial influx of college educated young people to enter the labor movement since the 1930s.

What we found, and how we have fared, in the house of labor over the past twenty years says much about the current status and potential fate of American labor. Drawn by the "movement," we found ourselves in an institution more often dedicated to standing still.

I began union work in 1974 at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) at the local level, then moved to national headquarters. In 1979 1 moved to Los Angeles to put in seven tumultuous years at the Screen Actors Guild. And then in 1986, not content with that level of chaos, I moved to New York to become the Executive Director of the fledgling National Writers Union.

Wherever I worked, I encountered unyielding resistance. Not from company bosses, who I always expected to be recalcitrant, but from union management, which often seems determined to grind its organizers into conformity and complacency. Which means I've been in trouble from the start. To be sure, my irreverence hasn't helped matters; the "union goon" T-shirt I wore to an AFL-CIO convention went unappreciated by the leadership, although much admired by the rank and file.

I learned early that working in unions requires a high tolerance for contradiction on many fronts. Among my files is an article I wrote for Community Jobs more than a decade ago in praise of union work. "However," I cautioned, "it is work for believers who can survive in organizations that often mimic in style, and occasionally in substance, the corporate and management structures they were created to oppose. Those same organizations that preach dignity for workers often exploit their own. They preach equality and discriminate against women; they advocate progress and desperately fear change." All still true.

The contradictions between labor's principles and practices are seldom so apparent as at the ceremonial gatherings of the labor establishment. A 1989 AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Bal Harbour is a case in point: "Two young showgirls, appropriately nicknamed 'Postage Stamp Girls' by some, have provoked a fierce debate among convention-goers," The New York Times reported in one of its rare fits of labor coverage. "At issue is whether young women in skimpy black bikinis with sequins are beneficial to labor's drive to improve its relations with women, who account for an increasingly large chunk of the workforce.

"...The National Letter Carriers hired them to pass out small gift bags at its lavish cocktail party the other night. Men lined up to pose for photos with the women... 'I think it enhanced the image of labor,' said Vincent R. Sombrotto, president of the letter carriers union."

***

Twice a year, I vow to open a cafe devoted to Viennese pastry and string quartets and leave the labor movement forever. But so far I haven't, because I'm still in love. Not with unions as they are, but with the labor movement as it still occasionally reveals itself: a dynamic community of organizers and working activists who struggle to achieve a redistribution of power and wealth; dignity for workers, collectively and as individuals; and an enrichment and celebration of the human spirit.

And sometimes it happens -- in the crusade of the United Farm Workers, in decent locals throughout the labor landscape, in an organizing campaign where all the components miraculously come together. Take the case of Domenic Bozzotto, the innovative president of Boston Hotel Workers Union Local 26. In December 1988 he negotiated a contract with Boston's twenty unionized hotels, establishing a unique housing trust fund to assist his heavily female, racially diverse membership in buying or renting housing. A year later, a broad-based labor and community coalition successfully convinced federal legislators to enact the legal changes needed to implement the plan. Then there's the UAW, which in the past months has won two organizing campaigns at opposite poles of the workforce -- one for the 1,340 workers at the Freightliner truck manufacturing corporation in North Carolina, and one for almost 3,000 graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, the first time graduate students have won the right to bargain over compensation for their teaching duties.

When clerical workers win a union at Yale or Harvard, when Mine Workers win a strike against Pittston, when Local 1199 elects talented leadership and beats the New York hospitals at the bargaining table, we take heart and reenlist. But while the knowledge that it's still possible keeps us going, the realities of working in unions are a powerful challenge to that faith. Organizers are held in such low regard that no one, either in the AFL-CIO or in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seems to know how many labor organizers there are in the country today. We do know that in the mid-1930s the Steel Workers Organizing Committee had 433 organizers and that during the sit-down strikes the UAW grew from 30,000 to 400,000 in one year. That intensity of effort is hard to imagine today. The diminishing number of organizers is not the only reason why the workforce in the United States has gone from 35 percent to 17 percent union, but it's a good reason.

A study done by two California organizers, Marshall Ganz and Scott Washbum, revealed that in 1985, out of 7,000 full-time union staff people in the state, there were just 182 organizers -- less than 3 percent of the total. As Andrew Stern, the organizing director for the SEIU, wryly observes, "Organizing is like sex. People talk about it a lot more than they do it."

* * *
That many of my peer group wanted to organize owes much to the work of the late master organizer Saul Alinsky, a friend and biographer of John L. Lewis, who first achieved recognition for his community organizing in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood of Chicago. He based his approach on the belief that organizing should not "do for" people, but rather enable a group of people to "do for themselves." Alinsky's book Reveille for Radicals inspired us to regard organizing as an heroic vocation.

To Alinsky, every good radical was an organizer, every good organizer a radical. Instead of thinking of an organizing campaign as an effort only to win more members, he conceived of organizing as an effort to shake up the status quo. That opinion distinguished the educators, editors, negotiators, and even the occasional attorneys who were activists and empowerers from those who were functionaries and bureaucrats.

The other formative influence on my peer group was the powerful culture of the civil rights movement. Organizers a shade older than I often cite SNCC -- the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- as their first romance with organizing. The idea of a "beloved community" of activist peers, drawn from civil rights work in the South, followed them into their union work.

To Madeleine Janover, a vivacious exunion organizer who describes herself as "a working-class kid from Denver, Colorado," empowerment took on tangible meaning when she organized a small nursing home staffed by black women. On a small scale, Madeleine was able to see power in personal terms as people gained courage from organizing.

"The nursing home owner also ran a small house for slightly retarded women," Madeleine relates, "and one of the young women who lived there worked in the nursing home and came to one of the organizing meetings. She wasn't really retarded, just a little slow, but people didn't want her to get involved because they thought if she got fired from the nursing home, she could be kicked out of her residence as well.

"I'll never forget it. She told us, 'If Mrs. Albert fires me, she fires me. But it can't be as bad as the way that woman treats me, I'm not her slave.' All these women were marginal, minimum wage, bottom of the scale, and they were all scared. No one wanted to go back on welfare. And this woman, who owed her existence to the boss got up and said, 'I'm a human being, I'm not her dog, I'm in this until we win.'

"Well, those women organized, and they had a tough time, and this woman did get fired, and everyone panicked, including me. But this young woman came to the next meeting after she was fired and told us, 'Don't worry about me. If I had to do it again, I would, and she won't kick me out, because I won't let her.'

"It still brings tears to my eyes, because that was what it was all about. The union was something to this woman. It was her ticket to dignity. And that's what I organized on. The antiwar and feminist movements were so passionate, so clear, and here I was allowed to continue that dream in a more realistic way, rooted in real struggle, and the inspiration came from very real, everyday people."

Nursing homes and health care are industries where unions are now often showing unity and imagination to develop sophisticated organizing strategies. A consortium of unions, including SEIU, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Local 1199, have combined their resources to press drives at the large Beverly nursing home chain, using lively, highly publicized confrontations to garner over a hundred victories. And, in a rare victory for labor, a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board this spring will make it easier for unions to seek representation in elections at hospitals. The employees of hospitals, like nursing homes, are often poor, female, and members of minority groups, with everything to lose. However, unlike their counterparts in the textile industry, health care workers are generally immune from the runaway shop (a company that relocates to avoid unions). And the issues of fairness and justice are easily, often poignantly, documented, affecting not only the employees, but the community constituencies they serve.

If the concept of democratic empowerment that brought us to labor unions was inspired by the civil rights movement and grounded in the work of Saul Alinsky, it also had roots in the labor legacy of Eugene V. Debs, leader of the railroad workers' Pullman Strike of 1894 and pioneer of industrial unionism.

***

Ask 1960s activists whom they spire to emulate, and it's never Samuel Gompers, the cigarmaker and organizer turned bureaucrat, who became the first president of the American Federation of Labor. Rather, you'll hear the names of renegades like Mother Jones (who organized in the coal fields when she was eighty) and Debs. But it was Gompers who inherited labor's house, if not its heart. The stultifying tendencies to a parochial "wages, hours, working conditions" definition of union concerns were exacerbated by the McCarthy era, when labor purged many radical activists and scholars of different stripes. In an institution theoretically committed to the redistribution of wealth -- a concept inherently challenging the status quo -- that overzealous weeding out robbed the movement of its anti-establishment edge and many of its most eloquent proselytizers. Those who remained were often more circumspect.

By 1974, when I started working for a Pennsylvania social workers local of the SEIU, most AFL-CIO unions had been closed communities for more than fifteen years. The ties between organized labor and the academic community had been largely severed. I knew no one active in the labor movement and few who thought well of it. The support of George Meany and the AFL-CIO for the Vietnam War, combined with labor's very white, male public face, had not endeared it to civil rights and antiwar activists. Or the other way around. After all, "hippies versus hard-hats" had been one of the media images of the decade.

Not surprisingly, the first real opening for sixties activists came, not from the labor establishment, but from the fringes. Cesar Chavez, in need of organizers to build the United Farm Workers of America, opened the labor movement to a new generation of idealists.

Among the ranks of ex-civil rights and peace movement activists he found people, including Ganz, with the fervor to work 100 hours week for $5 plus communal room and board. Between 1965 and 1980 the Farm Workers trained several thousand activists, using as many as 500 organizers on any one campaign. Other sixties activists began to work at other labor causes at the peripheries of the labor establishment: in the J.P. Stevens campaign mounted by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union against the notoriously anti-union, Southern textile producer; in the efforts of renegade Mine Workers and Teamsters to reclaim and democratize their unions; and in public employee unions winning the legal right to union representation for the first time.

These out-of-the-mainstream efforts also developed coalition strategies, based on support from religious organizations and community groups. In these settings, the new union staffers could work in situations similar to the peace and civil rights movements and maintain the sense of being part of a continuum of struggle for a more equitable society.

The resulting successes, as in the case of the Farm Workers boycott or the ouster of Anthony Boyle, the corrupt leader of the United Mine Workers, were often dramatic and highly publicized. They became the stepping stones for this new cluster of labor activists to move outward and upward into more traditional labor settings and national union headquarters.

The organizational mainstreaming of the new activists accelerated as unions tried to meet an intensified attack by the New Right and by companies that increasingly retained sophisticated unionbusting firms. A new economic order was beginning to take form, marked by corporate takeovers and the shift from an industrial, more frequently unionized base to a mostly unorganized, often female or minority, service sector.

The mainstream, however, did not necessarily prove easy sailing. Although new activists were absorbed into union hierarchies, their agendas were often not taken up, and the union commitment to organizing often remained pro forma rather than pro-active. As old-timers will tell you, conflict between organizers and institutions is habitual and is based, at least in part, on both the work and the people who do it. A major component is the sheer pressure of the job, its demands of skill, time, and commitment, all too often coupled with meager financial and emotional rewards.

"People in our organization think organizers are second-class citizens," said one organizing director. "We've made it so organizers finally get paid as much as service representatives or business agents [those who service and maintain alreadyorganized shops and contracts], though that's still not necessarily true in the locals." In fact, organizers live the kind of life that medical interns used to live -- before they began to organize.

"Most organizers have to have pure dedication and sacrifice," says Machinist Vice President and Organizing Director Larry Downing. "They're going to get home, at best, 24 weekends a year, and that gets worse when a campaign starts.

"Once before my divorce, I come home, and I pull into the driveway. My wife's at the door, and my ten-year old comes up to the car and tells me to stop and demands to see my driver's license. Well, we go back and forth, and finally I show her my license, and she takes a long look and turns to my wife, 'Yep, Mom, you're right, it's Pop.' I tell you, kids know when you've been gone."

***

It's not always that amusing, though. Madeleine Janover recalls that she once had to choose between a decertification election and her parents fortieth wedding anniversary. "We were right down to the final days," she says, "and my mentor said, 'Look, it's your choice, you just have to figure out how you're going to feel if we lose the election because you were away and didn't get to make those extra house calls. You're re going to have to live with that down the road.' So I opted not to go. 'Well, my father died shortly after that. There was never a forty-fifth. And I live with that instead."

Beyond the intense commitment, organizing requires a unique blend of personality traits not necessarily compatible with the demands of a bureaucratic organization. As Si Kahn, an independent Southern organizer who has worked with many unions, notes, "Great organizers are gut nonconformists. They're artistic and creative and fundamentally antimanagement. Also headstrong, quirky, and profound outsiders. They don't fit well with suits and ties."

Yet labor is not even discussing, much less building, a culture in which those personalities can easily survive. Ironically, business is. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman's In Search of Excellence, perhaps the best known of the new management literature, is eloquent on the need to nurture and protect champions in business. "The champion," they assert, "is the zealot or fanatic in the ranks ... not a typical administrative type ... but he believes. Champions are pioneers, and pioneers get shot at. The companies that get the most from champions, therefore, are those who have rich support networks.... No support system, no champions. No champions, no innovations."

* * *

Labor's organizers and activists are, in many instances, the same kinds of people as the inventors and innovators of the business world -- the misfits of the bureaucracy who are, nonetheless, vital to the success of the organization. But the eccentricity and passion that define most memorable organizers, regardless of job title, are no longer part of the institutional culture, and many organizers ultimately cannot squeeze their vivid personalities into the requisite organizational molds.

"In the old days, the organizer was a half-crazy rebel out there," one organizing director says, "but them days are gone. Them people don't exist any more. You have to be very respectable, and if the organizer cannot fit into this organization at every level, he's the wrong person."

That view has taken hold even at otherwise progressive unions. "Right now in parts of this organization, there's the culture of a backward corporation," says another organizer. "I work for a union that twice in the last six months has hired image consultants for its staff to talk about the length of men's pants and ties, and how it's important for women to have stockings darker than their outfits. I thought it was disgusting. For the last speech, we were supposed to get dressed up and show we had internalized all this stuff and I came in jeans and a tee-shirt and gave a speech on the evils of conformity"

At every level, the demand is to conform, not to a level of commitment and activism, but to a bureaucratic style of organization. "The problem has to do with heaviness," says an AFL-CIO insider. "It impacts on people's individual capacities to be creative when you always have to think first, Will I be vulnerable if I throw out this idea?' You develop a staff culture of malaise that cramps new-thinking kinds of people, the kind you need to do organizing. It's really a tragedy, the sovietization of the labor movement."

The values that Peters and Waterman espouse for management -- risk-taking, flexibility, autonomy, a shared culture, respect for the individual -- are exactly those qualities that have always informed the best union organizing. The absence of those qualities today in most labor organizations often makes it hard for good people to stay in union work.

Those problems all seem at their worst at the AFL-CIO headquarters. "We're bureaucratically organized along functional lines," says an AFL-CIO staffer, "and this building itself is like a hospital or a prison. Departments don't talk to each other and staff meetings are used as barriers to guard turf rather than solve problems together."

In fact, unions are faced with something of a dilemma. The demands of contract administration and paperwork for hundreds of thousands of members have pushed unions to become organizations that manage, rather than act. Yet, without organizing -- and the people that do it -- unions shrink in size and influence, becoming little more than pillars of the status quo.

***

I was lucky to have one of the remaining misfits as my mentor, when I moved from my SEIU public employee local to union headquarters in 1976. SEIU Organizing Director John Geagan was that rare staffer of the fifties generation who unabashedly loved organizing -- and the people who did it. When Geagan died in 1985, all of us whom he had mentored showed up at his funeral to honor his memory and drink toasts in his name. He was one of the old breed, part bantam weight fighter (which he had been), part leprechaun, entirely impossible, with a vocabulary that knew no shame and a notorious lust for California white wine. We groaned and suffered as he got us kicked out of one restaurant after another. We thought he was totally obnoxious and adored him all the same.

The organizing department Geagan ran in the late seventies had seven national organizers, two indispensable clerical workers, a host of field organizers out in the locals, never enough space, and a perpetual air of chaos. While the rest of the office looked on, bemused or horrified, we noisily carried on.

We worked like maniacs. Our collective victories and defeats were recorded at the center of the office on a flip chart of campaigns. We all knew the score. And after days, or months, out on some mission or another, we would come home to the organizing department to celebrate, commiserate, and recover.

To Geagan, we were all "ace," "skeezix," "chum," but we all felt special. He yelled -- and we yelled back. "Christ on a crutch," he'd expostulate at the end of a frustrating exchange or, in moments of extreme exasperation, "Jesus wept."

Today, with sixty full-fime national organizers, the SEIU organizing department is larger than the entire union staff used to be. But the third-floor organizing division is as muted as the rest of the building, and it's hard to imagine a time when the life of the entire union centered around it.

Paradoxically, those orderly offices are occupied by my very talented peers. Now in charge of this organizing department and those of several other progressive unions (the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the Communications Workers of America, among others), the activists of the sixties and seventies have moved into positions of responsibility. With them have come many of the sensibilities of my generation. The blatant language of sexism is gone, and even men can talk about parental leave without ridicule. People share progressive values, work hard, and care about winning.

Sandra "Sam" Luciano, a tough, funny, outspoken holdover from the Geagan era, notes that some things have notably improved. "There is real planning and strategy. We target workplaces with real potential and then spend real money on those campaigns. And on the bigger ones, the results are better. But there's not as much fun any more, no team," she adds. "I miss that flip chart we used to have. Now if you want to know what's going on, you have to pull up someone else's reports on the computer screen. There used to be a time when everyone from the president on would pitch in on a campaign, so everyone knew it was really important. That never happens anymore. We no longer have a shared history."

***

Shared history is hard to achieve with high turnover. In the past five years, those sixty organizing positions have been filled by more than 200 people. "It's definitely flatter, but it's also a much bigger organization" says current SEIU Organizing Director Andrew Stern, who started out at the same local as I did. The quintessential sixties activist, Stern moved from rank-and-file agitation to become president of his local, before taking on the national organizing directorship five years ago.

"It takes a real talent to have a lot of spirit in a large organization, unless you're really conscious in setting goals and getting people involved," he adds. "It's also hard to keep organizers if they have to travel all the time."

Stern and his wife, also a long-time unionist, have just adopted a second child, and family pictures are the predominant personal feature of his office. "I don't know what they did before," he sighs. "It was very male and no one was ever home, sort of like Geagan. But when Geagan was dying, he talked a lot about what he'd really missed, and what he enjoyed was being home for little Johnny's soccer game, a very different message from his usual exhortation to 'organize the workers."'

SEIU, Stern adds, has given him a lot of support. "I believe the institution still believes clearly, and in the most symbolic ways, in organizing, and has allocated resources and taken risks," he says. "But the hardest part of working in a bureaucracy isn't the work, but living in it. It's very far removed from workers, in the sense of being involved in the product."

Not long ago, Sam Luciano claimed Geagan's ratty, old, brown vinyl couch for her office. I made a pilgrimage to see it, and we sat around and told Geagan stories. "The other day a senior staff person said I was just like Geagan," Sam relates. 'Tle meant it as a criticism but knew I'd take it as a compliment. What he meant is that I just go out and get things done. I do what Geagan taught me -- I stay close to the people in the field. It's a great couch. When I got this new office, it looked kind of empty, so I went looking for it. I thought it should be somewhere where it would be appreciated."

In the very best unions like SEIU, it is still possible, despite bureaucracy and compartmentalization, to create room for organizing and organizers. But what seems to finally grind down, and eventually defeat, union organizers and activists are the contradictions prevalent in the larger labor establishment. Between espoused democracy and internal conformism; between espoused equity and widespread racism and discrimination; between a commitment to solidarity and organizing in theory, and an internal culture that vitiates them in practice.

For those who can limit their vision to the small daily tasks, survival in the labor movement is possible, even rewarding. You can manage to do good organizing, if you don't concern yourself with issues of foreign policy; you can rise in the union hierarchy, if you don't defend your clerical staff; you can edit the union paper, if you don't encourage debate.

Some make the compromise. For others the cost is too high. When the divide between the principles and the practice becomes too wide, people, both inside and outside the institution, lose faith. We trade incongruities like baseball cards. And we wait for the one that will finally break our heart.

***

Nineteen eighty five was the year that almost broke mine. That year, Ray Rogers and Ed Allen, independent organizers who graduated from the J.P. Stevens Campaign, were hired by Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to help plan and implement a strike and corporate campaign against the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota.

The goal was to fend off the last in a long line of concessions demanded by the company. While P-9 received a stunning amount of grassroots support and small contributions adding up to several hundred thousand dollars, the UFCW and its International Union President, William Wynn, castigated Rogers and, together with the company, broke the strike. For more than a year, trade unionists were exhorted to take sides against each other, rather than against management.

Meanwhile, those workers lost their jobs, their cars, their homes -- and there was not a day that year that I didn't think about them. Then, at the 1985 AFL-CIO Convention, my boss, Edward Asner, about to finish his term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, took the floor to voice his opposition to the AFL-CIO's policies in Central America.

During the four years he served as SAG president, Asner had spoken at dozens of union conventions; he had appeared at picket lines and demonstrations coast to coast, contorting his work schedule to meet the growing number of requests that unions made for his time.

But that devotion meant nothing to the AFL-CIO leadership in the face of his challenge on Central America. He was harshly denounced from the podium by AFL-CIO President Kirkland. Afterwards, Rex Hardesty, an old colleague from the AFL-CIO Public Relations Department, cornered me in the hall in front of the press room. "I'm glad Asner is quitting," he yelled. "We don't need bums like that in the labor movement. And don't you ever ask any of us to help you again."

That narrow Cold War definition of labor priorities is hanging on, as even the theoretical rationale for its existence is being erased by world events. "I don't think foreign policy has anything to do with being an organizer, unless you're organizing in a foreign country," scoffs Richard Bensinger. "It's not an issue, except for people who are preoccupied with it, and they're not labor organizers. If you want to organize, you can't have a different agenda. I don't see that foreign policy has anything to do with going out and organizing workers."

Others disagree. Barbara Bordwell, an organizer for the National Education Association notes that her union "sometimes gets criticized by members who don't understand why we have a position on Central America, on abortion, on God knows what. But there are a majority who believe there is a connection to organizing and what we produce for the workers. If the work is just to get a contract, and you don't have a vision to empower masses and masses of people to change the country, then it will never occur. We'll just have better contracts. If the organizer's vision is too small, the union will be too small."

***

In the best unions, as in the best corporations, enough space is made for administrators to co-exist with the less conventional characters drawn to the organizing life. For all the years that I wrote speeches for Ed Asner, Richard Greenwood wrote speeches for Machinist President William Winpisinger. Now in his fifties, Greenwood, self-designated "flack, hack and labor skate," is the caricature of a 1940s journalist, short and wiry with a cigarette dangling from the comer of his mouth, drink in hand, and, beneath a sardonic public face, the soul of a true believer. "I'm just an old anachronism," he commented not long ago. "I think I'm still in the right church, but I seem to be in the wrong pew. "They want so badly to belong," he laughs, pointing out his window to AFL-CIO headquarters. "They just don't want to face up to the fact that they're outcasts in this society, and that they should be proud of that role, not trying to fit in. And that makes us the outcasts among the outcasts," he adds.

If he were truly cynical, Greenwood would not have given me two pieces of idealistic advice. The first was to take the relations directorship at the Screen Actors Guild, although in those pre-Asner days, it hardly seemed like part of the labor movement. "They represent the new working class," Greenwood counseled. "And anyway, the movement is in you, not in the union."

I took the job, and have always been grateful for it. Far from being a labor backwater, SAG aggressively confronted the media conglomerates and technological change, including a successful three month strike in 1980. Equally important, Asner became a national voice for the progressive, activist tradition in both the union and the national labor movement.

The second piece of Greenwood's advice concerned moving to the Writers Union. I had several offers with larger unions and more secure circumstances and couldn't quite make up my mind. "Do what makes your heart beat faster," he told me.

***

I used to joke that each move I made in the labor movement took me farther from the establishment and that the NWU was right on the edge. One more step back from the center, and I'd fall off. Now the NWU is contemplating affiliation with an AFL-CIO union, and I find myself advocating that we join the very institution from which I've been pulling away all these years. And, ironically, those who oppose affiliation within the NWU are making all my old arguments about sclerotic union dinosaurs and immoral foreign policy That debate has brought me face to face with all the contradictions about my own life in the labor movement. True, the sclerotic dinosaurs still exist, occasionally roaring and stomping on newer life-forms. But there are also those union administrators, educators, attorneys, business representatives, and gray-suited minions who may look askance at the anarchistic style of the organizers, and yet know we are needed. We may be uneasy with each other, but we instinctively understand the symbiotic nature of our roles, the resource providers and the people movers, the maintainers and the missionaries.

Even at the AFL-CIO, where some people may snarl when they hear my name, there are others who have consistently enabled me to do my work. Without them, I might not have lasted this long -- and without the help of their counterparts in many unions, the NWU might not have lasted either.

The NWU exists, not by the kindness of strangers, but by the generosity of the established labor movement, which has contributed office space, printing and mailing costs, and cash in the tens of thousands. Our styles may not quite mesh, but we can't quite give up on each other's possibilities.

The office next to mine belongs to Julie Kushner, my friend and fellow survivor, vice president of the Clerical and Professional Division of District 65 of the United Auto Workers. Julie hardly has an evening to herself. The divorced mother of two young children, whose crayoned masterworks adorn her office walls, she is constantly juggling out-of-tovm travel, evening meetings, and child care.

I love Julie because she is still passionate about the labor movement, although that's sometimes a political liability within the organization, as though strong feelings were somehow inappropriate. I've never seen Julie as discouraged by management as she is by the underappreciation and indifference occasionally displayed by fellow union officers. More and more often, she wonders whether she has the stamina to ward off emotional fatigue.

Last fall Julie helped coordinate a caravan of forty New York union staffers on a solidarity visit to the striking Pittston miners in Russell County, Virginia. Pittston was unilaterally attempting to terminate pension and health benefits for 130,000 former miners, as well as demanding unlimited subcontracting rights and mandatory Sunday overtime. Julie's visit was transformed when 98 United Mine Workers strikers seized a Pittston processing plant, the first plant takeover in the United States in fifty years.

"The plant had already been taken over when I arrived on Monday," Julie told me. "It was night, eerie and foggy. The guys who had occupied the plant were on a balcony about four stories up. On Tuesday, the UMWA was ordered into court, and the judge ruled that unless they were out of the plant by Wednesday at 3 p.m., they would attach the union's strike fund and arrest everyone. They were planning to send in the National Guard. By Wednesday, there were 4,000 of us.

"But the union didn't leave the plant in the afternoon. It planned a rally instead. It was already getting dark when the music started: joyful -- a celebration of our power. Then the strikers inside the plant came out on the balcony in formation, carrying an American flag. And chants rang back and forth between them and us."

The company decided not to force the issue. Eventually, the men inside came out, and joined the crowd of supporters. There were no arrests, no sanctions against the union. Three months later, Pittston caved in and saved the pension and health fund. "Nothing like this had ever happened to me in twelve years in the labor movement," Julie recalled. "This was not a picket. It was a real challenge to authority. It was like history repeated, but at the same time we were making it."

In the midst of the Pittston strike, half a century after John L. Lewis led the UMWA out of the CIO, the mineworkers rejoined the AFL-CIO. "All sinners belong in the same church," Lane Kirkland once said. It's good to see some saints, too.

For Madeleine Janover, the possibilities of the labor movement were embodied in the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' five-year campaign to organize Yale's clerical workers. "I remember this one woman who had been at Yale forty years. She was secretary to a dean, tall and thin, a bit like Olive Oyl. She was the sort who made the coffee and stayed at the office until midnight to get the dean's call from California.

"After the first meeting, she comes up and says, 'Oh, I enjoyed that so much, do you mind if I come again?' And she started getting active. One day, just before the strike, I'm walking along and she rushes up, so excited she's practically shaking from happiness. 'Oh, I just did something, I just have to tell you,' she said. 'The dean just asked me to pick up his cleaning and, you know what I told him? I told him no. He'd have to get it himself.'

"This wonderful woman is now a steward. To me, that's history, that's the stuff of books. The stuff that blows you away. That's the reason you do it."

***

But Madeleine recently decided to teach school in New York City, rather than return to the labor movement. "I don't know exactly why," she explains. "I'm just not ready to come back. Good team situations like Yale are very rare in the labor movement. And I wanted to be where I could use my talents and grow. For me to work in the labor movement again, I'd have to be in a situation that has a vision of the union beyond the basics of a contract, looking to involve people in their communities, politics and the arts, as whole individuals. I know that if the unorganized workforce thought that's what unions would be, there's no question they'd organize. And when they meet organizers and staff that share that vision, they want to be part of it. Who doesn't want to be part of something that's vital and growing and positive and exciting and a force for change?"

I stay because somewhere in me, the vision will not die. I struggle to build the community that will sustain me. I live for those magic moments when I recognize that the work we do has the power to transform people's understandings and change their lives.

In 1983 the AFL-CIO established a select Committee on the Evolution of Work, which has issued several reports on the issues of effectively unionizing a changing workforce. However, their suggestions are stolidly in the realm of the technical, not of the spirit. The committee has recommended better selection of organizing targets, an associate member program for individual workers who are not covered by a union contract, more effective public relations. They have instituted a fancy "Union, Yes" media campaign featuring Hollywood stars and credit cards for members. This summer they added an Organizing Institute, headed by Richard Bensinger, to help affiliates recruit and train new organizers, analyze strategies, and review campaigns. All good ideas, all worth trying. But without a sense of mission, reinforced by leadership example and shared throughout the ranks, unions cannot inspire people to risk what little they have. And no amount of technological sophistication, no slick advertising campaigns, no credit cards will compensate for the absence of that culture.

"When I started," Industrial Unions Department organizer Joseph Uehlein relates, "my boss said, 'I understand you're a singer of labor songs. That's not why you're on our payroll."' People saw music as ornamental. But I tell them music reflects politics. Culture is what people do together to make them a group, and it is inseparable from political activism. Look at our efforts to inform people in organizing drives. Those conversions that are solely intellectual are always vulnerable. We need to win people over in their hearts, with the righteousness of what this movement is about."

That's as true for union organizers as or the people we organize. Like them, we need a culture, a community in which we can grow and thrive. Good organizers, Si Kahn maintains, "have rage at the core, rage at injustice, but at the same time, are guided by great feelings of love. I think organizers can survive living in motels, the hours, the demands, so long as they have a chance to feel they are changing history. They cannot survive when they feel they no longer make a difference, when they are no longer redressing injustice. We need to make sure they're doing that, and then let them know they are heirs of a proud tradition. People who struggle for justice are the prophets of our time. It's that kind of call."

Samuel Gompers and his institutional descendants, George Meany and current AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, may have inherited labor's house but they have failed to win its soul. That belongs, as it always has, to the descendants of Eugene Debs -- and to us.

"Deep in the cradle of organized labor," Saul Alinsky wrote, "America's radicals restlessly toss in their sleep -- but they sleep. There they continue to dream of labor and the world of the future. But in spite of the parallel course of organized business and organized labor, the fault with the American radical is not that he chose to make his bed in the labor movement but that he fell asleep in it."

Well perhaps only half asleep. Here and there, we can see an awakening and a stretching. Along those long hallways at the AFL-CIO, there are a few more doors that will open for new energy or a fresh idea. And despite our doubts, because of our dreams, we continue to knock. To me and my fellow sixties refugees, the labor movement is like the lover you can neither marry nor leave, the parent to whom you cannot be reconciled. Part prayer, part promise. A vision in the torpor of bureaucratic days. And those of us who hold it cannot sleep.

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