American Labor's Rebirth

Spurred on by rifts within the AFL-CIO, for the past six months pundits have been furiously writing obituaries for the American labor movement. But those seeking to administer organized labor's last rites should look again. In Los Angeles and other cities across the country, a powerful model is emerging that has already claimed a number of victories for working families.

At the core of this reinvigorated movement is an inclusive vision unifying working people, unions, communities, religious leaders and political leaders under the broad umbrella of economic fairness. There is also a strategic savvy capable of taking on multinational corporations with superior resources.

At the cutting edge of the new American labor movement is the city of Los Angeles, which over the past decade has generated a string of success stories. One of the first of these was the passage in 1997 of the city's living wage ordinance, which accelerated the enactment of similar legislation in cities around the country (more than 125 such laws are now on the books).

The living wage campaign in many ways embodied the new labor movement. It brought together an incredibly broad coalition, evoking images of the social movements of the 1960s with a mix of clergy, students, politicians and community leaders. The campaign was emblematic of the new labor movement in another way, too, merging policy, research, organizing and communications into a strategy that hit on multiple fronts at once.

In the years since the living wage victory, the Los Angeles labor movement has repeatedly used the formula of coalition-building and comprehensive campaigns to win major gains for working families. From the Justice for Janitors strike in 2000 to the landmark defeat of Wal-Mart's Inglewood ballot measure in 2004 to this year's dramatic victory for thousands of hotel workers, L.A. has proven that a big tent labor movement with a sophisticated strategy can challenge the growing epidemic of working poverty and the shrinking of the American middle class.

Los Angeles is not an isolated case. Earlier this year, San Diego -- historically a conservative city -- enacted far-reaching living wage legislation with the backing of a broad labor/community coalition. Similar coalitions have passed living wage laws in more than 10 California cities.

Meanwhile, community, labor and religious leaders have successfully united to block Wal-Mart's expansion into some of the largest urban markets in the country. Following the retail giant's rebuff in Inglewood, coalitions in both Chicago and New York shut down Wal-Mart's attempt to build massive supercenters, which replace middle-class jobs with poverty-wage jobs and decimate entire communities.

These impressive achievements come at a critical moment in American history. As the Bush administration vigorously pursues its conservative public policy agenda, it has become more and more clear that the interests of the majority of Americans are not being served by the administration's priorities. From tax cuts that impoverish needed government services to the privatization of Social Security, the Bush agenda is being revealed as one that benefits big business at the expense of the average working American.

Conservatives have sought to build a popular consensus around so-called "moral" issues in part to draw attention away from their blatantly anti-middle class and pro-business policies. By inflaming passions on divisive social issues like gay marriage and abortion, which threaten "traditional" social and religious values, they have obscured their own attempt to dismantle many of the "traditional" communal values that have undergirded American society since the New Deal.

The challenge of the labor movement is to unite Americans of all races, ages, regions and religions around a set of values that represent the good of the whole over the interests of the very few. This movement must be based on the priorities of economic fairness and security, which most Americans believe in. These priorities must be posed against the interests of the multinational corporations that are increasingly dominating both the American and global economies.

Economic fairness and security, broadly defined, refers to the ability of individuals to benefit from an economy in which people who work full time earn enough to raise their families, employees are treated with dignity and respect on the job, families have access to decent housing, clean air and water and quality healthcare, and there is equality of opportunity in all economic spheres.

These issues speak to all Americans and unite the majority in a community of interest. The evidence can be found in Los Angeles and other cities, which are breathing new life into the American labor movement and transforming the lives of working families.


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