I'm no child psychologist – but as I was co-raising our two kids I observed a phenomenon known as "parallel play". Around age three, kids were aware of their peers on the playground or the pre-school but unable or uninterested in playing directly with them. As a step toward friendship and social or collective play the kids would sit down besides each other and play independently but next to each other. I bring this up because I was reminded of my children on the playground when I witnessed the Labor Plenary at the U.S. Social Forum in
Ai-jen Poo from the Domestic Workers Union in
Stewart Acuff from the AFL-CIO followed up and closed with comments that were oblivious to the politics and questions that Ai-jen had just raised. We are all workers and we must breakdown the barriers between workers are the phrases that stick in my memory. What about race? What about immigration status? What about war and empire? What about the call for a higher level of political consciousness? Acuff was militant and powerful but within the very narrow blinders of organized labor --- give us a contract and give us our fair share of the pie. Or, more cynically, please Verizon (or Wal-Mart) let us be your junior partner.
From the vantage point of the new working class movement this sounds so old and so misses the point. 'We' are organizing the class where it is and around a multiplicity of issues. Over 20 urban organizations have formed, for example, the Right to the City Alliance to challenge neo-liberal private / public orthodoxy that is driving hundreds of thousands of urban residents from their communities. Domestic workers have gone national with over a dozen organizations coming together to form a national organization fighting for domestic workers rights and power. Just last year – millions – from outside the formal labor movement took to the streets to demand legalization for immigrants. Conferences and networks bring to gather radical queers, feminists against violence and others. Collectively, dozens of small groups mobilized thousands to participate in the Social Forum. Many of us have participated in at least one World Social Forum. In 2003 I saw thousands of workers – from offices and factories – piling off of union sponsored busses after their 20 hour bus ride from Sao Paolo. Yet when we looked for labor, we found dozens instead of thousands, we found bread and butter unionism not social justice organizing and we found staff and not members.
Fortunately, since starting this piece, I've had a chance to talk with some labor veterans who said that - limited as it may have been - unions participating in the Social Forum represented a huge advance. That labor often doesn't participate in things that it doesn't control and that when those who did go report back, there may be an awakening consciousness of struggle and social movements outside of unions. They noted that the AFL-CIO has a good position on immigration and the SEIU played a leading role in last year's immigrants uprising and that the AFL-CIO has a mutual support agreement with NDLON (day laborers network). I hope so. I, for one, am tired of parallel play and look forward to the day when new working class organizations and unions can be engaged in real dialogue, mutual support and righteous struggle. ###
Jon Liss is the Executive Director of Tenants and Workers United and a founding member of the Right to the City Alliance.