This is a follow-up on my previous column. The question that I posed there was whether unions, like the Writers Guild of America, could play a role in transforming the entertainment media (movies, television) into a more progressive force. This is part of a broader question: How can we build towards socialism from the bottom up? Is there a role that unions can play in moving to transform their industries in a more democratic and socialist direction?
It seems to me that the push to change the character of key industries, not just in terms of the pay, benefits, and working conditions that they offer employees, but also regarding the role they play in society, ought to be one important element of any movement towards socialism in this country. The deal that was cut during the New Deal era, in which unions granted management complete control over the substance and policies of their industries in exchange for better pay and job security, was ultimately a fool's bargain. If we want industrial democracy, then unions need to be able to speak up and participate in the shaping of the industry they work for. And, unlike management, they can do so with other, social goals in mind, apart from the bottom line.
If we take a critical approach to a particular industry, and seek to transform it in a more progressive direction, then unions would be vital players in that transformation. But they would not be the only players. The consumers of the industry, and the communities which are impacted by the industry in other ways, would also have to participate in the transformation process. We would form coalitions around the idea of reconstructing the industry to be much more concerned about the general welfare. We would raise social values that industries generally fail to consider.
Now some of this is going on. I'm thinking of the ports project in
The current ports campaign tries to leverage concerns not only about the heavy pollution surrounding the ports, which is exacerbated by the age of the trucks that immigrant truck owners can afford to buy, but also concerns about road safety (from old vehicles with balding tires) and "national security" (including the screening of workers, especially immigrants, as potential terrorists). The basic idea of the campaign is to get the port authorities to play a role in issuing licenses to trucking companies, in the process insisting that the drivers be direct employees of the companies. The companies would be responsible for the purchase of new, safe, non-polluting trucks, and would oversee the trucking workforce from a national security standpoint.
The underlying purpose of this campaign, of course, is to set up the conditions for bringing the IBT back into port trucking. By transforming the truckers into employees, they would be free to unionize. The environmental and safety issues are, in part, a pretext for this underlying goal: to rebuild union strength. But certainly joining with community environmental groups to work jointly on cleaning up the ports and building a union is a good thing.
Still, I think something is missing from this picture. (I am setting aside the question of whether the drivers themselves have been full partners in this campaign. I am not an insider, so don't know for sure, but I've gotten the impression that they may not be. The fact that the campaign leadership is overwhelmingly white, while the drivers are almost all Latino immigrants, raises concerns over racial exclusion/domination. And questions can be raised about whether undocumented immigrant drivers will receive protection under the national security rules.) The entire international trading system, and the consumerism that undergirds it, deserves more critical treatment. What would a socialist system of trade and ports look like, one that really serves the popular interest? This isn't the goal of the current campaign.
Rebuilding the union is obviously not a bad goal. Providing higher wages and working conditions for employees is very worthwhile. But is it enough? I fear that, because it is so difficult to achieve this much more limited goal, and because unions find themselves in a defensive and losing battle most of the time, self-preservation becomes the major purpose of the union, and the larger issue of social transformation gets shelved. But can we afford to ignore it? Can even the more limited goals be won if we don't think about the bigger picture?
Edna Bonacich is an emeritus professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of California,