The Labor Presence at D2KLA
by Sarah Bania-Dobyns
On Sunday, August 13, 2000, members of the AFL-CIO and so-called "labor delegates" met at the Wilshire Hotel downtown Los Angeles to re-affirm their support for Gore and his party. With the exception of John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, all the speakers were congressional representatives speaking on behalf of the labor movement. Meanwhile, members of the Screen Actors Guild, AFSCME, and AFTRA, as well as several other unions, made the seemingly captive audience. The slogan of the day was "When Working Families Vote, Working Families Win."
Sunday's event was a typical top-down view of the labor movement. Labor is seen as the backbone of the Democratic Party, the single most important constituency the party has. It gives the Democrats an identity the Republicans cannot assume: they are, they claim, the party of working people. But people forget that Democrats also claim to appeal to many more constituencies, including the very wealthy, so that they are not the party of working people.
At events such as this one, neither labor leaders nor congressional representatives ever speak about those workers who are not unionized. Somehow, the phrase "living wage" has made it into their campaign vocabulary but "right to organize" has not. Nor has the plight of undocumented workers become a legitimate issue of debate within the mainstream labor movement, meaning both elite events with party officials and within the unions themselves.
Two days later, on August 15, SEIU members marched to show their support for Gore as well as express their discontent with the lack of a living wage. The Democrats, organizers and union activists alike agreed, had to see the wage gap was widening and know that this was not acceptable. To concretely show the Democrats they wouldn't stand for these conditions any longer, SEIU members passed a strike authorization vote that same evening.
The SEIU rally was encouraging because it was a step in the right direction for working people. The affirmative vote on the strike authorization vote shows that these SEIU members, at least, have some stability in their union that makes them feel secure enough to challenge their bosses. But simultaneously, it was a step back for working class solidarity in L.A. As usual, the SEIU members took the traditional stance of endorsing the Democratic Party out of fear of losing what little they do have. To strike, for them, is radical and enough of a risk. They may have the stability in their union to strike, but fear that if they do not support the Democrats, the Republicans could win, and then they could very well lose their union.
Yet, not far from the Staples Center where the highly choreographed, though spirited and fiercely supportive of a living wage, SEIU rally took place, is a neighborhood of sweatshops and undocumented workers. This was where the anti-sweatshops, pro-immigrant rally and march took place on Thursday, August 17.
Here were the real risk-takers. These are the people who march in the streets because their lives are at stake, and who put their lives at risk as they do so. Their march was the real sign of a changing labor movement, more than SEIU's strike or the Democrats' appropriation of the term "living wage." To lead a march from their area, where almost everyone speaks Spanish, through the streets of downtown L.A., was a step towards legitimizing the issues of undocumented workers and sweatshop laborers because it brought them out in the open.
Nonetheless, the SEIU rally and the Democrats' changing language are not to be discounted. While they are certainly not a major success for the labor movement as a whole as a march of undocumented workers is, they do represent a labor consciousness that is gradually coming to the forefront of the new movement against corporate globalization.
This labor consciousness is apparent in the movement not only because of the numerous labor events this past week around the DNC, but also in the openness to labor issues in all D2K events. Many events acknowledged the centrality of labor to their own struggles, including the Women's March and the Queers and Allies March. Others, like the Bus Riders Union march and the anti-police brutality march, were clearly issues of concern to working-class people. These events showed that the labor movement could gain from branching out from the traditional strike for higher wages and include in its demands the need to do away with police brutality, as well as many other issues workers have a stake in.
Even with the clear labor consciousness of D2KLA organizers, and the welcome activists would give to an alliance with the labor movement, the coalition between the two is far from cohesive. This surely has something to do with the lack of a democratic, unified labor movement. Not every worker has access to unions, and certainly not every worker is a U.S. citizen with the right to vote. What stake, then, do they have in Democratic Party, which has allowed them to remain illegal aliens, to not have a viable place in the AFL-CIO, that supposedly represents all working people?
Activists in the new movement realize that labor is necessary if we are to ultimately succeed. In L.A., there was undoubtedly an increase in community-labor-activist solidarity. But it is only the first step towards reaching out to our fragmented communities to build a tight-knit social movement no one splinter.