Sasha Ziman, a 19-year-old undergraduate at Cornell University, traveled hundreds of miles to shake the hand of an AFL-CIO president.
That would never have happened during the 1960s and 70s, when antiwar activism swept the nation’s campuses and the cigar-chomping George Meany ran the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations like the junior member of the establishment that it was.
It was equally unimaginable during the reign of Lane Kirkland, the lifeless bureaucrat who presided over labor’s slide to near oblivion during the eras of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
But in the middle of the 1990s, when most campus life revolves around what courses to take to land the best job, the young collegian and hundreds like him wanted to thank John J. Sweeney, the balding, unprepossessing Service Employees International Union official who took control of the labor federation last year. Why? For starting Union Summer, the campaign that enlisted about 1,200 college students this last summer to help labor organize new members.
The college program represents the stirrings of a labor movement that has finally realized it is in deep trouble. Seeking to reverse decades of decline, the new leadership at the AFL-CIO is reaching out for allies in this case, on America’s campuses - in an effort to reinvent itself as a movement for progressive social change.
For three weeks, Ziman traveled through Mississippi and Alabama, leafletting nursing home workers, visiting their homes and holding organizing rallies on the town squares of the Deep South. “We followed the path of the freedom riders,” he said, referring to the historic trips taken by busloads of Northern college students during the early days of the Civil Rights movement to end desegregation.
“The whole idea was just too exciting to pass up,” he said. “In three weeks, we changed every city we touched.” It touched him, too. He now wants to get a job working for a union when he gets out of school.
The event that brought together the 61-year-old Sweeney, Ziman and about 2,000 other students, labor leaders and academics was a two-day teach-in at Columbia University, one of nine being held around the country this weekend. Its academic organizers hoped the “Fight for America’s Future” teach-ins would renew an alliance between organized labor and the academic community that hasn’t been seen in this country since at least the 1930s and 1940s.
The goal of the labor-oriented academics in organizing the teach-ins was avowedly political.
But for labor, which is pouring $35 million into advertising this year to help the Democratic Party win back Congress, the stakes are nothing less than institutional survival. Sweeney, who is shaking up the nation’s labor movement like no leader since United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis launched the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the depths of the Depression, is seeking to transform the AFL-CIO from a collection of loosely affiliated unions run like insurance companies into something it hasn’t been for decades: a social movement.
Sweeney, a graduate of Iona College, says he believes this transformation from business unionism to social activism must take place for organized labor to remain a significant social force in the 21st century. Union membership fell to 16.3 million last year, its lowest number since the 1950s. As a percent of the work force, union membership has plummeted to 14.9 percent, a level not seen since the 1920s.
This precipitous decline has taken place despite social conditions that on the surface would seem fertile ground for a labor renewal. Millions of workers over the last two decades have suffered declining real wages. The average hourly wage has fallen 12 percent since 1978. Then there’s the growing gap between rich and poor, where the top 1 percent of the population now controls 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, twice the share of the late 1970s.
Yet support for unions, the institution traditionally seen as the vehicle for reversing such trends, is at low ebb. Sweeney recognizes that unless he builds bridges to other parts of society and does it fast, his efforts to rejuvenate labor’s fortunes are doomed to failure.
“For unions, this is the year we either reverse the long decline in our membership or slide into the back pages of America’s history books,” he told the standing-room-only crowd jammed into the rotunda of Columbia’s historic Low Library. Outside in the unseasonably crisp night air, hundreds more students and faculty members who couldn’t get in listened via loud speakers.
To get help in reinvigorating labor’s ranks, Sweeney has opened the doors of AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington to dozens of social activists, who spent the last two decades organizing boycotts, corporate campaigns and organizing drives around the fringes of the labor movement. Now they’re on the inside, hoping to use the resources of the still formidable union structure to rebuild a social movement in America capable of reversing the conservative tide that is sweeping away the social safety net woven between the 1930s and 1960s.
Sweeney has also shown he is willing to put labor’s money where its collective mouth is. The federation’s affiliates passed a special dues assessment to raise the $35 million for a nationwide, single-message advertising campaign to educate workers about what it charges were Republican efforts to cut Medicare and Social Security.
Next on his agenda is raising $20 million over the next year-and-a-half for labor’s most far-reaching organizing drive since the late 1940s, when passage of the Taft Hartley bill allowed the creation of state right-to-work laws (which outlaw the union shop) and stopped most unions’ Southern organizing campaigns dead in their tracks.
The $20 million would increase labor’s organizing efforts tenfold from current levels.
Sweeney, who recently published a book called “America Needs a Raise,” realizes this organizing campaign will fall on deaf ears unless he can change the national mood to one where organized labor is seen as a legitimate protest vehicle for workers on the lowest rungs of society. So when left-leaning academics approached him earlier this year with the idea of holding a teach-in and reaching out to students, he said something to the academic community not heard in decades. He said yes.