A letter from America

“Welcome to Cambridge” called the guide, as our brightly painted trolley bus trundled over Longfellow Bridge, “the most left wing city in the USA – 90% Democrat, 10% Communist”. 

Through the TUC, myself and 19 other British trade unionists joined the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program in the last week of October to receive high level and exchanges with activists, experts, union leaders and Harvard professors, visit union branches, join rallies and sectoral reps caucuses. 

With reduced bargaining power, low wages, long hours and poor holiday entitlement our American union brothers and sisters have their work cut out. Employment law and labour rights are rigid and restrictive, handicapping trade union organisation. Add to this, a strong public perception of unions as at best “corrupt gangsters” or “communists”. At worst, Americans simply believe unions to be irrelevant and something from the hazy past.  

With only 6% of American workers in membership of a union, Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of AFL-CIO candidly told us if the American labor movement is to survive, they now have to think the unthinkable. Mere protection of member interests is no longer sustainable. To win gains, American unions are now deeply engaged in building community support, working with and on behalf of non-members, connecting with traditionally hostile workers and seeking a breakthrough for the movement to become relevant and attractive to young people and the diversity of ethnic groups and migrant workers. 

Every bit a traditional working class industrial trade unionist, Mark Elrich, leader of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters (NERCC), represents 19,000 construction workers enjoying 11% union density.  His address to a public meeting “What next for the UK labor movement?”, a booming oratory attack on capitalism lifted my heart. Elrich firmly laid the blame for the economic crisis with corporate greed and the forces of international capital. In building an alternative to the breakdown in social solidarity, job loss and low pay, Mark, like Liz the evening before, called on unions to open up, to expand the notion of constituency beyond the union card, and not close the door on those not paying the union dues to build a new class war where allies join hands. 

Inside Harvard University itself, the beating heart of US and global intellectual development and learning, the future leaders of the World are being shaped from amongst the sons and daughters of the elite and those very fortunate to win scholarship support. An academic institution, whose motto is Veritas, one would expect would have a fairly liberal approach to the unionisation of its own employees. Not so, it would seem. It took 17 years of struggle for clerical and technical workers to gain union recognition. Despite teaching liberal studies, like most other US employers, “Harvard” put up every bureaucratic and legal barrier to prevent its employees winning a union contract. 

Our delegation explored the historical and political context of North American labor organisation, and how they are taking forward a new era of trade unionism against frightening decline in union density. 

As our US comrades struggle with these material realities,  we are reminded that “we are a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”.  Inspite of our own anti-union laws, neoliberal austerity hegemony and attacks on workers, we remain, for now, relatively better off.  We must provide solidarity and hope to our North American brothers and sisters in their organising crisis. But we must also remember that UK union density is now just 23%.  We too must win for the workers and recruit members to our movement, but also build real support for the collectivist principles of that requires winning hearts and minds too.

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