By Jim Miller
Last Monday’s victory for the United Taxi Workers of San Diego provided a much-needed boost for local labor.
After a year that has included some tough losses at the polls and the effort to save the minimum wage ordinance, it was inspiring to see the taxi drivers (largely East African immigrant workers) burst into celebration and pour out of Golden Hall chanting “USA!” as they embraced each other, mounted the planter boxes, and cheered for joy.
It was the kind of genuine expression of collective exuberance that comes when workers feel, perhaps for the first time, that they have taken ownership of their lives and destinies.
Doug Porter ably reported the details last week, but what was most important about that moment was not so much the particulars of the policy but the nature of the movement that led to their triumph. As Richard Barrera, Secretary-Treasurer of the Labor Council, put it in his message to labor folks:
The victory by UTWSD comes five years after drivers, improperly classified as independent contractors and without NLRB recognition, came together and organized a strike to protest their wages, benefits and working conditions. Despite constant harassment, retaliation and intimidation by permit holders and dispatch companies over the last five years, and despite obstruction by public agencies, these workers stuck together, fought back against injustice, and prevailed. It reminds and teaches all of us that a union is not formed by formal government recognition, it is formed by workers standing together to fight for justice and a brighter future for their families.
And UTWSD clarifies for all of us a path to victory for workers even in the age of Harris v. Quinn, ALEC, the Koch Brothers and the anti-worker elements of San Diego (see the Regional Chamber of Commerce, which spoke out against the taxi workers last night). Victory comes from organizers listening to workers, developing leaders, planning a path to win and sticking to the plan no matter how hard it gets. The UTWSD path, although creative and relevant to modern times, is the path that built not only the labor movement, but every movement in the history of our country that has pushed us closer to our American ideals.
And there wasn’t a single person in Golden Hall among the hundreds who showed up to support the taxi workers, whether they were from labor or an allied community group, that did not stop, smile, and think: “this is what it’s all about.”
But if we dig a little deeper into the history of American labor, there is not just inspiration but a lesson as to what kind of unionism and working class politics gets the goods—social justice unionism.
In the early days of the American labor movement in the latter part of the 19th century there were two emerging forms of unionism: bread and butter and social justice as practiced by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Knights of Labor respectively.
The AFL was primarily a bread and butter union that focused more narrowly on things like wages and benefits, a philosophy they called “pure and simple unionism.” They recruited predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male skilled workers and initially had no great involvement in politics beyond the work place. They also believed in “volunteerism” or a strict reliance on the union and its members rather than a broader social focus.
Hence the AFL was an exclusive organization. Early AFL unionism was largely conservative and defensive, and its narrow, exclusive focus set the pattern for many unions for the next century and beyond. Simply put, the AFL was not about social, economic, and political transformation but about getting a bigger piece of the pie for their members.
The Knights of Labor was a broader based social justice union whose philosophy is best summed up by their motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Thus Knights of Labor unionism was more inclusive as it sought to organize workers across barriers, and they included skilled and unskilled workers as well as more women and people of color (although they too were problematic at times with regard to race).
The Knights were also interested in challenging monopoly capitalism, a system they saw as a threat to democracy and proposed the idea of a “cooperative commonwealth” in opposition to the growing plutocracy of the era of the Robber Barons. In a nutshell, the Knights of Labor sought not just to get a bigger piece of the pie for their members but to change the way the pie was made and distributed.
As labor evolved over the next century, while no successful labor organization or workers movement ever gave up on “bread and butter,” it was the broader based, more inclusive and visionary “social justice unionism” of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the thirties and forties that eventually led to the great upsurge of the American labor movement, the gains of the New Deal, and the growth of the middle class and some political power for working people.
In the 1960s it was that impulse that led Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to support striking public sector sanitation workers in a struggle that united labor and civil rights. That same “social justice unionism” spirit also guided Cesar Chavez and the United Farm workers in their fight for economic and social justice.
Over the last several decades of labor’s decline, in addition to external factors like the rise of neoliberalism, globalization, and the subsequent abandonment of any inclination of capital to treat labor as a partner, the loss of that “social justice unionism” spirit is a key reason why unions have faltered.
In his new book The Death and Life of American Labor, Stanley Aronowitz argues that a new workers movement “must be broader and more inclusive than unions . . . When unions form coalitions with community groups to fight for better educations, housing, and public transportation, or against the super-exploitation of the working poor, that shows a broader, grander conception of labor activism and suggests a basis for a new movement.” Along those lines he argues that unions “new and old” should “demand and provoke organization of the vast and growing population of precarious workers whether such unions are recognized by employers or not.” Such work, according to Aronowitz, should include “building alliances” with Workers Centers and organizations, such as the Taxi Workers Alliances.”
With last week’s victory for the taxi workers here in San Diego, we just provided a good example of precisely how this new kind of workers movement can succeed. After their victory at City Hall, their ongoing efforts to form a taxi drivers collective, build power, and give a voice to their community will keep the United Taxi Drivers of San Diego moving into the future.
As their Program Director Sarah Saez puts it, “It’s about reaching out with the intention of listening and learning from workers and our community and giving them the support they need to inspire and lead movements. We have to continue to support natural leaders like our President Mikaiil Hussein, organizer Abebe Antallo and all our drivers and community members who are powerful beyond words. Trusting their vision, creating genuine partnerships with the community and nontraditional workers and fighting for issues that are going to fundamentally change people’s lives is how we build power, deepen solidarity, and win.”