There should be more to labor than just work

Why unions should look beyond jobs

February 27, 2014 8:00PM ET
Desperation forces unions to defend projects, such as the Keystone pipeline, that are unequivocally harmful and run counter to core values of the progressive movement.
Guillaume Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. His justification was that it would create jobs — albeit 35 of them, according to the State Department — for his members in the building trades union. Trumka’s stance further widened the gap between organized labor and progressives who care about the environment, all because of widespread assumptions about the value of work.

In a society where wages are stagnant and good work is hard to find, it’s logical for unions to grab what they can. But such desperation also forces them to defend projects, such as the Keystone pipeline, that are also unequivocally harmful, and that run counter to core values of the progressive movement.

We can see a similar dynamic at work in a host of issues. California’s draconian policy of handing out life sentences for three-time felons is a result of the corrections’ officers union’s push to create more prison jobs. The United Mineworkers of America, where Trumka was once president, decried the Obama administration’s desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for fear of hurting coal industry revenue. Military Keynesianism — the use of economic stimulation through robust war and defense spending — is buttressed in part by the unions who win jobs when their defense industry employers profit from lucrative government contracts.

This cleavage between labor and the larger progressive movement occurs when unions focus narrowly on increasing the number of jobs, rather than envisioning a larger alternative economic structure that would benefit union members, nonmembers and society as a whole. It also makes the country’s union leaders side with industry and the executives and shareholders who lead it, rather than with those who favor better pay and well-being for all. Trumka has said, for example, that we need to “value work.” Congressman and likely Republican presidential candidate Paul Ryan has also stressed the need to preserve the “dignity of work.” That’s not a coincidence: It is the legacy of America’s infamous Protestant work ethic, which still holds undue influence over organized labor’s rhetoric.

Unambitious slackers

Contrary to popular misconception, preaching the value of work hasn’t always been a central plank of the labor movement. The eight-hour workday, for example, became a core demand of labor, but only through the activism of revolutionary anarchists, not labor lobbyists. Some of these radicals were executed in Chicago after the 1886 Haymarket incident — in which a peacefully rally for the measure turned violent after an unknown assailant threw a bomb at police — because they dared declare that a worker’s life should not be based solely on toil.

Labor’s focus on work has enabled contemporary odious rhetoric that holds that one’s paycheck should be relative to how much one personally suffers while earning it: Wall Street apologists have defended bankers on cable news because they work countless hours and sacrifice personal freedom and their families for their institutions, while teachers, who educate and care for our youth, are portrayed as comparatively unambitious slackers. 

Economic demands shouldn’t take the form
of job creation, but of expanding health care reform
that goes beyond Obamacare, so as to decouple
health care from employment.

The labor movement should instead embrace a philosophical realignment, in the spirit of its more visionary ancestors who died for the eight-hour day, to elevate human needs over work, instead of elevating work over human needs. Technology has enabled businesses to rely on fewer workers; machines can liberate workers from doing dangerous and soul-numbing tasks. Last summer, when fast-food workers went on strike demanding a living wage, right-wing media suggested they could be replaced by burger-flipping robots. What a few people have pointed out is that that might not be a bad thing: People should be free to seek pursuits beyond the flame broiler. The demand should be fewer working hours and more leave time, to allow workers to live outside of their jobs, to engage with their families and communities, bolstering civic activity. Economic demands shouldn’t take the form of job creation, but of expanding health care reform that goes beyond Obamacare, so as to decouple health care from employment. The issue of income inequality can be addressed not through creation of more work but through things like a universal basic income.

Sadly, the work of unionists who rallied against needless toil has been largely swept under the rug. For example, you don’t hear labor leader Tony Mazzocchi’s name mentioned much, but his activism laid the groundwork for the landmark Occupation Safety and Health Act. While he fought for protections for workers in the chemical sector, his ideological opposition to workers’ destinies being tied to such dangerous jobs, as his biographer Les Leopold explains, put him in conflict with mainstream labor leaders (Leopold calls him the man who hated work but loved labor). The only union currently calling for a dramatic work-hour reduction is the Industrial Workers of the World, a pure but tiny outfit also known as the “Wobblies.” The International Longshore and Warehouse Union left the AFL-CIO in frustration last year, in part because of the latter’s “moderate, overly compromising policy positions on such important matters as immigration, labor law reform, health care reform, and international labor issues.”

There are some small but meaningful reasons to be optimistic that new ideas about labor are catching on. People have written in publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including Al Jazeera America, about similar notions of mechanization being a liberating force rather than a job killer. That’s a good start, but organized labor, with its voice and ability to communicate with the working class, will need to adopt this new vision if the progressive movement is to see a victory as significant as the eight-hour workday. As odd as it sounds, for American workers to enjoy better lives, labor must reject the idea that merit should depend on how much one has suffered on the job. 

Ari Paul is a writer and editor in New York City and has covered politics and labor for The Nation, The Guardian, The Forward, Vice News, Dissent, Jacobin and In These Times. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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