Labor / solidarity work's
new possiblities

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 63-66
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

In this issue we present for our readers' use political esaays about problems in political organizing and international left media work in the 80s. In the United States we see this as an era of coalition, not consensus, politics among progressive groups. Internationally we have an obligation to learn from media made within revolutionary struggles, and we hope to contribute to an analysis of those works and their international circulation.

Coalition politics offers the opportunity for both intellectual and social growth as we learn from each other at the same time that we recognize our differences. We offer these essays as reflections on our mutual political relations — that is, on the relation between labor, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and feminist organizing goals and strategies.

We welcome readers' feedback in Critical Dialogue.

The following article will also be published in a special pamphlet on labor issues by Against the Current



On April 20, 1985, we had the broadest-based street demonstration against the arms race and intervention in Central America I have ever seen in the Bay Area. In large part, this came from including the labor movement and churches from the very beginning of organizing a coalition to build the demonstration. At the demonstration itself, the number of people following labor's banners was very small (approximately 5,000) compared to two previous labor-initiated marches in San Francisco — one in July, 1984 on the eve of the Democratic National Convention and another on Solidarity Day in October, 1982. Yet labor participation in support of "political" issues, especially non-intervention, was greater on April 20, 1985 than ever before.

Jack Henning, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the California Labor Federation and James Herman, International President of the International Longshore and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) both addressed the April 20 marchers at the Civic Center. All the Bay Area Central Labor Councils endorsed the march and their representatives carried their banners up Market Street. Labor unions contributed a significant amount of money, and donated office space, meetings halls, and staff time to the coalition. Labor officials served on committees and attended regular meetings of those committees. Four labor leaders addressed a related Labor Speakout at Teamster Local 70's Hall in Oakland.

The April 20 coalition was part of and has also aided labor's increasing activism on political issues. On April 11, more than 15 labor officials were arrested in San Francisco while committing civil disobedience against apartheid. Large labor contingents have turned up to support Berkeley students sitting in at Stephen Biko Plaza. In part this labor support was organized through the coalition. East Bay labor unions have also expressed their support for the student anti-apartheid sit-in and helped to picket the university's receiving points.

This crucial labor support for the April 20 coalition and subsequent actions around South Africa grow out of, in part at least, previous labor/solidarity work around Central America and South Africa. But it would not have happened without the struggle by those of us committed to working within our unions to make labor a major force in the coalition. I say struggle because we faced strong opposition to this effort, opposition which continued right up to march day and even threatened to undermine the coalition itself. The opposition came primarily from various left sect groups and solidarity organizations. While I often agreed with the substance of those groups' specific political criticisms, I found their tactics and their behavior destructive. Because of the need in the U.S. today for effective coalition politics, these political groups must learn how to participate in coalition politics in a constructive way.

I think the April 20 coalition represented a major step forward and the beginning of a new period of cooperation.[1][open notes in new window] It has created many possibilities that did not exist before. I believe that this sort of coalition politics will be the vehicle or form of progressive politics in the next decade. We'll all need a lot of patience, tolerance, openness, and (re)education for that. But such coalition politics has great potential to reach far beyond the rather small circle of political and solidarity activists who have too often been talking mostly to each other for the last ten years. The April 20 Coalition in the Bay Area showed that it can be done. Now we have to learn from this experience and move forward with that learning. I hope that this article and whatever discussion it stimulates will contribute to that learning and the necessary doing that must follow.


I became a trade union activist by accident in 1978. Prior to that most of my political work went into editing JUMP CUT: A Review of Contemporary Media, which I helped found in 1974 and continue to co-edit. In the mid-1 970s I had taught at and helped direct the East Bay Socialist School (a project of the New American Movement) in Oakland.

In the fall of 1978 I began teaching as a temporary lecturer in film at San Francisco State University. At that time AFT Local 1352 was active on campus, but we had no contract nor any right to collective bargaining in the California State University (CSU) system. Nonetheless, some time during that year a fellow called me up and said that the tenure track faculty was trying to disenfranchise the lecturers and force us out of the union. I didn't understand much of what he said, but he made it sound serious and convinced me to attend the next union meeting.

The specific issue passed, but I came to know other lecturers and became involved in the fight to increase the participation and influence of the full and part-time temporary faculty (lecturers are about half the actual faculty on our campus and in the system as a whole). The union was dominated by the tenured and tenure-track faculty. I began attending union meetings regularly, was elected to the Executive Board, was elected a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, and held a state-wide committee post. After we got the right to collective bargaining, I spent several years organizing and campaigning for the two collective bargaining elections we had (no one won the first and we lost the second one by 49 votes). Currently I am active in our union, the California Faculty Association (affiliated with both the NEA and the AFL-CIO), and am again a delegate to the Labor Council.

In the late spring of 1982, taking the place of a friend from our union, I attended a meeting of Trade Unionists in Solidarity with El Salvador (TUSES). I liked the people very much and liked what they were doing. Through my writing and teaching about Third World film, especially Latin American film, I had already become concerned about U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Work in TUSES seemed an ideal way of combining my trade union work with my interest in Central America.

One other brief but important experience I had governed how I thought about this labor/solidarity work. For several months in the mid-1970s I worked on the Zimbabwe Medical Drive. At the East Bay Socialist School I had helped organize and then taken a course on Southern Africa. My participation in the Medical Drive grew out of the course. As a teacher and media person I joined the publicity committee, which was made up of a good group of politically experienced and media-wise people. Our politics were different, but we all had a deep concern to inform people about the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe.

We produced compelling, clearly written literature which the Drive's Prairie Fire leaders rewrote into "correct" left tracts. Needless to say few read the stuff and several events we put on had no audience at all. Prairie Fire grew out of the Weather Underground after the publication of Prairie Fire in 1974, a manifesto of their political principles, and represented the latter as an above ground organization. Except for their sensational origins, Prairie Fire didn't differ greatly from the many other sect groups that were active in the mid-70s. The other thing I remember vividly was how we were supposed to accept uncritically everything the locally based "Zimbabwean revolutionaries" said. Here these revolutionaries were usually young Zimbabweans who had gone to school in the U.S., but knew very little about how to organize people in this country.

I was shocked by Prairie Fire's contempt for ordinary people and by their crude Third Worldism — which did a real disservice to the Zimbabwean cause. I left and stayed away from solidarity work for years because of that experience. In contrast, I stayed with TUSES because I could work with a group of deeply committed people who were very active in their own unions. Because they took responsibility in their unions, they could speak to and for their brothers and sisters. They were people who wanted very much to communicate to, educate, and organize people in the U.S.A.

Over and over again I have seen sect and solidarity groups come into situations and ongoing organizations like bulls into a china shop and begin telling people what to do without any sense of what that situation or organization is or how it functions. They seem to assume that you can organize around the correct slogan or line and ignore how ordinary people arrive at their own political decisions. In fact, to have influence in any organization, an organizer has to have a credibility which depends on long established and respected personal and political relations, favors done, and principles fought for. These are the lessons I learned in the mid-70s and the principles which inform my Marxism as I look back over nearly four years of labor/ solidarity work in the Bay Area.


Since the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in January, 1981, trade union opposition to our government's and the AFL-CIO's foreign policy in Central America has risen in an unprecedented way. And, since the increase in protest in South Africa against apartheid, based in part in rapidly growing black labor unions, that country has been added to our trade unions' oppositional agenda. For the first time since the 1930s, trade union leaders here are committing extensive civil disobedience to protest U.S. foreign policy. This rapid rise in dissent within our very closed, sluggish, defensive, and hierarchical labor movement is as gratifying as it is surprising.

The U.S labor movement is not noted for its solidarity with foreign workers, nor with unorganized workers at home, nor with undocumented workers, nor even with each other. "Solidarity," although often spoken, usually means, if anything at all, no more than loyalty to one's own union. Unionized workers often see themselves in competition with foreign and unorganized workers here, which has resulted in things like attacks on Asian Americans in Detroit and the general AFL-CIO support for repressive immigration laws. Furthermore, unionized workers in the U.S.A. scab on each other at an alarming rate.

Since its inception the AFL has always advocated a rabid form of nationalism and anti-socialism, and after 1917, anti-communism. Since WWII, with a great deal of support from the transnational corporations, the government, and, yes, the CIA, the AFL-CIO has participated in union busting and in destablilizing countries around the world with the ostensible purpose of fighting communism. In recent speeches its leaders have presented a conception of the world strongly resembling that described by Ronald Reagan in his "Evil Empire" speech.

In effect, however, the AFL-CIO leadership has been helping to make the world safe for transnational corporations and helping to create pools of docile and cheap labor.[2] Ironically, competition from this cheap labor (or rather from the manufacturers who exploit this labor) is now undermining the AFL-CIO and weakening the whole U.S. labor movement.


While there has always been opposition to this right-wing foreign policy and while there have always been acts of solidarity from individual unions, only recently has this opposition grown to the point of creating serious dissent within the labor federation.[3] The primary issue has become Central America and especially El Salvador. Within the union movement at the national level the National Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador (NLC), founded in 1982, has led the way. The 24 members of the committee are presiding officers of international unions. Douglas Fraser, ex-president of the UAW, Jack Sheinkman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACTWU — of J.P. Stevens fame), and the Machinist's William Winpisinger co-chair the committee. Other members are the presiding officers of such unions as the UFW, OCAW, UE, AFSCME, SEIU, whose president was forced by its National Convention to resume membership after he had dropped out, and the NEA(which is not in the AFL-CIO).

These union officials formed the committee to organize support for an alternative union and U.S. position on El Salvador and to fight for change within the federation. In June, 1983, they sent a delegation to El Salvador. When this group returned, they produced a report that repudiated point by point the Reagan administration's and the AFL-CIO's argument for supporting the present government of El Salvador. They called for dialogue and an end to U.S. support for the Salvadoran government.[4]

The NLC's work on El Salvador and mounting dissent within AFL-CIO unions pushed the federation to pass a strong resolution at its October, 1983, convention in support of dialogue in El Salvador. There have been, however, real limits to this progressive tendency. The NLC does not expressly support the FMLN-FDR. Nor does it offer solidarity to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And the AFL-CIO passed a strong resolution condemning the Sandinistas at that convention.

In February, 1985, the NLC took a group of labor leaders on another tour of Central America. This group went to Nicaragua and Guatamala as well as to El Salvador. Their new report, "The Search for Peace in Central America," again repudiates the positions of the Reagan administration and the AFLCIO. Though it does criticize the Sandinistas, it also calls for an end to support for the Contras. This report was not as easy to write because, like Congresspeople, labor leaders are terrified of being seen as soft on communism, and the Federation's foreign policy makers are quick to red-bait their critics. In the spring, the AFL-CIO began an offensive against the NLC, "briefed" AFL-CIO state leaders and twisted arms, leading up to the October, 1985, convention in Anaheim.[5] Meanwhile, across the country, since 1981, small groups of trade unionists have formed solidarity committees that continue to work within their unions and in their cities.


In 1981, appalled by the brutal attacks on unions and rising U.S. involvement in El Salvador, a group of Bay Area union members came together to form TUSES. In its first years TUSES put on educational forums, showed a slide show at various union meetings, and supported each other's efforts to raise the issue of Central America in their unions. I joined the group in the summer of 1982, and in the fall of 1983 we took on our largest project up to that time — the Bay Area segment of the West Coast Tour of Central American Trade Unionists. In February, 1983, representatives from labor/solidarity groups on the West Coast met in San Jose, California, to discuss our work, build a network, and look into the possibility of some joint project. We decided to organize the tour for the fall.

The three members of the Central American delegation were all high-ranking unionists from their country and spoke to union groups up and down the west coast. Marta Alicia Rivera is the U.S. representative of the Salvadoran teachers' union, ANDES. Sebastian Castro heads the international relations department of the Sandinista Industrial Labor Federation (CST) and was the first representative from the CST to come to the USA. Miguel Angel Albizures represented the Committee on Trade Union Unity (CNUS), the largest union federation of Guatemala. The three delegates spoke about the brutal working conditions in most of Central America and about the great progress made in Nicaragua. They compared the vicious repression of union activity in El Salvador and Guatemala with the rapid development of unions in Nicaragua. They were very well received by the union leaders and members they spoke to during the tour.[6]

In the late spring of 1984 a number of TUSES members working with people from the West Coast Labor Network, the Committee in Support of Trade Union Rights (CISTUR), CISPES, and COSANDES (a committee in support of the Salvadoran teachers union, ANDES, within AFT Local 2121 in San Francisco) organized a campaign to get trade unionists in the huge labor march at the Democratic National Convention to carry non-intervention signs. This was made especially difficult since the march committee forbade any "political" signs on orders from Lane Kirkland, who was to be present.

Nonetheless, nearly 6,000 people in the labor march carried non-intervention signs up Market Street. The campaign raised the issue of Central America in many union contingents, and many union members came forward to protect people who did carry the signs. It is hard to find a photo of the march that does not have one or more such signs in it. Al Shanker, well-known AFL-CIO supporter of U.S. foreign policy, had the displeasure of walking up Market Street at the head of the AFT contingent, which probably carried the largest number of nonintervention signs.

Up to this point, we followed a well-established pattern for organizing such projects. We in TUSES met to discuss the project (tour, sign campaign, etc.). We then would seek the endorsement of and financial contribution from unions we had already worked with. A mailing went out and simultaneously we would contact people we knew in specific unions and get them to push the idea in their union's Executive Board. After that, we would send another mailing announcing our successes and usually calling a meeting to plan the actual project/event. We also followed up this mailing with calls to our contacts. Usually, we handled the logistics-signs, touring Central Americans, etc. — and our contacts in the unions set up the meeting, event, or people to carry signs.

This grassroots, community-organizing model depends on having contacts within a union. Where we didn't have those contacts, even if a leader endorsed the event, nothing much happened. Labor involvement in the Spring Mobilization for Peace, Jobs and Justice moved beyond that model. From the very beginning unions were included in the organizing as institutions. A massive effort was made to get labor endorsements and active participation in the coalition. Al Lannon, President of ILWU Local 6 was a coalition co-chair. Labor representation on the steering committee was extensive. All those people took on responsibilities within the coalition, came to meetings, and generally participated in ways union officials of this rank have not in past events of this sort.

TUSES, as an organization, and some of its members as individuals, were active in the coalition. I see this development from the few union members who formed TUSES in 1981 to this broad labor support for a coalition whose principles of unity included non-intervention in Central America, the Freeze, and ending support for apartheid as an enormous development.


We can account for these changes in several fairly obvious ways. To begin with, the labor-management consensus which included steadily increasing wages in the basic industries — auto, steel, etc. — has come to an end. These strong unions have lost large numbers of their members due to layoffs, plant closures, and runaway shops. Reagan intensified the attack on unions by openly crushing the air traffic controller's union, PATCO. Changes in labor law, in the National Labor Relations Board, and the growth of law firms specializing in union-busting have put unions on the defensive, if not on the run. Today, we are successful if we don't make any concessions at contract time.

A less tangible change, the so-called Vietnam Syndrome, has made people skeptical about supporting an adventurous, interventionist foreign policy in Central American.[7] The rapid growth of public sector unions in the last 20 years has brought people with more formal education into the labor movement and has created unions which routinely deal with government policy and which have been directly hurt by the Reagan administration. Finally, a new generation of labor leadership is emerging which had no part in the humiliating defeats and compromises of the 1940s, but rather developed or changed in the rebellious 1960s. In part because the great growth of transnational corporations has created an international labor force, this new labor leadership is beginning to see international labor solidarity as a necessity. Labor leadership in the coalition came primarily from this younger group of labor officials in the service industries.

Conditions exist which favor an expansion of labor/solidarity work. But the opening is narrow, uncertain, and vulnerable. Progressive trade union activists are not in a position to hold it open, only to work with it while it lasts. Our work is filled with contradictions, which we must deal with in new and creative ways if we are to advance and force a significant and permanent change in the foreign policy of the U.S. labor movement.


Complicating this work is the dissociation between union leadership and their members. In most union locals I know about, there are a small number of active people — officers, executive board members, staff people (appointed and sometimes elected), and a small pool of other activists — and then there is the membership. In many cases actual hostility exists between the two parts of the union. The leadership sees the members as apathetic, ignorant, demanding, greedy, self-interested, and even anti-union. The members see the leadership as lazy, incompetent, uncaring, only concerned about collecting dues, overpaid, and probably corrupt. Unfortunately there is enough truth in both characterizations to perpetuate them.

I see this as part of the severe, generalized, alienation in our culture. Clearly, a society in which child abuse, missing children, wife and parent abuse, rape, drug addiction, teen suicide, mental illness, illiteracy, un(under)employment, and fear are all (seen as) epidemics not one in which many strong, supportive social bonds exist. Unions are no exception but are also organizations in which a struggle against alienation should and could take place. And many unions in recent years have begun to move in this direction.

For labor/solidarity and all union activists this alienation within the unions creates a severe problem. With whom do we organize? A leadership without followers or an alienated, atomized rank and file? While I have heard strong arguments for embracing either pole of the contradiction, it seems clear to me that we must do both while working to strengthen and unify our unions. We must convince a significant part of the labor leadership to join, support, or at least tolerate our solidarity work. By doing this, we gain access to the labor movement, put pressure on the AFL-CIO and other international unions, gain press coverage, influence politicians who believe (less and less though) that labor leaders influence large blocks of votes, and influence the general public. In short, by enlisting the support of even a few labor leaders, we gain credibility for further work and create the (true) impression of labor opposition to the U.S. foreign policy.

Work among the leadership usually means getting them and their executive boards to pass resolutions, sign petitions, contribute money, and endorse a wide array of solidarity projects. We organize labor breakfasts, press conferences, and receptions for visiting Central American figures. U.S. labor people have also organized a few trips to Central America.[8] Also our letter writing campaigns to free imprisoned labor leaders in El Salvador and to support the Coke workers in Guatemala have been very successful. So far this has comprised most of our work and, in the Bay Area, at least, our efforts have had considerable success.

Yet work amongst the leadership is insufficient because it doesn't translate very well into education, organization, and support amongst the rank and file. Often I read claims that leaders of unions representing many thousands of workers support this or that project. This is fraudulent because the support of particular leaders says nothing (positive or negative) about the rank and file. With very few exceptions, leaders who support us are reluctant, even unwilling, to take the issue (often any issue) to the membership. S/he knows it would most likely cause controversy and a split in the ranks, endangering the leaders' jobs. It is hard enough to be a labor leader, constantly on the defensive with diminishing resources without causing trouble for oneself.

So we have to find ways to reach out to union members. Since the labor leadership isn't usually able to do this very well, even when it wants to, it is even harder for us. Without access to the unions' communication systems — papers, newsletters, fliers on company bulletin boards, staff, and stewards — we begin with a few rank and file supporters in a union who themselves often hesitate to push the issue in their own union for fear of angering the leadership and hurting their own chances for union — elected or appointed — position. Now, as support grows in the union movement, it has become easier for such people to raise foreign policy issues, especially around Central America and South Africa, within individual unions. But even where a lot of rank and file activists work in a local, they are often more concerned with providing leadership to their union and even with organzing to take power. They are cautious about raising controversial, "non-union" issues.


Unions have taken some positive steps. Some union locals have established local solidarity committees, sent members on tours to Central America, discussed the issue in their papers, delegated representatives to union-based solidarity groups, and begun to organize solidarity-related house meetings, or ones at the workplace for members. (I see such meetings, especially house meetings, as extremely important activities to build support for solidarity work and for the union at the same time.)

Most groups doing labor/solidarity work exist outside the union structure. They consist of activists from many unions who work together on a variety of projects. At first, this was the only possible structure as a few people came together in the early 1980s to try to get something going. Now there are union locals with established, official solidarity committees or unofficial ad hoc groups of activists who work within a sympathetic union structure. I believe these internal solidarity committees hold out greater possibilities for reaching the membership. Because of all unions' defensive position in the economy and because of the oppression working-class people face in our culture, union members are often suspicious of outsiders and seem closed to "outside" suggestions for change. Such suggestions coming from within the union, from co-workers, are more likely to be listened to and have lasting effect. As a permanent presence in the union, the internal solidarity committee offers the possibility of doing longterm education and organizing, especially if combined with other union-building activity.


At a late March, 1985 mass meeting of the Spring Mobilization members of various left and solidarity groups took advantage of that day's low turnout to change the coalition's principles of unity by insisting that a speaker from El Salvador's FMLN-FDR be on the speakers platform at the April 20th Rally. These people's "success" came after several months of their battling as well to change the principles of unity by adding the Middle East to the non-intervention plank. In both cases they knew that such success would severely damage, if not destroy, labor support for the coalition. It is certainly possible to say, but not really possible to prove, that this internal bickering over issues that had already been decided at the outset — set down in the coalition's principles of unity — severely reduced labor support for the coalition and led to a smaller labor contingent in the April 20th march.

Such sectarian activity seems both destructive and self-destructive. Rather than seeing the enormous labor support achieved by this coalition as an opportunity to win friends, expand their own trade union work, and learn more about the organized 20% of the working class, these sectarian groups saw it as a sell-out to white, male, racist union bureaucrats. The fact that such bureaucrats exist and that some were involved in the coalition doesn't explain what went on here.

These left sectarian groups showed a contempt for the white working class and their unions. That contempt was matched (mirrored even) by their crude Third Worldism. To them it was more important to have an FMLN-FDR speaker at a small, narrow rally than to have Jack Henning, the highest-ranking AFL-CIO official in California address a large, broad-based rally. The FMLN-FDR showed greater maturity and better understanding of coalition politics than its local supporters, for it declined the offer to speak in its own name.

Over and over again I have observed such left sectarian contempt for ordinary people, for the unconverted. And when a purist group cannot imagine any way to get ordinary people involved in a project, it spends enormous energy speaking to, convincing, and organizing each other. Underlying this self-destructive politics is a deeper issue that became apparent to me when I worked on the Central American Trade Unionists' Tour.


In our early meetings to plan the Central American Trade Unionists' Tour in the Bay Area, I rather naively assumed that that we would arrange for the delegates from Central America to speak to unions, to various trade union councils (e.g. county-wide labor councils to which all AFL-CIO unions send delegates), or to joint councils to which each local of one specific union in a given area sends delegates, and to other union-based organizations.

Instead my union brothers and sisters at these meetings, especially those who had had some experience doing solidarity work, often seemed more interested in organizing meetings on campuses, in centers of alternative culture, and large public meetings. Most union members were unlikely to attend meetings in these places. This became a major, though never very clearly defined, political issue that we fought through at several early meetings.

Finally as various unions sent invitations, we became more comfortable with a strictly labor tour. Eventually we did set up several campus events and two large public events. But the former were organized by staff and faculty unions for their members, and we gave the second a strong union character by having them in union halls and MCed by prominent union leaders. Even so very few uninitiated union members attended these latter events. The events became primarily solidarity rallies and as such were emotionally rewarding to the visiting Central Americans.

Our decision to concentrate on labor meant we had to keep the considerable solidarity movement in our area at arms length. The representatives on our planning committee from the Nicaraguan Information Center and the Guatemalan News and Information Bureau supported this decision. They were both Central Americans, one a union member and the other from a union family. They understood what we were trying to do.

This decision did not mean we had any opposition to the solidarity movement. In fact, most of us were involved in it ourselves. Rather, we saw some basic differences between the white solidarity movement and the labor movement. To begin with, we wanted to avoid filling up our schedule with solidarity-oriented events before the labor unions ever had a chance to respond. Unlike the labor movement, the solidarity movement moves very quickly. It can organize an event, even a large one, in a very short time. This is a tremendous strength, but also a weakness to the extent that it depends on the intense commitment and effort of a small number of activists. And it also depends on a style of work in which most union members, even activists, can't/won't participate.

As trade union activists who are also involved in solidarity work, we share most of the characteristics of the people in the solidarity movement. But we also share, or at least understand, the way our sisters and brothers in the labor movement are different and sometimes alienated by these ways of acting. Most union activists work a 40-hour week and then do extra work in their union. Credibility in a union depends on that extra work, usually voluntary. It means going to union meetings, holding office, being on negotiating teams, doing picket duty and so forth. Without that credibility one is in no position to do solidarity work in his/her union.

Union members usually have families and the attendant responsiblities. All this doesn't leave much time for lengthy meetings or participation in yet another organization. TUSES, for example, has always been able to find unionists to work on specific projects, but not very many to actually work consistently with the organization.

The style differences I have noticed go beyond the issue of work style. Solidarity activity is usually based on a combative, aggressive, fast verbal style. Most solidarity activists I have met have been to college and are more articulate than most union members, especially when the latter move outside their familiar milieu. Most solidarity activists affect a hippy, guerrilla, 30s-proletarian, downwardly-mobile style of dress and grooming. Most union activists, however, work in situations where dress and grooming codes are enforced. If they are officials, their members expect such dress and grooming, since union officials often frequent government offices and work with lawyers and employers in the course of their daily routine.

The solidarity movement loves the slogans, banners, chants, and the sayings of obscure (to most North Americans) Third World revolutionaries and sages. It swears by densely written, rhetorical essays, pamphlets and flyers. It reveres foreign cultures and societies. While we have a lot to learn from revolutions, revolutionaries, political thinkers and writers around the world, our relation to these figures often seems to bear the stamp of a middle-class revolt against the rule of the fathers and an utopian search for a superior society. And educated people often use such political knowledge in an elitist way to intimidate the less knowledgeable.

The solidarity movement's language is often foreign to most union members, not only because it is extremely complex and rhetorical, but also because it is an in-language filled with references to groups, historical struggles and events, and other cultures and names with which most North Americans are unfamilar. We live, unfortunately, in an ethnocentric and racist culture. We need to find ways to break through these barriers to solidarity. We need to find ways to educate our sisters and brothers which will not make them feel stupid and turn them off. It is not just a question of our learning from study, but also of our being willing to learn about working-class culture (how ever impoverished it may seem on the surface). As organizers we have to learn how much we can teach and how to teach it.


Underlying all these differences, I find class difference. Most of the white left/solidarity people I have met (myself included) are middle-class, college-educated progressives who have learned a lot from and been greatly impressed by Third World cultures. We have been to places like Cuba and Nicaragua. We want to struggle against all the racism, brutality, and alienation of our death-culture and participate in a dynamic, active, and internationalist movement. Still many of us retain an implicit class bias against the working class, except for those we can romanticize. Since the 1940s, the progressive and solidarity movement in the U.S.A. have not had much contact with the labor movement (except very importantly in the civil rights movement); in fact, the two have usually been opposed to each other. The solidarity movement has been justifiably suspicious of the labor movement. But the time has come to reexamine this conscious and unconscious position. A lot is going on in the labor movement now and the solidarity folks have a great opportunity to help that along, to support and even participate in change within the labor movement, and to transform themselves in the process.


These contradictions between the left/solidarity activists and the labor union activists hurt us. We need each other. The labor movement in the U.S.A. has never accomplished very much in the absence of strong left participation or influence. And the left/solidarity people need the interaction with the organized working class to develop and for all of us to succeed in overthrowing capitalism. Left-labor cooperation and interaction are needed to work out strategy for dealing with foreign policy issues and with the attack on labor and the working class as a whole.

Put very simply, we cannot work toward international working class solidarity without questioning capitalism as a socio-economic system here at home and in the world. U.S. intervention in the Third World is a necessity of capitalism and will continue as long as capitalism reigns in the U.S.A. We can design arguments to widen the cracks in the labor-capitalist consensus. We argue for human and union rights in Central America and South Africa, comparing what happens there to what Reagan, the government, and the bosses are doing to us. We draw a comparison between the increase in runaway shops here and the repression of union activity in Central America, where many of these shops have gone to. We point out that repressing union activity in the Third World actually costs us jobs here. Finally, we argue that there is an increasing threat of a Vietnam-style war in Central America, which working people understand that they and their children will fight.

However, the current situation could be very temporary. The public approval of the Grenada invasion and RAMBO's success show how increasing patriotism undermines the Vietnam syndrome. And a prolonged economic upturn could wipe out the other arguments. Nonetheless, the underdevelopment of the U.S. working class (where less than 20% of the work force is unionized and where unions now lose more certification elections than they win) makes it hard, even risky to go beyond these liberal humanist arguments.

Strong racism and nationalism make arguing for solidarity based on class lines very difficult. U.S. workers do not see Third World workers (even ones living here) as brothers and sisters. Workers here have lived under decades of class collaboration, with a basic belief in the superiority of capitalism — "the American way of life." That makes an anti-imperialist argument even more difficult. But we have to go beyond the economic self-interest and humanitarian arguments we are now using.

The Spring Mobilization presented us with an opportunity to do so, or at least to begin this kind of thinking and working. But it did not happen. In part the labor participants were afraid of this kind of thinking (and to be sure many actively oppose it). But also the left/solidarity behavior confirmed every negative stereotype and fear these people ever had. Nonetheless, the coalition had a good effect. People who never worked together before have done so and created working relationships that can mature in the future. We see that tremendous potential exists to develop and deepen the labor opposition to U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

In the early 1970s I heard Daniel Ellsberg talk about why he decided to release the Pentagon Papers. He said he had always accepted the administration's line that opposition to the war came only from draft-age college students and disaffected intellectuals. Then he saw the results of government-sponsored, but never released, surveys, which indicated that the more money people had, the more they supported the war. In the same vein Peter Cervantes-Gautsche revealed at the Spring Mobilization's Labor Speakout that surveys by his Santa Clara Labor Council showed that most union members working in Silicon Valley defense plants oppose the arms race. Those who benefit least from capitalism support it least. I believe that there is vast, untapped dissent and that new opportunities have arisen to develop that dissent. We will need a lot of energy, organization, and sensitivity to each other and to those we hope to change.


I think that coalition politics will dominate the foreseeable future. The Rainbow Coalition and the Spring Mobilization are two recent examples of how this might look and work. Coalition politics mean a coalition of organizations. To be effective, people must be involved in constituency organizations: unions, churches, community groups, peace and environmental groups, and race, gender and sexual preference organizations. The Spring Mobilization mistakenly allowed participants who represented ten people the same vote as those who represented many thousands. In the future we'll emphasize member group participation and representation.

When we organize that way, we may exclude or diminish the participation of many left and solidarity groups which are too small for their leaders to be considered representative of very many people. In fact, this may be why these groups tended to opppose the coalition. On the positive side, such a change or "weighted voice" in coalition decisions might force these groups to reevaluate their work and become more involved in organizations where they live, work, or go to church. Then they might not have the control they have over their various front groups, but they would have much more contact with ordinary people, from whom they could also learn. Indeed, within the revolutions these groups support, the FMLN-FDR and the Sandinistas are coalitions that work very closely with, depend upon, and act according to the demands of the ordinary people of El Salvador and Nicaragua.

In terms of labor/solidarity, organizers have to work in their own unions in such a way as to build the union as well as to build international awareness and support. We cannot simply use the unions in our solidarity work; we have to help them in their own vital work. We need to find ways to educate our coworkers about international labor, Central America, South Africa, and our economic system. We will need help from research groups, and solidarity and media activists to develop the proper literature, videotapes, slide shows, and study packets. I can imagine the VCR playing an important role in house meetings, and in union political or social action committees.

To coordinate labor/solidarity work we also need some local or regional organization, which would establish ties with the other labor/solidarity organizations around the country. In the Bay Area we have three such organizations, none of which is completely appropriate, each of which has needed features. CISTUR is primarily a paper organization with one staff person who does most of the work. Although unions are invited to join and send a delegate to CISTUR meetings, few unions actually do this, and the staff person does the work. Yet this model of union membership with delegates participating in the committee is a positive one, and for things like letter-writing campaigns CISTUR has been very effective.

The Labor Network has close ties with groups in other parts of the country and has the energy and discipline to organize labor tours to Nicaragua and produce high quality literature. Yet its close association with Line of March, a group with sectarian-left politics, drives away many union activists and officials who have felt used by them.

TUSES is nearly the opposite of the Labor Network. It consists of people who have worked long and hard in their unions and, who as individuals have great credibility. Yet the organization doesn't have the group energy or people to take advantage of this union-based credibility. We can't sustain ongoing work and have no staff. Instead we limp along from project to project, always finding activists who will help out but finding very few who will participate in the organization.

We need a combination of all three of these kinds of organizations. We need some sort of coalition, council, or committee that would have all the positive qualities of these organizations and not their negative qualities. Certainly, we will all make an effort to continue the labor activism inspired by the Spring Mobilization in April, 1985.


1. A majority of the steering committee of the April 20 Coalition dissolved and reformed themselves as the Organizing Committee for Peace, Jobs, and Justice. They felt that little could be done as long as its principles of unity were constantly under attack. The primary divisive issues were the Middle East and solidarity versus non-intervention. I still think that this new coalition represents a great potential. It remains to be seen if we can realize it.

2. You can get a good recent (in Spanish and English) introduction to this subject in Michael J. Sussman, "AIFLD: U.S. Trojan Horse," An EPICA Special Report, July, 1983, by sending $2.50 to EPICA, 1470 Irving Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20010., Bulk orders are available. Also see Jack Scott, Yankee Unions, Go Home! How the AFL Helped the U.S. Build an Empire in Latin America, "Trade Unions and Imperialism in America," Vol. 1 (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1978).

3. The issue of South Africa is different because the AFL-CIO has taken a relatively strong stand against apartheid. Although it does not favor disinvestment and does not support the ANC or UDF, some AFL-CIO officers have been arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington. This opens the way for individual unions and union officials to take even stronger positions.

4. You can get the report, entitled El Salvador: Labor, Terror, and Peace, by sending $1 to the National Labor Committee, 15 Union Square, NY, NY, 10003. Bulk orders are available. Their second report is also $1. If you plan to start a labor/solidarity committee, get in contact with the NLC.

5. The attack did not really materialize and although the NLC did not get what it wanted, the issues were debated on the floor of the AFL-CIO convention. As a result the Federation basically voted not to have a policy on Central America. This opens the way for any union to take what ever position it wishes without fear of reprisal from the Federation.

6. Two reports on the tour are available. One by TUSES on the Bay Area section includes valuable interviews by the three delegates. Send $1 to TUSES, 5825 Telegraph Ave., Box 54T, Oakland, CA, 94609. The second, by the West Coast Labor Network on Central America, P.O. Box 28014, Oakland, CA, 94604. The Network has also done a slide show on Nicaragua and has other literature on labor in Central America.

7. See Noam Chomsky, "Intervention in Vietnam and Central America: Parallels and Differences," Monthly Review, September, 1985, pp. 1-29.

8. One of the most successful recent trips was by U.S. teacher union members who went to El Salvador to support the convention of ANDES. They became involved in lobbying the Labor Ministry to obtain a place for the meeting and went out on a picket line to support striking water workers. They made the papers in San Salvador almost every day they were there.