In Dissent, a Symposium on the Future of the American Labor Movement

Joshua Freeman, Gordon Lafer, Michael Merrill, and Eve Weinbaum discuss the state and future of the labor movement.

[Joshua Freeman] Many of us feel ambivalent about the split in the labor movement. The discussion that accompanied it was narrow and rancorous. The odd alliances that emerged seemed as motivated by individual and institutional self-interest as by principle. Enormous energy was devoted to a parting of ways that might not have been necessary. Still, some good may come of it.

Unionists on both sides of labor’s fissure were deeply disappointed by the events of the last decade. The ouster of the old leadership of the AFL-CIO brought refreshing breezes into the musty, sometimes foul, atmosphere of the House of Labor. John Sweeney and his allies did so many things right: embracing militancy and the cause of low-wage workers; preaching the gospel of organizing; beefing up labor’s political operation; reaching out to students, clergy, and the left; and bringing greater diversity to the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Yet today, in many respects, labor is worse off than when Lane Kirkland held office.

Organized labor itself caused some of the problems. Although the AFL-CIO managed to bring new attention to workplace injustice, it failed to engineer a wholesale shift in national perceptions.