DSA Members on Labor: Two Decades of Engagement

The labor movement — its prospects, challenges and place in the broader progressive political universe — has always been a subject of interest to members of Democratic Socialists of America. DSA’s successes and failures have always been tied to those of organized labor, and this has motivated the organization’s longtime work with unions as well as its observations and analysis of them.

Dating back to the creation of DSA in 1982 with the merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement, the Washington Socialist — then, as now, the newsletter of the DC-area local, although then a print publication — issued an annual Labor Day issue in September. During the print era, which ended in 2000, the local sold advertising — from single-line greetings to full-page display ads — bought mostly by members but also unions, allied organizations, elected officials and even small businesses. The ads covered the costs of publishing the newsletter for the better part of a year, an important source of revenue given the expense of printing and mailing.

The Labor Day issues also featured articles from local members (and sometimes friendly non-members) about the state of labor — local, national and international — and DSA’s relationship to it. There were articles about local organizing campaigns and DSA’s work in alliance with labor. But the highlights of the issues were the analytical articles about the state of the movement. A review of these articles from the 1980s and 1990s provides a window into the labor issues of the day and how much has changed, but even more how fundamentally so much remains the same. Corporations held and still hold the upper hand, and labor has been forced to work uphill to protect the rights of its existing members and organize new ones.

The Labor Day issues got off to a modest start in September 1983 with one labor-related article — by yours truly — in which I detailed the attacks by then-President Reagan’s politicized Office of Personnel Management on federal employees. My being a federal civil servant, this was an issue that hit close to home. In the 1984 issue, the labor content was light, limited to a brief unsigned article on a DC government proposal to force city employees to sign an oath promising not to strike.

But the 1985 issue really began to put the “labor” in Labor Day, with the headline being an article by Kurt Stand announcing that Victor Reuther, one of the architects of the United Auto Workers union — along with his brothers Walter (the UAW’s longtime president) and Roy — would be the honoree at the local’s Debs-Thomas fundraising dinner in October. The issue also featured an article by Doug Green taking a hard look at labor’s decline — “losing elections, being decertified (or outright busted) and settling for bad contracts” — and suggesting one part of its revival could be more robust in gathering and sharing of information: moving labor “out of the nuts and bolts world and into the world of microchips.”

Headlining the 1986 Labor Day issue was a brief history of the DC labor scene from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, penned by Suzanne Crowell. The article showed how internal politics and dissension handicapped the local Central Labor Council, but that the council was nevertheless able to expand its geographic reach and occasionally score notable victories, such as playing a significant role in electing allies to the DC Council. A significant action of the labor council during that time, Crowell noted, was the 1982 election of its president Joslyn Williams, the council’s first Black leader and a DSA member who was a close ally of the local left.

Jesse Jackson’s emerging campaign for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president was the subject of “Labor’s Rainbow” in the 1987 Labor Day issue. In this article, Stand argued that the Jackson campaign offered a unique opportunity not only to advance a civil rights agenda but also to energize the flagging labor movement as part of a broader alliance that would include DSA. (Although DSA endorsed Jackson, organized labor did not, with the AFL-CIO declining to endorse a candidate prior to the Democratic convention.) Moving from national to international unionism, the 1987 issue featured an article by Woody Woodruff on how the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was “heavily sustained” by that country’s labor movement. Also continuing the international focus was John Reeder’s article on Brazil’s workers, who were shouldering the burden of the nation’s debt and the austerity regime imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Pulling the focus back to regional issues, I contributed a piece on how labor interests got gouged during that year’s Maryland General Assembly session.

“DC Labor Advances” trumpeted the headline of the September 1988 edition, heralding an issue chock full of labor news and analysis — local, national and international. Lisa Foley wrote about a new push to organize woman office workers, while Kevin Brown reported on the rapid growth of the Justice for Janitors campaign to organize tens of thousands of unorganized janitors across the country, with DC boasting one of the largest local efforts. Joe Slater interviewed Central Labor Council’s Joslyn Williams, and Bernard Demczuk reported on organized labor’s strong presence at that year’s Democratic National Convention, where 25% of Jesse Jackson’s delegates were union members.

The 1989 labor issue featured a series of short features on ongoing or recent labor campaigns — the Communications Workers of America’s agreement with Bell Atlantic, the ongoing strike by Eastern Airlines workers and the continuing growth and militance of Justice for Janitors. In the same issue, Arnie Chien suggested the key to labor’s renewal could be found in the syndicalist ideas of the early workers’ movements, with unions going beyond bargaining and dues-collecting to help their members gain fuller control over their own fates. That issue also featured a full-page ad from the Machinists Union, a “Travel Advisory to the Flying Public.” “Do you know who’s repairing Eastern Airlines now that the machinists are out on strike?” asked the ad before providing the answer: secretaries, reservation clerks, sales representatives, lawyers, caterers, clerical workers and accountants.

Arnie Chien returned for the 1990 issue to report on a delegation of American unionists who visited Israel’s occupied Palestinian territories, with one member expressing shock at “the degree of repression and discrimination that our delegation discovered.” Rob Renner wrote of how his union, the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, was fighting back against the Bush administration’s attempts to undermine legal services for the poor. The issue also included a statement by the DSA local in solidarity with efforts on the ground in Fenton, MO, to prevent Chrysler from closing its plant there.

The 1991 issue continued the Socialist’s emphasis on viewing labor in all three dimensions: local, national and international. Stand illustrated how the Bush administration — despite its promises of a “kinder” conservatism — continued the Reagan assaults on the labor movement, whose woes were compounded by the private sector’s anti-union offensive. This resulted, Stand wrote, in a narrowing of differences within labor and between labor and social movements in order to build a unified front to fight back. Internationally, he added, labor had moved away from taking sides in the Cold War and toward solidarity with workers overseas; its opposition to the newly hatched North American Free Trade Agreement was part of this new outlook. On the local scene, Crowell reported on newly elected DC Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon’s rocky start in her relations with the city’s unions as she abolished a labor liaison office and suspended civil service protections for many of the city’s mid-level managers.

Labor on the national scene was the focus of the September 1992 issue, with David Wildberger interviewing Stand and fellow DSA union activist Tim Sears about labor’s prospects under the potential administration of Bill Clinton, who was at that time the Democratic nominee for president. The consensus was that a Clinton presidency would be an improvement over the 12 years of Reagan-Bush, but that labor and its allies couldn’t afford complacency and would have to continue to organize. Woodruff wrote of the backing by the United Electrical Workers and other labor activists for the fledgling New Party, a progressive electoral vehicle hoping to gain influence through an expansion of “fusion” voting. (The party ultimately was unsuccessful in getting states to adopt fusion, and its existence was brief.) I contributed two pieces, the first an overview of the ongoing war against airline labor that dated back to the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act and continuing through the busting of unions at Continental and Eastern Airlines. In the second I noted the Machinists Union’s sale of its Dupont Circle headquarters and its decamping to Upper Marlboro, MD, which had the DSA local scrambling to find space for meetings and events.

The meaty 1994 issue was almost wholly given over to discussions of the labor movement, headlined by “Organize or Die: The Challenge for the Labor Movement” by J. Peter Nixon. The headline said it all: The declining labor movement would essentially vanish from sight by the early 21st century if it did not organize “on a scale not seen since the 1930s and ’40s” with a “massive commitment of organized labor resources.” The article reflected debates within the labor movement that later culminated in the breakaway of a number of unions from the AFL-CIO into the new Change to Win federation, which promised a renewed commitment to organizing. Also in that issue, Bob Franklin wrote of the benefits of a 30-hour work week; AFSCME’s Carl Goldman wrote that federal unions should respond to major labor relations initiatives of the Clinton administration with member education and collective action; and Jessica Heard and Cathy Sarri of the Metropolitan Women’s Organizing Project highlighted the birth of the International Workers’ Association, a grassroots alliance seeking justice for domestic workers. And that was not all: There were articles on Justice for Janitors’ new contract with DC cleaning contractors; a national meeting of gay and lesbian unionists in New York; and Sprint’s closing of the company’s Latino-language subsidiary over its plans to form a union.

The theme of labor’s struggles against the corporate-conservative offensive and the movement’s fight to survive, much less revive, continued in the Labor Day 1995 issue with Stand’s “Haymarket Redux.” The eight-hour workday that was the subject of the 1886 Haymarket demonstration was, in 1995, being undermined by “the new wave of lean and mean corporate giants,” as were the wages and working conditions that were the hard-won fruit of a century of union organizing. Attacks on unions were an attack on democracy itself, Stand argued, and needed to be confronted by “greater organizational unity within organized labor as well as between labor and the broader community.”

The 1995 issue also included an article by the (apparently pseudonymous) James Higgins reporting on the battle to replace Lane Kirkland as president of the AFL-CIO — one ultimately won by the insurgent John Sweeney, president of SEIU (who later became a DSA member), over insider Tom Donahue. The issue also featured articles on organizing by parking attendants and the latest actions by Justice for Janitors.

In September 1996, Dave Richardson reported on the previous June’s founding convention of the Labor Party and the launch of its DC-area chapter. (That attempt to provide a greater voice for labor in national affairs was a brief one, as the party folded a few years later.) The issue also included an update by Djar Horn on the parking attendants’ organizing campaign.

Headlining the 1997 labor issue was an article by Woodruff on the Teamsters’ victory over UPS after a strike that “mobilized public opinion behind the workers” and had the potential to revitalize the flagging labor movement. The Teamsters’ win showed that labor was indeed at a “crossroads,” as Richardson’s accompanying article argued. However, across the nation management still held the upper hand and new strategies were needed, with Richardson mentioning the recently founded Labor Party as one hopeful development.

The labor content of the issues grew thinner after that as the local’s activism diminished. But the internationalist vision of DSA came through in an article from the 1999 edition. Joan Axthelm of the DSA Youth Section wrote of the struggles of striking workers at a Hyundai subsidiary in Tijuana to form a union after their salaries got slashed in the NAFTA-driven race to the bottom. A broad alliance of US unions and international labor organizations was helping build solidarity for the strikers, she wrote, a sign that the global solidarity that DSA and the Socialist had called for was becoming a reality.

That issue came near the end of a period of decline for DSA locally and nationally, and after 2000 the Socialist went into hiatus until it was revived in 2011 as an electronic publication, following the renewal of the Metro DC local itself. Once again there was an outlet for local DSA members to report on and analyze the labor movement, as well as chronicle the local’s activism alongside union struggles.

There is a common theme running through articles in both the old and new incarnations of the Socialist over a nearly 40-year span: Socialism relies on organized labor to thrive, but increasingly labor needs an alliance with socialists as well as with the broader left-progressive movement. Labor’s goals — living wages, universal health care, decent working conditions, the extension of democracy to the workplace — are ones we all share. And we are more likely to achieve them by working together.

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