Bill Fletcher Jr. is a passionate voice on issues of organized labor, racial justice and income inequality.
He has worked with the American Federation of Government Employees for more than six years, currently as executive assistant to vice president Augusta Thomas. That is just one of several roles the Harvard University graduate has had in labor unions, along with writing books and public speaking. He is also a past president of the TransAfrica Forum, and a founder of the Black Radical Congress.
Fletcher, 59, will be guest speaker at the Western New York Area Labor Federation’s annual meeting Saturday in Amherst. Richard Lipsitz Jr., the federation’s president, said Fletcher was invited because he “understands ties between the labor movement and ordinary working people, especially people affected by 30 years of deindustrialization and events like the Great Recession.”
Fletcher, a Maryland resident, spoke to The Buffalo News’ Matt Glynn about organized labor’s challenges and his impressions of Buffalo from two previous visits:
Q: What stands out about Buffalo from your travels here?
A: Buffalo is another example of cities around the country where working people sunk their lives into making companies successful and trying to build a community and then have been betrayed by corporate America.
The economic reorganization has been absolutely devastating. Buffalo is certainly not the worst case. There’s places like Camden, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, but Buffalo has really suffered as a result of this economic reorganization.
And it points to a question that rarely gets discussed in policy circles which is, is there an obligation, or should there be an obligation, on the part of corporations, when they shut down or move, to do something to help to alleviate the systemic damage that’s been done by their departure. And that doesn’t get discussed. What happens is, companies just close down, they move, or whatever, and then it’s sort of like, tough luck for the workers.
So we need a different kind of discussion. And people I think are very fearful of raising that. Because you raise that, and people start talking about socialism and other things, and it becomes a red herring.
Q: How would you characterize the state of organized labor in the United States?
A: I think it’s important to understand that organized labor suffered two strategic defeats of great significance. One was in 1947, with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. And the second was a slow-moving defeat, that starts in the late ’70s and moves through the ’80s with the era of Reaganism. What happened in both cases is that the efforts of organized labor were blunted and then reversed, by corporate America and right-wing political allies.
We in organized labor have to look at the errors that we’ve made. And we also have to understand the battleground we’re fighting on is not the battleground of 1970, for example. It’s a very different terrain, where our opponents are not simply attempting to weaken us, but are in fact attempting to annihilate us. And that has dramatic consequences not just for organized labor, but for the United States.
When countries eliminate labor movements, they also eliminate democracy, and you can see that around the world. So there’s a question for organized labor and there’s also a question for the public: are people prepared to live with the consequences of the annihilation of a labor movement?
Q: What did you take away from the United Auto Workers’ defeat in the vote at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee?
A: It’s complicated. There’s a number of different factors that have to be looked at. One that’s very obvious is, despite the fact that Volkswagen was prepared to be basically neutral, the political class in Tennessee was not. And they engaged in behavior that was nothing short of reprehensible. They implied things that they had no foundation implying. They basically held an ax over the head of the workers.
So I think that was one very, very big problem, and on that basis alone, the election results should be overturned.
The second thing, is the UAW has to look itself in the mirror. The UAW certainly by the late ’70s, early ’80s was engaging in major concessions to companies. It basically had given up external organizing in any significant way. And not more than a few years ago, they signed these two-tier (wage) agreements with the auto companies, and two-tier agreements are nothing short of a poison pill.
What happens then is that, when the UAW is trying to convince workers that they are a vehicle for improving their living standards and giving them a voice, that stands in contrast to these concessionary agreements. And it sends a very mixed signal. So the UAW has to really rethink at a fundamental level its reason for being. It has to decide what stand it’s going to take.
I don’t look at this (Volkswagen vote) as a death knell by any stretch of the imagination, but it is certainly a stunning defeat and one that maybe people in the UAW did not expect.
I, among others, never thought that this was a slam dunk. When you’re organizing in a situation even where you have the support or the neutrality of the employer, the external environment – the way that the union is perceived, the union’s linkages or lack of linkages with the community – all of those things become very important in whether the election will be successful.
Q: What challenges do unions face in recruiting younger members?
A: This is one of those good news, bad news things. One of the things you find with younger workers is, poll after poll basically indicates that when younger workers find out actually what unions are, they become interested in them. However, many younger workers, in fact maybe most, have no idea what the union is, because they’ve grown up in a period of union decline.
Part of what that means is, that message of the union needs to become more pronounced. There needs to be much more public activity, talking with younger workers about what a union is.
A second thing I think is very important is, there needs to be opportunities for younger workers to grow within a union. That means that older activists and leaders need to look at younger workers as partners, as opposed to competitors.
A third factor, which is very important overall is, that the unions need to be seen as vehicles fighting for economic justice, whether or not a worker happens to be in a union or not. When the union is seen as fighting for economic justice, and not just for its members, it tends to win public support. When the union is perceived as fighting for its people alone, it loses support.
Q: What industries do you think unions could still organize, but haven’t?
A: There’s a number of places. Health care, where there is some organizing. The public sector in the South, absolutely. And one of the areas where we’re going to have to enter, and no one really has the master plan on this, is the temporary job industry. The proliferation of temps, in particular people working for temporary agencies, has up until now defied organizing.
I think it can be done, but a union or a few unions will have to commit themselves to it, in the same way the United Food and Commercial Workers have committed themselves to supporting workers in Walmart, who are trying to build organization.