The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 06, 2011

Labor, and the left lack effective message to state their vision scholars say

By The Building Tradesman

(By Mark Gruenberg, Press Associates) 

WASHINGTON (PAI)—The U.S. left, including unions, needs one unifying theme to both rally their own forces and to gain public backing, a panel of scholars says.

And the four scholars, two from the U.S. and two from abroad, add income inequality could be that theme. But they quickly noted the left must figure out how to get its message across to the masses, and what solutions to offer for the problem.

The lack of a message from the left, especially one that appeals to the mass of the U.S., is a persistent problem the labor movement faces. Several unions, notably the Teachers, have tried to address it. AFT has repeatedly declared that unions’ theme should be that “worker rights are human rights.” But other unions have not followed.

The four scholars – Steven Kramer of the National Defense University, Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, former senior Australian Labor Party political advisor Christopher Barrett and Italian attorney and veteran diplomat Roberto Toscano – spoke April 25 at the Woodrow Wilson International Studies Center in Washington.

“The left needs a vision. Once it was” opposition to “slavery, and the solution was freedom,” Kazin said. “Once it was corporate capitalism, and the solution was industrial democracy. Today, many people point to the income gap, but it’ll take a big leap” to find a solution, he admitted. There was no shortage of their comments about the problems the left, as a movement, faces both here and abroad.

In recent years, they said the U.S. left has concentrated on gaining individual political rights rather than economic rights and equality of opportunity. So they suggested the left, including unions, could adopt the yawning gap between the rich and the rest of us as the theme – explaining why it occurred and offering plans to close it.

They noted the Right has consistently found one unifying theme, such as “anti-communism” or “anti-terrorism,” with which to scare people. And the Right succeeded in demonizing its opponents along the way, particularly by tagging all progressives as “Socialists” and linking them to abuses in the former Soviet Union. The left, the scholars said, has developed no similar unifying theme to appeal to the mass of people. And its defenses and institutions – unions in the U.S. and Social Democratic parties in Europe – have been weakened, divided, or both, they said.

The scholars warned workers’ rights may be too specific to unify the left and rally the rest of the U.S. Kazin noted the labor movement succeeded in big causes that united much of the U.S., such as civil rights, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But its own cause – labor law reform – was perceived as just its own interest, and lost.

The scholars also warned the left in general, and unions in particular, have communication problems, especially with white working class men. And the left missed an opportunity, with the Great Recession, to pin the problems of workers on those who caused them, particularly the bankers, traders and financiers, Kramer said.

That let the Right step in and blame “regulations,” repeating the errors of the 1920s, he added. The reaction of the country to anti-recession legislation was that the bankers got bailed out and everyone else did not, leading to the 2010 Republican sweep, he noted.

And now there’s another global problem the left must deal with: The unanticipated – at least in the West – rise of industrialization in developing nations, especially China.

“That’s led to calls for ‘competitiveness,’ used as a battering ram to smash the gains and benefits of the middle class,” Kramer said.

With the Right resurgent in the U.S. after the money-fueled GOP election sweep in 2010, the left finds itself, Kazin said, in an odd position: “We’ll have to act as conservatives,” in the true sense of the word, “conserving what was gained before, such as Medicare, Social Security and collective bargaining.”