ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Blacks, Unions, & Organizing in the South, 1956-1996
A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY
Compiled by Rudolph Lewis
FINDING YOUNG LEADERS
Why Labor Can’t Find Its Young Leaders
The Unions Faded Image and Limited Hopes for Advancement
Deter the Idealistic and Ambitious
Business Week (October 31, 1970)
Labor is facing a leadership shortage at a basic and critical level–among the men who organize and serve members locally. They go by the title of organizer, delegate, business agent, international representative. Whatever the name, these are the men who determine the relations of the members to the union and form the foundation on which all other union leadership rests. But few dynamic young men want to do these jobs today.
Success has drained labor’s labor supply. The unions’ own success in improving working conditions and the economy’s success in producing years of prosperity removed the worker from his 1930s niche as an economic victim requiring the help of right-minded outsiders. Bright young people from outside labor no longer gravitate to the union movement. Today’s idealistic college graduate joins the Peace Corps or teaches in a black ghetto school.
At the same time, the liberal community’s success in promoting educational opportunity decimated the unions’ internal sources of leadership. The intelligent, aggressive young mechanic who bucked for a union job 30 years ago rarely sees the inside of a factory today; he goes to college instead. The good, gray union steward who replaced him seldom wants a full-time staff post even if he is up to it. Why get up at dawn to hand out leaflets or stay up past midnight to run meetings for a salary only mildly better than the wages he earns on an 8-to-4 job?
Originally–which, in terms of modern unionism, means the 1930s–labor drew its leadership from some of the most overqualified production workers in history. The “first generation” of leaders were an extraordinary lot. Some were workers of exceptional ability, responding to an exceptional situation. Others were men who in normal times might have argued the nation’s laws, run the nation’s corporations, or–in the case of Emil Mazey, now secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers–played the violin before the nation’s audiences. The first successful sitdown strike was directed by a master of arts from Harvard University.
Clearly strike leader George Edwards had not expected to go from Harvard to the work force at Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Corp. In Detroit. The Depression that put him and others like him on production lines also motivated them bitterly to use their skills to help relieve the hardships they shared with other workers. Beside them worked radicals of various stripes, eager to forge a labor movement capable of remaking society. Together, workers, ideologues, and displaced potential executives and professionals created the big industrial unions and, in some case, rejuvenated the old-line craft unions.
The generation that followed these men into first-rung and middle-level jobs after World war II was a less spectacular but solidly competent group. It was composed of union members who rose to the top of a labor force that was normal for normal times. Some of the brightest youngsters went to college, but college was still beyond the financial reach and social aspirations of most working class families. And although labor was no longer the prime social cause, a steady trickle of college graduates entered the training institute of the International Ladies’ garment Workers’ Union, emerging as fledgling organizers and potential leaders.
Today, ILGWU institute alumni are studded through the middle reaches of the labor movement. Pete Huegel runs the Puerto Rican division of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. Patricia Eames heads the legal department of the Textile Brotherhood of Teamsters school in Florida.
“The ILGWU closed its institute in 1961–partly because its graduates’ zeal in organizing an organizers’ union frightened and affronted the ILGWU’s top leadership, but mostly because the school was having trouble attracting promising students. The long drought had begun.
Young, idealistic outsiders continue to work for a few unions that organize conspicuously low-paid workers, usually from ethnic minorities, such as farm and hospital employees. These unions also generate their own leadership; for depressed workers with few other opportunities, a union job is both an honor and an opportunity. Leaders emerge, too, from the booming white-collar and public employee unions, now experiencing their own kind of first generation. For most other unions, a good man is hard to find.
It would be amazing if it were otherwise. By money or career standards, a union job cannot compete with other high-tension posts requiring equal ability and effort. An experienced international representative does well to earn $10,000 a year. A regional director or other middle-level official does even better to earn $20,000-about half the sum most companies pay men with comparable duties. These scales seem inevitable as long as union wages come from dues. Members resist raising dues, and elected officials press for increases as their own peril.
At the same time, the psychological satisfactions of a union job have all but vanished with the fervent unionist of yesteryear. And without the rewards of appreciation and respect, the job can become a nerve-wracking round of wrangles, complaints, and small-scale wheeling and dealing.
For the ambitious, a union post represents galloping frustration. Once he moves out of the lower ranks, a union official can rise only in his own union. A company executive passed over for promotion can switch to another company, but a union official will get no offers from other unions. His sparse options lie outside the labor movement: an industrial relations job with management (usually beyond the pale even to fed-up union officials) or, for the few with the necessary credentials, a government or academic post.
Unless he has strong ideological motives or a highly specialized temperament, what youngster with the ability to go elsewhere would choose this path?
The result, for the harried union official seeking a good organizer, is that probably he will not find one. He will settle for someone he will describe, with a sigh, as “adequate.” And this not-quite-good-enough may begin an ascent that could ultimately put him across the bargaining table from the high-powered executives of a far-flung conglomerate, enable him to shape labor policies on a multitude of issues, or give him leverage in local or national politics.
It is a chilling prospect for a union movement that will need all the talent it can find in the complex years ahead.
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By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 17 December 2011