Workplace: Dirt Cheap
Industrial: Daddy Doesnít Live With Us Anymore
Economics: Who's Afraid of the BCA?
International: From the Wreckage
Politics: Infrastructure Blues
History: Meat and Three Veg
Savings: Super Seduction
Politics: Popping the 'E-Word'
Poetry: To Know Somebody
Review: Off the Rails
The Locker Room
Thatís Our Team
Janetís Job No Victory
Royal Finger Lickers
Will $20 Restore Carr?
Postcard from Harvard
A unionist once argued...
"The labor movement is organized upon a principle that the strong shall help the weak. And whereas today the craft unions of this country may be able to stand upon their own feet and like mighty oaks stand before the gale, defy the lightning, yet the day may come when those organizations will not be able to withstand the lightning and the gale. Now, prepare yourselves by making a contribution to your less fortunate brethren...Organise the unorganized!"
This was the call to arms issued by John L Lewis, the founder of the Committee for Industrial Organisation to his labor movement brethren - and the rallying cry is just as valid and relevant today in 2005 as it was in the 1930's. Organise the unorganized! This is our challenge.
I feel privileged to have been able to attend the Harvard Trade Union Program at such a historic juncture in the history of the movement and with such a vibrant and committed group of unionists.
The Harvard Trade Union Program Class of 2005 is made up of a diverse group of union activists from Japan, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States of America.
The Executive Director of the Program, Dr Elaine Bernard, has developed a program which brings together an exceptional group of faculty from Harvard, the universities of greater Boston and beyond. The program also involved discussions with union and community activists who shared with us a wealth of experiences and information. The program has given us a marvelous and unique opportunity to step back from the pressures of our everyday work and to examine some of the big picture issues affecting organized labor and to consider how we as leaders and future leaders might respond to the challenges facing us.
The labor movement has been experiencing a period of almost universal decline and the crisis of union density has served to focus our thoughts on the challenges that lay ahead.
The extent of our membership decline is underscored by increasing political attacks on the social safety net, making workers even more vulnerable. Here in the US in recent weeks, we have witnessed the attacks on social security by the Bush administration.
In my home country, Australia, we too suffered a disastrous election outcome last year. The conservative Howard government was re-elected for its fourth term and looks set to continue to undermine the social safety net, weakening our universal health insurance scheme, Medicare and attacking many of labor's hard fought social policies.
When they take control of our Senate on July 1 this year, we expect that one of the first items to be rolled through the Parliament by the Conservatives will be their industrial relations agenda.
This anti-worker agenda proposes to drastically reduce union access to workers and workplaces; to further dilute the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission - our independent umpire on labor matters; to continue to strip away at our award safety net and to make it easier for bosses to sack workers without recourse.
These measures are a clear and direct attack on trade unions and on the rights of workers to organize. A critical challenge for the Australian labor movement will be to ensure that these regressive proposals are not just characterized as anti-union, but rather as anti-worker, anti-family and anti-democratic. We need to ensure that these measures are not just seen as an attack on unions or the labor movement as a 'special interest', but as an attack on all working people and our very system of democracy.
Clearly, we are going to have a tough fight on our hands, but the fight now is one of survival and losing is not an option.
Our future survival will depend upon our capacity to seize this moment, to adapt to the changes in society and the changing nature of work. It is a heavy burden that we carry, but one that I am confident we are capable of addressing.
From where I sit, only one thing is clear - and that is that we cannot afford to do nothing. We cannot afford to be defensive and to resist change. We must be open to a mature and sensible debate about how we, as a movement, can adapt so that we can reach out to new members.
We need to reach out:
Our commitment to organizing the unorganized needs to be matched by resources and not just rhetoric, because the key challenge confronting the movement is growth. And not just growth for growths sake, but growth for power. We need to rebuild our organizations from the bottom up so that we can regain the power necessary to deliver real improvements for our members in their workplaces and beyond.
This brings me back to the John L. Lewis quote that I read at the start of this speech and one of the key lessons that I have taken from the program. There are unions which are stronger than others and countries with stronger labor movements than others and there is a real obligation for the strong to support the weak.
There is no place for strong public sector unions to be complacent about their position or their need to engage in these debates...we must take up Lewis' challenge to organize the unorganized - starting by providing assistance to those organizing in the private sector and new economy areas where density is low and also looking outside our borders to assist those workers being exploited by global capital in developing countries.
The International President of the American Federation of Teachers, Ed McElroy, eloquently argued this very point when he addressed the program a few weeks ago stating that "None of us can survive as an island of privilege in a sea of decline."
This is the real challenge for unions as I see it. When we think of growth, we must think beyond what we can do within the structures of our own individual unions and indeed, our national labor movements.
We must think about how we can transform existing international networks or create new ones - global partnerships or global unions so that we can take on the might of global capital. I would argue this is a natural and logical next step in the evolution of labor. We have learnt over time, that those whom we exclude from our ranks, from our coverage and protection, will ultimately undermine and undercut our efforts. We must grapple with the challenge to build an inclusive global movement and to push for international fair labor standards. Our survival depends on it.
Here in the US, there is a debate in progress about the future direction and structure of the Labor movement. I believe that this debate is healthy and timely and whilst debates about structure and organization are important - we must never forget that what we're really about is people - about building organizations with collective power to improve the lives of working people.
With that in mind, it is critical that we do not turn in on ourselves, that we do not succumb to in-fighting and turf-wars and miss the opportunity to really transform our unions. We must resist the temptation to attack one another over differences of opinion and must consistently remember that what unites us is more important than what divides us. Solidarity is more important now than ever.
Workers and their families still need us. Workers need a fair wage and entitlement to holidays, sick leave, family leave; flexibility in the workplace to care for and look after their families; they deserve a safe and decent working environment free from bullying, harassment and intimidation; workers need to be sure that their hard earned entitlements will still be there if the company goes bust. In short, workers need unions.
And so our task goes on. We must adapt, and we will adapt - I know we will -because of the people here today. There is real passion and purpose and conviction in this room. Anybody who thinks organised labor is in terminal decline has not met the HTUP Class of 2005!
And so we leave here today, after 6 great weeks together, and whilst we don't have all the answers, we have a better understanding of the challenges we face, and we take with us new ideas and new tools and I am confident that, armed with these, we will adapt, and we will continue to struggle, to fight and to win, because workers need us - and we will not let them down.
Natalie Bradbury from the Health Services Union was elected by her classmates in theHarvard Trade Union Program 2005 to give a valedictory speech at the graduation on .on 18 February 2005
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