Which Labor, Which Community?

On May 12, the largest union demonstration in years hit New York City streets. Workers from the public sector, services, and construction trades came together to demand that city and state surpluses go to raise worker pay instead of tax breaks for the rich. Even the police union was there.

This is yet another sign that organized labor may be regaining some of its militance and working together on political strategy.

But something’s missing here. The massive presence and unity of labor was sorely missed in recent demonstrations against police brutality and homophobic violence. Some unions have been outspoken in support of community issues of concern to progressive planners in the city. But most have not. Where are the city unions in the struggles over the concentration of waste transfers stations, bus depots and industrial sites in communities of color? The campaign to save community gardens? Where is the union of planners on the government’s lack of commitment to community planning? When will the building trades advocate as strongly for low-income housing and affirmative action as they do for their union pay? One of the biggest problems for communities of color is the growth of the prison-industrial complex in exurban and rural areas, a trend benefiting the construction trades and corrections officers — two well organized sectors of the labor force. When will there be a union drive against this discriminatory and unequal system?

Some unions have consistently gone beyond the narrow interests of their membership in wages and benefits and taken strong and principled stands on social issues. Others haven’t. So when we talk about labor and community, which labor are we talking about?

Community without Labor

And which community are we talking about? While important sectors of labor ignore communities, many communities are hostile or indifferent to labor. In any case, communities are by nature diverse and reflect a wide social spectrum. Like the broader society, they tend to be dominated by elites. And all too many community organizations are downright exclusionary.

Community planners should be on the side of labor but most are not. Most aren’t in unions. Planners deal with land use and development, industrial location, transportation between workplace and residence, and the environmental impacts of economic development. They focus on the spatial organization of production and services. But they rarely look inside production and at exploitation in the workplace. Planners should be concerned about every aspect of the lives of the people they are planning with and for, and there’s nothing more central to our lives than work.

Some planners have distinguished themselves by countering the false dichotomy between jobs and the environment. Some have raised questions about the quality and distribution of jobs in discussions about community economic development schemes. Some have helped to stop factory closings and worked against union-busting privatization schemes.

But most planners don’t think of themselves as part of labor and swallow the myth that they’re independent professionals. They work for government, which puts forth the myth of neutrality, or their clients, who demand loyalty. Urban planners, we’re told, aren’t supposed to get involved in union issues — wages, job security, benefits, or the workplace environment. They’re not to interfere (can anyone?) with the sanctity of corporate planning. Urban planners are taught to plan comprehensively for and with communities; but the communities they work with are strictly territorial — neighborhoods and towns — and they usually don’t include organized labor. When it’s time to hold a participatory planning party, unions aren’t invited.

Labor without Community

It’s only natural that unions deal mainly with bread and butter issues – wages, benefits and the workplace environment. Their main job is to protect their membership through collective bargaining and, increasingly, the provision of union-financed services. Some unions provide quality health care, housing and social services to their members. Many go beyond this to support national reforms, like universal health care, that would benefit the entire working class, and some have been outspoken in support of civil rights and environmental issues.

The isolation of organized labor from community issues is part of the history of conservative trade unionism characterized by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The building trades, which are directly concerned with community development, have been notoriously conservative. In some places they are still white enclaves. They promote urban growth at all costs, and overlook the environmental damage done by homebuilders, highways and gigantic pork barrel public works projects. They talk about the need for jobs, but not about who gets the jobs, whether workers are producing anything useful for society, or whether the jobs enrich the lives of workers. Devoid of militancy, they won’t stand in the way of the bulldozer unless it’s to drive it themselves. (Tarry Hum’s story in this issue points to the problems involved with a union’s support for a government economic development scheme that doesn’t address the issue of structural inequality.)

To be sure, there are signs of a turnaround in labor. The AFL-CIO’s new leadership has started to organize the unorganized. The Labor Party and some key unions have tried to get union politics out from under the heel of the Democratic Party. But it’s not easy to put together a labor program that’s not totally tied to trade unions.

Challenges for Labor and Community

One of the most difficult challenges facing unions in future years will be breaking away from the industrial workforce model that both unions and corporations have protected in their contracts. The entrance of women in the workforce has raised demands from workers for more flexible work schedules, even while businesses see flexibility as an instrument for greater exploitation. Another challenge is for unions to be just as concerned about consumption as they are about the production process. The working class in this country is enslaved to consumerism, and lavishes products that are unhealthy and addictive, from SUVs to television to soda. Submission to consumerism weakens labor, robs workers of their wage gains and degrades the quality of life.

It’s worth looking at the efforts to build and sustain communities in which labor begins to take control of capital. In this issue, Len Krimerman’s article on worker-owned enterprises, Peter Pitegoff’s article on a worker-owned childcare cooperative, and the other pieces on worker-owned coops and employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) offer a window into what could possibly be an economic world governed by labor. Community development corporations represent another form of economic association. It is important that planners study these experiences and help sustain the knowledge and experience gained from them.

How can such alternative economic institutions foster cooperative relations among labor without reproducing all the negative characteristics of capitalism — narrow profit-driven behavior, overproduction, displacement and insecurity? Can labor’s organizations respect the diverse needs of the working class instead of replicating capitalism’s wasteful and destructive growth machine?

The challenge for communities and community planners is to focus more on how communities can foster healthier and more humane work environments. Auto dependence makes commuting to work unhealthy and adds to the economic and health costs that workers pay for holding a job. Community planners need to work with organizations of labor, including unions, as a cornerstone in participatory planning. Housing and economic development projects shouldn’t undercut the wage gains and benefit packages won by organized labor. Planners should keep alive the vision of a future in which labor controls planning for production and consumption in a healthy urban environment.

— Tom Angotti

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