U.S. Labor in Crisis

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Jerry Tucker

THERE IS TODAY a rare open debate going on within the U.S. Labor Movement over its future. Rarer still is the fact that much of it appears on competing internet blogs. The current debate, provoked by some within Labor’s national leadership, has been almost exclusively focused on “restructuring” and resource reallocation. But the leader-led debate has failed to discuss the more fundamental question of the “culture” of unionism in America today.

Can the present debate really make a difference if it avoids an objective examination of what the labor movement should stand for — its larger social purposes; the education and activism of its base; and the democratic principles that must underpin its governance?

U.S. union membership rolls have slipped to the lowest point in nearly a century. Only 8% of the private sector work force today is unionized. The loss of union jobs is far outpacing the modest membership gains from newly organized workplaces. Past union wage, benefit and workplace regulatory gains are being drastically eroded. This downward spiral has been in process for decades…

Over the past twenty-five years workers have either witnessed or been directly on the receiving end of a mind-numbing series of defeats in high-profile contract struggles. Each defeat only added to the collective rise of cynicism and reduced expectation across the nation’s entire workforce. The rare victory might shine briefly like a firefly in the night but then disappear into a black-hole of bureaucratic complacency as the next round of defeats rolled in.

This is the second time in less than 10 years that the AFL-CIO, with its history of long tenured, insular leadership, has engaged in a debate on policy and direction. In 1995, the patriarchal Federation’s Executive Council split into two political camps, characterized more by differences in style and approach, than in substance and ideology.

The “New Voice” political wing was led by challenger John Sweeney who was elected the new AFL-CIO President. The Sweeney leadership, at that time, made a commitment to revitalize the U.S. Labor Movement in at least two critical areas: “organizing the unorganized; and in electoral politics.” Today’s second-wave reformers point again to those two activities, among others, as benchmarks of current failures.

The debate is almost exclusively centered on changing the AFL-CIO. None of the affiliated unions actively participating in the exchange are offering a critique of their own union’s role during the long backward slide. The solution, say some of the most outspoken critics, is “restructuring.”

Restructuring By Consolidation?

Leading this faction are the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They say consolidation and sectoral realignment is the centerpiece of the reform necessary. Empowerment, they contend, will come from the new density (assuming organizing successes) of representation. The SEIU proposal titled “Unite To Win” calls for a sweeping merger of a number of national unions into a few single industrial sectors unions.

The proposed formula for accomplishing this realignment lacks a democratic mechanism. It could also mean the loss of large numbers of democratically elected leadership positions in the existing political subdivisions and local unions within the merged new industrial union sectors.

The Unite to Win document lists 10 principles under which, it is argued, “21st Century unions will have the strength to change workers lives.” There is also, in the SEIU’s proposed restructuring strategy, more than a small hint of reorganizing U.S. unions to look more like, and use the language of, the employer sectors that oppress us.

My union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), has embraced a variation of that sterile strategy to an extreme that ultimately blends the union’s role into the core agenda of the corporation. Yet auto workers have nothing but more economic takeaways and gripping job insecurity to show for it, and the union is now one-third the size it was when the “jointness” strategy began.

Leading those taking some exception to the SEIU Unite to Win proposal are the Communications Workers of America (CWA). CWA offers a formulation somewhat less top-down, which promotes greater use of labor’s energies and resources mobilizing members in disciplined phalanxes to support collective bargaining campaigns on a more widespread basis.

This, they suggest, in addition to winning good contracts will offer encouragement to unorganized workers to take brave steps toward unionization. This line of thinking is less ministerial than others, and even hints at possible self-activity and more internal democracy by offering to engage the rank and file, at least the organized portion, in some of the strategic design.

But this alternative, too, touches only lightly on the reality that the employer attack is systematic and concerted, while labor’s overall response is fragmented and most fightbacks are not conducted under the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

A number of other national unions have also offered their versions of reform proposals. Most deal with reallocation of dues paid to the Federation or a new system of dues rebates for organizing….

While many unions speak out against the current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or the Department of Labor and a few other government agencies, this internal debate does not seriously address the continued fusion of corporate interests and big government in our country.

Not one of the Federation’s cautious “new thinkers” has proposed a break with the Democratic Party, or even the development of an informed grassroots program for disciplining or replacing Democratic office holders who vote against labor’s interests. None of the proposals suggest promoting independent working class/coalition-based political activity.

Looking at History

American unionism’s current dilemma must be discussed in light of a 20th Century history which includes U.S. Labor’s longstanding policy of collaborating with corporate capital; the purging of its left ideologies and practitioners; the AFL-CIO’s post-WWII cold-warrior status and complicity in America’s imperial foreign policy to date; more frequent avoidance than engagement in struggles around race, gender and sexual orientation; and a conspicuous lack of support for maintaining class-consciousness as well as internal democracy and membership accountability.

The late 1920s and early ‘30s offer reasonable, if not more dire, comparisons to the vulnerabilities of the U.S. working class, then and now. That era’s dramatic, democratic revitalization of the labor movement came as a result of a massive wave of industrial workers, conditioned by hardship and inspired by new collective possibilities and self activity.

Worker frustration found strategic support in the thousands of left-political activists, in and out of the ranks, who shared the anger and felt the pain, and who together, through struggle, fashioned a new period of economic and social opportunity.

The period that followed the “great upsurge” including the WWII years and throughout the 1940s, ‘50s, and into the ‘60s may have statistically produced growth for labor; but its capacity as an instrument for class struggle had, in fact, been severely weakened by the mid-1950s….

The ‘50s and ‘60s saw even greater leadership bureaucratization and loss of democracy on the shop floor. This was also a period when U.S. Labor ran from, not toward other social movements and progressive struggles such as the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam War resistance, and women’s rights, environmental and other pivotal social conflicts.

Labor’s virtual isolation from the transformational struggles of that era, and its refusal to embrace those social conflicts as part of its own struggle for social justice, further increased its vulnerability and co-dependency.

Failed Reforms

By the late 1970s, despite the election of a democratic President, Jimmie Carter, labor was incapable of delivering any of the important public policy initiatives it had put forward. This failure was underscored by the defeat of the watered-down “Labor Law Reform Bill” of 1977-78, which labor’s Washington bureaucrats had re-written as much to avoid displeasing the nation’s business elite as to serve the increasingly frustrated goals of workers seeking union representation.

As someone who was in Washington in those years (1975-1980), and who frequently questioned the labor leadership’s conspicuous lack of support for rank and file grassroots education and political activism, I found this particularly frustrating.

One example of labor’s inertia: In 1978, angry over the defeat of the Labor Law Reform bill in Congress, then UAW President Douglas Fraser wrote a lengthy letter of resignation to The Labor/Management Group, a national committee chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Labor, John Dunlop. In it he said:

“I believe leaders of the business community, with few exception, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in our country — a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.”

Fraser further stated in his concluding remarks, “I would rather sit with the rural poor, the desperate children of urban blight, the victims of racism, and working people seeking a better life than with those whose religion is the status quo, whose goal is profit and whose hearts are cold.”

Brother Fraser’s call went, with a few exceptions, largely unheeded by the resident labor bureaucracy. No progressive wing took flight and, within two short years, the Alliance that had been announced in the letter’s wake was no more.

Labor Needs New Vision

By the 1980s, none of the energy and class tenacity of the great CIO upsurge could be found in our country’s labor leadership. Unionism was suffering “death by a thousand cuts” and it was clear that, by this time, a new generation of “nameless and faceless bureaucrats” (a term used by New York Times labor reporter A.H. Raskin) had unionism on cruise-control in America.

Democracy, accountability, and solidarity had long since become hollow slogans, not concepts in practice. In fact, the use of the term “democracy” in U.S. unions is contested territory.  Those in power claim unions are democratic institutions, but tend to bury democratic practice under the weight of bureaucratic function, tolerating only its most narrow exercise when required.

For advocates of social-movement unionism, democracy is an indispensable element in building a new mass movement of the working class. Fifty years of business unionism, abetted by an evolving legal framework, have all but eliminated the most democratic of worker expressions, direct action.

Union contract votes often represent exercises in misinformation and coercion by a strategy-compromised union leadership, many of whom hold positions of authority by appointment or, through an incumbent- biased election process. Accountability fades when democracy is feeble.

America’s 21st century workers need a labor movement committed to fight along side them against those “who would destroy us and ruin [their] lives” (a phrase from Fraser’s 1978 letter) and leaders who have the courage to launch a strategic counter-offensive against the aggression on all fronts. If there are such leaders, they can start by openly “speaking truth to power” and denouncing corporate America’s war on workers and working-class communities, naming the ideological nest the perpetrators swarm out of, and condemning the overwhelming government backing they receive.

Yes, today many American workers are cynical and, collectively, do have reduced expectations. They know all too well that their quality of life is under attack and, for many of them, that unionism has not held up its end in the struggle.

That was also true in the early 1930s. But that does not mean now, as then, that the willingness to fight back, to resist injustice, to desire dignity have been driven from the consciousness of our sisters and brothers. They have it in them to engage in struggle when they perceive the struggle has immediacy in their lives, when the injustices are real, and when they know they will not be alone.

With history as our guide, the revitalization of the labor movement also cannot occur without a revitalization of an independent left within labor. U.S. labor as we know it today, and as is demonstrated by the narrow limits of the AFL-CIO debate, lacks the credibility to form the multilateral and multiracial relationships for a new, dynamic social movement…

U.S. labor needs a counter-offensive — and the centerpiece of labor’s counter-offensive, with or without all current labor leaders, should be derived from a new vision of America based on justice and the creation of a new social intersection for all of those abused by the nexus of corporation and state and today’s neoliberalism.

Under one broad social banner, we need to declare war on poverty, racism, sexism, imperialism, and the denial of the fundamental right to affordable health care for all, full employment, shorter work-time, and many other of the true values due all participants in a just society.

Crisis-bound, U.S. labor is at a crossroads. The direction it takes will impact, for better or worse, the lives of a majority of all Americans. That direction is also of no little significance to workers and labor organizations throughout the world.

ATC 116, May-June 2005