Labor on the Ropes

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Traven Leyshon

U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition:
The Failure of Reform from Above,
The Promise of Revival from Below
By Kim Moody
Verso, 2007, 290 pages, $29.95 paper.

Ramparts of Resistance:
How Workers Lost Their Power and How to Get it Back
By Sheila Cohen
Pluto Press, 2006, 240 pages,
Distributed through University of Michigan, $29.95 paper.

IN U.S. LABOR in Trouble and Transition, Kim Moody focuses on why the organized labor movement went into decline and points to potential signs of revival. The author’s explanation begins with the worsening economic situation in the 1970s and a harsher anti-union climate, both politically and in the workplace, as “business refined its ability to act as a class.”

Moody describes in detail the economic drivers of the “Great Transformation,” a fall in the rate of profit leading to intensified competition, the acceleration of global economic integration, the use of outsourcing, new technologies, and lean reorganization of production. While the “worldwide economic crisis of the mid-1970s sparked the acceleration of global economic integration,” its most striking characteristic was foreign direct investment. Except during the slow growth periods of 2001-04 and 1990-91, “the flow of investment into U.S. manufacturing outstripped outward-bound capital by 43%.”

These trends, along with important changes in the structure of the work force, are well illustrated in more than two dozen tables.

What, then, caused the industrial workforce to shrink by four million workers? Moody outlines the processes of a brutal intensification of work and reorganization of America’s industrial geography as industry migrated to the South and other non-union rural areas. Employers were able to extend control over the labor process through “lean production,” development of “command-and-control” computer technology and the introduction of modular production. As Moody points out, while most union leaders blamed “globalization” (still politically supporting those who voted for such “free trade” treaties!) in fact at least half the jobs “just moved down the Interstate.”

The employers’ offensive worked to ratchet up the rate of exploitation, transferring wealth and income from the working class to capital. This meant growing economic insecurity, the stagnation of real wages and a dramatic recomposition of the working class.

But Moody does not simply attribute labor’s decline to circumstances set by the employers. The changes might not have been so devastating had it not been for “bureaucratic business unionism,” which believed in a community of interest with capital. Most union leaders abandoned the selective militancy that characterized previous eras and embraced labor-management cooperation, even while the companies excelerated the one-sided class war.

Increasingly unions made concessions to employers across the spectrum of wages, benefits, and working conditions. In the face of decline, unions took refuge in mergers as a substitute for new organizing.

U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition chronicles the generally sad results of “reform from above” efforts to turn the situation around, first through the election of Sweeney’s “New Voices” slate to leadership of the AFL-CIO, and later with the federation’s split and the creation of Change to Win, a competing federation led by Sweeney’s protégé Andy Stern.

The author offers a detailed analysis of three trends in contemporary unionism: “business unionism,” “democratic social movement unionism” — created in real “struggle with the employers” — and what he categorizes as “the new corporate unionism.” He argues that the ongoing internal reorganization of SEIU and other unions into “huge administrative units” represents “a step beyond business unionism in its centralization and shift of power upward in their structure away from the members, locals, and workplace.”

Here Moody provides a much needed critique of the “corporate” side of SEIU’s restructuring. He concludes that the union’s vaunted gains often come from top-down organizing and sweetheart deals with employers, resulting in “shallow power” rather than workers’ power based on “deep roots in the workplace and local unions.”

Since the book has been published, union insiders indeed have become public in their concern that SEIU’s growth has often been achieved at the expense of contract standards, betraying community allies, workers’ rights, membership control and leadership accountability.

Potential for Renewal

Moody is able to effectively critique bureaucratic business unionism, and the new corporate unionism, because he has an alternative conception of “democratic social movement unionism” based on workplace power, membership mobilization, union democracy, independence from the employer and alliances with other workers’ organizations.

Strategically, Moody emphasizes the continued centrality of certain “traditional” industrial workforces: meatpacking, auto and transportation (especially longshore, trucking and logistics). He emphasizes the importance of organizing the South, where union density is less than 6%. His idea is to fight for democratic, internationalist unions in key industries, and to avoid token campaigns against a giant such as Wal-Mart until a stronger labor community can be built.

Moody continues to argue for the transformative potential of rank-and-file movements. “(C)hallenging the top-down culture of business unionism…[which] provides little or no education and leadership training for rank-and-file workers” is the only realistic option. Consequently, Moody believes that radicals should orient themselves toward the layer of worker activists who are most engaged in shop-floor militancy and resistance to management.

In the final chapter, “Paths to Power, Roads not Taken,” the author discusses the need for a labor party, noting that its failure throughout the last 120 or so years has been its “lack of institutional support.” Citing examples from the 1920s and 1940s, he points out that the idea of the labor party as an alternative to the two-party system “gets traction in periods of perceived political defeat or betrayal as well as in those of upsurge.”

In critiquing the most recent attempt to build a labor party, Moody cites three major and unresolved issues:

1. The unrealistic hope that national unions would affiliate in a climate where many unions are dominated by a business union approach and are too institutionally committed to the Democratic Party.

2. The inability to develop a structure that could offer some way for rank-and-file activists to organize and build membership. Instead, affiliated national and regional unions held the overwhelming share of the convention votes but failed to build the party while regional chapters were frequently dominated by the far left and had little capacity to reach out to rank-and-file workers.

3. The problem of figuring out a way to engage in electoral politics. While leaders from a few unions favored limited experiments in elections, most did not and therefore the party became a pressure group competing with thousands of other issue-oriented organizations. As such it couldn’t really articulate the need for the working class to  seek political power.

In stating that political independence from the two-party system is still key, Moody notes that despite labor’s setbacks, it is still the most powerful and diverse organized force in the country. Thus unions need to function as a social movement, not as a collective bargaining enterprise.

As concrete examples, Moody points to the early days of CUT in Brazil and South Africa’s COSATU. These are unions that began at the workplace, which remained the source of their cohesion and power. This then enabled them to lead broader movements. That is, a union has unique power “by virtue of its place at the heart of capitalist accumulation.”

Moody comments that however important the workplace is, it can’t address the full range of issues of working-class life: “Social movement unionism attempts to draw together a broader range of groups to forward a class agenda.” This is not a formulaic “union + community + issue campaigns, but unions building a class movement.

If there is a problem with U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, it is Moody’s strategic, but singular, focus on the industrial working class — quite the opposite of most left-wing analyses. How can the numerically growing, but organizationally weak, sections of the working class like home health aides, retail and service sector workers develop power and democratic self-organization? Moody may have sketched out an alternative in broad strokes, but even given the examples Moody provides, that question remains unanswered.

Further, in answering the question of where a new radicalism might arise, one has to consider the unique role of African Americans. While Moody undertakes a serious discussion of race and racism, its material basis and the “deep roots of racism and social conservatism within the white sections of the working class,” this question is largely absent from his final chapter on strategy.

Despite his emphasis on the South, the potential of the immigrant workers movement, and new forms of organizing such as workers centers, Moody doesn’t take up the specific situation of the African-American worker and the African-American community in the South. Blacks not only face exploitation in the workplace but also, more harshly than most white workers, the ruinous effects of neoliberal policies in schools, prisons, housing and their neighborhoods. Furthermore, African Americans have a tradition of community struggle to build on.

Kim Moody is concerned with analyzing the country’s “growing complexity” in producing and circulating goods so that it is possible to develop a strategic understanding of how to rebuild a powerful and democratic labor movement. He locates the importance of today’s limited struggles in preparing for the next upsurge by attempting to build a “wide enough base and an experienced grassroots leadership to push beyond the limits of the ideology, practice, and personnel of business unionism…” U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition is an important book.

A Challenging Analysis

While Moody looks at U.S. labor, Sheila Cohen’s Ramparts of Resistance concentrates on 1966-78, when a rank-and-file upsurge won important gains. The author explores the U.S. and British labor movements during a wave of militant strikes and then probes the possible reasons for their subsequent decline.

As her first U.S. example, Cohen examines the Memphis sanitation strike for which Martin Luther King paid with his life. The strike by Black sanitation workers, supported by the Black community, was a powerful movement of both the civil rights and labor movements. Her second example is the 1970 postal strike, which began as a New York City wildcat and spread nationally, in defiance of federal law and union officials. National rank-and-file-opposition caucuses, community ties, and grassroots militancy propelled this broad labor offensive.

Cohen then brings in British examples, where 95% of the strikes during the early 1970s were unofficial. This remarkable statistic shows the breadth and dynamism of shop-floor organizing and reveals a strong shop stewards network. The stewards maintained an organic link with the workers they represented, and used the ideas and networks of national rank-and-file movements. By the end of the decade union membership represents fully half of the workforce.

The author then analyzes how the power that rank-and-file union activists built on both sides of the Atlantic was subsequently lost. The employers, and top union officials, found new ways to attack the rank-and-file labor movement — most importantly through “partnership” programs.

Management was also very happy to provide union officers with methods that weakened the organic links between workers and their immediate representatives, particularly through negotiating far away from the shop floor and cultivating “friendly relations” between union officers and management. Cohen insightfully discusses how these changes undermined the independent workplace structures that had facilitated unofficial walkouts and occupations.

The author also identifies how government was in cahoots with management to undermine union democracy and militancy. As Thatcher and Reagan directed uncompromising attacks on the labor movement, the full implications of bureaucratization revealed themselves. Without a militant shop stewards’ network in Britain, and with the decline of rank-and-file movements in the United States, defeat followed defeat.

Cohen analyzes the long line of U.S. defeats, often due in large part to the failures and betrayals of the union leadership (PATCO, Local P-9 strike at Hormel, the Caterpillar and Staley strikes in Decatur, Illinois, and the Detroit newspaper strike), and also notes the few victories such as the Pittston and United Parcel Service strikes.

While she points out how these successes did draw on rank-and-file activity, she doesn’t really acknowledge the critical role of effective union leadership. It seems to me that the quality of leadership does play a crucial role in both defeats and victories.

However in the weighty theoretical section, “What to Make of It All,” Cohen describes the role of the British stewards as “the cutting edge of working class organisation and struggle.” She remarks that it was not their lack of commitment or honesty that was their fatal flaw but

“(T)he fundamentally reformist ideology of even the extreme “left” of the movement that undermined the very class basis of their own commitment and development as activists. From this point of view, even the most combative stewards untimately “blew it” in their responsese to the management offensive of the 1980s and beyond.”

Developing Class Consciousness

How does class consciousness develop? Cohen points to the thousands of strikers who sang “we are the working class” as they marched to free the jailed Pentonville dockers in 1972, and sees “workers with no prior ‘political’ or class consciousness waged struggles which challenged the ruling class and brought about a qualitative transformation in their own way of understanding the world.” The author’s view is that:

“(S)uch consciousness does not, on the whole, develop within the working class without experiences of and struggles against the impact of exploitation in the workplace…the argument is not that workplace struggles are a sufficient condition of revolutionary consciousness. It is that they are one of the very few experiences which open up those without…the luxury of a formal political education to a critical overview and deeper understanding of the nature of capitalism.”

Does Cohen overstate her argument? People’s consciousness is generally quite contradictory. The British miners, for example, have a long history of militancy. Of course this contains a mixture of revolutionary ideas as well as reformist illusions.

Cohen’s assessment is that working-class activists ultimately lacked an ideoloogy to counter the employers’ offensive. She identifies flaws that helped the bosses undermine workers’ self-activity. But aside from general principles (class independence and democracy), she doesn’t outline an ideological perspective that can give workplace activists a handle with which to successfully compete against the power of a government/management ideological offensive.

Moreover she argues that the Left was culpable in the process because it paid insufficient attention to day-to-day workplace struggles. Instead it diverted activists toward what Cohen views as unproductive political projects. Here she cites a “politicist syndrome,” which turned workplace activists away from shop-floor struggles and toward “diversionary” workers’ cooperatives and alternative economic strategies rather than “building on the strength and class potential of their own industrywide rank-and-file organisations.”

Cohen also argues that rank-and-file resistance was weakened by “the failure to build a network out of the militancy and activism of the upsurge period that could have consciously and deliberately worked out a class politics based on two simple but crucial principles: class independence and rank and file membership involvement.”

Yet Cohen’s ideas about how to develop and sustain independent working-class (or socialist) consciousness, beyond the necessary experience of engaging in collective struggle (which she appreciates is necessary, but not sufficient), seem thin. She argues that the Left needs to prioritize supporting and building cross workplace-based networks and rank-and-file movements. These would facilitate union activists developing for themselves a level of consciousness that would carry them through periods when their class is on the defensive.

Certainly, workplace rank-and-file activity can be bolstered through networks or formations like Labor Notes, the Association for Union Democracy, and Jobs with Justice — initiatives that link activists and struggles from different unions, even if only at the level of exchanging information. I wonder if Cohen would make a distinction between these kinds of networks and USLAW, which opposes the war in Iraq and promotes ties between U.S. and Iraqi trade unionists.

What Cohen sees as necessary for the development of class consciousness involves transforming “instinctive” grassroots worker resistance into one of “explicit rejection of management ideologies and strategies.” Without that transformation, struggles will resurface against enormous odds but will run out of gas. It is necessary to develop ideological armor against “the siren song of ‘common interests’ and ‘company viability.’”

Despite the book’s rather daunting assessment of “How Workers Lost Their Power” Cohen’s strategic argument is hopeful for those of us “in it for the long haul”:

“Through all the manifold attacks on independent workplace organization … a residue of activists has remained to pose some form of opposition against the unmitigated might of capital…the existence of this layer, standard bearers of militant class unionism within the movement, poses the possibility of building an in-class network of committed activists able to survive periods of “downturn” and …lead the next “upsurge” — from the ground up.”

I’d suggest that U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition might well be read together with Ramparts of Resistance. Each is analyzing how a militant workers’ movement was unable to defeat the employer’s offensive, an offensive that continues today. The focus of the authors is different, but both are profoundly committed to a democratic, worker-controlled movement and each is exploring how a revolutionary class consciousness can develop and be nurtured.

Contribute to a discussion of these books, and the issues they raise, online at:

ATC 135, July-August 2008