Visualizing Justice for Labor

Against the Current, No. 137, November/December 2008

Dan Clawson

Solidarity Divided:
The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path
Toward Social Justice
by Bill Fletcher, Jr., and Fernando Gapasin
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,
2008, 324 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

WHEN I HAVE high hopes – for a movie, a novel, a restaurant, a job action – I’m often disappointed even if it is pretty darn good, since the reality can’t live up to my inflated expectations.  That’s true here, and I think not only for me, but for much of the labor left.

Count me among the many admirers of Bill Fletcher who eagerly awaited this book.  At a conference Bill’s presentations are always short, provocative and challenging, leading you to re-examine what you had taken for granted.  Fernando Gapasin has a history as an academic at Penn State and UCLA, and is a Central Labor Council president; since much of the book’s analysis revolves around the potential for reinvigorating CLCs, he is well positioned for insight.

Because the book was so highly anticipated, and occupied an a priori position as “important Left statement,” some of the reviews and discussions have focused on what the book did (TDU) and did not (Labor Notes!!) mention.  I don’t think that should be the point.  The issue is:  does Solidarity Divided offer an analysis or a plan for labor?  

My answer is “not really.”  It’s very useful to have out there, but it is not “the answer” that we were looking for, and does not even have a thesis or plan that will be widely debated. It’s more a grab bag of what lots of people have been saying for a long time – often a very useful grab bag, with many valuable parts, but probably not the book that fires the imagination of a young activist.  Nor does it offer the material to shake the thinking of those who disagree.

In this review I’ll discuss what the book does, what it doesn’t do, and then discuss its overall strategy, comparing that strategy to alternatives, specifically the vision and practice offered by Solidarity, the organization that sponsors this magazine.

The first of the book’s five sections presents a cursory and thematic history of labor:  the 19th century, the New Deal, the cold war, civil rights and the Left.  The next section essentially continues this history into the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, including an extended discussion of Bill Fletcher’s involvement with the new leadership of the Mail Handlers Union (a failed, and somewhat confused, attempt to transform the union) and an outstanding analysis of the way the organizing model “caught on like wildfire.”

The problem with the organizing model, the authors argue, was that “reformers began to worship member mobilization and activism” even when that was staff driven, rather than focusing “on the problem itself” – the “Gompers-based ideology” of U.S. trade unionism. (61)

This section also contains far-and-away the best discussion I have read of what happened in SEIU Local 399 in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors organizing campaign, correctly noting that “Much of what passes for a history of Local 399 and the crisis of the summer of 1995 is actually myth.” (64)

The myth is that the Multi-Racial Alliance were reformers determined to create a more democratic and more progressive union local – a myth, I might add, that is piously repeated (usually in the absence of any real information or examination) to reinforce pre-conceived ideological positions.  Fletcher and Gapasin note that the politics of the alliance were complicated, with significant elements wanting fewer resources for organizing and concerned to position themselves for staff jobs.

The third section examines Sweeney and the New Voice leadership, providing a valuable insider’s account of maneuvering and internal debates, from Central Labor Councils to globalization and the Charleston Five.  The fourth section does much the same for the Change to Win split and associated events, including a focus on “who was not included” (152) in the debates, and the issues that were not raised.  

The authors note, for example, that African Americans and leaders of color were excited by the New Voice, but for the CTW split “comments such as ‘this debate has nothing to do with us’ were common.”  The authors argue that in fact the pre-split discussion “had everything to do with women and members of color” because union consolidation “tends to place power in the hands of whites generally and white males in particular.” (159)

The book’s fifth and final section makes a case for what the authors call social justice unionism.

Strong Analysis

The strongest parts of the book are the (limited, but very important) sections providing inside analyses of what was happening in the leadership of the labor movement and the debates that were taking place.  Since the culture and practice of the labor movement is in practice unwilling – for understandable but mistaken reasons – to permit public debate of most of the key issues within labor, the debates take place among leaders and staff.

 To the public it may seem – mistakenly – that no debate is taking place, that labor leaders have not thought about what they are doing and are all marching in lockstep.  To the insiders, on the other hand, it may appear that the issues are so charged, and so important, and so likely to lead to sharp or bitter comments, that these issues cannot be discussed in any forum where labor’s enemies would be able to hear and to gather information to be used in future anti-union campaigns.

For much of the period from the New Voice onward, Bill Fletcher was the most prominent member of the Left to be an insider in the corridors of power.  The book’s reports and analyses of these debates have much of the interest of a tell-all memoir, but combined with significant and penetrating analyses.

Solidarity Divided has other strengths as well, including a consistent and valuable focus on the relation of these debates and activities to people of color and to community movements, beginning with chapter one’s focus on “the fight over inclusion versus exclusion” (10) as strategies for labor.

Fletcher and Gapasin look at the service sector as well as manufacturing, and stress the role of Central Labor Councils.  They emphasize the need to address all issues of importance to the working class, not just workplace issues (and certainly not just union issues), and they frequently include global perspectives.

What the book does not do is important as well.  There is no significant analysis of neoliberalism, although the issue is often implicit – for example, in the discussion of globalization.  With the exception of four pages on the Charleston 5, there is little discussion of rank-and-file campaigns or movements.  Although the authors insist on the importance of the left, call for unions to move left, and note the weakness of the contemporary left, they do not discuss any actually existing left groups or the authors’ own relation to the left.  

They come out in favor of organizing the South, member education, connections to broader social movements, transforming “the thinking and practice of the union on issues of race and gender” (201), and redefining worker control of unions – but with almost no discussion of what happens when unions attempt to do these things.

Differing Perspectives

What is the political approach of Solidarity Divided, and how does it compare to the approach of those of us in Solidarity?  I admire Fletcher and Gapasin’s constant attention to racial inclusion, an attention that is not merely abstract but rather is grounded in specifics that come out of continuing direct engagement; in this regard they are a model for the left.

I am in sympathy as well with their attention to the service sector and the need to focus on issues beyond the workplace.  Speaking as an individual, in these regards I prefer their own political practice and analysis to that which often prevails (in practice, not in theory) in Solidarity.

The most striking difference between Solidarity and the authors, however, is the book’s focus on top union leadership, and the debates and conflicts among the inner circle, to the almost total exclusion of rank-and-file movements and initiatives: the difficulties they encounter, the lessons they learn, what they suggest about the possibilities of moving forward.  

Solidarity emphasizes the importance of union democracy led by rank-and-file workers; members are encouraged to take rank-and-file jobs in key workplaces, to stay for the long haul, to gain the respect of fellow workers, to participate in creating rank-and-file movements, and not to seek to take office until and unless there is a movement with the potential to sustain meaningful transformation.  

Since this involves building for the long haul, it is crucial to have an analysis of how capitalism is developing and what provides a potential to gain leverage.  Debates among top union leadership are of interest, but the ideological positions of leaders are not the key to building a better future.

This difference in emphasis has further consequences as well:  Fletcher and Gapasin can lay out a vision of what they would like to see, but the discussion is vague and disconnected from actual struggles – they don’t analyze actual experiences or suggest concrete steps.  For Fletcher and Gapasin, the key is “defining the moment” and “defining the framework” – by which they mean juxtaposing their list of what should happen to what currently exists.

 In one of the more formulaic non-analyses in the book, Fletcher and Gapasin begin their last chapter by saying that “unions must move left; they have no alternative” (197) – as if continued ossification, decay and bureaucratic defense of privilege were impossible.  Fletcher and Gapasin outline an alternative to current union policies, an alternative that seems more directed at staff and leaders than at rank-and-file movements, but they do not seriously consider what will get us from here to there.

ATC 137, November-December 2008