By LEE SUSTAR
THE ELECTION of Barack Obama last November seemed to promise a new era for organized labor. With Obama in the White House and a solid Democratic majority in Congress, it appeared that unions would finally be able to get action on their main legislative agenda—passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a measure that would make it easier for workers to join a union. And with the world’s press gathered outside Obama’s Chicago home during the transition period, a victorious factory occupation at the Republic Windows and Doors plant in that city captured the imagination of the country, and even got some encouraging words from Obama himself. Soon afterwards, workers at the huge Smithfield pork processing plant in North Carolina voted to unionize after more than a decade of vicious anti-union actions by the company. Hopes were high that unions were set to go on the offensive.
A few months later, the picture is quite different. The chances for the passage of EFCA appear bleak. The biggest union in the country, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was embroiled in the undemocratic takeover of its 150,000-member West Coast health care local. At the same time, the SEIU intervened in the internal conflict of another union, UNITE HERE, once its closest ally, to annex 150,000 members of a breakaway faction. The old UNITE leader, Bruce Raynor sought refuge in the SEIU because, he claimed, the HERE side was spending organizing money wastefully; the top HERE official, John Wilhelm, accused Raynor of bargaining for low wages and poor working standards, Stern style, in order to convince employers to allow unfettered organizing. At stake is not only union jurisdiction over hotels and casinos, but control of the only union-owned bank, the Amalgamated Bank, which had $4.47 billion in assets in 2008.
As a result of this internecine battle, the SEIU-dominated Change to Win group of unions was in tatters. A 2005 split from the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win unions had failed to deliver a promised breakthrough for labor. Instead, it was edging toward some sort of reunification with the labor federation—but only under pressure from the Obama administration, which insists on the convenience of one-stop shopping when it deals with the unions.
Certainly the Republic Windows and Doors occupation to win workers’ severance pay—and the solidarity and excitement that this action garnered—remains an inspiration. But what followed wasn’t similar victories, but one of the most catastrophic setbacks in the history of the U.S. labor movement. Private employers were demanding, and obtaining, concessions from unions in industries ranging from newspapers to trucking companies. Even as expectations of Obama mounted in advance of Inauguration Day, Chrysler and General Motors were slashing jobs and gutting union contracts as they drifted toward bankruptcy amid the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.
It was during that 1930s crisis that the United Auto Workers (UAW) stormed onto the scene with dramatic factory occupations led by communists, socialists, and other radicals. Today’s UAW, though, is a vastly different organization. It has followed its long-established strategy of partnership with employers to an extreme conclusion by becoming, through health-care trust funds, a major shareholder in GM alongside the U.S. government and the majority (55 percent) shareholder in Chrysler. To achieve this bizarre form of employee ownership—the union trust fund will get just one seat on the company board—the union agreed to ban strikes for six years, eliminate work rules negotiated over decades, cut overtime pay, and further concessions. The result of all this is the virtual elimination of the difference between UAW-organized plants and nonunion ones. The UAW, which once steadily raised the bar for wages and benefits for the entire U.S. working class, is now leading the way down.
The driving force in obtaining these concessions is the Obama administration, which publicly claimed that it had been tougher on the UAW than the Bush White House.5 Rather than use the $50 billion nationalization of GM to launch a green industrialization program, the Obama administration wants to create a slimmed-down “new GM” while selling off unwanted assets at fire-sale prices. This will intensify the crisis in the auto parts industry.
Even mainstream liberal commentators were aghast at the terms of Obama’s GM bailout. “Wouldn’t it be better to use the money to convert GM and other declining manufacturing companies into producing what America needs, such as light rail systems and new energy efficient materials, and training laid-off autoworkers for the technician jobs of the future?” said former labor secretary Robert Reich. Rather than use GM to create good paying jobs, the Obama plan will further downsize GM’s UAW. “At the end of the 1970s, when the first round of concession bargaining began in the U.S., the UAW had 450,000 members at GM,” wrote Sam Gindin, a former economist for the Canadian Auto Workers:
Today, after repeated contracts that allegedly “won” job security in exchange for workplace, wage, or benefit concessions—sold by the union as well as the companies—the UAW’s GM membership is down to 64,000. If GM is “successful” in its current restructuring, that will be further reduced to 40,000. Thirty years of concessions and a 90 percent loss in jobs. If ever there was a failing strategy for workers, this was it.
The capitulation by UAW leaders has boosted the confidence of employers everywhere in their effort to make workers pay for the economic crisis. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger met no union resistance when he imposed unpaid leave on state workers, which amounted to a 9.2 percent cut in pay. He planned to seek another 5 percent cut as this article was being written. Fifteen other state governors have made similar moves. And when United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) dared to show resistance by organizing for a one-day strike to protest layoffs, they were hit with a judge’s temporary restraining order that banned the action by threatening to levy fines that would bankrupt the union and strip the credentials of any teacher who walked out. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the most active of the big-city labor councils, failed to mobilize in response.
If union leaders can see a bit of a silver lining in one of these many ominous clouds, it’s the appointment of a pro-union member of Congress, Hilda Solis as labor secretary. But that’s little compensation for Obama’s leave-no-banker-behind economic policy. So far, Obama’s funneled trillions in U.S. taxpayer money into enormous bailouts for Wall Street, compared with only modest tax cuts for workers and an economic stimulus plan that will create far fewer jobs than the six million jobs that the recession has already destroyed.
Besides this immediate onslaught, the U.S. working class faces an epochal shift as the result of three intertwined crises: a protracted economic crisis that will lead to plant closures and layoffs (“restructuring” in the employers’ parlance); a generational transition in which younger workers find that decently paid union jobs held by their parents are no longer available; and a great demographic shift in which immigrants account for an increasing share of the working class. Before we can assess the prospects for labor’s revival, we need to take account of these developments and understand their economic, social, and political implications.
Kim Moody, the veteran socialist, labor activist, and author, has made an invaluable contribution to this task in his recent book, U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition. Moody argues that organized labor, already weakened by decades of decline, has become further disoriented and thrown onto the defensive by several trends, including an aggressive attack on unions by Corporate America, demographic change, and a restructuring of manufacturing around “lean production” that involved steady job loss—not simply as a result of globalization, but through new labor-saving technology and a shift to nonunion operations in the U.S. South. The analysis that follows will take Moody’s work as a point of departure.
Impact of the economic crisis
The recession—or perhaps, depression—is greatly exacerbating the problems of the U.S. labor movement. Even as the economic downturn began in December 2007, one labor economist pointed out that, “17.5 percent of all unemployed workers were long-term unemployed, compared with just 11.1 percent in March 2001,” the start of the last recession.13 And if job growth had simply kept pace with the population increase, there would have been an additional 3.2 million more jobs in the U.S. economy by 2008. Today, workers are facing what the Economic Policy Institute calls a “jobs desert,” with joblessness at 9.4 percent in May 2009, the highest level since 1983. One in four of the unemployed—some 3.9 million people—had been jobless for at least six months.
The leadership of organized labor has been unable—and in many case unwilling—to resist job losses among unionized workers. Rather, they have concentrated on organizing the unorganized. This led to an increase in the numbers of workers in unions by 311,000 in 2007 and by another 428,000 in 2008, bringing the so-called union density rate to 12.4 percent, up from 12.0 percent in 2006. These gains—especially in the context of a recession—highlight the fact that tens of millions of workers are prepared to organize, a conclusion supported by recent opinion polls.
While these increases in unionization are important, the pace is far too slow to change the balance of power between labor and capital—and the recession and the anticipated “jobless recovery” will likely wipe out these advances. Further, unionization is down from about 35 percent in the mid 1950s. In the private sector, union density is just 7.5 percent, a figure comparable to that of a century ago. Yet even these stark numbers fail to convey the extent of labor’s crisis. Half the country’s union members (about eight million people) live in just six states—New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and California. The South remains a bastion of anti-unionism, where six states had unionization rates below 5 percent.
The union bureaucracy has sought to overcome its crisis through political solutions via the Democratic Party. And unions did play a major role in Barack Obama’s presidential victory, spending $300 million on the elections and mobilizing enormous numbers of union staff and members. This led labor to look forward to the political spoils—chiefly, the passage of EFCA. But, as usual, organized labor badly overestimated the support of its supposed Democratic friends in Congress and the White House. Instead of using its election field operation to launch a campaign for EFCA, the unions pulled back just as big business geared up. Nevertheless, union leaders continue to look with hope toward the Obama administration for a political solution to their problems—if only because they have no other strategy to deal with the employers’ escalating demands for givebacks.
Indeed, the auto crisis is only the most egregious example of concessions bargaining that has taken place since the onset of the recession in December 2007. For example, Teamster officials reopened a contract at YRC, the parent company of the Yellow and Roadway freight haulers. Union officials agreed to, and workers ratified, a 10 percent cut in pay and mileage compensation. In return, the workers will get part ownership in the company. YRC’s main unionized competitor, ABF, is expected to demand similar givebacks.
Many other companies are pressing similar demands, reported the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), a private research company. Other large contracts set to expire this year include regional grocery store agreements covering 110,000 workers. Overall, contracts covering 2.2 million private-sector workers will come up for negotiation throughout 2009. It should be added that most unions that took major concessions in the last recession of 2001—such as the airlines—have still not overcome the job losses and pay cuts that they took then.
One big showdown could come at AT&T, which demanded concessions this spring in contracts that cover 100,000 workers. Despite $2.6 billion in profits last year, the company recently laid off 12,000 workers. Now management wants health-care concessions that amount to a 7 to 10 percent pay cut. After mobilizing for a possible strike, the CWA allowed an April 4 contract deadline to pass without an agreement, apparently to allow its other contracts with the company to expire to better coordinate bargaining.
A notable exception to this concessions bargaining trend is Boeing Co., where a long strike by machinists last fall forced management to back down on demands for virtually unlimited outsourcing and minor gains on pensions. Boeing’s backlog of orders gave the union leverage despite the slump. Nevertheless, the strike victory did not roll back previous concessions on outsourcing and lower-tier pay for new workers. Moreover, despite a huge backlog of orders for new airplanes, the economic slump has led Boeing to announce 10,000 layoffs.
Meanwhile, in the public-sector, recession-driven budget cuts are leading to layoffs and aggressive management demands at the bargaining table. In New York City, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg has extracted $400 million in health-care concessions from public-sector unions as he pushes to eliminate 2,000 jobs. New York governor David Paterson, a Democrat, backed off a plan to lay off 9,000 state workers, will eliminate 7,000 union jobs through buyouts and attrition, and reduce workers’ retirement benefits. Across the Hudson River, yet another Democrat, New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, also used the threat of layoffs to get state workers’ unions to agree to an eighteen-month wage freeze and ten unpaid furlough days, a giveback worth $304 million. Across the country, in Washington State, Governor Christine Gregoire, another Democrat, submitted a budget that eliminates funds for pay raises that the state had previously negotiated with unions. There are similar examples from other states.
Organized labor’s failure to resist concessions has lowered the living standard of all workers. According to the BNA’s Wage Trend Index, annual wage growth in 2009 will be about 2 percent, as the economy will “eliminate any ability for the vast majority of workers to negotiate higher wages,” said Kathryn Kobe, the economist who worked on the report.
The recession will accelerate the transformation of the U.S. into a low-wage economy—a trend that is already far advanced. As the New York Times’ Louis Uchitelle wrote last year:
The $20 hourly wage, introduced on a huge scale in the middle of the last century, allowed masses of Americans with no more than a high school education to rise to the middle class. It was a marker, of sorts. And it is on its way to extinction…. The decline is greatest in manufacturing, where only 1.9 million hourly workers still earn that much. That’s down nearly 60 percent since 1979, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
What’s more, household income was propped up only because of the increasing role of women in the workforce—that is, it took two (or more) incomes to achieve the living standards that one wage earner could have supported previously.
As the Economic Policy Institute noted with the release of the State of Working America 2008/2009,
although the economy has expanded by 18 percent since 2000, most Americans’ household income does not reflect that growth. Quite the opposite: real income for the median family fell by 1.1 percent from 2000–2006. A small increase in the median family’s hourly wages (1 percent) was more than wiped out by the 2.2 percent drop in annual work hours. Moreover, whatever wage growth occurred since 2000 was based on the momentum from the 1990s recovery—wages did not improve at all over the 2002–07 recovery.
As measured in today’s dollars, the State of Working America authors note, “from 1979 to 2007, wages are up only slightly, from $16.88 in 1979 to $17.42 in 2007, a growth of just 0.1 percent per year over nearly 30 years—virtually stagnant, despite some rapid growth in the late 1990s.”
In the recovery of the 2000s, the share of national income going to profits reached a forty-year high. This change in the distribution of national income, the authors’ estimate, is “the equivalent of transferring $206 billion annually from labor compensation to capital income.”
For African Americans, as always in U.S. capitalism, the system is qualitatively worse, owing to the legacy of slavery and the persistence of racial discrimination. The Black jobless rate in May 2009 hit 14.9 percent. If there is still a controversy among economists whether to call this downturn a recession or depression, in Black America there’s no debate.
In short, U.S. workers are experiencing a rapid and sharp drop in income, employment, and living standards, with slim opportunities for improvement in the foreseeable future. This will have far-reaching social and political consequences. The aim here is to try and frame some of the questions facing the labor movement that will arise from this crisis.
The one-sided class war
The 1960s and 1970s are remembered as the heyday of the civil rights and antiwar movements. But it was also a time of worker rebellions in the “basic industries” of auto, steel, and coal mining as well trucking. Much of a revived revolutionary left threw itself into union organizing. Then came the PATCO strike of 1981. President Ronald Reagan used the full power of the state not only to replace 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, but also to obliterate their union. The signal to employers was clear: It was open season on unions, and “concessions bargaining”—negotiations in which unions surrendered pay and benefits—became the norm.
The obliteration of PATCO also encouraged further government intervention in strikes, from routine injunctions limiting picket lines to violence by police deployed to protect strikebreakers. The National Guard was used to violently break strikes by Arizona copper miners in 1983 and Minnesota meatpackers in UFCW Local P-9 in their heroic 1985–86 strike against wage cuts. A decade later, striking newspaper unions in Detroit abided by court injunctions and violent police tactics that shut down effective, militant mass pickets during the opening weeks of the long Detroit newspaper strikes. In January 2000, South Carolina state troopers attacked a picket line in Charleston, S.C., which led to five longshore workers being placed under house arrest for more than a year until a solidarity campaign forced charges to be dropped.
The heavy hand of the state ensured that most picket lines would remain symbolic rather than active attempts to stop production, as they had been in the militant struggles of the 1930s. Striking unions adopted the slogan, “one day longer” to show their willingness to outlast employers. Workers sacrificed enormously in what were often valiant, but losing, battles, such as the Illinois “War Zone” struggles at food processor A.E. Staley, heavy equipment maker Caterpillar, and tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone.
The big exception to this pattern is the victorious 1997 Teamsters strike at UPS—a big employer was caught flat-footed by workers’ solidarity and widespread pro-union sentiment. UPS could make no serious attempt at strikebreaking. But UPS was able to use its political connections to mount a campaign against then-Teamster president Ron Carey, who was elected on a reform slate. In the months after the strike government overseers of the union removed Carey from office for campaign violations by his staff, even though Carey, who passed away recently, was later cleared of all wrongdoing in federal court.
In the post–PATCO labor movement, the heaviest judicial hammer has come down on Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, which represents 38,000 bus and subway workers in New York City. In 1999, a judge put in place an injunction in which fines of $25,000 for strikers and $1 million against the union would double each day of the strike. After the union did walk out for sixty hours in 2005, a judge imposed a fine of $2.5 million on the local, banned the automatic deduction of union dues from workers’ paychecks, and ordered the brief jailing of union president Roger Toussaint. Local 100—already weakened by ex-reformer Toussaint’s high-handed administration—has yet to recover. The New York injunctions were apparently the template for the judge who banned the planned one-day strike by L.A. teachers. This hard line recalls the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when unions routinely faced “injunction judges,” violent attacks on picket lines by police and armed forces, and naked class justice.
In this environment, unions have all but abandoned the strike as a weapon. In 2008, there were just fifteen work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, compared to 424 in 1974. In the last two decades, there have never been more than fifty-one such work stoppages in a given year. Less union militancy led directly to organizational decline, Moody writes:
[Unions] grew when they fought for something and in particular, as in the 1960s and early 1970s, when they fought to sustain or increase power in the workplace. These days, the notion that growth and militancy have any connection, except possibly a negative one, is angrily dismissed by precisely those who lay the greatest claim to strategies for growth…above all…the SEIU.
A bureaucratic solution to union decline?
Labor’s long crisis led to the victory of John Sweeney’s New Voices team, which took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. Sweeney’s team gave a liberal makeover to the stodgy Cold War federation apparatus, and promised a labor renewal. (Under Sweeney there was also a repackaging of, but not a fundamental change in, the AFL-CIO’s largely government-funded foreign policy operation, notorious for its collaboration with the CIA. That, however, is beyond the scope of this article.)
To survive, Sweeney’s AFL-CIO developed a strategy with four basic elements: (1) encourage mergers with other unions to compensate for shrinking membership; (2) organize in industries that cannot be shipped overseas, such as in health care, hotels, and construction; (3) collaborate with management to try and gain employers’ neutrality in union elections; and (4) pour big money and member activism into electing a Democratic president and Congress in the hope of prolabor legislation.
This approach is pursued by both the AFL-CIO, the historic national labor federation, and the Change to Win (CTW) coalition, which broke away in 2005. It’s a perspective that fits the needs of the top levels of the union bureaucracy. The top union officialdom functions as a buffer between capital and labor, and, in the U.S., most embrace that role enthusiastically. Far removed from the shop floor (if they ever worked there at all—many are lifetime staffers), leading U.S. union officials have a lifestyle and social connections that tie them more closely to management and politicians than to the rank and file. While crises and splits in the union hierarchy can open the door to reform candidates and pressure from the membership, the union bureaucracy will at best vacillate unless pressed forward by rank-and-file action.
And that’s exactly what today’s union leaders are keen to prevent. While their methods differ, both the UAW’s Ron Gettelfinger in the AFL-CIO and SEIU president Andrew Stern in Change to Win have essentially the same goal: create a union machine that is unaccountable to, and impregnable against, the rank and file. Stern’s method is to create gigantic “locals,” often more than 100,000 workers that span one or more states, run by people who were appointed or installed through electoral maneuvers orchestrated by union headquarters. In this way, Stern, argues, SEIU can have the clout to force employers into neutrality agreements. Yet this has most often involved top-down organizing in which the workers are passive, even unknowing, recipients of union membership.
Stern’s scorched-earth effort to destroy the opposition-controlled United Health Care Workers-West with dismemberment and trusteeship is only the biggest and crudest expression of the authoritarian rule that has become the norm in SEIU. Stern’s authoritarianism was on display in April when hundreds of SEIU members were sent to physically attack the Labor Notes union activist conference outside Detroit as part of a dispute with the California Nurses Association (CNA). Stern called off the dogs a year later and made peace with the CNA and its affiliate, the National Nurses Organizing Committee, which led to trades of members in Nevada hospitals, a move that, as union democracy organizer Herman Benson put it, left “nurses on both sides feeling like bartered chips.” This, in turn, was part of a complex regroupment of the CNA and registered nurses into a new 185,000-member union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
The SEIU’s deal with the CNA wasn’t a case of Stern turning softhearted, however. The deal preempted an emerging alliance between the nurses’ union and the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which was founded by leaders and members of the SEIU’s United Health Care Workers-West after the local was put into trusteeship by the SEIU International. In any case, the seamy side of Stern’s regime came to light, as corruption scandals took down two important union leaders in Southern California and another in Michigan.
In defense of these organizing methods, Stern and his supporters claim that workers are more interested in power than democracy. It’s true that SEIU has had major success in organizing mostly immigrant janitors after achieving a breakthrough in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. But as Moody points out, the L.A. janitors’ real wages fell by around 10 percent over the course of two consecutive five-year contracts. More recently, the SEIU policy of “bargaining to organize” has led to strict limits on traditional union workers’ rights, including the right to speak out on bad conditions in nursing homes. The agreements also included a low wage increase and bans on strikes. In Stern’s eyes, the crime of Sal Roselli, who was then president of the SEIU’s United Heathcare Workers-West, was to resist such deals and challenge the SEIU’s approach to partnership. Now head of the new National Union of Healthcare Workers, Roselli has the support of tens of thousands of SEIU members, most of whom, for the moment, are legally prevented from joining the new union, which calls for a fighting, democratic labor movement.
For his part, the UAW’s Gettelfinger is also seeking ways to preserve the bureaucracy by making it as independent from the rank and file as possible. The means to do so was to be the retiree health-care trust fund handed over to the union by GM, Chrysler, and Ford under the terms of the last contract. Now that those funds give the union ownership stakes in GM and Chrysler, the union itself will be the enforcer of harsh working conditions, lower-tier pay, and a ban on strikes.
Of course, unaccountability and hostility to rank-and-file militancy have long been the norm in the U.S. labor bureaucracy. But Stern and Gettelfinger have pushed bureaucratic control to new extremes. Their argument to the rest of the labor movement is that the union machinery must do whatever it takes to survive. In this view, unions must help make employers profitable and minimize, if not eliminate, union democracy in order to permit leaders to make difficult, unpopular decisions. This will allow the unions to survive and rebuild a new base among different sections of workers in nonunion industries. Moody calls Stern’s program “corporate bureaucratic unionism,” a leap beyond even the class collaboration of traditional American business unionism.
The rest of the union bureaucracy hasn’t gone as far in this direction as Stern and Gettelfinger. But many union leaders would do so if they could. Indeed, the issue in the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO had more to do with control over money and resources than any clear-cut differences over labor or political issues. Essentially, Stern and the leaders of the other CTW unions—including unions of workers in health care, food, farms, trucking-driving, and construction sectors—no longer wanted to be dragged down by the declining manufacturing unions that remained in the AFL-CIO. Splitting the federation didn’t resolve those issues; neither will the proposed reunification ahead of the AFL-CIO convention set for later this year.
Another failure for labor law reform?
Whether or not they reunite, the AFL-CIO and CTW are both focused on trying to pass EFCA. The employers have made it clear that they will do whatever it takes to prevent this “armageddon,” as the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called it. But the shift of momentum to the employers recalls labor’s last two failed attempts to pass labor law reform under Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter in 1978 and Bill Clinton in 1994, which went nowhere despite Democratic control of Congress.60
Some in the labor movement have criticized EFCA as an effort to substitute a legal mechanism for the hard work of organizing the unorganized. Certainly, EFCA in itself wouldn’t overcome all the problems that have hindered union organizing for decades: bureaucratic, top-down methods that use arbitrary checklists and timelines rather than cultivating and encouraging rank-and-file militants over the long term; jurisdictional disputes that pit rival unions against one another as they compete for “hot” shops; and a reluctance to use job actions and other militant tactics to pressure employers.
Jerry Tucker, a former UAW regional director from the New Directions reform caucus and a leading labor activist, argues that EFCA won’t automatically make it easier to organize unions. “I would take it back to labor’s culture,” he says, “its actual activity and what it represents to workers. Organized labor doesn’t represent a movement at this point that workers can attach themselves to—where they feel a certain sense of upsurge or upward momentum.” Moreover, EFCA wouldn’t necessarily lead to the kind of strategic focus needed to rebuild the U.S. labor movement. Crucially, no union has been willing to commit the resources necessary to organize (or reorganize) the critical supply chains of trucks, trains, and warehouses that are integral to today’s just-in-time production methods. (The failure of the Teamsters’ poorly planned and ineptly run 1999-2002 strike for unionization at the Overnite trucking company—now UPS Freight—highlighted this failure.)
The most import thing about EFCA or similar legislation is that it could reinforce the idea that there’s a federally protected right for workers to organize. As in the 1930s, when organizers used New Deal legislation to claim “your president wants you to join a union,” today’s union officials and rank-and-file activists could use EFCA to encourage workers to be confident to organize. They can use Barack Obama’s own words as justification. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) took an important step in this direction when it used the EFCA debate to relaunch its effort to organize Wal-Mart.
But even the best labor law reforms won’t overcome the crisis of organized labor. As U.S. labor history demonstrates, unionization has increased not in small increments, but in great upsurges of struggle, as in the 1930s.
Immigration and the unions
Amid the latest escalation of the employers’ relentless war on labor there are also signs of the possibility of renewal. On May 1, 2006, millions of immigrants and their supporters marched in cities across the U.S. against proposed federal legislation that would have criminalized the estimated 12 to 14 million undocumented people in the United States. In response, immigrant labor took to the streets. As Moody points out, companies in industries heavily dependent on immigrant labor—from the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach truck drivers to meatpackers to textiles and landscaping services—were shut down for the day, demonstrating the power of immigrant labor in those sectors. These actions revived May Day, International Labor Day, in the country where it began during the struggle for the eight-hour day in 1886. The marches were won of the biggest displays of workers’ power seen in the U.S. in many years.
The impact of the immigrant rights demonstrations underscored big demographic changes in the U.S. population—especially in the working class. Moody sees the new prominence of immigrant labor as evidence of a third great demographic transformation in the U.S. working class, following the earlier wave of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century and the changes wrought in the mid-twentieth century by the mass African American migration into the cities, the North, and industry, and the large-scale entry of women into the workforce. Each of these changes posed challenges to organized labor, which sometimes rose to the occasion (uniting white and African American workers in the old CIO mass production industries, for example) but often did not. Today, he notes, “immigrants are already attempting to organize in a variety of ways. The question is, are the strategies and structures of today’s unions fit for the job?”
To be sure, many unions, especially the SEIU and UNITE HERE, have for many years sought to organize immigrant workers. Those efforts resulted in a historic policy shift in the AFL-CIO in 2000, when the union’s executive council voted to call for amnesty for undocumented workers. This is a big break with the past, when most unions saw immigrant labor as a threat and supported restrictions on immigration. In 2003, the HERE union of hotel workers helped organize “Immigrant Freedom Rides” across the U.S., linking the historic struggle of African Americans for civil rights to immigrants’ willingness to struggle.
But even as the immigrant rights movement erupted in 2006, labor became consumed in a debate over whether to support employer programs for a guest-worker program. The SEIU and UNITE HERE favored this approach, collaborating with employer organizations to advance the agenda; the AFL-CIO opposed it. It wasn’t until President Obama began pushing for immigration reform legislation that the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federations agreed on an approach that opposes guest-worker programs and proposes a national commission to decide on future levels of immigration of permanent and temporary workers.
This is a step forward from supporting guest workers, even if it fails to live up the AFL-CIO amnesty position of 2000. But the unions are still far from coming to grips with the changes that immigration has brought to the U.S. working class—and the potential to organize in a radically different way. In the big May Day marches of 2006 and 2007 in Chicago, for example, unions easily could have passed out flyers announcing informational meetings in immigrant neighborhoods in and around the city to explain how the marchers could unionize their workplaces. The self-organization that enabled uncounted numbers of workers to negotiate with bosses for time off—or together plan not to show up—could have been the starting point for workplace organization.
However, most union officials, locked into the narrowest cost-benefit analysis of organizing, simply couldn’t grasp the fact that immigrant workers were willing and able to organize themselves. Other union officials may have understood that potential—but were unwilling or unable to give their full backing to a movement that was beyond their control.
A key focus of Moody’s U.S. Labor in Trouble is the shift in production to the South. While there certainly has been a shift in jobs overseas, the numbers are questionable, Moody points out, because much of the job loss is the result of technological change that makes a smaller number of workers vastly more productive. As a result, even though the number of manufacturing workers in the U.S. now stands at 12.3 million—a drop of 5 million over the past decade—the U.S. remains a fundamentally industrial economy: “the ratio of service output to goods and structures, as the government measures these, has not changed much in almost half a century…. The industrial core remains the sector on which the majority of economic activity is dependent. Hence it is the power center of the system.”
The continued centrality of production could allow U.S. manufacturing unions to retain their clout, despite job losses. But the unions have not only failed to maintain wages and conditions in their historic bastions, they’ve been unable to follow work into nonunion facilities, particularly the South. Here labor is paying a steep price for its historic failure to confront racism directly during the era of Jim Crow segregation. In the late 1940s, the old CIO’s Operation Dixie organizing drive was stillborn as Southern employers used both racism and anticommunism to attack any and all efforts to organize Black and white workers. “Only a confrontation,” writes labor historian Sharon Smith, “with Southern white supremacy could have paved the way for organizing success.” But the CIO at that time was busy purging and raiding the left-led unions that were willing to take on that challenge, and its support for the Democratic Party made it incapable of challenging the party’s segregationist Southern wing.
As a result, in the postwar era the South became an attractive locale for both U.S. and foreign capital. The region has become home to most of the auto “transplants” owned by German and Japanese companies, all of which are nonunion despite repeated efforts by the UAW to organize workers. The picture is similar in other industries: by 2000, 30 percent of manufacturing jobs were in the South.
Even where labor has made inroads in the South, the unions’ pursuit of corporate partnership and aversion to rank-and-file activism has been ill-suited to the fierce resistance they’ve encountered. A particularly telling example of this is the struggle of the Freightliner Five, leaders of a UAW local at truck plant in North Carolina. When the workers led a brief strike in April 2007, they were fired. Four of the workers had been leaders of the organizing committee that helped compel the company to recognize the UAW a few years earlier. Yet rather than defend these militant, diverse leaders—three of the workers are Black, one is a woman—the UAW excluded them from membership by the union local president. Two got their jobs and union memberships restored in arbitration.
An important exception to labor’s losing streak in the South was the UFCW’s organizing campaign at the huge Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C. Despite years of setbacks through company violations of union election laws, firings of union militants, and general repression—including an in-plant jail—the union prevailed. Key to this was outreach through workers’ centers to both immigrant and African-American employees, and on-the-job organizing that made the union’s presence felt. Long before the union officially won the right to represent employees, the union became a resource for immigrant workers coping with the threat—or reality—of job loss and deportation by supporting a walkout against a raid. For Black workers, the union was key to the successful fight to win Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday.
Reviving social movement and class-struggle unionism
The Smithfield victory provides a glimpse of how labor can win even against a hostile employer. But labor’s unwillingness to embrace social movement unionism—among immigrant workers and in general—highlights the larger reasons behind the unions’ repeated failure to organize the unorganized. As Kim Moody explained:
While the blame for so many not getting a chance to choose a union lies heavily with the employers and a broken [National Labor Relations Board], the labor leadership must take a good deal of collective responsibility. This isn’t just the lack of organizing effort by many unions, but the long-standing, top-down business union practices (or worse) of most of those who are organizing in the private sector. You can’t be a union member unless you are, or are about to be, part of a recognized bargaining unit. You can’t even be part of an organizing drive these days unless your employer was targeted by the strategists at union HQ. If you are part of an organizing effort that fails (by card check or election) you’re out. If the union wins recognition but fails to get a first contract and gets decertified, you’re out even if you voted to keep the union. All of these practices are self-imposed, none are required by law. There are a handful of unions that are now practicing non-majority unionism, such as the UE and CWA. And the AFL-CIO and some unions have given a measure of recognition to worker centers and immigrant workers. But most top union leaders don’t want members or allies who aren’t under their control. This needs to change.
The example of UE should be emphasized. Once the largest union in the old Congress of Industrial Organizations founded in the 1930, it was decimated in the late 1940s and 1950s by a series of splits and raids orchestrated by rival unions because of its left-wing leadership that included members of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, UE has survived as a small but vigorous independent national union of about 35,000 members, one that has in recent decades focused heavily on immigrant workers.
UE’s militant and democratic approach to trade unionism was vindicated in December 2008 during the successful six-day occupation at the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in Chicago. The occupation was organized by workers to demand severance pay after the company announced that the business was closing its doors. Overnight, a factory occupation—something usually reserved for labor history books on the 1930s and nostalgic speeches at union conventions—became a focal point for working-class resistance amid a profound economic crisis. The widespread attention to the fight even inspired a California “green” window manufacturer to buy the plant, with plans to hire most, if not all, Republic workers.
That militancy didn’t develop overnight. Republic workers had decertified two conservative and corrupt unions before joining UE in order to build a fighting, democratic union. Those years of struggle laid the basis for the battle of December 2008. By day three of the occupation, the importance of this fight was clear to millions of working people across the United States. “This is the end of an era in which corporate greed is the rule,” said James Thindwa, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice. “This is the start of something new.”
Crucially, the Republic workers—most of them Latino immigrants, a minority African Americans—became the faces and voices of the U.S. working class as it faced the worst economic slump in seventy years. At a spirited December 9 rally of several hundred outside the occupied plant, UE Local 110 President Armando Robles got an especially loud cheer when he declared, “We are America,” a popular slogan from the immigrant marches of 2006. This time, it was a reference to the entire working-class majority in the United States.
Rebuilding the labor movement in a changing working class
Does the Republic Windows workers’ victory represent, to borrow the overused cliché from the business press, the first “green shoots” of a recovery for labor? Or will the UAW’s epic collapse foreshadow yet another series of retreats and defeats for the unions? Can the independent National Union of Healthcare Workers establish a model of democratic, member-driven, militant unionism? Or will the SEIU’s corporate-style gigantism predominate, as shrinking unions seek mergers for survival in a perverse realization of the old Industrial Workers of the World dream of creating “one big union?”
These questions can only be answered in the struggles of the months and years ahead. But what is already clear is that the depth and length of the economic crisis means that organized labor will have to fight like hell to just to keep its ground, let alone advance. But reviving class-struggle unionism—to use another term from labor’s past—will be a painstaking task. Complicating the process is the fact that the generation that led the last wave of labor resistance in the 1970s is nearing retirement or is out of the workforce already due to job loss. And given the low level of union struggle since PATCO, a younger generation has little or no experience of unions as fighting organizations. As some academic labor relations experts noted, “the reduction of strike activity has created an environment in which the general public, and perhaps some union members have little conception of what a strike is or does.”
Resistance, nevertheless, continues. Crisis-driven government budget cuts in the months and years ahead makes public-sector strikes in particular more likely. Teachers are in the crosshairs, as the crisis combines with the “school reform” agenda to give school boards additional leverage to attack seniority, impose merit pay, and create nonunion charter schools. Private employers too are using the crisis to push for givebacks that finally forces a showdown, as several long, recent strikes, such as the one at the Stella D’oro bakery in New York City.
The potential for a labor victory that could change the dynamics is there. Certainly the Los Angeles political establishment was relieved at the judge’s order that banned a teachers’ strike, lest it become a popular rallying point for working people fed up with attacks on the education of working-class kids.
Other elements of labor revival may well come outside the established unions altogether. Moody calls attention to the network of workers’ centers that meet the needs of nonunion workers, often immigrants, to help pursue wage-and-hours claims and assert their legal rights. He also points to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the organization of nonunion immigrant tomato-pickers who waged a successful campaign to force Taco Bell, the corporate customer for their tomatoes, to pay a higher price to finance higher workers’ wages. McDonald’s surrendered next. To this list could be added the Starbucks Workers Union (SWU), a project of the IWW. Although it lacks formal collective bargaining rights and represents workers in a relative handful of stores, the SWU has, through tenacious organizing, made gains on the job, reversed firings of union activists, and won precedent-setting cases before the National Labor Relations Board.
These creative efforts highlight the possibility for new organizing. Yet there also needs to be a strategic focus to rebuilding the unions in the heart of production and distribution. For it is there that workers have the greatest leverage to reverse the decline of their class and begin to make gains.
This point is rightly emphasized by Moody. He points out that the lean production system—minimizing inventories, for example—has created several choke points for U.S. industry. To rebuild their muscle, unions must reconquer, or conquer anew, lost ground in the ports, on trucks, in the warehouses and on the railways. At the same time, unions have to finally make the commitment to organize Southern industry, a task that will require an explicit commitment to fighting racism, long-term preparation, and, ultimately, courageous actions that draw upon the traditions of the civil rights movement. Opposition to racism will be essential in efforts to both organize immigrant workers and serve as their advocates amid xenophobic attacks from the right as it seeks scapegoats for the current crisis.
Entering such battles will require a kind of politics very different from that put forward by union officials, who typically follow the dominant trends inside the Democratic Party. What’s needed is independent working-class politics. This doesn’t mean prematurely declaring the existence of a workers’ party, but rather building on the basis of political independence of the working class. This will necessarily be a long-term project, one that applies the lessons of labor’s largely buried radical history to new conditions.
For that reason, the new debate on socialism in U.S. politics should be taken up inside the labor movement. While socialism re-entered political discussion as a right-wing epithet for Barack Obama’s policies, there is a genuine interest in socialism as an alternative to today’s crisis-ridden system. Left-wing labor activists should seize the moment to bring socialist politics into the workplace—not only as a vision of a more egalitarian and democratic society in the future, but as a way to inform how workers organize and fight today.
To be effective militants today, union activists need to assimilate the lessons of previous generations of socialists who rejected labor-management partnership and promoted class-struggle, social-movement unionism. It was those socialists, communists, and other militants, not the established union leaders, who led the battles that transformed the U.S. labor movement. The 1934 general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco and the sit-down strikes in auto and other industries a few years later couldn’t have happened without that rank-and-file upsurge. The expansion of public-sector unionism in the 1960s couldn’t have been achieved without the civil rights and Black Power struggles that involved and inspired millions of African-American workers.
In today’s crisis, as Sam Gindin argues, the survival of organized labor—let alone its revival—will require bold new approaches:
This is an historic moment that challenges us to think big or suffer even worse defeats. Faced with immediate needs, workers and their union have too often shied away from taking on larger issues of social change that seemed too abstract, too distant, too intimidating. The lesson however is that if we only focus on the immediate, the options we have are always limited. We are all now paying the price of that failure to think bigger…. In this context, what is truly unrealistic is not new options, but the notion that stumbling through the present crisis will preserve past gains or bring new security.
Where and when the next upsurge will come is impossible to predict. But with capitalism in a protracted crisis—and the system more discredited than in any time in decades—the conditions for a fightback are developing. And despite the catastrophe in the auto industry and the seemingly endless stream of bad news for workers, the Republic Windows and Doors victory points the way towards a renewed, fighting labor movement. Melvin “Ricky” Maclin, vice president of UE Local 1110, spoke for millions of workers the night that the Republic workers won:
I feel wonderful. I feel validated as a human being. Everybody is so overjoyed. This is significant because it shows workers everywhere that we do have a voice in this economy. Because we’re the backbone of this country. It’s not the CEOs. It’s the working people.
Lee Sustar is the labor editor of Socialist Worker and a frequent contributor to the ISR.
Source (with footnotes): International Socialist Review