Labor Advocate Online

‘New Unity’ or Six Feet Under? Where Is the AFL-CIO Going?
The Leadership Debate and the Underlying Issues

by David Jones

This article was furnished by Labor Standard. A version of this article also appears in the March 2005 edition of Socialist Action newspaper. For a one-year subscription, send $8 to Socialist Action, 298 Valencia St., San Francisco, California 94103.

The present decline of membership in U.S. unions to 8.2 percent of those working for private employers is the low point of the past century. This fact has been cited frequently in the current debate about reforming the structure of organized labor—a debate initiated by a section of the AFL-CIO leadership.

Union membership rose to 35 percent in the early 1950s, the highest in the century. These contrasting proportions are often taken as self-evident proof that labor has fallen on hard times. But this should be the beginning of the discussion, not the end. Why should 35 percent be implicitly accepted as the gold standard for U.S. union density?

U.S. unions at their historic peak only succeeded in getting one-third of the working class enrolled under collective bargaining agreements. What kind of glass ceiling did the drive for union organization that began in the mid-1930s hit at the end of World War II? Why did the decline proceed continuously downward throughout the succeeding decades?

Only by answering these questions can we fully grasp the interplay of social, economic, and political forces that determine the relationships between classes and the organizations they create to defend their interests.

How the Trade Unions Grew
The trade union movement of the first three and a half decades of the 20th century was essentially a voluntary association, with no dues check-off or legally mandated collective bargaining and representation. It was also overwhelmingly made up of white male private-sector workers, and until the late 1930s it enrolled no significant part of the industrial mass production work force, other than the Brewery Workers and the United Mine Workers of America.

(Often unrecorded in estimates of early 20th-century trade union membership is the “rebel” Industrial Workers of the World, which presented itself as a militant, politically-minded alternative to the official brand of “pure and simple” trade unionism.)

By the onset of World War I, the labor movement reached about the same percentage levels of union density as today, and a wartime government policy allowed it to grow to nearly 20 percent by 1919. After bottoming out in the depth of the Depression, it rose again as a result of the great battles and mobilizations of the latter part of the decade, culminating in the semi-revolutionary 1936-37 sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint.

The employers’ ferocious counteroffensive, most notably the defeat in the “Little Steel” strike, with the brutal Memorial Day massacre at Republic Steel in Chicago (in May-June 1937, largely stalemated the CIO’s advance. At the end of the decade, even after the great labor battles of 1934-37, union density had risen no further than 21% (an increase of 7 percent from 1933).

As the Roosevelt administration ramped up war production, beginning in 1940, a government policy of encouraging union membership in the expanding war industries, similar to that of World War I, increased union density through 1945 up to almost 34 percent—an increase of 11 percent. That was nearly one and one-half times the gains made in the 1930s through direct and semi-revolutionary struggle.

This quantitative success and the enforced social peace of the World War II era—defined by tripartite government-labor-employer boards, no-strike pledges, etc., taking the place of the class struggles of 1934-37—more than anything shaped the psychology of the union bureaucracy and still does, down to the present day.

Furthermore, the inability of the CIO—and the unwillingness of its central leadership—to utilize the stupendous labor upsurge of the 1930s to build an independent working-class party as an alternative to reliance on Roosevelt and the Democratic Party New Deal, left the union movement politically disarmed against the corporate and government attacks that multiplied at the close of the war. The AFL-CIO bureaucracy’s alliance with the Democrats has served to demobilize the union ranks to this day.

After World War II, the employers and their government dug in their heels against further expansion of unionism, riding out the greatest strike wave in U.S. history in 1945-46, passing the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, and witch-hunting radicals out of the unions. From 1945 to 1953 union density increased only by a further 2 percent—largely due to increased war production as a result of the Korean War.

The idea that a “social contract” of relative class peace emerged with the post-World War II prosperity (which is the general assumption) is misleading. The employers gave only what they were forced to give as a direct result of the wave of struggles from 1934 to 1937, peaking, of course, with the wave of sit-downs in 1937 following Flint.

By 1938 the employers were already moving to break the labor upsurge, and even beginning to experiment with fascism. (A good example of this was the experience of Teamsters Local 544 with the Silver Shirts in Minneapolis in the late 1930s, as described by Farrell Dobbs in his book Teamster Power.)

Roosevelt had also begun in 1938 to deploy the FBI in internal security for the first time since 1924. FBI intervention into Local 544 began in Minneapolis in 1938, with the FBI-created Committee of 100. What this should attest to is the provisional and limited nature of any union victories under capitalism, and the fact that the employers are never reconciled in any but a temporary sense to any concessions they are forced to make.

The further expansion of union membership from 1939 to 1945 was a product of a trade-off. In return for the labor bureaucracy’s support for the imperialist war the employers’ government allowed the unions to exist and grow. The employers were also willing to utilize the newly created union bureaucracy as policemen enforcing labor peace in war industry and transportation through the well-known devices of “maintenance of membership,” no-strike pledges, etc. (For a detailed account of these wartime arrangements, see Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO, a history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO. As most readers of this magazine probably know, the CIO was founded in 1935 as a split-off from the American Federation of Labor, or AFL, and in 1955 merged again with the AFL to form today’s AFL-CIO.)

Stagnation and Decline
The decline in absolute numbers of union members began in 1975, falling by about one-half from 24 million to today’s 15 million or so. The onset of this trend (1975) is pretty close to what is generally agreed upon as the end of the post-World War II U.S. economic expansion, undermined by renewed competition from a rebuilt Europe and Japan.

This was the beginning of a concerted effort to drive back the gains of labor registered over the preceding four decades. In 1979 the United Autoworkers Union took a crucial and, up to then, unprecedented step backwards by agreeing to exclude the “bankrupt” Chrysler Corporation from joint bargaining in auto. The following year, the Reagan administration destroyed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers union (PATCO).

The UAW’s concession, granted by one of the largest and most influential unions to the nation’s largest manufacturing industry, unleashed a centrifugal trend leading to a general unraveling of industry-wide bargaining and contracts through the succeeding decades. And throughout the 1980s, episodic and mostly spontaneous plant gate confrontations failed to stem the first massive utilization of strikebreakers in decades, as aggressive employers broke from the collective bargaining pattern of several decades and took their lead from the PATCO defeat.

At the George A. Hormel Co. in Austin, Minnesota, the high point of the 1980s resistance occurred, as a highly mobilized and democratic struggle emerged and inspired millions. But the striking Local P-9 packinghouse workers were ultimately unable to overcome an alliance of the courts, government, military force, and betrayal by the international union officialdom.

All this took place in the face of general stagnation, passivity, and complacency in the upper ranks of organized labor, typified by the moribund regime of Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president from 1979 to 1995. As the hemorrhaging of membership continued unabated into the 1990s, a section of the AFL-CIO Executive Council supported the candidacy of John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for AFL-CIO president. Sweeney defeated the old regime’s favorite son in a virtually unprecedented election contest.

The Sweeney program projected new and aggressive organizing to reverse the downward trend in membership. Since then, hundreds of new organizers, predominantly social activists from the campuses, have been recruited to the staffs of numerous unions as well as the Federation (that is, the AFL-CIO national staff).

Nonetheless, union membership has continued to drop uninterruptedly throughout the Clinton and Bush administrations. The newly energized organizing efforts have been checkmated by employer intransigence, the sabotage of the National Labor Relations Board, and the adamant refusal of the union bureaucracy to mobilize the union membership to confront these factors decisively in action.

Major Unions Seek Changes
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in a tacit coalition with other top-rank AFL-CIO reformers, recently projected a goal of far-reaching transformation of the AFL-CIO through its so-called New Unity Partnership (founded in the summer of 2003, but recently dissolved, in January 2005, after the current AFL-CIO debate began to unfold).

The SEIU leadership asserts that “American workers are at a crossroads.” It urges workers and supporters of the goals of organized labor to “join the debate on how to build new strength and unity for working people.” It set out a 10-point program as a basis for discussion, and created a special web site for this discussion:

SEIU President Andrew Stern, as the head of the largest AFL-CIO union in the United States, is generally considered to be the most powerfully equipped pusher for changes in the AFL-CIO that might reverse labor’s decline in membership.

While SEIU’s unitetowin web site did not explicitly take up any proposal for altering the composition of the AFL-CIO leadership, it is generally believed that Stern intends to support John Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division of UNITE-HERE as the Federation’s next president.

UNITE-HERE is the product of the recent merger between the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE) and UNITE, which was at the time of the merger the last remaining independent clothing and textile workers union. UNITE’s President Bruce Raynor was made president of the merged union, while Wilhelm, who brought a considerably larger membership to the merger, has presumably been reserved for a run for AFL-CIO president at the next convention.

Wilhelm, as HERE president, played a crucial role in the late 1990s in changing the AFL-CIO’s position on immigrant workers, and even undocumented workers, from one of exclusion to one of solidarity.

While this change, driven by the insistence of HERE and SEIU, which operate in industries with huge numbers of immigrant workers, can hardly be taken as an epiphanic conversion to international working-class solidarity on the part of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, it is nonetheless a genuine and significant change from a historically reactionary position—the one really fundamental alteration in the Federation’s program, since it grudgingly and gradually accepted the legitimacy of industrial unionism after the great upsurge of the 1930s.

Raynor, Stern, and Wilhelm all attended Ivy League colleges, proceeding from activity in the 1960s New Left to union staff, and were eventually elected to leadership positions in their respective unions. While all three had reputations as reformers and advocates of new organizing, none, as far as is known, were associated with rank-and-file labor reform movements advocating greater union democracy and militant action.

Nonetheless, they are now emerging as the primary advocates of reshaping the Federation, and its affiliated unions, in order to address the unions’ crisis of declining membership, reduced political influence, and ability to obtain contracts delivering better wages and benefits.

The Union Bureaucracy, a Social Caste
The most recent concerted attempt to reinvent the AFL-CIO was in 1995, when Sweeney successfully ran against 72-year old Lane Kirkland. The bureaucracy that has ruled the Federation for over 100 years has generally appeared to select its central executive through principles akin to apostolic succession. Since its creation it has had only five presidents, while even the English monarchy has had six incumbents on the throne, and 21 presidents have occupied the White House.

Samuel Gompers, the founder and first president of the AFL, was also the last chief executive whom the bureaucracy acknowledged as a preeminent leader of labor. The constituent “international” unions, which finance the federation through per capita dues payments, have preferred Gompers’s successors to be mediocre placeholders. So the contested election in 1995 and the continuing tensions expressed in the new proposals for change signify a real and unabating crisis of confidence and perspective among the union chiefs and their associates.

The union bureaucracy is far more than a simple aggregation of elected leaders and staff of greater or lesser ability, commitment, integrity, and vision. Key to understanding its inner dynamics is recognition that the union bureaucracy is a distinct social caste, generally with superior wages, tenure, and conditions of life, compared to those of the dues-paying members. Historically this privileged status has been expressed above all in the bureaucracy’s identification of the basic function of the unions with its own perpetuation and self-preservation.

The bureaucracy’s innate self-interests emerge and are continuously refined by its increasing independence from the union ranks and its close interaction with the employers. Massive and independent action by the rank and file, which is the key ingredient for change, inevitably carries with it the additional possibility of regime change within the unions and the displacement of elected and unelected officeholders from their posts.

The SEIU New Unity Program
It is evident that people like Stern, Wilhelm, and Raynor express a sense of urgency concerning the deep crisis in organized labor deriving from their personal political commitment to social change and a lifetime engagement in the labor movement. Their setting out of programmatic proposals for change before a wide audience, and in advance of and independent of any declared candidates for higher office in the Federation, can only be viewed as positive and virtually unprecedented.

Nonetheless, it is hard to derive much from the ten points of the New Unity program other than general statements on the order of:

• “Good jobs are the foundation of strong and healthy families and communities”

• “Using political action to create opportunities for more workers to unite with us and then using that new strength to change workers’ lives through legislation and bargaining is a proven and essential strategy.”

• “The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions and allies should unite behind an all-out strategy to win access to quality health care.”

Where it does advance specific proposals, they are essentially administrative in character, and involve not much more than a reallocation of resources and authority within the federation. 

• The AFL-CIO should establish a center to support “Winning good jobs” and should allocate all of its $25 million annual royalties from Union Plus credit card purchases.

• “Far more resources and focus must be dedicated to organizing.”

• “The AFL-CIO Executive Council should have the authority to recognize up to three lead national unions that have the membership, resources, focus and strategy to win in a defined industry, craft or employer…”

• “The AFL-CIO should have the authority to require coordinated bargaining and to merge or revoke union charters, transfer responsibilities to unions for whom that industry or union is their primary area of strength and prevent any merger that would further divide worker’s strength.” (My emphasis-DJ)

• “The AFL-CIO should return to those (lead) unions half of what they pay now in AFL-CIO dues...reallocating at least $2 billion over the next five years for uniting more workers.”

Another proposal, endorsed by 12 city/county-based central body presidents, supports combining central bodies in 75 metropolitan areas into “regional labor federations.” The NUP pointed out that of more than 500 central bodies chartered by the AFL-CIO only 44 have full-time staff or officers.

The intent here is to assemble “appropriate resources” and “good staff” to “build an effective local political program focused on electing labor candidates.” There is no indication that “electing labor candidates” is intended to mean anything more than the usual vote-hustling for labor-endorsed candidates of the two old parties.

An Intra-Bureaucratic Struggle
All these proposals, and even others not discussed here, are bereft of any new ideas, and not fundamentally addressed to the rank-and file-members, though their launching on their respective interactive websites certainly blows a few new winds throughout organized labor.

Protectionism and electing labor’s “friends” were Gompers’s solutions. While the federation has recently abandoned the third leg of Gompers’s stool, blocking new immigration, obtaining new members through the administrative solution of hiring even more idealistic and low-paid organizers off the campuses has not been notably successful in the 10 years since the Sweeney administration began to implement this perspective.

The acceleration of the present trend of consolidation of local unions into suffocating district and state structures, and the amalgamation of city-based central bodies into staff-driven regional apparatuses is eliminating many of the few remaining places in the bureaucratized U.S. labor movement where the rank and file can speak up, and speak to each other.

When the union bureaucrats accuse each other of putting forward top-down, administrative proposals for change, it must be conceded that they are all correct. It is not hard to see within this an intra-bureaucratic struggle over declining union resources.

Bill Lucy, head of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, says, “They want bigger unions. They want power players, big unions in charge. The end result is a diminution of community power.”

Lucy, who is secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), also a big union, sees the diminishing of the weight of city central bodies as reducing the influence of African Americans, who make up 30 percent of organized labor in urban centers.

The SEIU proposal is scornfully rejected by International Association of Machinists (IAM) President Tom Buffenbarger, who says unions need to spend more money on public relations and media, emulating, he suggests, the politician-centered pressure campaigns the National Rifle Association employs with apparent success. He calls SEIU’s Stern a “small peacock” trying to “corporatize the labor movement.”

Buffenbarger, whose union is still prosperous enough to fly him around the country in its own Lear jet, proposes an end to free trade—that is, establishing protectionism for the IAM’s employers. That’s his solution to labor’s shrinking manufacturing base, a reactionary utopia that allows union officers to campaign for reelection while wrapping themselves in the Yankee flag and appealing to national and racial chauvinism.

In the end, the dispute, whatever its exact form, will be settled by a per capita vote for president at the next convention of the Federation, and whoever ends up in charge will get to try out their particular administrative solution, which, it can be confidently predicted, will not solve anything.

The question of organizing is fundamentally a political, not administrative question. Undoubtedly politically sophisticated leaders like Stern, Wilhelm, Raynor, and others know this. Nonetheless, after decades in the coils of the union bureaucracy, they are ultimately incapable of coming up with anything other than administrative proposals larded with perhaps well-meaning, but vague and general New Left rhetoric. Absent, including from the leaders nurtured in the New Left, is even a suggestion of political mass mobilization of the Federation’s membership for immediate goals. Didn’t they learn anything in the 1960s? Why not, for example, call for a labor-initiated march on Washington in defense of Social Security? Even the old Kirkland leadership managed to pull off an immense demonstration in Washington in 1981 after the PATCO defeat.

The Practical Side’
As the American socialist leader James P Cannon said so aptly 65 years ago, the union bureaucrat “may not know much about the historical, philosophical, and theoretical aspects of the ‘capitalist system,’ but he has a damn good hunch about the practical side of the question. What he lacks in knowledge of the law of value and the automatic regulation of prices, he makes up in mother wit and good old-fashioned horse sense; he figures a system which makes it possible for a man to simply lean back on his haunches and bellow at regular intervals that ‘all is well’ and then find an annual check of $20,000 (in 1940—D.J.) in his hand—that is a first-class system no matter what you call it.”

Power from Below
Why, one might ask, if additional resources are needed to revitalize organized labor through new organizing, can’t they be reallocated from the budgets and human resources of the swollen union apparatuses? The old AFL unions for the most part got by on far less. As one participant recalled, “...old fashioned unions operated from...dumps, with roll-top desks and maybe high bookkeeper’s stools—when the more ambitious rented a floor or two in an office building or owned an unpretentious building far from big-business structures it didn’t presume to ape.”

To ask the question is to answer it. The Xanadus and marble palaces the present-day union bureaucracies dwell in, mostly in Washington, D.C., where they attempt to mimic the governmental bureaucracies that are their conscious or unconscious models, are really the gravamen of the present crisis.

The present “crisis” is really a bureaucratic crisis. It does not take a lot of insight to perceive that fundamentally all the “solutions” are directed to and driven by the diminishing resources available to maintaining the apparatuses in full employment, with generous salaries and perquisites. Even if they wanted to, Stern, Raynor, and Wilhelm cannot separate themselves from the tentacles of the bureaucracies that nurtured their careers.

None of the AFL-CIO makeover proposals offers or even seeks an explanation for what factors have driven the varying levels of union membership over the past century. It is essentially left as self-evident that bigger resources produce more members. The ahistorical context of the discussion leaves out the actual social and political dynamics of the process and reduces it to a simple-minded syllogism that “more members = more money = more members.”

As ought to be evident, the power and creativity that have driven the labor movement throughout the past century have come from below, in mass mobilization and direct action. Inescapably, such mobilization and action must be initiated and led by radicals and youth inspired by a vision of a new society. This is the only vital source from which revitalized unions can emerge—as a new global economy both undermines historic gains and simultaneously creates a broader material basis for a new international labor movement.

For a rank-and-file rebellion to assume coherent and effective form, it will be necessary for it to crystallize around a class-struggle trade-union program that is based on the fundamental recognition that gains for the workers can only come through the independent actions of the workers themselves—and in an all-out struggle against the employers and their government.

For the concepts of class struggle and class independence to once again penetrate the conscious thinking of masses of workers, and for them to become a lever to move millions into struggle, they must link up the immediate and urgent needs of the workers with clear proposals for what can be done—proposals that make sense to workers at their present level of understanding. This general programmatic conception can be centered on four basic ideas—solidarity, class independence, union democracy, and proletarian methods of struggle.

These ideas can be defined more concretely:

Solidarity: “All workers must unite in action for the common good.” This can be expressed, naturally, in many forms. One crucial front is industrial solidarity, expressed through industry-wide pattern agreements that prevent employers from playing one group off against another. The employers from the 1980s onward have struck devastating blows against almost every industrial master agreement. Multi-tier wage agreements are another form of breaking down industrial solidarity. Going beyond union contracts, even the projection of the possibility and desirability of an independent labor party based on the unions would dramatically express a renewed solidarity of organized labor with all workers

• Class independence: The workers should rely on themselves and their own power and place no confidence in anyone else—politicians, “good employers,” sympathetic cops, judges, lawyers, investors, and so on. The workers themselves, and nobody else, should have and assert the right to make all decisions affecting themselves.

Union democracy: All decisions should be made through free and open discussion and the vote of all concerned and those decisions should be decisive and binding. The rank and file should be fully informed of all matters affecting their interests.

Proletarian methods of struggle: Only the massive, direct, and independent intervention of the rank and file, not shrinking from confrontation with the forces of “law and order,” can win decisive victories. Allies should be sought out from the working class as a whole, employed and unemployed alike.

Anyone with some familiarity with the working class knows that these concepts express how workers feel when their rights and needs are being challenged. Concrete and realistic proposals based on these considerations and sensitive to the moods and perceptions of the workers in a situation of general ferment can overcome bureaucratic obstacles and hesitations and be translated into mass action. It ought to be obvious that these concepts are intertwined with each other and form a coherent whole.

As Farrell Dobbs, a central leader of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, wrote in 1966, “There can be no solution short of building a leadership based on class-struggle concepts, a leadership that emerges from a left wing dedicated to the basic perspective of rank and file control over all union affairs. Through such close ties between leadership and membership the full power of the working class can be mobilized. In action the workers will demonstrate their courage, resourcefulness, ingenuity—their capacity to change everything for the better.”

The gerontocracy that runs the AFL-CIO has to come to grips periodically with the march of time and give way, not always willingly, to those who have “waited their turn.” Stern, Wilhelm, and Raynor, and most of the other top dogs in the Federation, far from being young Turks, are themselves in their fifties and sixties. After serving decades in the bureaucracy, it is now “their turn.”

But their ideas for change, pallid echoes of their youth, are not going to “change everything for the better,” or even very much at all.

Nonetheless, it is plain that organized labor in this country is going through a change—one that reaches far below the superficial maneuvering of the labor tops—and that things cannot stay the same. New immigration is recomposing the working class, and the unions, in a way that is fundamental and unprecedented in almost a century. Globalization continues to create a new international working class objectively united and interlinked as never before.

Those who understand the capacity of the workers to build a new world, free of scarcity and violence and based on human solidarity, must rededicate themselves to “educate, agitate, and organize,” with resolute confidence that “in action the workers will demonstrate their courage, resourcefulness, ingenuity—their capacity to change everything for the better.”