Discussion On the Future Of the American Labor Movement

Labor Advocate Online

Time for A Grand Discussion At Last?
by Bill Onasch

There is perhaps a silver lining in Bush's momentous victory. Discussion of issues vital to the future of the American working class, long simmering on the back burners, can no longer be postponed. The scope and outcome of these discussions at this make or break divide for our unions and social movements will likely determine the fate of our class for a long time to come. It's essential to try to get it right.

It's not going to be easy though to break from old comfortable routines. When the AFL-CIO executive council met a week after the election they spent four hours of their one-day schedule discussing how they performed during the election campaign. They concluded they performed quite well. They heard remarks from John Kerry consoling them and thanking them for their efforts.

What with this and that, they managed to squeeze in only ten minutes for discussion of far-ranging proposals from the head of the federation's largest affiliate, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Andy Stern. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney allowed that Stern's program to drastically shake up labor's strategy and structure "merited discussion." On the spot, Sweeney announced the establishment of a Committee For Change. To demonstrate his commitment to change Brother Sweeney appointed himself committee chair.

Stern, who has fired several warning shots across the council's bow in the past, issued an ultimatum: if there is not acceptable change by the council's February meeting SEIU will bolt the AFL-CIO and will be taking a lot of friends with them. In fact, one of his New Unity Partners, the Carpenters, already left the fed some time ago. To help organize a public faction for this coming showdown battle Stern launched an impressive web site, unitetowin.org.

On the other hand, Tom Buffenbarger, president of the 700,000 member International Association of Machinists, has warned his union will take a walk, "out of self-defense," if Stern's program is adopted. Presumably Brother Buffenbarger has friends and acquaintances willing to keep him company as well. It's hard to see how a sharp split in the "house of labor" can be avoided.

While there have always been disagreements within the upper echelons of union leadership their gatherings were long governed by a code similar to AA—what's said here, stays here. The maturing crisis and frantic search for answers started eroding that pledge of silence over the past decade.

Sweeney, ironically Stern's predecessor at SEIU, got his present position as a result of an unprecedented election challenge to the last fed president, Tom Donohue, a few years back. Donohue himself had been a loyal stop-loss replacement of Lane Kirkland, a pleasant fellow who had become known among staffers as the keeper of Jurassic Park. Sweeney's election ticket promised, if you will recall, to reverse labor's fortunes by organizing the unorganized and expanding political influence.

While fences were partially mended and realigned after Sweeney's election this present tussle appears to be headed—all proportions guarded—to a fight on a scale not seen since the CIO split from the AF of L nearly seventy years ago. Under such conditions debate cannot be limited to the tops, or even secondary leadership. The ranks will have a rare window of opportunity to intrude as well.

Coming up on December 4 is a leadership gathering of US Labor Against the War (USLAW), which has become an important organizing center within the labor movement against the bipartisan war drive.

On December 10, the Labor Party's national leadership will also meet to assess post-election strategy. Armed with an excellent program, this vanguard formation has so far received mostly token support from some progressive unions. It will need to find ways to get more substantial union backing and to also start rooting itself among the unorganized majority in our communities.

These two promising, but still fragile, formations will have to figure out how to independently advance their programs and action proposals within the context of the general debate about labor's future—while striving, of course, to avoid getting mowed down in factional cross-fire.

Let's summarize some of the broad topics that need to be on our agenda.'

(For more elaboration on many of the questions raised in this article I would recommend checking out the Labor Advocate Online Labor Day Special. For a critical look at the SEIU perspective see  Reutherism Redux: What Happens When Poor Workers' Unions Wear The Color Purple.)

Political Future
In the 1930s, the leadership of organized labor adopted one of the two major employer parties as their "friend." As late as the 1970s the unions had some perceived clout in determining the nominal program of the Democrats and in selection of key candidate nominations and government appointments.

Over the last thirty years such influence has dwindled to the point it is hardly visible to the naked eye. In 2004 labor and its allies had to accept a candidate who shares the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war, supports globalization—including its manifestation in NAFTA, China trade, and Fast Track, all issues once considered deal breakers—and, like Bush, favors the utilization of tax incentives for employers as the primary answer to the challenges of health care and jobs creation.

The most important concessions obtained from Kerry & friends were pledges not to privatize Social Security, and support for "card check" to bypass vicious employer contested NLRB elections. That about sums up labor's input in the Kerry campaign platform.

Though little was obtained by labor much was given to their friends. Tens of millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of staff and volunteer hours, went into what, of course, proved to be a losing effort. No "friend" in the White House. Fewer "friends" in congress.

Reality check number one: Democrats have proven not to be true friends but are true losers.

Where do we go next?

Stern's ten-points lists a point, "Build New Strength in Politics." To say that it is vague about how this is to be done would be a most kind diplomatic statement.

What's needed, in my opinion, is discussion about how our unions can transform the fledgling Labor Party into our political voice.

Our Shrinking Unions
The percentage of private sector workers in unions is the smallest in living memory—now less than ten percent.

The working class—fueled by not only normal population growth, but also accelerated immigration, and, above all, unprecedented entry of women into almost every area of the workforce—is now bigger than ever.  Still, even in absolute total numbers, there are fewer unionized workers than at the time of the AFL-CIO merger in the mid-Fifties.

This is not primarily because workers have been voluntarily leaving unions. Decertification of existing unions is relatively rare and usually happens only as part of a lost strike.

This dramatic drop in both numbers and percentage is explained mainly by the massive job losses in traditional bastions of unionism.

At one time it was fashionable to speak of a "deindustrialization" of America. But such a term is highly misleading. True, a few industries have nearly disappeared from the American scene. Employment growth in the service sector has out-stripped new factory jobs. But the U.S. is still a manufacturing power. Even though the ranks of the UAW are greatly reduced more cars than ever are being built in this country.

What has to be recognized and dealt with is a complex and relentless restructuring of the American—and world—economy. There are several major components of this restructuring.

Technology. Changes in the way things are made, moved, and accounted for have made tens of millions of jobs redundant. The steel, coal, auto, rail, printing, and many other industries require only a small fraction of the number of workers that were needed even thirty years ago.

Outsourcing. Much of the work in manufacturing formerly done in plants of major unionized companies, such as the auto industry for one example, has been spun off into new companies, or contracted out to small enterprises. Meat packers now ship mostly boxed meats to grocers, largely eliminating the need for skilled store butchers. The exact same work is still being done--but no longer under union contracts.

Domestic Relocations. A prime example is meat packing. The traditional Big Four meat packers long ago sold and spun their way out of existence. Most of the old big, unionized packinghouses went down the tubes. The work formerly done in a handful of major centers has been spread around widely scattered smaller operations now dominated by a few new corporate giants.

"Independent Contractors." While trucking operations have mushroomed Teamster over-the-road drivers are an endangered species. The lion's share of this work is now done by workers who must furnish their own equipment, be responsible for paying their own health care and pension costs, forego paid vacations, pay the employer share of their Social Security deductions, and in general accept great risks, while bidding for work. Many wind up with net earnings less than what they would earn as unionized employees—often much less. Most such "ICs" face legal, as well as economic obstacles to organizing.

Offshoring. Manufacturing bosses have long used the advantages afforded them by NAFTA and WTO on a prodigious scale to either build their own plants, or outsource work, in countries where labor costs are a tiny fraction of original unionized operations in this country. Other industries are now following this example as well.

Reality check number two: traditional, incremental organizing efforts, even if doubled, cannot keep pace with the loss of union jobs due to this ongoing restructuring.

Where do we go next?

Stern uses broad strokes to outline ambitious plans for organizing that would require expenditure of two billion dollars over a five-year period. Stern advocates going after the biggest employers, such as Wal-Mart, and concentrating on organizing whole industries. While such bold strategic plans and greater commitment of resources are undoubtedly part of what's needed more is required to overcome the pressures of restructuring and the obstacles of American labor law.

Others, noting the difficulty at winning under NLRB rules—especially under a Bush board—think we should experiment with other alternatives. These include
minority unions, a common practice in parts of Europe, and learning from such past experiments as the Trade Union Educational League of the 1920s. These too can be useful options, worth a try. But success of such ventures has almost always been tied to coordination with influential workers political parties—something we don't yet have.

One observation, in passing: while picking strategic targets to give our work some logical focus makes sense it's important to maintain flexibility in recognizing opportunities. Some of the earliest victories in the upsurge of the Thirties came in unlikely places. Most strategists of the time would not have expected workers at the Auto-Lite sparkplug plant in Toledo, or delivery drivers in Minneapolis, to inspire a forlorn nation's working class to battle once more. Likewise, the small group of Black trade unionists who initiated the Montgomery bus boycott, launching a mass civil rights movement and the career of Martin Luther King,  hadn't been part of any master strategic plan. We need to be able to spot, support, and learn from inevitable initiatives coming out of local struggles and adjust our plans accordingly.

Bargain Basement
Of course the principal objective in organizing workers is to bargain with the bosses over wages, benefits, job security, and working conditions. Many organizing efforts that clear the first hurdle of winning an NLRB representation election fail to ever get a first contract.

Even long-established unions are facing the toughest negotiations that anybody can remember. The famous one-word programmatic synopsis of AFL pioneer Sam Gompers, "more," has been expropriated by the bosses.

Virtually every contract negotiation in America today features the employer demand to shift more of the compensation package to paying for escalating costs of health care.

Many want caps on employer contributions to pension plans, and/or shifts from guaranteed benefit plans to 401(k)—such as the workers at Enron enjoyed. United Airlines recently demanded total elimination of their employee pensions.

Where threats of outsourcing and offshoring are palpable, such as in manufacturing, bosses turn the screws even harder often demanding wage cuts, multi-tier wage structures, changes in work rules to allow them to get more work out of fewer workers.

Though not nearly as frequently as they once did, sometimes workers stand up to demands for take-backs by going on strike. Thirty years ago a token picket line was usually enough to shut down an operation. The social status of scabs was a couple of notches below child molester and such misfits were seldom seen.

But today is different. Many employers—especially when they are dealing with relatively small units on a local level—are prepared to break strikes. There are successful companies who will provide both professional strikebreakers and "security" forces. Unions are forbidden by law from using some of the most effective tactics such as sit-down occupations, mass picketing to block access to the worksite, secondary boycotts and hot cargo embargos.

Some strikes are still won by the workers but too many are being broken. Every defeat chills the frigid bargaining climate a few degrees more.

Lost strikes and give-back settlements of course make the task of organizing new members that much harder.

Nonunion workers who benefited indirectly from standards established through union agreements find this relationship can work both ways. When unions take a hit wage levels for all stagnate or even decline.

Reality Check Number Three: Living standards and working conditions can no longer be adequately advanced and defended solely through traditional collective bargaining methods.

Where do we go next?
Stern's plan seeks to enhance bargaining power along several lines:

Concentrate on building union density in some key industries that are not as vulnerable to offshoring and outsourcing.

Make the biggest employers such as Wal-Mart priority targets.

Seek industry-wide agreements, or at least common expiration dates for local contracts within an industry.

These are mostly excellent ideas. During the ascendancy of industrial unionism, from 1935-48, company-wide, sometimes industry-wide contracts were won and transformed the lives of workers in the auto, steel, rubber, electrical, meat-packing and other industries.

Such agreements have all but disappeared during the economic restructuring and will not easily be reestablished.

One of Stern's New Unity Partners, UNITE-HERE, has made common expiration a priority in hotel and casino bargaining. After a militant strike, what is by all accounts an overall excellent contract was recently won in Atlantic City—but without the common expiration with other contracts sought. Clearly the casino and hotel bosses are treating this strategic objective as a deal breaker and are prepared to fight to the knife to resist it. A bitter hotel lockout/strike is currently in progress in San Francisco and hotel workers in Washington and Los Angeles are on "strike watch."

(By the way, just how far we are from national bargaining is illustrated by the fact that there are major cities—such as Kansas City—that don't have a single UNITE-HERE organized hotel or restaurant.)

The desirability of the widest possible contracts was recognized early on in the workers movement. The first national agreements in rail and meat packing date back over a century. But the ability to get and maintain such contracts depends mainly on the overall relationship of forces in the class struggle. The peak period of working class mobilization under union leadership came to a close with the passage of Taft-Hartley in 1947, followed by defeated strikes in 1948.

While the strength of industrial unionism was largely based on working class perception of it being a broad social movement, working for everyone's benefit, few lasting social reforms actually came out of this period. Virtually everything the unions won was codified in contracts for their dues-paying members only—subject to attack at any time.

Once again we come back to politics. In most industrialized countries unions have used, not spurious "friends," but their own political parties to legislate much of what we have to negotiate with the boss for: health care; adequate retirement income guarantees; paid time off; shorter working hours with no cut in pay.

Just think how much easier contract negotiations could be if we won the Labor Party's Just Health Care plan. How about a law requiring a minimum of four weeks paid vacation for every worker in the land? Wouldn't that speed up talks a bit?

And wouldn't it be reassuring to know that if we do have to strike that the boss would be prohibited by law from bringing in strikebreakers—as is the case in several countries and Canadian provinces?

A Fight With No Borders
Globalization is becoming well entrenched. We're not going to stop it by lobbying for trade tariffs or organizing consumers to Buy American.

In fact there is no good reason for American workers to oppose a global economy. There's plenty of work to be shared throughout the world to lift billions of people out of poverty.

But Big Business is not looking to alleviate the world's poverty. They are out to take advantage of the world's poor by paying them wages that keep them in poverty and reaping far greater profits than obtainable in the U.S. That's the problem with Globalization. It hurts all workers across all borders.

The only way we can defend against being pitted in the "race to the bottom" with workers in other lands is by building a genuine international labor movement.

This means a sharp departure from past practice of our labor leadership. Since the Cold War many of America's unions have collaborated with employers, the State Department, and even the CIA, in working for docile, "pro-American," sweetheart unions abroad. Even today the AFL-CIO has been seeking money from the Bush administration to build a tame union movement in Iraq to support the puppet government in Baghdad. Those responsible for these shameful practices must share the blame for creating such an attractive alternative labor market that sucked up millions of our former jobs.

We need to do the exact opposite. We need to assist those low-wage workers producing most of the goods sold at Wal-Mart to build strong unions and political parties, capable of drastically improving their wages, benefits, and conditions. The more they win from our common employers the less we will be forced to give back to the boss here.

Against War. The ultimate enforcer of Globalization is the remaining super-power—the military might of the United States. The bipartisan doctrine of preemptive war has nothing to do with the security of the American people. It has everything to do with advancing the global corporate interests of Big Business.

Thanks largely to the courageous and tireless efforts of USLAW, numerous union bodies, including important national unions and state feds, have taken positions opposing the unjust war in Iraq. On the other hand, there are unions that have fallen into line behind the hypocritical "patriotic" appeals of Big Business and their politicians. These divisions cut across the Sweeney and Stern camps.

But both camps pulled together to duck the war issue during the election campaign in deference to their pro-war "friend" seeking to replace Bush as commander-in-chief.

Even leaving aside the unjust character, based on lies, of this current war, the war machine is an enormous, ongoing question for American workers.

Though conscription was eliminated thirty years ago an economic draft keeps the ranks of the armed forces overwhelmingly working class. For some, facing bleak civilian employment opportunities, the military is simply the best job available. Others are attracted by offers of education that they could not otherwise afford. And there is the National Guard who historically, in exchange for helping their communities during times of natural disasters, could pick up a little supplemental income for their families. The enlisted personnel of America's mighty military machine are not primarily gung-ho warriors. They are mostly workers in uniform, trying to get by, pretty much like you and me.

Only now they are getting killed and wounded. Now many are returning home as emotional wrecks. Now those aging Guardsmen are being pulled off their jobs, separated from families. And now a lot of kids are finding catch-22s blocking that path to college education the recruiters promised. This part of the working class deserves the attention and support of the labor movement.

And during these times of cut backs in education and virtually all useful public services shouldn't labor be concerned about the financial burden of supporting the only super-power? Approximately forty percent of the federal budget goes to paying the cost of present and past military commitments.

Allies At Home
Some of the old-school union officials see social issues as peripheral at best, to solid, bread-and-butter objectives of trade unionism. If it can't be quantified in the compensation package for dues-paying members it should be addressed, if at all, by somebody else. It's little wonder such visionary leaders are generally viewed, if at all, by most workers as peripheral, at best, to progress for working people.

Other leaders see some advantage in winning sympathy and allies for organized labor by supporting broader causes. But, over the years, they have been content to see social movements steered more into lobbying and electoral support of Democrats—just as they have done with our unions.

Reality Check Number Four: with nearly ninety percent of the working class outside the ranks of organized labor we need to forge alliances with movements fighting for social issues of concern to working people.

The heroic battles that we like to recall that established industrial unionism could not have been won without the sympathy, and often active support, of the unorganized, and even the unemployed, in the community. Winning such allies again is a prerequisite for winning new battles today.
Dark Days for Black Workers. Black workers were represented far beyond their share of the general population in the industries organized by the CIO. As a group, no one fought harder to achieve those proud union victories. Few segments of workers benefited more from the growth of industrial unionism in this country than African-Americans.

When the packinghouses closed, assembly lines stopped, and open hearths shut down, many Black communities lost a huge chunk of their modest "middle class." The net worth of Blacks has been plunging and is now half that of Latinos. These deteriorating living standards in turn fuel growing social problems. All of this has been made worse by government policies—from Reagan through Clinton right on down to today—such as the War On Drugs, Three Strikes, and Welfare To Work.

But gone are the days when Martin Luther King and Walter Reuther marched arm in arm in the streets, when genuine, and sometimes successful, efforts were made to build alliances between labor and civil rights. One of the few bright spots in an action that otherwise got very mixed reviews was the determination of the recent Million Worker March to bring this question front and center. To be truly united to win the labor movement must make these injuries to Black workers the concern of all workers. This too must be on our agenda.

Reuther and King

Women's Rights Under Attack. Legal and social rights of women are among the prime targets under the Bush "mandate." Last Spring more than a million turned out in Washington for the March For Women's Lives. The labor movement needs to educate around, and commit resources to this important struggle of a needed ally.

Environmental Dangers. The labor movement has found some common ground with environmental activists around shared opposition to Globalization. But, too often, when push comes to shove, our unions have caved in to the false choice of jobs versus the environment promoted by our bosses. Clearly the Bush second term plans to ride roughshod over any opposition to irreversible employer destruction of our environment. We need to make common cause with the environmental mass movements and revive the perspective for creating a Just Transition that can both guarantee good jobs and protect our precious environment.

Let's Talk About It
These are just some of the important questions that require extensive discussion. I haven't provided all of the right answers—I don't claim to have them all. But you never get answers without questions. And you don't get successful actions without intelligent discussion and at least working answers. Lets get talking.


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