Week In Review
Labor Day Special Edition

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
September 6, 2010

This special edition is more wordy than our typical Week In Review. However, you’ve got two weeks to read it. After laboring on the holiday I’m taking a couple of weeks of vacation time. The next WIR, and next update of the Daily Labor News Digest, will be out Monday, September 20.

The Worst Day Yet?
Our legal holiday in the USA and Canada has rolled around once more. Robert Reich, Labor Secretary during Clinton’s first term and currently a professor at Berkeley, said in an opinion piece in the New York Times widely reprinted in other newspapers,

“This promises to be the worst Labor Day in the memory of most Americans. Organized labor is down to about 7 percent of the private work force. Members of non-organized labor — most of the rest of us — are unemployed, underemployed or underwater. The Labor Department reported on Friday that just 67,000 new private-sector jobs were created in August, while at least 125,000 are needed to keep up with the growth of the potential work force.”

Anna Burger, taking an earlier retirement from top posts in Change to Win and SEIU than she would have preferred, told labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, “The labor movement gave me a chance for a better life. I worry whether the labor movement will continue to be able do that for a lot of people.”

Because the organized always demand more attention than the atomized, there’s a ritual flurry of media comment–most less perceptive than Reich--about unions this time of the year. Few deny unions in the past played an important role in creating “middle class” living standards for a big part of the North American working class. But most question the continuing relevance of organized labor today and the ongoing free fall in union membership and density is the one bit of labor news you can count on seeing in the mass media.

The cynicism they promote about the only genuine mass organizations our class in this country has yet built strikes a sympathetic chord among many workers for understandable reasons. The two most common categories of labor agreements negotiated today that we hear about are either concessionary–or severance.

Sometimes such defeats are beyond control of union leaders and ranks–even if they do all the right things. Recently veterans of the hard-fought strike, boycott, and corporate campaign of UFCW Local P-9 against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota marked its 25th anniversary with justifiable pride--even though it ultimately lost to a combination of a ruthless corporation, pro-boss government intervention and betrayal by their national union leadership.

There is no shame in honestly acknowledging you took a whipping while preparing to fight another day. But the modus operandi of the bureaucratic officialdom comfortably ensconced atop most–not all–U.S. and Canadian unions today is to spin surrender in to victory while preparing the members for more such Orwellian triumphs.

The single biggest defeat ever accepted by our unions–following a long line of major give-backs in their industry–was the bailout/bankruptcy deals hailed by the leaders of the UAW and CAW.

General Motors’ new CEO Dan Akerson graciously sent a Labor Day message to all GM employees telling them,

“I met recently with UAW President Bob King and Vice President-GM Department Joe Ashton at Solidarity House, and we agreed that, while we will not always see eye to eye on everything, GM will succeed to the extent that management and labor work together. I believe very deeply in that.”

Steven Rattner, a former top auto adviser to the White House, has written a soon to be released tell-all book about the process President Obama used to “save” General Motors and Chrysler. Some inside the Administration were shocked at the proposed unprecedented government hammering of a union that had so recently contributed indispensable support to Obama’s election victory.

Louis Aguilar of the Detroit News, who had access to an early review copy of the book wrote, “The book quotes White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel declaring ‘F--- the UAW’ at one point during internal administration debates.”

After this disclosure, Bob King rushed to tell CNBC, “If it wasn't for Rahm Emanuel ... if it wasn't for President Obama and the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, we wouldn't have an auto industry. Millions of more people would be out of work today.”

Nearly all bosses cite such pathetic performance as exhibited by the once pattern setting UAW as a reason we don’t need unions. “Why waste your hard earned money on union dues?” is for them a merely rhetorical question. Even some former union militants have become so disgusted and demoralized they now parrot this employer line.

That organized labor is greatly weakened, and faces threats to its very survival, can hardly be contested by any objective observer. But, as C Wright Mills once wrote, “I try to be objective but I do not claim to be detached.” Love of the labor movement was nurtured in me by parents who were part of it. It has proven to be a more stable relationship for me than a couple of marriages. When a loved one is sick you explore every realistic possibility for their recovery before you start lining up the pall bearers.

But the labor movement is different than an individual. It is the embodiment of the collective experiences and accomplishments of tens of millions of workers over many generations. It doesn’t have to naturally grow weaker with age and is not a subject for the actuaries.

It didn’t start out the way we find it today. Its present crisis was not inevitable. It’s not too late for rejuvenation, in my opinion. Our holiday seems an appropriate occasion to explore these assertions at greater length than usual for our Week In Review. Let’s begin with a little bit of history of how we got to the worst Labor Day in living memory, focusing mainly on one key issue–class.

Class Awareness
Much of the early history of the U.S. labor movement was shaped by millions of immigrant workers who brought with them from Europe an advanced understanding about contending class interests in society. Many were socialists, syndicalists, or anarchists. Class consciousness was so pervasive during those formative days that even the conservative craft unionists who founded the American Federation of Labor in 1886 adopted this preamble to their constitution,

“A struggle is going on in the nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity from year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations if not combined for mutual protection and benefit. This history of the wage-workers of all countries is but the history of constant struggle and misery engendered by ignorance and disunion; whereas the history of the non-producers of all ages proves that a minority, thoroughly organized, may work wonders for good or evil. Conforming to the old adage, 'In union there is strength,' the formation of a Federation embracing every trade and labor organization in North America, a union founded upon a basis as broad as the land we live in, is our only hope.”

To be sure, not many AFL leaders vigorously pursued this class struggle perspective. Most were scornful of the unskilled and some outright banned women and people of color from their trades. That led to the formation in 1905 of a new rival federation–the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They backed up talk of the struggle between worker and boss with a variety of not only strikes and other job actions but also fights for democratic rights and the development of a new working class culture. Their achievements were impressive until they were pretty much smashed by boss, government and vigilante repression during the First World War. They remain on the scene today as a small vanguard group that still wins local victories here and there.

Eugene V Debs
It took native-born workers longer to catch up with radical immigrants. The great Eugene Debs began as an official in a railroad craft union and was active “rewarding friends” in the Democrat Party. He even served as a Democrat in the Indiana state legislature. But he believed strongly that rail workers needed one big union to supercede the more than two dozen craft unions dealing with the carriers. He helped organize the American Railway Union in 1893.

After a few early victories the ARU was confronted by a labor “friend” in the White House–Grover Cleveland–who mobilized the U.S. Army to break the Pullman strike. Debs was sent to jail. While there he became a socialist and went on to play an important role in the launching of both the Socialist Party and the IWW.

When yet another labor “friend” Woodrow Wilson took the USA in to what became known as World War I, Debs and the Socialists, along with the IWW, declared their solidarity with workers of all countries and opposed entering the conflict. Many–including Debs–were sent to prison.

The mainstream AFL leadership became gung ho “patriots” and joined with employers and government to mobilize for the war effort--that greatly increased their dues base. When the war industries started shutting down after German surrender many bosses provoked strikes and the American Legion organized returning vets as scabs to bust unions.

The AFL was relatively quiet during the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties and retreated further during the first few years of the Great Depression that began in 1929. The same officials who did little to organize or strike during prosperity concluded that mass unemployment made it virtually impossible to resist the constant wage cuts that accompanied layoffs. They saw the jobless as an army of potential scabs to be feared.

The great labor upsurge that turned things around began with local strikes in 1934 in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. The class conscious radicals who led these transformational victories made them broad social struggles, not limited to winning a few pennies more in wages. They convinced the working class as a whole–including the unemployed–they had a stake in the winning of the strike. Not only did few of the desperate jobless scab–many became active fighters supporting strikers on the picket lines and in showdowns with police and National Guard.

Some of the unions that were part of the CIO split from the AFL not long after also adopted the same strategy and utilized radicals to lead actions on the ground.

Class Politics
Even though the AFL tops early on adopted the political strategy of “rewarding friends and punishing enemies” nominated by the two official parties many AFL unionists followed Debs in to the Socialist Party. Up until 1920 that party had tens of thousands of members and a number of elected office holders. SP candidates continued to be elected in local areas such as Milwaukee, and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, as late as the 1960s.

In 1918 Minnesota AFL unionists and insurgent family farmers formed the Farmer-Labor Party. They went on to elect three Governors, four U.S. Senators, eight Representatives, and numerous Mayors and other local officials during the 1920s-early 40s. The Democrats were relegated to minor third party status until a deal was cooked up in 1944 for the FLP to “merge” with the donkeys. To this day the Democrats in Minnesota do business as the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL.)

Another semi-independent state party was formed in 1936 by CIO unionists in New York The American Labor Party did elect some candidates of its own--including New York City transit workers leader Mike Quill to the NY City Council. But mainly it offered its ballot line to Democrats and Republicans deemed friends. As late as the 1950s there were still thousands of class conscious workers in New York who would not, as a matter of principle, vote for a boss party--but would support the major party candidates appearing on the ALP line. The party folded following a Cold War split in the CIO and the launching of the McCarthy witch-hunt.

From Class Struggle To Class Partnership
Unlike the union busting that followed the First World War the end of the Second brought the biggest strike wave in U.S. history, nearly all victories. Company-wide, even some industry-wide national contracts were established in auto, steel, rubber, electrical, meat packing, longshore, oil, and other industries. 1946 was the peak of organized labor’s power in the USA.

The employers responded with a three-pronged strategy:

●They passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which outlawed mass picketing to block worksite entrances; prohibited “hot cargo” embargos by transportation workers to stop distribution of scab products; banned secondary boycotts against merchants and suppliers handling products from a firm on strike; and allowed states to outlaw the union shop (“Right-to-Work”). Until it was declared unconstitutional, the law also required all union officers to sign an affidavit under oath that they were not a member of the Communist Party.

●With the advent of the Cold War, the bosses and the Truman administration demanded that the unions purge themselves of “Reds.” Anybody who spoke of class struggle, be they followers of Stalin, Trotsky, or just shop floor militants, were deemed part of the Red Menace. Eleven unions were driven out of the CIO and raided by other unions. Of those only two remain intact today–the ILWU and UE.

●But they also offered their hand to establish a “partnership” with the unions along the lines of the sentiment reaffirmed by GM’s new top boss, quoted earlier. A big difference was that at that time they could offer better wages, benefits, and conditions instead of demanding take-backs. They explained to the bureaucratic leadership then consolidating in most unions that they were launching what Time-Life publisher Henry Luce had proclaimed the “American Century.” There were great opportunities for American workers to not only meet domestic needs pent up by 15 years of Depression and war but also to rebuild the war-shattered economies of Europe and Japan and to penetrate the markets of the old colonial empires breaking away from their former masters. If American workers cooperated responsibly with their partners in the workplace, and supported the objectives of U.S. foreign policy, they could have living standards that would be the envy of the world–or so the bosses assured them.

Service Unionism
As the union leaders mostly bought in to this new unwritten compact with the employers the functioning of unions became drastically altered. Local unions that once met as often as every week during labor’s upsurge scaled back to monthly–and usually cancelled meetings during the summer. Annual “international” union conventions evolved in to cycles of every four or five years. Social activities such as dances and bowling leagues that cemented ties between members and their families started withering away.

Even bigger changes took place on the shop floor. Where once stewards, backed up by control of work flow by the ranks, settled grievances with foremen without bothering anyone in a carpeted office, union business agents and Human Resources managers asserted their authority. Gradually over time members lost their sense of being a participant in a movement. They came to look at the union as sort of a law firm they retained through dues check-off. Instead of going to the steward they learned to call the union office with complaints.

The differences between the AFL and CIO narrowed and the two federations unified in 1955. The present preamble to the AFL-CIO constitution is much longer than the 1886 declaration. But you will find no mention of class, much less class struggle. The favored term is “Working Americans.” How their Canadian and noncitizen immigrant members fit in to this category is not explained. The unemployed are not mentioned.

Most unions in the postwar period gave up any pretense of defending the interests of the working class as a whole. Instead of fighting for adequate Social Security to cover all workers, pensions with individual employers were favored. Instead of campaigning for socialized medicine such as British workers won, or even single-payer as Canadian workers eventually secured, the service union bureaucrats became wedded to employer health insurance plans. Most–not all–of these officials were hostile to the civil rights and feminist movements that sought jobs for Blacks and women long excluded from white male job trusts maintained by many craft unions.

A Short Century
The American Century that did bring substantial improvements in living standards for the minority of the working class in unions ended about seventy years short of its predicted duration. By the 1970s Europe and Japan had completed their postwar recovery. Their rebuilt industries were in fact more technologically advanced than those in North America where corporations had deferred capital investment. The employers now came to the unions to tell them their help was required to keep American industries “competitive.”

Early responses included an explosion of technology that decimated the steel, mining, longshore, and rail industries along with substantial reductions in auto and electrical. This was supplemented by union cooperation in introducing “Japanese” production methods on the shop floor.

There was an acceleration of runaway plants from unionized locations to regions, such as the South, where unions had pretty much given up on organizing. Meat packing was completely restructured. The old packinghouse centers of Chicago, Kansas City and South St Paul were abandoned, replaced by smaller plants scattered across rural America.

These changes, carried out unilaterally under “management rights,” softened up their union partners for demands of more direct give-backs in wages, benefits and conditions. Some local unions bravely resisted. In addition to Hormel there were fierce battles in the Eighties and Nineties at Caterpillar, Firestone, Staley, Pittston to name a few. But in isolation most were defeated.

The same union bureaucrats who did little to help these struggles–and in some cases sabotaged them–used their defeats to justify going down the give-back road with their employer partners. After labor’s Democrat friends drove through NAFTA, the China trade deal, and Fast Track, U.S. bosses shifted their runaway destinations from the South to cheap labor havens offshore.

Worshiping the Golden Donkey
Losing what little appetite they ever had for strikes, and not having a clue as to how to effectively organize new workers, our labor statespersons have put most of our money in to politics. That’s not necessarily a stupid thing to do. Despite their ideological attacks on Big Government, the bosses exploit government to bring back to them the lion’s share of our taxes. Labor should be doing the same for our side.

In the late Nineties there was actually some promising moves to build a Labor Party. But a combination of the loss of key union affiliates through mergers and hostility to the unrelated Nader campaign that got unfairly blamed for the victory of Bush in 2000, reduced the Labor Party to an advocacy group with little union material support. The Labor Party, to which I remain a firm supporter, carries on activity through a few state and local bodies.

KC Labor Party

Still ignoring class, Rich Trumka is hosting President Obama–who has reneged on every commitment he made to labor during his election campaign–at a big Labor Day event in Milwaukee. This will kick off an intensive effort by virtually all unions to keep the Democrats in control of Congress. Just as they spin give-backs to the bosses they will try to do the same with an administration and Congress who all share the sentiment, if not the vulgarity, that the schmuck Rahm Emanuel exhibited behind closed doors.

In past columns I have offered views on how labor can recover and advance around major issues of the day. I plan to continue doing so. But since this is a column and not a book I am reaching the limit.

I have centered on the issue of class, and how we got to where we are today, because distinguishing between allies and adversaries seems a prerequisite to intelligent action. Perhaps some of our misguided leaders will find a Road to Damascus experience, as did Debs. Those that don’t will need to be replaced by those who know the difference between Them and Us.

Best holiday greetings to all on our side.


If you are interested in learning more about the history I touched on here are a few good books I recommend:

A Short History of the U.S. Working Class by Paul Le Blanc

American Labor Struggles by Samuel Yellen

We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Melvyn Dubofsky

Eugene V. Debs Speaks

Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs

Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis

Them and Us: The Struggles of a Rank-and-File Union by James J. Matles & James Higgins

Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement by Peter J. Rachleff

The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor--The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi by Les Leopold

Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement by Steven K. Ashby and C. J. Hawking

Embedded with Organized Labor by Steve Early

About the Author
The webmaster of the kclabor.org website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched and represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.

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