US: Organized Labor at a Crossroads

AFL-CIO convention

The labor movement faces an historic crisis. Real wages are falling for most workers. Jobs, skilled or unskilled, are insecure. Millions are losing their health insurance, and corporations are hacking away at pensions. Only 7.9% of private-sector workers are in unions, the lowest level since 1901. In total, 12.5% of all workers are unionized, down from an historical high of 33% in 1954.

Against this background, the AFL-CIO will hold its national convention in Chicago on July 25. The convention falls on the 50th anniversary of the merger of the AFL and CIO, but it could very well mark the date of a breakup of the federation.

A major debate has broken out among the union leadership about how to deal with the serious crisis the labor movement faces. Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – the largest and fastest growing union in the country, along with the presidents of the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, UNITE HERE, and the Carpenters unions, have all formed the Change to Win Coalition.

The coalition calls for organizing "the tens of millions of workers in the private sector who are desperate for a voice on the job." To do so, they propose rebating half of the AFL-CIO’s dues back to affiliated unions for unionizing non-union workers and encouraging mergers to create bigger unions. Several of the unions are threatening to walk out of the federation, and possibly launch an alternative one, if AFL-CIO president John Sweeney is reelected at the convention and its proposals are not adopted.

The call for a much-needed debate about the future of the labor movement and a major increase in organizing is to be welcomed. But are the policies that Stern and the Change to Win Coalition proposing capable of rebuilding the trade unions?

Can Stern’s program work?

It’s worth remembering that when Sweeney came to power in 1995 in the first contested presidential election in AFL-CIO history as an “insurgent,” many said he represented a radical change. Sweeney, like Stern, was president of the SEIU, and the central plank in his platform also was “organize the unorganized.”

The past ten years under Sweeney has seen a major increase in funding for organizing, with literally hundreds of millions of dollars spent, along with stepped up donations to the Democrats also totaling hundreds of millions. Despite this, union membership has continued to fall, while workers’ conditions continue to deteriorate.

In reality, Stern, who supported Sweeney in 1995, is only offering a more aggressive version of the project Sweeney has promoted. Change to Win’s argument is that the labor movement can rebuild by spending even more on organizing and having a more efficiently structured movement, while continuing the same fundamental policies, strategies, and methods as Sweeney. For example, while Sweeney has urged unions to dramatically increase their funds for organizing to 30% of their budgets, Stern is now calling for this to be raised to 50%.

But the problem the labor movement faces is not a lack of money or resources. The real issue is: around what policies, program, and strategy are these resources to be deployed?

What is needed is a program and strategy that can win real gains in workers’ living standards and effectively resist the employers’ offensive. On that basis, the unions would be able to grow by leaps and bounds.

A Fighting Program

This is demonstrated by the history of how the unions were built in the first place. The labor movement saw its biggest growth in the 1930s, when strikes fought for bold demands that would seriously transform workers’ living conditions – and won. This was not because the economic conditions were more favorable than today – it was during the Great Depression! Massive strikes, led by socialists, shut down production (cutting off the bosses’ profits) and mobilized wider layers of workers alongside the unemployed to build a powerful force to achieve victories.

A wave of illegal sit-down strikes spread across the country in 1936-37. At its height, half a million workers occupied over 1,000 workplaces. The union movement tripled in size between 1933 and 1938, from 2.6 million to 8.3 million members. By 1946, it had reached 14.6 million.

The events of the 1930s demonstrated the power of the working class. In the face of this movement, which threatened to challenge capitalism itself, big business was forced to concede serious reforms. The 40-hour workweek, job programs, the minimum wage, Social Security, and unemployment benefits were only some of the reforms won at that time.

Today, union leaders say they want to unionize new workers, but they are looking at the decline in unions from their own narrow interests – a decline in dues and influence. But this is missing the key issue – the failure of unions to defend living standards of existing members, let alone organize the growing unorganized low-wage workforce.

Neither the Sweeney nor the Stern wing links the struggle for unionization to fighting demands on wages and benefits. Instead, they mainly put forward vague calls for “dignity and a voice at work.” This failure to have a successful strategy to take on the boss to win real economic gains is graphically illustrated by the fact that 44% of successful union recognition battles fail to gain a first contract, much less a good one.

Big Business on the Offensive

The present outlook of the union leaders flows from their acceptance of capitalism as the only possible system and the need for Corporate America to make profits and be “competitive.” U.S. capitalism has been in crisis for over 30 years. This is the root cause of the attacks on wages and benefits, as employers look to cut costs to defend profits. If you accept that capitalism is the only system, then when the bosses keep demanding concessions you concede and look for ways to protect corporations.

Stern and the other union leaders around him fail to see the deep roots of the crisis of the labor movement in the crisis of U.S. capitalism. Attempting to recreate a new partnership with business where the unions can help corporations be more efficient and profitable will not prove successful in this situation.

On the other hand, a class-conscious outlook starts with the needs and aspirations of the workers, not the narrow limits of what a company claims it can afford. Through determined struggle, gains can be won from the ruling class. However, if big business still controls society such reforms will only be temporary – as soon as they get the chance, big business will try and retake what they had previously conceded. That is why socialists stand for public ownership of the top 500 corporations, so that workers can democratically control the resources of society.

Building a New Workers Movement

The solution for labor must come from reenergizing the rank and file of the unions. While paid staff under the democratic control of the membership can be an important auxiliary, the main task is to build up a powerful base of rank-and-file activists. This poses the vital need for real rank-and-file democracy within our unions – something the union tops, on both sides of the debate, are completely against in practice.

The current debate itself is a graphic illustration of this, as Harry Kelber pointed out: “All of them are wheeling and dealing as if they owned their unions. They have no intention of letting their members vote on whether or not to pull out of the AFL-CIO … Thus, a half-dozen labor leaders at a private meeting can decide on their own to bust up the AFL-CIO, claiming without evidence that together they speak for five million members.” (LaborTalk, 6/15/05)

We call for stripping away the privileges of the bureaucracy. Union officials should be on the average wage of the members of that union. They should be directly elected and recallable.

To effectively take on the giant corporations, like Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, requires a serious mass mobilization of the membership and the wider working class into determined struggle. This is extremely difficult to accomplish on the basis of moderating your demands to those which management is willing to pay. To effectively mobilize big sections of workers into struggle will require advancing bold, fighting demands that workers can see will seriously improve their standard of living. On that basis, they can feel it is worth the sacrifices and efforts required to struggle.

To win, the labor movement must be willing to shut down production and spread struggles to wider sections of workers. To effectively halt production requires fighting tactics like strikes, mass pickets, sympathy strikes, and workplace occupations. However, all of this is in violation of the anti-union laws that big business has set up. Generally, the union leadership has failed to challenge these laws (the only way to win), and instead tries to keep the struggle within their confines (a surefire way to lose). Stern and the Change to Win Coalition have said nothing about being prepared to defy anti-union laws.

Of course, such a class struggle approach is dismissed by the “progressive” union leaders and staffers as “impractical” and “unrealistic.” But these same “realists” said in 1995 that Sweeney’s plan would lead to a revival of the labor movement, and scoffed at socialists when we explained Sweeney’s program would fail. The fact remains that unions were built in the 1930s using class struggle and fighting methods. Business unionism and “partnership” with the bosses is what is impractical – it has been tried and tested ever since, with the results being the continual decline of the trade unions in the U.S. and internationally.

Stern and the SEIU’s proposals are to “modernize” and restructure the union bureaucracy. However, this is to be done in top-down, bureaucratic fashion. They aim to eliminate redundant sections of the bureaucracy and maximize their resources by consolidating the many smaller and mid-sized unions into a few mega-unions. However, this threatens the vested interests of tens of thousands of officials in these unions, which is a key basis of the fierce opposition within the AFL-CIO to Stern’s proposals.

Fortunately, there is great hope for a revival of the union movement. But it lies not with the present collection of union leaders. It lies with the growing demand and desire of workers to organize due to attacks on their living conditions. History has shown that when under severe attack, U.S. workers will eventually find a way to move into struggle, and through those struggles will build new fighting organizations and unions. It will be this explosive movement from below that will reforge the union movement.

Build a Workers’ Party

It is common to hear labor leaders talk about how Bush and the Republicans are enemies of workers. But the debate in the AFL-CIO led Teamsters President James Hoffa to let slip a simple truth: "We have seen the decline of organized labor through both Republican and Democratic administrations." (Washington Post, 6/16/05)

From 1993 to 2001, we had a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, who passed NAFTA, the WTO, and further deregulation, privatization, and downsizing of public employees, ended welfare, and failed to overturn the anti-union laws or deliver universal healthcare. Throughout this time, union density fell, union busting went unabated, and the gap between rich and poor exploded, reaching levels not seen since the 1920s.

In the 2004 election, the AFL-CIO gave over $150 million to the John Kerry campaign, including an astonishing $65 million from SEIU alone. According to the AFL-CIO, the election campaign was “the largest mobilization and political program in its history.” “Some 5,000 union staff people were deployed to work full-time in the major battleground states. The unions distributed 32 million leaflets … There were more than 225,000 volunteers, talking one-on-one with workers at their job sites and in their communities.” (Harry Kelber, Labor Talk, 12/22/04)

All this for what? Kerry ran an openly pro-corporate, pro-war campaign which was so unattractive to workers that Bush was able to carry one-time labor strongholds such as Ohio and Missouri.

Working people make up the vast majority of the population and bear the brunt of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ policies, yet we have no political party that speaks for us. The labor movement needs to break from the Democratic Party and build a party that stands for the interests of the millions, not the millionaires – a workers’ party.

A workers’ party would not be a new, or third, version of the existing two "parties." It would be a genuine political party, providing a forum for democratic political debate, discussion, and education, and a vehicle for mobilizing workers and all those fighting big business into struggle. Rather than being divided and isolated, local community, workplace, and social struggles would be strengthened by having a common national political organization to build solidarity and share experiences.

There has been a lot of talk about “organizing the unorganized” in the current AFL-CIO debate. But unionization is not the only way to do this. A workers’ party would be one of the best and fastest ways of organizing the tens of millions of workers who are not in unions but who want to fight against Corporate America and be part of a movement to better the lives of working people and oppose the Iraq war, racism, sexism, and environmental destruction.

The building of a workers’ party would transform U.S. politics and be an event of world significance. It would give workers the feeling of being part of a class – the working class. Millions would see how they have interests separate from the big corporations on every major issue facing America. The lack of a strong class consciousness has enormously weakened U.S. workers and allowed the corporations and their politicians to divide us into "interest groups."

The formation of a workers’ party would massively shift the balance of class forces in favor of the working class. Desperate to cut across growing support for a new workers’ party, the ruling class would be forced to grant major reforms, putting in the pale past attempts to pressure the Democrats for reforms.

This is how workers in other countries forced through important reforms, such as shorter workweeks and environmental regulations, sometimes without their parties ever coming to power. In Canada, for example, the single-payer healthcare system was implemented by the Conservatives after a new workers’ party was launched around the issue.

From Justice, paper of Socialist Alternative, cwi in the US

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July 2005