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Remaking Labor—From The Top-Down? Bottom-Up? or Both?
Source Steve Early
Date 08/02/21/14:34

Remaking Labor—From The Top-Down? Bottom-Up ? or Both?

From Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, March, 2008
Vol 11. Issue #1 (For subscription info, contact:

Review of:

Milkman, Ruth. L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 244 pp.$24.95 (paperback).

Moody, Kim. U.S. Labor In Trouble And Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above and the Promise of Revival from Below. New York, NY: Verso, 2007. 289 pp.$29.95 (paperback).

By Steve Early

THE VETERANS OF SIXTIES radicalism who became union activists in the 1970s belonged to a variety of left-wing groups. Regardless of other political differences, most of them shared one common belief—namely, that union transformation and working class radicalization was a bottom up process. As Stanley Aronowitz observed in Socialist Review (nee Socialist Revolution) in 1979—when Ruth Milkman, author of L.A. Story, belonged to its “Bay Area Collective”—young radicals usually became “organizers of rank-and-file movements” and builders of opposition caucuses. They immersed themselves in “day-to-day union struggles on the shop floor” and the politics of local unions, often displaying in the latter arena “almost total antipathy toward the union officialdom.” Because “union revitalization” also required organizing the unorganized, rather than just proselytizing among existing union members, Aronowitz approved, “under some circumstances,” leftists becoming “”professional paid organizers.” But he encouraged those who took this path to “see their task as building the active rank and file, even where not connected to caucus movements.”

Three decades later, the shrinkage of organized labor—and the left within it—has produced more than a few deviations from the shining path of “revival from below.” Kim Moody, author of U.S. Labor In Trouble and Transition, remains a true believer in the transformative potential of rank-and-file movements. A founder of Labor Notes and author of several previous books on contemporary trade unionism, Moody was a leading theoretician of the International Socialists when it sent college educated cadres into the auto, steel, telecom, and trucking industries during the 1970s. What Moody and his comrades contributed to the workplace organizing debates of that era (and more recent decades as well) is “the rank and file strategy”—the idea, simply put, that radicals should orient themselves toward the strata of worker activists, at the base of unions, who are most engaged in shop-floor militancy and resistance to management, rather than “attempt to gain influence by sidling up to the incumbent bureaucracy or its alleged progressive wing.” Moody’s newest volume is a wide-ranging account of the economic forces, domestic and international, which have eroded American unions, since their last, turbulent period of grassroots insurgency from 1966-78. As in the past, he agues that “rank and file rebellion”—despite its many setbacks and defeats in recent years—is the only proven method of projecting a genuine “alternative view of unionism, to force changes on reluctant labor leaders, and challenge the top-down culture of business unionism…[which] provides little or no education and leadership training for rank-and-file workers.”

Both Moody and Milkman, in L.A. Story, see great potential in the immigrant
worker organizing and strike activity of the last several years. Based on her case studies of Latinos in construction, building services, garment manufacturing, and port trucking, Milkman believes that these newcomers can “take the lead in rebuilding the nation’s labor movement.” Moody even discerns “the beginnings of an upsurge in direct action in workplaces and communities by a variety of groups”—both unions and allied “workers centers”--- that could lay “the basis for a new class politics” in America. Unlike Moody, however, the author of L.A. Story downplays rank-and-file initiatives as a catalyst for institutional change.

Now a professor of sociology at UCLA and director of its Institute of Industrial
Relations, Milkman has watched how the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), and Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) have revitalized themselves and/or the L.A. County Labor Federation. In her view, looking to union members to rebel against corrupt, ineffective, or undemocratic unions and refashion them into something better is an exercise in wishful thinking and existential frustration—“Waiting For Lefty” reborn as “Waiting For Godot.” According to Milkman, proponents of the rank and file approach long championed by Moody naively assume “that if only the legions of top union brass would step aside and allow the rank and file’s natural leaders to take command, labor would no longer be so impotent.” In reality, she writes, “this approach glosses over the complex and multi-layered character of union leadership and various political configurations that are possible across those layers.”

Milkman believes “that, when International leadership is progressive, it
can be a powerful force for promoting innovation at the local union level” and rooting out “business unionism.”

“As is now well documented, many of the most successful initiatives of the SEIU
[and other Change to Win affiliates] have actually been ‘top down’ efforts, engineered not by the rank and file but by paid staff in the upper reaches of the union bureaucracy…The recent ascension of leaders with both extensive formal education and activist experience in other movements to high-level positions in key unions has injected dynamism into the labor movement….The most vibrant and innovative unions are those that combine social movement-style mobilization, with carefully calibrated strategies that leverage the expertise of creative, professional leaders.”

Moody is far less impressed by what Milkman characterizes as the “daring,
intrepid character” of Change To Win (CTW). Nor is he similarly inclined to drape the new labor federation with the mantle of “social movement unionism.” Moody makes a more nuanced three-way distinction between “business unionism” (which everyone on the left agrees is bad),“democratic social movement unionism”—born of real “struggle with the employers” here and abroad-- and what he calls “the new corporate unionism.” He argues that the on-going internal reorganization of SEIU and the Carpenters into “huge administrative units” represents “ a step beyond business unionism in its centralization and shift of power upward in their structure away from the members, locals, and workplace.” Providing a detailed analysis and critique of the undemocratic “corporate side of SEIU’s culture,” Moody concludes that the union’s much-envied gains in “market share” are too often the product of “shallow power” or partnership deals. According to Moody, SEIU has achieved “a density suspended from above by a layer of ‘talent’ recruited mainly from outside the union rather than upheld from below by deep roots in the workplace and local unions.”

In contrast, Milkman regards SEIU’s Justice for Janitors (JfJ) campaigns to
be an unqualified success and model for union-builders everywhere. “Justice For Janitors originated as part of a strategic union rebuilding effort,” she explains.” It was conceived by SEIU’s national leadership and relied heavily on research and other staff-intensive means of exerting pressure on employers.” To their credit, JfJ organizers helped pioneer comprehensive, community-based campaigns that by-passed the NLRB to win union recognition via card check and neutrality—by targeting building owners who were the real power behind cleaning service contractors. SEIU employed direct action tactics, including civil disobedience, built strong ties with immigrant communities, and presented the workers’ cause in a way that elicited sympathy and support from that part of the broader public concerned about social justice and better treatment of oppressed minorities.

According to Milkman, in the original JfJ struggle in Los Angeles in 1988-90
--plus subsequent efforts in many other cities--“rank-and-file mobilization played a critical role in its success.” Nevertheless, as Moody notes, this “mobilization” has rarely translated into a leading role for immigrant janitors in managing the affairs of their own SEIU locals. By the mid-1990s, JfJ activists in Los Angeles were complaining about Local 399’s out-of-touch leadership, its neglect of day-to-day workplace issues, and the lack of rank-and-file participation in union decision-making. Many supported a successful electoral insurgency, led by the “Multiracial Alliance Slate.” But, in 1995, the SEIU national leadership quickly nullified the Alliance’s election victory by throwing the local into trusteeship and later moving L.A. janitors into a much larger, regional building services local. In L.A. Story. Milkman barely acknowledges that there was “widespread criticism” of SEIU over this pivotal development. She dismisses “Multiracial Alliance” organizing activity as an unfortunate “outbreak of factionalism” that, only “on the surface, appeared to involve rank and file rebellion against the local SEIU officialdom.”

Moody, on the other hand, takes the 399 matter very seriously. He believes the
trusteeship and transfer of LA janitors into a “mega-local” beyond their effective control had a negative impact on subsequent collective bargaining, which produced wage gains of 12.3 per cent between 1990 and 1995 and only another 6 per cent between 1995 and 2000 for downtown LA janitors. Thus, in the decade after their 1990 victory:

“LA janitors with the best conditions saw their real wages fall 10%. In this
same period, 1990 through 2000, average real hourly wages in the U.S. rose by 4.8%. It is just possible that had the LA janitors been in their own local instead of statewide Local 1877, with its low wages, minimal benefits, and long contracts, they could have pressured the industry for more and set a better pattern for others.”

Where Moody sees troubling continuity with conservative union practices of the
past, Milkman waxes enthusiastic about “AFL organizational legacies” that she finds uniquely empowering. A major thesis of her book is that Change To Win unions have paradoxically proven more “adept at crafting new survival strategies for labor in the post-industrial economy” because of their past experience taking “wages out of competition in unregulated, highly competitive labors markets” and winning union recognition in pre-New Deal fashion, without utilizing the National Labor Relations Board. In L.A. Story, the allegedly superior “strategic and tactical repertoire” of CTW affiliates--and resulting “organizing successes”—are attributed to their roots as “old AFL craft and occupational unions.” According to Milkman:

“As the L.A. janitors campaign and other recent organizing successes illustrate,
this repertoire is highly adaptable to contemporary economic conditions, which in many ways resemble those of the pre-New Deal era. By contrast, many of the CIO’s strategies and tactics were tailored to the historical conditions of the 1930s and 1940s—conditions that have been largely swept aside over the past three decades by deindustrialization, deregulation, and deunionization…..That unions –once seen as bastions of conservatism and corruption—have emerged in the vanguard of current labor revitalization efforts is a powerful testimony to the renewed relevance of the AFL’s historical legacy.”

Unfortunately for the credibility of her book, there is little evidence to
support Milkman’s sweeping claim that CTW unions—with the exception of SEIU and perhaps HERE-- have responded better to damaging “political and economic transformations” than any other battered labor survivors of the last thirty years. As Moody shows, in the five-year period prior to the AFL-CIO’S 2005 split, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and Laborers International Union (LIUNA) all lost members (while the Carpenters registered only 1.4% growth)—a record inferior to that of CWA, AFSCME, AFT, and the independent NEA. Only SEIU had membership gains of twenty percent or more—but, percentage-wise, the AFT’s growth during the same period was nearly as great. The smallest of CTW’s seven affiliates—the still struggling United Farm Workers—remains only a fifth of its peak size twenty-five years ago.

Far from just decimating former CIO unions, “deindustrialization” has also
been a major cause of membership shrinkage within Change to Win (particularly in affiliates with a mixed craft and industrial union heritage). The three unions—Textile Workers, Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and Ladies’ Garment Workers—which merged over time to form UNITE lost hundreds of thousands of dues payers in plant shut-downs prior to UNITE’s 2004 marriage with HERE. These factory job losses were so devastating that, even today, the combined membership of UNITE and HERE—a claimed 450,000--is less than ACTWU’s alone in 1976!

The notion that the Teamsters somehow dodged the bullet of “deregulation” is even more far fetched. The IBT today is one third smaller than it was before the Carter Administration introduced trucking deregulation in the late 1970s. As Moody notes, “by 1985, the number of workers covered by the Teamsters’ National Master Freight Agreement had dropped from over 300,000 in 1970 to as low as 160,000”—and it’s now half that number. Non-union competition, including the growth of a huge owner-operator sector, undermined national bargaining and led to what Moody calls “a long string of concessionary contracts.”

Likewise, CTW’s third largest affiliate—the United Food and
Commercial Workers—has hardly been in “the vanguard” of thwarting “deunionization.” While its on-going campaign for organizing rights at Smithfield Foods is well deserving of praise, UFCW’s record generally in meatpacking is one of failing to maintain wage standards and unionization levels. Meanwhile, non-union “big box” chains like Wal-Mart have grabbed a huge share of total retail sales in recent decades; their much lower labor costs have led to similar management pressure for union give-backs in the shrinking organized sector of the industry. The UFCW’s disastrous 2003 walkout by 60,000 Southern California grocery workers was a case study in un-successful resistance to this trend. As Moody observes, “the UFCW’s record of lost strikes and failed organizing drives is too consistent and too visible to make this union the likely David to Wal-Mart’s Goliath.”

Finally, “conservatism and corruption” also remain very much a part of the negative “AFL organizational legacies” of CTW that Milkman glosses over or ignores entirely. For example, the IBT and UFCW are both guilty of wasting membership dues money in a manner quite inconsistent with being a “mean, lean organizing machine” or part of a “new union reform movement.” Thanks to Teamster President James Hoffa’s undoing of real reforms dating from the Ron Carey era, the IBT now squanders more than $8.5 million a year on extra pay-checks for 175 of the Teamster officials throughout the country who get multiple salaries.

As The Detroit News reported last August (2007), UFCW local officials “are among
the highest paid in the United States with 33 making more than $200,000 in base salary in 2006 and many earning thousands more by drawing additional paychecks from the union’s international headquarters. Meanwhile, the average UFCW member earns between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, with many at Michigan grocery stores earning less.” In a not atypical profile of an individual UFCW regional leader—Local 588 president Jack Loveall--The Sacramento (California) Bee reported that Loveall’s total compensation for 2003 was more than $565,000 (in a 23,000- member local that has two of his sons on the payroll, plus a twin-engine jet for the officers’ use.).

Nevertheless, when the AFL-CIO split was still brewing in 2005, Milkman insisted that the IBT, UFCW, et al had embraced the “reform agenda” of SEIU President Andy Stern, including the latter’s call “for a one-union-per-industry model” that would curb inter-union competition for unorganized workers. Meanwhile, Hoffa declared that his multi-jurisdictional amalgamated union had no intention—then or now—of concentrating only on certain “core industries” and ceding workers in any other field to labor organizations, CTW or AFL-CIO, with more relevant experience! In L.A. Story, Milkman likewise depicts CTW unions as advocates of “extensive structural changes in the labor movement,” including “a strengthened central body that would have the power to enforce its policies with the affiliates…” The new federation’s actual practice over the last two years has been quite different, of course.

Even with only seven affiliates (as opposed to fifty-five in the AFL-CIO), CTW
has found policy unanimity to be elusive—and certainly doesn’t have any “strengthened central body” with the power to impose it. As promised, CTW has launched some laudable joint organizing projects. Yet CTW unions have been unable to agree on the war in Iraq, trade or immigration issues, which Democratic primary candidate to endorse for president (even SEIU was split internally on that one), or the appropriateness of working with Wal-Mart for “health care reform.” A disagreement between Stern and UFCW President Joe Hansen over this last issue led to a public spat in 2007, followed by UFCW picketing of a joint appearance by Stern and Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott. In another display of disunity, Doug McCarron’s Carpenters didn’t even bother to show up for the CTW’s second anniversary convention last November. As was the case before the UBC’s defection from the AFL-CIO, the Carpenters have apparently stopped paying dues to CTW; according to In These Times, “rumors persist that the union will soon leave the group” as well.

None of this messy organizational reality—most of it well known or quite predictable, prior to publication--intrudes on Milkman’s upbeat narrative in L.A. Story. On some subjects covered in the book—for example, SEIU’s doubling of its membership to 1.9 million in the last ten years —the author’s boosterism is certainly more warranted. But, unlike Moody, she never addresses the serious concern--now being raised by union insiders like Sal Rosselli--that SEIU growth has been achieved, in some sectors, at the expense of contract standards, community allies, workers’ rights, membership participation, and leadership accountability. Milkman’s infatuation with the vanguard role of the union’s “innovators”—college educated organizers, researchers, strategic campaign coordinators, local officers and trustees—also leaves little room for examining more incisively how SEIU operatives actually interact with the working members who nominally employ—and, more rarely, elect—them.

To Moody falls the task of imagining how the rank-and-file can rise again, in SEIU or any other union in need of a different, more democratic form of organizational “dynamism.” This challenge is particularly daunting in light of developments like home-based workers becoming the largest source of union membership growth. Brokering deals with labor-friendly public officials around the country, SEIU (and now other unions as well) have created collective bargaining units comprised of 500,000 or more home-based workers previously regarded as “independent contractors.” When SEIU was certified as the representative of one such unit--74,000 home health aides in Southern California--it described this 1999 victory as the biggest for labor since the Flint sit-down strike. In reality, many home-based workers are imprisoned in the post-Clinton system of “workfare,” that replaced welfare. Largely female, non-white and/or foreign born, this workforce cares for the young, old, sick, and disabled, while struggling to survive on poverty-level incomes, even when union-represented. One of the usual quid pro quos for union recognition is continued exclusion of these workers from standard public employee health care or retirement coverage.

Unlike the Teamsters, Transit Workers, or other more traditional union members (whose past assertions of “rank-and-file” power are lionized by Moody), these workers have atomized, high-turn-over, part-time jobs—in a setting quite unlike the large industrial workplaces of the past. The fact that their “non-traditional workplace” is their own or someone else’s home increases the likelihood that unions won’t help them build real organizations or a functioning steward system. Already, many such workers remain “agency fee payers” or members with little consciousness of or connection to their union. (According to Moody’s research, SEIU nationally has more agency fee payers—over 200,000—than CWA, AFSCME, and AFT combined.) Home-based workers’ experience of collective action--if any--comes from initial community-based mobilizations for bargaining rights and better pay. The poor and/or immigrant neighborhood-- not the “shop floor”--is the only possible nexus for solidarity among “co-workers.”

If one of the continuing shortcomings of organized labor today—as noted by both Moody and Milkman-- is that it’s still too pale, male, and stale, what better way to achieve greater diversity than by developing the leadership potential of this vast “new rank-and-file”? Can such workers—or the immigrant janitors and hotel workers who’ve also been a big part of other Change To Win recruitment drives—ever succeed in becoming leading actors in their own organizations, rather than bit-players in union-orchestrated street pageantry or political campaigns? It won’t be easy in a staff-run “mega-local” like SEIU’s 190,000-member United Long Term Care Workers Union in California— for all the reasons identified by Moody.

But, as he concludes hopefully, the initiatives of rank-and-file oriented radicals
and reformers “can help lay the basis for better things to come, just as inaction, timidity, bureaucracy, or ‘more of the same’ can stifle them.”

(Steve Early spent 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He writes frequently for Labor Notes and many other publications. He is currently working on a book for Cornell ILR Press on the role of Sixties radicals in American unions. He can be reached at

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