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The Crisis In Organized Labor, by Steve Early
Source News for Social Justice Activists
Date 08/06/12/13:41

The Crisis In Organized Labor ­As Viewed From The Inside and Out
Steve Early

Review of Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin, “Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice,” (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008) 320 pp, $24.95.

ALTHOUGH HE LOOKS OLD AND tired today, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney was once hailed as a dynamic reformer, with a sharp eye for new talent. One of the first things he did, after getting elected in 1995, was appoint former Sixties’ radicals to be federation field reps and department heads. In Washington, D.C. and around the country, Sweeney’s “New Voice” administration quickly filled up with energetic ex-staffers of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), his own union. Among them were veterans of campus and community organizing, the civil rights and black power movements, feminism, and Vietnam-era anti-war activity. On the labor left, no single personnel decision by Sweeney raised higher hopes and expectations than Bill Fletcher being named education director (a job he had held, under Sweeney, at SEIU previously).

Bay Area labor journalist David Bacon was still in awe of Fletcher’s “key decision maker” role as Sweeney’s assistant when he interviewed him for The Progressive in 2000. Bacon recounted Fletcher’s background as an African-American activist and “self-described socialist,” with ties to the Black Radical Congress and Marxist journal Monthly Review. Drawing on his own history as “a left-wing organizer,” Bacon recalled the political hostility of AFL-CIO operatives during the era of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, Sweeney’s conservative predecessors. “With Fletcher,” he wrote,” I felt as though I was talking to someone from the same movement and history I’ve lived myself.” Concluded Bacon: “Times have changed.”

Not long after this interview appeared, times changed again. Fletcher was purged from his post and exiled to Silver Spring, Maryland, where he toiled briefly at the AFL’s George Meany Center. Then, he left organized labor altogether, for half a decade, to replace anti-apartheid campaigner Randall Robinson as president of TransAfrica Forum. After that, Fletcher taught labor studies in New York City and began work with co-author Fernando Gapasin, a well-known West Coast Chicano labor activist, on a critique of organized labor during the Sweeney era and earlier periods, which has now been published by University of California Press. Their collaborative effort ­ Solidarity Divided ­ is quite unlike the usual “tell-all” tome by a presidential appointee who has quit the White House staff or been dropped from the Cabinet. In fact, we never do learn what personal falling out with Sweeney ­ or political conflicts with his real inner circle ­ led Fletcher to be pushed out the door of the “House of Labor.” (In 2007, he was finally able to return, as a headquarters staffer for the American Federation of Government Employees.) Instead, we get a thoughtful, analytical overview of recent developments in American labor, and much of its earlier history as well. But, as a practical “guide for those seeking to reconstitute [a labor-based] Left and build a globally conscious social justice unionism in the U.S," the book contains many curious omissions. In fact, Solidarity Divided is far more detached (and lacking in specificity) than one might expect from authors long engaged in day-to-day trade union work and left-wing politics.

The book’s report card on Sweeney is, in contrast, quite detailed and displays little of Fletcher’s previous bullishness about his boss (before he left his employ). In a Monthly Review article published in the summer of 2000 ­ while Fletcher was still at the AFL ­ he chided other labor radicals for their skepticism about “New Voice reforms.” He accused “this grousing element” of being deficient in both theory and practice“ because they were prone to “simply criticizing whatever initiatives come from labor’s leadership.” Instead, Fletcher argued, the labor left should “examine and organize around the inner dynamics of the trade union movement.” He urged leftists to “interact with the New Voice leadership…on the basis of a united front, “ offering ‘critical support’ for Sweeney and guarding against the AFL-CIO’s “staunchly right-wing elements who would like nothing getter than to regain their power.”

Eight years later, those “staunchly right wing elements” no longer seem to be lurking in the wings, plotting a comeback. Rather, it’s Sweeney himself, now in his mid-70s, who has become part of the problem. By hanging on to his job long past his once promised retirement age ­ surrounded by the same tight-knit circle of former SEIU staffers who gave Fletcher the heave ho ­ Sweeney helped create a new status quo at the AFL-CIO, which led some unions to question why they still needed to be part of it. In 2005, the frustration and/or complaints of seven disgruntled affiliates reached the boiling point. The result was Change To Win (CTW), a rival labor federation spearheaded by Sweeney’s own alma mater, SEIU.

In Solidarity Divided, Fletcher and Gapasin express equal dissatisfaction with “the inner dynamics” of both CTW and the AFL-CIO. The authors first compile a stinging critique of the latter under Sweeney. We learn now, for example, that his “reform efforts seemed to be running out of steam” as early as 1998. The AFL-CIO president was already unable or unwilling to “replicate the exciting first months of his tenure” and “fell back into the consensus-building mode with which he seemed most comfortable.” What Fletcher and Gapasin describe as “the essential conservatism of the Sweeney approach toward change” had negative consequences in a number of areas. Even in the early days of his presidency ­ when Sweeney inherited the challenge of providing stronger strike support ­ the “new” AFL-CIO reneged on commitments made to locked-out members of United Paper Workers Union Local 7837 at A.E. Staley Co., in Decatur, Illinois, scene of a long-running community-wide conflict.

As the authors note, the Decatur workers and their supporters “expected the New Voice team to champion their cause,” but “they were to be disappointed” instead. Due to UPIU leadership pressure for a contract settlement ­ on almost any terms ­“no significant support came from the national AFL-CIO, despite promises, implied and explicit.” The Staley dispute “ended in defeat,” as did the Detroit newspaper strike, a multi-union fight that also “overlapped Sweeney’s assumption of office” and became another “missed opportunity” for “mobilizing the union movement” around key “mass struggles.”

Even in the areas of education and organizing ­ where Sweeney initially got high marks from most observers ­ the authors find deeper commitment lacking. One of Fletcher’s first projects was creating “a member focused economics education program.”

Common Sense Economics…was conceived as a means of speaking about capitalism, class, and ultimately, the importance of new organizing and new trade unionism. Piloted in 1997, it received rave reviews; since
then, insufficient usage and engagement by the national AFL-CIO and its affiliates have undermined the achievement of the [program’s]original objectives.

On the organizing front, Fletcher and Gapasin recount the AFL’s short-lived rallying of its staff on behalf of the United Farm Workers. By 1997, this once vibrant union “was a shadow of what it had been in the 1970s.” Its weak infrastructure was, according to the authors, a legacy of internal purges conducted when union founder Cesar Chavez turned dictatorial and “eliminated many of his Left-leaning supporters, leaders, and staff, including numerous veteranos who had led previous UFW campaigns.”

Nevertheless, Sweeney’s Washington brain trust decided that “mobilizing major support” for California strawberry worker organizing would demonstrate the AFL-CIO’s commitment to low-wage immigrant workers ­ and serve as a much-publicized “coming-out party” for its revived Organizing and Field Mobilization Departments. Despite initial enthusiasm, this heavily-funded effort “unraveled” within a few months, as the UFW drive “seemed to disintegrate.” According to the authors, the cause of farm workers­as re-marketed by New Voicers in the late 1990s ­ “did not gel as a social movement.” Lacking an effective strategy and “the long-term commitment necessary to organize strawberry workers….in a campaign that was essentially a major rebuilding effort,” AFL staffers soon moved on to other projects. (In 2005, an ungrateful and/or resentful UFW quit the federation to join Change to Win.)

Reflecting their own political orientation (and organizational ties), the authors fault the AFL for not tackling the larger challenge of organizing the Sunbelt. They note that, “during its first five years in office, the Sweeney administration put forth rhetoric about organizing the South, but it accomplished little overall.” Even an effort to just study the problem and begin outreach to potentially supportive “community-based organizations…failed and simply disappeared into the wind.” Meanwhile, on another (and related) issue of concern to the authors ­ racism ­ Solidarity Divided accuses Sweeney of dropping the ball when the federation was asked to participate in a presidential Commission on Race. “The AFL-CIO took no initiative to support the Commission,” created in 1997 to promote a “national dialogue” about race relations. The authors argue that the panel could have “advanced working people’s interests” by holding “hearings around the U.S. in union halls and community centers” about discrimination in jobs, housing, and health care.

Solidarity Divided also describes, in some detail, how the “new” AFL-CIO maintained “a nearly uncritical relationship with the Democratic Party.” Bill Clinton’s 1996 repeal of welfare was, the authors say, “a de facto Republican initiative and should have been attacked for what it represents.” Instead, “ the AFL-CIO took a pass” and did nothing to defend “the poorest sections of the working class.” Two years later, “in keeping with its alliance with Clinton, the AFL-CIO took the position that the World Trade Organization (WTO) could and should be reformed”­ on the eve of anti-globalization protests in Seattle where demonstrators were seeking to “sink or shrink” the WTO. Across the board, Fletcher and Gapasin find, the federation failed “to offer badly needed criticisms of the economic policies of the [Clinton] administration.”

In 2000, lack of popular enthusiasm for Clinton heir Al Gore­as evidenced by some small labor defections to the Nader camp­led to the disastrous reign of George W. Bush. Further union woes ensued after 9/11. Soon, “the strategic and policy paralysis of the AFL-CIO had become so clear that the ties binding the union movement started to unravel.” Writing two years after the 2005 organizational split which followed, Fletcher and Gapasin “can identify very little significant change in organized labor”­ notwithstanding the many PR claims of CTW (which lead some to call it “Change To Spin”). Initially, one of the biggest fears of the authors (and others) was that feuding national federations might disrupt promising new work by the CLCs ­ state and local central labor councils. Solidarity Divided cites “research by Gapasin for the AFL-CIO” showing that some CLCs “have transformed the labor movement in their communities” (while others have just displayed continuing “lethargy”). Never very excited about any Sweeney-era initiatives ­ as they view them today ­ the authors argue that “most ideas for reforming these central bodies” didn’t “stray far from the existing paradigm of U.S. trade unionism” (with the exception of Gapasin’s own proposals for the AFL’s Union Cities program).

Solidarity Divided is much preoccupied with the labor left’s failure to “analyze” and “debate” this old “paradigm” properly, or wage “comprehensive struggle” against it. That’s an understandable complaint from activist/intellectuals who find themselves stranded in a labor movement without the organized radical presence it had in the 1970s. Back then, many unionized workplaces were flush with 60s-inspired agitators who devoted almost as much time to Marxist “study groups” (and related political sects) as they did to shop floor militancy. In contrast, most surviving members of this same generational cohort function today merely as trade unionists ­ whose politics long ago contracted into a semi-private creed. Their day-to-day work is very competent, even creative ­ but it lacks the collectivity and broader agenda of thirty years ago. Meanwhile, the frenetic activity of younger activists ­ who missed out on the big radicalizing upsurges of the 1960s or 70s, on campus or off­ suffers from the same absence of a shared political framework. Many former New Leftists, as well as more recent recruits to the cause, realize they’d have greater impact if they were acting together on a cross-union basis regardless of what “business union” they’re stuck in (and, hopefully, still trying to change). Most labor leftists favor a stronger voice for workers ­ on the job and in their unions. They also want to unite workers and community activists in common struggles because these, in turn, create expanded opportunities for rank-and-file education and leadership development.

Reform movements like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and the fledgling SMART ­ SEIU Member Activists For Reform Today ­ remain a fertile ground for left-wing labor work. (See or for more info on long-overdue, TDU-style activity within SEIU.) Other radicals continue to function in less oppositional fashion, by building the durable, 20-year old network of community-labor coalitions known as Jobs with Justice (JWJ). They also devote themselves to the scores of immigrant “workers’ centers” that fight for the foreign born and immigration reform. Some lefties wield influence in fighting unions like the California Nurses Associations (CNA) ­ recently affiliated with the AFL-CIO ­ and the still independent United Electrical Workers (UE), always a beacon of rank-and-file unionism. Veterans of “anti-imperialist” organizing during the Vietnam era launched US Labor Against The War to rally workers against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. USLAW has steadily gained official backing, while labor radicals active on other foreign policy fronts have developed strong cross-border ties with union organizers and free trade foes in South and Central America. Last but not least, indigenous militants and leftists of varying hues have kept Labor Notes afloat for nearly three decades. The Detroit-based monthly newsletter (and related labor education project) has been a vital source of alternative union news and views, plus a key catalyst for rank-and-file organizing and strike support. In April of this year, 1,100 Labor Notes backers had one of their largest, liveliest, and most diverse gatherings ever. This two-day solidarity conference in Dearborn, Michigan attracted hundreds of local officers or stewards from SEIU, CNA, AFSCME, the Teamsters, CWA, IBEW, UAW, ILA, and other unions, here and abroad. Many left the meeting with a copy of “Troublemaker’s Handbook,” a thick Labor Notes guide to workplace activism and “social movement unionism” that (in two editions) has sold more than 32,000 copies­reaching an audience of working class readers far larger than Fletcher and Gapasin are likely to have with a university press book like Solidarity Divided.

Strangely enough, their book fails to acknowledge the existence of Labor Notes anywhere in its 288 pages­even though they favor a “more open approach to [union] education.” In the authors’ account of events in the 1990s, TDU gets a passing pat on the head (for being a surviving 70s “caucus”); but its central role in making Ron Carey president of the Teamsters in 1991 ­ and Carey’s subsequent critical support for Sweeney’s election in 1995 ­ is barely noted. Despite very successful political work in California ­ and a distinctive critique of labor-management partnerships ­ CNA gets no mention in a chapter titled, “Putting The Left Foot Forward.” Also missing from the book is any sense of the rank-and-file backlash that’s been developing within SEIU against its top-down, anti-democratic methods. (The authors do agree that “the SEIU model” of forced membership consolidation into locals with little opportunity for “worker control” is “not the only solution to problems of competitive markets and aggressive employers.” ) While touting “internal democracy” and “membership votes” throughout labor, Fletcher and Gapasin manage to ignore the singular contribution of the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), another left-initiated project which has, for forty years, fostered a more “democratic union culture.” Even the huge immigrant work stoppages that occurred during the spring of 2006 get less attention, in the book’s concluding chapter (on “Strategies for Transformation”), than “central labor councils” and “non-majority unionism.”

Jobs with Justice does get the F & G seal of approval (sort of). But, at the same time, Solidarity Divided makes the factually-challenged assertion that JWJ is not really a "union-community coalition" after all­at least compared to the authors’ preferred model, which is the Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ) in North Carolina. According to Fletcher and Gapasin, BWFJ "is open to both union and non-union workers [and] plays an active role in both workplace-based and community-based struggles." (It’s also small and limited to one state.) Meanwhile, JWJ ­with active multi-racial affiliates in 40 cities and 25 states ­ doesn’t fit this description? In reality, it does ­in far more places, on a much larger scale. To add insult to injury, the authors have the chutzpah to highlight ­ in my own state of Massachusetts ­ a recently launched, union-bureaucrat dominated competitor to JWJ known as Community Labor United (CLU). With little supporting evidence ­because not much is available ­Fletcher and Gapasin theorize that the CLU could become a “working people’s assembly” in Boston­“a joint concentration of progressive forces” based on “real (rather than symbolic) solidarity.” Such a development would certainly surprise Massachusetts JWJ supporters. Since that’s exactly the kind of solidarity that JWJ has long promoted by working ­in feisty and independent fashion ­ with or without the cooperation of the Boston Central Labor Council and state AFL-CIO In contrast, the CLU has been, from birth, an appendage of the CLC--even housed in its offices. As such, it’s far less likely to become a local reincarnation of the Knights of Labor!

To this reader, therefore, the Fletcher/Gapasin road map to “social justice unionism” seems sketchy and incomplete. It doesn’t do justice to some of the most valiant efforts to move the ball down the field in the direction of that goal. And it’s little consolation to learn that “no existing union or formal labor body” ­ anywhere in the country ­ “is practicing social justice unionism” or “social justice solidarity,” as the authors define and describe these organizational holy grails. Appended to the book, we do find a 20-page account of “local union transformation” ­ written by Gapasin and focusing, in the authors’ approved fashion, on the intersection of race, class, and gender. Unfortunately, this takes the form of an academic-style “blind study”­quite unlike all the “how-to” sections of Troublemaker’s Handbook. Gapasin disguises the name, location, and other details about the local involved­ so forget about contacting anyone there for further information and advice about overhauling your own local.

The authors conclude with an indisputable point: “If the union movement is to shift further left, the left-wing forces within it must achieve organizational coherence.” But here again, Solidarity Divided is strangely silent about the efforts made, just several years ago, to hold a series of “Labor Left Meetings” at which, it was hoped, radical trade unionists would finally cohere into a more formalized network. Various groups on the left ­ Solidarity, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and other “political tendencies” ­ were represented in that process. (FRSO later came to a fork in the “road” ­ and split, so there are now two of them.) This reviewer was one of the meeting participants; Gapasin and Fletcher were among the original convenors or organizers. Yet, in Solidarity Divided, the whole two-year labor left “regroupment” attempt, involving several hundred people, has disappeared down the Orwellian “memory hole” ­ along with any useful lessons to be derived from it. In addition, none of the “real existing” socialist groups involved are even mentioned in the book, nor do we learn anything about their respective “trade union practice.”

Perhaps such blind spots are inevitable in any work of history produced by participant/observers writing about recent events or institutions in which they are still involved. But Solidarity Divided would have been a stronger, more useful guide to labor left activism ­ now and in the future ­ if it was less theoretical and generally prescriptive and, instead, more accurately described the actual struggles, setbacks, and accomplishments of union radicals.

Steve Early worked for 27 years as a Boston-based international union representative and organizer for the Communications Workers of America. He is a longtime contributor to Labor Notes and a supporter of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice. 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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