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On the Future of American Labor
Stanley Aronowitz

Submitted to Portside by the Author

[Author's note: This article has just been published by
Working USA, Spring 2005. It is another view of the
crisis facing American Labor.]

THE CRISIS OF THE United States labor movement is an
old story but it has entered a stage where predictions
of its virtual disappearance as a significant economic
force are now fairly common, even among some of
Organized Labor's top leaders.  For the fifteen years
after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, even as
deindustrialization decimated most of the largest
production unions and many smaller ones as well, and
under the duress produced by Ronald Reagan's bold
firing of 11,000 striking Air Traffic Controllers, many
unions gave back wages and benefits, some in despair
and others as a result of lost strikes. The palpable
decline of union power festered under the inaction of
the old-line Meany-Kirkland leadership. By the
mid-1990s union density, which in 1953, the virtual eve
of the AFL and CIO merger, constituted 35% of the labor
force--- at a time when public employees unions were
tiny, unrecognized, and struggled to stay alive-- had
been cut in half. As density slid to 16 or 17%, in
the early 1990s, Richard Freeman predicted that union
density in the private sector would be no more than 6%
by the year 2000. At 8.2% in 2003, Freeman was not too
far from the mark.

Nearly all observers of the labor movement agree that
unions' woes began in the late 1970s with the
fundamental restructuring of the economy that through
technological change, mergers and acquisitions and
capital flight have eliminated some 9 million factory
jobs, many of them well-paid and covered by union
contracts. Employment in textiles and clothing, once
America's largest manufacturing industries, but also
steel, auto, electrical products, rubber and a host of
other sectors were hard hit. In fact, after undergoing
a veritable technological revolution in the 1980s,
since 2000 the South-based textile industry has been
hemorrhaging jobs because of the greener pastures
offered by lower waged China and India. Ignored by most
labor analysts was the effect of these changes on local
communities. While the official national unemployment
rate hovers around 5.5%, hundreds of cities and towns,
among them once proud industrial centers like
Youngstown, Buffalo, Cleveland, Akron and Rochester
have seemingly intractable jobless rates of almost 10%.
In many instances having lost most of their plants or,
as in the case of Rochester, experienced over the years
a loss of 70% of their camera and copying-machine jobs,
communities such as GE's former flagship city of
Schenectady, which has witnessed the loss of more than
90% of its 20,000 jobs, struggle to pay teachers and
clean their streets. The bulk of newly created private
sector service employment, much of which is offered on
a part-time basis, pay wages that hover around the
federal minimum wage and few offer benefits. And
joblessness is augmented by the hidden unemployed;
large number of "discouraged workers" who have left the
labor force and for this reason are not counted in the
statistics. Many are involuntarily "retired" on
substandard pensions, work in the informal economy or
are engaged in child and parent care. By some estimates
the real jobless rate in the United States approximates
the double digits of many European countries.

There has been a marked reduction of labor struggles in
the last two decades as well. Fear and anxiety afflicts
large sections of the unionized labor force which, to
safeguard their jobs in a soft economy, feels forced to
accept bad contracts that erode health and pension
benefits and whose wage settlements fail to keep up
with inflation. And many unorganized workers hesitate
to join unions because they know they can be fired
without effective recourse to the law or to the
exercise of union power. Or the plant might pick up and
flee to Mexico, China or the non-union American South.
Moreover many workers have lost their faith in unions
as guarantors of a better life, largely because they
perceive that Labor is in full retreat. Organizing in
the retail sector, which is generally exempt from the
phenomenon of the runaway shop, has, with the exception
of food markets, remained in the doldrums. But, past
union gains in the retail food sector are under siege.
The recent lost strike by 75,000 grocery workers,
members of the Food and Commercial Workers, highlighted
the difficulties faced by relatively well paid
unionized retail food establishments in the wake of the
advent of Wal-Mart, the 800 pound guerilla in the
industry that pays close to the minimum wage. That the
union did not choose to  spread the strike throughout
the industry's hundreds of thousands of union members--
violating the no-strike provisions of dozens of
contracts, if necessary--, was a symptom of the
timidity that afflicts much of organized labor.

Among the sharper critics of the current drift are the
leaders of  the New Unity Partnership(NUP), presidents
of  SEIU, UNITE(the merged union of men's and women's
clothing, textiles, and the remnants of hat and shoe
workers), HERE, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees,
UBC, the Carpenters, and LIUNA, the Laborers.
Acknowledging the weight of economic change, political
defeats that accompanied the so-called Reagan
Revolution, and the corporate offensive against past
gains they insist that the predominant "service" model
of unionism takes pride of place in explaining why
labor has lost so much ground.

The service model devotes most union resources--money
and staff--to serving the needs of existing members:
negotiating contracts, handling members' grievances,
administering benefits programs. These services are
highly political especially in times such as these when
union power to win substantial gains at the bargaining
table is severely limited. Since most local and
national unions observe the rituals of liberal
democracy even if they are one party regimes, officers
must be re-elected by the membership. If leaders cannot
bring home the bacon, in part because the economic and
political weakness of the union, and because the
leadership actively discourages members from engaging
in  strikes and other forms of direct action at the
local level, they can always point to a job saved, a
tooth filled, or an arbitration won. Where militancy
fails, lawyers and business agents take over. Even as
rising prescription and hospital costs plague most
union-administered benefits funds, social security
remains inadequate for retirees, and  corporations who
administer union- negotiated benefits take advantage of
bankruptcy and so-called Medicaid and Medicare reform
to flagrantly make unilateral cuts, for internal
political reasons many union cling to their private
welfare programs rather than fighting for a universal,
publicly financed and run health care program and an
adequate national pension system to replace the
increasingly problematic company or union plans. In
sum, the service model is not simply a choice; it is
the bread and butter of the leadership.

It is ten years since a coalition of the leaders of
some of America's largest unions--the three main
metalworkers organizations(Auto, Steel and
Machinists), the giant State, County and Municipal
Employees(AFSCME) SEIU, perhaps the most dynamic of
them all, and several others--swept  a slate led by
SEIU's John Sweeney into the AFL-CIO leadership.
Blasting what they perceived as the ineffective and
complacent record of the Kirkland administration,
especially its failure to undertake aggressive
organizing,  Sweeney urged  its affiliates to stop
labor's bleeding by, in effect, replacing the service
model with an organizing model. Simultaneously the
AFL-CIO started an organizing department under the
direction of one of labor's shining stars in the
field, Richard Bensinger. And the Federation became a
major player in Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection
campaign, pouring millions of dollars into the
Democratic Party coffers and financing intensive get
out the vote drives. But, less than three years later,
Bensinger was gone having endured the ire of the
affiliates who charged him with subverting their
prerogatives. The main responsibility for organizing
has reverted to the international unions. Some beefed
up their organizing budgets but most of the
federation's 60 affiliates promptly relegated it to
the back burner

What was left of the Sweeney insurgency? The AFL-CIO
has made a de facto shift from organizing to electoral
politics. In 2000 Labor stepped up its political
efforts and helped Al Gore win the popular vote and was
prepared to win the Electoral College in the wake of
widespread black and Latino disenfranchisement and vote
fraud in Florida. But when Gore urged the unions and
other allies to accept the decision of the Supreme
Court to stop the vote count, they vacated the streets
and went quietly into the night.  2004 witnessed
renewed and intensified electoral activity by the AFL-
CIO which more than doubled its 2000 $45 million budget
and put thousands of union activists on the streets.
When Kerry conceded the 2004 election on the morning
after Bush's dubious victory in Ohio, Labor's voice was
absent from the conversation about whether the state's
vote had actually gone to Bush. These events reveal the
degree to which Organized Labor has become a "dependent
variable" in the political arena, notwithstanding its
importance in the Democrats' coalition. Labor takes
direction from the party rather than reflecting its own
political independence.

Having all but abandoned its organizing emphasis and
only a handful of the Federation's affiliates taking
up the challenge, the combination of the 2001-3
recessions and the continued contraction of employment
in some production sectors where unions have been
strongest accelerated labor's membership and density
losses. Meanwhile the strike weapon was all but
auctioned to the Smithsonian. When several large
airlines filed or threatened bankruptcy in 2004, once
more the specter of wage cuts and other concessions
permeated the industry. The Airline Pilots
Association, which never saw a wage cut they would not
embrace, quickly granted United Airlines and Delta
"temporary" relief. Only the independent Flight
Attendants union, composed mostly of women, has shown
its willingness to fight. In New York, led by the
125,000 member DC37, an AFSCME affiliate, most
municipal unions settled for wage rises that failed to
equal the inflation rate and in return for the city's
largesse granted to city government concessions.
Meanwhile, with the tacit agreement of the leadership
of DC 37 thousands of unemployed welfare recipients
are working in entry-level public jobs in hospitals,
parks and other public faculties at minimum wages and
without union representation.

In 2003 NUP leaders Andy Stern, Bruce Raynor and John
Wilhelm issued a statement abhorring the loss of
labor's economic power and, as Richard Hurd has pointed
out, calling once more for the adoption of the basic
features of Sweeney program of 1995 by, among other
measures, allocating at least 30% of their budgets to
organizing. Perhaps most controversial was their
proposal that, in order to regain labor's economic
clout the 60 international unions affiliated to the
federation be consolidated to 20 or fewer, thereby
reversing the fifty year trend toward general unionism
rather than craft or industrial unionism.(of course,
UNITE and SEIU are general unions, but that's another
story). In the process they urged the end of intra-
union rivalry and for the labor movement to concentrate
on fighting the boss instead. As Hurd has argued, NUP
was predicated on the idea that organizing was enough
to revive the movement and it was mainly a matter of
reallocating resources to get the job done. Recently,
for example, Stern proposed allocating $25 million of
the federation's $180 million budget to organize Wal-
Mart, which, given the size of the task is a symbolic
gesture.(Hurd 2004)

But NUP leaders are indifferent even  hostile to the
concept of democratic, rank and file unionism. In the
first place none of the internationals they lead is
famous for its bottom-up democratic processes. Second,
their centralization proposals would make a social
movement model of unionism much more difficult to
achieve because it would reinforce the dominance of the
vertical, hierarchical structure over local autonomy.
Recall that during the industrial union upsurge of the
1930s--labor's last great moment of private sector
growth--there were two distinct modes of organizing.
John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman formed "organizing
committees" directed from the top in steel, packing,
textiles and chemical. These campaigns were run from
headquarters, even though Lewis was anxious for
radicals' participation, which he received. But, except
for packing, where the left unionists refused to allow
themselves to be dislodged, when the committees gave
way to full-fledged internationals most became some of
the more reliable bulwarks of the emerging labor
conservatism after World War Two.

The second model is exemplified by the early
development of the UAW, whose activists never permitted
Lewis and Hillman to run their union, but retained a
highly decentralized organizational structure and an
organizing campaign which, in many instances, was
conducted by local unions and by shop floor leaders,
some of whom were radicals. Walter Reuther's own West
Side local was one of the major sites of parts plant
organizing. This was true of the Ford, GM-Flint and in
Ohio White Truck, Toledo Auto-Lite and the East coast
assembly plants  where local unions formed their own
organizing committees and rank and file workers did
much of the work. In its early days, after local
leaders sent the AFL- appointed president Francis
Dillon on his way, the UAW was racked by internal
conflict, factions, and what some have term "ultra-
democracy", and harbored many radical groups who
jostled for leadership. Yet, contrary to the prevailing
view among labor leaders and experts alike that turmoil
and competition hurts the labor movement, it was among
the most successful of the early CIO unions. The same
can be said for the Rubber Workers which was a highly
contentious organization from its founding in 1936 to
the mid-1950s.

The Bush victory augurs badly for unions, especially
since they have chosen to completely subordinate
themselves to the Democratic Party. Not only is there
no chance for labor law reform, for raising the minimum
wage or, indeed for repeal or modification of NAFTA and
other anti-labor trade agreements, but the environment
for unions and particularly for organizing is poisoned
for the next four years. Paradoxically, that the law
stands against the workers might become an excuse for
resuming labor's historic preference for direct action.
This is especially true for the South, now an electoral
bastion of reactionary Republicanism. But this state of
affairs was not inevitable. It came about largely
because throughout the 20th century the South remained
an open shop region. Had the  AFL-CIO committed its
resources to the South, and succeeded in organizing
textiles, among other major production industries,  the
political complexion of the region might have been
different. Instead, most unions abandoned attempts to
organize in the region after 1950 when the CIO's
Operation Dixie, a four year organizing campaign
centered in textiles,failed miserably in part because
the top CIO leadership steadfastly refused to address
the race question. The Textile, Communications,
Clothing, Woodworkers, Longshore and Teamsters unions
are exceptions, mostly because they had little choice
but to try to unionize their industries. But any good
labor historian knows that some of the most militant
strikes in textiles, clothing, communications, road
transportation tobacco and other prominent industries
have occurred in the South. Once Southern Workers get
the union spirit, they are as reliable and enthusiastic
unionists as any other workers, mainly because the
union is a cause as well as a rational solution to
their economic problems. Southern organizers understand
well that organizing is not a routine business
activity, but a struggle to win the hearts and minds of
workers and when they succeed they have some of the
best unionists anywhere. As a result of the pervasive
business unionism, The South is now the region of
choice for much of US manufacturing and transportation
industries. That the AFL-CIO has virtually absented
itself from the region both at the level of organizing
and in the electoral arena is one of the markers of its
possible demise.( Griffith, 1988)

In the 2004 elections the Democrats chose to ignore the
South, even though, paradoxically, Kerry selected John
Edwards as his running mate. The decision to focus on a
relatively narrow band of battleground states all of
them, except Florida and Pennsylvania in the Midwest
was based on crackpot realism: Kerry's staff believed
he had no chance of winning any of the Southern states
so he was better advised to spend his resources on the
so-called "battlegrounds". Yet there were five open
Democratic Senate seats at stake in the South. Would a
vigorous campaign in the Carolinas, Georgia and
Louisiana have made a difference in the outcome of the
senatorial races? Maybe not. But the long- term future
of the party and the progressive forces within it
clearly depends on its ability to make new inroads in
the South. Avoiding the Southern states puts the
Democrats in fairly narrow demographic corridors. For
the unions the South is one of the crucibles upon which
its future depends.

The tacit message that labor must become more
aggressive was delivered several times by Stern. During
the 2004 primary election season he broke ranks with
many other union leaders who backed labor's old friend
Rep. Dick Gephardt and, instead, supported Howard
Dean's more forthright anti-Iraq war stance and
somewhat bolder liberal message. When, by careful
manipulation by the centrist leadership of the
Democratic National Committee Dean went down in flames,
Stern lost no time criticizing the victor, John Kerry
and his staff for conducting a boring campaign without
a message. In the environment of Democratic euphoria
that followed the party's Boston convention, Stern's
statement went down like a dose of food poisoning. He
was condemned by Democrats, their minions, and some
labor leaders alike for undermining a potentially
victorious campaign. In retreat, Stern assured his
critics that his union was contributing $65 million to
the Democratic campaign. But the underlying theme of
his critique became clearer only days after Kerry's
defeat on November 2. As the AFL-CIO Executive Council
gathered in Washington on November 10 to consider its
options after Kerry's defeat, Stern drew the lesson
that the labor movement must go back to the
fundamentals, especially organizing. New York Times
labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse speculated that the
"labor movement is in turmoil". He reported that Stern
was warning his colleagues that SEIU "may pull out of
the labor federation and some labor leaders say[in]
that John J. Sweeney might face a challenge for its
presidency. Greenhouse goes on to speculate that HERE
president John Wilhelm might be a candidate to oppose
Sweeney.(Greenhouse, 2004)

As a major union of public employees, SEIU has no
alternative but to engage in political action since as
Paul Johnston has pointed out, public sector unions are
almost invariably "state builders (Johnston,1995). But
behind the call for spending more money and energy on
rebuilding the labor movement through organizing is a
suggestion that the labor movement return to
syndicalism, albeit not of the ideological kind. NUP's
syndicalism would restore economic power the old
fashioned way: increasing union density through
organizing and pursuing a highly concentrated
industrial consolidation rather than political action.
In demanding greater centralization, Stern and his
colleagues are returning to the early CIO model where
many major organizing campaigns were directed by men
closely tied to the top leadership, as opposed to the
ancient AFL model of decentralization, where a small
organization say, the Office and Professional Employees
or the Glassblowers, remained firmly in control of
their own destiny at every level..

In the main, there is little public criticism within
labor's ranks of the NUP proposals. The exception is
the 700,000 member Communications Workers, many of
whose local unions and organizing drives are a near-
model of democratic process. While the union supported
Tom Donahue, Kirkland's annointed sucesssor, in 1995,
it cannot be said that it is among the international
unions that has remained complacent in the face of
membership losses, due to technological change and to
telephone company mergers and acquisitions. Its
successful campaign to organize thousands of United
Airlines ticket agents in the 1990s relied mainly on
the agents themselves. Staff provided asssistance but
by no means dominated the organizing drive.

Modern unionists, spawned in several generations of
ideology according to which union participation in
electoral politics must take center stage mainly
because of the importance of the legal framework within
which collective bargaining and organizing operates,
might criticize this virtual paradigm shift as
retrograde, or at least accuse its proponents of
turning a blind eye to the key role the law plays in
everyday union affairs. Not to mention the profound
resistance of union leaders who jealously guard their
autonomy, even if the pond in which they operate as big
fish is drying up. Of course, NUP leaders would claim
they are not trying to eliminate political action from
Labor's arsenal. But they have drawn different lessons
of the last quarter century of trade union decline,
from most labor leaders and labor experts.

Paradoxically it was under the tutelage of the
conservative New York plumber, George Meany, that the
AFL-CIO steadily built a powerful political and
lobbying machine after 1955. Here, too, Meany followed
the CIO Political Action Committee model of central
control, rather than the old AFL practice of leaving
the initiative to affiliates.  By the 1960s the
federation's Committee on Political Education (COPE)
had deployed a field staff working with state
federations, appointed a central "operating committee"
consisting of key staff operatives of some affiliates
such as the UAW and ILGWU to develop an electoral
strategy focusing on key union-rich states that, among
other achievements helped John F. Kennedy win a closely
fought presidential race, and raised millions for the
Democrats' national candidates. At the same time Meany
steered organized labor away from its traditional non-
partisanship. During the Kennedy-Johnson years, the
AFL-CIO became perhaps the most important political
base of the Democratic Party. But while the federation
remains a vital component of the coalition that
constitutes the Democrats' electoral campaigns and,
under Democratic administrations participates--
sometimes at a cabinet level-- in government, in other
respects until Sweeney's tenure, it was reticent to get
involved in such core union functions as organizing.

Meany was an old AFL stalwart who believed, in the
Gompers mode, that the federation should intervene in
electoral politics and adjudicating jurisdictional
disputes among affiliates when bi-lateral negotiations
failed.(1) On most issues, Meany was illing to use his
bully pulpit to articulate labor's political and social
goals. But on the ground, he remained opposed to
substituting the federation for its affiliates on
crucial union functions such as organizing, even if
Gompers himself had sponsored large-scale Packinghouse
and Steel organizing campaigns in the World War One
period, appointed William Z. Foster a leading
syndicalist before the war, to head the campaigns..
Meany's protégé and successor Lane Kirkland, whose
union credentials were far more shaky but was equally
conservative, nevertheless opened a wedge in 1983 to
federation involvement in organizing, but it remained
only a wedge. Sweeney and his associates might have
faulted him for being too cautious in the pursuit of
union-building, but it was during Kirkland's
administration that the precedent had been set.

Labor's ills go far beyond its organizing failures or
defeats in the electoral arena or its declining
membership relative to the size of the labor force.
Recent attempts by nearly all  airline companies and
many other private sector corporations to reduce or
eliminate benefit packages for working employees, and
to abrogate union contractual requirements which
provide benefits to retirees "for life", illustrate the
fragility of collective bargaining. Another symptom is
brought about by the virtual disappearance of the
strike weapon in most industries and sectors: as a
result in many instances collective bargaining has
become collective begging. Union leaders and labor
relations experts tend to attribute these losses to
declining density. If unions in textiles and apparel or
in the retail sector, for example, had more membership
they would be more potent at the bargaining table. Of
course, this theory fails to explain the crushing
defeats suffered in the 1980s by UAW members in the
farm equipment industry, especially industry leader,
Catepillar, where union density was very high, or the
concessions granted by the union to the big three auto
corporations, which, until the 1990s, were almost 100%
organized, particularly the huge 1979 $400 million wage
concession to Chrysler. Moreover the UAW followed this
precedent-setting agreement with a series of
collaborations with Ford and GM to secure worker
"participation" in modifying or rescinding hard-won
work rules and cooperating with programs such as
flexible specialization that prepared the ground for
massive outsourcing of parts production to lower-paying
contractors. Or the wage concessions granted by the
Packinghouse division of the Meatcutters union in the
mid-1980s that was resisted by Austin, Minnesota Hormel
workers who found themselves largely abandoned by their
international union..Nor does the density theory stand
up in the cases of  high density sectors such as
teachers and other public employees unions whose
salaries suffered significant erosion and working
conditions worsened in the 1980s and 1990s when state
legislatures simply refused to allocate more state aid
to education and other services, forcing local
communities, already suffering a shrinking tax base
because of deindustrialization, to fend for themselves.
Today, many public unions accept the proposition that
every significant wage or benefit gain must be balanced
by union concessions such as giving up hours, agreeing
to two-tier salary scales for the same title, and
increased co-pays and deductibles for prescription
drugs and medical procedures.

Although necessary, density loss is not a sufficient
explanation for the current labor pains. Underlying the
decline of the labor movement are these factors:

1.      The twin perils of economic globalization and
technological change. While the Sweeney administration
has made a few stabs at forging international labor
solidarity by supporting organizing and strikes in
Mexico, Central America and some Asian countries, and a
handful of unions played an important role in the
December, 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade
Organization, these actions have proven too few and
have slackened since Sept. 11, 2001. Since then the
AFL-CIO and many of its affiliates have refused to join
anti-Globalization protests, even though their
European, Latin American and Korean counterparts are
often the soul of the anti-globalization movements.
Equally egregious is Organized Labor's complete silence
about the nature and consequences of technological
change at the workplace. Since the 1960s and 1970s
when, as a price for permitting technological
displacement the two Longshore unions, the Typographers
and the UAW, negotiated job security agreements for
their members, there has been absolutely no movement
for guaranteed income and shorter hours in the labor
movement as a whole. Even as French and German trade
unions have fought for the 35 hour week and to protect
their generous unemployment and job security programs
with mass protests in the streets, Americans are
working longer hours and suffering greater insecurity,
but the labor movement remains silent.

2.      The legal framework for collective bargaining,
upon which unions rely, is in the process of
disintegration. It seems that in the United States
every contract is inviolable except one: the union
contract. If, by appeal to courts or by their own
counsel, employers can squander, rescind or otherwise
break their wage agreements and reduce negotiated
benefits without union approval, the collective
bargaining agreement no longer has the force of law. If
this is true only direct action can stay the employers'
resolve to address their profit problems by putting the
burden on the backs of labor.

3.      Since the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
enacted by Congress but only became law in 1938, unions
have gradually surrendered the strike weapon as an
organizing tool and relied, almost exclusively on the
representative election for membership recruitment. No
sooner had the law been verified by the Supreme Court
decision in the so-called Chicken pluckers case, that
the same court outlawed factory occupations for union
recognition, known as sit-down strikes. Since then
unions have been habituated to the procedures
prescribed by law for determining union representation.
The official union line is that the effectiveness of
the NLRB--and state labor relations boards-- depends on
who is appointed to key panels, and to high
administrative positions, that is, on politics.
Consequently one of the main arguments for supporting
the Democratic national ticket and state Democratic
candidates is to assure sympathetic treatment of
labor's ability to organize, and in the case of public
employees, to secure bargaining rights. Ignored in this
assessment is the indisputable fact that, almost from
the very beginning of  the NLRA, courts and Congress
have combined to water down the fundamental right to
organize by, among other restrictions, allowing
employers free speech to issue circumspect but
unmistakable threats to close or remove the plant from
its existing location if workers voted for the union;
instituting an almost interminable unfair labor
practices procedure that permits employers to fire
union activists and alter working conditions during
campaigns without risking immediate sanctions; the NLRB
can agree with employers to exclude or include certain
employees from the representation unit that might
affect the outcome of the election; and giving the
employer the ability to delay the vote or challenge its
outcome in the courts. In the last decade we have seen
this tactic employed time and again by public and
private universities. In most instances, graduate
teaching assistants and adjuncts have refused to be
discouraged from forming unions. But there are other
cases where, in this occupation of high turnover, the
campaign fell apart because of the refusal of the
employer to agree to a given bargaining unit or to
recognize the union immediately after the election.

4.      One may question whether in the 1940s most
unions were well-advised to give up their most reliable
organizing method, the union recognition strike, in
favor of the representation election. In this context,
I acknowledge that in wartime--both hot and Cold wars--
even as unions gradually damped down their
combativeness, under the Roosevelt and Truman
administrations union growth prospered under the law,
even as they were subordinated to it.  It may be argued
that the size of union expansion during the 1940s,
which matched the industrial union upsurge a decade
earlier, was linked to their integration into the war
production imperatives. For example, after decades of
resistance to union organization, in1941 under penalty
of being denied defense contracts, the Ford Motor
company was forced by the Roosevelt administration to
recognize the UAW. And a half dozen smaller steel
corporations (called "little" steel) were similarly
coerced to enter negotiations with the Steelworkers.

5.      After the surrender of Germany and Japan, both 
major labor federations became firmly committed to the 
Cold War, and under prodding from Truman, but also from 
some of their own leaders like Walter Reuther, drove 
the Communists out of its ranks. Despite the labor
movement's strong criticisms of Truman's relentless
centrism and anti-labor policies, CIO leaders all but
renounced its intention to organize a Labor Party or
any independent political force. Between sharing in the
sumptuous defense contracts that accompanied the
permanent war economy and a relatively favorable
climate for organizing, it was not difficult to
persuade union leaders to bond with the administration
rather than opposing it and in their quest for
stability, to seek accommodation with employers. From
the standpoint of industrial unions, NLRB regulation
seemed to be a boon to organizing. But the Truman era
was, in many respects, the beginning of McCarthyism;
most union leaders were all too willing to collaborate
with government agents to repress the left, but apart
from membership gains, labor was not well treated by
Truman. He used his emergency powers to draft railroad
Workers, dragged his feet on national health care
legislation and, in vetoing the Taft-Hartley
amendments, several historians have documented his
gradual tacit approval of them.(hamby 1973, 445)

The exodus of the Communists in all but a handful of
unions was the necessary condition for bringing the
giant labor movement to heel. The Communists' behavior
during the war, where, like Reuther and most labor
leaders, they supported the wartime no-strike pledge,
did not endear them to many rank and file militants.
But the red purge undertaken by liberal and left anti-
communist labor leaders was reprehensible, and not only
on civil liberties grounds. With the cooperation of
union leaders, many were hounded out of their shops,
off the waterfront and the ships by the FBI. But recent
scholarship has demonstrated that the post-war so-
called "left-led" unions (a euphemism for anti-Cold War
and Communist-influenced organizations), were often
militant and effective, especially in organizing Their
main sin was that they opposed the Cold War and the
increasingly accommodationist policies of the
mainstream labor movement. Within the unions they did
not control, Communists and their allies had often
helped organize opposition caucuses on the local and
national level which, especially in the UAW, remained
irritants to the leadership throughout the 1950s and
1960s. This intervention did not endear them to the
powers that were. (see Rosswurm,1992, Griffith,1988,

From 1948 through the 1960s, the labor movement was a
stalwart and reliable ally of the Government's pursuit
of the Cold War. During this period, deferring to
patriotic considerations, unions in defense
industries--which defined a large fraction of  material
production--used the strike weapon sparingly.  But the
Cold War consensus also spawned illusions of  labor/
corporate cooperation. Pursuing labor peace in 1950
Walter Reuther, the UAW president, signed an
unprecedented five year contract with the leading auto
corporations, which included a no-strike pledge during
the life of the agreement. Although the rank and file
rejected the provision by engaging in a series of
wildcat walkouts against speedup, and succeeded in
amending the 1955 agreement to reintroduce the right to
strike on discharge and health and safety issues, by
the end of the decade most industrial unions had fallen
in line with the proposition that the strike weapon
could only be employed at the termination of the
agreement. Even the historic 116 day Steel strike of
1959 failed to abrogate the no-strike clauses which,
today, are in force in an overwhelming majority of
labor agreements. And most do not permit strikes for
any reason until the termination of the
contract.(Lichtenstein, 1995)

6.      Then there is the ghost of Taft-Hartley. Under 
the 1947 amendments to the Labor Relations Act, unions 
are deprived of their right to conduct sympathy strikes, 
to engage in secondary boycotts and, in some cases, the
president can prohibit or delay a strike in the
interest of national security. The impact of Taft-
Hartley was to make the elementary weapons of labor
solidarity illegal. After a brief attempt to repeal
most of the amendments, the labor movement has become
accustomed to bondage and obeys the law with
frightening regularity. Even during the 1960s and the
Carter and Clinton Democratic administrations, union
leaders had all but given up making a serious effort to
overhaul the labor relations law to permit wider
freedom for workers to engage in direct action. The
AFL-CIO limited its reform efforts to streamlining
Labor Relations Board procedures to speed up
representation elections and the adjudication of unfair
labor practices charges. But at the state level, in
exchange for the right to bargain, most public
employees unions willingly accepted the no-strike
provisions of the public labor laws. In New York State,
for example, the AFL-CIO calls for reform of the Taylor
law, but has not opposed its anti-strike provisions.

These restrictions tilt the playing field to the
employer's side regardless of which political party is
in power, although admittedly under Republican
administrations the situation is worse. And since
Republicans have dominated the White House for all but
twelve of the last thirty five years, with four more
years of anti-labor rule in the offing, it is
questionable whether unions are well-advised to
continue to use the NLRB for organizing purposes. This
insight was clearly the basis for Lane Kirkland ironic
1980s comment that the Labor Relations Act should be
repealed and of John Wilhelm's proposal to substitute
card checks for NLRB-supervised elections. But under
present circumstances where the Right controls both
houses of Congress and the White House, unless
employers' give voluntary assent  labor-sponsored
legislation to legalize card checks has little chance
of passage in the foreseeable future. More likely will
be Republican initiatives to further weaken labor's
legal rights.

It is no accident that, at least in terms of organizing
labor's forward march was slowed, halted and finally
reversed beginning in 1953, the year union density
reached its apex. 1953 is the year when the New and
Fair Deals definitively came to an end. The first
Republican presidency in twenty years, the Eisenhower
administration, did nothing to abet the right of
workers to form and join unions of their own choosing.
But unions themselves had already abandoned their anti-
corporate rhetoric and severely tempered their
militancy, in favor of a more moderate stance in both
politics and on the shop floor. Even organizing
gradually took the form of an appeal to workers to join
the union in the same manner that they would buy
insurance. With the exception of the few major
campaigns such as the  New York hospital workers  and
California farm workers, both of  which wrapped
themselves in the symbols of the civil rights movement,
organizing appeared as an extension of routine business
union practices.

The dismal history of Southern organizing, arguably the
greatest failure of the labor movement, largely remains
an untold story. After the  failure of a AFL-CIO
attempts to  coordinate the organizing efforts of
unions in specific geographical regions of the
Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee from 1946--when the
CIO's Operation Dixie started off on the wrong foot by
refusing to address the race question-- to the late
1960s, when, under Meany's leadership, the AFL-CIO
conducted a pedestrian and somewhat incompetent drive
in the Greenville-Spartanburg area and had little to
show for their efforts, the federation and most of the
international unions turned their backs on the South.
The Teamsters, Furniture Workers, Clothing and Textile
Workers(ACTWU) and Laborers did not entirely abandon
the region. The results have not been particularly
impressive, because, with the partial exception of
ACTWU which conducted a life and death struggle at
several sites in Virginia and North Carolina against,
respectively, JP Stevens and, as UNITE at the
Fieldcrest Mills--the largest single textile mill in
the United States--, they lacked not only resources but
also  political perspective to achieve significant
gains. The tiny Furniture Workers union went so far as
to move its headquarters from New York to Nashville,
but never got the support to organize this mammoth
industry so it merged with the Electrical Workers. At
JP Stevens ACTWU  leadership hesitated to conduct an
all out struggle and, even though, due to its effective
corporate campaign, it had the company on the ropes, it
settled for less than half a loaf, and won recognition
in six plants of a huge chain. The Fieldcrest Mills
campaign was the culmination of a decade of  steady and
consistent work which finally bore fruit in an election
victory, but which was followed by the aforementioned
global textile crisis that reduced the
workforce.(Aronowitz, 1998 chapter 3 )

But, one of the conditions for change, militancy, is
not in fashion within organized labor. In most major
unions, after the Communists' expulsions, radicals and
other union activists who insisted that the labor
movement address issues such as industrial discipline,
speedup, the growing practice of mandatory overtime,
shop-floor racism that manifested itself in denying
blacks the chance for employment and upgrading, were
either marginalized or denounced as reds or "trouble-
makers". Officials preferred to work through the
cumbersome grievance procedure  provided in the
contract rather than encouraging direct action to
solve problems on the shop floor, and vigorously
opposed the seething discontent that permeated labor's
ranks in the late 1950s and early  1960s over work
rules and technological change which the workers,
correctly perceived as a threat to their conditions
and to their jobs . As Jonathan Cutler has documented,
Reuther and other major leaders of industrial unions
turned their backs on the demand for shorter hours
even as capital began a long process of introducing
job destroying technologies into the workplace.
(Cutler 2004)

Meanwhile, pinned down by an increasingly hostile
national administration and a conservative Labor
Relations Board, union growth slowed. The Kennedy-
Johnson years resumed union growth, but only because,
inspired by the civil rights movement and later second
wave feminism public employees, many of them African
American and women, began to look at their own
situation and found it wanting. In 1961 Kennedy made
good on a promise made to the AFL-CIO  to issue an
executive order recognizing the right of federal
employees to organize, a stroke of the pen which
prompted many Democratic-controlled State houses and
legislatures to enact parallel legislation. However
many state laws recognizing union rights and
establishing public employee labor relations boards in
the 1960s and 1970s stipulated that the strike weapon
was prohibited. New York State's Law is particularly
draconian in that it provides for severe penalties, not
only against unions and their leaders who defy the
strike ban, but against individual workers as well.
Still the Teachers' Al Shanker and the Transport
Workers Union's Michael J. Quill, being trade unionists
of  the old type, supported their members' strike
actions and went to jail for their temerity.(johnston,

7.      In a time when employers, the media and law are
arrayed against labor, the labor leader of the new type
is not so foolish. Having persuaded members to accept
the efficacy of the peaceful path to job security,
higher living standards and better working conditions,
they have presided over a steady erosion of union
power. In our period of the Reagan Revolution, the
labor movement is in a free fall. At the same time
union members have been transformed into clients by the
service model.. At election time they trot out
propaganda for labor-endorsed candidates, but otherwise
most unions do not have educational programs to train
shop-floor leaders and the general membership, except
in grievance handling At the local and national level
many union officials are seen by employers and rank and
file members-- and see themselves-- as managers of the
contract, the union apparatus, its treasuries, and its
institutions such as health plans. Most importantly,
they are often managers of their own members.

Given the magnitude of the revitalization task, the
clientization of the membership raises serious
questions about the adequacy of an organizing model
that proceeds from the top.  Even the great centralized
CIO drives of the thirties and the equally oligarchic,
if tenacious, public employee organizing of the 1960s
relied on a plethora of rank and file organizers, some
paid but mostly not. These volunteers were imbued by a
rebellious spirit, sometimes anti-capitalist, sometimes
anti-racist and feminist. Many of the most active rank
and filers were persuaded that the labor movement was a
vehicle for social change. The motives of today's
activists are not that different, but it is not clear
that they fight with more than a glimmer of hope that
the unions will rise from the ashes. While in 2004
Sweeney crowed that thousands of union members worked
hard to register voters and to elect John Kerry
president, the underlying passion was fueled by fear
that a second George Bush term would witness further
defeats; Kerry himself was mostly an empty container
into which many workers placed their fear and anger.
From the days of Bensinger to our own time of Stern and
Raynor there is little talk of organizing from the
bottom. The most active organizing unions still rely
chiefly on professional staff and call upon their own
members to assist the drives only occasionally. The
union activist who holds no official local post is
frequently regarded with suspicion when not outright
contempt. Unless, of course, she belongs to a caucus
that seeks power. In which case, in the post-Cold War
era, her group is  subject to charges that they are

Which raises the question: What would it take to
motivate union members to become organizers? Historical
evidence shows that only when they see the cause of
labor as a crusade or an insurgency analogous to a
civil rights struggle will they donate their time and
their energies to building the union. And they must see
themselves as stakeholders in the movement, as genuine
participants in the life of the union, not clients of
an entrenched leadership. The union activist as a
social type still exists, especially in unions of the
working poor and in unions with a democratic, militant
tradition such as the UAW, ILWU, some locals of HERE,
especially in Boston and San Francisco, AFT and a few
newly organized unions of professional and technical
employees where unionization remain a cause. But the
pervasive practices of business unionism actively block
the emergence of critical mass of rank and file
activists who are not part of an oppositional culture.

8.      To enlist rank and file organizers, unions must
become social movements. The industrial union upsurge
was prompted by the depression and Capital's brutal
response to workers' suffering, but also by a fairly
elevated level of class rage at a system that exploited
the employed by working them under a regime of
totalitarian management, and ignored, when it did not
persecute the third of the working class who remained
unemployed until the late 1930s.While polls have
consistently shown that, all things being equal,
workers prefer unions to working in an open shop, their
confidence in the ability of unions to deliver has
declined substantially since the 1960s. Wage
differentials between union and non-union occupations
for the same work still shows the advantage to unions,
but the gap is narrowing because of paltry wage gains
in contract settlements. We live in an era when real
wages have been depressed for most workers by as much
as 25%. During the 1980s press and television reports
of the union retreat on a broad front did nothing to
improve the organizing environment. And although union
organizing improved somewhat during  the 1990s, their
inability to organize among the working poor, the
growing technical and professional categories, except
in health and education--and most fatally their
abandonment, except in a few instances, of the historic
task of organizing the South, now the main site of
manufacturing growth, meant that the few organizing
successes were more than counterbalanced by job growth
in non-union sectors

Of course, social movements do not arise from leaders'
will or by issuing edicts. The catalysts for
insurgency--but not necessarily the leaders of the
actual movement-- are usually ideological groups whose
dedicated and visionary members are prepared to suffer
scorn and ostracism from the mainstream to pursue their
objective of "fanning the flames of discontent" among
their constituents-- workers, blacks, women and, in the
case of ecologists, the whole population. In the period
after World War One  through the 1950s these formations
manifested themselves as small political parties of the
Left such as the Communists and various Trotskyist
groups. But after the 1960s insurgencies were spurred
by what may be called "pre-party" formations
characteristic of independent socialists, such as the
New York UFT opposition caucuses, the rank and file
groups in the Teamsters, CWA and TWU;Historically, in
the black freedom movement in contrast to the dominant
NAACP which has favored legal remedies to address
discrimination, some organizations such as SNCC and
SCLC advocated and conducted direct action such as sit-
ins in public accommodations, marches and other acts of
civil disobedience to achieve civil rights or economic
justice. Taken together these are the collective or
organic intellectuals of the labor  and other movements
but since unions are largely business organizations
they are obliged to function independently of the

Recently two staff members of the United Electrical
Workers issued a call for the creation of a new Trade
Union Education League(TUEL) to spur organizing. They
perceive that the official labor movement has lost much
of its capacity to attract the legions of the
unorganized, and argue that labor needs an independent
stimulus, primarily at the local level. Indeed, the
left in the labor movement was the grandparent of
latter-day activists.  In the 1920s the Communist Party
and its sympathizers, many of whom had been IWW
activists formed the TUEL which operated  as a militant
minority within a significant number of AFL unions..
Founded in 1922, TUEL provided support to strike
struggles in rail, mining, apparel and textile among
others. As a relatively small organization it attempted
to recruit activists to its ranks by conducting
educational work among the rank and file. And, most
controversially, TUEL organized caucuses within some
leading unions such as the Machinists and the ILGWU(now
merged into UNITE). Attacked by AFL officials as a dual
union meant to destroy the unity of labor, the fact is
TUEL entered its dual-union phase(the Trade Union Unity
League or TUUL) only when its members were expelled
from the unions, often through amendments to union
constitutions barring them from holding office but also
from working in the industry or trade where unions had
closed shop agreements with employers.  TUUL affiliates
were particularly active on the waterfronts, machine
and metal trades, apparel and farm labor organizing,
especially in the South and West, but a Socialist-
inspired Tenant Farmers union, headed by HL Mitchell,
which had difficulty joining the AFL because its
members did not pay dues, was more successful in
Arkansas and set the stage for the celebrated United
Farmworkers campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. Another
socialist group, the American Workers Party, which
adopted a parallel line of working within the AFL,
played a key role in the organization of the unemployed
in some cities especially Toledo where its organizers
were prominent in the Auto-Lite strike of 1934. And the
Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party was a major force in
the  Teamsters union which spurred the Minneapolis
general strike the same year.  In the San Francisco
local of the International Longeshoremens Association
the Communists and other radicals were able to pursue
their traditional policy of working from within the
AFL. Harry Bridges, who claims never to have joined the
CP, was the leading figure in the San Francisco general
strike, fighting his own international union as well as
the Stevedores who owned the shipping companies.(Foner,
1991; 1995;Preis, 1964;Kimmeldorf 1988)

Today, there are no longer viable national caucuses
within major unions with the single exception of the
long time Teamsters for a Democratic Union(TDU), which
briefly shared national power with forces around Ron
Carey and has a few seats on the Teamsters Executive
board. After Carey's ouster TDU has resumed its
position as a key organization within a broader, but
minority opposition. But although organized and led by
independent radicals, TDU is a syndicalist organization
in that it confines its program and activity to
promoting democratic and militant unionism,
particularly around the contract. Social movement
unionism, which has different origins and modes of
operation, survives at the local level in a few rank
and file caucuses and a small number of democratically-
run local unions that took office as a result of rank
and file insurgencies, especially in the UAW and
Teamsters. Among the most notable of the more recent
examples were the New Directions Caucus of the subway
and bus employees New York's 35,000 member Transport
Workers Union(TWU) local 100, and the New Caucus of the
Professional Staff Congress(AFT), the 14,000 member
union of faculty and staff of the City University of
New York. Both caucuses, whose activists were  mainly a
mélange of independent leftists, spent much of the
1990s running and often winning chapter and division
offices but losing at the local level. In the early
months of the new century, both captured local union
office. While these insurgencies have worked to improve
the lives of their members and participate in wider
struggles, they remain hemmed in by the onerous legal
and political framework of collective bargaining, the
generally conservatism of most New York City unions,
and affiliations with highly centralized international
unions. Contract administration occupies most of the
time of  the leadership and staff, even as the unions
do not hesitate to involve themselves in wider

The model of social movement unionism is the missing
ingredient in various prescriptions for addressing
labor's issues. Intrinsic in this model is a thoroughly
democratic organization that not only confers consent
on leaders but actively works to make the union not
only an organization for the rank and file, but one
that is of and by the membership as well. This means
that all basic union activities, from grievances
administration to organizing are essentially in the
hands of the membership, to which the staff responds
and assists, rather than directs. A wide range of union
policies are subject to the democratic decision-making
by the members. The leadership sees itself as a
collective educator rather than an oligarchy which
subverts the prerogatives of the rank and file by
taking power into its own hands, even if it obtains
consent. The day to day activity of the union consists
largely in providing opportunities for members to get
involved by understanding their own situation, the
relation of their problems to those of other working
people in other industries and around the world, what
the labor movement stands for and how they can
participate. A democratic union forms committees,
including an organizing committee, consisting of rank
and file members to make the decisions and perform the
actual organizing, and builds an extensive network of
workplace leaders--stewards, committeepersons, who are
invested with the power to protect and extend everyday
member interests. And the social movement is expressed
by engaging in  direct action as well as negotiations
with employers to achieve union objectives and goals.
The social movement unionist is critical of labor
institutions such as insurance and union run health
plans that, despite the good intentions of their
administrators and union leaders, perpetuate the
clientization of the membership and for this reason she
fights for genuine publicly funded health and pension

The social movement union project organizes workers,
whether they can expect to obtain a union contract in
the foreseeable future or not. Workers should be able
to join the labor movement as individuals, and groups
that do not have an immediate chance of winning a
majority to strike or petition for a representation
election, should be invited to be part of labor
movements. These individuals and groups should be able
to participate in many of  the same activities a social
movement union expects of its own members and should be
offered, where possible, discounted group health
insurance and other benefits. In this respect we can
recall the experience of the non-union era of the 1920s
when some unions and radical labor organizations
enrolled activists for the long haul. Note well: the
ILGWU and some contemporary radical groups such as the
Chinese Staff and Workers Association opened Workers
Centers and enrolled members in the 1980s and1990s
without the short term expectation they would quickly
win contracts. Contrast this strategy with the current
narrow emphasis on working exclusively with existing
union members or with workers in non-union situations
if, and only if, they are ready to vote in an NLRB
election. From an ideological standpoint the current
practices reinforce the view of many that unions are
not class organizations but instead are a series of
private clubs open to special people..

It is naïve to think that the revitalization of the
labor movement can be left to the leaders of
international unions. For, among other reasons,
organizing cannot be left to vertical organizations.
More than forty years ago, Chicago radical Sidney Lens
argued for shifting to horizontal modes of organizing
and political action. He believed the central labor
councils (CLC) should be main sites for these tasks.
The current San Francisco Central Labor Council may be
one example of this model. But there are too few
parallel examples in other cities and counties. In many
instances transforming the CLCs into organizing and
effective political vehicles will take a major effort.
Until a formation--perhaps a non-sectarian TUEL--
emerges to bring together rank and file and elected
union activists in a broadly based organization which
provides space for discussion and action, education and
strategic direction for rebuilding the labor movement,
the union movement will continue its slump. This
formation would not counterpose talk to action. It
would take positions on crucial issues of concern to
labor conceived in its widest meaning to include
housing, education, health and environmental issues.
And since it would be broadly democratic in the social
sense--inviting blacks, Latinos, Asians, women, and
gays into its ranks it would not ask its activists to
leave the social issues at the door. It might support
anti-corruption and other democratic movements within
local unions While it would participate in strike and
organizing support activities, including those
initiated by international unions and by the AFL-CIO,
and help mobilize workers for demonstrations, it would
also be a forum for debate about the vital question of
what are the elements of a new vision of a good life
appropriate for our times; what is a practical program
of labor and social revitalization; ask whether labor
needs a new party in which  progressive unions,
environmentalists, elements of the black freedom
movement, feminists and community activists play a
decisive role; and would make sober, realistic
assessment of the United States and global economic
political situation upon which to forge a practical
class strategy for change. (Lens, 1961)


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American Labor and America's Future Boston: Houghton

Cutler Jonathan(2004) Labor's Time Shorter Hours, the
UAW and the Struggle for American Unionism
Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Foner, Phillip S.(1991) History of the  Labor Movement
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Foner, Phillip S.(1995) History of the Labor Movement
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York: International Publishers

Greenhouse, Steven(November 10, 2004) "As Labor
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Operation Dixie and the Failure of the CIO
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Hamby Alonzo L.(1973) Beyond the New Deal Harry S.
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Hurd, Richard(2004) "The Failure of Organizing, The New
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Working USA The Journal of Labor and Society Volume 8
Number 1

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Movement Unionism and the Public Workplace Ithaca: ILR

Kimmeldorf, Howard(1988)  Reds or Rackets The Making of
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Lens, Sidney The Crisis of American Labor(1961) New
York: A.S. Barnes and Co.

Lichtenstein, Nelson(1995) Walter Reuther the Most
Dangerous Man in Detroit Urbana: University of Illinois

Rosswurm Steve Editor(1992) The CIO's Left-Led Unions
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press

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