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Crisis in the U.S. Labor Movement: The Roads Not Taken

Elly Leary, a former autoworker whose plant closed, retired from UAW 2324 at Boston University, where she was vice-president and chief negotiator. She wishes to give special thanks to Paul McLennan. This article is an expanded version of a talk given at the Massachusetts Jobs with Justice Solidarity School, November 11, 2004


There is no disputing that these are tough times for the working class and its allies (all those oppressed by capitalism). The working class lacks a political party; social services to assist us with the inevitable problems we face have been eroded; and even our few precious institutions, especially unions, seem overwhelmed by the relentless attacks.

Consider these few facts: The federal minimum wage of $5.15 has not changed in seven years; it is now 61 percent of poverty level. Forty-five million people lack health insurance; for those who have it, premiums have risen 33 percent and out-of-pocket expenses 49 percent, more than eating up most pay raises. Twenty-two of the thirty-one “red states” (those which voted for George Bush in the 2004 election) have right-to-work laws. Manufacturing jobs have declined 12 percent in the last several years, but unionized manufacturing jobs in the same period have declined 66 percent. Union membership is barely 13 percent. In the private sector it accounts for a smaller percentage of the workforce than in the 1920s, the period that has usually been identified as the low-water mark.

As the debate rages about what to do, it is useful to step back and see how it got to this point. As Ella Baker persuasively put it, “I am saying as you must say, too, that in order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we’ve been.”

Many labor analysts place the onset of the crisis in the early 1970s. After the Vietnam War things really began to blow apart. That’s when the post-Second World War “consensus” came unraveled. At the heart of that consensus was the tacit agreement that if labor signed on to the Cold War empire-building agenda, the capitalists would lay off. This consensus, of course, barely existed for nonwhite workers.

The 1970s were when white workers, who more than anyone else had made great gains after the Second World War, saw their way of life under attack. Only those folks of color, principally blacks of African descent, who were working in manufacturing, and unionized, benefited from the consensus.

But placing the crisis at the collapse of the consensus misreads history and is, I would argue, too simplistic. This isn’t the first time labor has been at the crossroads. All along the labor movement has faced choices about what to do in times of crisis and difficulty. I want to point out how these different choices and, more importantly the roads not taken, have led to where we are today. These choices revolve around three critical and interconnected issues. For this discussion they have been separated, but in real life each one builds and intersects with the other, so that the result is something different than merely the sum of its parts.

For example, take the first issue, white supremacy. In this country it was built on the platform of patriarchy. Furthermore, no conversation about white supremacy can be separated from issues of class. So while we may talk about white supremacy, we know its contours and dynamics are determined by the additional interplay of patriarchy and class. As historian Robin Kelley says, “Racism is gendered, sexism is racialized, and class differences are reproduced by capitalism.” What I point out are just a few major markers of a more complex situation that requires a deeper analysis that pulls together the interconnectedness of issues and oppressions.

Issue 1: Not Confronting White Supremacy

At the start of the modern day labor movement after the Civil War when the first national unions formed, in particular the National Labor Union (NLU), choices were made about who could belong. After some angry debate, the NLU decided to exclude former slaves. Indeed, the majority forces inside the NLU were “Copperheads,” pro-Confederate northern Democrats, who attracted northern workers over the 1863 draft law, passed by a Republican Congress, which allowed the rich to buy their way out of military service.

The 1870s saw the birth of a number of labor unions, some local or regional in influence, others national in scope. Most of these unions were skill or trade based—printers, ironworkers, and the like. Many of these unions had members and leaders who were part of socialist or anti-capitalist parties. Even so, uniformly these unions and parties were racist and sexist. In the East and South, blacks were the main target; in the West, there was a virulent anti-Chinese racism. Most labor activists in this country know the racist origins of the union label—a scheme by the cigar makers union, wholeheartedly supported by the socialist Workingmen’s Party, to show their product was not made by Chinese immigrant labor whom they had barred from union membership.

Both the Knights of Labor, which was a major player from the early 1870s through the early 1890s, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose star shone from 1905 through 1918, had better records on confronting white supremacy (and patriarchy). However, by the time the American Federation of Labor (AFL) assumed the driver’s seat of the labor movement during the First World War, efforts to build a more inclusive labor movement were dead in the water. The AFL vigorously enforced a policy of black and Asian exclusion. A little known but telling example is the case of the Japanese Mexican Labor Union, born in the beet fields of California in the early years of the twentieth century. Initially, sugar farmers used Mexican and Chinese contract labor, but that ended with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902.

Japanese workers were then aggressively recruited through an ethnically based subcontract system. The Sugar Beet Association, afraid of the growing power of the subcontractors to improve wages and working conditions, refused to hire through subcontractors, cut wages, and tightened their grip on purchases through the company stores.

Unexpectedly, the Japanese and Mexican workers and subcontractors formed a labor association, went on strike, crippling the industry and eventually winning all their demands. Soon after, the Japanese Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) applied to the AFL for a charter. Samuel Gompers, then president of the AFL, granted the union a charter on the condition that Asians could not become members. The JMLA was furious and rejected the charter saying, “We would be false to them and to ourselves and to the cause of unionism if we accepted privileges for ourselves which are not accorded to them.”

Until the 1930s when the first national labor laws were passed (the famous Wagner Act), unions were not legally recognized. Workers trying to organize could be tried for conspiracy. In order to get the necessary votes in Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt had to make a deal with the “Dixiecrats,” the significant number of Southern Democrats, many of whom were wealthy farm owners descended from slave-holding planters (thus their other name, “plantocracy”).

The Dixiecrats agreed to vote to legalize labor unions if the law excluded agricultural and domestic workers. This compromise eliminated most of the black working class in the South from legal union coverage. This compromise was originally intended to keep former slaves and their descendants in a state of poverty and dependence; today immigrant farm workers from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Haiti feel its consequences.

And of course, there was the failure of Operation Dixie, the post-Second World War effort by the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) to organize the South. Operation Dixie failed because of three essential mistakes:

1. Transplanting the Northern strategy that successfully organized automobile plants and steel mills onto the South without any regard for Southern culture and usually at the hands of Northern organizers.

2. The refusal to confront white supremacy because it was thought that it would be too difficult and no white workers would join the union. We should be clear. A frank reckoning with white supremacy was a task of extreme difficulty. It meant taking on the complex and volatile mix of class, gender, and religion that were the foundation of, as Southern author Lillian Smith so clearly put it, the “drug of white supremacy.” Instead, the CIO focused exclusively on economic issues, avoiding discussion of race, white consciousness, or what role nonwhites would play inside the union.

The dread of confronting this core issue was part of the reason that Operation Dixie targeted textile mills. That workforce was almost entirely white. Textiles were chosen even though the bitter memories of repression from the strike wave of 1934 were still fresh and the mill owners’ iron grip on Southern mill towns made General Motor’s role in Flint, Michigan seem benign.

Demonstrating the lengths the CIO went to avoid the issue was the failure to organize in tobacco—the South’s other main industry—where organizing drives had been very successful during the early 1940s. Tobacco’s workforce was multiracial. Up to December 1946, the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO (FTA) had been involved in sixty-two Operation Dixie drives, winning fifty-two of them for a gain of more than 12,500 workers.

3. Purging or banning any organizer or shop activist who was “left” or “red.” One of the first to go was the FTA, whose leadership and organizing staff in the South were dominated by women and men of color, many of whom had joined the Communist Party. This left Operation Dixie in the hands of racially conservative, anticommunist white males, many of whom had little experience in Southern ways of organizing. None of them were about to challenge the economic, social, and political hegemony of the Dixiecrat-controlled system of white supremacy, nor the patriarchal foundation it rested upon.

Issue 2. The Defeat of Community Unionism

The Knights of Labor organized not just by sector but also geographically. In cities across the country the Knights formed “lodges” that included everyone in the community, regardless of their job, or no job. Women, African Americans, and Mexicans were part of the Knights and served in leadership roles. At their 1886 national convention in Richmond, Virginia, the Knights successfully demanded that African-American delegates be admitted to all hotels and theaters. The Knights did, however, exclude the Chinese.

The Knights were popular because they emphasized land reform, education, and mutual aid societies, held social functions, and urged workers to form cooperatives. In many places, they were the hub of all working-class and progressive activity. For example, the New Mexican Knights, under Mexicano leadership, helped form the People’s Party, which dominated local politics for several years.

The demise of the Knights allowed the AFL to consolidate its position as the “legitimate” trade union movement. Their policy of “bread and butter” unionism limited to workers’ wages and working conditions at a specific work site became the predominant paradigm.

The formation of the CIO was a much-needed counterweight. Because most CIO organizing was centered in mass production industries which had a large immigrant workforce (Eastern Europe predominantly) as well as some African Americans, CIO organizers relied heavily on ethnic community organizations like social clubs, burial societies, churches, and the like. Many CIO organizers were recruited from these organizations.

CIO organizing efforts in the South prior to Operation Dixie similarly relied on organizing both in the community and the workplace. An excellent example of how this strengthened both the movements in the workplace and in the communities is FTA Local 22 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In early 1947 the local campaigned vigorously for three candidates for city alderman. All three won, and the top vote-getter, Kenneth Williams, received the largest vote for any alderman in the history of Winston-Salem. Moreover, he was the first black alderman since Reconstruction.

It is little known that in 1946 the CIO’s plan was not limited to organized workers. Their program of class demands, accompanied by the largest strike wave in U.S. history, covered both union and nonunion workers: thirty hours work for forty hours pay—a program designed to help integrate tens of thousands of returning soldiers while still allowing women and minorities, who had taken their jobs, to retain some much needed, well-paid (union) employment; national health insurance; 25 cents an hour pay raise for every worker, roughly a $3.25 an hour raise today. That CIO front was broken by Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the fall of 1946 when he signed an agreement with General Motors, locking into place our society’s pattern of company-sponsored health insurance and ending any discussion about national health insurance for decades.

Issue 3: Not Challenging Capitalism (the ‘C’ Word) and Empire

As mentioned, the consolidation of the second industrial revolution—and the financial meltdown in the 1870s—set the stage for the rise of the Knights. Not only were they grounded in the community, they were anticapitalist. Part of their program was to return to a simpler way of life, before the industrial age of robber barons. They wanted a “cooperative commonwealth.” The Zapatista program of cooperatives and niche economics is very similar to the Knights’ cooperative commonwealth.

Once the Knights of Labor had been crushed, two other labor federations rose to prominence. One was the AFL, the other the IWW. The IWW was avowedly anticapitalist. The preamble to the IWW’s founding convention boldly states, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common….It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.” This was not mere rhetoric. For example, they opposed union contracts as compromising with capital.

The IWW believed the way to settle scores, both at work and in the community, was through direct action. But it was their stand against the First World War as a war of the bosses in which the working class world-wide would lose that doomed them. They faced outright repression from the government—jailings, beatings, deportations and endless trials. The AFL rode to preeminence on its pro-war stand and frankly aided and abetted governmental repression efforts of the Wobblies.

Another significant fork in the road came after the Second World War. There were massive Cold War purges inside the union movement of those who challenged capitalism. Not coincidentally, most of these were the same forces that were challenging white supremacy (and did the most to cultivate and develop woman leaders). This took place at the same time as Operation Dixie and compounded its mistakes. The purges led rather quickly to the merger of CIO and AFL and signing on to the Cold War agenda.

For years, international relations of the AFL-CIO were squarely in line with the ruling Cold War consensus. Through its international department, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), founded in 1962 in response to the Cuban Revolution, actively promoted only “free trade unions” and crushed indigenous union movements around the world, many of them anticapitalist.

Even though the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney backed off from many of these abuses, the record is still poor. For example, we heard a lot about supporting the oil workers’ union in Venezuela, a union which proclaimed Chávez a threat to democracy and the unions. It was never mentioned that the union the AFL-CIO supported was the union of bosses and supervisors, not the union of the workers, who actually went to work and manned the oil facilities.

Overall, labor’s official “international relations” are mired in U.S.-centric arrogance and begin and end with rhetoric about mutual aid and support, or “labor solidarity.” Real analysis of forces, context, and conditions rooted in an anti-neoliberal framework are not part of the current dialogue.

Finally, there is the steadfast allegiance of the dominant trend within the union movement to the Democratic Party, even when that party has carried out over the last dozen years a pro-neoliberal, anti-worker agenda.

But capitalism isn’t only about foreign relations, politics, and economics. Capitalism is also about culture, and consequently, social control. The more powerful the dominant system, in this case capitalism, the more dominant its culture and the less it needs to rely on force for social control. Culture is way more than “good” art and music or popular culture. It encompasses how people view and interpret the world around them, what passes for “common sense,” “normal,” “moral values,” and right and wrong. Culture gives meaning to ideas like “democracy,” “equality,” and “freedom.” It even extends to ideas about what makes a good organization, something quite central to the current debate inside the union movement.

Most of the time everyone in this country, including our institutions like unions, is constrained by U.S. capitalist culture. For example, much of the language of the current union debate is about capturing “market share.” The organizational suggestions have much in common with capitalist business practices—mergers and consolidations for efficiency; power shifting to the top for accountability; and a tremendous reliance on charismatic individuals (in this case all white men!) at the national level to exemplify the program and mobilize the base around what the top leadership has developed for them. None of the major proposals questions this dominant organizational model of top-down, leader-centered groups in the context of capitalist cultural hegemony.

But in times of strong social movements, countercultural ideas can gain, at least temporarily, a foothold. These organizations are characteristically bottom-up, with developed grassroots leaders who are group-centered. Additionally, they have strong ties to the community and larger social and political issues and movements. It is no coincidence that this countercultural model deals with the intersectionality of issues and oppressions.

Put another way, if the issue of organization for working-class power revolves around the axis of class (capitalist social relations), it is also true that the solution must simultaneously include, and solve, issues around white supremacy and patriarchy. As I’ve tried to show throughout, issues of race, class, and gender are inextricably woven together. Situations determine which one holds the key to solve the others.

In any event, organizations which successfully combine all these elements and deal with all the intersecting issues hold the promise of merging disciplined action, which members collectively plan and control, and a place where individuals can develop their full potential as critical thinkers and well-rounded human beings. These organizations I call “liberatory organizations.” Time after time though, they have become the roads not taken. But when such organizations have become part of the labor movement the results have been stunning.

One of the most famous IWW actions was the ten-week strike of 23,000 against the American Woolen Company in Lawrence, Massachusetts in January 1912. Lawrence was a typical mill town. The official U.S. government investigation into the strike estimated that 60,000 of the 85,000 residents were dependent upon the textile industry, the largest employer being American Woolen.

Most remember the strike because of the leading role women strikers played. Polish women led the walk-out. Erroneously thinking that the police would not beat or jail women, they were central to organizing the picket lines. Women strikers coined the famous strike slogan, “We want bread but we want roses too.” Less is known about their unique methods, usually not shared with male leaders, of dealing with scabs. What also stands out is the innovative organizational solution to build unity among twenty-four ethnic groups with twenty-two different languages—a bargaining committee of nearly 300, with delegates from each language and ethnic group.

Another example is graphically replayed for us in the movie Salt of the Earth where issues of race, class, and gender collide in the building and maintenance of a member-run local. Here Mexicano/Chicano miners of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers struck Empire Zinc from October 1950 to January 1952. The strike, as well as the movie’s filming, is set in the context of McCarthyism and a company town ruthlessly ruled by an Anglo minority. As the strike grinds on it escalates into a community strike because of mass evictions and assorted corporate/law enforcement evil doings that are chock full of white supremacy and sexism. Women get involved in a big way, altering their role and consciousness. And workers from surrounding mines arrive to lend support.

The underlying internal contradictions among the strikers are rolled out on film for everyone to see. There is the racism of the white organizer sent from the international even though he is part of a “Communist dominated” union (to use the phrase of the day). Front and center is the issue of the patriarchy of Mexicano and Anglo men. As Debby Rosenfeld’s brilliant 1976 review says, “These struggles—against racism, sexism, the unchecked power of the ruling class—converge and coalesce. At times they conflict (or seem to conflict) with one another. Where they conflict, the mining community becomes divided against itself. Where they converge, there is unity.”

Fortunately, these liberatory organizations do exist today as well, even inside the labor movement. Some local unions do operate in this way and can be found in the most unlikely places—like the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE, now merged with the Communications Workers of America) GE aircraft engine local in Lynn, Massachusetts, which has transcended its anticommunist past and come full circle. A number of Jobs with Justice chapters are trying to create these kinds of organizations. But they are far from being the dominating model that the Knights and IWW were in their time.

However, inside the other sections of the labor movement—worker centers in particular—this model has gained a strong foothold. That is why we need to ask them to play a part in the conversation about the crisis in the labor movement. We need to be painfully aware that the answers for labor renewal may not lie in the 13 percent that are organized.

So as we debate where to go from here we need to keep our history in mind. I would also offer five questions for us to answer as we evaluate some of the plans and strategies put to us as part of the solution.

  1. How does any strategy for labor renewal engage and build on the strengths and leadership of the grassroots/rank and file, in particular women and people of color?
  2. How does a strategy for labor renewal address the challenges of empire in all its forms?
  3. How does a strategy for labor renewal confront the historic obstacles (white supremacy, sexism, and heterosexism) to building real working-class unity?
  4. How does a strategy for labor renewal build liberatory organizations for the long haul?
  5. How can a strategy for labor renewal link labor and community in seamless and reinforcing ways?

Reference Notes

Here are some useful references, all of which were used in researching this article: on the sugar beet workers see Tomas Almaguer, Racial Fault Line: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Philip Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619–1973 (New York: International Publishers, 1976); on the Lawrence mills strike see Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4 (New York: International Publishers, 1965); Barbara Griffith, The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988); Michael Goldfield, The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: New Press, 1997); Michael Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, Organizing Memphis Workers (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Robert Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Jon Quaccia, “National Endowment for Death Squads? The AFL-CIO and the NED,” Against the Current, 2004; Peter Rachleff, Black Labor in Richmond: 1865–1890 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984); Deborah Rosenfelt, “Ideology and Structure in Salt of the Earth,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 12/13, 1976, http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/ onlinessays/jc12-13folder/saltofearth.html.

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