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The Road Not Taken

Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), $18, 315 pp.; Mike Parker & Martha Gruelle, Democracy is Power: Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up (Detroit: Labor Notes, 1999), $17, 255 pp.

In a very well-known passage, Marx said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” Elsewhere, he said, “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” These words of wisdom provide us with a good entry point into a review of these two exceptional books.

Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business provides chapter and verse for the second quotation. Much has been written about the rise of the “New Voice” leadership in the AFL-CIO which, in 1995, began a sort of “revolution from above” to reinvigorate a moribund labor movement. The triumvirate of John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson engendered new hopes among progressives, with their bold focus on organizing new workers, more independent politics, and coalition-building. In the context of the immediate past, these choices have been a wonderful breath of fresh air and hopefully will open the door to future renewal. To date, however, the results have been somewhat disappointing. Union density has not risen, and the new leadership has failed so far to change substantially the conservative culture dominant in most unions.

Buhle suggests that we must look at the “New Voice” leadership as intimately, if unwillingly, tied to the entire history of the U.S. labor movement. He says, “[a] central experience within labor history, and a widely acknowledged problem for today’s labor movement, is the suffocating authority of the labor bureaucracy.” A bureaucracy, he adds, with a “self-serving acceptance of existing social arrangements ….” Buhle traces the history of the U.S. labor bureaucracy (the development of which he characterizes as “the tragedy of American labor”) by carefully examining the lives of three presidents of our national labor federations. What he finds is that the “traditions of all the dead generations [Samuel Gompers, George Meany, and Lane Kirkland]” do indeed “weigh like a nightmare” on Sweeney, Trumka, and Chavez-Thompson. Yet the first three did “make their own history.” They made certain choices when they could have made others, and the working people of the nation have suffered considerably as a consequence. As Buhle makes clear, the “New Voice” has its work cut out for it.

The United States differed greatly from the capitalist states of Western Europe from its inception. It had a radically democratic Constitution, which placed great emphasis on individual liberty. Skilled white workers believed that they had helped make this new nation and, therefore, should not be denied their rights as free men. They protested vigorously and organized aggressively when the consolidation of capitalism inevitably began to erode their liberties. At the same time, there were features of the new nation that confronted their organization with choices unlike those facing workers elsewhere. Foremost was the existence of slavery, and the racism this engendered within the working class—a racism used to great effect by the Democratic Party whenever it needed to woo the working-class vote. Antagonism to newly arrived immigrants was certainly connected to racism; it made it easier for skilled workers to blame immigrants for stealing their jobs (something that was seldom true) than to fault the detailed division of labor and mechanization (essential elements of the accumulation of capital) that were the true villains. Insistence by women that they had the same rights as men, the logical consequence of the rhetoric of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, caused further frictions among workers. (The same claim was made by blacks and immigrants.) The great strength of U.S. capitalism and the corollary power of the state combined not only to antagonize any labor movement, but also to provide the wherewithal to co-opt and bribe labor leaders and offer the semblance of middle-class affluence to at least a part of the working class.

The choices facing working-class movements in the United States included the following: Should workers aggressively oppose slavery? (After the Civil War, this became a question of actively embracing the freed slaves as an integral part of the working class.) Should workers be separately organized by skill? Should all immigrant workers be courted as equal members of labor organizations? Should the equality of women be championed? Should work in the home be recognized as labor equivalent to any other? What should be the view of worker organizations toward the state? Toward war? Toward imperialism? (Including the internal imperialism directed at Native Americans). Were the benefits capitalism might confer on a few workers worth the misery of the rest?

As Buhle shows, these were all questions actively debated among workers and within their organizations. Throughout our history, there have been individuals and groups arguing that only a broadly inclusive labor movement, conceiving of the class struggle in terms of culture and the nature of work as well as the labor market, had any hope of successfully combating the tremendous power of U.S. capital. These have included some of the early labor abolitionists, radical women’s rights activists, certain members of the First International, the Knights of Labor, the Western Federation of Miners, the IWW, parts of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and some communists. The standard wisdom of labor historians has it that these benighted people and organizations thought and acted so much against the grain of U.S. society that they were doomed to failure, their undeniable bravery notwithstanding. According to this view, only a conservative and pragmatic labor movement, one that accepted the main contours of U.S. capitalism, could hope to survive in such rugged terrain. Such a movement, of course, did develop, namely the American Federation of Labor (AFL), under the guidance of Buhle’s first protagonist, Samuel Gompers.

Buhle rejects this view of the AFL as pragmatic success story. While claiming to speak for all workers, the AFL instead consciously chose to organize only the skilled, white, male minority of the working class. And its leaders chose to attack any person or organization that it saw as a threat to this minority and to engage in any tactics that might improve its material circumstances. The demands of black workers, women, and immigrants threatened Gompers’ domain, so he opposed them, often with a racism that has to be read to be believed. Organizing unskilled workers was not seen as significantly beneficial to skilled workers, and they were thus ignored or condemned as morally unfit for union membership. Since radicals were the most likely to advocate a broad, class-conscious labor movement (one which would by necessity oppose the skilled, white, male labor aristocracy or at least seek to dilute its power), they had to be opposed by whatever means necessary, including cooperating with the police, the State Department, the FBI and, eventually, the CIA. If corrupt and racist urban political machines (usually Democrats) controlled high-paying construction jobs, then they had to be supported by the AFL or, better yet, coaxed by the threat of strikes and boycotts to share the spoils of corruption with labor’s leaders. If U.S. imperialism and war might benefit AFL member unions and their leaders (and add to the prestige of Gompers or Meany or Kirkland) and at the same time cast their radical critics in a bad light, then these must be supported at all costs. If (sometimes corrupt) cooperation with employers was necessary to secure work for members (or bribes for leaders to ensure “labor peace”), then such cooperation had to be endorsed.

To “succeed,” in other words, Gompers and his successors always chose the path of least resistance. But in a society marked by profound inequality, racism, sexism, imperialism, and dedication to vicious competition and rugged individualism, this strategy inevitably led to the development of an exclusivist, rigidly bureaucratic, undemocratic, and often corrupt labor “movement.” Once such a movement “succeeded,” it was in the direct material and status interests of its leaders to prevent it from changing. The AFL culture nurtured by Gompers who, despite his many negative qualities, had risen from the ranks of workers and actually organized them, ultimately gave rise to a self-generating bureaucracy whose only goal was to continue in power. After Gompers came George Meany, product of a corrupt and racist plumbers’ union local, who disdained strikes and nonunion workers and jumped into bed with U.S. intelligence agencies. He was an extreme jingoist whose persona can best be described as boorish, repulsive, and vicious. And finally the recently deceased Lane Kirkland took charge. Remarkably, he had no experience as a labor leader at all but was wholly a product of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. Unremarkably by this point, he also had murky ties to the national security establishment and was friendly with an unpalatable array of antilabor right wingers. Unfortunately for the hapless Kirkland, his misleadership occurred simultaneously with the onset of economic stagnation and a sharp business attack on labor. As union density and political clout spiralled downward, all that he could do was wonder why his former employer partners and his friends in government were not more solicitous. He was so unable to grasp what was happening that there were cries within labor for his resignation. He eventually resigned, with such diminished powers that he could not even anoint his successor.

While Buhle properly places the blame for the unique weakness of the U.S. labor movement on the decisions made by Gompers’ progeny, he also faults many choices made by labor’s left. Just as Gompers could have joined forces with the Knights of Labor and tried to build a more encompassing labor movement, so too the early socialists associated with the First International might have chosen to interpret Marx in a nondogmatic way and concluded that white, male, skilled workers were not necessarily the vanguard of the workers’ struggles, to which all other struggles had to be subordinated. The leaders of the Knights, themselves, did not have to retreat from the great Knights’ strikes just when they were showing so much promise. Gompers did not have to betray IWW and the militant socialist cadre to the police, but then again leading socialists did not have to ally themselves with Gompers and eventually become as rabidly conservative as he. Gompers and his progeny did not have to commit themselves to U.S. imperialism and undermine progressive workers’ movements throughout the world, taking money from the CIA even as this agency of death was encouraging the murder and imprisonment of union leaders around the globe. CIO leaders did not have to join in the witch hunts, making the CIO virtually indistinguishable from the AFL by the time of the merger in 1955. But neither did the communists have to urge the government to lock up the Trotskyists and slavishly follow the directives of Stalin. All of this is not to say that the actions of some radicals and those of Gompers, et. al. are on the same plane, but to say that radicals made their own history, too.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from Buhle’s examination of our labor history for those of us who want to help to rebuild the labor movement and make it a force for radical social transformation. First and most obviously, the “New Voice” leaders of the AFL-CIO cannot, by their revolution from above, overcome the overwhelming weight of the past. They can make some progressive changes (such as dismantling the International Affairs Department) and open up some space for radical activists. But they cannot radically transform themselves, much less the member unions, over which they have precious little control—precisely because they are, themselves, the product of a bureaucracy absolutely bereft of an ideology of class struggle. Federation leaders are busy creating new institutes and departments, endorsing various organizing drives and strikes, and organizing or speaking at conferences. But they are not busy developing a working-class ideology, championing union democracy, or formally denouncing racism and condemning U.S. imperialism.

Second, it would be a mistake for leftists to ally themselves too closely with the new leaders, because, if we do, we will inevitably begin to apologize for their shortcomings and to make rationalizations for them, just as did many erstwhile radicals in the days of Gompers. For example, in the first labor teach-in at Columbia University in 1996, philosopher Richard Rorty came close to apologizing for the New Left’s opposition to the war in Viet Nam. (Buhle quotes Rorty as saying at this teach-in that at one time the AFL-CIO was leading the United States toward a classless society!) What sort of critical stance can we expect from people thinking like this? We can and should support any and all good things which the Federation and the member unions do, and actively participate in them whenever we can. But we should do this as leftists, and we should, at the same time, insist on building the broadest possible movement and refuse to subsume the fights against racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism to the Federation’s definition of the working class and the labor movement.

Third, we need to think consciously of ourselves as the left wing of the labor movement and begin to work out a left-wing vision for the working class (including ourselves as members of this class). One way we might begin to do this is to take the egalitarian rhetoric of organized labor’s most progressive voices at face value and turn it inward, toward the unions themselves. That is, we should enunciate and act upon the idea that unions must be militantly egalitarian organizations, organized not just to fight the employers but to serve as training grounds for the growth of a democratic and egalitarian society.

Some radical intellectuals have downplayed the importance of union democracy, even arguing that it might be an impediment to union organizing. This is an argument that Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle convincingly dismiss. For them, it is evident that Democracy is Power, and their fine book is a thorough, accessible, and interesting guide for those brave souls who want to make their unions democratic. They argue persuasively that it is democracy that generates the worker power necessary to confront the bosses and the state, to defeat racism and sexism, and to teach workers to run their own affairs.

Parker and Gruelle make two obvious points about union democracy: “… a union will act in the interests of its members only if those members control the union” and “… the power of the union lies in the participation of its members, and it requires union democracy to make members want to be involved.” They then buttress these remarks by pointing out the weaknesses of arguments against democracy. Union members will make mistakes, but so will union autocrats. Nothing pressures an autocrat to learn from his mistakes, but members of a democratic union have the power to reflect on errors and rectify them in open discussion. In an undemocratic union, leaders have no way to cope with a loss of faith by the members but, in a democracy, this cannot be a problem, by definition: leaders will get automatic feedback from members; leaders can be democratically replaced; members themselves will act spontaneously to defend the union; and leaders will be stronger because they know that they have the support of the members, who decided the union’s policies in the first place.

Probably the most telling argument in favor of union democracy is the abject failure of the U.S. labor movement to increase membership and exert power against corporations and the government. While it is true that unions are on the whole far more democratic than businesses, it is also true that the U.S. labor movement can hardly be characterized as democracy in action. At their worst, U.S. unions have been organized as rackets, with officers stealing dues and pension monies and making sweetheart deals with employers. Leaders like James Hoffa might have extorted some wage and benefit gains for their members from employers, but the price paid by members was enormous, including the stolen money that might have gone into their paychecks.

Most other unions (excluding a small minority of truly democratic unions, many of which were evicted from the CIO during the McCarthy period) conduct themselves as “service” organizations, with union autocrats delivering the goods to a passive membership. In these unions, membership is akin to an insurance policy purchased by workers with their dues to insure them against unfair employer treatment and guarantee them good wages and benefits. The passive membership insures the leaders that they will not face any challenges to their power and perquisites. The trouble with this service model is that it allows the leaders to take actions without consequences to them, for example, the disastrous embrace of labor-management cooperation schemes in recent years. What is more, it has proven itself incapable of dealing with the employer attack on unions, which began during the onset of economic stagnation, in the early 1970s. Formerly powerful unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) have suffered a string of setbacks, which might have been moderated or defeated had the unions been democratic. Compare, for example, the catastrophic UAW strike against Caterpillar with the recent achievements of the more democratic Canadian Auto Workers, which broke away from the UAW in part over the issue of democracy. Or compare the successful UPS strike with the Detroit newspaper debacle.

Modern research tells us that workers are more likely to join a union or win at the bargaining table when they actively participate in the organizing or bargaining. The “New Voice” leadership understands this, and has begun to focus upon member mobilization to rejuvenate the labor movement. However, Parker and Gruelle warn us that Sweeney and company are still wedded to the undemocratic idea that the masses have to be activated by them. They appear unable to grasp that it is the masses themselves who have to do the activating.

Parker and Gruelle are well aware of the difficulties facing the union democracy movement. The entire culture, including that within most unions, encourages hierarchical thinking, passivity, and a deep-seated cynicism. Hierarchy appears normal because everywhere we look there are leaders and followers. Letting someone else do it for us is easier than taking actions ourselves. Corruption is so rampant in our society that it seems as if nothing can ever be done. Yet, in every workplace, there are those who don’t buy into the status quo, who want and expect more from life, and are willing to take risks to get it. These natural leaders can form the base of the struggle for union democracy. Some of them will see the big picture, and others can be taught to see it by more conscious activists.

After providing readers with a solid defense of democracy, including an excellent discussion of the perniciously antidemocratic effects of racism and sexism, the authors furnish realistic and time-tested advice for union democracy activists. Every topic imaginable is covered: techniques for motivating members to participate in the union, winning elections, building a team after taking power in a local, union structures and bylaws, and national union affairs and elections. There are also helpful appendices on how to effectively participate and run union meetings, rules of order, making and changing bylaws, and useful resources. Boxes describing actual democracy struggles or giving concrete examples of what is discussed in a chapter are interspersed throughout the book. Examples are drawn from a wide variety of unions, although extra attention is given to the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a natural prototype for union democrats. All told, this book is a must-read for both those new to the union democracy crusade and seasoned veterans.

Good books are those which not only provide readers with interesting facts and analyses, but those which lead readers to extend their own critiques. It struck me that leftists can best take advantage of the opening provided by the new AFL-CIO leadership by supporting as strongly as possible the fight for union democracy. This fight has the potential not only to rebuild the labor movement but to make it an integral part of the attempt to create a radically different society. Let us ask what sort of values are implied by a rank-and-file union movement committed to democracy and the solidarity necessary to make it a reality—that is, the values that might flow naturally from a struggle for union democracy:

  1. Employment as a right, fully on a par with other civil rights, such as the right to free speech. A movement based upon solidarity and democracy cannot easily abandon those who are unemployed or, for some reason, not in the labor force. Anyone working today can easily find himself or herself out on the street, on public assistance, or even in prison. So many good things happen when people are secure in employment. It is easier to overcome divisions in the workplace, and the overall power of the working class increases.
  2. Work as meaningful, with maximum integration, in every job, of our uniquely human capability to conceptualize and carry out work tasks, and a sharing of society’s more onerous tasks. A democratic union will naturally turn its attention to the workplace, and the hierarchies found there will be no more tolerable than those in the union. Workplace hierarchies are based, in part, upon an inhuman division of labor, which divides up our jobs and doles them out to us in little mechanical pieces, unfit for truly human labor. From democratic unions to democratic workplaces seems a natural progression.
  3. A good deal of consumption fully socialized: education at all levels, health care, including care for the aged, child care, transportation, and recreation (libraries, parks, playgrounds, gyms). In a real democracy, peoples’ basic needs must be socially provided. Otherwise it will be difficult for some to fully participate in making decisions, in unions and in other organizations, and democracy will be defeated.
  4. Maximum democratic control of production, whether by workers or communities, or both. As democratic control spreads from our unions to our workplaces, it will ultimately know no bounds. For what good will democratic and solidaristic unions be if decisions over the allocation of capital are made by a privileged few, intent on making maximum profits? Then, members of the most democratic union in the country will still be thrown out of work if their company shuts down or moves away.
  5. Hours of work as low as possible, and no special reward given to those who toil longer. If we controlled our own destinies, doing interesting work for the good of our communities and societies, perhaps this would not be such an important issue. Then extra work might be something people would just do, out of social responsibility for the sheer enjoyment of it. But for now, we cannot be working ourselves to death; democracy is simply not possible if we do.
  6. Work seen as part of our being in the world and every effort made to make work as nondestructive to nature as possible. If we are going to show solidarity with one another, then shouldn’t we show solidarity with the earth itself? The degree of environmental destruction is much greater than most of us imagine, and we had better stop it or we will have the solidarity of the imprisoned, the solidarity of the shipwrecked.
  7. No discrimination of any kind. An injury to one must be an injury to all, no matter who the one is—that is, irrespective of any person’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. And we cannot say, as many have, that we will attack discrimination after we take power, because such a view really means that we will never do it. We must make the fight for democracy in our unions a fight for equal rights for all.
  8. Equality, and not just some sham equality of opportunity, seen as a good in itself. When we think about it, it is very difficult to justify any significant differences in reward among human beings. Why should anyone make a great deal more money than another or have more wealth than another? Inequality is the great underminer of democracy.

It is clear that organized labor as presently structured will find it very difficult to lead us in these directions. But a democratic labor movement just might help us to awaken from the nightmare of the past and create a future not just as we please but a little more to our liking.

1999, Volume 51, Issue 06 (November)
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