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Labor Movements: Is There Hope?

Fernando E. Gapasin is a former professor of industrial relations and Chicano/a studies. He was the primary researcher for the development of the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities program. He has forty years of activism in the American union movement and is presently a local union president and president of a local Central Labor Council. Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. For many years he taught economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Longer Hours and Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), all published by Monthly Review Press.

For the past thirty years, the class struggle has been a pretty one-sided affair, with capital delivering a severe beating to labor around the globe. When economic stagnation struck most of the world’s advanced capitalist economies, beginning in the mid-1970s, capital went on the offensive, quickly understanding that the best way to maintain and increase profit margins in a period of slow and sporadic economic growth was to cut labor costs. Governments and global lending agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund began to implement policies that made workers increasingly insecure.

A list of the actions taken by labor’s class enemies makes for depressing reading: slashed wages and benefits, lean production (with its attendant increase in injuries and health problems, seldom addressed these days by public agencies), closed plants and ruined communities, successful ideological warfare by the right, the dismantling of the social welfare state, privatization of public services, deregulation, regressive taxation, structural adjustment programs, outsourcing and offshoring of work, antiworker trade agreements, and direct violence against workers. A special mention must be made of the situation in the former “East Bloc.” These countries have seen a massive theft of what had been social property and its conversion into private property. This along with the elimination of nearly all forms of socialized consumption have resulted in the unemployment of tens of millions of persons, the marginal employment of tens of millions more, and the death of tens of millions of workers and pensioners before their time. And China has seen drastic blows to the rights of labor and the growth of gross exploitation.

Besides damaging workers directly, the class war waged by employers has also radically restructured employment. Worldwide, there are many hundred million persons who are either openly unemployed or engaged in extremely marginal informal employment. This group includes millions of displaced peasants living in the sprawling urban slums surrounding the great cities of the global South. Among the rest of the working class, various kinds of contingent employment have spread rapidly—homeworkers, temporary workers, contracted workers, self-employed (and self-exploited) workers. Full-time, year-round employment is much less common, even in the rich nations, than it was in the generation following the Second World War. What is more, workers once secure in their employment must now face the likelihood of being uprooted and forced to move both within and among countries to find work, making the working class of every nation more ethnically and racially diverse. And everywhere, work stress and work danger are on the rise. Needless to say, all of these changes create difficulties for workers trying to organize themselves into unions and political organizations. It must also be stressed that, worldwide, women are more and more likely to bear the burden of the most severely exploitative waged employment.

Working-class organizations were slow to react to capital’s offensive, especially in the rich countries. In the United States, labor unions were wedded to the “labor accord” worked out in the late 1940s and 1950s in which employers tolerated unions and unions respected managerial control of the workplaces. This accord was the product of cooperation between what we can call “traditional” and “pragmatic” labor leaders. The first group, virulently anticommunist and supportive of U.S. imperialism and led by reactionaries like George Meany, wanted the progressive left purged from the labor movement. The second group, led by people like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, went along in the hope that their members would be able to win a middle-class standard of living and they themselves would gain power in their unions. Workers did make significant gains in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but when employers threw the accord in the trash bin, unions were left wondering what to do. Most of them did nothing.

In Western Europe, labor was embedded in a complex system of corporatism in which working-class Social Democratic political parties actively participated in government and in which unions, typically closely affiliated with these parties, had considerable power inside the workplaces. This arrangement was in general beneficial for workers, who were able to secure full-blown social welfare states and wages and benefits that were the envy of workers everywhere. The strength of the corporatist model varied from country to country, weakest in Great Britain, where workers suffered one defeat after another during the Thatcher years, and strongest in the Scandinavian nations. In general, workers in Western Europe have been able to hold on to much more of the gains won before economic stagnation took hold in the mid-1970s than have workers in the United States, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. However, the European corporatist model owed a good deal of its appeal for employers to their fear of the example of the Soviet Union and the postwar strength of homegrown communists. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, employers became more serious about class warfare, and today workers are under the neoliberal gun in Germany and even in Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

Of course, workers always resist the power of capital in one way or another, and the past three decades have been no exception. Some exciting events took place during the 1990s, and there was hope that a labor upsurge was in the making. French public employees virtually shut down the country in protest against government cutbacks. Canadian autoworkers occupied plants and appeared on the verge of radicalizing the entire Canadian labor movement. In the United States, reformers took over the AFL-CIO, and United Parcel Service workers waged a successful nationwide strike that looked like it might inspire similar strikes. Then labor made common cause with the various strands of the antiglobalization movement, most notably in Seattle. Labor also allied itself with the growing student-centered antisweatshop movement. All sorts of innovative organizing were tried—community alliances, gender- and race-centered campaigns, cross-border campaigns—and some were successful.

In the poor countries, protest against the devastation wrought by neoliberalism was widespread. Unemployed workers in Argentina forged a strong movement willing to use direct action, especially shutting down the country’s highways, to force the government to address their demands for jobs and public services. In South Africa, a movement of “the poors,” operating for the most part outside the mainstream labor movement, galvanized communities to fight for everything from housing, water, and electricity to abrogation of the debt of poor countries. In Mexico, the Zapatistas began their struggle for peasant self-rule the very day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. In Brazil, a movement of landless peasants combined with a national Workers Party not only to liberate land for the landless but to propel Lula da Silva into the country’s highest political office.

While all of these diverse actions and movements were important moments in the class struggle and while each managed to achieve some improvements for workers and their allies, neither individually nor considered as a whole did they mark a turning point in the class struggle. Union densities have continued to fall, and the depredations of neoliberalism have continued unabated. Most ominously, U.S. imperialism has become more nakedly aggressive, using the attacks of September 11, 2001, as cover for military mayhem and further assaults on workers’ rights and security.

Because the promising struggles of the 1990s failed to shake the rule of capital, workers’ movements have experienced both a sense of hopelessness and the beginnings of an understanding that changes have to be made. Labor leaders have a tendency to blame external factors for labor’s decline. These are seen as nearly overwhelming. Union strongholds in manufacturing are decimated by technological change and capital flight, both of which appear to be unstoppable forces uncontainable by workers’ organization. The changes in the composition of the workforce have made it nearly impossible to organize workers. In the United States, we hear all the time that the labor laws make it almost not worthwhile even to try to organize workers. So, when new initiatives fail to deliver, it is easy to become demoralized and think that the deck is stacked against workers, so why try to do anything.

At the same time, failure generates self-analysis. We are most familiar with the United States, so it might be useful to briefly examine what is going on there. Given the sorry state of the labor movement in the United States, it is sometimes the case that radicals throw up their hands and say that there is no use talking about a revitalized labor movement there. This is a mistake. European trade unionists, for example, are keen observers of the U.S. labor movement.

When John Sweeney won the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1995, leftists in the European trade union movement believed that the “New Voices” meant an end to the Cold Warrior regimes that dominated union politics in the United States. For some trade union leaders in Europe and a significant group of leftists there, actions such as sending representatives to the Global Social Forum in Brazil and participation in antiglobalization struggles seemed to show a move to the left. The “Union Cities” program initiated by the AFL-CIO seemed to aggressively move the federation towards broader alliances and accountability within communities throughout the United States. The AFL-CIO also shifted away from the anti-immigrant posture that had been a constant since the founding of the AFL in 1881, to one that demands amnesty for undocumented workers and the right to organize for all immigrant workers. From the European perspective, the AFL-CIO represents “The Left” in the United States and an important deterrent to anti-worker neoliberal policies globally. The New Voices leadership elected to lead the AFL-CIO in 1995 gave hope that the weakest labor movement in the rich capitalist countries would revive itself.

Ten years later this hope has died. A vigorous debate has ensued, centered on how organized labor can avoid complete irrelevance. Because the real power in the U.S. labor movement lies in the individual unions (the AFL-CIO controls just 1 percent of all union resources), proposals for change have mainly come from several unions and individuals. They largely fall into two categories: One group led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) believes that the crisis can be addressed by changing the structure of the union movement. The second group is led by the AFL-CIO leadership itself.

The SEIU in its ten point plan for change, “Unite to Win,” places emphasis on the importance of national health care, the right to organize, building a global labor movement, and strengthening power in the electoral political arena. But, central to the plan of the SEIU, is the idea of organizing on a large enough scale, within a particular labor market, so that no capitalist can gain an economic advantage over competitors by undercutting the wages of workers. Unions that have aggressively taken on the organizing of the unorganized should be rewarded. Thus the SEIU plan focuses on the more or less forced merger of most unions with the larger and more aggressive unions in fifteen different sectors of the economy. This proposal would create mega-unions similar to those in Australia and Europe. The idea is that those unions that are organizing will lead these sectors and provide more resources for organizing.

The IBT in its seven point plan for change, “Which Way for the AFL-CIO?,” places far less emphasis on reforms and zeroes in on the importance of “streamlining” the AFL-CIO. Like the SEIU, the IBT wants union mergers to be accelerated, AFL-CIO per capita (the share of union dues which goes directly to the AFL-CIO) to be rebated to unions that organize, and the jurisdictional dispute mechanisms of the AFL-CIO to be reformed. The IBT argues, and SEIU has agreed, that jurisdictional disputes should consider the strength of the union and weigh the difference in the contracts that they have been able to attain when considering which union should have jurisdiction.

For its part, the national AFL-CIO issued its plan, “Building a Unified Labor Movement: Creating Effective State and Local Labor Councils,” in March of this year. The first paragraph of the plan states, “The American labor movement is facing its greatest challenge—and the key to our prevailing in this crisis—is to greatly—and quickly—expand our political power…dramatically improve the performance of our state and local labor organizations, which have the primary responsibility for carrying out the programs of the national AFL-CIO.” Two bullet points of the plan highlight both the purpose of the plan and its top-down nature:

Our goal must be a unified, effective, and well resourced mobilization program for politics, legislation and support for organizing at the national, state and local levels, connecting members where they work and live to local, state and national issues and campaigns.

State federations and labor councils must also be accountable when they are not effectively carrying out a nationally—approved plan. The national AFL-CIO must insure that these plans reflect coordination between state federations and their respective central labor councils, and are implemented by providing sufficient support, training, coordination and resources. But, the national AFL-CIO must be empowered and required to assume control over the affairs of a state or local body to insure coordination and compliance with these plans if necessary.

There are intimations in these discussions that in the end it may be necessary to form a rival labor federation, akin to the formation of the CIO in the 1930s when it became clear that the AFL would not organize the workers in the mass production industries.

Concurrent with these intense and sometimes rancorous debates about the future of the labor movement, progressive individuals and groups have been taking some actions. The most significant of these has been the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) in 2003. This organization, comprised of individuals, unions, and other progressive organizations is not only opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq but to U.S. foreign policy itself. Its statement of principles—a just foreign policy, an end to U.S. occupation of foreign countries, a redirecting of the nation’s resources, bringing U.S. troops home now, protecting civil rights and the rights of workers and immigrants, and solidarity with workers and their organizations around the world—is remarkable in light of the sordid history of organized labor’s support for U.S. imperialism.

Workers in other countries have also been looking inward and sometimes taking actions. Mexican workers have formed entirely new labor federations and coalitions, and these are now firmly positioned to move the Mexican labor movement in a more leftward direction. In Venezuela, a new labor federation, inspired by the radicalism of the government of Hugo Chávez, has been formed to replace an older and corrupted one. In Brazil, a split has occurred in the Workers Party, with the more left-leaning elements in near revolt over the failure of the government of Lula da Silva to more aggressively oppose neoliberalism. In Zimbabwe, new labor groupings have provided the main challenge to the Mugabe regime. Some discussion is now taking place in the German labor movement, whose members are being hurt by the Social Democratic/Green coalition government’s slow but sure dismantling of the country’s vaunted system of social security. French and Italian workers have continued to demonstrate their ability to shut down entire regions of the country any time workers’ rights and benefits are threatened. And again in poor countries (for example, Ecuador and Bolivia), workers, displaced peasants, and indigenous peoples have been openly rebelling against the ravages of neoliberalism.

As workers regroup and re-strategize, we believe that several things must be kept in mind. First, workers inhabit many localities: workplaces, communities, extended families, civic and religious organizations, etc. Each of these can be sites of organizing, and none should be overlooked. In all of these places, people will already have various cultures of solidarity, and these should be central to any organizing. Demands may vary depending on the site, although the demands made by workers at workplaces can complement those made in communities, as when workers demand higher wages and better housing. The tactics used to win demands will vary as well, though again they can be connected; workers can picket both workplaces and the offices of political officials. It is important to remember that the future of labor movements may lie in the ability of local unions and federations to transform themselves to become the locus of labor movement power. It is, after all, at the local union level that everyday workers and communities interact with the labor movement. This is not to say that strong national and international organizations are not necessary; they obviously are. However, when power emanates from the top, bureaucratic dictatorship is the result.

One way to develop the local power base of the labor movement is to develop multiple access points for organizing, like workers’ centers. Here workers can join regardless of where they are employed. A center can be industry-specific or neighborhood based so that no matter in what industry workers are employed, they can join. Experiments with workers’ centers are popping up all over the world, especially among low-wage, vulnerable workers, including immigrants. They can serve a number of functions: provide workers with an opportunity to form a community and share their grievances, present basic education in workers’ rights, develop political consciousness through low-risk actions, and work toward building a movement of workers that can win significant gains, such as a “living wage.” These centers can also serve as access points for unions which would not otherwise have access to certain communities, such as non-English speaking immigrants.

Second, in any kind of organizing, those with the highest level of class consciousness must be central to the organizing. They will be the persons best able to explain things to others and to see the connections between local and global circumstances. They will also be the ones best able to see the connections among the many forms of inequality that exist in all capitalist societies. Given the nature of modern capitalism, those women and persons of color with the most developed class consciousness will have to be the key leaders of any labor movement. And at the same time, great efforts must be made to uncover capital’s most vulnerable points; it is in these that the most class conscious workers can be most effective. Transport workers, communication workers, food supply workers, high-tech workers, and others in key places must be organized and must exert their power in whatever ways they can.

Third, ways must be found to connect the stable and the unstable sectors of the working class, that is, those with relatively secure employment and the burgeoning segment of insecure and informally employed. There must be broad labor movement organizations, broader than ordinary labor unions, to encompass an entire labor movement. Perhaps the community and worker plant takeovers which have taken place in Argentina and Venezuela will point the way here.

Fourth and of most importance, we must ask what is the purpose of a labor movement. For what are workers to be organized? In other words, what are the principles of a labor movement? There is no point to talk about reorganizing the AFL-CIO and its unions, for example, if we don’t ask these questions. This is because the principles of a movement will dictate, to a large extent, its structure. The SEIU and IBT plans have nothing to say about these questions, so we can only assume that what they have in mind is the continuation of the conservative-pragmatic alliance and a hope for the return of the labor accord. In other words, business as usual, or at least the way it was forty years ago.

Bill Fletcher Jr. eloquently points out the problem with this approach:

Thus, the US union movement is confounded by a problem; a problem that it cannot resolve inside of the Gompersian paradigm. If it acknowledges that global capital is involved in a war of annihilation against labor; if it acknowledges that US capital wants to eliminate unions from the US scene; if it acknowledges that it is increasingly difficult to advance the living standards of any sector of the economy without having an internationalist approach; if it acknowledges that the demographics of the US workforce are changing; if it acknowledges that US foreign policy is at the service of two different wings of the ruling circles, neither of which has an interest in the working class, and both of which have an interest in one or another form of global domination; if it acknowledges that US foreign policy is generating hatred of the US by people around the world, then US organized labor is compelled to rethink itself in the fundamentals.

To rethink ourselves really means that a dialogue must open up within the trade union movement and between the trade union movement and other movements. This dialogue must aim to reconceptualize trade unionism. This reconceptualization needs to lead in the direction of what I and my colleague Fernando Gapasin call “social justice unionism.” This is about more than organizing and it is about more than building alliances with other sectors of the population.

Social justice unionism begins with the assumption that the New Deal and the welfare state as we once knew it, are not coming back. At the same time, the tendency toward barbarism, endless war, and pauperization for growing numbers of people must be halted. Thus, the question of the future of trade unionism must be integrally connected to a political realignment in this country and the conscious fight for political power. It must also be connected to a very different way of looking at unions and other mass organizations of the people overseas. This means that we must repudiate traditional US arrogance that assumes that all light and life begins within the borders of the USA.

Implicit in Fletcher’s comments is that labor must move to the left if it is to survive. If, for example, one of the purposes of the labor movement is to close the gap between rich and poor or to create greater social equality, inevitably the question arises as to whether these could ever be achieved under capitalism or whether the working class (and the union and labor movements) should be planning methods for challenging capitalist institutions, including the fundamentally exploitative character of the wage relationship. It is our experience that while some union leaders consider themselves leftists, radicals, or even socialists, they also believe that raising socialist issues is wildly idealistic and impractical. They put off these questions to the indefinite future, believing that they need to win more power before they can be raised. Since they are losing power by the ton, the struggle for sheer organizational survival takes precedence. But, maybe, keeping the higher goals in mind is a prerequisite for being able to win some power. As long as unions play the game of operating solidly within capitalism, accepting its basic rules, unions as we have known them could be doomed. The crisis we face should lead us not to narrow our vision of what needs to be fought for, but to broaden it.

History bears powerful witness to the need for a radical reorientation of the world’s labor movements, movements with principles like those enumerated by U.S. Labor Against the War. Where would labor be without its socialists and communists, those most committed to equality of every kind and most willing to take the risks necessary (and convince others to take these risks) to build strong labor movements. Even in the conservative United States, the left-led unions of the CIO not only led the struggles against U.S. imperialism and racism, they also won the best agreements and were the most democratic. They actually did what AFL-CIO organizing director Stuart Acuff says unions must do now: “We need to define an agenda that has the potential to change peoples’ lives.”

Reference Notes

The SEIU “Unite to Win” program can be found at The Teamster’s proposal for restructuring the AFL-CIO is at about/geb/resolutions/aflrestructure.htm. See Richard Hurd, “The Failure of Organizing, the New Unity Partnership, and the Future of the Labor Movement,”  WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8:5-25, September 2004 for a discussion of the AFL-CIO restructuring proposals.

2005, Volume 57, Issue 02 (June)
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