Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Unions Must Move Left, They Have No Alternative

Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 324 pages, $17.95, paper.

David Bacon ( is a California writer and documentary photographer. He was a union organizer among immigrant workers for two decades. He documents the changing conditions in the workforce, the impact of the global economy, war, and migration, and the struggle for human rights. He is a Newspaper Guild/CWA member, and chaired the board of the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights. His newest book is Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008). He is host of a weekly KPFA-FM radio program on labor, migration, and globalization.

Through the 1980s I was a union organizer and activist in our Bay Area labor anti-apartheid committee. As we picketed ships carrying South African cargo, and recruited city workers to support the African National Congress (then called a terrorist organization by both the United States and South Africa), I looked at South African unions with great admiration.

The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), banned in the 1950s, had found ways to organize African and Colored workers underground, to support a liberation struggle in a broad political alliance. Heroic SACTU leaders like Vuyisile Mini gave their lives on the scaffold for freedom. Then, as apartheid tottered and eventually fell, SACTU unions became the nucleus of a new federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). With roots in that liberation war, it declared socialism its goal, and still does today.

COSATU unions prize rank-and-file control over their elected leaders, and engage members in long and thorough discussions of the country’s development plans. The labor federation has the most sophisticated political strategy of any union in the world today. It balances its leading role in the tripartite alliance that governs South Africa with independence of program and action. It has struck to force policies that put the needs of workers before the neoliberal demands of the World Bank. Jacob Zuma owes his election as president of South Africa today to South African labor.

As an organizer during the same period, I worked with many others to force our own labor movement to recognize that organizing new members and changing our politics was necessary for survival at home. If we could double our size (at least), I thought, we’d have more power, while the street-heat generated by the intense conflict organizing creates would set the stage for political transformation. Needless to say, that transformation process turned out to be much more complicated than I expected.

At the beginning of Solidarity Divided, Bill Fletcher recalls a comment made by a health care unionist at a meeting in South Africa that sums up part of what makes COSATU so different from the AFL-CIO. “‘Comrades,’ the South African unionist began, ‘the role of the union is to represent the interests of the working class. There are times when the interests of the working class conflict with the interests of the members of our respective unions.’”

Fletcher and his coauthor Fernando Gapasin use the quote to dramatize two important differences between our movements. South African unions talk about workers’ class interests, using words that still frighten unionists here. And not only can COSATU militants see the potential conflict that can sometimes arise; they also believe that when it does, unions should put the interests of all workers before their own institutional needs.

There are many differences between the U.S. labor movement and other union movements around the world. In France in recent months, workers have imprisoned their bosses in their offices to force them to negotiate the closure of factories and job elimination. On May Day, hundreds of thousands of workers poured into the streets in Germany and Russia; and in Turkey, unions battled the police for the right to stand in Taksim Square. In El Salvador, unions supported the guerrilleros during a civil war to upend Central America’s most unjust social order, while their offices were bombed and their leaders killed. In the Philippines, workers commonly put up tents at the gate of a factory on strike, and live there until the strike is over. Even workers from Mexico and Canada use phrases like “working class” as part of ordinary conversation.

By comparison, we seem pretty conservative. Our labor movement has resources and wealth that are enormous in comparison with most unions around the world. But our own existence and power is just as threatened as that of many others.

The purpose of Solidarity Divided is not to compare us unfavorably with labor elsewhere, or to mount an unrelieved criticism of our conservatism. It is to ask questions, so that we can come to grips with the problems that endanger our survival. And, while the experience of unions and workers in other countries can’t be transferred or copied, it can at least inspire us with the courage to face our own situation with realism and the determination to change it.

Some activists criticize Solidarity Divided for the dark picture it paints of the situation faced by unions in the United States. It is not a hopeless one, but it is certainly sobering. Few would argue that, with 12 percent of workers in unions, there is no crisis for U.S. labor. And the authors are certainly not saying that workers can’t win in conflicts with employers today, or with the political system. The Bush era was defeated in large part by union activists, money, and votes. Workers can still win major organizing drives, as they did after a sixteen-year struggle at Smithfield Foods in North Carolina. U.S. Labor Against the War can win over labor to call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq, and for solidarity with Iraqi workers.

But in reality, the working class here at home faces profound changes that have fundamentally undermined its political rights and standard of living. Over the last four decades, corporations have built an international system of production and distribution that links the workers of many countries, but in which workers have no control over the expropriation and distribution of the wealth they create. Further, this system has forced devastating and permanent unemployment on entire generations of U.S. workers, especially in African American and Chicano neighborhoods. Meanwhile, neoliberal economic policies displace communities in developing countries, creating a reserve labor force of hundreds of millions who migrate both within and across borders, desperate for work.

Fletcher and Gapasin wrote Solidarity Divided before the current economic crisis, which only highlights the problems they describe. Many elements of this crisis are structural, and won’t disappear with the next turn of the business cycle. Workers increasingly can’t buy back what the system produces—the bizarre loan conditions that financed home purchases only illustrate that thousands of purchasers didn’t have the income necessary to buy housing.

Unions and workers must demand increasingly radical reforms if they are to survive in this environment. As Fletcher and Gapasin point out, the idea that “the needs of workers can be met by the bargaining demands and institutional needs of unions” is a relic of a vanished past.

Corporations today are almost entirely opposed to any reforms to the current system, whether single-payer health care or the right to a job. They’ve discarded the social charter in which employers, after the Second World War, reluctantly acquiesced to the existence of unions, under certain conditions. When one considers the ferocity with which they battle the relatively minor changes in U.S. labor law proposed by the Employee Free Choice Act, it’s clear that, to corporations, the idea that unions should be encouraged—an ideal enshrined in the preamble to the National Labor Relations Act—is just so much meaningless verbiage.

Despite a desperate desire by U.S. labor leaders to revive what formerly appeared to be a degree of mutual respect between corporations and unions, Fletcher and Gapasin say that “peace has not come. Nor can these leaders, nor anyone else, identify any sector of corporate America that intends to establish a new social compact with labor.”

Each month, for the last half year, over half a million people have lost their jobs. Banks have been showered with hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars to keep them afloat, while working families can’t get their loans renegotiated so they can stay in their homes. Yet there has been no national demonstration called by either labor federation, demanding a direct federal jobs program or redirecting the bailout to workers instead of the wealthy. Remember those French workers? They’re not just organizing (yet another!) general strike protesting the same conditions; they’re holding their bosses hostage.

The book, then, is about change. Where did labor’s current conservatism come from? We, too, have a radical past. In the United States, people used to talk about the working class, debate the nature of capitalism, and discuss strategies for radically transforming or replacing it. So what happened? Why is it now so difficult for labor to change?

One of the most valuable parts of Solidarity Divided is its examination of our own history. It is not a detailed academic history, but it establishes the fact that U.S. labor has always had a left wing that advocated the organization of all workers and radical social change, even while racism limited its potential.

William Sylvis, for example, organized the National Labor Union and included African Americans during the post-Civil War decades, yet failed to protest the end of Reconstruction and the reestablishment of the racist white power structure in the south. The Wobblies organized immigrants in many languages, and used free speech fights and working-class songs and music to organize a population of itinerant floating workers. We see day labor unions developing the same ideas today. The CIO won the crucial battle to organize the country’s basic industry, but lost its radicalism in the purge of the left, substituting a centralized bureaucracy for earlier rank-and-file democratic traditions.

To change, we need to reexamine the ideas and strategy that are part of our own inheritance. But we also need to come to grips with the purges that drove that left-wing culture underground.

One of the most important reasons why change is so hard for U.S. unions is the continuing legacy of the Cold War. Fletcher and Gapasin go to the root of the problem in urging a reexamination of the cost that labor paid for the suppression of the left. That period may seem long ago, but it marked a turning point in the relationship between left-wing activists and their ideas, and in the centers of power in modern unions. “Today the dominant coalition of traditionalist and pragmatist union leaders continues to shape union culture,” they say, “whereas leftists get co-opted or marginalized. This situation limits the union movement’s scope and narrows unions’ political and social impact.” Although Solidarity Divided contains a rare analysis of the role new left militants played in unions during the post-Civil Rights years, it offers no comment on why those activists made so little effort to come to terms with the history that created the conservatism against which they rebelled.

No pair of authors can write a prescription for change: “just do what we say and your problems will be cured.” But they can urge us not to be afraid of facing the truth, and Gapasin and Fletcher do that.

Discussion in labor is difficult because the Cold War taught unionists that political differences beyond a limited range would result in marginalization at best, expulsion at worst. You can’t talk freely if you’re afraid for your career or your job. That Cold War straightjacket strengthened a hierarchical structure and culture, very different from the egalitarianism in COSATU or Salvadoran unions. We have forgotten the Wobblies’ idea that we’re all leaders, equals among equals. At the same time, unions have accumulated property, treasuries, and political debts, and have an interest in defending them, making institutional needs paramount. We don’t challenge the government out in the streets beyond a certain point because we don’t want to risk not being at the table when the deals affecting our future are made.

Fletcher and Gapasin spend a great deal of the book analyzing the various efforts to change labor’s direction following the 1995 New York convention election of John Sweeney as president of the AFL. One important reason for the halting and incomplete nature of these changes was the failure to come to grips with what had come before. Labor needed then, and still needs today, its own truth commission, to publicly discuss the consequences of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s.

Radical ideas and the language to describe them continue to be illegitimate because their suppression has been unacknowledged. After 1995, the prevailing attitude in national leadership was, “We don’t need to rehash the past. Let’s concentrate on where we’re going now.” It’s difficult, however, to determine that new direction if you can’t talk about where the old one was headed, and what was wrong with it.

Nowhere is this confusion more evident than in labor’s attitude toward U.S. foreign policy. In Colombia, the barriers to solidarity with its left-wing union federation came down, and unions like the United Steel Workers of America became bastions of support for its embattled unionists. Yet next door in Venezuela, U.S. labor supported coup plotters against the radical regime of Hugo Chávez. Under pressure from U.S. Labor Against the War, the AFL-CIO publicly rejected U.S. military intervention in Iraq. Yet the Democratic Party’s support for war in Afghanistan and for Israel’s attack on Gaza are greeted with silence.

Change is always uneven and incomplete, but the change process in U.S. labor has virtually stopped, leaving unions increasingly caught up in internal divisions and conflict. Solidarity Divided was written before the current internal struggle between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its California health care local, and its intervention in battles within UNITE HERE. But these are conflicts over the basic issues raised in the book—class partnership versus class struggle, and the right and ability of union members to control their own organizations.

Lacking agreement on how and why the power of unions was undermined by the suppression of the left, there has been no consensus on what should replace the old Cold War philosophy. Much of Solidarity Divided, then, is devoted to description and analysis of different ideas about how labor should be revitalized: some good, some at best ineffective, and some awful.

Both authors write as “participant observers,” Fletcher as a highly placed staff member at SEIU, then education director at the AFL-CIO and special assistant to Sweeney; Gapasin as a local union leader, labor council head, and labor and ethnic studies professor at UCLA. They were there for many of the arguments and movements they describe, and they outline some of the most important efforts to get the union movement to change direction: Jobs with Justice, the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project, and others.

They pay particular attention to the “organizing model,” which was developed in opposition to the philosophy of business unionism, in which members pay dues and receive in exchange union services, as though a union were an insurance program rather than an organization built to fight the boss. But, the book says, “reformers began to worship member mobilization and activism, certainly a component of a vibrant trade unionism, without much discussion of who should do the mobilizing, what the objectives should be, and what methods were appropriate.”

A bigger problem with this model, however, is that it has so little interest in the education of workers as to the nature of the society in which they live. A deeper understanding (that is, greater class consciousness) can lead to ideas for alternatives, both in radical reforms of the existing system, and even its replacement. This kind of education, part of the normal life of unions in South Africa or El Salvador, requires an investment of time, and a real interest in how workers think. People act autonomously, based on their ideas, and workers with greater understanding and consciousness are able to lead themselves and one another, rather than acting solely on directives from above. Further, while education doesn’t necessarily produce immediate mobilizing results, it does treat workers as the people whose thinking, and eventually whose leadership, is the key element in building a union.

Instead, Fletcher and Gapasin point out, the mobilizing model produces unions that are directed by full-time paid staff, in which workers play a subordinate role. At worst, workers become almost irrelevant in a numbers game in which the size of the union is what counts, rather than creating an organization they can learn to use to challenge an employer to win better wages and conditions.

Fletcher was himself the creator of the most ambitious effort in decades to educate union activists and local leaders, a program called “Common Sense Economics.” Strangely, Solidarity Divided has no discussion of that experience. There are some other puzzling omissions, especially the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That treaty caused a huge debate in labor, which coincided with the rebellion that eventually brought Sweeney into office. It marked a watershed in the growing awareness among U.S. workers of the impact of globalization, and brought forth important new movements of solidarity, especially between unions and workers in the United States and Mexico.

Solidarity Divided includes an important section on globalization, but sees it mostly in terms of military domination. But what is new about the role workers play in this system? Are the anti-globalization movements sweeping Europe and the developing world allies of the labor movement? Do they propose real alternatives, or are they united primarily by a common hatred of capitalism?

The battle in Seattle over NAFTA and the WTO not only profoundly affected the thinking of workers about the future of their own jobs, but it also set the stage for the huge debate over immigration that followed. Those workers and unions who were educated by the debate were in a much better position to understand the way neoliberal reforms displaced workers and farmers in Mexico and led to migration across the United States/Mexico border.

The debate over immigration policy now puts critical questions before U.S. unions. Are unions going to defend all workers (including the undocumented), or just some? Should unions support immigration enforcement designed to force millions of workers from their jobs, so that they will leave the country? How can labor achieve the unity and solidarity it needs to successfully confront transnational corporations, both internally within the United States, and externally with workers in countries like Mexico?

Understanding that NAFTA hurt workers on both sides of the border is a crucial step in answering these questions, providing the raw material workers need to critique globalization. But raw material is just that. Workers and unions need an education process, and educators who can help turn that raw material into consciousness and action. In more radical times, that role of educator was played by left-wing socialist and communist parties. Since this kind of organized left presence in labor is so small today, it is unclear what can take its place. Solidarity Divided helps in presenting the question, but no one today has a good answer.

Fletcher and Gapasin call for a new kind of unionism. “The current framework of U.S. trade unionism is so fundamentally flawed,” they say, “that a new framework is needed. With that new framework will inevitably come new organizational structures, but forging new structures without defining the moment and defining the framework would simply create new problems.” Arguing that the kind of structural proposals that led eventually to the Change to Win Federation is meaningless without a change in political direction, they call for discarding the body of ideas that guides unions today. They condemn business union efforts to reduce every problem to a question of pragmatic organizing tactics, while essentially seeking a strategic partnership with corporations and the government.

“We call this new unionism social justice solidarity,” Fletcher and Gapasin say, and contrast it with “pragmatic solidarity,” which sees alliances only in terms of what they can offer to help unions win immediate battles. Using as examples the anti-apartheid movement, the solidarity movement with Central America, and even the broad opposition to Wal-Mart, they declare that “social justice solidarity begins with an important assumption—that unions are workers’ organizations engaged in class struggle (whether they like it or not) rather than corporations.”

It is unfair to expect the authors to come up with quick solutions to such deeply rooted problems, so many years in the making. And, absent the kind of discussion they urge, any suggestions for a new direction are going to sound very general. Their most important contribution is to raise the questions. The labor movement is full of intelligent activists, most with a deep loyalty to their class and a real commitment to social change. Any change in direction depends on their willingness to call for a much deeper discussion that can look for answers.

There are no experts here. There are no leaders with quick fixes. It is time for us all to take responsibility for the future of our own movement. As the pair state in conclusion, “the U.S. union movement must become part of a new labor movement. To do so, unions must move left; they have no alternative.”

Solidarity Divided is a critical contribution to that effort.

2009, Volume 61, Issue 04 (September)
Comments are closed.