There is a story that I often use to make a point regarding one of the central problems in organized labor in the USA. It goes like this: A man jumped off of the Empire State Building in New York. As he was dropping past the 30th floor he was overheard saying “…so far, so good…”
For more than five decades organized labor in the USA has been in decline. At first the decline was not particularly noticeable since, through the early 1970s, organized labor still represented more than 25% of the non-agricultural workforce (down from 35% in 1955). Nevertheless the decline rapidly increased in the aftermath of the recessions of the 1970s and the advent of President Ronald Reagan and Reaganism (the homegrown variety of neo-liberal economics).
Having purged its left-wing in the late 1940s and abandoned any coherent sense of being a social movement on behalf of a class of people, organized labor drifted, slowly at first and then with increasing speed as gravity took hold.
Despite evidence of decline, most of the leadership continued to insist that the situation was not ‘that bad’ and that either (1) their particular labor union would survive intact, and perhaps grow, or (2)the pendulum of U.S. politics would inevitably shift and unions would rise again.
Yet the rate of decline increased. In 1947 a Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act which amended the National Labor Relations Act. There were many regressive components to this statute but one in particular has performed like a slow-acting poison in the political system: so-called ‘right to work’.
Thus, ‘right to work’ is really the ‘right to be greedy.’ It would be the equivalent of saying that citizens did not need to pay taxes to their city but would, regardless, receive access to the police, fire department, sanitation, for free! Reasonable?
Organized labor objected to ‘right to work’ [Section 14(b) in the Taft-Hartley Act] but never mounted a serious challenge to it. Initially ‘right to work’ was contained in the South and Southwest. A direct challenge to ‘right to work’ would have involved both a national legislative strategy and an active organizing campaign(s) in the South and the Southwest. Organized labor refused. After the failure of the Congress of Industrial Organization’s “Operation Dixie” in the late 1940s, the bulk of organized labor abandoned any real thought to organizing the South and Southwest.
By not challenging ‘right to work’, organized labor was providing the conditions under which this poison could—and did—spread. In that sense, the recent ‘right to work’ victories, first in Indiana and most recently Michigan, should have come as no surprise. Tragic, yes; surprise, no.
Challenging ‘right to work’, however, would have involved more than lobbying and, indeed, more than a traditional organizing campaign. ‘Right to work’ was nothing short of a component of the declaration of war against workers represented by Taft-Hartley. As much as organized labor objected to Taft-Hartley, the dominant forces in the movement refused to accept the full implications of this assault.
To have moved against ‘right to work’ would have necessitated abandoning the anti-communism that fueled the purges of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It would have also necessitated an approach to organizing in the South and Southwest that would have by necessity taken on the form of a mass social movement, akin to but more advanced than what took place in the 1930s and early 1940s. The reason for this is that to have conducted successful union organizing in the South and the Southwest would have involved taking on “race”, and specifically organizing African Americans in the South and Chicanos/Mexican Americans in the Southwest; organizing these groups, not as an afterthought, but as core constituencies.
Evidence of the turn away from being a movement for social and economic justice for the working class was precisely found in this monumental failure. Yes, for years union orators would decry ‘right to work’, but at the end of the day they believed that it could be contained.
The spread of ‘right to work’ becomes an example of the extent of the crisis facing the unions, but it is not the sum total of the crisis. Yet, to address the continuing poison of ‘right to work’ there must be a transformation of the US labor movement on a scale that mirrors a reformation precisely because taking on ‘right to work’ is part of a larger challenge for labor. That challenge is summed up by the initial story: the ground is fast approaching.
Some years ago in a discussion with a very wealthy businessman, I was instructed on key steps in turning around a company that has collapsed or is near collapse. In thinking through his analysis, I realized that there are valuable lessons that are directly applicable to organized labor (and of course, there are some that are not at all applicable).
Consider the following:
New leadership: It is very difficult to turn around any formation with the old leadership still in command. This does not necessarily imply a complete change, but it does mean that those who are in commanding heights must move on. One is reminded of the opening scenes from the film Patton with George C. Scott, where he takes command of US troops in North Africa after the disastrous battle at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. The complete failure of the operation necessitated new leadership rather than tinkering around the edges.
Organized labor in the USA needs new leadership. Many of the new leaders are already within the ranks of unions andother social movements.
They are prepared to introduce new strategies and build new alliances. Most especially they recognize that the status quo is not only unacceptable but is, at best, temporary. They realize, in other words, that the ground is fast approaching.
Mission clarification and internal education: Organizations and movements can become lost. Their missions, developed in a different era, may have nothing relevant to say about the current moment and the near future.
Organized labor in the USA lost its mission in the late 1940s. Actually, it abandoned its mission and replaced it with a different one: the building of a labor lobby within the context of the mainstream USA. More than anything else organized labor refused to accept the inevitability of class struggle and instead insisted that the elimination of the left-wing in labor helped to ensure that a productive relationship could be built with capital. The elimination of the left-wing was not only the elimination of people and organizations, but it was also represented by unconditional support for US foreign policy and the repudiation of any sense that organized labor had a direct responsibility to un-organized labor, i.e., to the rest of the working class.
Turning this situation around necessitates a reassertion of a mission focused on social and economic justice founded upon a cold appraisal of the realities of class struggle in 21st century USA, and for that matter the 21st century planet Earth. It is a mission that involves a level of global labor solidarity the likes of which most of us have not seen in our life-times. But it also involves the building of strategic alliances in the USA that aim towards winning power for working people.
The mission, however, is only as good as are those who are prepared to implement it. This means that within the unions and allied worker organizations, there must be a process of large-scale member education that helps to create the framework for understanding the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and the sorts of strategies that are necessary in order to address it. Too many organizations alter their missions only to stagnate due to the failure of the members to ‘own’ the result.
Organizational assessment and retooling/restructuring: In the aftermath of any major failure there must be an assessment. While part of that involves assessing strategies, organizational forms must be reconsidered. In the case of organized labor, the movement must assess how it is structured, including but not limited to its relationship with worker organizations that are not formal unions. To put it another way, organized labor must ascertain what is necessary in order to build a genuine 21stcentury labor movement. One example of this is that of the unemployed who, for all intents and purposes, most of organized labor has abandoned. Building a movement of workers necessitates organizing and mobilizing the unemployed, therefore, one must determine what that means at the levels of program and organization.
Assessment will necessitate examining everything from the role of staff in unions, to structures like central labor councils and state federations, to the relationship of US-based unions to what are known as “global union federations.” And it will also necessitate evaluating whether those in leadership and on staff have the proper tools in order to perform their jobs. For too many union activists this is an unsettling proposition since they may have performed their duties in a certain way for years and are unwilling or unable to change to meet the demands of the present, let alone, the future. Such individuals may need to beencouraged to move on or retire.
Moving forward: The other element of turning around from a collapse is that one must keep moving. This is to say that change does not take place while standing still. When Patton took over after Kasserine Pass the U.S. could not call a truce with the Germans while they got their act together. The transformation had to take place as they were preparing for battle.
This is just as much the case for organized labor. While there will be moments necessarily taken for ‘retreats’ and trainings, this happens while at the same time the ‘ground is fast approaching.’ It takes place while we fight battles such as in Michigan against ‘right to work’. Moving forward is essential also in order to ensure that demoralization and confusion does not spread. There must be a sense of progressive motion otherwise there will be a sense of stagnation.
Seeds of renewal, and then what? The seeds of renewal can be seen, both within organized labor but also outside of the formal structures of the labor union movement. The Chicago Teacher’s Strike is a major example of a different approach to unionism that transformed a battle between teachers and the City into a struggle by led a union on behalf of parents and students. The strikes by thousands of workers at WalMart facilities shook not only that corporation but much of the employer class. Striking dockworkers on the West Coast and separately organized dockworkers on the East Coast that had been preparing for a major strike, pointed to the continued vulnerability of contemporary capitalism to mass action by workers.
There are additional developments. The rise of the New York Taxi Worker Alliance and the spread of taxi worker unionism to other parts of the USA demonstrated that workers who have been so restricted by the law can find a means for collective action. The emergence of the National Domestic Workers Alliance evidenced a movement of an ‘invisible’ workforce that has periodically risen over the last century. The National Day Laborers Organizing Network fused the fight for immigrant rights with the fight for economic justice. The Right to the City Alliance is seeking to build an urban-based workers movement against gentrification and the class-cleansing of our cities. Independent worker centers have developed over the last twenty years addressing the needs of the working poor. Although most of these advances have not taken place within the context of organized labor, they nevertheless point in the direction of a reconstruction and redefinition of a labor movement for the 21st century.
Yet none of this can happen in the absence of a Left, a point Dr. Fernando Gapasin and I sought to make in our bookSolidarity Divided. In fact, the Left has a critical role today in breaking organizing labor away from the notion of narrow trade union struggle and instead replacing that with a concept of 21stcentury class struggle. The implications of this are critical. The issue here is not mainly one of struggle or militancy, but rather scale and objectives. The existence of neo-liberal capitalism has meant, both in theory and in practice, the movement toward the elimination of labor unions and other forms of worker organization. It has also meant the systematic constriction of political democracy and restrictions of all sorts on forms of dissent.
For organized labor, then, the task presented is the building of a social justice unionism that is prepared to battle not only the “1%” who dominated society, but battle the system that reinforces the privileges and domination of the “1%” (who are actually more like the 10%). Unions must be the vehicle for the “47%” that Mitt Romney so cavalierly derided prior to his electoral defeat. Actually it is more than that 47% but Romney created for the broader public a clearer sense of contemporary class struggle than has any other mainstream leader in some time. He was prepared to suggest that close to half of the population of the USA should be written off. A renewed labor movement must offer a different approach.
There are those . . . . . .who suggest that the current union movement cannot sustain itself and that out of its ashes will arise something new and better. Such views are at best wishful thinking and at worst irresponsible. The complete marginalization of the union movement, or its demise, will certainly not mean that struggle will cease. But it will mean that a critical vehicle to organize workers will be lost, at least for the short term.
The marginalization and demise of organized labor also would come at a moment when very reactionary forces are moving swiftly to secure total political and economic control. Efforts, as we saw in the lead up to the November 2012 election, toward voter suppression along with various forms of Republican gerrymandering plus demagogic appeals to right-wing populism among whites all point in some very dangerous directions.
Unions, as they are currently constituted, organized and theorized, are not up to the challenges of the 21st century. The existing union movement, however, can play a role in the building of that new labor movement for the not-so-new 21st century. Embracing other forms of worker organizations; building organization and activism among the unemployed; creating strategic alliances with other progressive social movements in order to fight for political and economic power; engaging in global labor solidarity in order to challenge global capitalism as manifested by transnational corporations and the governments that back them, these are the challenges that can and must be undertaken at this very moment.
This cannot await a new and better union movement. We must be part of building that future movement…and building it now!
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a racial justice, labor and international activist and writer. He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies; the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum; the co-author of Solidarity Divided; the author of“They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions; and currently works with the American Federation of Government Employees. He can be reached at email@example.com. The contents of this essay do not necessarily represent the views of any group with which Fletcher is associated.