John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO in October 1995. Frustrated by labor's shrinking share of the workforce, and shocked by the Democratic Party's loss of the House of Representatives the previous November, Sweeney and his allies staged the only successful revolt against a sitting labor federation president in this century. Given organized labor's historic role in supporting the liberal advances of the New Deal and Great Society, progressive precincts of American politics cheered the prospect of a reenergized AFL-CIO.
During the first few months of the new regime, Sweeney and his team criss-crossed union halls all over the country preaching a gospel of aggressive organizing, political activism, coalition-building, collective bargaining militancy, and internal reform. At one point in the midst of a fiery speech to a state labor convention in the Midwest, Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's new secretary-treasurer, called for cleaning out the "deadwood" in the labor movement. The audience stood up and cheered. In the back of the hall, a veteran unionist murmured that three-quarters of the room, "myself probably included," would qualify as deadwood by any reasonable standard. "Sweeney and Trumka will have a tough job turning this old ship around," he sighed.
A Mixed Record
And so they will. Nearly four years later, the initial euphoria has given way to the realities of reinventing the labor movement in a society whose economic and political leverage remains firmly in the hands of multinational corporate powers. To make the task harder, Sweeney does not have a captain's authority to command the rest of the ship's crew. He is the president of an association of independent unions, whose leaders must serve local needs first. At best he can inspire and cajole.
On the plus side, Sweeney has inspired his members and given them a new sense of purpose, determination, and inclusiveness. The movement further opened itself up to young people, women, minoritieseven liberal intellectuals previously estranged from labor by differences over Vietnam and other Cold War politics.
There have been solid political accomplishments as well. In the summer of 1996, labor's grassroots campaign forced a substantial increase in the minimum wage through a hostile Republican Congress. In 1997, and again in 1998, it stopped "fast track" trade legislation that protected
investors but not workers and the environment. Labor resistance stopped the Republicans' efforts to undercut the 40-hour work week and open the door to company unions. At the state level, it turned back efforts to stifle labor's ability to contribute to political campaigns, and it was a major factor in the re-election of Bill Clinton in 1996 and the pick-up of five Democratic seats in the House in 1998. The AFL-CIO was also a key factor in the administration's decision not to support partial privatization of Social Security.
In collective bargaining, the record is more mixed. Two major strikes came to griefa 19-month strike by the Newspaper Guild against the Detroit Free Press and an 18-month strike by the UAW against Caterpillar. On the other hand, the Steelworkers won victories at Bridgestone/Firestone, the Communications Workers at
Bell Atlantic, and the Teamsters against United Parcel Service.
Moreover, the public is becoming more sympathetic. In July 1998, a CBS poll asked Americans whether, not knowing the details, they would tend to side with "the union or the company" in a strike situation. Their response: 42 percent would favor the union, 34 percent the company. Among the 18- to 29-year-olds, the split was 50 to 27.
But there have also been setbacks. Ron Carey, president of the Teamsters, elected twice as a reformer and the architect of the victory over UPS, was ousted after misappropriating union funds for his own election campaign. In New York, leaders of municipal employee union locals were charged with misuse of funds and ballot-stuffing. Even if these episodes reflect only a small fraction of a broadly democratic labor movement, the image of corruption is obviously not helpful.
Ultimately, success or failure will depend on whether the new labor leadership can arrest the long-term decline in the share of the workforce that is organized. The post-World War II high point of union "density" in the United States was 35 percent of nonagricultural workers in 1954. Today only 14 percent of America's nonfarm workers belong to unions.
The climb back up will be daunting. Because the working population is growing, it will take a net annual increase of 300,000 union members just to maintain the current 14 percent level of coverage. To return to the 1980 level of coverage, labor unions would have to organize roughly 50 percent of all new workers for the next 20 years.
As a simple economic proposition, joining a union makes sense for most workers. Holding other factors constant, union members make in excess of 20 percent more than nonunion members. Union members are 16 percent more likely to have health insurance and 27 percent more likely to have a pension. And when such benefits are negotiated under collective bargaining, they are 44 and 16 percent more generous, respectively.
These economic fundamentals are not lost on the average American worker. When asked if they would vote for a labor union if they were offered the option, 47 percent of nonunion workers in a 1996 poll said they would. The gap between the 47 percent who want to be union members and the 14 percent who are union members reflects in large part the effect of the uniquely antilabor U.S. labor laws.
Since the end of World War II, legislation, administrative law changes, and changes in employer tactics have systematically eroded workers' access to collective bargaining. For example, it is not enough for a majority of workers to formally request union recognition in writing; once a request is made the employers have the right to demand an election, during which they can keep unions off the premises while management threatens a captive audience of workers. Although it is against the law, employers sometimes fire union sympathizers, confident that it will take yearslong after the union has been unlawfully defeated and workers have lost hopefor the National Labor Relations Board to slap their wrists. Each year some 10,000 workers involved in union organizing get fired. Even when a union has run the gauntlet, the company does not have to bargain. Fifty percent of successful organizing drives never result in a union contract.
And despite a popular misconception, U.S. workers do not even have an effective right to strike. Since American employers can permanently replace a striking worker, all that is really left is the right to quit. "The boss can't fire you because of your gender, the color of your skin, your disability, or your sexual preference," says Elaine Bernard, the director of Harvard University's trade union program. But: "He can fire you for no reason at all."
Weak laws were unable to protect labor against Ronald Reagan's crushing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 or against his economic policies that undercut highly unionized manufacturing industries and accelerated the decline in union density in the 1980s. Comparisons with Canada, where legal protections are stronger, are dramatic. In 1979, 37 percent of Canada's labor force were union members. In the United States the share was 24 percent. Both countries saw the erosion of unionized manufacturing, the rise of conservative politics, and the pressures of heightened international competition. And Canada experienced a generally higher rate of unemployment, which makes workers less willing to defy the employer. Yet while union density has fallen to 14 percent in the United States, it is 34 percent in Canada.
Despite labor law reform's importance to unions and unions' importance to the Democratic Party, neither Jimmy Carter nor Bill Clinton were willing and/or able to persuade Democratic Congresses to support it.
In order to become stronger, labor needs to change the lawbut in order to change the law, labor needs to become stronger. Because of this contradiction, labor needs strategies for organizing enough new members without labor law reform to demonstrate to politicians and business that labor has a permanent place in the global economy.
How to pull this off is the subject of intensified debate both within the AFL-CIO and among labor activists in the various internationals, state federations, and union locals. But the discussion has not moved much further into the progressive policy communitydespite its crucial importance to the progressive agenda.
Fortunately, one can learn a lot about the debate over labor's future from these three books, which demonstrate the tensions between different conceptions of the role of labor unions in a capitalist society. Are unions an insurgent force, challenging the fundamentals of capitalism, or are they the partners of capital, bargaining for more equitable shares? Stanley Aronowitz is an ex-blue-collar worker and New Left agitator turned professor of sociology at City University of New York. From the Ashes of the Old is a comprehensive and accessible overview of recent labor history and an analysis of the basic choices that confront the labor movement today. Aronowitz addresses the various forces that have led to labor's declineglobalization, automation, the shift to service industries, and repressive labor law. He also harshly indicts labor's post-World War II leadership, accusing them of failing to organize effectively, neglecting racial and gender diversity, maintaining a slavish allegiance to the Democratic Party, and failing to become the champion of the poor. The book reflects the conflict between the author's frustration with labor's leadership and his belief that, with the election of Sweeney, a new day is coming.
Morton Bahr, author of From the Telegraph to the Internet, has been president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) since 1986 and is one of the most successful labor leaders of recent decades. His easy-to-read book is part autobiography and part history of the CWA. Bahr comes across as likeable, committed, and shrewd. Like so many of his generation who experienced the national collective effort of World War II, Bahr assumes that labor has a place at the decisionmaking table and he intends to claim it. He has few illusions about capitalism or class conflict. "Without a union contract," writes Bahr, "there is no justice." Period. But he understands that since business has most of the cards in a capitalist society, labor unions must play theirs very carefully.
Bahr agrees with much of Aronowitz's indictment of labor's recent performance. "Union organizing went to sleep," he says, "as a new form of 'business unionism' crept into the labor movement." And he does not spare his own union from the charge. But he draws a different conclusion from that experience than does Aronowitz.
Aronowitz thinks labor ought to attempt to organize everything in sight, while also leading the nation toward a vast array of social and political goalsincluding feminism, civil rights, expansion of welfare programs, and national health care.
Aronowitz understands the changing economy, but his heart seems to be in the drama of 1930s labor militancy and 1960s New Left organizing. Accordingly, evidence that his brand of "social movement" organizing works best is not terribly convincing. The successes he tends to cite, like New York City social workers and graduate students in the Ivy League, have limited applicability. He seems to be particularly impressed with inspiring but generally failed campaignsorganizing drives in the South, antipoverty organizing, efforts to unionize workers in New York's Chinatown. Reading some of Aronowitz's passages, I was reminded of a line from Mother Jones (who called herself an "agitator," not an "organizer"): "The strike went on, and of course it was lost."
Morton Bahr is not inspired by losing. Nor does he romanticize the past. From Bahr's point of view, labor's golden age was not the 1930s but the postwar years, when labor brought decent wages, benefits, and, most importantly, dignity to millions of workerssuch as the woman working in a Connecticut factory who supported the union because every time she went to the bathroom the supervisor announced it over the loudspeaker. The golden age for labor in the telecommunications industry began in 1974, when, after a 217-day strike against the New York Telephone Company, AT&T agreed to national collective bargaining. It lasted about a dozen years, until the breakup of AT&T splintered the industry and the union had to start all over again.
In response, Bahr's CWA has adopted many of the tactics Aronowitz recommends, including having formed a sophisticated coalition with other parts of the progressive community; the union's alliance with women's groups, for example, strengthens its demands for improving working conditions for female workers. The CWA funded a national grassroots coalition organization, Jobs with Justice, that helps mobilize community support for union organizing and negotiating campaigns. Members pledge to personally participate in five demonstrations a year. The CWA also makes use of an eclectic mix of insider and outsider strategiesgoing on strike, making personal friends of company officials, mounting TV campaigns, and using political connections to bring companies to the bargaining table.
But Bahr is not engaged in a holy war against corporate management. He genuinely likes many of the managers he negotiates with, and he uses their friendship to the unions' advantage. He points out that when business becomes less organizedas in the breakup of AT&Tit is harder for organized labor to get enough business leaders in a room to bargain with.
Bahr's belief in the labor-management partnership inspires in him an ambitious vision for the global economy. In Aronowitz's world, globalization is an enemy to be fought. In Bahr's, it is an inevitability to be managed. Bahr's strategy involves, first, a consolidation of America's fragmented unions to allow them more leverage and flexibility to deal with the constantly changing industries that they organize. In his own industrial sector, he wants to organize all communicationsmedia, information, telecommunications, and entertainment unionsinto one big U.S. union. Then he wants to combine with the similar unions in other nations to force multinationals like AT&T, IBM, and Disney to bargain. Not only would this union alliance bargain for its members, Bahr says, but it would also become the leading advocate for truly universal service "that can bring the benefits of information technologies to every corner of the globe."
The idea is intriguing. Information technologies have taken the place of manufacturing and utilities as the commanding heights of the economy. Yet because they are globalized, the old social democratic idea of managing the private sector by capturing these heights seems obsolete. Bahr's vision may seem overly ambitious for the short run, but his idea that a global trade union movement could develop leverage over the policies of multinational information corporations offers a way to think about a progressive future.
Bahr also thinks unions could take on some of the characteristics of professional associations; in addition to collective bargaining, they could provide a range of services, including certification and education. The union as a facilitator of more education and training is at the core of Bahr's vision.
Finally, there is the question of politics. Aronowitz wants the Democratic Party to be a broad, ideologically leftist vehicle for his social movement unionism. And if it isn't, he thinks unions ought to consider supporting their own labor party.
No way, says Bahr. He sees politics as a practical instrument and recounts how Democrats helped at critical times in the building of the CWA. Pointing to the damage Ronald Reagan did to the labor movement, Bahr's message is that the Democrats aren't perfect, but they are a lot better than the alternative.
Still, Aronowitz scores some important points in this part of the debate. He observes that the movement for deregulation and privatization that has so undercut unions has been supported by Democrats, even liberals like Ted Kennedy, as well as Republicans like Ronald Reagan. One doesn't have to be an advocate of a separate labor party to ask how being the Democrats' loyal ally is ever going to achieve labor's critical goal of labor law reform in the future, when the Democrats have failed to deliver in the past.
The argument over labor's relationship with the Democrats could intensify. Labor, along with African-American voters, was extremely supportive of Clinton throughout his Monica Lewinsky ordeal. While the more conservative segments of the Democratic Party were at times willing to throw Clinton to the impeachment wolves, labor unions lobbied members, organized rallies, and even bought TV time defending the President. If, after this effort, Clinton reverts to his previous center-right position on issues like trade and Social Security, we can expect union activists to demand a reconsideration of the labor movement's relationship with the Democratic Party.
Historically, the labor movement has needed not just leaders who have pushed their way inside the establishment but also critics who have remained outside. The renewed debate between them is healthyand in itself is a sign of organized labor's revitalization. This debate is powerfully reflected in the report of the Century Foundation's task force on the future of the American labor movement.
The report is a useful reprise of the economic arguments for the importance of unions, summarizing statistics and academic scholarship that make the case for why unions are in the economic interest not only of their membership, but of all workers. But the most interesting passages of the report are the separate dissents, which further deconstruct the Bahr-Aronowitz debate into three camps.
The task force's union representatives lay the blame for labor's troubles squarely on labor law. Their dissent is as clear a description of how the law is stacked against labor as a nonlawyer can find. Since the cause of labor's troubles is the law, it follows that their answer to the problem of shrinking union coverage is to change the law, although the union dissenters are short on how to get from here to there.
A second campa group of labor lawyers and technical expertsdismisses the prospect of changing labor law as utopian. Instead, it offers labor a management consultants' menu of recommendations for operational changes. Like most management consultants' advice, it is high on common sense generalities"focus strength," "seek targets of opportunity," "find new models," and so on. One recommendationthe need for more mergers among the too many small unionscannot be stressed enough. Another, that unions provide interest-free loans to workers dismissed during organizing campaigns (at a cost of $2.5 to $4.5 million to help 100 workers over five years), quickly sinks of its own expensive weight.
The task force's third, academic camp calls, like Stanley Aronowitz, for labor to reformulate itself as a populist social movement. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein says that in order to seriously expand union coverage the AFL-CIO will need tens of thousands of homegrown organizers that it cannot possibly afford. In order to inspire these people to devote a large part of their lives to unionism, the AFL-CIO must move a vision of "rights-conscious industrial democracy" to the top of the nation's social agenda. This in turn requires a "democratic participatory union culture" which Lichtenstein says threatens the prerogatives of entrenched local and national union bureaucracies.
These points are clearly well taken. But union democracy is a complex issue. Indeed, it is the democratic nature of unions that often makes it hard for leaders to broaden labor's agenda beyond the immediate interests of the rank and file. For example, the voting membership of union locals often strongly resists shifting union resources from servicing existing members to organizing new members. Politically, labor leaders who support a broad, "rights-conscious" agendafrom abortion to welfareare regularly criticized as being out of touch precisely because their members prefer a narrower agenda more directly relevant to their immediate needs. Getting members to expand their vision would seem to require more skilled and imaginative leadership as much as more democratic procedures.
To describe these internal tensions is to paint a picture of the huge job ahead for those who would revive the American labor movement. The enormity of the task has led many liberals to despair of labor ever again being the engine of social progress that it was mid-century, and to distance themselves from labor's fate. This is a fatal political mistake.
First, the news of labor's impending demise is premature. For example, it is conventional wisdom that the "new economy" with its decentralized work sites makes it almost impossible to organize a union. But early in 1999, the Services Employees International Union won an election to represent 75,000 home health care workers in Los Angeles who have no permanent work site at all.
Second, and most important, labor remains the foundation of progressivism at every level of American politics. Take away the influence of the labor movement on today's society and you are left with the social conditions of the turn of the last century. The distribution of income, wealth, and power in the next century will hinge on the outcome of these debates over labor's future. We should all pay attention.
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