The results are in.
In 1999, the Construction Labor Review wrote “Unionized employment will keep climbing during the next decade but will be just barely equal to the rate of growth in non-union sector,” (as quoted here). The graph below, from today’s Wall St. Journal, shows that that is exactly what has happened since then.
What the graph shows is continuing decline during the downturns, barely holding its own during the upturns. In other words exactly what the Construction Labor Research Council predicted. In case there ever was any doubt, this once again is decisive proof that the strategy and goals of the union leadership is not working.
This means that it’s not enough to just come out to the next rally or picket line to “defend labor” without at the same time also organizing internally to fight to change the policies that the union hierarchy has imposed on the unions. Nor is it enough to just call for more “democracy.” We have to organize to change the policies. This includes opposing the “team concept” and all its expressions and fighting for better contracts and real contract enforcement. It also means breaking with the Democrats (one and all) and joining with the movement for social justice – but really joining, not just supporting one or two nice safe marches and rallies here and there – and building a mass movement of workers (including the unemployed and those in prison and their families) that will include running its own candidates for office, candidates who are outside of and opposed to the two big business parties.
That would be the first step towards building a mass party of US working class people, one that would bring together all the most serious and determined layers to coordinate the movement, press it forward, including (but not only) running its own candidates for office.
Categories: labor, United States
Actually the problem with the existing labor movement in the U.S. is a lot more fundamental than the policies of the unions but with the existing organizational forms themselves which arose in and on the basis of mass production and industrial capitalism but that form of capitalism has been superseded and augmented in the advanced West and the U.S. In other words, the decline is terminal unless and until new organizational forms appropriate for the post-industrial working classes are found/developed. The IWW has the kind of militant class struggle politics you are talking about and they continue to be tiny and weak, so clearly the politics are only part of the problem.
Oakland Socialist thanks the writer for his comments.
It’s certainly true that the change in the US economy has affected the unions. In particular, we’re talking about the “deindustrialization”. But that doesn’t explain everything. Far from it. Look at the graph in the article, for instance. It shows the decline in the building trades unions. That sector of the economy has remained, yet those unions are unable to stop the union busting. (This writer has a 35 year history in that sector. If you look at the pamphlet linked to in the original article, you can see the history of that decline, including the causes.) Nor does it explain the general failure of the unions’ organizing drives, including in the service sector.
The article the writer links to is pretty long and not very clear on what it proposes. It does say, “We haven’t replaced the long-forgotten power of strikes with newer but equally disruptive forms of worker power.” In other words, it seems to be saying that since strikes can’t win, we need to find replacements. But there is an alternative: return to the methods of the 1930s — the work place occupation, the mass pickets, open defiance, etc.
Instead, the article proposes everything from relying on the “experts” to trying to organizing “worker-owned temp-labor firms that compete in the market against large companies like Kelly Services and LaborReady by offering more competitive wages and benefits, online learning, and retirement investment services.” But these things cost money, so how can a worker-owned co-operative compete with the temp agencies if they are paying higher wages? This is pure idealism at best.
As we say, the linked article is such a bundle of confusion that it’s hard to know what it’s really driving at, but a clearer idea might be gained by looking at one of those associated with that web site: David Rolf. This individual is the president of SEIU Local 775 in Seattle. He was the architect behind the ballot initiative for a $15/hr minimum wage at the Seattle airport. That initiative excluded unionized workers from its coverage. When asked about this, Rolf explained: ““We always want to offer an olive branch and a high road approach to employers of conscience who prefer to have direct and honest relations to unions that they are facing across the bargaining table so, yes, we hope that amongst the unions that are active at the airport that if workers choose to join those unions we want to facilitate and encourage productive, bilateral bargaining agreements.” This is the perfect example of the team concept in action. What Rolf is proposing is that the unions should make it cheaper for employers to sign with the union (i.e. pay lower wages) than if they refuse to. This is not an “olive branch”; it is a white flag. (In another comment, Rolf referred to the employers as his “brothers and sisters”.)
And stripped of all the nice-sounding phrases and academic verbiage, that is really what the linked article proposes. That’s why the unions are so alienated from their own members that many members don’t even know the name of their union. That’s why everyday rank and file union members refer to their leaders as “sleeping with the enemy” and their unions as not being “worth a dime.” Until the leadership really starts to fight for the members, the members will not fight for “their” unions.
Sorry for botching the hyperlinking in the previous post.
Agreed regarding construction and unions. Not all of the decline in union membership is due to changes within the global and national division of labor but some of it surely is. The jobs in the service sectors just don’t led themselves to 1930s-style tactics because it is very, very difficult to orchestrate coordinated action across dozens, hundreds, and thousands of numerically small and geographically scattered workplaces. The mainstream unions that fund/direct the low wage fast-food worker fights are engaging in tactics of mass direct action and defiance, I’ve attended some of the actions.
“But there is an alternative: return to the methods of the 1930s — the work place occupation, the mass pickets, open defiance, etc.”
But for every McDonald’s or Wendy’s with huge pro-worker crowds in front of them that have workers who struck their shifts, there’s another McDonald’s or Wendy’s 5 or 10 blocks away where nothing is going on, either because the unions don’t have the money and organizers to take on all these little franchises all at once in big cities or because the sentiments of the workers at those locations is not conducive to strike action and the kind of risky, semi-underground organizing that strike action in non-union places entails.
The methods of the 1930s alone won’t solve the problems we confront in 2015. Unions today have to contend with massive government interference almost from the outset thanks to the NLRB regime that was created in reaction to the mass struggles of the 1930s and that has grown more and more pro-employer in terms of its bias from at least the 1970s onward.
“But these things cost money, so how can a worker-owned co-operative compete with the temp agencies if they are paying higher wages?”
Temp agencies can be banned from getting government contracts would be one way. Making $15/hour mandatory for temp agencies would be another way to start leveling the competitive playing field also (maybe temp agencies could be banned by local ordinances also). I really don’t have expertise in that area to have a firm opinion.
“This is the perfect example of the team concept in action.”
No, it’s a perfect example of dividing the enemy the better to defeat them. Trying to split “employers of conscience” from the really ravenous and ruthless exploiters is not a bad move in an era when union power has dwindled to almost zero. People who are already in unions generally speaking aren’t being paid starvation wages the way non-union workers making $7.25/hour are and that’s not including benefits like health care, legal representation, grievance procedures, and so on.
“And stripped of all the nice-sounding phrases and academic verbiage, that is really what the linked article proposes. That’s why the unions are so alienated from their own members that many members don’t even know the name of their union. That’s why everyday rank and file union members refer to their leaders as ‘sleeping with the enemy’ and their unions as not being ‘worth a dime.’ Until the leadership really starts to fight for the members, the members will not fight for ‘their’ unions.”
I really wish things were that simple. Again, the IWW does not subscribe to any form of ‘team concept’ and they fight hard for their members but they haven’t been successful by and large in getting their people un-fired. The inactivity of the working class (~90% of whom are non-union) can’t be explained by or rooted in crap union leadership, especially when there are unions out there like IWW that practice and preach class struggle who aren’t doing well either.
First of all, it is simply silly (at best) to pretend that workers today are facing more government interference than they did in the past. Prior to the 1930s, for workers to simply get together to discuss unionizing was an illegal conspiracy; it was considered a restraint of trade. Time and again, workers faced injunctions, jails, beatings, even mass murder.
The way these laws were overcome was to make them unworkable, just as the Civil Right movement made the Jim Crow laws unworkable. The problem is that, as one union leader put it some time ago, “we know how to start strikes; the problem is that we don’t know how to end them.” In other words, once the militancy and courage of workers is called to the surface, it’s not so easy to simply turn it off.
As for “dividing the employers” with the “olive branch”: In reality, what this approach does is demoralize the workers. Imagine what the average union member – who’s already feeling alienated from her or his union to begin with, due to the absence of a real union presence on the job (which in turn is due to the approach of trying to divide the employers, meaning keeping the unionized employers happy) — how is this unionized worker likely to feel when he or she finds that they are making $2 or $3 LESS per hour, because they are union members? How positive do you think that worker will feel about their union?
But for the David Rolf’s of the world, this doesn’t even enter into their thought process; they’re too focused on “dividing the employers”, meaning keeping those who’ve signed union contracts happy.
Then the writer talks about political action, like the $15 Now campaigns. There are two ways to go about this: One would be through legislative action. You can forget about that on any wide scale, since it means relying on “our friends” the Democrats. The other is through ballot initiatives. This requires either large amounts of money or a mass mobilization. We cannot match the employers as far as money; as far as a mass mobilization, then we run right into the same old problem – the terror of the union leadership that they won’t be able to turn it off again. It’s true that 15 Now has won a few victories, although those have been greatly exaggerated. (None of them have been a real 15 Now.) But anyway, that’s been in an unusual time, when employers are raising wages anyway because of a labor shortage.
As far as the IWW: I don’t know if the writer above is an IWW member; I was for some 5 years. The great majority of the members I knew were very unclear on the differences between the IWW, especially the historic IWW, and the mainstream unions.
In sum: It’s true that the mood in most workplaces today is not the best. There are many reasons for this. One is the deindustrialization of our economy. Another is the 50+ year campaign to wipe out all the best traditions of the union struggle in this country. However, we mustn’t hide from the fact that one of the spear carriers in this campaign has been the union leadership, who have done and continue to do their level best to discourage, harass, intimidate and even get fired those few members who still struggle to maintain those traditions. Then, the apologists for this leadership turns around and complains about the lack of militancy.