The current issue of the popular “left” magazine Jacobin has an article Why Won’t the US’s Largest Labor Federation Talk About a General Strike? But the author doesn’t even ask a lot “smaller” of a question: Why have the unions been almost totally missing in
action in the whole BLM movement? Nor can we hide behind the inaction of the AFL-CIO; where has the entire union leadership been – from the national level on down to the major local leaders? Yes, there was the Longshore workers Juneteenth West Coast port shutdown, but that predictably was once again a one-and-done action without even the slightest attempt to use it as a springboard to build labor involvement in the various protests.
This is nothing new. Over the years, various different protest movements have come and gone, and labor has been absent. Occasionally the leadership may endorse a protest and allow a few left union activists to carry the union banner, but 99% of the union membership never even hears about it, never mind being organized to participate. The reason is two-fold:
Labor Management Collaboration
First, for all this time, almost all these same union leaders – including the ones who talk “left” – have been collaborating with the employers to keep wages low and keep the rank and file workers on the job silent and as passive as possible. But an aroused membership is a dangerous membership. Any move to seriously arouse the membership politically runs the risk of breaking up this cozy
Union Leadership Represents Democratic Party
Second: The union leadership is tied to the Democratic Party and tends to represent them inside the unions. As a true capitalist party, it has never been the policy of any wing of the Democrats – the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez wing included – to call on any sector of the working class to mobilize in the streets and fight on their own behalf. That has always been anathema. So the union leaders tend to represent that tendency, knowing full well that if the membership were so mobilized on a consistent basis, it would have consequences.
Recently, conservative (and prominent) NY Times columnist David Brooks called for a series of mass public protests to stop Trump from overwhelming the coming election and forcing himself back into office. “There may have to be a sustained campaign of civic action, as in Hong Kong and Belarus,” he wrote. This was an indication that a wing of the capitalist class has become so desperate to get Trump out that even they see mobilizing masses as being necessary.
Union Leaders Call
Then, like clockwork, a few days later (September 5) the Associated Press reported “unions representing millions across several working-class sectors are threatening to authorize work stoppages in support of the Black Lives Matter movement…” They meant the union leaders, of course, and whether these leaders were simply issuing hollow Labor Day statements again or whether they will actually act is yet to be determined. They do respond to their capitalist masters, after all, but at the same time they are more attuned to the dangers of mobilizing their members than are their masters.
So, to return to the original question “why won’t the union leaders call a general strike?” the answer is “it’s complicated”. But union members and serious socialists can and should be linking up the two issues of the unions fighting on the job for the members and in society as a whole for the entire working class. If not now, when? Will we wait until a true, mass crisis such as what David Brooks and many others envision after November 3?