Labor, Empire and Globalization: An Extended Review of Solidarity Divided
|Book: Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: UC Press
Bill Fletcher, Jr., and Fernando Gapasin (hereafter, F &G) have written a very important book on the contemporary US labor movement that deserves to be read by all progressive activists inside the labor movement, and even by those outside. This gives an “insider’s look” to what is going on inside the labor movement—considerably much more than most outsiders realize—with implications, should suggestions be implemented, for all of us in the wider society. Efforts to change the US labor movement, should they be successful, could have ramifications on the US social order and for people around the world.
F & G begin by arguing that the 2005 split in the labor movement—where seven unions [SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the Teamsters, UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers), UNITE-HERE (garments, hotel and restaurant workers), the UFW (United Farm Workers), the Laborers, and the Carpenters] withdrew from the AFL-CIO and created the Change to Win Federation—was unnecessary, unprinicipled, and without input from their members. Further, even three years later, “we can identify very little significant change in organized labor” (p. 5).
There is a larger argument, however. And that is that the American labor movement is in crisis, and that despite the rhetoric, the 2005 split did nothing to address this crisis. Accordingly, those of us who want a revitalized labor movement must understand what went on behind the scenes, recognize that the split was not based on significant differences, and therefore, we must learn from the split to address the real problems that exist, which Labor’s top leaders so far have refused to confront.
To begin this process, the authors take us back through US labor history. Key to recognize, they argue, is the exclusionism that the unions have generally built upon; most notably “race,” but also excluding (in earlier times) immigrants as well as women. They particularly focus on the impact of Samuel Gompers’ (first President of the American Federation of Labor) ideas and practices on the subsequent development of the labor movement, which, they argue, continues today as “business unionism.”
One of the most interesting sections is on the three ideological trends within the labor movement, both historically and currently. They used labor leaders from the past to represent the three trends: they identified Eugene Debs as a “leftist”: Samuel Gompers as a “traditionalist”; and John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther as “pragmatists.” They argue that the traditionalists and pragmatists have ruled labor, but that in times such as the 1930s, the pragmatists have joined with the leftists to confront the crisis, and then once the crisis was overcome, betrayed the left and rejoined the traditionalists.
Following this, however, is recognition of the assault on labor that began in the 1970s. F & G recognize that attacks on workers began with attacks on other progressive social movements, and especially the movements of people of color. They write,
In fact, the assault on the U.S. working clas was successful precisely because the opening round targeted people of color, who could thus be blamed for the growing woes of the working class as a whole (but particularly the white working class). The idea was that this focus would minimize resistance (p. 43).
And it worked.
The problem, Fletcher and Gapasin argue, is that the leaders of the labor movement have really not led, but have been impediments to struggle. However, and importantly, the authors recognize that this is not an individual problem, but a problem of the “overall culture and practice of the organization” (p. 52). In other words, simply removing a “misleader” from office is not sufficient; the problem is the established conceptualization of trade unionism in this country. And that conceptualization remains based on Gompers’ narrow conceptualization of business unionism.
This recognition, in turn, provides the groundwork for their thinking:
A platform and long-term strategy for effecting cultural change, ones that do not rely on the vision, charisma, or activity of one leader, are essential to defeat business unionism and the union traditionalists and pragmatists who uphold it. The defeat of business unionism is key to the notion of union transformation (p. 58).
The authors then move forward and examine the “New Voice” slate led by John Sweeney that took power in the AFL-CIO as a result of the organization’s first contested election in 1995. They examine, sympathetically yet critically, the efforts by the Sweeney “team” to address serious shortcomings in Labor.
At the same time, however, F & G recognize changes in capitalism globally that have been affecting us in the US, and especially the imposition of neo-liberal economic policies that tried to overcome shortcomings of the established capitalist system. This included a war launched on the labor movement, beginning with the crushing of the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981 by Reagan and continuing on multiple levels including the National Labor Relations Board, a war for which the labor movement had not prepared, neither idologically nor organizationally.
Particularly with the “space” opened up by the election of the New Voices slate, labor leaders and activists tried to confront the changed situation. Most important were efforts to reshape the labor movement by reforming Central Labor Councils, and Fletcher and Gapasin examine the important transformation of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor. But labor missed some big opportunities, such as the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project, an effort to plan and launch a major campaign to organize unorganized manufacturing operations in Southern California—the new manufacturing center of the US, largely based on immigrant workers—which neither the AFL-CIO nor any national union was prepared to push. The authors also examined the successful case of supporting the Charleston 5, dockworkers in South Carolina. Led by militant local members, supported by the State AFL-CIO and defense committees set up in a number of places around the country, and championed by the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the mobilization successfully stopped the attack on the dockworkers. F & G noted, “… the Charleston 5 campaign charted a path that was largely alien to organized labor and that was largely avoided even during the Sweeney era” (113). And, thus, this victory was not built upon.
From there, they shift to events that led up to the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO. It is here, through close examination of events, they argue that the split was “bogus” (my term), and didn’t address the large majority of the many problems on the plate of the labor movement.
Out of examination of the split, they argue, “a need exists for an alternative framework for trade unionism,” which they call “social justice unionism” (hereafter, SJU). The authors argue that SJU has been implemented piecemeal, but that “social justice unionism has not yet come together with a coherent program with the requisite solid underpinnings of theory and practice” (166). They advance what they call “key elements” of SJU: class-struggle unionism, the need for local “strategic political blocks,” and the need to confront consciously oppression around race and gender. They argue that SJU needs to have a global outlook, and that US unionists should try to learn from trade unionism in the Global South. They argue for international labor solidarity, and even mention “empire,” although they don’t develop this idea.
Following, they suggest how to move toward SJU. This involves creating a practice of SJU, and the vehicles to move this practice forward. Key to creating a practice is union transformation, and here they argue vehemently that union transformation cannot come from the top, that “a process must unfold to win a political mandate from the membership” for SJU (201). They add vehicles such as advocating for enhanced efforts to unionize the public sector in the South and Southwest, pushing forward the concept of non-majority unionism, redefining worker control of the unions (whch means making real the concept of worker democracy), educating their members, recasting central labor councils from being a union organization to being centers for workers in general in a geographic area, and reconstituting the ideas of a national labor center.
In short, they make a strong argument that we need to overcome the historical legacies and continued shortcomings of business unionism, which, they argue, has hobbled the American labor movement and, ultimately, the working class as a whole. They put forth an overarching framework with a vision of change, that of social justice unionism, and suggest some intriguing and quite interesting ideas that deserve additional consideration and engagement.
This book is very valuable and important, and I salute the authors for their strong effort. Yet there are some areas that I wish the authors had added to addressed differently, which I feel would have made an already strong effort even stronger.
I would have preferred that the approach be more inclusive of other labor writers’/ activists’ work than it was. While these two authors have decades of experience and operate at levels within the labor movement than few of us have, there is a strong suggestion that this is “the” way to move the labor movement forward, and I don’t think there is any one way to do this: it will take a collective effort by many rank and file members in conjunction with activists and theorists to figure out a realistic path forward. Accordingly, I argue this must include anyone and everyone who has substantive thinking and experience to contribute to the discussion. In other words, we should not exclude those with whom we disagree—let’s get everyone with roots in the labor movement into the discussion, look at the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, and make our best decisions accordingly. That means including rather than ignoring the work of other labor activists/writers who have their own perspectives to contribute.
However, instead of focusing on what they didn’t do, let me address key substantial areas on which they wrote. My biggest criticism of Solidarity Divided is that, despite a rhetorical “toss” here and there, there is no substantive effort to address the US Empire. [They will disagree, I expect, and argue for their chapter on “The Need for a Global Outlook” (pp. 186-196) and specifically their section on “Empire” (pp. 192-196), but I address that below.] In fact, in their chapter on “Globalization,” they suggest three different definitions of the term, recognizing that “The ongoing process of globalization has enormous implications for the union movement and the working class” (p. 91). I agree the issue is important; it is necessary to get it right.
However, I don’t find their three different approaches to be as distinctive as the authors suggest, nor satisfactory. They take an economistic approach. They define globalization as “the reorganization of global capitalism.” Further, “Globalization is being advanced by national and international capitalist forces but is not the inevitable result of anything. Rather it is global capital’s response to a particular situation and is therefore the result—fundamentally—of national and international class struggle” (91-92).
By taking an economistic approach—ultimately reducing globalization to economics—they reject a political economic approach to globalization. Fletcher and Gapasin do this by using Hardt and Negri’s book Empire, to represent the current thinking on empire. They summarize Hardt and Negri’s argument as “The process by which dominant capitalist powers juggle competing spheres of influence—generally referred to as ‘imperialism’—is losing hold because these powers are being subordinated to the objectives of a developing global force, or ‘Empire’” (91). F & G reject this approach (to globalization).
This, however, is a “straw man” argument: the dominant view of critical thinking today among writers who focus on political power, and especially in regard to the United States’ activities around the world, is not that there is a global “Empire” unconnected to the nation-state (ala Hardt and Negri), but that there is a US Empire, connected to the US State. (The work of Michael Albert, William Blum,
The Fletcher/Gapasin approach does two things: (1) it removes the struggle against the US Empire from Labor’s agenda, and (2), more immediately, it does not deal with US Labor’s active role—what I and others have long termed as “labor imperialism”—in opppressing workers in developing countries around the world.
The US labor movement since the 19-teens has been actively engaged in operations around the world, beginning by intervening in the Mexican Revolution (i.e., several years before the Russian Revolution of 1917), sabotaging militant efforts for self-determination by workers and their allies in developing countries. The AFL helped overthrow the democratically-elected government of Guatemala in 1954, and the AFL-CIO did the same in Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973, and was integrally involved in the 2002 coup attempt against the democratically-elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. They have also worked with reactionary labor movements to undercut progressive governments (such as in Nicaragua during the 1980s), and they have worked with reactionary labor movements against progressive labor movements to ensure the continued domination of dictatorships, which set of the welcome mat for Corporate America (such as in the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, and until 1986, South Africa).
[For most of the articles on AFL-CIO foreign policy that have been published since 2000, many which are available on-line, go to www.workertoworker.net/links.html; for the most complete listing of works on AFL-CIO foreign policy program, go to http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm#AFL-CIO_Foreign_Operations.)
The key organization to focus on is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Supposedly a quasi-private, non-governmental organization, the NED was created by the US Congress at the behest of the Reagan Administration in 1983, and receives most of its funding from the US Government today. Rhetorically dedicated to “advancing democracy around the world,” the NED is in reality an effort to help the US dominate the world; as one of its founders, Allen Weinstein said in 1991, “A lot of what we do was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA” (quoted in William Blum, Rogue State, 2000: 180). The NED is composed of four “core” organizations: the International Republican Institute (the international wing of the Republican Party, headed by John McCain), the National Democratic Institute (international wing of the Democratic Party, headed by Madeleine Albright), the Center for International Private Enterprise (the international wing of the US Chamber of Commerce), and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS, more commonly referred to as the “Solidarity Center”), the international wing of the AFL-CIO.
The Solidarity Center admits being active in over 60 countries around the world today, but has never given an honest reporting of its purposes and activities to AFL-CIO members or to the public. Quite frankly, no one outside of its staff and very few top members of the AFL-CIO foreign policy leadership know what it is doing; we have glimpses, but are far from a full understanding. But we know for certain, having access to reports from Solidarity Center staff in Caracas, Venezuela to the staff of the National Endowment for Democracy, that the Solidarity Center played an integral role in bringing together leaders of the right wing CTV Labor Center of Venezuela with the national chamber of commerce in Venezuela just before the April 2002 attempt against Chavez; and these two forces were at the center of the civilian side of the civilian-military coup attempt. [See my “An Unholy Alliance: The AFL-CIO and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Venezuela.” Z Net, July 10, 2005. On-line at www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/5864.]
The fact is, despite some initial reforms after John Sweeney got into office in 1995, the AFL-CIO has reverted back to its traditional labor imperialism. However, I must note that since Sweeney gained the presidency, foreign operations have become more sophisticated, and in a few places, even have made positive contributions—this is not a reversion to the old “AIFLD” days, when everything was attrocious. Nonetheless, despite any small positive contribution here or there (such as helping maquiladora workers in Central America), the overall result is the resumption of labor imperialism, and acting as a key player with the NED.
This labor imperialism is not a product of external forces, such as the US Government, the White House or the CIA, but is a product of the labor movement itself; it is a result of internal forces. Fletcher and Gapasin do not address this vitally important factor in the development of our labor movement.
This is all the more surprising since the authors’ recognize the importance of building international labor solidarity, and that is there general approach in the chapter referred to above titlted “The Need for a Global Outlook.” But if building international labor solidarity is important—and it is essential—then shouldn’t efforts to stop the labor imperialism of one’s own labor movement be at or at very least near the top of the agenda? Isn’t it important to stop our own labor movement from oppressing other workers? And if this is important, why is it not discussed in this book by authors who are proposing a new model of unionism to overcome the weaknesses of the old?
Yet there is more to the need to focus on the US Empire than “just” building international labor solidarity; it is in our own direct interests. (Fletcher and Gapasin devote little more than a page to discussing “Empire” in the section by that title.) The US today spends more money in a year on the war machine and related costs (euphemistically referred to as “defense” spending) than do all the other countries of the world combined! What are we afraid of…?
The point of all this, at the most basic level, is that money spent on the war machine cannot be spent on providing education, spreading health care, alleviating poverty, creating jobs, attacking social inequality (the worst among the so-called developed countries, and worse than some of the poorest nations of the world), expanding mass transit, financing the strict enforcement of worker wage, hour and safety laws, initiating remediation efforts against global warming, etc. In other words, we cannot seriously begin to address the massive social problems in this country, because feeding the war machine is obviously more important.
Yet, the problem is much greater than this. Our country—with current budgetary and tax choices—is far beyond “bankruptcy”: our budget this year was intially projected to be over $400 billion in the red, and will be over $1 trillion with the financial bailouts; our national debt—a combination of all deficits and surpluses each year since this country’s founding in 1789—is over $10 trillion, when it was less than 1 trillion (actually $907 billion) when Jimmy Carter left office in 1981; and according to the US Government Accounting Office, the government has $53 trillion of unfunded program commitments on its books. Our balance of trade has set new records for being in the hole every year since 1996, except for 2001, and then breaking the new record the very next year.
These are each unsustainable, and even more so when joined together. What has enabled us to do as well as we have been, is that investors (including foreign central banks) have been willing to buy US “IOUs” (commonly referred to as Treasury “bonds” and “bills”) but that cannot be expected to continue for ever—or even much longer. (For a detailed overview of the US economic situation, see my “Neo-liberal Economic Policies in the United States: The Impact on American Workers.” Z Net, February 2, 2007. On-line at www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/2139.) And while the current economic and financial crisis is helping us move the end point closer, where is the public voice of the labor movement?
If the AFL-CIO and the American public do not force the government to address these problems, and soon, we are in deep trouble. (And trust me, the election of Barack Obama by itself will not solve these problems!) It’s not certain we can dig ourselves out economically in the best of situations, but it’s certain that if we do not force the issue, our top “leaders” won’t even try. And that will result in societal-wide disaster (as opposed to “just” the pockets of disaster in the inner-cities and rural areas today).
And where we’ll see it hit each of us is in our Social Security System, which is an effort, however limited, to ensure we’ll each be able to live our retirement years in dignity and (hopefully) without economic want. The Republicans already want to disembowel Social Security, and if we don’t attack and defeat the war machine, they and their corporate allies in the Democratic Party will get their way.
In short, we can either fund the war machine or take care of our people: we cannot do both. But it’s even worse than that: if we do not reject the US Empire, and defund the war machine that is necessary for its survival, the government must escalate and expand its attack on the large majority of our people. And you can take that to the bank!
The direct attack on our people would seem most likely to hit in the near term with reinstitution of the draft. The US military was “downsized” after Vietnam, reduced to an “all volunteer” force. In reality, it is made up of true volunteers (if one can be a true volunteer after 17-18 years of nationalist American “our nation is the greatest” propaganda) and a considerable number of African Americans and Latinos from inner cities and poor, rural whites; i.e., a significant portion of the US military today is based on a “poverty draft,” where people have no realistic economic options except to join the military for a steady paycheck and, hopefully, training they can use subsequently to get a job in civilian life after they return.
However, this downsized military has been thrown into the caldron of urban guerrilla warfare in Bush’s illegal Iraq war. Unlike during Vietnam, where you did a second or more “tour” only if you volunteered, a growing number of troops today have been forced to do multiple tours in Iraq, and some have done as many as seven or eight tours! With drastically escalating levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) among returning vets, we have a medical caseload so vast that the Veterans Administration can only throw pills at these folks, instead of providing the necessary time, resources and therapy to help them overcome their injuries enough to be able to survive in society.
In additon to the medical problems of returning vets, there are accompanying moral problems. War is hell, and urban guerrilla warfare is about the worst: no one comes out unscathed. And people can do incredibly vile things in their efforts to get themselves and their “buddies” home again safely. That might even make sense at the time and place. But once they are again “safe,” they have to come to grips with what they and their friends did and saw: and being imperial “storm troopers” tends to contradict the moral and ethical values of most Americans. Massive “self-medication” through drugs and alcohol are common, as is domestic violence against lovers, spouses and children. Veterans will be dealing with these issues for the rest of their lives. These troops and veterans are the sons and daughters of working families, and all that is happending to them must become a critical issue for our unions and labor movement. (And great credit should be given to US Labor Against the War, who have been spearheading opposition to the war within the labor movement: see their web site at www.uslaboragainstwar.org.)
The American tax payer is paying for this, and will have to keep paying for a very long time: latest estimates are that the war and related expenses will reach somewhere around $3 trillion.
More immediately, however, is that the military cannot sustain years and years of more combat with just its volunteers. If the US continues to escalate in Afghanistan and, possibly, Pakistan, where are the troops going to come from, as the US still has over 120,000 troops in Iraq? And we’re trying to goad Iran into a war…? At some time, there is going to have to be a decision made: either we pull out of southwestern Asia, or we insitute a draft that will compel our young sisters and brothers into the armed brutality of occupation and war.
So, arguably, the issue of challenging the US Empire would seem to be a very high priority of any “new” proposal for the labor movement, if not the highest. Yet, Fletcher and Gapasin preclude even a discussion of this by their economistic approach to globalization. Obviously, this economic approach to globalization, while a necessary part of the larger discussion, is certainly not sufficient.
Another critque of the Fletcher/Gapasin book is that nowhere do they discuss the escalating envionmental crisis—and, following, they do not discuss how this will affect workers and the labor movement. Our 6% of the world’s population produces 25% of all greenhouse gasses, which directly attack the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. And the US demand for resources is so voracious and inefficient that if everyone in the world lived at the standard of living of the average American, we would need 11 more planet earths! (To live at the level of the average Western European, we would “only” need three more planet earths.) Unfortunately, this is not an issue most of the left, and certainly not labor writers, have seriously addressed either, but still, I argue the environmental crisis is going to have an escalating impact on our society—and on the production side of thigns, not just the consumption side—and this means it will affect production, jobs and workers. (See my “It’s Time for a Deep Green Vison for the United States—and the World,” Synthesis/Regeneration, No. 48, Winter 2009: 1-4. On-line at www.zmag.org/zspace/viewCommentaryPrint/3704.) It would seem essential that any proposal for a new labor movement would address this.
Yet the major question omitted in this book, one which is essential to get our hands around before going much farther is this: despite the escalating bad news—and most importantly, the fact that fewer private sector workers are in unions than there were in 1930!—why have the established labor leaders not done anything to address seriously this crisis? Why have they been satisifed only with moving the deck chairs on the Titantic, instead of at least acting to patch up the hole through which more and more water is pouring? Why, when it is in their institutionalized interests, by any stretch of the imagination, have they been so unwilling to act? And if that’s not enough, why have they undercut and undermined efforts by activists to address these problems for organized labor?
The inability and/or unwillingness to act, especially when it is in their own direct interest, is staggering. When Ronald Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981—the “waterloo” of the conteporary labor movement—then AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland stood by and did nothing, even though this was in a heavily unionized industry that culd have arguably backed Reagan down and forced him to retreat. The labor movement did nothing. John Sweeney, to his credit, took a risk, ran for the Presidency in 1995, and won—and yet, within two or three years at the outside, had transformed himself/been transformed into another sleepy, idea-less and decrepit labor leader.
The tie between Kirkland and Sweeney (as well as Gompers and Meany before them) is, I believe, what binds them: support for the US Empire. (Fletcher and Gapasin, to their credit, do mention union leaders’ acceptance of empire, albeit briefly, on p. 193.) Kirkland and Sweney both have served meekly, as junior partners, on government foreign policy panels, and have carried out their respective labor operations in order to maintain, if not extend, the Empire. They both, with chosen subordinates, have actively been involved in working with the National Endowment for Democracy, and with the cash it offers to run AFL-CIO operations abroad. They both have hidden foreign labor operations when questioned, and they’ve both done everything to keep these foreign labor operations from being exposed, discussed and held to accountability; in such, to ensure the continued operations of their cadres abroad—over 90% of their foreign budget is provided by the US Government—they have each undermined what little labor democracy that exists at the national level.
In short, they are willing to sell the soul of the labor movement for the continuation of the US Empire. They, of course, wouldn’t put it that way—they are trying to hide their betrayal by supporting Democrats (as they almost always do)—but no better explanation has yet been provided.
That takes me back to the previous point: if continuation of the US Empire demands escalating attacks on poor and working people in this country—which is a certainty—then have have to choose for Empire or for our people. We cannot have both.
Whether the labor movement will go one way or the other is debatable; most likely, it will go in a number of way, but basically it will be either for the Empire or for the people. I argue that labor activist and supporters must demand that Labor reject the US Empire, and support struggles and organization of poor and working people in the US and around the globe.
Any book on the future of the labor movement that doesn’t put our choices in such clear terms seems to be missing absolutely essential issues, if not THE key issue of our time.
Additionally, the idea of social justice unionism is not new, although I agree that implementing it would be a major advance over current business unionism. Social justice unionism used to be known as “social” unionism, and this form of unionism was implemented and carried out within the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) between 1937-1968, as well as by a few other—not many—CIO unions. Key to the UPWA’s work was the direct assault on racial oppression: according to a contemporary account in the Black-owned Chicago Defender, by 1939, in racist, segregated Chicago, eight of the 14 packinghouse local unions (of the then Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee) were headed by African Americans. This was an extrmely democratic union, run by the members, based on the reality of “class struggle,” and with extensive labor education programs, etc.
Especially with the authors’ deserved attention on “race,” I’m surprised they did not focus attention on PWOC and UPWA. After all, in each UPWA contract by 1962, nationwide, therre was an anti-discrimination clause that the union vigorously enforced (although the union’s record on confronting sexism, while better than most, was never as good as its record challenging racism).
And this ties together my final criticism: while the authors advance the concept of “social justice unionism” to advance development of the labor movement, nowhere do they put forth what kind of societal changes they would wish the labor movement to seek. In other words, so what if the unions are transformed into social justice unions: what are they fighting for? The authors imply “social justice”—but what does that mean in reality: are reforms enough, or must their be a qualitative and fundamental transformation of society?
In short, despite its many notable strengths, Solidarity Divided has a number of areas where I wish it had been stronger—and in some places, much stronger.
I hope many will read and debate the arguments in the book. A book like this is too important to be ignored, and needs to be given the respect due, by taking it seriously, and challenging the authors to extend their reach and their arguments. And the rest of us need to build upon their contributions and push the work forward.