Unionism and Workers' Liberation
Unionism and Workers' Liberation
Class struggle wasn't a figment of Marx's imagination. A struggle between workers the classes that dominate them is a consant, an on-going reality. This struggle happens because of structures in society that give certain groups power over other groups.
Class is about power that arises in the system of social production. Apart from work that we do at home for ourselves and members of our own families, there is a vast network of work relations where people are doing things for other people. This is what I mean by social production. This isn't just manufacturing. Transporation, systems of tele-communications, public utilities, retail stores, health care and other services â€” these spheres of work are all part of social production.
We are warranted in supposing that class exists because it is a powerful tool for understanding what actually happens in society, for explaining differences in patterns of behavior of different groups of people, helping us to a
Class systems arise because of structures that give certain people power over others, and over the wealth created, in social production. Of course, some people are children, not yet actively engaged in the social economy in most cases. Others are retired or unemployed. When I talk about social classes I assume that children are a part of the social class of their parents. I assume that retired people are still a part of the class they were in before they retired. This makes sense because the class that people grow up in shapes their life prospects and their loyalties. A person's class situation before retirement will affect things like how long they are likely to live or how economically secure they will be in retirement.
There are two structures in contemporary
A second structure that creates class division became more pronounced about a century ago when capitalism evolved into its advanced, corporate form. The big concentrations of capital that came together at the end of the 19th century had the resources to attack the control over technology and work that had been the possession of the traditional crafts. "Efficiency experts" like Frederick Taylor advocated systematic analysis of the tasks in jobs, removing the conceptual and decision-making tasks from the shopfloor and concentrating them into a newly elaborated hierarchy of management and professional positions. The purpose of this was to shift the balance of power to the advantage of management. This did not happen smoothly as workers fought back.
From the 1890s to the 1920s the changes to the organization of production pumped up a new class of professional managers, and engineers and other professional advisors to management.
The capitalists had to cede some power to the coordinator class at the beginning of the 20th century because their ventures had grown too large for the owners to manage directly. Controls over workers crafted by the coordinator class are typically sold to the stockholders as a way to raise profits, but in reality this is not the only purpose at work. The concentration of control in their own hands empowers the coordinator class and makes them central to the system of production. Connections, a
Recognizing the existence of the coordinator class helps us to explain who the ruling class is in the various Communist countries. The Leninist revolutions eliminated the capitalist class, creating systems of public ownership of means of production, but the working class continued to be subordinated and exploited. These revolutions revealed that the coordinator class has the power to be a ruling class.
The working class is that section of the economically active population who are subordinate to management power, with little or no formal power over the definition or control of their work, and no supervisory power over other workers. Michael Zweig estimates that the working class is 62 percent of the American population(4). This group is varied in pay levels and other conditions â€” from secretaries or administrative assistants in offices, carpenters and electricians on building sites, to airline baggage-handlers, bus and train drivers, vehicle mechanics, meatcutters in packing plants, and checkers and baggers at the local supermarket.
Classes are not static. Powerful capitalist or coordinator groups may seek to cut down the independence of some groups. For example, Michael Zweig suggests that RNs, despite their four-year college degrees, have working class jobs due to the degree of control they are subject to. I have worked in software firms where large projects are Taylorized, with engineers assigned responsibility for coding some narrow fragment, with little or no input on the overall design. In school systems, teachers can find themselves up against administrators and educational consulting firms that want to put in place a more corporate-style division of labor: Curriculum and teaching methods would be defined in advance, and teachers would be expected to just execute a pre-cooked agenda. On the other hand, in defending their conception of professional autonomy, teachers may be reluctant to identify too closely with cafeteria and janitorial workers and others in the working class.
In other cases, powerful groups try to mask the real power relationships with changes in formal titles or legal arrangements. Employers of taxi and truck drivers, for example, have used the idea of "independent contractor" status as a way to reduce the power the drivers can achieve through union organization. But the formal contractor status doesn't free the drivers from the real power of the employers.
The dynamics of economic change and conflict make the class line fuzzy. Thus between the coordinator class and the working class there are a large number of people in lower-level professional positions who share some of the features of the coordinator class, such as college educations and greater autonomy in their work, while also being subject to management power. Teachers, writers, commercial artists, and programmers are often in this sort of position. Sometimes these groups form unions and struggle with management. The proletarianization of professional groups often puts them into a more worker-like position. Given their situation, the lower-level professionals are potential allies of the working class(5).
The working class and the lower-level professionals together are at least three-fourths of the population of the
Liberation and Organization
The strongest ethical arguments are rooted in human nature, in the capacities and needs of human beings. The human capacity for self-management provides us a strong argument against the class system.
We all have the ability to foresee possible courses of action into the future, to think out steps to realize our aims, to develop skills to carry out our plans, and to carry out those plans through action under our own control. This is self-management. To be self-managing is to be self-determining. This is freedom in the positive sense of the word. To be self-managing, to control our lives, is a basic need that human beings have because this is how we ensure that our actions serve our own aspirations.
The laissez faire ideology, so prominent in American society at present, defines freedom only as absence of formal legal constraint. Workers are alleged to be free because we have the legal freedom to quit a tyrannical corporate master and seek out another. This use of â€œfreeâ€ is sort of Orwellian: â€œServitude is freedom.â€ By this logic, people in Nazi Germany or Stalinâ€™s
In both the capitalist and Communist countries working people are forced to labor to fulfill the plans of others, exploited for the benefit of elites. This denial of our human need for self-management, our subordination to the power and profit-seeking of elites, is oppression. Workersâ€™ liberation requires putting an end to this condition of subordination to elite classes.
Ownership of the means of production by the capitalists is only one of the structures that tramples the self-management of working people. The coordinator classâ€™s relative monopolization of conditions for control of work also subordinates the working class. Thus changing the ownership structure of the economy, from private to public ownership, would not be sufficient to liberate the working class. The power of the coordinator class over the working class would also need to be dissolved. To do this, the working class would need to replace the existing corporate and state hierarchies with economic and political institutions that would embody their collective self-management of production and control over social affairs.
A society with class subordination and other structures of oppression forces people into certain patterns of behavior, shaping their consciousness in certain ways. Managers and professionals who control the design of jobs and the activities of others acquire specific skills, as well as a sense of their entitlement to run things. Facing powerful control structures as individuals, subordinated workers often develop a sense of not having any power to change this, a fatalistic acquiescence. Our potential to design and control our own work, and to attain mastery over the production process, is under-developed by a system that doesn't call upon us to make the decisions.
If the working class is to liberate itself, it must overcome fatalism and internal divisions (such as along lines of race and gender) and acquire the unity, organizational strength, self-confidence, self-discipline, personal skills, vision, and high levels of active involvement in struggle needed to mount a fundamental challenge to the elites.
Apart from the control structures of the dominating classes, the organizations that workers create themselves also affect their sense of power to change things and the personal strategies they use to navigate their way through life. Thatâ€™s because organization affects the ability of working people to mount collective actions and resistance which can force the corporations and government to respect their aspirations.
How much collective action and solidarity we see around us will affect our beliefs about our power to change things. If a person faces the corporations and the state as a lone individual, they may believe "you're on your own." If people standing up for each other begins to become more common, and we see an increase in collective action against those who have power, we will be more likely to start thinking in terms of collective action as a solution to the problems that affect us instead of looking only to individual solutions.
If we are to create a society in which the people can directly control their lives, a society in which workers run the industries where they work, the process of self-management must emerge in self-management of mass organizations of working people. The self-managed mass organizations prefigure self-management of social production by workers and the direct self-governance of society by the mass of the people.
Mass organizations directly controlled by their participants give people a means of collectively self-managing struggles within capitalist society, and help to develop in people a sense of their power to run things. Through a more or less protracted process, the working class can break longstanding habits of a
Arguments for a New Labor Movement
Mass organizations of workers rooted in the struggles in workplaces are central to the potential power of the working class to make changes in society. A union is a mass organization through which workers force the employers to do things the employers would rather not do, or force the employers to avoid doing things they would like to do. Through their solidarity and force of numbers, and their ability to bring work to a halt, workers â€œin unionâ€ with each other can bend the will of the employers, forcing them to do what they would otherwise rather not do.
But the currently dominant type of trade union in the
In what follows Iâ€™m going to argue for a major effort to develop new union organizations outside the top-down hierarchies of the AFL-CIO and CTW unions.
1. A top-down apparatus of paid officials and staff tend to monopolize expertise and levers of decision-making in AFL-CIO and CTW. This disempowers the members and prefigures continued subordination and exploitation of workers.
The relative monopolization of decision-making and expertise in the control of the labor process is a defining trait of the coordinator class, and is a part of the subordination of the working class in the social economy. The relationship of the paid apparatus of the unions to union members is quite analogous, and it is also disempowering for workers. Of course, the institutional techniques that lead to control by the paid apparatus of the union â€” and their degree of control and the level of participation and activism of members â€” vary among unions.
Paid officers and staff a
Robert Fitch uses the label â€œfiefdom syndromeâ€ for the system that makes the membership of the union dependent on, and under the thumb of, the paid machine in the traditional AFL trade This is a kind of political machine where the leader is the patron who controls a
Job trust unions often have little incentive to broaden their membership through organizing. If more members are brought into the union, this may mean that there are merely more workers competing for the same jobs, sitting on the benches in the hiring hall. Because the AFLâ€™s traditional strategy was to exclude other workers from their craft, this often took the form of excluding women or African-Americans, as in the construction trades. Corruption â€” endemic in various parts of the traditional AFL international unions â€” is facilitated by the domination of the paid leaders, the inability of the workers to escape the unionâ€™s monopoly control, and the lack of effective involvement and control by the members(7). (American unions are called â€œinternationalsâ€ because they typically have sections in
In the competition between the AFL and the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, the AFL unions were largely su
To see how an AFL â€œfiefdomâ€ works, itâ€™s worth focusing on a particular example. So letâ€™s look at the United Transportation Union (UTU) at the Los Angeles MTA. The UTU is a garden variety AFL kleptocracy. The two UTU international union presidents prior to the current president are currently serving prison terms for embezzlement of union funds.
The Los Angeles MTA operates a vast transit network throughout Los Angeles County, with 16 bus divisions and four subway and light rail lines. There are about 5,000 bus and train operators in the UTU. The widespread de-industrialization and closing of unionized industrial plants in Los Angeles in the â€˜70s and â€˜80s has left the MTAâ€™s transit operation as one of the few places where African-American workers can get a job that has good pay and benefits. A decade ago about half the drivers were African-American. In recent years Latino drivers have become almost as numerous as the black drivers. There are also still some drivers of European descent, as well as Persians, southeast Asians, and other ethic groups, reflecting the cosmopolitan character of Los Angeles.
The pay and benefits at MTA, and the unionâ€™s check on management power, are the product of a long history of struggle and sacrifice by Los Angeles transit workers. They dragged themselves out of poverty through their own efforts.
Prior to World War II, transit operator was a low-wage job in Los Angeles, and workers who dared to â€œtalk unionâ€ were at risk of being fired. The two main private transit companies in Los Angeles in the early 20th century â€” predecessors of the present-day MTA â€” had been owned by Henry Huntington. Huntington was the Mr. Moneybags who financed the anti-union â€œopen shopâ€ movement in Los Angeles. This movement had emerged in 1903 as a challenge to the AFL unions. Huntingtonâ€™s management on the Los Angeles transit system was virulently anti-union. Strikes in 1919 and 1934 were broken by hiring permanent replacements. Finally, in 1942, taking advantage of a war-time labor shortage, the AFL Amalgamated Bus and Streetcar Workers Union (predecessor of the present-day Amalgamated Transit Union â€” ATU) defeated the Huntington management in a strike. This strike won the first union contract.
The two predecessor companies were acquired by the government in 1958. This led to a jurisdictional agreement between the AFL Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen and the ATU. BRT got the drivers and ATU got the mechanics. In 1970 BRT absorbed a number of smaller â€œrailroad brotherhoodsâ€ and changed its name to United Transportation Union.
Management continually probes the unions for weakness â€” trying to get more part-timers, two-tier wage systems, contract out lines to private companies, or weaken driver protections in other ways. The transit workers have been able to fend off most of these attacks through their willingness to stand together and fight. Since 1960 there have been ten Los Angeles transit strikes. In recent years the MTA management has been squeezing the drivers to get out more service. Drivers used to have 15 to 20 minutes of layover time at the end of their runs. Now the layover is down to only 6 to 10 minutes â€” not enough time to relax, eat, and go to the toilet.
In the 1980s Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley â€” a liberal African-American Democrat and former cop â€” and right-wing County Supervisor Pete Schabarum cooperated in a major attack on the union. A large part of the transit network in eastern Los Angeles County was subcontracted to a private firm, Foothill Transit. But, as UTU drivers tell me, UTU never made the attempt to organize the Foothill drivers, to fight for parity with drivers at RTD (the predecessor of MTA). UTU rolled over. Eventually Teamster union apparatchiks began collecting dues from the Foothill Transit drivers. But Foothill pay levels are still way below UTU drivers at MTA. As long as Foothill Transit remains a low-wage sinkhole in the realm of Los Angeles public transit, it is a threat to the other transit workers.
The current chieftain at the UTU in Los Angeles is James Willams, General Chairman of the UTU Board of Adjustment â€” the MTA-wide UTU committee. He draws a CEO-level salary, over $300,000 a year. Williams is an African-American man of humble origins who moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 1960s and began driving a bus for the RTD. Williams was groomed for his current job by Earl Clark, the chieftain of the UTU in the RTD era. The local presidents also make fat salaries. Rick Ortega, president of UTU local 1607, receives $120,000 â€” almost two and half times what a full-time driver makes without overtime.
Oppositionists in Local 1607 tell me they believe that Williams and Ortega probably got into being union leaders out of a sincere desire to help their fellow drivers, many years ago. As they got used to receiving huge salaries and no longer face the daily stress of driving a bus, they became â€œlazy,â€ the activists believe. The problem is, the UTU type of union institution is a â€œsystemâ€; it tends to shape the people who get involved in it. The union is now the leadersâ€™ personal fiefdom.
Until recently, Local 1607 activists say, Mr. Ortega would get around opposition at meetings by arbitrarily declaring the meeting â€œadjournedâ€ without a vote, bringing the meeting to an end. The members were ignorant of their rights, activists say, and were intimidated by the union leadership who surround themselves with a small circle of cronies. Over the years Ortega had learned various tricks for prosecuting grievances. â€œBut he doesnâ€™t teach the members anything so they will be dependent on him,â€ one driver told me. Activists want the union to teach members how to file grievances and deal with grievance hearings.
The union had done nothing to develop the knowledge that drivers would need to participate effectively in the union. To empower their fellow drivers, activists in Local 1607 began by distributing leaflets explaining how the members can use Robertsâ€™ Rules of Order to defend their democratic rights in union meetings. Now, if Mr. Ortega tries to stop a meeting by declaring it adjourned, members respond by telling him: â€œYou have to take a vote to adjourn a meeting. If you want to leave, thatâ€™s fine. Weâ€™ll continue the meeting without you.â€
A union where a leader can keep members in the dark and intimidate them is a recipe for a kleptocracy. Hereâ€™s an example: At the time of the last strike in 2003 it became apparent that Mr. Ortega had been pocketing $7,500 a month in dues owed to the international union. Heâ€™d been telling the international union certain drivers were sick and were therefore exempt from dues. When these drivers tried to collect their $600 strike pay during the walkout, the international told them they werenâ€™t supposed to get strike pay because they were listed as out on sick leave. In fact they had been working. One of the things the members of Local 1607 have been fighting for now is an open a
In addition to the salary James Williams receives, dissidents allege that he has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars of union funds without authorization to defend himself against sexual harassment complaints of female drivers. At the end of the last strike in 2003, activists tell me that the meeting to vote on the proposed contract was poorly advertised among the UTU membership, with only 200 of the 5,000 drivers showing up. No copy of the proposed contract was provided. Mr. Williams insisted they vote on the contract after describing the alleged contents for about 15-minutes. He claimed that the contract contained no loss of benefits. But workers later discovered that in fact the contract included a cut in health benefits, with a new requirement for $50 copays.
Challenging James Williams is no easy task, however. UTU at MTA is divided into five locals. This is a bureaucrat-entrenchment device. Drivers would normally have contact with the colleagues in their own operating division and local. Special effort would be needed to develop contacts across locals. This creates a speedbump against the spread of a rank-and-file movement that might challenge the leadership. Williams is not elected directly by the UTU members, but is selected by the Board of Adjustment, which is made up of the five local presidents.
Oppositionists in Local 1607 have a vision or program for union reform. First, theyâ€™d like to see the union funds that currently go to huge salaries put into the strike fund. They want any paid positions limited to the pay rate of a driver. Second, they advocate term limits â€” a maximum of six years in a row in office â€” to avoid the syndrome of domination by entrenched chiefs. For officers who are paid, term limits will force them to go back to driving a bus after a certain period. If the officers know theyâ€™re going to go back to the stressful job of driving a bus once again, that will be a motivation to fight harder for their colleagues. Third, the oppositionists want a system of elected shop stewards in the operating divisions so that the drivers can more readily defend themselves on the job. Finally, activists in Local 1607 also put forward a vision of a â€œsolidarity movementâ€ that would link MTA drivers with other transportation workers in the Los Angeles area â€” port truckers, line-haul truck drivers, taxi drivers, and bus drivers at the suburban â€œmunisâ€ and private contract operations like Foothill and Laidlaw(8).
Activists in Local 1607 are also sympathetic to the idea of a driver/rider alliance to fight MTA management. â€œI like [the Bus Riders Union],â€ a leading UTU activist told me. â€œThey want what we want.â€ He doesnâ€™t understand why the UTU leadership has not tried to develop a better relationship with the BRU.
The undemocratic power that an unelected general chairman wields at the MTA UTU is derived from the UTU international constitution. Gaining control of an international union convention to change this would be no easy task. I think it would be easier to decertify UTU. In fact, itâ€™s hard to see how the â€œsolidarity movementâ€ the UTU activists talk about could come about except through the formation of a new, independent transportation workers union.
What about the unions created by the CIO movement in the 1930s â€” unions like the United Auto Workers and the United Steel Workers? These unions have been somewhat cleaner and more centralized than the traditional AFL trade unions. It is worth looking at how domination by a top-down paid machine was consolidated in the CIO unions after the 1930s upsurge.
In the lingo of American unionism, a â€œunion securityâ€ clause is a provision in a union contract that requires workers to remain members of the union â€œin good standingâ€ in order to keep their job. This arrangement is called a â€œunion shop.â€ In the typical union contract in the decades after World War II, a new hire would be required to join the union after a certain probationary period. Most often the dues were simply deducted by the employer directly from their paycheck and sent to the union office â€” an arrangement known as â€œdues check-off.â€ In some cases workers were allowed to pay an â€œagency feeâ€ to the union for â€œcollective bargaining servicesâ€ if they chose not to join.
When John L. Lewis and his associates broke from the AFL to form the CIO, they took with them the top-down constitutional structures that had been characteristic of the AFL unions. This facilitated the eventual consolidation of a paid union apparatus but it took some time for this to happen. The uprising of industrial workers in the 1930s was a mass movement. The top CIO officials were only one of the elements in the picture.
The first union contracts that were won by the CIO unions through the sit-down strikes and mass struggles of the 1930s were typically rather sketchy. Prior to 1942, few CIO contracts contained any â€œunion securityâ€ clause. Union membership was voluntary and shop stewards or shop committeemen collected the dues in the workplace, or at the plant gates. When the shop committeeman came around to collect the dues, this gave workers an opportunity to press them about their issues.
Voluntary membership meant that union membership tended to fluctuate. Union membership would be at its highest after a major struggle and would then decline as the period of struggle and mobilization faded into the past. Because the unions depended on the voluntary support of the workers, the local union organization was under constant pressure to continually organize and mobilize to get results that would prove their value. Grievances were pursued whether or not they were justified by language in the union contract. Even if local union officials didnâ€™t approve of protests on the job or wildcat strikes, they were reluctant to condone employer repression of such actions. The active supporters or initiators of these actions were almost always key union supporters.
This situation changed once the â€œunion shopâ€ provisions were obtained in the contract. This freed the union organization from having to wage a constant mobilization and struggle with management to maintain itself.
The widespread introduction of â€œunion securityâ€ provisions in CIO contracts were a result of World War II. The Roosevelt administrationâ€™s military build-up before the war, and then the vast expenditure on military production during the war, and the absorption of many young workers into the military, created a huge labor shortage. After the deprivation and poverty of the 1930s, workers took advantage of the labor shortage to press their demands in numerous strikes and job actions. At the same time, the Roosevelt administration was anxious to avoid disruptions to war production.
The first dramatic episode in this conflict was the Roosevelt administrationâ€™s use of military force to crush a strike of 4,000 workers at a North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, California in June, 1941. At the time, this was the largest strike in California since the maritime strike of 1934. A period of shopfloor organizing and worker/employer polarization came to a head when the night shift suddenly walked off the job. Even the Communist leadership of the UAW local were caught by surprise. UAW international leader Dick Frankensteen tried to persuade the workers to go back to work at a meeting outside the plant but he was shouted down.
To understand the next move in this struggle, we need to look at another feature of American unionism. The AFL international union constitutions have a provision that permits the international to seize control of a union, toss out its elected officers, and install a dictator to run the union. This is called a trusteeship. The power to place local unions under trusteeship is a feature of CIO union constitutions that is borrowed from the AFL tradition.
In 1941 the UAW clamped a trusteeship on the local at the North American Aviation plant as part of its effort to suppress the strike. With the approval of the CIO leaders, the Roosevelt administration used army troops to break up the mass picket lines around the North American Aviation plant. Virtual martial law was imposed in the surrounding area.
As the war got underway, workers were able to use the labor shortage to their advantage throughout the country. Wildcat strikes and direct actions of all kinds proliferated. In this situation various government and business leaders began to see the potential of the paid union apparatus as a means of enforcing industrial discipline.
Members of the National War Labor Board (NWLB) saw that voluntary union membership got in the way of union officials acting to prevent job actions. Frank Graham, a Roosevelt appointee to the NWLB, argued the pro-employer outlook: â€œToo often members do not maintain their membership because they resent the discipline of a responsible leadership. A rival but less responsible leadership feels the pull of temptation to obtain and maintain leadership by relaxing discipline, by refusing to cooperate with the company, and sometimes by unfair and demagogic agitation.â€(9)
With Graham taking the lead, the NWLB reached the conclusion that â€œonly a general union security clause in every contract would give labor officials the â€˜self-confidenceâ€™ and â€˜firmnessâ€™ to deal with their members and enforce their contracts,â€ writes Nelson Lichtenstein(10).
The Roosevelt administration was very eager to gain the assistance of union officials to stop disruptions to war production. Thus in 1942 the NWLB issued a ruling that granted the union shop to every union that a
The NWLB clearly recognized that â€œunion securityâ€ â€” forced union membership â€” tends to make the apparatus of the union independent of the will of the members, becoming an external agency that can enforce employer discipline(11).
To sum up Iâ€™ll list here some institutional features of CIO unions (present in AFL unions as well) that I think explain the relative monopolization of power by the paid union apparatus, diminishing control by the membership:
· The existence of a large layer of paid officials and staff, often paid much more than the workers, and freed from the working conditions experienced by union members.
· Centralized grievance systems that remove control over grievances from the shop floor.
· Legal monopoly of bargaining rights which make it harder for workers to escape an autocratic or sellout union by joining another organization.
· Union security clauses that force workers to belong to unions and empower the union to have workers fired if they do not remain in good standing in the union.
· Dues check-off systems that eliminate the need of the union for regular face-to-face contact with workers to persuade them to support the union by paying dues.
· Trusteeship powers which enable the international union to squelch militancy or dissent by seizing control of local unions from above.
The concentration of the expertise and decision-making into the hands of the paid officials and representatives makes the union members dependent on the apparatchiks. It becomes a crutch as it frees workers from the effort needed to more effectively participate in running the union. But then the union doesnâ€™t encourage the development of a mobilized and activated union membership and is less likely to be an effective expression of the workersâ€™ own aspirations.
2. The top-down business unions have shown they are incapable of effectively resisting or reversing the assault on the working class in the USA by the American plutocracy and its coordinator class allies over the past quarter century.
Over the past quarter century the American plutocracy and its coordinator allies have waged a war against the working class, fighting to lower labor costs, avoid unions, shrink the social wage, shift the tax burden from the elite to the working class. The real wage rate (for non-supervisory workers) fell by 13 percent from 1973 to 1998, and has resumed its slide in the last few years. This is the longest slide in the real wage in the history of the USA. The USA now has the most extreme inequality in the advanced capitalist world, and the fewest rights for workers. Worker rights to organize are routinely violated and this widespread lawlessness is ignored by the corporate media. To make ends meet, people are working longer hours than in other advanced capitalist countries. Health insurance disappears, coverage is cut or copays go up. Poor women and their children lost out when Aid to Families with Dependant Children was â€œdisappeared.â€ The â€œprivate welfare statesâ€ negotiated by the unions in the post-World War II era are disappearing. The percentage of workers in the private sector who belong to unions has shrunk to less than 8 percent. As the American working class slides increasingly into penury and servitude, the American unions have not been able to offer an effective resistance. The long decline in the number of annual strikes in the USA since the 1950s is a symptom of this.
In the UFCW, factory and warehouse sections of the Teamsters, and UNITE-HEREâ€™s garment and restaurant sector, the unions seem to have adopted a strategy of a
Observers often point to a variety of factors to explain the decline of American unions: the shift of manufacturing to low-wage havens overseas, the rise of the Internet and the information economy, corporate globalization, suburbanization of job sites, the emergence of the right-wing corporate think tanks, consolidation of the corporate media, deregulation, privatization of government services, and so on.
However, the European working class has also been under siege from many of these trends, including shift of manufacturing to lower-wage countries, demands for cuts in social benefits such as health care and pensions, business demands for more â€œflexibilityâ€ in labor rules, contracting out of public services, and so on. The European social-democratic parties have been hollowed out from within by political trends more favorable to business and market dominance. The British Labor Party, German Social-democratic Party and the Spanish Socialist Party have, in various ways, given in to the so-called â€œThird Wayâ€ politics that resembles the deregulation and pro-corporate orientation of the Democratic Leadership Council in the USA.
But the European working class has been more effective at fighting off the assault of the dominating classes than their American counterparts. Why have the European unions been able to put up a better fight? Robert Fitch suggests that the explanation lies in the character of those unions: the European unions have far fewer paid officials than American unions, the top leaders of the European unions donâ€™t receive CEO-level salaries like their American counterparts, and European unions donâ€™t suffer from the degree of corruption that exists in AFL-CIO and CTW unions. There arenâ€™t whole unions controlled by the mob in Europe.
For many years the radical Left in the USA has tried to deal with the AFL legacy by reforming the unions from within. Often this strategy involves the organizing of opposition groups that seek to capture control of local union office, putting a group of reformers in charge. When William Z. Foster helped to form the Syndicalist League in 1912, he coined the term â€œboring from withinâ€ for this strategy. Sometimes the reformers use the term â€œunion democracyâ€ as the description for their aim. But â€œdemocracyâ€ is an inadequate slogan for what is really needed. If the top officers in a present-day AFL-CIO or CTW union are elected democratically, this still leaves in place the paid apparatus and the top-down relationship it has to the membership.
Despite decades of effort at internal reform, we donâ€™t have a lot to show for this.
Often union reformers elected to office have simply a
Human beings want to feel that they are justified in the actions they do. If people in union positions find themselves pressured by the union â€œsystemâ€ to make corrupt alliances, manage top-down union structures, substitute themselves for the workers in decision-making, and so on, they will naturally tend to concoct justifications for this in their own minds. This tends to wear down the commitment of Leftists to their original ideals. It leads to what Robert Fitch calls the roach motel syndrome: â€œThe Leftists go in but they donâ€™t come out.â€
A defect of the â€œboring from withinâ€ approach is that it assumes that the problem is who is in office. But that isnâ€™t the basic problem. The problem is the institutional system created by the structure and practices of AFL-CIO type trade unions.
The AFL-CIO and CTW unions have shown that they are highly resistant to being changed from within. Starting new organizations makes it much easier to ensure that these organizations will be authentic vehicles of worker empowerment than efforts to try to reform the AFL-CIO or CTW unions from within. In saying this, however, Iâ€™m not arguing against continuing efforts to reform existing unions from within, where feasible. For one thing, new, independent unions have often emerged out of rank-and-file movements within existing unions. The Coalition of University Employees and the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association are examples of grassroots independent unions that came into existence out of the dissatisfaction of members in AFL unions (AFSCME and IAM)(12).
3. Progress and growth for the labor movement in the USA has historically come only with the emergence of new organizations that have challenged the AFL from outside.
Since the American Civil War there have been three periods when the American labor movement has grown dramatically as the result of mass movements. In each case the traditional AFL-style trade unions were challenged from outside by new organizations. The mass upsurge between 1933 and 1946, inspired by a mass movement that built the CIO, created a momentum of increasing union membership that continued into the early 1950s. From 1933 to 1945 union membership rose from 2.9 million to 15 million.
The very existence of the AFL was provoked by the mass movement of the Knights of Labor (KOL). The KOL was based on local assemblies that were open to women as well as men, African-Americans as well as whites, the unskilled as well as the skilled. The strategy of the KOL was to use the greater leverage of the skilled workers to help improve the situation of their unskilled colleagues. The KOL advocated workersâ€™ self-management of the economy â€” a â€œcooperative commonwealthâ€ â€” as a vision of the future that reflected its values. The AFL founders rejected the KOLâ€™s strategy of broad solidarity as â€œunrealistic.â€ The AFLâ€™s strategy was to focus on organizing the workers who for one reason or another had special leverage â€” due to skill or their position in some crucial part of the economy like transportation â€” to get a better deal within the present capitalist system. Their aim was to create monopoly control over a pool of jobs â€” a â€œjob trustâ€ â€” and then exclude others from their turf.
The AFL had shrunk drastically during the great depression of the 1890s. By 1898 it had only a half million members. Between 1898 and 1904, the AFL quadrupled. This was based on the exclusionary AFL â€œjob trustsâ€ basically filling out their urban niches in fields like construction, printing, and transportation. By 1904, with the onset of the employersâ€™ anti-union â€œopen shopâ€ drive, the small group, exclusionary methods of the AFL had reached their limits. The period between 1900 and 1920 saw the rise of the â€œnew unionism,â€ outside the AFL, such as the Industrial Workers of the World and a number of independent industrial unions. For example, in 1916 a group of socialist- and syndicalist-influenced radical workers captured control of a moribund AFL craft union, the Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers and rebuilt it into a militant, democratic industrial union, the first Auto Workers Union. The AFL expelled the AWU in 1918. The 40,000-member Detroit local of the AWU was run by a grassroots shop stewards organization(13).
In each of the three dramatic periods of growth and increased power of the labor movement, the AFL trade unions were challenged by new industrial organizations â€” the KOL in the 1880s, the IWW and the other â€œnew unionsâ€ between 1900 and 1920, and the early 1930s independents (such as the Independent Union of All Workers) and the CIO movement that built on that momentum.
A New Program for Labor
What follows are some practical suggestions for building a new labor movement in the USA that fosters rank-and-file empowerment and self-management of the union organization by workers themselves.
1. Autonomy of the Local Mass Organization. No Power of Trusteeship.
The power of the international union to impose a dictatorship over a local union is often used to squelch militancy or rank-and-file reform movements in local unions. Movements to reform local unions often derive from efforts of workers to mount a more effective, hard-hitting struggle with their employers. Workers often find that the union gets in the way of their ability to mount an effective resistance. But greater militancy can be a threat to the international union because it risks destruction of the local union institution that provides dues and it can increase costs to the international for strike pay or legal support.
To illustrate this, Iâ€™ll start with an example from San Francisco. The largest union in San Francisco is Local 2 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (now called UNITE-HERE). In the late 1970s there was a vibrant rank-and-file reform movement in Local 2. This movement was directly related to a major and su
The main force in the election was a rank-and-file group called Alliance of the Rank-and-File (ARF). ARF wanted the presidentâ€™s salary reduced to the level of the highest paid culinary worker. They demanded an elected shop stewards system with on-the-job elections of the stewards. After the new president, Dave McDonald, took office, he immediately began to backtrack on these demands. He held the shop steward elections at the union office, not on the job, because that is what was preferred by the Hotel Employers Association. Although he did significantly reduce the presidentâ€™s fat salary, he didnâ€™t reduce it to the level that ARF wanted. Faced with snowballing opposition in the union, McDonald cooperated with the remnants of the old Belardi regime to request that the HERE international clamp a trusteeship on the local union(14).
Union trusteeship has played a role also in the new hyper-centralized model of unionism being charted by the SEIU under Andy Stern. Local unions are gradually being amalgamated into huge regional or state-wide enterprises such as United Healthcare Workers West â€” a state-wide organization of hospital workers in California. Supposing that rank-and-file members are dissatisfied with the top-heavy apparatus of this union, how could they change it? Networking with other workers throughout the state would be no easy task. The leaders of the biggest entities in the SEIU now arenâ€™t former workers but former SEIU staff members. Members of the apparatus are often hired in from college. Andy Stern, head of SEIU, is a graduate of an elite Ivy League college. Here we have the consolidation of a kind of coordinatorist regime.
Through the Justice for Janitorsâ€™ campaign, SEIU built up numerous janitorsâ€™ unions in the 1990s. When the workers began to try to gain the right to make their own decisions in their unions, they ran into all kinds of roadblocks, including seizure of unions by trusteeship. Since 1996, 40 locals have been forced into trusteeship. The leaders appointed by the international union to run the unions were usually not from that local(15).
To try to put together one of the big regional entities in the janitorial sector in the Bay Area, the SEIU recently used trusteeship to seize the San Francisco janitors union, Local 87, without the consent of the members. Local 87â€™s turf was turned over to a favored crony of the international, the head of the San Jose janitorsâ€™ union. The San Francisco janitors, under Local 87, had achieved the second-highest pay of unionized janitors in the USA â€” a bit less than $16 an hour under the current contract. The janitors â€” mainly immigrants of color â€” fought the Stern regime by de-certifying the SEIU, replacing it with an independent union, Service Workers for Democracy.
Faced with the loss of one of the â€œcrown jewelsâ€ of the SEIU empire, the SEIU international was forced to backtrack. They offered to give the janitors their Local 87 charter back if theyâ€™d re-certify the SEIU. As of now, itâ€™s a standoff. A large, militant minority preferred to continue on the independent path, but they were outvoted by a more pliant majority who voted to return to the mothership. This semi-autonomous SEIU local survives, even if itâ€™s not part of Andy Sternâ€™s game plan.
The epic struggle at Hormel â€” one of the most important labor struggles of the 1980s â€” illustrates the use of trusteeship to squelch militancy and democracy. Hormel in the 1980s was a profitable company that wanted to take advantage of the momentum of employer demands for concessions from unions in the 1980s to reduce wages and break opposition to the speedup in their meat-packing operation, which was generating an epidemic of repetitive strain injuries.
In the course of the resistance struggle and strike at the Hormel main plant in Austin, Minnesota, the local union â€” UFCW Local P-9 â€” was transformed into a vibrant, democratic organization, a solidarity movement based on the mass participation of the workers. Workers at other plants in the Hormel chain also engaged in some impressive actions of solidarity with the P-9 strikers. On January 25, 1986 the Hormel plant in Ottumwa, Iowa was shut down by a march of hundreds of strike supporters to the plant gates. Hormel retaliated by firing 478 workers who refused to cross the picket lines. The shop stewards in the Ottumwa plant played a key role in getting workers to not cross the picket lines. On February 16th 200 pickets were able to shut down an FDL Foods plant doing contract work for Hormel in Dubuque, Iowa. In that case, the president of the UFCW local and a UFCW international representative stood at the plant gates telling this was not a sanctioned picket and telling them to go to work. Nonetheless, 900 workers stayed out on that o
The UFCW international union was itself a factor in the defeat of the Hormel strike. In his history of the strike, Peter Rachleff concludes:
â€œLocal P-9â€™s enemies went far beyond corporate America and its political toadies, however. Perhaps the biggest disappointment to the P-9 strikers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union leadership and the entire superstructure of the AFL-CIO were instrumental in crushing P-9. In the end, their role was probably crucial. Had they stood with P-9, as the United Mine Workers and its labor leadership did with the Pittston miners in the 1980s, it is entirely possible that the combined forces of Hormel and the state might have been turned aside. This was not to be.â€(16)
Instead, the international union removed the sanction for the strike, cut off strike funds, and ultimately seized control of the union and its assets through a trusteeship on May 9th, 1986. To ensure preservation of the union as an institution â€” and continued flow of dues to the UFCW international â€” the UFCW simply a
Towards the end of the strike, the P-9 strikers decided to build on the anti-concessions solidarity movement among meatpacking workers to launch a new, independent union for the meatpacking industry, the North American Meat Packers Union (NAMPU). NAMPU made an effort to organize a plant in Texas, but the defeat of the P-9 strike took the wind from NAMPUâ€™s sails.
Based on their experience with UFCW, the P-9 strikers came to the conclusion that the trusteeship power of national unions is one of the things that prevents an authentically democratic unionism, controlled by the members. For this reason, NAMPU was structured as a federation of autonomous locals, with no trusteeship power in the national union. They also objected to tendency of UFCW to bury a packing plant in a large, amalgamated local union that includes other industries such as grocery stores. This is a bureaucrat-entrenchment device. It makes it more difficult for the rank-and-file workers to network and pose a challenge to the top leaders. To avoid this, NAMPU proposed to have a separate local for each packing plant(17).
Critics of my proposal for national organizations without trusteeship powers might ask, â€œWhat happens if a local union becomes corrupt or is controlled by racists?â€ I think the appropriate response is expulsion. Expulsion is an exercise of the freedom of association. The national organization can then send in a team to re-organize the local union, perhaps by recruiting â€œhealthy elementsâ€ from the old union. A surgical operation of this sort is made easier if union membership is voluntary. The advantage to this approach is that it does not make use of undemocratic methods like trusteeship. Authentic democracy cannot be built by top-down, autocratic methods.
2. No Forced Payment of Dues or Agency Fees. No Dues Check-off.
Forced membership in unions, or forced payment of agency fees, helps to make the paid union apparatus independent of the members. It is an enemy of authentic democracy and a
Leftists sometimes argue that dues check-off is better than direct collection of dues by shop stewards because it is more â€œefficientâ€ and makes the union more â€œstable.â€ However, dues check-off helps to make the union into an institution independent of the consent of the workers. The union becomes an agency external to their will. Dues check-off serves the interests of the full-time paid apparatus of the union, not the workers. Leftists sometimes argue that direct collection of dues can encourage corruption â€” a shop steward might pocket the dues. But the lack of direct participation and control of unions by the members makes the paid apparatus of the union a potential site of even worse corruption.
If the union has to constantly persuade workers on the job to make dues payments, this means the union must have a constant presence and gives workers a certain amount of immediate control or influence over the union. The idea that the union should not have to depend on the immediate will of the workers is a recipe for an agency external to the workers, not an organization of, by and for workers. I suggest that union constitutions should prohibit dues check-off agreements (as does the IWW).
Unionism can work without dues check-off or forced payment of dues or agency fees. Unions in Europe typically have purely voluntary membership. The European working class has also been under siege from the same trends that have undermined social programs, wages and conditions in the USA. But the European unions have been much more effective at resisting these trends despite the fact of voluntary union membership. When the conservative French government recently proposed to introduce â€œat willâ€ employment for young workers â€” the right of employers to fire someone without having to give a reason â€” incendiary mass protests by students and unions forced the government to repeal its own legislation.
The largest union in France is the CGT. Membership is voluntary. There is no such thing as dues check-off. Union members have dues books. Every month the unionâ€™s activists organize the sale of dues stamps. Workers remain members in good standing by purchasing a stamp for the dues book. But this is a union that is strong enough that it has brought down governments(18).
There are also numerous examples of voluntary unionism in the USA. Nevada is a â€œright to workâ€ state. Unions cannot legally force workers to belong. But union membership is growing more rapidly in Nevada than in other parts of the USA. Iowa is another â€œright to workâ€ state. In the 1980s I had numerous conversations with a meatcutter working in a former Wilsons Foods meatpacking plant in northwest Iowa. He told me that strong UFCW membership was sustained by peer pressure on the shop floor. If a worker refused to join the union, co-workers would refuse to lend him or her a knife or do other favors that make life on the job more bearable. The attitude was: â€œIf you wonâ€™t support us, youâ€™re on your own, Jack. But if you do support us, weâ€™ll watch your back.â€ Is this coercive? In any viable democratic collectivity there will inevitably be constraints on the will of the individual. Thatâ€™s part of democracy. The key thing is this: The pressure to join the union was entirely dependent on the will of the workers themselves; it didnâ€™t come from an external agency.
A number of the local unions that were formed in the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s retained their original voluntary unionism for decades afterwards. United Electrical Workers Local 1111, formed in 1937, provides an example. This is the local union at the old main Allen-Bradley plant â€” a multi-story art deco structure on Milwaukeeâ€™s lakefront. In the 1970s there were still a couple thousand workers in this plant. The union still had an â€œopen shopâ€ contract that didnâ€™t require union membership. The union was able to sustain membership through a constant shop-floor presence. They were always on the lookout for young workers willing to stand up to management. The union would send them to its shop steward training program to develop their ability to be an effective voice for their co-workers. After locally-owned Allen-Bradley was acquired by a multi-national corporation, much of the work was moved away from the main plant, which now has fewer than 500 workers. Local 1111 is proud that today 97 percent of the employees in the bargaining unit belong to the union even though union membership continues to be voluntary(19).
One more example of voluntary unionism in the USA: In September, 1970 I started a new job as a teaching assistant at UCLA. That month I also joined a newly formed union of teaching assistants. The union was initiated by a number of radical students who had been active in supporting labor struggles in Los Angeles. At a certain point they had come to the conclusion, "We're exploited, too."
This union was initially a local of the American Federation of Teachers. We very quickly ran up against the manipulative practices of the AFT apparatus. We disaffiliated from AFT, becoming the independent Student Academic Employees Union (SAEU). The executive committee was re-organized to include the shop stewards. In other words, the union was run by a shop stewards council.
For several years I had a hard time getting more than a few of the TAs in my department to join the union. Finally, my fellow TAs became disturbed when they learned that the faculty were contemplating an action that I had warned them about. As shop steward, I then called a meeting which was attended by almost all the TAs. I proposed bylaws for a semi-autonomous departmental organization that would be run through periodic assemblies. The assemblies would be tied into the union through election of the shop steward. SAEU had similar organizations in other departments. For a number of years SAEU remained a "minority union" with a hard-core membership of about 70 people, in a bargaining unit of a thousand employees. Nonetheless, during this period SAEU prosecuted to victory the first grievance on behalf of TAs in the history of the University of California.
The union's real growth came about through a mass struggle in the 1976-77 academic year. That year the UCLA administration announced that they were contemplating a 10 percent reduction in TA positions and cuts or elimination of the special tutoring programs for undergraduates. The tutoring programs were mainly used by students of working class origin â€” especially students of color â€” who often came from schools that provided poor academic preparation. Over a period of months during the academic year, the SAEU conducted a constant public attack on the positions of the UCLA administration, carried out through frequent distribution of its newsletter (entitled Don't mourn, organize!) and regular speakouts in the UCLA main quad. When some SAEU members who belonged to Progressive Labor Party tried to dominate the speakouts, the union had to make rules for participation, to keep the self-appointed â€œvanguardsâ€ in check.
Through this mass mobilization, the union quickly grew to 350 members. Having organized the overwhelming majority (more than 90 percent in some departments) of the TAs in the humanities and social sciences, SAEU was finally strong enough to carry out a strike. Members of SAEU also did an o
The SAEU was able to win a number of victories despite the fact that it never achieved official union recognition, had no paid staff or paid officers, never got a union contract, never had dues check-off, and depended entirely on voluntary membership(20).
3. No Full-time Paid Officials. Part-time Work for the Union Paid at a Workerâ€™s Wage.
When local presidents of unions are paid coordinator class-level salaries â€” sometimes at the level of a CEO or president of the USA, this encourages people to regard the union as a field for personal advancement, their ticket out of the working class. If we want unionism to be a movement for economic justice, for the collective freedom and advancement of the working class, it should be a horizontal bond of solidarity and struggle among workers, not an external apparatus that attracts careerists, opportunists and actual or potential racketeers.
In fact it is quite possible to run a union without any paid officials. And the strongest kind of unionism is built by rank-and-file organizers. One of the few large private sector victories of the AFL-CIO in the 1990s was the fight of workers at US Airways against a strongly anti-union employer. Rank-and-file workers participated in every aspect of that CWA organizing campaign. As Vanessa Tait observes, â€œTop-down, staff-driven unions offer little to the mass of non-unionized workers who lack a voice in their workplaces and communities.â€(21) The kind of mass movement that could change the balance of power between working people and the dominating classes in the USA is unlikely to be organized by the kind of top-down unionism offered by the AFL-CIO and CTW.
However, there are various needs that can lead to pressure to create full-time positions â€” negotiations and dealing with contracts and grievances, dealing with lawyers, maintaining bank a
In the participatory economics vision, the idea of â€œbalanced jobsâ€ is put forward as a way that the class power of the coordinators over the working class can be dissolved. The idea of a â€œbalanced jobâ€ is that the conceptual and decision-making work in production is mixed with some of the physical work of production in the definition of jobs, to avoid creating an elite who possess all the conceptual and decision-making work.
I believe that this same idea can be applied to avoid the domination of unions by paid officials and paid staff. If a union feels that it needs to have people devoting significant time to work for the union members, the union can negotiate for part time off for certain elected union representatives. We then create a kind of â€œbalanced jobâ€ where the union representative continues to work at their regular job, sharing the pay and conditions of their colleagues and staying in contact with them on the job. But they are freed to do work for the union part of the time. They should be remunerated for their union work at the same rate of pay as they get on their regular job. That way, we minimize self-serving motivations for taking the union position.
To illustrate a number of my themes here, letâ€™s take a look at the majority longshore union in Spain â€” the Federacion Estatal de Estibadores Portuarios (State-wide Federation of Port Stevedores â€” FESP).
In Solidarity for Sale, Robert Fitch puts forward the centralized social-democratic and Communist unions in Europe as an example of a cleaner and more effective unionism. He suggests that local union autonomy is a source of corruption. FESP is a counter-example. FESP is a federation of autonomous local unions. The national union has no power akin to trusteeship over the local unions in the various ports. The only way that a national port strike can happen is if each of the autonomous local unions realizes that a threat requires their support. There are also no full-time paid officials in the FESP. The Barcelona longshore workers explained their opposition to full-time union representatives as follows:
â€œTo hand over our proletarian responsibility to representatives is to throw away our need as a class to participate in social transformation. We realized we would never arrive at the social revolution through leaders or liberators. Those caught up in and distracted by the obligations of their positions and the representative function they flaunt end up distancing themselves from those they represent. As they are not affected by the same problems, troubles or struggles, they end up almost unable to recognize them. The estrangement is inevitable.â€(22)
The Barcelona local of FESP came into existence in the 1970s as the result of a strike at the time of the collapse of the Franco dictatorship in Spain. To force the government to hand over control of the union hall of the old fascist trade union, the dock workers o
With the collapse of the Franco regime and the old fascist unions, Spain was gripped by a wave of strikes in the late 1970s. The Barcelona dockers were not the only group of workers to run their strike through the direct democracy of assemblies. A wave of assemblyism throughout Spain suggested a revival of the revolutionary traditions of the Spanish labor movement of the 1930s â€” a fact that disturbed the Spanish government.
This led to the passage of a labor law that creates bargaining councils (comites de empressa), structured by government rules, for negotiation of contracts. The government was trying to create a layer of leaders, to take control from the assemblies.
Union membership in Spain is voluntary. The unions run slates of candidates for election to the bargaining councils. The three main unions in Spain are aligned with different ideological traditions. The UGT is a social-democratic union aligned with the ruling Spanish Socialist Party. The Comisiones Obreras (Workers Commissions â€” CC.OO) was influenced by the Spanish Communist Party. The CGT identifies with the tradition of the revolutionary libertarian syndicalist unionism of the 1930s. The FESPâ€™s approach to unionism is similar to CGT and CGT does not try to compete with the FESP in the longshore sector. Although the top officials of the UGT and Workers Commissions are not paid anything like American union officers, the top positions, nonetheless, are paid full-timers who are freed from the conditions of the job.
Both the UGT and Workers Commissions have longshore unions. Their unions tend to be dominant in the smaller ports. As of the late 1980s, the FESP had support of 90 percent of the dock workers in the major Spanish ports. In the late 1970s the government made a deal with the UGT and Workers Commissions to provide paid time off of 40 hours a month for delegates to bargaining councils elected by the UGT and Workers Commissions. But the government refused to grant this right to the FESP. The government and employers preferred to deal with the more pliant UGT and CC.OO. longshore unions. FESP fought to gain the right for its delegates to have part-time off at pay through a strike in 1980. After the 17-year old daughter of a striker in Las Palmas (in the Canary Islands) was run over by a truck and killed, the government capitulated to the FESPâ€™s demand. Although the delegates are partially re-imbursed, FESP also requires the delegates to hand over part of their pay from the government to finance national meetings of union delegates.
The FESP locals use their elected bargaining council delegates to form the coordinating council for the local union. The Spanish government wanted the bargaining councils to be able to make decisions behind the backs of the workers. The FESP lets any rank-and-file port worker attend and vote at the bargaining council meetings it controls. This is part of the way that the FESP ensures that the coordinating councils will adhere to the decisions made by the rank and file in their assemblies.
The longshore workers have a strong distaste towards electioneering in the union. To elect their National Coordinator, the FESP first determines which port he will be located in. They then let that portâ€™s local union assembly select the national coordinator. That way, he isnâ€™t elected on the basis of campaign image, but by people who know him at work.
The constitution of the Barcelona local of the FESP strictly prohibits delegating responsibility from the assembly for things like election and removal of delegates, election of strike committees, or expulsion of members. The union involves rank-and-file members through an extensive committee system: a committee to watch out for illegal work practices, a health and safety committee, a cultural committee, and so on. The union also runs a gym for union members.
In the USA hiring halls are often locations where dispatchers reserve the best jobs for their cronies or relatives. Itâ€™s part of the patronage system that controls the union. In Spain, the situation is quite different. In the hiring halls there are rows of tags that bear a number. Each of these is the number of a particular longshore worker. When your tag is at the top of the list, you get the next job. When you get a job, your tag is then moved to the bottom of the list. No favoritism. Spanish longshore workers are proud of this system.
Through its willingness to engage in militant struggle, the FESP su
This brief snapshot of the FESP (as it existed in the late 1980s) illustrates the possibility of running a union through participatory democracy, part-time representatives who still share the conditions and pay of the job, and autonomy of the local industrial union within a national organization capable of coordinated struggles(23).
4. Schools for Self-management.
Thus far Iâ€™ve made various structural suggestions for avoiding domination of labor organizations by a machine of full-time officials and staff. But there also needs to be a way to empower the rank-and-file members â€” developing their knowledge and capacity for active participation in decision-making. One of the things that leads to a lack of democracy in unions is the members becoming dependent on the skills of certain leaders.
I believe that one way to work at member empowerment would be the creation of schools for self-management of organizations. Through training sessions, people sharing experiences and so on, rank-and-file members could learn various skills needed for running their unions themselves. This could include things like democratic methods of organization, labor law, negotiation strategies, handling grievances, public speaking, how to research employers, or other subjects that people in unions want to learn about. The idea is to assist people in being self-reliant and effective as participants in making the decisions.
These schools might be run as a collective or workersâ€™ cooperative. They might be supported by local unions or worker-subscribers.
5. No More Knee-jerk Support for the Democrats.
In 1996 the American unions spent at least $250 million on elections. This doesnâ€™t include things like union phone-banking during elections. The labor movement has received very little benefit from this huge expenditure of money and effort. Surveys done by Labor Party Advocates discovered that rank-and-file union members were much more likely to find no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans than were union officials. This is also reflected in the long decline in working class voting since the 1950s. Robert Fitch suggests that one of the reasons for this huge expenditure is that union leaders are buying protection against prosecution for labor racketeering.
Voting is admittedly an avenue that is open to us to affect what the state does. Although the state is structured in a top-down way like the private corporations, we donâ€™t have this same avenue for influence over the corporate bosses.
We can sometimes use voting for tactical advantage, defending working class interests and interests in other areas of social struggle.
Iâ€™ll give a personal example. My representative on the Board of Supervisors (city council) in San Francisco is Chris Daly. Daly is a former tenant organizer and democratic socialist. Daly represents the poorest supervisorial district in San Francisco and is a consistent warrior for working class interests. He is continually disparaged by the corporate media for his confrontational style. But many of his constituents support him precisely because he is prepared to duke it out with the elite. Dalyâ€™s presence on the Board of Supervisors plays a role in the ongoing struggles over evictions and working class displacement from a gentrifying city â€” a major aspect of the class struggle in San Francisco in the past decade. Daly and progressive allies on the Board of Supervisors have been able to pass various pieces of legislation to protect working class tenants. In 2000 I went out bar-hopping with the Digital Workers Alliance â€” a group of colleagues in my industry â€” to persuade young dot-commers to vote for Daly. I will continue to support Daly as long as he doesnâ€™t sell us out.
Some Leftists will infer from examples like this that we should adopt a long-term electoral strategy as a means of fighting the elite classes and ultimately transforming the society. Sometimes this project is defined as the building of a labor political party. I believe that this argument for an electoral strategy is a slippery slope fallacy. An illusion.
Elections are dominated by money and P.R. spin. There is no real institutional means for the mass of ordinary people to control what their â€œelected leadersâ€ do in office. This is particularly important at the state and federal level in the USA.
Plus, a social change strategy focused on electoral politics tends to favor statist solutions that empower the cadres of the coordinator class in the state hierarchies and tends to skew movement priorities to emphasize the skills and role of leaders elected to government positions, not activity and decision-making by ordinary people. Like Leninism, social-democracy is coordinatorist â€” that is, it tends to empower the coordinator class.
Thus, electoral politics is not an arena through which the working class can gain the leverage to fundamentally shift the balance of forces or transform the society. After World War II, the European social-democratic welfare states, and the thinner American welfare state, embodied major concessions from the capitalist elites. It may seem paradoxical to say this, but these concessions didnâ€™t come about because of a strategy of focusing on electoral politics to build a social-democratic welfare state.
The period from the early 1900s to World War II was an era of vast upheaval and social conflict â€” worker revolutions in Russia and Spain, a massive seizure of industry by workers in Italy in 1920, the huge wave of sit-downs in the USA in the 1930s, general strikes, a huge wave of wildcat strikes in the USA during World War II, mass mobilizations, struggles against fascism, and war. The system faced a revolutionary challenge. The very existence of capitalism was called into question. This was why concessions were won.
In Poor Peopleâ€™s Movements, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that the American working class were able to make major gains during the 1930s and â€˜40s because of their power of disruption â€” their ability to bring production to a halt. Unions were not particularly su
In the years before World War I, the Socialist Party of America (SPA) was able to function as an actual labor party in a number of towns in the USA â€” Milwaukee, Los Angeles, New York City, Butte, and elsewhere. At that time Bill Haywood, the IWW organizer, was a member of the National Executive Committee of the SPA. Haywood supported the SPAâ€™s electoral efforts as a tactic, not as a revolutionary strategy. He believed that electing people to local offices who were more sympathetic to the working class would be helpful in labor struggles and in the defense of working class interests. But he didnâ€™t envision the transformation of society coming about through the ballot box. He envisioned a revolutionary process that would culminate in something like a revolutionary general strike â€” a widespread takeover of industry by the workers themselves.
The labor movement needs to guard its independence of the dominating classes â€” and its independence of politicians, political parties and the state. The strategy should emphasize direct involvement of ordinary people in movements â€” participatory democracy, and empowerment of the rank and file.
The Broader Context
Iâ€™ve put forward here a vision or picture of a different kind of union movement, rooted in participatory democracy and â€œself-managementâ€ of the union by the workers themselves. If this is to be realized, I think the radical Left will play a role as organizers, instigators, trainers, activists. In each of the three previous periods of dramatic labor upsurge in the USA, the radical left played such a role. Having a revolutionary vision of a society beyond the subordination and exploitation of capitalism is important to motivate people for commitment and sacrifice.
The radical Left are of course only one factor. In order to be the basis of a mass movement â€” a movement that hundreds of thousands of workers can use to gain collective power for change in society â€” workers need to be able to feel that the organizations are â€œtheirs,â€ and are capable of being a means to the pursuit of their own aspirations. Thatâ€™s precisely the point to â€œself-managementâ€ of the mass organization.
A fundamental fallacy in Leninism is its inference from the necessity of the organizer, instigator, activist role to the idea of a â€œvanguardâ€ that concentrates social movement expertise and decision-making control in its hands.
An effective working class movement needs to deal with a workersâ€™ whole life. There are two important dimensions beyond the immediate worker/employer relationship:
First, class is about power in the society as a whole. Class struggles therefore emerge in the community, outside the workplace. Housing and transportation are usually the biggest items in the budgets of families in the USA. Housing is also about a familyâ€™s place in a particular neighborhood or community. There are numerous struggles around both housing and transportation in the USA â€” tenant conflicts with landlords over conditions, anti-eviction struggles, struggles over displacement of working class residents as neighborhoods gentrify, efforts to expand affordable housing subsidies (part of the â€œsocial wageâ€), struggles of public transit riders.
Second, the life situation and struggles of working people are also affected by other â€œidentitiesâ€ or communities they are a part of. If a person is African-American, Latino, a woman or gay, they are subject to other forms of oppression along lines other than class.
Struggles of groups of workers are not necessarily just struggles around class. The power that groups of workers have, and the problems they face, are not independent of things like immigrant status, race and gender. When the clerical workers at Yale organized a union and fought for wage parity with men in comparable o
I will use two examples to illustrate this multi-dimensional aspect of class struggle as it plays out in struggles outside the workplace.
Riders of the buses and trains of the MTA in Los Angeles are overwhelmingly low-income people of color. Struggles against fare increases, service cuts, and overcrowding led a group of Leftists to organize the Bus Riders Union in 1993. The local elite in Los Angeles were not willing to provide adequate tax support to finance a rapid transit system in the â€˜80s and â€˜90s, preferring to cut the â€œsocial wageâ€ for low-income riders through fare hikes and increased crowding, as well as attacks on the workers through privatization (discussed earlier), This is clearly a class struggle but it is also a struggle against structural racism. The huge low-wage workforce in Los Angeles is made up overwhelmingly of workers of color. Six out of ten transit riders in Los Angeles are women. Overcrowding also leads to female riders being subjected to groping and touching. A struggle against sexual harassment on the buses is a gender struggle(24).
The anti-displacement struggle in my own neighborhood in San Francisco is another example of a multi-dimensional class struggle outside the workplace. In the early â€˜90s the Mission District was still an overwhelmingly working class neighborhood, as it had been since the early 1900s. A wave of evictions swept over the neighborhood in the late â€˜90s as buildings were â€œflippedâ€ and sold to more affluent, white professional and management people. A number of groups were at risk of displacement. Latino working class families were about 60 percent of the neighborhood. Average income of women in the most heavily Latino census tract was about $23,000 a year, for men $24,000 a year. This reflects a typical service worker wage in San Francisco. Another group at risk were white working class retirees. These folks were remnants of an earlier era when the neighborhood was predominantly white (especially Irish-American). A struggle against the eviction of an 84-year old white working class woman was a focus of protest in the late â€˜90s.
In 2000, tenant groups (St. Peters Housing Committee and Mission Agenda), a Latino environmental justice group (PODER) and the staffs of a number of non-profits formed the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition (MAC) to organize neighborhood resistance. The core of MAC were the Latino activists in the neighborhood and the defense of the Latino working class families was MACâ€™s top priority. At the high point of struggle in 1999-2001, social conflict was expressed in a variety of actions â€” mass marches, picketing, a blockage of the city building department, o
The fight wasnâ€™t limited to residential eviction. The powerful capitalist developers, finance capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs were cannibalizing the industrial land in San Francisco for high-tech offices and luxury loft condos. This was displacing the blue-collar manufacturing and repair industries â€” similar to the process that destroyed manufacturing in Manhattan in the â€˜70s and â€˜80s. The blue-collar employers were important to the Latino working class because they were the only source of higher paying jobs a
The Mission also was the heart of the Latino community in San Francisco and the location of many Latino community institutions. The struggle wasnâ€™t just a class struggle but also a fight against the structural racism reflected in the greater market power of the overwhelmingly white elite classes(25).
The working class in the USA is highly heterogeneous. It is not automatically unified due to sharing an objective structural oppression as a class. Mutual understanding of the concerns of different communities, and the integration of these concerns into the labor movement, is part of the process by which the working class achieves unity and a sense of its collective power to change things.
Iâ€™m not here suggesting an external, tactical alliance between the labor movement and movements based on communities defined by some non-class form of oppression. An authentically democratic labor movement will be a movement that expresses the concerns and aspirations that really matter to the people involved in it. This suggests that something of the spirit and aspirations of social movements outside the labor movement need to become a part of the labor movement. As Bill Fletcher and Richard Hurd write, â€œAs the workforce becomes browner and more female, issues of transformation are not limited to matters of technique and alterations in the bureaucracy, but most address the fundamentals of what constitutes trade unionism.â€(26)
This does not mean, however, that working class politics can substitute for autonomous movements, such as movements of women, the Latino or African-American communities, or the gay community. The very fact that the consequences of non-race oppression must be dealt with through discussion and effort in the working class and its movement mean that there is a point to autonomous movements in areas of non-class oppression.
At the same time, there have also been class conflicts internal the movements for liberation of women and African-Americans. Class differences pose a limit to the internal cohesion of these groups. A majority of women are members of the working class, and the African-American and Latino populations of the USA are overwhelmingly working class. Their liberation requires also a class movement.
If the working class is to mount an effective challenge to the dominating classes, it must project its collective power throughout the whole of the society. A working class movement needs to develop solutions for the various problems that the society faces â€” for example: affordable housing, a real health care system, affordable quality child care, a democratic and representative media, moving away from cruel and excessive incarceration. The working class needs to show that it has a better moral vision than the elites. The alliance of the labor movement with the movements against non-class forms of oppression helps the labor movement to take the moral high ground.
Participatory democracy, solidarity and self-management are central to the conception of unionism that I painted earlier. In reality these values and practices carry the seeds of revolution within them because they are fundamentally at odds with the nature of the class systems of today, coordinatorism as well as capitalism. Participatory democracy, solidarity and self-management empower people. Through these practices people can develop their sense of being able to run things, and of the potential power of collective action. Support for a vision of a post-capitalist world can gain support when people see they have the power to create it. This is why participatory democracy, solidarity and self-management are a â€œbridgeâ€ between the consciousness of today and the revolutionary consciousness of the future.
(1) Howard Sherman, "An Approach to Class Analysis" in Radical Political Economy: Explorations in Alternative Economic Analysis, Victor D. Lippit, ed.
(3) Howard Sherman op cit.
(4) Michael Zweig, The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret.
(5) Michael Zweig puts the three intermediate layers of society â€” small business owners, coordinators, and lower-level professionals â€” into what he calls the "middle class." But I doubt that these three groups are close enough in their structural position to make a single social class. The specific kind of power that defines the position of the coordinator class is not based on ownership, unlike those small business owners whose businesses embody capital assets â€” such as real estate, equipment and inventory â€” whose value is independent of the personal capacities and connections of the proprietor. Zweig follows Marx in thinking mainly in terms of a bipolar opposition between capital and labor.
(6) Professionals other than managers are about 18 percent of the population of the USA. Iâ€™m assuming that less than a third are part of the coordinator class.
(7) Robert Fitch, Solidarity for Sale. See also the Michael Yates interview with Fitch for Monthly Review: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/yates300306.html. A weakness of Solidarity for Sale is that Fitch fails to discuss the widespread abuse of trusteeship by American international unions. Perhaps if he focused more on this problem, he wouldnâ€™t be so keen for centralized unions.
(8) Interviews with MTA bus drivers, activists in UTU Local 1607, Los Angeles, April-May, 2006. To protect them, I will not reveal their names here.
(9) Quoted in Nelson Lichtenstein, Laborâ€™s War at Home: The CIO in World War II, p. 78.
(10) Nelson Lichtenstein, Laborâ€™s War at Home: The CIO in World War II, p. 79.
(11) My argument here is developed more fully in â€The Origins of the Union Shopâ€, ideas & action #11, Fall 1989 (http://www.workersolidarity.org/unionshop.htm).
(12) There is a good description of CUE in Vanessa Tait, Poor Workersâ€™ Unions, p. 199.
(13) The first Auto Workers Union is described in Stephen Meyer III, The Five Dollar Day.
(14) This information is from the newsletter of Union Womenâ€™s Alliance to Gain Equality.
(15) Vanessa Tait, Poor Workersâ€™ Unions, pp. 200-201.
(16) Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement, p. 81.
(17) For more on the Hormel strike and NAMPU, see Tom Wetzel, Jake Edwards and Steve Boyce, â€Slaughterhouse Fight: A Look at the Hormel Strikeâ€, ideas & action #7, Summer, 1986 (http://www.workersolidarity.org/hormel.htm).
(18) Robert Fitch, op cit, p. 52.
(19) Interview in Milwaukee in 1979 with Larry Wahl, then-president of UE Local 1111. Also: http://www.ue1111.org.
(20) I was a member of SAEU in 1970-75. The information about the 1977 strike is derived mainly from an interview with Reece Newman, president of SAEU during the strike. There was a good feature story on the SAEU strike in the Los Angeles Vanguard in 1977. The Vanguard was a workers' co-op formed by a staff rebellion at the Los Angeles Free Press. I'm not sure if copies of this newspaper are available in libraries. The paper didn't survive for very long.
(21) Vanessa Tait, op cit, p. 228.
(22) From a report by the Barcelona dock workersâ€™ organization in International Dockers Struggles in the Eighties.
(23) Don Fitz, â€Spanish Dock Workers Build Union without Bureaucratsâ€, ideas & action #11, Summer 1989 (http://www.workersolidarity.org/coordinadora.htm).
(24) Eric Mann, â€œA Race Struggle, a Class Struggle, a Womenâ€™s Struggle All at Once: Organizing on the Buses of L.A.,â€ Socialist Register 2001, Panitch et al, eds. (http://www.thestrategycenter.org/AhoraNow/body_socialistregister.html). The riders of the subway and light rail lines in Los Angeles are also overwhelmingly working class people of color, just like the buses.
(25) Tom Wetzel, â€œSan Franciscoâ€™s Space Wars,â€ Processed World 2001 (http://www.processedworld.com/Issues/issue2001/pw2001_49-57_Space_Wars.pdf). Many community-based struggles in the USA are initiated by or fought through non-profit organizations. These often have their own problems. An internal corporate-style hierarchy, headed by an executive director, is one problem. Financial dependence on foundation grants is another problem. I do not take up the question of community organization in this essay due to my focus on unionism.
(26) Quoted in Vanessa Tait, op cit, p. 227.
In putting together my ideas here I found the following books helpful:
Michael Zweig, The Working Class Majority: Americaâ€™s Best Kept Secret
Robert Fitch, Solidarity for Sale
Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement
Staughton Lynd, ed., We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s
Vanessa Tait, Poor Workersâ€™ Unions
Dan Clawson, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements
Nelson Lichtenstein, Laborâ€™s War at Home: The CIO in World War II
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor Peopleâ€™s Movements: Why They Su