U.S. Labor in Crisis: The Current Internal Debate and the Role of Democracy in Its Revitalization

[The following is a speech delivered by Jerry Tucker on March 12, 2005 at the conference on “Work and Social Movements in the United States” at University of Paris – Sorbonne (March 10-12, 2005). Tucker will report daily on the AFL-CIO 2005 convention in Chicago on July 25-28. — Ed.]

There is today a rare open debate going on within the U.S. labor movement over its future and the alleged crisis it currently faces.  Rarer still is the fact that much of it appears on competing internet blogs.  The current debate, provoked by some within labor’s national leadership, has been almost exclusively focused on “restructuring” and resource reallocation.  Not part of the leader-led debate is the more fundamental question of the “culture” of unionism in America today.

Can the present debate really make a difference if it avoids an objective examination of what the labor movement should stand for — its larger social purposes, the education and activism of its base, and the democratic principles that must underpin its governance?

Jerry TuckerLet us look first at the stated causes and conditions driving this new moment of controlled transparency.  What are the elements, configuration, and notable limits of the current debate?  And, what strategies, reforms, and/or realignments — internal, political, or social — are being discussed?  And, then, what — if anything of a transformative nature — is likely to come of it?

The examples of the current crisis most frequently cited by a number of high level union officials include:

U.S. union membership rolls have slipped to the lowest point in nearly a century.  Only 8% of the private sector work force today is unionized.  The loss of union jobs is far out-pacing the modest membership gains from newly organized workplaces.  Past union wage, benefit and workplace regulatory gains are being drastically eroded by a relentless offensive of unchecked employer concession demands.  Organized labor wins few political victories and has only marginal impact on public policy. 

These are outcomes of the long, unfolding crisis, not root causes.  Despite the novelty, but obvious seriousness, of the current debate, U.S. Labor did not arrive at this point of historic impotence in just the past several years.  This downward spiral has been in process for decades.  Workers at the base became painfully aware that corporate capital was breaking the so-called “social contract” many years ago.  Their initial anticipation that leaders of the nation’s unions might devise appropriate strategies to resist or blunt the assault or that, in many instances, their own local determination to fight back would be welcomed and fully supported was one of the first casualties of this new chapter of class warfare being written in America. 

Unabated disinvestment, corporate whipsawing of one plant’s workers against another’s, job blackmail, often with union leadership complicity, and a magician’s trunk full of solidarity-busting workplace reorganization schemes had, by the mid-1980s, become the backdrop for the renewed concerted employer aggression.  Most labor bureaucrats were either untrained and/or more often unwilling to venture out of their comfort zones to lead struggles against this eviscerating reality. 

In 1981, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan fired all the nation’s striking Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO), one well-known union leader was quoted to the effect that “maybe the leaders of that union really didn’t know how to conduct themselves in collective bargaining.”  And, in spite of this most openly provocative and intentional act against workers, the leaders of American labor sat on their hands as the bell tolled ominously across the land.

Over the past twenty-five years, workers have either witnessed or been directly on the receiving end of a mind-numbing series of defeats in high-profile contract struggles.  Each defeat only added to the collective rise of cynicism and reduced expectation across the nation’s entire workforce.  The rare victory might shine briefly like a firefly in the night but then disappear into a black hole of bureaucratic complacency as the next round of defeats rolled in. 

This is the second time in less than ten years that the AFL-CIO, with its history of long-tenured, insular leadership, has engaged in a debate on policy and direction.  In 1995, the patriarchal Federation’s Executive Council split into two political camps, characterized more by differences in style and approach than in substance and ideology.  The “New Voice” political wing was led by challenger John Sweeney who was elected the new AFL-CIO President.  The Sweeney leadership, at that time, made a commitment to revitalize the U.S. labor movement in at least two critical areas: organizing the unorganized; and electoral politics.

Today’s second-wave reformers point again to those two activities, among others, as benchmarks of current failures.  The debate is almost exclusively centered on changing the AFL-CIO.  None of the affiliates actively participating in the exchange are offering a critique of their own union’s role during the long backward slide.  The solution, say some of the most outspoken critics, is “restructuring.”

Leading this faction is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  They say consolidation and sectoral realignment is the centerpiece of the reform necessary.  Empowerment, they contend, will come from the new density (assuming organizing successes) of representation.  The SEIU proposal titled “Unite To Win” calls for a sweeping merger of a number of national unions into a few single industrial sectors unions.  The proposed formula for accomplishing this realignment lacks a democratic mechanism.  It could also mean the loss of large numbers of democratically elected leadership positions in the existing political subdivisions and local unions within the merged new industrial union sectors.  The Unite to Win document lists ten principles under which, it is argued, “21st Century unions will have the strength to change workers lives.”

While both restructuring and density are serious matters to be considered, making them central to labor’s renewal is something of an exaggeration and oversimplification.  Notably missing and unmentioned in this debate-provoking document’s “Principles” is the decades-long, unchecked corporate assault on America’s workers.  Only passing reference is made to the sustained destruction of decent jobs, the systematic forced reductions in wages, benefits, and working conditions.  And, little attention is paid to labor’s inability, or unwillingness, to collectively marshal its forces to confront management’s concerted aggression at the center of the crisis facing U.S. unions today.

There is also more than a small hint of reorganizing U.S. unions to look more like, and use the language of, the employer sectors that oppress us in the SEIU proposed “restructuring” strategy.  My union, the Autoworkers (UAW), has embraced a variation of that sterile strategy to an extreme that ultimately blends the union’s role into the core agenda of the corporation.  Yet autoworkers have nothing but more economic takeaways and gripping job insecurity to show for it, and the union is now one third the size it was when the “jointness” strategy began.

Leading those taking some exception to the SEIU “Unite to Win” proposal is the Communications Workers of America (CWA).  CWA offers a formulation somewhat less top-down, which promotes greater use of labor’s energies and resources mobilizing members in disciplined phalanxes to support collective bargaining campaigns on a more widespread basis.  This, they suggest, in addition to winning good contracts will offer encouragement to unorganized workers to take brave steps toward unionization.  This line of thinking is less ministerial than others, and even hints at possible self-activity and more internal democracy by offering to engage the rank and file, at least the organized portion, in some of the strategic design.  But it too touches only lightly on the reality that the employer attack is systematic and concerted and that labor’s overall response is fragmented and most fight-backs are not conducted under the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

A number of other national unions have also offered their versions of reform proposals.  Most deal with reallocation of dues paid to the Federation or a new system of dues rebates for organizing.  None raises the banner of a new social vision to counter the market-driven economic and political stratification of American life.  While many unions speak out against the current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or the Department of Labor and a few other government agencies, this internal debate does not seriously address the continued fusion of corporate interests and big government in our country.

Not one of the Federation’s cautious “new thinkers” has proposed a break with the Democratic Party, or even the development of an informed grassroots program for disciplining or replacing Democratic office holders who vote against labor’s interests.  None of the proposals suggest promoting independent working class/coalition-based political activity.     

In virtually every one of the crisis-rescue agendas there is an unexplained absence of historical reference.  The “convenient” memories of those engaged in this debate barely recall the days immediately preceding the transition from the moribund Kirkland regime to the Sweeney era they are now assessing, much less the longer, more indicting sweep of history.

American unionism’s current dilemma must be discussed in light of a 20th Century history which includes U.S. Labor’s longstanding policy of collaborating with corporate capital; the purging of its left ideologies and practitioners; the AFL-CIO’s post-WWII “cold-warrior” status and complicity in America’s imperial foreign policy to date; more frequent avoidance than engagement in struggles around race, gender, and sexual orientation; and a conspicuous lack of support for maintaining “class-consciousness” as well as internal democracy and membership accountability.

These, and other key elements of our labor history, need to be a part of today’s analysis.  And, specifically, there needs to be respectful attention paid to those brief, but dynamic historical periods when worker power and ruling class concessions rose dramatically.  Labor historians would, I believe, suggest that the most useful example is the period immediately preceding and following the creation and explosive impact in the 1930s of the CIO on the American industrial scene.

The late 1920s and early 1930s offer reasonable, if not more dire, comparisons to the vulnerabilities of the U. S. working class, then and now.  That era’s dramatic, democratic revitalization of the U.S. labor movement came as a result of a massive wave of industrial workers, conditioned by hardship and inspired by new collective possibilities and self activity.  Worker frustration found strategic support in the thousands of left political activists, in and out of the ranks, who shared the anger and felt the pain, and who together, through struggle, fashioned a new period of economic and social opportunity.   

The period that followed the “great upsurge” — including the WWII years and throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s — may have statistically produced growth for labor, but its capacity as an instrument for class struggle had, in fact, been severely weakened by the mid-1950s.  The nation’s cold-war mania and McCarthyism fostered bitter faction fights in the labor movement.  Turf wars and the purge of labor-left progressives stifled debate and gave our employer adversaries time to regroup.  The 1950s and 60s saw even greater leadership bureaucratization and loss of democracy on the shop floor.  Labor was being drawn by the siren call of corporate pacifiers — and union leaders, no longer contesting the marketplace principles of business, were pleased to be called “Labor Statesmen.”

This was also a period when U.S. labor ran from, not toward other social movements and progressive struggles such as the Civil Rights Movement, anti-Vietnam War resistance, and women’s rights, environmental and other pivotal social conflicts. Labor’s virtual isolation from the transformational struggles of that era, and its refusal to embrace those social conflicts as part of its own struggle for social justice, further increased its vulnerability and co-dependency.  Alone, yet arrogant in its isolation, U.S. labor went through the 1970s  looking more like a guest whose invitation to the “big party” had been rescinded than the respected voice of the American working class.

By the late 1970s, despite the election of a democratic President, Jimmie Carter, labor was incapable of delivering any of the important public policy initiatives it had put forward.  This failure was underscored by the defeat of the watered-down Labor Law Reform Bill of 1977-78, which labor’s Washington bureaucrats had re-written, as much to avoid displeasing the nation’s business elite as to serve the increasingly frustrated goals of workers seeking union representation.

As someone who was in Washington in those years (1975 -1980), and who frequently questioned the labor leadership’s conspicuous lack of support for rank and file grassroots education and political activism, this was particularly frustrating.  The debate going on today should have started at that time, if not earlier. The crisis being described now was well underway then.  And even then, turning things around would have required a new social vision and, in a larger progressive political context, a significant effort to organize all people that are broadly included in a nation’s working class. 

One example of labor’s inertia: in 1978, angry over the defeat of the Labor Law Reform bill in Congress, then UAW President Douglas Fraser wrote a lengthy letter of resignation to The Labor/Management Group, a national committee chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Labor, John Dunlop.  In it he said, “I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in our country — a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.”  He further stated in his concluding remarks, “I would rather sit with the rural poor, the desperate children of urban blight, the victims of racism, and working people seeking a better life than with those whose religion is the status quo, whose goal is profit and whose hearts are cold.  We intend to reforge the links with those who believe in struggle: the kind of people who sat down in the factories in the 1930’s and who marched in Selma in the 1960’s.”  Fraser’s letter, was widely circulated and electrified the nation’s social movement activists as a much overdue “call to action” for what they hoped would be a new, emerging progressive wing of the U.S. labor movement.   Brother Fraser’s call went, with a few exceptions, largely unheeded by the resident labor bureaucracy.  No progressive wing took flight and, within two short years, the Alliance that had been announced in the letter’s wake was no more.  

By the 1980s, none of the energy and class tenacity of the great CIO upsurge could be found in our country’s labor leadership.  Unionism was suffering “death by a thousand cuts,” and it was clear that, by this time, a new generation of “nameless and faceless bureaucrats,”1 had unionism on cruise-control in America.  Rank and file workers were now under a relentless and accelerating attack, and the remote, relatively comfortable upper echelon could not feel the pain.  Democracy, accountability, and solidarity had long since become hollow slogans, not concepts in practice.

In fact, the use of the term “democracy” in U.S. unions is contested territory.  Those in power claim unions are democratic institutions but tend to bury democratic practice under the weight of bureaucratic function, tolerating only its most narrow exercise when required.  For advocates of social-movement unionism, democracy is an indispensable element in building a new mass movement of the working class.  For most workers, powerless in the grip of today’s “race to the bottom” economy, workplace democracy is a myth. 

Fifty years of business unionism, abetted by an evolving legal framework, have all but eliminated the most democratic of worker expressions, direct action.  Union contract votes often represent exercises in misinformation and coercion by a strategy-compromised union leadership, many of whom hold positions of authority by appointment or, through an incumbent-biased election process.  Accountability fades when democracy is feeble.

U.S. Labor Needs A New Vision

Back to the basic question: is U.S. labor in “crisis” today?  Absolutely!  To confront it, a movement-wide democratic debate is long overdue.  But the crisis in America today grips far more than labor unions as we know them.  It is a crisis that impacts all people not of the employing class and ruling elite.  Overcoming the crisis starts with the introduction of a new vision of a just society.  A nascent left within labor and community organizations can help supply that vision and bring important organizing, strategic and tactical, and coalition building skills to a resurgent struggle for justice.

But, the current labor leaders are debating process, not direction. Their arguments are narrow and bureaucratically ministerial. What’s also missing in today’s debate among the union heads is anger, a deep and resolute class anger.  Some leaders seem more angry with each other than with the perpetrators of the crisis they claim to want to solve.  Many are in denial.  And much of the debate represents an exercise in unyielding parochialism. 

Lacking in this debate is a clear definition of our generic enemy.  Some have named a few rogue corporations or particularly bad employers, but that does not describe the concerted nature of this sustained attack.  It’s all right to talk about a Wal-Mart and how what it represents affects all workers.  Taking on Wal-Mart, and “Wal-Martization,” is worth doing, but it’s just one part of capital’s offensive.  Ours is a crisis with millions of victims.  Those victims are being attacked by enemies —  corporate and governmental — with a shared ideology.  Labor should not shrink from condemning that ideology.

Without an organic feeling of pain and anger and where to direct it, today’s debate is just a “deck-chair rearrangement on a sinking ship,” not a discussion about how to engage in an all-out struggle for justice in a wantonly hostile political economy.  Corporate America is still waging the “one-sided class warfare” belatedly noted by Douglas Fraser in 1978.  Now, 27 years later, that war on workers with its resulting massively inequitable re-distribution of wealth and privilege in America continues unabated.  It has government backing and, at crucial times, is government-led.  Today, with the political establishment even more firmly against us, including many Democrats, our few political friends are just bleacher-seat spectators. 

Meeting this decades-long crisis is not just a question of restructuring within the same model of unionism, or a reallocation of funds between the bureaucratic center, the AFL-CIO, and its affiliates headquarters operations.  The revitalization of the labor movement will happen only as it becomes part of a larger social movement driven by a militant response to injustice well beyond our current ranks and workplaces.  It will come as part of a culturally transforming period.  As in the 1930s, the energy and true power will be in the ranks, but, as before, progressive leaders who reject the primacy of the marketplace will be essential to assist in many facets of the democratic upsurge.  Good practices will survive and new collective strategies and tactics will drive the movement forward.

If we address the question of labor’s current culture and conclude that it can not support the creation of the new paradigm for the struggle that must be waged, then what is the “move-forward” step, and how do we get there?  It seems to me that, before the quarreling leaders use up all their energies on “arranging the deck chairs,” they need take a step back and see if, as a group, they even have the collective capacity to issue a statement of the type Douglas Fraser issued against “one-sided class warfare on workers” in 1978.  Acting like this struggle and the “crisis” they claim to recognize is about  processes and not about ideology and the need for a different vision for America is like ignoring a 60-foot gorilla in our living room. 

America’s 21st century workers need a labor movement committed to fight alongside them against those “who would destroy us and ruin [their] lives”2 and leaders who have the courage to launch a strategic counter-offensive against the aggression on all fronts.  If there are such leaders, they can start by openly “speaking truth to power” and denouncing corporate America’s war on workers and working class communities, naming the ideological nest the perpetrators swarm out of, and condemning the overwhelming government backing they receive.

Yes, today many American workers are cynical and, collectively, do have reduced expectations.  They know all too well that their quality of life is under attack and, for many of them, that unionism has not held up its end in the struggle.  That was also true in the early 1930s.  But that does not mean now, as then, that the willingness to fight back, the urgency to resist injustice, and the desire for dignity have been driven from the consciousness of our sisters and brothers.  They have it in them to engage in struggle when they perceive the struggle has immediacy in their lives, when the injustices are real, and when they know they will not be alone.  There are among them good and even great leaders for the struggle to come.  A program that reconnects with workers built around their needs at the base, not just the notions of distant bureaucrats, is the way to start rebuilding the labor movement.

With history as our guide, the revitalization of the labor movement also cannot occur without a revitalization of an independent left within labor.  U. S. labor as we know it today, and as is demonstrated by the narrow limits of the AFL-CIO debate, lacks the credibility to form the multi-lateral and multi-racial relationships for a new, dynamic social movement.  A revival of progressive, socially-conscious left thinking internally could alter that reality and open up many new options. 

There is some evidence that the current debate inside the AFL-CIO has already foundered, despite its narrowly drawn focus.  The internet ping-pong match of competing proposals is already giving way to news account postings of “winners and losers” based on meetings and preliminary votes that have been taken internally.  One possible result may be a split in the national center, with one or more unions withdrawing from the Federation. 

U. S. labor needs a counter-offensive.  And, the centerpiece of labor’s counter-offensive, with or without all current labor leaders, should be derived from a new vision of America based on justice and the creation of a new social intersection for all of those abused by the nexus of corporation and state and today’s neoliberalism. 

A true crisis-resolution strategy must re-introduce a culture, and shared vision, of struggle and of common defense, through worker-to-worker, union-to-union, and social-movement-to-social-movement solidarity.  Under one broad social banner, we need to declare war on poverty, racism, sexism, imperialism, and the denial of the fundamental right to affordable health care for all, full employment, shorter work-time, and many others of the true values due all participants in a just society.       

Crisis-bound, U.S. labor is at a crossroads.  The direction it takes will impact, for better or worse, the lives of a majority of all Americans. That direction is also of no little significance to workers and labor organizations throughout the world.

1 A term used by New York Times labor reporter A. H. Raskin to describe the labor leadership of the day.

2 Also from Fraser’s 1978 “step-away” letter.

Further Reading: Rose Ann DeMoro, “The Top 10 Problems with the Current ‘Crisis’ in the Labor Movement” (21 July 2005); and JoAnn Wypijewski, “Is This Really an ‘Insurgency’ to Shake Up the Labor Movement?” (22 July 2005).

Jerry Tucker is a long-time U.S. union activist and former Executive Board Member of the United Auto Workers union.  He was a founder of the UAW New Directions Movement.