“The Question of Working-Class Power”: Bill Fletcher, Jr. Speaks to the Canadian Auto Workers Conference, Toronto, Canada, 13 July 2005


Good morning. President Hargrove, leaders, and members of the Canadian Auto Workers, I wish to thank you very much for inviting me to speak with you today. This is a great honor and I have been looking forward to this opportunity.

If all goes according to some plans, by the end of July, the U.S. trade union movement will fragment. These may sound like strange words, but when I say “according to some plans,” I am quite serious. It has become clear over the last several months that there are forces operating on both sides of the so-called debate within the AFL-CIO who have no interest in a resolution of the dispute outside a split. While cooler heads may prevail, and a compromise may be reached, a personalized fissure has been created that may never be repairable.

Having said this, it is important to qualify these remarks by noting that the so-called debate underway is a peculiar one, radiating far more heat than light. Precisely because THE issues that should be debated are largely not on the table, there is an argument via proxy an indirect discussion with certain assumptions hidden within it that are slowly and curiously unfolding, making it that much more difficult for observers to fathom what precisely is underway.

Both sides recognize, to varying degrees, that the U.S. union movement is in crisis. What seems to divide them, leaving aside personality, is whether to place greater emphasis on organizing new members vs. changing the political equation in the United States in order to make organizing more possible (in other words, electing more Democrats or other officials who are pro-the-right-to-organize). Within the context of this difference is the question of what sort of AFL-CIO is necessary, including whether an emphasis should be placed on what we call “core jurisdiction” [focusing unions on either their traditional bases or on those areas where they are prepared to make a major commitment of resources] vs. so-called general unionism; and, the compression of the numbers of unions affiliated to the AFL-CIO into fewer, more focused unions.

On balance, I think that the proposals advanced by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are not bad, and some of them, I believe, would help with movement growth. Yet, there remain two things stuck in my craw. First, that these differences are mainly differences in relative emphasis, rather than what I would call splitting differences. In other words, based upon what is being debated, I do not see the principled need for a split, irrespective of the rhetoric of the hour. Second, and more importantly, the differences that are being debated are actually not the ones that should be the starting point for any exchange, let alone one that could result in a split. I will stay away from any psychoanalysis with regard to the players in this debate. Suffice it to say that the situation is deeply complicated and far from being entirely about what seems to be debated. That said, there is a reason that this debate started where it did that speaks to a very fundamental weakness in the U.S. trade union movement.

The debate essentially started, and I daresay ended, with structure. Structure should, however, follow function. If that is the case, then, in thinking through the future of the U.S. trade union movement, we should be asking ourselves certain very important questions prior to getting to structure, let alone contemplating a split.  These questions include, but are not limited to:

    • What is our analysis of the current domestic and international situation in general, but specifically, the situation  facing workers?
    • What changes in the economy and in the process of work have taken place that affect workers, but also affect our abilities to organize, mobilize, and be effective?
    • How do we understand the evolution of the U.S. political state?  What does this mean for workers and their unions?
    • What do we mean when we speak of power for workers?
    • What other social movements, whether progressive or reactionary, are rising or declining?
    • How have U.S. unions practiced trade unionism over the last fifty years? In what manner were there changes if any at all in this practice after Sweeney took over in 1995?
    • What has worked and what has not in the last ten years? Do we have any idea as to why?
    • What do we need from a federation of unions? Specifically,

          o How should it make decisions?
o Who should be included?
o What is its role in electoral politics and legislation?
o What is its role in organizing?
o What is its role in member education and mobilization?

  • How do we change power relations in the United States? What does this mean at the national and local level?
  • What is the nature of international working class solidarity in the twenty-firstt century?
  • What are the organizational and structural implications of all of this for the union movement?

These questions are not being asked. It is interesting, however, that many of us outside the top layers of the union bureaucracy, or outside the union movement entirely, are posing these questions. It feels like hollering into a dark cave.  All we get back is an echo. While the leaders involved in this debate seem to feel that what they are saying is particularly profound, the arguments of both sides have failed to ignite a sense of excitement at the base. Rather the response seems to be more of disengagement, curiosity, fear, and sometimes anger.

So, what then is the problem? Why has this debate evolved in such a
mediocre manner? I suggest to you that it has to do, fundamentally, with the ideological premises of U.S. trade unionism, going back at least as far as Samuel Gompers. We have, in the United States, a movement that believes that the most that it can ever be is a junior partner to capital.  That is what is fascinating about the current so-called debate.  Even the more “militant” of the oppositionists conceptualize a special relationship with the enlightened wing of capital rather than any serious vision of working-class power.

While some people may say that a vision of working-class power is utopian, I would counter by suggesting that it is essential and completely relevant to our current conditions. Most of today’s union movements in the global North were shaped by the development of the so-called welfare state. They were shaped largely by the politics of the Cold War, in one manner or another, and in a situation where segments of capital believed that they needed to create an arrangement, a so-called social contract, with the organized section of the working class. In the United States, I must say that the leaders of organized labor cannot accept that this environment, this context, no longer exists.

Let me give you an example of the lack of an accurate analysis of the current situation. A very prominent and progressive union leader made the statement that U.S. organized labor needed to be more bipartisan, politically speaking. My question is simple: what does that mean in 2005?  While I can absolutely understand and agree with the view that there should not be dependency on the Democratic Party, in the CURRENT situation, what does it mean to be bipartisan when there is a Republican Party out to cut the throats of the working class generally and unions specifically?  Is this simply a throwaway point, or could this leader honestly believe that there is an environment that would promote bipartisanship?

Gompers’ views came to mean that the working class could not speak in its own name. Rather than class politics, unions adopted “special interests” politics. The task of the union was to defend the interests of its members.  This narrow view of trade unionism has affected everything, ranging from interunion cooperation to the building of alliances with community-based organizations.

Let me expand this point for a minute.  A few years ago I helped to arrange a visit by several SEIU leaders to South Africa.  I suggested to SEIU President Andy Stern that U.S. trade unionists might have a few things to learn from our South African comrades.  The trip was fascinating and quite exciting.  During the trip there was an interesting exchange between the SEIU leaders and several South Africans from a union known as the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU).  We were discussing electoral politics, if I am not mistaken, and one of the SEIU local union leaders made the statement that “the fundamental role of the trade union leader is to represent the interests of our members.” Well, in the United States this would not be a surprising statement, yet in South Africa there was an interesting response.  The NEHAWU representatives said something to the effect that “Not so fast, comrade. The job of the union leader is to represent the interests of the working class. Sometimes those interests are not identical to the interests of our members.”

You could have heard a pin drop.  It was striking precisely because what the SEIU local union leader articulated would have sounded quite rational and responsible to most U.S. trade unionists, but the South Africans were challenging the traditional, Gompersian framework of trade unionism. I recognized immediately that this was a clash of world views, because the SEIU local union leader, along with his other SEIU comrades, did not offer any further comment.

Now, I am not at all picking on SEIU.  It is one of the more progressive unions in the United States. That said, it still operates essentially within the paradigm established by Gompers.  This has become all the more clear in the current debate where there is no hint of a unionism linked to social transformation, but rather there exists a unionism focused almost exclusively on collective bargaining power.

Let us be clear. At a point when trade unions are under attack by both capital and the U.S. state, and when we are losing collective bargaining power, not to mention the actual right to collectively bargain, rearticulating the need for collective bargaining power is important, but it is in no way revolutionary, and it is certainly not enough to address the current crisis faced by the working class.

Both sides, however, are trapped in this ideological quandary. Neither side recognizes the relationship between neoliberal globalization and U.S. foreign policy. International trade agreements are treated in isolation from U.S. threats to the sovereignty of nations.  The so-called war against terrorism is never directly addressed, despite its impact both on civil liberties and democracy in the United States, as well as military globalization internationally.  And, with the exception of the organization U.S. Labor Against the War (and those affiliated with it), there has been a reluctance to condemn the illegal war and occupation of Iraq.

In the immediate aftermath of  September 11, 2001, the AFL-CIO believed that President Bush would grasp the moment and make peace with the U.S. working class. They believed that Bush would somehow mutate into Franklin Roosevelt and treat the new situation as something akin to a Second World War environment.  This did not happen.  Not only did it not happen, but the leadership of the AFL-CIO was completely paralyzed in the face of the onslaught launched
on the U.S. working class, seemingly out of fear that working-class resistance would be construed as support for terrorism.

So, what will happen?  If there is a split or fragmentation, in this
environment I suspect that there will be calls, and some actions, towards new organizing campaigns. I suspect that central labor councils will very much be hurt by the split, some hurt mortally.  The acrimony will more than likely continue for quite some time.
If there is a compromise, everything will depend on the terms of the compromise. If there is a commitment to pursuing an internal debate about the real issues, we could see some significant changes brought about in the U.S. union movement.  If, however, the compromise is more akin to a cease-fire, then it will only be a temporary respite.

What, however, needs to be done?  Well, unfortunately, none of the top protagonists have actually asked me this question, but since I am among friends, I will offer a few thoughts.

Let’s have the debate that needs to happen, using questions such as
the ones that I proposed earlier. Let us use those questions and a
movement-wide debate rather than simply a debate among the leaders to identify the actual unities and differences within the movement. Let us experiment with different forms of organization in approaching the organizing of the tweenty-first century workforce. And, here is my priority: let us engage in a discussion that focuses on the question of working-class power in the United States.

I am not speaking about bargaining power alone. I am talking about the creation of an agenda and a means of actualizing that agenda that is worker-centric. That agenda needs to be linked to a strategy that understands that unionization, as important as it is, is simply not sufficient to transform a society. Progressive trade unionism must be linked to a progressive political practice. Thus, we must supersede Gompers and his famous statement that “we have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” By “we” Gompers meant the unions, and not the working class, but leaving that aside, the working class must have STRATEGIC friends, and must recognize its STRATEGIC enemies.  It is precisely for this reason that current discussions about so-called bi-partisanship ring so hollow.

I wish that I could ask you, Canadian trade unionists, to shake some sense into the heads of U.S. trade unionists.  Unfortunately, this is not the case, since, much like a substance abuser, one has to hit bottom and realize, on one’s own, that something must change. For the U.S. trade union movement, the intoxicating “substance” has been the U.S. Empire.  It has served as the narcotic of choice that has confused us and seduced us, and ultimately, paralyzed us.  This “substance of choice” has so confused us, that we misread structural discussions in the union movement for discussions of strategy, largely out of fear and myopia regarding the critical questions of our time.  And, we try to craft a vision for the future, without any accountability, let alone understanding, of the past.

Here is my final point.  In a recent blog exchange, a colleague chastised me for not recognizing that the SEIU, et al.’s proposals are the best solution for the U.S. trade union movement because they will make it easier for our movement to organize.  My colleague missed the point: the resurgence and re-formation of organized labor is about more than increased will to organize, as important as that may be.  It is about inspiring hundreds of thousands, if not millions to a cause. In the 1930s, that cause was symbolized by the uniting of the effort toward organizing the unorganized with the battle for democracy.  I actually think that the cause is much the same, only it is a twenty-first-century variant that looks at organizing the unorganized linked to the battle for consistent democracy with a vision of power for workers in society.

Technical changes in the existing trade union movement, even with the best of intentions toward increasing organizing and political action, will only result in a shinier version of an archaic machine. I hope that our leaders can see through the haze created by both Gompersism and U.S. Empire to realize this to be the truth.

Thank you.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long time leftist labor and international activist.  His writings are widely published in books and periodicals.  He currently serves as the president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, DC-based non-profit educational and advocacy grouping.  This column does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of TransAfrica Forum or any other organization with which the author is associated.