What’s the Matter with U.S. Organized Labor? An Interview with Robert Fitch


Solidarity for Sale
Robert Fitch
SOLIDARITY FOR SALE: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise


Michael D. Yates: Robert, let’s start off with a question not directly connected to your book Solidarity for Sale.  Some commentators say that today labor unions and labor movements are irrelevant for working people.  Do you believe this?  If not, why do you think labor unions and labor movements are important?

Robert Fitch: American workers are like the owners of a family car whose wheels fell off long ago.  Each family member has gotten used to relying on their own two feet; they scarcely remember what it was like being able to ride together, relying on the power of their commonly owned vehicle.

Very few Americans experience the power of a union anymore.  U.S. unions today represent just 7.8 percent of all private sector workers.  Organized labor can’t stop wages from falling; hours from increasing; jobs from being offshored; or health and pension benefits from disappearing.  Conditions in unionized garment and meat-packing factories here have regressed to the point where they actually mirror those described in muckraking exposes of a century ago.  It’s the lack of countervailing union power that best explains the widest income inequality in the advanced industrialized world, the most limited workers’ rights, and what is easily the meanest and the crummiest welfare state.  In Europe, where unions are on the defensive but haven’t lost the capacity for large-scale resistance, labor activists refer ominously to “The American Disease.”

But because our unions are ineffective doesn’t mean that unions, as an institution, are irrelevant.  The class struggle is not a product of Marxist metaphysics.  As long as capital sees labor — as it must — as a cost to be cut, there will be a need for working-class institutions of resistance.  Without effective action by these organizations, the moral and material standard of living of working people must fall.  On the one hand, there will be less to distribute.  On the other, the principles of distribution will increasingly resemble not those proclaimed in the Kantian kingdom of ends but those already at work in the animal kingdom.

So, for all but the most self-preoccupied, the disintegration of our unions can’t be a matter of indifference.  It’s nothing less than a reactionary re-winding of modern capitalist history.  In the second half of the 19th century — despite almost universal predictions of inevitable working class immiseration — socialist and labor movements arose that stopped the lengthening of the working day, checked the fall in wages, and brought a measure of dignity and security to the workplace.  Then, in the post-World War II period, the labor, socialist, and communist movements created social democracies — with all their flaws, the most egalitarian and libertarian form of social organization ever achieved within class society.  Now with the loss of countervailing institutions, the innate tendencies of classic capitalism have been liberated — very much, Michael, as you describe in your book, Naming the System.

MY: Given the importance of unions, why do you think such a small percentage of workers are union members in the United States?  And specifically, what do you think of the typical arguments that the low union density is due mainly to bad labor laws, employer criminality, and deindustrialization?

RF: Over the last thirty years, organized labor has provided a series of self-serving reasons why it can’t attract more members.  The first answer, though, was that membership decline didn’t matter.  Explained George Meany, the first AFL-CIO president: “Frankly, I used to worry about the membership, about the size of membership. . . . I just stopped worrying about it because to me it doesn’t make any difference. . . .The organized fellow is the fellow that counts.”

By the 80s, under Meany’s former aide and successor, Lane Kirkland, the crisis of representation could no longer be ignored.  But Kirkland framed the problem entirely in the external terms you describe: a hostile legal framework; employer resistance; and deindustrialization.  Not that these factors can be ignored.  But they simply can’t stand by themselves as explanations.  What about the industrial sectors unaffected by capital mobility — like construction?  Union density in construction has shrunk just as fast as in manufacturing.  What about auto?  There aren’t fewer auto workers in America.  It’s just that unions can’t organize the transplants.  The FIRE sector — it’s highly organized in many countries — in the U.S., the figure is between 1 and 2 percent.  The restaurants?  They’re not going to move far.  Here in New York City there are currently 172,000 restaurant workers.  About 5,000 are represented by a union.  And while it’s true that our labor laws are a disgrace and that employers can fire union supporters and organizers with impunity, these factors don’t impinge much on the vast majority of unions which scarcely bother to organize at all.  Still, the failure of Kirkland’s legislative program to even slightly alter the legal conditions for organizing led to his replacement in ’95 by John Sweeney.

Instead of external forces, Sweeney’s “New Labor” emphasized internal agency.  Unions had shrunk, Sweeney said, because not enough attention had been paid to organizing,  This would now change.  The “Sweeney Revolution” called for a more than doubling of resources, a higher public relations profile for organizing campaigns, and an expanded mission for the newly created Organizing Institute.  But in the ten years since the Sweeney Revolution was proclaimed, membership has fallen at almost exactly the same rate as the ten previous years.  The near total futility of the AFL-CIO organizing efforts under Sweeney led to the historic 2005 split driven by Andy Stern, his former SEIU aide.

To see what’s wrong, though, we have to get beyond the terms of the existing debate over internal agency vs. external forces.  Membership decline is just one more expression of the problems of American union structure: what’s described in Solidarity for Sale as the “fiefdom” syndrome.

Essentially, the American labor movement consists of 20,000 semi-autonomous local unions.  Like feudal vassals, local leaders get their exclusive jurisdiction from a higher level organization and pass on a share of their dues.  The ordinary members are like the serfs who pay compulsory dues and come with the territory.  The union bosses control jobs — staff jobs or hiring hall jobs — the coin of the political realm.  Those who get the jobs — the clients — give back their unconditional loyalty.  The politics of loyalty produces, systematically, poles of corruption and apathy.  The privileged minority who turn the union into their personal business.  And the vast majority who ignore the union as none of their business.

But once the locals actually achieve monopoly control — forming what IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood called a “job trust” — they have little incentive to bring in more members.  Lots of workers would like a shot at jobs in the trades — particularly women and minorities.  But more members would just mean more competition for the existing jobs.

Even darker reasons for not organizing are quite common.  A lot of officials — particularly in construction, trucking, grocery store, and longshore locals — don’t organize because they take bribes not to do so.  Others, even more commonly, take bribes to replace their members with non-union workers.  Allegedly, the FBI, when it raided the premises of the New York City Central Labor Council, was looking for evidence that would connect payments from a suspected mob-connected electrical contractor to the Council’s president Brian McLaughlin, who’s long served as an official of the electricians’ union.

Corruption and stagnation are twin, interrelated consequences of the fiefdom model.

American unions have demonstrated a tendency to reach a certain level of density and then slowly decline.  By the end of WWI, the skilled trades and the transportation unions were able to fill up the urban niches that lent themselves to “job trust” monopoly.  In 1919, W. Z. Foster, who would later head the CPUSA, was put in charge of the effort to organize Big Steel by the AFL bosses.  The drive failed.  Then, they began a slow decline of the twenties that foreshadowed the post-WWII stagnation.  For most of the 20th-century history, the periods of decline exceeded the periods of growth.

To borrow the argument Paul Sweezy made in Monopoly Capital, it’s growth of U.S. labor that needs to be explained, not its stagnation.  Monopolies — whether of labor or capital — have a tendency to stagnate.  Growth of the American labor movement has been the product of forces external to the conservative labor federation.  Unions grew very rapidly during both world wars because the government leaned on the corporate sector to recognize unions in exchange for no-strike pledges.  There was growth, too, during the Progressive and Depression periods when the AFL was challenged by alternative labor movements — the Industrial Workers of the World and the early CIO — who threatened the AFL’s monopoly.

MY: You make a point in your book of distinguishing the uncorrupted unions of Europe and those of the United States.  What do you think are the roots of the differences between European and U.S. unions?  Was the U.S. response to unions just so violent that it really made it inevitable that the kinds of labor leaders we got were those bound to arise in such a society?

RF: Last year, Klaus Volkert, the head of IG Metall, Germany’s largest labor union, stepped down from the Volkswagen Board.  He’d been charged with receiving as much as 30,000 euros by the company to defray the cost of hookers that he’d engaged on “Lustreisen” to Brazil and other countries around the world.  In return, Volkert had allegedly given VW substantial concessions at workers’ expense.  Volkert denied the charges.

Scandals like these surface frequently enough to keep me from turning European union leaders into avatars of Rosa Luxemburg or Jean Jaures.  But even so, there is no comparison between European and American corruption.  Not in the scale, not in the scope, not in the depth.  No one has ever charged a European union with being a criminal enterprise.  Nor has anyone suggested that the Mafia runs European unions.  Not even in Sicily.

Why are American unions dirtier?  Many stress culture and social factors.  There’s more crime in America.  More violence.  Looser social bonds.  But these factors can’t explain how organized crime can flourish in countries like Italy and Japan and still not penetrate the unions there.

I think the Euro-American difference can be understood more in terms of our respective labor institutions.  Our American unions never really got beyond the horizon of craft unionism.  Compared with European workers who made the transition from trade unions to labor unions around the turn of the last century, our labor institutions remain more localized, more autonomous, and more likely to be organized around defending their monopolies of turf.

The big distinction I would make is between American clientism and European bureaucracy.  The more centralized but less patronage-driven European unions go through cycles of mass movement and bureaucratization.  The greater scope and centralization of unions in Europe keeps the mob out; but it tends to produce bureaucratic deformations.  In our more clientistic system, the individual exchanges loyalty for protection — a secure or favorable job.  The union leader protects the workers from the employer and the employer from the workers.  Mafia-dominated unions simply represent the final stage in the development of clientism — where the union has degenerated into a multi-tiered protection racket.

The idea that greater labor violence and criminality in America expresses the greater intensity of class struggle here goes back as far as to Louis Adamic’s Dynamite.  He even tried to explain the Capone gang in terms of resistance to capitalist exploitation rather than what it was: a continuation of exploitation by criminal means.  A clearer perspective on crime bosses comes from recalling that they are bosses.  Their companies earn extraordinary rates of profit because they get breaks on wages and benefits from the union leaders they intimidate and control.

Adamic’s factual premises also seem dubious to me.  First of all, when you examine the substance of American labor violence — as opposed to the incidence — the class character often seems less than straightforward.  Second, it’s questionable whether the U.S. has actually had more labor conflict.  It certainly doesn’t look that way this week.  Consider the violent demonstrations of students and workers in France protesting proposed changes in French labor law.  The new provisions would take away protection against arbitrary firing of those younger than 26.  Over two million French have taken to the streets in incendiary revolt against becoming subject to “employment at will” — a status that the 92% of American private sector workers not protected by a union contract accept quietly without protest.

When was the last time America had the kind of general strikes that occur fairly regularly in European countries like France or Italy?  The Great Revolt of 1877?  The aftermath of the 1886 Haymarket Riot?  ‘Eighty-six was also the year of the founding of the AF of L.  It was created to stop the Knights of Labor and the kind of wide-ranging solidarity it represented.  In this respect, the AFL was successful.  The fiefdom model which subdivides working people into tens of thousands of self-regarding “bargaining units” has been the most powerful bulwark against nationwide labor protest.

Of course it’s true that big capital resisted unionization with unprecedented displays of violence.  In Colorado, the Rockefellers carried out the Ludlow Massacre.  At Homestead, Henry Clay Frick mobilized a private army.  His troops actually opened fire.  In ’37, Little Steel workers and their families also got the open fire treatment in South Chicago.  These are the set pieces of American labor history.

What’s gone comparatively unexplored in labor history is the extent to which collaboration rather than conflict has prevailed.  Particularly in urban industries like construction.  Far from resisting unions, the employers actually supported the craft unions and the closed shop.  The contractors agreed to use only union labor; and the unions agreed to work only for the contractors.  Under these agreements, unions formed the most formidable barriers to entry against competition by outside contractors.  Occasionally, cooperation broke down, but until the 1930s, most AFL strikes were jurisdictional strikes — strikes between workers from different trades competing for the same jobs.  Not strikes against employers.  In the craft unions, by far the dominant form — then as now — of the violence was more often directed against other workers than against employers.

In even some of the biggest and most violent American strikes, the class dimension was far more ambiguous than many of our leading labor historians suggest.  For example, Yale’s David Montgomery has written about the 1905 Chicago Teamsters Strike as if it were broadly comparable to the 1905 St. Petersburg general strike.  In St. Petersburg, the workers’ summer general strike led to the creation of a soviet headed by Leon Trotsky and, in October, substantial political concessions by Tsar Nicolas II.

The 1905 Chicago strike that same summer took 20 lives, injured over 400, and accomplished less than nothing.  Most of the 20 dead were black strike breakers who’d been lynched by white gangs while passing through the Back of the Yards neighborhood.  And whereas in Russia the strike movement was initiated by the masses of workers independently of the leaders, in Chicago, the positions were reversed.  A handful of Teamster members at Montgomery Wards were simply ordered out on strike by Con Shea, the Teamster boss.  Ostensibly, the Ward Teamsters were showing solidarity with striking Ward garment workers.  But even when the garment workers asked the Teamsters to desist, the strike continued.  Allegedly, this was because the impetus for the Ward strike came from Sears company.  Prosecutors failed to prove this charge, but Chicago Teamster leaders regularly took money from companies to launch strikes against rivals.

Certainly Cornelius “Con” Shea, the leader of the 1905 strike, was no Leon Trotsky.  The first president of the IBT had been a professional bomber since age 16; he was forced out of the Teamsters by a reform movement and wound up a prominent member of the Moran gang, several of whose members became the victims of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

MY: Critics of your book have argued that you, more or less, have a one-track mind in terms of your focus on union corruption.  And they say that you grossly overstate the amount of union corruption (or that you don’t really say how much corruption there is).  How do you respond to these criticisms?

RF: Because Solidarity for Sale explores the murky origins, arrested development, and bad consequences of America’s fiefdom model of unionism, corruption turns up a lot.  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle dwelt a lot on corrupt meat.  Was it an “obsession”?  I think he had a rational strategy: using rotten beef to illustrate what was wrong with industrial capitalism.  Mine is to try to use union corruption to explain what has gone wrong with American unionism.  And beyond that — how the failure of American unionism figures in the advent of American exceptionalism.

One of the problems with writing about corruption is that for a lot of reasons it’s hard to quantify.  Public knowledge of its extent depends on the strength of prosecutorial effort and initiative.  Here in New York City this varies tremendously from county to county.  Is there a lot less corruption in the Bronx or Brooklyn than in Manhattan?  Probably not.  But Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau has prosecuted hundreds of high-profile labor racketeering cases, while the Bronx’s D.A. Robert Johnson has never prosecuted a single one.  Ditto Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes, whose campaign treasurer Donald Sclafani, the business manager of Plumbers Local 1, resigned abruptly after three top subordinates were arrested by the feds on bribery charges. To the extent prosecutors are bought off, union corruption will increase but knowledge of it will not.

My problem has been understating, not exaggerating, the extent of corruption.  Helen Greene, who was slated to become executive director of AFSCME’s DC 37, publicly threatened to sue me for accusing her of embezzlement.  “I am innocent,” she claimed.  After she pled guilty, it turned out she’d stolen twice as much as I’d charged.

My early articles about DC 37 completely ignored the issue of corruption.  Influenced by labor academics who held the union out as a model of social democratic rectitude, I never suspected that over thirty officers in the 56 locals were stealing money and fixing elections.

And who would have thought that TDU‘s model corruption fighting local — Local 138 — had itself turned into a criminal enterprise?  Or that Ron Carey had signed off on a deal that sent Teamster jobs to mob-dominated locals in New Jersey at a fraction of their pay?  Not me.  In 1993, I wrote “Revolution in the Teamsters” depicting Carey and TDU in the terms that were current on the Left at the time.  I got only praise for that article.  Not the least from those I praised.

The criticism that I’m too hard on labor leaders has to be understood in context.  The real problem with labor journalism is not excessive sensitivity to corruption, but sycophancy.  The typical labor journalist is far more likely to be a suck-up or a cynic than an ankle-biter.  My critics worry about the damage done by articles that exaggerate the extent of corruption.  But what about the harm done by those who understate or ignore it?  What happens to the credibility of the Left when the victims of corruption discover that their supposed champions are thieves and associates of a criminal enterprise?

MY: Robert, you seem to distinguish between what we might call “hard” and “soft” corruption, that is between what has happened in say the Laborers Unions and what happens when union credit cards are abused or when SEIU uses political donations to get suspect bargaining units created and then bargains dues check-off with a newly created public agency.  Can you comment on what you see as the contemporary significance of each?  I think many readers will be taken aback at your analysis of Andy Stern and the SEIU.

RF: Solidarity for Sale uses two concepts of corruption: the modern legal notion based on a conflict of interest; and an older, republican political concept that insists the worst danger to a republic is for the citizens to become dependent on the will of another — the client of a boss, a proletarian with no rights, the subject of a despot.  But in general usage, the republican idea has been superceded by the problem of a conflict of interest: the private use of a public office.  When you talk about “hard” and “soft” corruption, it’s this more modern notion that comes into play.

In this latter sense, you could say, corruption is “harder” the more damage is done to the interests of the members by the official exploiting his office.  An official taking a personal trip to Hawaii at union expense represents “softer” corruption than the actions of someone like Al Diop, of AFSCME’s District Council 37.  He took over 300 of his political retainers to Hawaii and charged the cost to his members.  His action was legal, the action of the solo flyer was not.

But here’s where the older meaning of corruption as dependence comes into play and shows how the two notions are often inseparable.  The Al Diops of the labor movement use members’ dues to create a personal machine that destroys any real political life in the local.  To be active in a Diop type local is to engage in the politics of the courtier, not the politics of interest and principle.  It’s corrupting in the republican sense of dependence on the will of the officials.  It’s clientistic.  The union is polarized into a tiny minority of those who exploit the union for their own self-interest; and the overwhelming majority of apathetic, merely nominal members who see the union as having nothing of interest for themselves.

Defenders of labor’s elite simply deny the presence of the hardest, racketeering, mob-driven forms of corruption.  They assimilate all corruption to its softer manifestations and ask pointedly if the corporate sector isn’t corrupt too?  Why, for example, they say, make a big deal out of ULLICO — the AFL-CIO’s insurance company –whose leaders were all AFL-CIO presidents but who made off with only a million or so through insider trading.  Didn’t Enron execs steal a thousand times more?

Yes they did.  But just counting up the swag doesn’t explain the political significance of union corruption.  When the Enron tops went down, their fellow Fortune 500 executives didn’t try to defend them.  Bosses at GE and Goldman Sachs didn’t charge that the government was out to get big capital.  They didn’t opine that the Longshoremen are even worse.  Union apologists who make these arguments seem unaware that labor leaders are judged by a different standard from corporate leaders.  Corporate leaders are expected to act on the basis of pure self-interest.  Whereas union leaders are supposed to check corporate-style greed, not embody it.

It’s self-defeating for them to argue that corporate leaders are even worse than they are.  It’s as if the Ramparts district cops who stole from LA drug dealers defended themselves by saying, “Hey, you think we’re bad, what about the Crips and the Bloods?”

Actually, corruption is rooted so deeply in organized labor that the union leaders who combat it successfully — like the SEIU’s Andy Stern — are constrained to keep quiet about their victories.  For decades, SEIU had been a classic racketeering enterprise.  In 1921, even before there was a mob, the entire leadership, including the founder and international president, were sent off to prison for bombing buildings.  In the early 40s, the international president — chosen by the Capone gang — was exposed as a mob associate; he had actually headed a strike-breaking agency before agreeing to take over the union.  Stern’s immediate predecessor, John Sweeney, had kept a foot in both the corrupt and reform factions. (See Chapter 13 of Solidarity for Sale, “Andy Stern’s Dead Souls.”)  When Stern took over, he actually managed to clear out the old family dynasties linked to organized crime like those run by the Chartiers in the Bronx and Westchester.  He also bagged New York’s Gus Bevona — Sweeney’s successor at Local 32BJ who’d been identified by the FBI’s top mob informant as a Genovese crime family associate.  But since corruption is not supposed to exist, you can’t take credit for wiping it out.

The union that Stern now bestrides has evolved far beyond the classic fiefdom model.  Local jurisdictions and local autonomy are disappearing.  They’re being replaced by statewide and regional “divisions” — Stern’s leadership model is Alfred P. Sloan whose re-organization of GM is recounted in My Years at General Motors — Stern’s bible.

But the organizational changes made by Andy Stern go beyond structure.  He’s created a new ruling labor elite which is charged with a new mission.  SEIU is no longer a loose confederation of locals, each headed by an autonomous boss trying to get premium wages for a minority of local workers by exclusionary practices.  The heads of the biggest units aren’t former workers — as you still see in old AFL unions like the UFCW or the machinists or the plumbers — but former central staff, who have proven themselves in staff jobs.  They’re a genuine meritocracy often educated at America’s best colleges.  Graduates of Chicano Studies programs like Mike Velez of the California janitors’ union.  Mike Fishman who succeeded Gus Bevona was never a janitor; his first job in SEIU was serving as an assistant to Andy Stern.

Stern appoints his aides to run the most important locals and assigns them the goal of maximizing membership.  Of course, you get more members by charging low prices than high prices.  Most of the new members brought in by Stern — particularly those in home care and day care industries — don’t earn anything close to a living wage.  But since taking office, Stern has added over six hundred thousand members — a membership about the size of the UAW.

Stern’s soaring membership trajectory has enabled him to escape the gravity of traditional labor corruption.  First, because the gains were concentrated in the health care-home care-day care sector of the union where the reformers were strong.  And, second, because these industries didn’t lend themselves well to conventional corruption tactics.  The conventional labor peace racket essentially involves the exchange of bribes for fewer members.  Contractors hire non-union members or hire union members at non-union wages.  Essentially, the union leaders take the bosses’ money for giving away union jobs.

This can’t happen in most SEIU home care locals or most janitor locals for that matter — because the members don’t earn premium wages.  For example, the average income of 120,000 newly organized SEIU home care workers in southern California’s Local 434b is less than $600 a month.  Most lack health benefits.  It would be hard to replace them with workers willing to work for a lot less.

As SEIU changed from a private sector union with comparatively high wages, to a public sector union with some of the lowest paid workers in the labor movement, the character of its corruption softened.  To organize in the public sector requires not just thousands of home visits and dozens of demonstrations, but also millions in political contributions.

In 1999, the New York Times proclaimed that SEIU’s Local 434b had won the biggest organizing victory since the UAW’s 1937 Flint sit-down against GM.  But bringing 74,000 home care workers onto the union’s rolls didn’t require a battle against hostile employers.  It was cash-hungry California politicians who had to be won over.  Courts had ruled home care workers weren’t employees.  In fact, about 70% were immediate family members taking care of parents or children.  Recipients got Medi-Cal money, not wages.  In order to transform parent-child relationships into employer-employee relations and welfare money into wages, laws had to be changed, institutions created.  Only then could SEIU be able to deduct dues check-off money from the paychecks of the newly created employees.  Just keeping incumbent politicians on your side is expensive.  In the most recent LA Mayoral campaign, Local 434b’s president Tyrone Freeman contributed over $300,000 to the loser, ex-Mayor James Hahn.

From the indictments and plea bargaining that took place this February, it appears that not all SEIU’s campaign contributions in its Los Angeles stronghold have been legal.  At least not those to Martin Ludlow, a former City Council member, who briefly became the LA County Federation of Labor president.  Ludlow plea bargained his way out of prison time by agreeing to cooperate with law enforcement officials.  He confessed that, in his successful 2003 race for City Council, he’d arranged with Janett Humphries, the head of SEIU Local 99, to put his campaign workers on her payroll.  Humphries, who’s been indicted, claims she was just a figurehead president, a patsy, set up by higher-level SEIU officials.  She has filed a civil suit charging SEIU officials with widespread campaign irregularities.  SEIU officials, for their part, allege that it was the union itself which initiated the investigation into Humphries’ wrongdoing and then turned over the case to federal authorities.

Compared with the days when SEIU leaders were imprisoned for blowing up buildings or for handing over union dues to the Capone gang, the most recent charges seem pretty trivial.  SEIU sympathizers could even argue that union officials are doing the right thing albeit by the wrong methods — seeking by illicit campaign contributions to advance the wellbeing of its members.  It’s not clear, though, particularly in the home care and day care industries, just how much benefit members have received from being represented by SEIU.  In Illinois, the union was able to get dues check-off rights before it had collective bargaining rights.  And in some venues in California, even with collective bargaining rights, the home care workers haven’t been able to make much progress.  In LA, the home care workers — when you deduct $26-a-month dues, about 4% of their income — make little more as union members than they did twenty years ago.  Meanwhile, the union gets $37 million a year in dues from its Local 434b members — an income that represents a capital of $925 million.

MY: I can understand how the traditional craft unions, which have built their power on control of the labor supply, are not interested in new members.  But what about non-craft unions where the employer controls hiring.  Isn’t it in the interest of unions to organize as many employers as possible?

RF: That’s what you’d think.  More members, more dues, more money for officers’ salaries and perks.  But the numbers don’t add up.  Especially when you realize the organizations involved in organizing are local unions, the costs of organizing generally exceed the benefits.  That’s why most unions don’t organize.

Sometimes, even the most marginal costs can tip the balance against organizing.  In the early 90s, when I was working as a consultant for a New York City public sector local, I once suggested we try organizing in the private sector to offset our membership shrinkage.  I mentioned a lot of tempting targets.  My boss turned down the suggestion.  Organizing, he explained, wasn’t worth the trouble or risk because we would have to fill out federal forms — the “LM-2.”

But the real barrier for the typical local union is the disparity between its size and the size of potential corporate targets.  The fox might like to hunt the elephant.  There’d be meat for a year, but there’s a problem of scale.  Small organizations don’t have the resources — the cash or the expertise to go after large prey.  Organizing big companies by NLRB rules takes big money; it requires a lot of expertise, particularly legal expertise, to avoid breaking secondary boycott laws; it takes skill in mobilizing community opinion.  Successful organizing can take years.  And even if you win, about half the time you don’t get a contract.  So the locals, where 80% of union resources lie, simply aren’t in the hunt for big companies.

Forced down the food chain to go after more digestible little companies, formidable problems still remain.  The small companies seem like easier targets.  But they fight hard, too.  If they give in to union demands for recognition and sign a decent contract, the added costs will significantly raise their costs.  A living wage as opposed to minimum wage will drive them out of business in a competitive market.

If that’s the logic, outside the crafts, how were these small operators ever organized in the first place?  My research suggests that, for the modern period, a lot of the work was done by radicals and communists in the 1930s who led mass organizing drives.  For example, prior to the 1930s, the only unionized restaurants in New York City were a relatively few big chains and established restaurants which were controlled by locals in fief to mobster Dutch Schultz (Arthur Flegenheimer).  Mass hotel and restaurant strikes — beginning with sit-downs in the newly built Waldorf — swept the city.  Employers caved.  But the CP, then following its united front policy, handed over its locals to the AFL – which meant Dutch Schultz.  A long, uneven process of attrition followed.  Union density today is back to the single-digit levels of the 1920s before the great restaurant revolt — which is now almost entirely forgotten.  Neither conventional unions like HERE Local 100 nor workers’ center-based radicals have had much success trying to organize one restaurant at a time.

MY: You focus a lot of attention on corruption in the traditional AFL craft unions.  What is your view of unions like the UAW, the USWA, the UE, the CWA, and the like?

RF: During organized labor’s twenty-year civil war that broke out in 1935, the AFL often accused the breakaway CIO of being communist-influenced.  The mostly CIO unions you mention regularly retorted that the AFL was mob-dominated.  There was more than a little substance to both charges — although, as the CIO developed, it became substantially more bureaucratic and less Left-influenced, and, as the AFL evolved, it became even more mob-influenced.

When hostilities ended in 1955 with the CIO having failed to displace the AFL from its dominant position, the character and trajectory of the American labor movement was pretty clearly defined.  On the basis of per capita democracy — where dues paid automatically determines votes — the AFL has had the right to rule.  The eight largest unions in the U.S. are SEIU, AFSCME (government workers), Teamsters, Laborers, UFCW (food and commercial workers), AFT (teachers), IAM (machinists), IBEW (electrical workers).  And they’re all AFL unions.  The CIO unions — auto, steel, electrical workers — could all fit inside the SEIU, and you could throw in the UMW (mine workers).  The former AFL unions now dominate both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations.

Yet given the emphasis of most labor academics, you would think the CIO won and that Walter Reuther of the UAW served as president of the AFL-CIO and not the plumbers’ George Meany.  There are nearly three dozen books on Reuther’s UAW listed in the Library of Congress catalog.  There’s only one dealing with the SEIU — and it was commissioned by the union.

Fudging the question of hegemony — who rules the labor movement — is critical to the survival of the labor studies Left.  Until the split last year, the AFL-CIO was run not by the old CIO unions, but by an alliance of former AFL unions at whose core were the construction unions — mobbed up; exclusionary; treating black, Hispanic, and women members as interlopers; hostile to national health insurance; adjuncts first of the CIA and now of the National Endowment for Democracy.  To acknowledge that the labor movement is predominantly populated and run by these old AFL unions would force many academics to choose between their leftism and their labor studies appointments.

Solidarity for Sale probably bends the branch too far in the other direction.  In over 400 pages, the CIO hardly gets a mention.  The problem was aiming at a moving target.  Some of the CIO unions — in particular the UAW — were evolving very fast in structural terms and in their potential for corruption.

The CIO unions started out at a distinct disadvantage.  They lacked hiring halls to control the membership; or apprenticeship programs to keep the membership white; or pension and benefit funds to skim.  Then, too, peak bargaining undermined local autonomy.  It was hard to build corrupt fiefdoms out of the crooked timber of these institutional materials.

So when Blue Collar came out in 1978, written by Paul Schrader and starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto, many who acclaimed it as the best movie ever written about unions and union corruption still thought the thinly disguised depiction of the UAW was unfair.  At the end of the film, the character played by Yaphet Kotto says of the union leadership, “Everything they do — the way they put the lifer against the new guy, the old against the young, the black against the white — is meant to keep us in our places.”

By the 1990s, Blue Collar had turned into prophecy.  The UAW was disintegrating.  Peak bargaining had been destroyed.  Locals were bargaining on their own, competing with each other for jobs on the basis of work rules and productivity.  The union had clearly mastered the art of playing off the active workers against the retirees; the sick against the well; the parts workers against the mainframe workers; and the older workers against the young who now carried the main burden of austerity.

In exchange for “card-check” agreements — in which management doesn’t challenge the union’s claims to represent workers — the union granted huge pay concessions.  At Johnson Controls, starting workers earned less than $8.00 an hour.  The UAW was giving up the living standards of its future members in exchange for shoring up its dues base.

As the UAW shrank from 1.5 million to under 700,000 in the late 90s, the Big Three helped ease the financial pain by giving the leadership over a billion in “educational and training” funds to manage.  Some goes for day care and drug treatment plans.  Apparently, a lot goes for parties and trips.  And there’s plenty left over to sponsor NASCAR drivers and races.  A single race costs about $1 million.  Incidentals cost more.  The Detroit Free Press reported that the UAW-Daimler fund transported union officials and their guests to and from a NASCAR speedway by helicopter at a cost of $1,250.  Buses and limousines costs thousands more.

But more overt and sinister forms of corruption surfaced last year.  In 2005, about the time Solidarity for Sale was being copyedited, a three judge panel reinstated extortion charges that showed a degree of corruption far beyond the imagination of Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar script.  Allegedly, the Pontiac-based UAW Local 594 leaders had prolonged a 87-day strike during 1997 in order to get bribes for themselves and skilled jobs for relatives who otherwise lacked proper qualifications.  The strike ended when the company paid off every member of the strike committee.  No one got less than $5,000.  A UAW International rep, who’d been a prominent member of the reform group New Directions, got $60,000.  One of those hired after the strike by GM was David Shoemaker, the son of Richard Shoemaker, the UAW International vice president.  The younger Shoemaker worked for one year at the plant — fulfilling the one year requirement for the $75,000-a-year international staff representative position which he assumed immediately afterwards.

As far as the other unions you mention, I can’t comment on each one.  They all have their origins in 1930s.  With the exception of CWA, whose predecessor was an independent, all were affiliated with the CIO.  And as centralized, industrial unions bargaining with big capital, none controlled hiring or managed funds — two big sources of clientistic corruption.  My superficial impression is that the top leaders of these unions have managed the decline of their institutions with more integrity than the UAW.

CWA’s Morty Bahr, who resigned last year after serving 20 years as president, appears to be an exception.  In 2002, Bahr got caught in the insider trading scandal at ULLICO — the big insurance company owned by the AFL-CIO.  What made Bahr’s involvement particularly embarrassing was that, just prior to his exposure, he’d been a voluble critic of corporate insider trading.  But even more seriously, he’d urged CWA members to convert their pension plan assets into Global Crossing stock.  Essentially, the ULLICO stock that Bahr was trading was based on the price of Global Crossing.  Eventually, Global Crossing stock proved worthless and many members lost their life savings.  While CWA members were being wiped out, Bahr was able to sell his stock back to ULLICO for a profit of $27,000.

Bahr’s behavior aside, and the disintegration of the UAW notwithstanding, I think there’s still a useful distinction to be made between two types of American unions.  On the one hand, bureaucratic CIO unions that emerged after the 1930s upsurge in steel, auto, and electrical industries.  And the clientistic AFL unions — the vast and dominating majority — which originated back in the 19th century.

The Left critique of American unions obscures this distinction.  It revolves around the idea of “business unionism.”  Unions are portrayed as business-oriented bureaucracies, run just like corporations.  In fact, while all unions have bureaucracies, most aren’t run by them.  Sociologist C. Wright Mills, who was among the first to document the emerging bureaucratic trend of the CIO, was very careful not to exaggerate it.  “Unions are not strict bureaucracies,” he wrote in The New Men of Power (1947), “but are run by patriarchs according to patronage.”  That’s why, he explained, union organizers, whatever their politics, tend to side with the political machine in the union, not with the workers they organize.

So what?  Why should leftist union reformers care if the American labor movement is mostly made up of AFL-type unions subject to a boss-client form of governance or run by CIO-type bureaucracies?  Neither is compatible with genuine rank-and-file unionism.  Both are undemocratic, top-down systems.

Solidarity for Sale argues that America’s “clientistic” fiefdom model tends to produce a labor movement that’s characteristically weak, fragmented, and corrupt.  Our unions operate according to their own, perverse, and hard-to-root-out forms of solidarity.  But they’re not bureaucratic.

In bureaucracies, of course, there’s a top and a bottom.  But those on the same level tend to be treated the same way; power is wielded by the tops in an impersonal manner; no strong affective ties connect people at different levels; merit counts in promotion.  The son of the head of the Department of Motor Vehicles rarely succeeds his dad.

The upshot is that if you get control of a bureaucracy, you can change how people behave.  Just change the regulations.  Bureaucratic organizations like the military responded comparatively well to orders from the top of the chain of command to integrate the races.  Clientistic organizations like the construction unions have, for the most part, successfully resisted.

Operating with the wrong organizational model has allowed reformers to see their task as easier than it really is.  There’s lots of academic sociology showing that clientistic political systems are among the most resistant to change.  That’s because a whole set of loyalties, reciprocal duties, and affective ties unite the boss and the client, blurring class lines.  The reformers’ governance model suggested that what was basically required was a push from the rank-and-file to get the vehicle in motion.  Once in the drivers’ seat, the left would be in control.  And the labor movement would actually start to move.  But, as it turned out, the change in drivers didn’t lead to any detectable movement.

MY: You offer a number of reforms to bring union corruption to an end and to rebuild the labor movement.  Do you think that it is really possible to reform the house of labor from within?  And if not, what sort of organizations do you envision being built to create a new labor movement?

RF: For well over a century, various leftists — orthodox Marxists, Trotskyists, independent socialists, communists — have all tried to reform the AFL and its successor the AFL-CIO.  “Boring from Within” they called their strategy of seeking to transform the organization from within while accepting its authority, obeying its rules, following its protocols, and soaking up its norms and culture.  Not surprisingly, like the FBI agent in Donnie Brasco, who infiltrates the Mafia and starts talking trash and beating his wife, the longer they stay, the more they resemble their adversaries rather than vice versa.

I call it the roach motel syndrome.  The leftists go in but they don’t come out.

Solidarity for Sale tries to show how the most recent generation of labor radicals has failed to escape the political logic of the fiefdom model.  In particular TDU, but also reformers in AFSCME and SEIU.  They’ve failed because the local, fragmented, self-preoccupied nature of AFL-CIO unions makes it very hard even for the most motivated activists to advance a common agenda.  Reformers constantly invoke the “rank-and-file,” but, when rank and filers win office, they often prove reluctant to abolish the traditional privileges and perquisites of office.

The money itself is hard to resist.  DC 37’s Mark Rosenthal, the former park worker who co-founded the Committee for Real Change, insisted on keeping the compensation status quo when be became the big municipal union’s treasurer.  He kept his corrupt predecessor’s salary — while many members of his local were making only about $8.00 an hour.  Rosenthal wound up in a lucrative but politically vulnerable position: a $250,000-a-year union reformer.

Further eroding the prospects for real reform is the AFL-CIO political “protection” system.  Reformers at the lower levels reach out to those occupying higher-level positions, becoming mere clients, instead of agents of genuine transformation.  Say as a local reformer you’ve antagonized the corrupt president of your International.  But despite the odds you won office anyhow.  You come under pressure to repair your relationship. Removal from office for bogus offenses is a real threat.  After all, the president controls the union’s judicial system.  Or failing a deal, you look around for another source of protection — from someone who controls a big fiefdom — who may want to take a run at the big guy himself.  The reformer becomes the client of another boss whose transgressions he’s pledged to ignore.

Finally, “union democracy” — the stock in trade of most reformers — is too shallow and procedural a notion to combat the obstacles to genuine democracy presented by the fiefdom model.  It was a great achievement to have won a measure of civil liberties in the labor movement, but it’s insufficient.  Even after union democrats have rid the union of all the mechanisms of despotism — achieving the right to elect higher-level officers, repealing anti-free speech laws, acquiring the right to pass out leaflets at meetings, the right to fair trials, etc., etc. — there remains the crippling problem of political fragmentation.

Actually, it’s a two-tier form of fragmentation.  The elites and their retainers form internal bonds within the locals and create bridges between them.  The ordinary members outside these networks don’t and can’t.  Even with the advent of “union democracy,” workers fail to join together across locals to realize a common, substantive purpose.  Understandably, since that would be “dual unionism.”  And “dual unionists” can be brought up on charges and expelled from the union.  The upshot is that union democrats generally know a lot about their own local, less about the international, and very little about what’s going on in other unions — for example, the plumbers tend not to know what’s going on in the carpenters and vice versa.

Fragmentation produces atomization.  Without sharing broader, common political goals, without feeling touched by a shared history, each worker begins to see himself as a private individual unaffected by the collective organization.  The local, however democratic in form, tends to isolate workers from each other.

Local contract fights themselves generate powerful fragmenting forces.  Those workers from other unions you see cheering at strike support rallies are mostly staffers who are paid to cheer.  The combatants themselves tend to be concerned overwhelmingly with their own contract terms and conditions.  For example, relatively highly paid New York City transit workers don’t show much interest in how much other municipal workers are paid.  This is too bad, because they have the leverage to lift up the workers who have practically no bargaining leverage, like school lunchroom aides who earn less than half — maybe as low as a third — of what transit workers earn.  But at least the leadership of the transit workers doesn’t publicly disparage the concerns of lower paid workers — like the leadership of the police and teachers’ unions which makes direct appeals to their members’ narrowest sense of self-interest, promising to fight against “pattern bargaining” that tethers them to the lower paid.

So given the protracted history of failure and the formidable institutional obstacles that remain, no, I don’t think the impetus for reform will come from within.  Nor do I agree with the notion that the CIO can stand as a model of reform from within.  True, its prominent leaders — John L. Lewis and David Dubinsky — were former AFL leaders who left the federation to organize a new labor movement.  But the old AFL bulls would never have wandered off the range if there hadn’t been a labor revolution going on outside the federation that they could exploit — beginning with the radical-led sit-down movement in the early 30s.  The internal split was triggered by outside movements.

The leadership for reform will have to come mainly from the outside and from the Left — as it always has — going back to the Knights of Labor who challenged the craft model during the industrial revolution and continuing with Eugene DebsAmerican Railway Union and the IWW in the Progressive era and the Depression-era syndicalist, communist, and socialist radicals whom Staughton Lynd describes so well in We Are All Leaders.  What characterized all the 20th century movements was that they organized among the tens of millions of workers who were being intentionally ignored by traditional labor.

The formation of workers’ centers around the country seems to suggest that independent organization may again be possible and for the same reasons.  In New York City, we have over 20 such centers.  The oldest, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, was founded 25 years ago by the heroic and indefatigable Wing Lam who trained to become an electrical engineer at the University of Wisconsin, but soon found himself in Long Island City as a garment worker organizer.  CSWA has led campaigns against the city’s sweatshops and UNITE, the union that facilitates them (see “UNITE’s Garment Gulag” in Solidarity for Sale).  Fighting for workers’ back pay, against violations of the minimum wage and hours law, and against discrimination in the construction trades, the CSWA has also been active in anti-gentrification and housing struggles.

The latest, post-Lam generation of workers’ centers tend to be founded by young lawyers — including several trained in Ivy League schools.  Among the most prominent are the Bushwick-based Make the Road by Walking, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.  The taxi drivers — overwhelmingly immigrant and predominantly Islamic — were led by Bhairavi Desai, a Marxist woman organizer, in the first taxi strike in decades.  Despite threats by then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to have them deported, 98% of the city’s 24,000 drivers stayed out.  More recently, Desai estimates that about a third of the drivers stayed out during the Christmas 2005 subway strike.

Opportunity exists for independent organizers in the restaurant, taxi, and garment industries because established unions have scant interest in organizing immigrants — outside those working for employers with deep pockets, e.g. maids in downtown hotels, waiters in upscale restaurants, janitors in prominent office buildings, garment workers employed by the nation’s largest garment maker, American Apparel.  In the huge vacuum that’s opened up, independent organizers have been able to win legal and monetary victories for small groups of workers; they’ve been able to harass and on occasion even imprison bad employers.  These threats may act as a check on the worst exploitative employer behavior.

Still, as far as I know, none of the workers’ centers has been able to get a contract that covers more than a handful of workers.  Most remain attached to the teat of foundation support.  At some point, these organizations will face a choice: either remaining non-profit 501(c)(3) service organizations or transforming themselves into autonomous working class organizations capable of improving workers’ lives across neighborhood and ethnic lines.

If perhaps the major political problem of American unions is fragmentation, we can’t depend on piecemeal efforts to solve it.  What’s needed is the courage to make a comprehensive new beginning.  Nothing less than a challenge to labor’s status quo as fundamental as that posed by labor radicals of the past — the Knights, the Wobblies, and the early CIO.

Each of these movements sought to break out of the limits of the fiefdom model — the Knights with their system of District Assemblies that included both craft and industrial workers; the Wobblies who tried to organize “One Big Union”; the CIO effort to organize all the workers within an industry.

The main task of an alternative union movement would be to create a new system of universal representation.  One that guarantees — unlike the present system — every American worker the right to join a union and to take part in concerted action. If such a goal seems utopian, just consider that many countries have this right.  And in some Scandinavian countries union membership reaches 90% of the work force.  While in France which has low union membership, over 90% of the work force is covered by a union contract.

An alternative movement doesn’t mean writing off the 13 million members of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations.  It’s a matter of recognizing the diminishing returns from the existing reform strategy.  The union democracy movement which began in the mid-60s with concentration on winning rights to speak, distribute literature, and campaign for office needs to be supplemented by strategies that aim more directly at draining the swamps of clientism.

The new internal reform movement should aim more directly at reducing the supply of patronage jobs and cash available for re-distribution.  Reformers should diminish the attractions of office for careerists and opportunists.  We should fight for term limits, for salaries no higher than the amount earned by members, and for the abolition of union credit cards and all those perquisites that create elites of personal privilege rather than elites of personal sacrifice.

Where would the energy come from to make these changes possible?  Perhaps one source of pressure could come from the shop stewards council movement suggested recently by Washington state activist-writer Brian King in MRZine.  The more functions of the union taken over by volunteers, the more it strengthens autonomy of the members and reduces the power of the boss-client nexus.

Still, historically, by far the best way of reforming the existing labor movement has been the creation of alternative unions and new forms of struggle. New institutions lack
“resources,” i.e., the money to pay activists regular salaries.  But they also lack what existing institutions have: powerful immune systems that resist the reform infection.

The new unions wouldn’t just be the existing unions, minus the corrupting institutions — like clientistic hiring halls and the patron-laden local-controlled pension and health funds.

Above all, alternative unions would be free and unfragmented.  The movement would fight to organize all the unorganized workers in the construction trades in a single area-wide union.  It would seek to establish a single hiring hall, run on fair and de-politicized hiring principles.  Similarly, a municipal reform movement would seek to unite all the unorganized municipal workers in the city in a common organization.  Instead of pattern bargaining based on the weakest union, the organization would present as united a front as possible.

Of course everyone in organized labor professes to be for unity.  Even the union leaders seeking to split from the AFL-CIO initially called their organization “Unite to Win.”  It’s far more controversial to advocate workers’ autonomy.  Even in the domestic union democracy movement, the right to join a union of your choice — the right to withhold dues from an organization you no longer support — is not considered a component of workers’ democracy.

My sense, though, is that genuine union democracy — a union run by and made powerful by members — can’t exist without genuine consent.  The right of free speech in an organization is pretty meaningless if workers are coerced into joining and aren’t free to leave.  Nor is it really fair for a worker to be compelled to join a union just because, say, thirty years ago, his employer signed an agreement with a union that trimmed its demands to whatever was acceptable to that employer.  Certainly, members ought not to be forced to pay for incompetent or corrupt bargaining services.  An alternative union wouldn’t impose its services on members through automatic dues check-off and on non-members through agency fee.

Even many union democrats argue, though, that, however desirable voluntary unionism may be in theory, it’s impossible to achieve in practice.  How could the union stay in business without forced dues and forced membership?  But this objection ignores that most unions in the advanced industrialized world operate without these forms of compulsion.  And these organizations are almost all stronger than their American counterparts.

The predictable fallback position is that, well, this isn’t Europe.  But even in the U.S. the fastest union membership growth in the fifty states has been in Nevada — a right-to-work state.  While in 2005, U.S. union membership stayed constant at 12.5%, it grew from 12.5 to 13.8% in Nevada.

But doesn’t advocacy of voluntary union membership simply echo the agenda of the National Right to Work Committee and other business conservatives?  That’s what critics charge.  And they would be right if Solidarity for Sale advocated making the closed shop illegal.  But I specifically argue that the closed shop shouldn’t be made illegal — 180 degrees opposite to what critics claim.  What I want to be illegal is employers’ efforts to resist unions.  In the programmatic section entitled “Make union membership voluntary,” I argue: “The point is not to demand that old, arthritic AFL unions throw away their (closed shop) crutches but rather to show that unions can be built on a voluntary basis.”

To guarantee workers rights, the appointive National Labor Relations Board ought to be abolished.  In its place America needs to develop a system of elective labor courts — such as exist in countries throughout Western Europe.  An elective works council system to regulate local work rules and conditions would also help to bring the U.S. system up to world standards.

The agenda, I realize, is enormous.  And what makes it even more daunting is that we can’t remake the labor movement, without remaking ourselves.  To fight against the fragmentation of the American labor movement requires a battle against its counterpart on the Left.  At present, we’re imprisoned in a culture of small group narcissism — tiny groups making inflated claims, with ever narrowing agendas, insisting on infallibility, ignoring or anathematizing critics.  Networking has mostly replaced mass organizing.  Most have given up socialism, but not sectarianism.

In place of the old closed and sectarian culture, we should try promoting deliberative democracy, engaging critics with arguments based on facts and reasons, debating rather than denying fundamental issues, focusing on the premises and consequences of arguments rather than merely trying to align them with statements of outright enemies.  The wholesale substitution of discussion for demonization.  Monthly Review is one of the few places that such a discussion is even imaginable.  The editors deserve the gratitude of everyone who cares about the future of the labor movement.

MY: Thank you, Robert Fitch.  MRZine appreciates both this interview and your investigative work.  Keep it up!

This Sunday, on 2 April 2006, at 9 PM (in New York City), Robert Fitch will be on the Radio Nation show on Air America.  In New York City, it’s WLIB AM 1190.  For the rest of the nation, find your station here.  You can also listen to Air America live online.  If you miss the show, you can listen to it later at the Radio Nation Archive.

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.