Labor Media, Neoliberalism, and the Crisis in the Labor Movement


This is Sid Shniad’s presentation to the LaborTech 2006 panel on “The Corporate Media Assault and Developing a Labor Media Strategy” (18 November 2006). — Ed.

This panel is called Corporate Media Assault and Developing a Labor Media Strategy.  In my view, the issue should be framed as a discussion of the overall corporate assault on organized labor and the rest of society, and the role that labor media can play in mounting an effective response to that assault.

Thanks to a highly sophisticated, multi-pronged corporate effort, the labor movement today is in crisis.  How bad is the situation?  Really bad.  In the U.S. today, the portion of the working population that’s represented by unions today is at its lowest level since the 1920s while corporations are on the rampage.

How did we end up in this situation, with working people facing increasingly precarious employment, declining living standards, lack of medical care, and inability to organize?  To answer that question, we have to look at a bit of history.

After the Second World War, Western governments embraced expansionist Keynesian economic policies in order to avoid a repeat of the Depression of the 1930s.  During the resulting economic expansion, which lasted nearly three decades, unemployment remained relatively low.  As a result, fear of unemployment — which normally acts as a disciplinary force keeping workers in line — ceased to play its traditional role.

By the late 1960s, a significant number of workers who were dissatisfied with their working conditions and confident of their ability to find employment in the ever-expanding economy began to exhibit levels of labor militancy and strike activity not seen since the 1930s.  This militancy, together with the social spending that had characterized Keynesian policy, combined with rising real wages to threaten corporate profitability.  From capital’s perspective, this constituted a major crisis.

In 1973, David Rockefeller, working with Zbigniew Brzezinski and representatives of the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Ford Foundation, convened meetings of prominent business figures, academics, and politicians to address the crisis.  Out of these meetings an organization known as the Trilateral Commission took shape.  The Commission, whose membership is comprised of prominent business, political, and academic figures, has addressed issues of concern to the corporate establishment ever since.

In 1975 the Commission published a book called The Crisis of Democracy.  The book’s authors — Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki — took up the concerns that were preoccupying big capital.  They bemoaned the effects of government spending in the areas of education, welfare, social security, health and hospital care.  Expressing the views of the rich and powerful, they blamed the crisis of profitability on what they called “an excess of democracy.”

Over the past thirty years, the concerns raised in The Crisis of Democracy have been taken up by a variety of right-wing think tanks, politicians, and institutions.  Inspired by this analysis, governments around the world have attacked the welfare state that was constructed in the post-war era, waging relentless war on society generally and the working class in particular, by curbing wages, gutting social programs, privatizing government holdings and services, deregulating corporate activity, and instituting “free trade” agreements in an overall policy framework that became known as neoliberalism.

These same forces simultaneously mounted an unrelenting attack on organized labor, employing sophisticated union-busting tactics and putting in place an assortment of legal barriers designed to prevent workers from joining unions or achieving contracts.  In the words of a 2000 Human Rights Watch report, “[American] Workers who try to form and join trade unions to bargain with their employers are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized in reprisal for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.”

Internationally, the neoliberal policies that the Trilateral Commission and other, similar groups began promoting in the 1970s have been institutionalized through organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.  All have a common purpose: to ensure that profitability is not jeopardized by the action of organized labor or government pursuit of progressive social policy.  How?  By redefining the role of government and restructuring the political process to impede governments’ ability to generate progressive social and economic programs.

In my view, the labor movement’s response to the comprehensive attack that capital has mounted over the past 30 years has been grossly inadequate.  The AFL-CIO has made little or no effort to address the political and economic problems besetting society as a result of neoliberalism and how addressing these problems might influence labor’s response.  Instead, the AFL and many of its prominent labor critics have largely restricted their response to the crisis that has overtaken organized labor to a focus on the issue of declining union membership.

The highly restricted debate about the crisis besetting the labor movement began when the SEIU released its “Unite to Win” plan for labor’s revitalization.  SEIU’s plan focused on merging unions to reduce inter-union competition, improving use of union resources, and organizing workers in different organizations’ respective core areas.

Neither the SEIU and its allies nor their critics within the AFL-CIO have focused on the political and economic forces that workers are up against and the strategies needed to confront them.  The prevailing approach assumes that the decline of unions can be adequately addressed by changing the structure of the AFL-CIO.  Instead of grappling with the wider challenges, the discussion focuses on whether the AFL-CIO should give dues rebates to unions that are focusing on organizing and whether the size of the AFL-CIO Executive Council should be larger or smaller.  Thanks to labor’s inadequate response, capital has been left free to wage unilateral class struggle.

In my view, the labor movement should be talking about:

  • Challenging globalization, i.e. both the movement of jobs abroad and the institutionalization of corporate power at the expense of the rest of society
  • Addressing the activities of right-wing governments and their attacks on workers, unions, and the rest of society
  • Organizing in regions and sectors where unions are weak
  • Aligning labor’s efforts with those of the African American, Latino, Asian, and immigrant communities
  • Fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and intolerance that are critical to overcoming divisions among workers
  • Creating a political strategy that goes beyond the prevailing narrow focus on electoral politics to advance a broader progressive political agenda
  • Building mutual support with workers in other countries

In addition to its other shortcomings, the prevailing bureaucratic focus ignores problems rooted in unions’ internal cultures and structures: their highly restricted, largely formal commitment to internal democracy; their lack of strategic focus; the absence of an inspiring moral vision; and their failure to address the barbarism1 that is overtaking society as a consequence of the application of neoliberal policies.

Instead of a discussion of vision and strategy, we see union leaders attacking each other, spending time and energy impugning each others’ motives and character.  (I have witnessed this personally in the aftermath of the disastrous defeat that the union I work for suffered at the hands of the Telus corporation.)

The labor movement badly needs a debate about its future and its relationship to the broader society. This is a debate to which electronic communications media can make an enormous contribution in the context of prevailing union culture, which tends to squelch thoroughgoing, honest debate.  Ordinary members are not enlisted in free-ranging discussion.  Instead, too many labor leaders surround themselves with political allies and staffers whose job it is to screen out bad news and suggestions that challenge prevailing practices.  When dissenting views are raised, those who raise them often find themselves isolated and undermined.  With many leaders staying in office indefinitely and with internal dissent actively suppressed, members who might be interested in making change are ignored or sidelined.

A debate is desperately needed, but it should be one which is completely reframed.  It should be a debate about a vision for the future of workers and their role in the broader society.  It should discuss strategies that might work in the face of the dramatic changes that are sweeping the economy, including the way that work is done and the fact that many people are not working at all.  The debate should include a discussion of how to stop the use of working people as cannon fodder in unjust wars and why so many citizens living in wealthy societies find it increasingly difficult to afford basics like housing and health care.

Activists in the labor movement who are proficient in the use of electronic media have an invaluable role to play in stimulating such debate within unions and beyond.  But if that is to happen, the users of these media must deploy them in a manner which challenges the status quo mentality that dominates the labor movement today.  This means using these media to shed light on unions’ restrictive practices, raising taboo ideological questions, and mobilizing support for elements that are serious about making necessary changes.

I do not make these suggestions lightly.  There are forces in society, including those within the labor movement, that have a major stake in maintaining the status quo.  They are likely to respond to efforts to challenge the status quo with extreme hostility.  But we should not allow that to deter us from doing what is necessary to rebuild our institutions and to rescue our society from strangulation at the hands of rampaging corporate capital.

Those who have demonstrated courage in the face of similar adversity can provides us with inspiration for this effort.  So in concluding, I would like to recount a story I encountered while vacationing in Spain recently.  In the course of my trip, I visited the University of Salamanca where there is a statue dedicated to Fray Luis de Leon in the courtyard.  In 1572, Fray Luis was teaching at the university when he was charged by the Inquisition with distributing a translation he had made of the Song of Songs from Latin to Spanish  so that it could be accessible to ordinary people.  For this crime, Fray Luis was tortured and imprisoned.

The story has it that when he regained his freedom five years later and returned to his teaching position at the university, Fray Luis resumed his lecture at the point where it had been interrupted by his arrest and remarked “As I was saying. . . .”

I’m not religious, but I believe that Fray Luis’s courage and determination in insisting upon people’s right to information unfiltered by Church officials can provide a model for media activists who want to be part of the effort to transform organized labor into a progressive, activist movement capable of rescuing society from the predations of neoliberalism.

1 The following item from the March 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine may serve to illustrate my comment about barbarism:



From a statement made in September 2005 by George Earl Lewis of Chickasha, Oklahoma, who had been arrested after selling two grams of crack cocaine to an FBI informant.  Lewis, who is seventy-four years old, receives about $600 per month in retirement benefits and pays $350 a month for his wife’s cancer medication.  He was given a ten-year suspended sentence.

I, Mr. George Earl Lewis, do agree that what I’ve done was not right concerning the law.  I do not deny the fact whatsoever.  However, I did what I did simply to keep my wife Thelma up in her medications and to pay any bills owed due to her illness.  She was diagnosed with cancer.  Her Medicare doesn’t pay all of her expenses. So what I did was simply trying to meet the needs of my wife, whom I love very much.  I can assure you that I have learned a valuable lesson.  I will do all I can simply to live on our income, which is my retirement check . And pray that God will have mercy on me, to see me through this ordeal.

If granted probation,  I plan to continue to mow yards during the summer and fall, and, whenever I am able, to pick up cans.  I will continue to live with my wonderful wife whom I been married to for twenty-nine blessed years.  I will slowly learn how to read and write the best way I can.  I will spend time at home with my wife, looking at TV, and sitting outside together.  Mainly the only activities I have are mowing yards, running people around, looking at TV, and sitting in the yard with my wife in the cool of the evening.

Sid Shniad is Research Director of Telecommunications Workers Union.

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