Which Way Forward for Labor?  A Review of Solidarity Divided

Solidarity Divided
Solidarity Divided
A Conversation and Book Signing with Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Co-author of Solidarity Divided, University of California Press

Date: Wed, June 18
Time: 6pm – 8pm
Place: Busboys and Poets
2021 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20009

Provoked by the continuing crisis of organized labor after the departure of the Change to Win coalition of unions from the AFL-CIO in 2005, Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin have produced a new book, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path toward Social Justice.  Hopefully the text will inspire debate, both within the labor movement and the Left.  Solidarity Divided compliments Kim Moody’s US Labor in Trouble and Transition, also produced after the split.  But the two books focus on different aspects.  Moody delineates the features of the current US industrial structure to highlight where labor might organize most effectively.  On the other hand, Fletcher and Gapasin highlight the politics of the unions to raise questions about the fundamental purpose of labor unions.  Ultimately, they outline an alternative labor movement that would possess only the most limited family relation to the current national union federations.

They foreground a number of problems with the current union movement — its lack of democracy and space for debate; the inertia of its structures, which tend to swallow reform efforts; and the limited horizon of its political vision.  All of these are related.  American unions, in a tradition dating back to Samuel Gompers, imagine themselves, for the most part, as fighting for the wellbeing of their members, rather than the working class.  The narrowness of this perspective has led unions to accommodate themselves to racism and sexism, rather than to undo them, and to swim with the (permanent) Cold War tide that structures politics in the US, thus participating in regular purges of the Left.  Until recently the unions had a wholly uncritical relationship to US foreign policy, and that has changed in only the most limited ways.  In the past few years, US unions no longer aided and abetted right-wing union movements abroad (for the most part), but they still remain mute about the role of the US in the wider world.  Fletcher and Gapasin identify a number of moments when a political leadership could have effectively intervened — for example, the national union movement did successfully back the unjustly persecuted Charleston 5, but then did nothing to learn from the victory or use it to energize a largely demoralized movement.  Another example is the Los Angeles Manufacturing Project (LAMAP).  This effort attempted to combine the strengths of unions, ethnic communities, and universities to organize workers in the strategic Alameda Corridor, the primary access point for Pacific Rim goods and the site of about 300,000 manufacturing jobs.  The unions ultimately offered only limit support, because this was seen as an initiative from “outside.”  Yet it was difficult to see how the inspiration for bringing together the varied coalition envisioned could have come from within the unions.  Katrina is another example: a political union movement might have intervened to shape the debate about aid, reconstruction, etc.  But contemporary unions mostly react to such disasters through depoliticized volunteer efforts.

Fletcher and Gapasin discuss the rise of John Sweeney and the departure of the Change to Win coalition in considerable detail.  They are slightly more sympathetic to Sweeney than to Andy Stern (the leader of SEIU, who led the charge of Change to Win out of the AFL-CIO), but they write with great frustration about both (they also note that failures of leadership are rarely simply the fault of “misleaders” but often are rooted in the material bases of their power, though they don’t really use this to illuminate the leaders of the unions, beyond noting the way they are often prisoners of the bureaucratic traditions they embody).  They see Sweeney as a genuine reformer, and offer some praise for his educational initiatives and his willingness to move the unions into a little more combative stance, epitomized by his speech about globalization at the anti-racism conference in Durban.  Yet Sweeney’s politics were also limited — in that same speech, he carefully avoided any reference to US foreign policy.  As a political figure, Sweeney was unable to control the narrative unfolding during his tenure.  For example, those who would later leave the AFL-CIO on the grounds that it was not committed to organizing had earlier attacked Sweeney’s efforts to devote national resources to organizing on the grounds that it was wasteful.  The authors seem to be less sympathetic to Stern — at one point, they suggest the push for “consolidation” among the Change to Win federation is an effort to preserve the leadership as a domain of white male privilege.  Stern is portrayed as something of a neo-Gompersian figure who cravenly seeks only to expand his union, while simply accommodating himself to all reactionary political currents swirling about him.  They are dismissive of Change to Win’s emphasis on workers who are less directly affected by globalization than industrial workers, regarding this as basically illusory (although one could point to similar tensions in the union movements of other countries, on which an analysis of how union leaders embody larger dynamics, rather than simply “mislead,” might have been usefully brought to bear).

Perhaps their greatest frustration is that the crisis that triggered John Sweeney’s ascension, and later the split, did not produce a meaningful, inclusive debate about the direction of the labor movement.  Virtually all the discussions were held among the top leaders, and even those discussions were inadequate.  They include as an appendix a proposal that circulated about how to create a productive discussion within the labor movement, but this proposal was ignored.  Thousands of comments from union members on a message board were not meaningfully integrated into the discussion or used as the basis for a deeper debate.  The split itself was announced as a fait accompli before the AFL-CIO convention when more grassroots members might have been able to offer their opinions.  And so the labor movement has been divided, but a rich discussion about its purpose and future has been tabled.

As a way forward, Fletcher and Gapasin advocate “social justice unionism.”  This envisions unions joining together with other working-class organizations to fight for the broad interests of the working class, locally, nationally, and internationally.  Union membership and contract negotiation would be considered but one element of the picture.  This movement would also enter into the fray on such questions as health care, the uses of urban space (affordable housing, parks, etc.), transportation, the creation of a sustainable economy and society, structural unemployment, and so forth.  Unions would both reach out to oppressed racial and ethnic communities as a solidarity resource in struggle and join the fight against racism and sexism as the path towards a more inclusive and just society.  The authors see some hope in labor-community alliances that have formed but argue for a much broader purpose for these alliances than the single-issue campaigns and support work they have typically pursued.  They believe these alliances can be remade into “workers’ assemblies” which can struggle for “consistent democracy” in all aspects of American life.  They see the municipal level as more amenable to this sort of organizing than the national unions or federations.  Thus a revitalization of the Central Labor Councils is crucial.

While heartening, this agenda begs questions of agency.  Although there is more room to maneuver at the local level, union locals are by no means autonomous from the nationals, and they would likely be reined in if they departed too radically from the traditional practices of trade unionism.  Furthermore, the community organizations unions might seek as allies are, for the most part, not vital, grassroots social movements.  In practice, they are primarily non-profits and religious institutions, which, not unlike unions, bureaucratically advocate for members’ interests and are often ambivalent about triggering mobilizations and constrained by funding considerations in the language they use (the challenges of creating combative social movements in this context was well discussed in The Revolution Will Not be Funded).  Fletcher and Gasparin call on the Left to intervene to make the transformation they desire, but they themselves concede that the Left is extremely weak, fragmented, and amorphous and that leftists acting individually are more likely to get sucked into the status quo practices of organizations than remake them.

I want to end by making a couple of suggestions about how the Left can constitute itself as a more assertive force within the US, thus perhaps creating the context to begin to transform the current union federations into a labor movement of the sort Fletcher and Gasparin advocate for.  A broader Left could offer support to its members as they sought to build workers’ assemblies and could help them share nationally what is working and not working.  One step would be for the remaining anti-capitalist/socialist groupings to enter into some sort of umbrella organization.  This might include (but is not necessarily limited to) the Communist Party, the ISO, Solidarity, Freedom Road, and the Green Party (there are a few socialist organizations which remain entirely unreformed in their commitment to sectarian intervention and almost cult-like in their internal organization; their participation would not be so welcome).  Although important political questions divide these groups, creating a space for some engagement and debate should not be so difficult (at the municipal level, some of these groups already work together).  Regardless of how they feel about working with the Democrats on electoral campaigns (for example), these groups are much closer to each other in terms of political vision than to any other tendencies in American political life.  Surely none seriously believe that, alone, they can constitute a vanguard or even a viable third party.  An umbrella organization would immediately expand the networks of all involved, increase the capacity of the socialist Left to make an impact, and make the socialist Left more attractive to unaffiliated leftists hesitant about adhering to a narrow sect.  It would likely also improve the quality of debate all around.  A second potential site of American Left renewal is the US Social Forum (surprisingly absent from Fletcher and Gapasin’s analysis).  In terms of the network of groups who mobilized for it last year in Atlanta, it resembles those the authors see as constituting workers’ assemblies (community organizations, unions, workers’ centers, etc.).  The great danger of social forums is that they simply turn into a pleasant retreat for those on the Left, rather than a spur to more effective forms of organizing.  But in part because it is much less well endowed financially than the unions, and lacks a full-fledged bureaucracy, the question of what the social forum can be is still an open one.  If the social forum were to act as something of a popular university, it could help to revitalize the Left in the US.  I envision it being the site of pulling together diverse (in terms of racial composition, geography, economic sector, etc.) networks into working groups to examine questions like the role of unions or the relation of social movements to elected officials (some similar work is taking place in contexts related to the World Social Forum).  The social forum itself would provide a readymade public to debate the findings, so that they would not simply disappear into the endless pile of proposals and published books.  To transform the union federations into a working-class movement, we do not need a sectarian Left supremely confident in its “scientific” ability to offer answers to all political questions; but we do need a national network of like-minded people with the means to debate and support each other.

Steven Sherman is a sociologist who lives in New York City.  He maintains the website <lefteyeonbooks.org>.  He may be reached at <threehegemons@hotmail.com>.

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