International Socialist Review
Issue 28, March–April 2003
The new employers’ offensive: Labor’s war at home
by Lee Sustar
WHILE THE war drive against Iraq has focused the world on the Bush Doctrine abroad, there is a domestic equivalent–a dramatic escalation of the 25-year employers’ offensive. With the White House leading the way, Corporate America aims to deal a series of decisive defeats to organized labor and to consolidate a balance of class forces that overwhelmingly favors employers. With union membership in the private sector down to just 8.5 percent (and 13.2 percent overall),1 business sees an opportunity to achieve virtual de-unionization.
Many, if not most, unions face their greatest struggle in decades–not just to hold on to some gains, but to even survive. In February, the leaders of five of the largest unions, seeking to push a more aggressive strategy for organizing staged what BusinessWeek called a “palace coup” on the AFL-CIO Executive Council to create a smaller executive committee to drive policy.2
Moreover, there is deep unease in the ranks of organized labor about George W. Bush’s agenda, reflected in the passage of antiwar resolutions in union after union and the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War. Even the AFL-CIO Executive Council has voiced opposition to a unilateral U.S. war on Iraq–a major departure from top union officials’ lockstep support for U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War.3 The controversy over the war could presage a wider debate among union members about how to reverse labor’s decline.
The urgency of such a debate can’t be overstated. Even in union strongholds, labor is in retreat in the face of employer demands for givebacks in wages and benefits. Unions have already agreed to billions of dollars in concessions over the last two years in steel, aerospace, airlines and telecommunications. Where unions hesitate to accept cuts, such as at United Airlines, Bush’s Air Transportation Stability Board and bankruptcy judges are imposing them anyway.4 Meanwhile, in the public sector unions which represent 37.5 percent of those workers, the fiscal crises of states and cities have prompted government demands for cuts in jobs, pay and working conditions in the public sector as well. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to impose 12,000 layoffs if municipal unions refused to accept $600 million in concessions.5 In Portland, Oregon, the public school teachers’ union agreed to a 5 percent pay cut and to work 10 days for free.6 Even “good” contracts, such as the Teamsters’ agreements with UPS and freight companies, mask concessions by allowing the companies to grind down the number of good jobs and working conditions over the course of five-year deals.7
Government intervention is playing a central role in this offensive. Since taking office, George Bush has banned strikes in the airlines; invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in the West Coast dock dispute; banned unions from key parts of the Department of Homeland Security; imposed new financial reporting requirements on unions and announced plans to privatize some 850,000 federal jobs, most of them unionized.8
Bush’s anti-union campaign is by far the most aggressive one from the White House since President Ronald Reagan fired nearly 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. Just to make sure union leaders got the point, the White House dispatched Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to the annual AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Florida in February to add insult to the many injuries Bush has inflicted on labor. When asked by International Association of Machinists (IAM) President Thomas Buffenbarger about the new restrictive reporting requirements, she read out accounts of corruption involving IAM officials. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called Chao “insulting at times,” adding that, “In all my years, I’ve never seen a secretary of labor so anti-labor.”9
Chao’s attack was a rebuff to conservative union leaders such as Teamsters President James Hoffa, who has sought to build an alliance with Bush on issues ranging from oil drilling in the Alaska wildlife reserve to war on Iraq. Hoffa, along with Carpenters President Doug McCarron, who took his union out of the AFL-CIO in 2001, had attempted to consolidate a right-wing opposition to Sweeney. In late 2002, the Carpenters re-affiliated with the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD), a violation of the AFL-CIO constitution and a test of Sweeney’s resolve.10 The building trades are also at odds with Sweeney over their handling of the $335 million insider trading scandal that enriched the top labor officials who direct the union-run insurance company ULLICO, which handles $6 billion in pension funds for the building trades.11 Former BCTD chief Robert Georgine, who is CEO of ULLICO, has refused to make public an outside review of the scandal, which prompted resignations from the ULLICO board by Sweeney and two other top AFL-CIO officials.12
The formation of the new, smaller executive committee can be seen at least in part as a countermove against the right by more liberal-left union leaders. While this isn’t a division remotely on the scale of that which led to the split of the old CIO from the AFL in the 1930s, the tensions are real enough. Certainly, the politics of individual leaders matter in this dispute–the palace coup was engineered by the liberal leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).13 The key factor, however, is the pressure from the employers and the U.S. state on one side and an increasingly bitter and angry union rank and file on the other.
In fact, the major union contract battles of 2002 highlighted the increasing pressure on labor officials from their restive memberships. Although labor officials bowed to employers’ demands in every major battle, bitterness in the rank and file over concessions has forced leaders of a number of unions to sharpen their rhetoric against the employers and at least partially mobilize the membership for action.
If union leaders have been able to get away with making concessionary agreements, it’s because the rank and file does not yet have the confidence and organization necessary to take the initiative in the struggle. Nevertheless, the growing support for antiwar resolutions in union bodies, as well as labor participation in antiwar protests, reflects a politicization of sections of organized labor.
This article isn’t intended to be comprehensive account of labor struggles over the last year–recent articles in the International Socialist Review provide such an overview. The aim, rather, is to briefly summarize trends and provide an analysis. It will conclude with a discussion of the kind of politics and organization necessary to reverse organized labor’s long decline.
The employers’ offensive intensifies
While the employers’ offensive has continued for more than two decades, the economic boom of the 1990s gave unions greater leverage to resist and sometimes make serious gains. After the long strikes and lockouts at A.E. Staley, Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone and the Detroit newspapers in the mid-1990s, the 1997 Teamsters strike at United Parcel Service demonstrated that workers can take on powerful corporations and win. Reform Teamster President Ron Carey was ousted by government intervention in the aftermath of the strike on trumped-up corruption charges for which he was eventually cleared.14 Nevertheless, the UPS strike finally broke the automatic assumption that a strike equals defeat that had overshadowed the labor movement since the destruction of PATCO.
The next three years after the Teamsters’ win at UPS saw strike victories for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) at Verizon (twice) and US West, for technical workers at Boeing and janitors in Los Angles and Chicago. This must be put in perspective, however. While the number of strikes and lockouts involving more than 1,000 workers jumped from 17 in 1999 to 39 in 2000, it fell to 29 in 2001 and just 19 in 2002. The number of person-hours lost due to strikes was the lowest since records were first kept in 1947. (Final figures for 2002 were not available at the time of publication). Even in 1986, in the heyday of Reaganism, there were 69 such work stoppages. In 1974, at the height of the rank-and-file rebellion, there were 424 strikes and lockouts.15
The onset of recession in 2001 gave employers greater leverage to press their demands in both the private and public sectors. The 12-day Minnesota public sector strike at the same time as a New Jersey teachers’ strike at the time signaled an attack on public sector unions at the federal, state and local levels that is intensifying today. (Those strikes also showed that even under the ideological pressure of patriotism after September 11, workers were willing to fight). Despite the recession, union membership held steady at 16.4 million in 2001, but dropped to 16.1 million in 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Virtually the entire decline came in the private sector, where unions represent the smallest proportion of workers in nearly a century. For the three “heavy metal” unions, the losses in recent years are staggering. Over the last five years, the United Auto Workers have lost 95,000 members; the Machinists, 33,000; the Steelworkers, 121,000.16 The losses would be greater except for mergers and new organizing pursued outside the unions’ traditional jurisdictions. For many unions, the membership figures are much worse: The 15 biggest of the 66 affiliated unions in the AFL-CIO represent 10 million of 13 million of the federation’s membership.17
With the economy still limping along in 2002, union job losses continued to mount, especially in manufacturing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, hiring is at its lowest level in 20 years, and the economy has lost 2.2 million jobs since the recession began in 2001.18 Employers used the opportunity to bring back “concessions bargaining”–the term for unions’ agreement to surrender wages and working conditions that began in the late 1970s and accelerated following the PATCO defeat.
Twenty years ago, union leaders from former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland on down tried to justify concessions on the grounds that the U.S. economy had to be more competitive with Japan in order to prosper. The escalation of the Cold War in those years provided additional ideological justification for “national sacrifice.”19
This time, union leaders have taken a different approach. While they have claimed that it was necessary to take concessions in order to “save” companies like bankrupt United Airlines and US Airways, in many cases they have tried to resist them, however half-heartedly. This is not due to stiffer backbones in the union leadership, but to the increased working class consciousness after 25 years of sacrifice and expectations raised in the 1990s boom. In the early 1980s, the employers could claim that free-market policies were the cure for the economic stagnation of the 1970s, and workers were prepared to accept it. Today, in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and the recession, workers are bitter and suspicious.
As a result, union leaders have had to articulate the pressure from below and talk tough. In New York City, for example, Randi Weingarten, president of the 130,000-member United Federation of Teachers, last year organized an authorization vote for an illegal strike. While it was a symbolic gesture, it was able to secure a better–but still concessionary– deal than originally offered.20 Similarly, Roger Toussaint, the reformer who now heads New York’s subway union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, also mobilized for an illegal strike before accepting an improved–but again, concessionary, deal.21
Elsewhere, however, union leaders’ efforts to sidestep confrontation have led to disaster when employers were determined to press their advantage. At Boeing, where the 1999 contract supposedly guaranteed job security, 30,000 workers lost jobs. The IAM leaders went through the motions of calling for a strike vote on a job-killing proposal from management and then canceled the vote’s results. On a re-vote, the contract was defeated but strike authorization was denied because the rejection was less than a two-thirds majority, allowing the deal to pass. With union officials abdicating leadership, a sizeable minority of rank-and-file workers, seeing no alternative, had concluded that there was no alternative but to accept the deal.22
The IAM also found itself under severe attack at United Airlines. Faced with demands for concessions from management–where it has a seat on the board–IAM leaders pushed concessions on workers just months after they agreed to a new contract making up for wage cuts taken in 1994. At the last minute, they cancelled the vote as United filed for bankruptcy. A federal bankruptcy judge has imposed the cuts anyway, and IAM officials have done nothing to oppose them.23
There was a similar pattern at Verizon, where the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) mobilized against layoffs despite the company’s $2.3 billion profit in the last quarter of 2002. The center of the battle was the CWA in New York, where the phone company had never had a layoff, even in the Depression of the 1930s. But after months of protests, rallies, lobbying and a multi-million dollar media blitz, the CWA simply caved when the company laid off 2,300 workers in New York and 3,450 overall–six days before Christmas.24
The struggle of the West Coast dockworkers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) showed the same dynamics at work. President James Spinosa mobilized the union with protests and rallies, in keeping with the ILWU’s unparalleled tradition of militancy and rank-and-file action. But Spinosa represented more conservative, better-paid elements in the union and behind the rhetoric he was looking to accommodate the employers without provoking an explosion in the rank and file. Spinosa signaled his willingness to come to terms by refusing to take a strike authorization vote. Management engineered a crisis with a 10-day lockout, giving the pretext for Bush’s use of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law to ban any job action by workers. Negotiating with a gun to its head, the ILWU leadership agreed to a concessionary agreement that will allow the elimination of hundreds of the best-paying jobs and open the door to outsourcing and downsizing.25
Elsewhere, union leaders accept concessions as inevitable and have openly embraced what socialists have traditionally called class collaboration. Ron Gettelfinger, the new president of the United Auto Workers, is sleepwalking his way into this year’s negotiations with the Big Three automakers, even though it has been clear for months that employers will use the problems of overproduction and declining profits to demand plant closures that may cause the elimination of tens thousands of jobs at assembly and parts plants.26
The picture is even grimmer in the steel industry. United Steelworkers of America (USWA) President Leo Gerard, the Canadian social democrat known for his fiery left-wing speeches at global justice rallies, is working with a Wall Street financier to restructure bankrupt steel companies LTV and Bethlehem by shifting retiree pensions to a government board (cutting benefits by half or more), and virtually eliminating retiree health care–not to mention concessions on working conditions for those workers still on the job. “[Gerard] is allowing the merged companies to dump most of the enormous pension and retiree health-care costs that weigh down an industry with 600,000 retirees–and only 124,000 active workers,” BusinessWeek noted. “It’s the ultimate irony that after a long history of bitter clashes with management, it has taken a labor leader to salvage what’s left of Big Steel.”27
Gerard’s collaboration with management may be extreme but it’s not exceptional. It follows a logic of what is called business unionism instead of working-class solidarity–that is, defending workers’ interests by helping management to be profitable. The struggles and almost-strikes of the last several months have highlighted the fact that virtually every top union leader, whatever his or her political stripe, accepts this framework, despite its disastrous implications for workers.
The crisis of “Sweeneyism” and the labor bureaucracy
The return of concessions bargaining has exposed a crisis in AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s strategy to revive labor since taking office in late 1995. His aim was threefold: organize the unorganized, strengthen labor’s clout within the Democratic Party and convince Corporate America to join the unions to create a partnership for a “high road.”
Concessions, as shown, have made nonsense out of partnership. New organizing, while making some inroads in health care and low-wage service jobs, has failed to reverse labor’s long decline. Teamsters President James Hoffa took a step in the direction of the kind needed to organize the unorganized when he called a national strike against the nonunion trucking company Overnite. But the company’s use of replacement workers–and the unwillingness of the Teamsters to use a more aggressive strategy on the picket line–meant that the strike was defeated.28 Labor saw another big defeat in late 2001 when the UAW lost its third organizing drive at Nissan, highlighting the failure of the union to organize foreign-owned transplants even as more are being built. Only one in three organizing drives succeeds, in large part because labor laws are so blatantly rigged in favor of employers that even Human Rights Watch concluded that U.S. workers’ legal right to organize is almost meaningless.29
Labor’s political strategy is in total disarray as well. Despite their success in helping Al Gore get the most votes in the 2000 elections, the unions soon scrambled in different directions following Bush’s installation in office. Hoffa and the Carpenters’ McCarron quickly allied with Bush. But even a traditional left-winger, Dennis Rivera of 1199/SEIU in New York City, lined up with Republican Governor George Pataki in the 2002 elections.30 Despite labor’s attempt to redouble its efforts in the Congressional elections, labor tailored its message to individual Democratic candidates rather than clearly articulate working-class issues. The Democrats’ failure to take on Bush, in turn, led to the GOP sweep and further split between union chiefs opposed to or allied with Bush. In addition, the new Democratic governors elected with labor’s support in New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan are administering austerity that will hit workers hardest.
The crisis can’t be simply reduced to Sweeney’s policies, of course. It flows from the role of the labor bureaucracy in society and is aggravated by the absence of any working-class political party in the U.S.
After the rise of the militant mass movement of the CIO in the 1930s, the labor bureaucracy consolidated itself during and after the Second World War, which dramatically expanded union membership. As full-time officials removed from the pressures of the shop floor, union officials have more in common ideologically, socially and politically with the middle class than the rank-and-file members of their own unions. After the stormy period of the 1930s and the pressures of wartime, union officials sought to stabilize the situation–in particular, their own positions.
So, following the passage of the Taft-Hartley law in 1947, which severely limited union activity and banned Communists from the leadership, union leaders protested but quickly adapted. They were happy to collaborate with the employers and government in anticommunist witch-hunts to remove critics on the left in the rank and file. In return they were accorded the status of “Big Labor” to negotiate with “Big Business” and “Big Government.” Unlike their counterparts in Western Europe, U.S. unions didn’t press for an expansion of the welfare state (such as a national health insurance program) after the Second World War.31 Instead, labor contracts in industries like steel, auto and rubber shaped wages and conditions for the 65 percent of workers not in unions. Unions were seen as such pillars of the U.S. establishment that a leading liberal sociologist, C. Wright Mills, could title his 1948 study of labor leaders The New Men of Power.
Burt Cochran, a socialist autoworker in the 1930s, wrote in the late 1950s:
[S]ince the passage of the Taft-Hartley law, labor has been preoccupied with rear-guard actions. The labor movement’s achievement of coming through trying times is likewise compromised by its ready adaptation to the rules of the game as laid down by the dominant business community. The labor leaders are not framers of decisions that determine the structure of this society. They are not even dissenters in a decade of unexampled reaction. They have sought rather to become one of the components of the status quo in the hope that they would thereby be permitted to consolidate their organizations as a reward for good behavior.32
Labor and U.S. imperialism
One of the most important terms of American capitalism’s acceptance of the union bureaucracy’s deal with American capital was labor officials’ total support for the Cold War and U.S. imperialism. In return, union leaders believed, their organizations would get jobs in defense industries where well-paying work would always be guaranteed.
The pattern was set in the First World War, when Democratic President Woodrow Wilson solicited the support of AFL President Samuel Gompers for the military “preparedness” campaign and then entry into the war. In return, the AFL obtained a quasi-guarantee of government support for the right to organize in booming wartime industries such as steel and meatpacking. After the war, the government turned its back as business launched what would become known as the “open shop movement” or, more fittingly, as “the American Plan.”33
The rise of the industrial unions of the CIO in the 1930s and the pressures to meet wartime production needs compelled Washington to launch a new round of labor-business-government partnership, this time with much greater union involvement. Clothing workers’ leader Sidney Hillman became co-director of the government-run Office of Production Management, and the Roosevelt White House catchphrase, “clear it with Sidney,” reflected labor’s new clout. In return, union leaders policed the rank and file, enforcing their no-strike pledge (with the help of the Communist Party, which justified its efforts on the grounds of patriotism).”34
The Second World War provided the framework for hardline support for U.S. imperialist interventions afterward, from the wars in Korea and Vietnam to Washington’s military and political interventions in Latin America and the developing world. A former Communist Party leader, Jay Lovestone, became the chief foreign policy operative for AFL-CIO President George Meany and involved the U.S. labor movement with both the State Department and the CIA. His handiwork included U.S. union involvement in repression of democratic and anti-imperialist unions, which earned the labor federation the nickname, “AFL-CIA.”35
The growth of the antiwar movement during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam did lead to some significant labor opposition. The expectation that the war would mean both guns and butter had broken down in the late 1960s as working-class draftees were being killed in Vietnam and inflation created by wartime spending ate into paychecks. The attack by some hardhat construction workers at an antiwar demonstration in New York has left a false stereotype about blue-collar support for the war. In fact, there is evidence that opposition to the war was higher among workers than other parts of the population. Indeed, it was pressure from the rank and file that pushed UAW President Walter Reuther to eventually oppose the war.36 Morever, the liberal and left-wing elements that had survived the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s voiced opposition to the war early on and gave material support for the antiwar movement.37 The Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace was formed by a national meeting of 500 labor activists in Chicago in 1967. Nevertheless, the conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy’s hostility to the movement intimidated many union officials from speaking out, and a broader Labor for Peace and Justice wasn’t created until 1972–just a year before the U.S. troop withdrawal was complete.38
George Meany’s successor, Lane Kirkland, was equally dedicated to the Cold War and U.S. imperial interventions. In the 1980s Kirkland helped the Reagan administration give a democratic gloss to its sponsorship of counterrevolution in Nicaragua and the repressive government in neighboring El Salvador.39 This proved unpopular with a number of union officials who had come of age in the 1960s, and a pullback from the State Department agenda became part of the agenda of Sweeney’s New Voices slate, which took office in late 1995.
There have been real changes, including the formation of a Solidarity Center, which has carried out some genuine internationalist outreach to unions in developing countries. Nevertheless, the change is only partial. As journalist Tim Shorrock points out, the AFL-CIO is still involved with the National Endowment for Democracy, a government-run institute which provided much of the funding and political cover for labor’s involvement with anti-democratic and counterrevolutionary forces in Latin America and elsewhere, most recently in backing a coup in Venezuela.40
After September 11, labor leaders assumed their traditional stance of unquestioning support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But the intensifying war has compelled Sweeney to speak out against the way Corporate America has used 9-11 as an excuse to impose layoffs.
The result is that when the war drive against Iraq began, the modest labor antiwar forces that emerged after 9-11–New York City Labor Against War and San Francisco Labor for Peace and Justice–suddenly began to get a hearing. Antiwar labor resolutions passed in union bodies not typically known for left-wing causes, such as the central labor councils in upstate New York. A watershed of sorts came in October 2002, when a membership meeting of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, one of the largest locals in the union, overwhelmingly passed a resolution unconditionally opposing war on Iraq. This set the stage for the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War in that union’s hall on January 11, 2003. As of early March, more than 100 union bodies representing more than 3.5 million members have passed resolutions opposing or criticizing the war drive.41
The passage of antiwar resolutions helped to prod the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council to take its unanimous vote opposing a unilateral U.S. war on Iraq. But the bigger pressure has come from the Bush White House and employers. Consider the case of the IAM, whose leader, Thomas Buffenbarger, declared after 9-11 that “it is not simply justice we seek. It is vengeance, pure and complete.”42 Since then, the IAM has endured bitter strikes at defense contractors Pratt & Whitney and Lockheed-Martin, suffered thousands of layoffs at Boeing and concessions imposed by a bankruptcy judge at United Airlines.
Samuel Gompers’ deal with the devil–support U.S. imperialism’s agenda and gain jobs, prosperity and political influence–was never really good for U.S. workers, who paid with their lives in wars abroad and for the burden of war spending at home. In any case, the deal is now off. The devil simply doesn’t need it any longer.
Why hasn’t there been a fightback?
After 25 years of employers’ offensive, all the assumptions that the labor bureaucracy made in the 1950s have been shattered. Corporate America is willing to accept partnership–but only if labor assumes a totally subservient role and union officials are capable of selling cuts to the rank and file. The most aggressive phase of U.S. imperialism in decades doesn’t offer the prospect of more jobs, but is matched by an all-out assault on unions. The Democrats give lip service to labor issues but little else. Big Labor represents fewer than one in ten workers in the private sector. The recession has given employers the leverage to demand even more givebacks that could threaten the very existence of some unions.
Given the pervasive sense of crisis in the labor movement, why aren’t union leaders carrying out a serious fight to save their unions from catastrophic setbacks, or at least sounding the alarm?
The highly entrenched character of the union bureaucracy and its long record of class collaboration are central to the explanation. The scandal over ULLICO highlights the problem. In addition, despite the crisis, most unions quash any serious debate either in meetings or in publications that might give the rank and file a voice–a legacy of the McCarthyite anticommunism when any dissenters were dismissed as “reds.”
Nevertheless, conservative as they are, the trade union bureaucracy is based on the rank and file and therefore is subject to pressure from below.
As the late British revolutionary Duncan Hallas put it:
The trade union leaders, right wing included, play a dual role, because, along with the integration [into capitalism], they retain (as a group) a vital interest in the preservation of their organizations, working-class organizations, which are the source of their importance in society, their incomes and their prospects. It is this fact that makes possible, in some circumstances, a degree of collaboration between revolutionary socialists and officials. For we too have a vital interest in the preservation of the unions. However this does not alter in the slightest the fact that the bureaucracy as a whole is a conservative layer, as are all bureaucracies.43
So another question must be asked: Why hasn’t the rank and file been able to organize around the bitterness of workers to push union leaders into action?
A critical reason is that the U.S. labor movement is still paying for the destruction of the labor left in the 1950s McCarthyist witch hunt, which led to the systematic physical removal of socialist organization from the unions. The Cold War provided a political and ideological roadblock that has cut off the U.S. working class from its best, fighting and most political traditions.
The rank-and-file rebellion that began in the late 1960s and lasted until the mid-1970s provided an opportunity for systematic and open socialist intervention in the labor movement for the first time since the 1940s. However the scale of the rebellion was not at all comparable to the upturn in struggle seen in countries such as Britain, France and Italy, where the revolutionary left could make real inroads. In the U.S., the hesitancy of the New Left to relate to the working class, and the ferocity of the employers’ offensive by the late 1970s quickly closed down opportunities for socialists in the unions.
Since then, the tremendous downsizing held down hiring for more than a decade, cutting off a new generation of workers from learning the fighting traditions of an already greatly weakened union organization. The big industrial battles of the mid-1990s, such as those at Staley and Bridgestone-Firestone were led by workers in their late 40s and early 50s who had already endured more than two decades of attacks. While they were willing to stand up and fight, they didn’t have the confidence and organization to carry out the tasks needed to win–mass pickets to stop production, defiance of the law and mobilizing wider solidarity. The willingness to fight–and endure enormous sacrifice–was present. At the Accuride auto parts plant in Kentucky, for example, workers who had organized their union in a bitter strike in 1980 walked out in 1998. After a four-year lockout, their spirit of union solidarity was so strong that they still refused to accept a union-busting contract despite incredible personal hardships–even after the UAW removed their local charter and disowned them.44
In recent months, union leaders’ rhetoric and mobilizations for struggle, however half-hearted, have shown that they feel the heat from their memberships. Sooner or later, the pressure from below–or even above–will reach a critical point, and some union officials will feel the need to move into struggle. While the battles of the ILWU on the docks and the TWU in the subways ended without all-out confrontation, we need to remember that they came very close to strikes that would have had huge effects on the U.S. economy and politics. And while it is too soon to tell whether a new executive committee run by the big unions will help labor move forward, it’s clear that there will be no top-down bureaucratic solution to labor’s crisis. Renewal for the labor movement will issue from the same source it always has–an upsurge from below.
Socialists and organized labor today
The challenge for socialists in the labor movement today is to connect the defiance seen in recent struggles with the politics, organization and tactics that are needed to take the initiative–and to win. That means first and foremost building socialist organization in the working class itself. The rise of the CIO in the 1930s makes it clear that without the central role of the organized left, Trotskyists, Communists and others, the unions would have never won the decisive battles that led to the unionization of heavy industry.
Building the socialist left in the labor movement isn’t an optional extra in the effort to turn the labor movement around–it’s a vital necessity. The labor movement has been in decline since the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, when the left was driven out of the movement. Over the last two decades, socialists have played important roles in reform movements, organizing drives and labor solidarity efforts. While modest compared to the role that socialists played in previous decades, these efforts have nevertheless been important. More recently, in the campaign to defend the Charleston Five–dockworkers under house arrest in South Carolina after a police attack on their picket line–socialists helped initiate successful solidarity efforts. Moreover, the open participation of socialists in one of the biggest political victories for labor in recent years helped legitimize the role of socialists in the unions after decades of a near-total ban.
Socialists have also played an important role in organizing labor antiwar efforts. And by helping to bring a controversial issue into the unions, labor antiwar activism can open the way for the discussion and debate that’s needed in a movement that is dominated by bureaucratic machinery and scripted meetings devoid of any real input from the rank and file. The fact that increasing numbers of union members are willing to take up the issue reflects not only an abhorrence of a war that seems nonsensical to them, but also a gut-level understanding by workers that the war is tied up with an effort by Bush and Corporate America to shift society further to the right–and at workers’ expense.
At the same time, labor antiwar efforts can provide a vehicle to bring together a left-wing current in the unions. The potential for this could be seen in the meeting of “Labor and Veteran Voices Against War” in Chicago that put Dan Lane, a veteran and a leading activist in the A.E. Staley struggle of the mid-1990s on the same platform with active unionists from the ILWU and Brenda Stokely, a municipal workers’ union leader and co-convenor of New York City Labor Against War. Another featured speaker was Bill Davis, former national coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and a chief steward for IAM Local 701 at United Parcel Service in Chicago.45 Linking the struggles of veterans who lost friends on the battlefield in Vietnam and who came home to the war on workers had a powerful appeal–”the likes of which ought to be replicated in union halls, schools, community centers, veterans’ groups, anywhere that people open to experience and to the strong, true voice of the heart may gather,” as journalist JoAnn Wypijewski put it.46
The unpopularity of the war means that rather than the unions simply falling behind the patriotic pressure to “support our troops,” a number of unions will be pressured from their members to build an even sharper opposition. And given Bush’s escalation of attacks on workers at the same time as he is launching a war on Iraq, there is a possibility that the war itself will finally provide a generalized political debate in the labor movement.
It is, of course, impossible to predict the course of events. But the intensity of the employers’ offensive, the lousy economy and the war has introduced a volatility into the labor movement. And although we can’t predict when and where the key battle for organized labor will come–or if the unions will win–we do know that the increasing social polarization guarantees that such battles are inevitable. Those working to revive the labor movement from below need to be preparing for the struggles that lie ahead.
Lee Sustar is labor editor of Socialist Worker newspaper and a regular contributor to the International Socialist Review. 1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union members in 2002,” news release, February 25, 2002.
2 Aaron Bernstein, “Palace coup at the AFL-CIO,” BusinessWeek, March 17, 2003.
3 The resolution is online at http://www.aflcio.org/aboutaflcio/ecouncil/dec02272003h.cfm.
4 Lee Sustar, “Employers attack; unions blink,” International Socialist Review 25, September—October 2002, pp. 6—8.
5 Nichole Christian, “Mayor wants layoff lists from agencies,” New York Times, March 9, 2003.
6 Clifton Chestnut and Bill Graves, “Teachers ratify contract,” The Oregonian, March 4, 2003.
7 Donny Schraffenberger, “Vote no on UPS contract,” Socialist Worker, August 9, 2002; “What’s wrong with the freight deal,” Socialist Worker, February 14, 2003.
8 Lee Sustar, “White House union-busters,” Socialist Worker, November 22, 2002.
9 Michelle Amber, “Chao meets with AFL-CIO council; draws criticism from labor leaders,” Daily Labor Report, Bureau of National Affairs, February 27, 2003.
10 Michelle Amber, “AFL-CIO decides on endorsement process, OKs grassroots effort to mobilize voters” Daily Labor Report, Bureau of National Affairs, February 26, 2003.
11 Aaron Bernstein, “A life insurer in need of a lifeline,” BusinessWeek, March 17, 2003.
12 Brian Lockett and Michelle Amber, “Sweeney, two other union officials resign from ULLICO board of directors over report,” Daily Labor Report, Bureau of National Affairs, December 3, 2002.
13 Bernstein, “Palace coup.”
14 Steven Greenhouse, “Former Teamsters president is cleared of lying charges,” New York Times, October 13, 2001.
15 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Work stoppages in 2001,” news release, March 22, 2002.
16 “AFL-CIO membership report for 2002,” Daily Labor Report, Bureau of National Affairs, February 28, 2003.
17 Stephen Lerner, “Three steps to reorganizing and rebuilding the labor movement,” available online at http://www.labornotes.org/archives/2002/12/e.html.
18 Jared Bernstein, “Unemployment falls but overall job growth remains flat,” Jobs Picture, Economic Policy Institute, February 7, 2003.
19 Lee Sustar, “Labor’s challenge in the recession,” International Socialist Review 21, January—February 2002, p. 61.
20 “New York City teachers prepare to vote on contract,” Socialist Worker, April 19, 2002.
21 Steve Downs, “Many unhappy with New York transit deal,” Labor Notes, February, 2003. See also Shaun Harkin, “Givebacks in NYC transit deal,” Socialist Worker, January 3, 2003.
22 Lee Sustar and Darrin Hoop, “What happened at Boeing?” Socialist Worker, September 20, 2002.
23 Jennifer Biddle, “Why won’t IAM leaders challenge wage cuts?” Socialist Worker, January 31, 2003.
24 “CWA knuckles under after promising to fight job cuts,” Socialist Worker, January 3, 2003.
25 Lee Sustar, “Power on the docks: Use it or lose it,” International Socialist Review 26, November—December 2002, pp. 7—9; Jack Heyman, “ILWU contract is no ‘victory,’ Socialist Worker, January 10, 2003.
26 Lee Sustar, “Where is the UAW headed?” Socialist Worker, June 21, 2002.
27 Michael Arndt, “Salvation from the shop floor,” BusinessWeek, February 3, 2003.
28 Elizabeth Walpole-Hofmeister, “Teamsters union calls end to strike against Overnite after three years,” Daily Labor Report, Bureau of National Affairs, October 28, 2002.
29 Anne-Marie Cusac, “Brazen bosses,” The Progressive, February 2003, pp. 23—27.
30 Tom Robbins, “Labor’s cheap date with Pataki,” Village Voice, September 4—10, 2002.
31 Marie Gottschalk, The Shadow of the Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States (Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 39—64.
32 Burt Cochran, “American Labor in Midpassge” in Burt Cochran (ed.), American Labor at Midpassage (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1959,) p. 4.
33 Details of this period can be found in three volumes of Philip Foner’s multi-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Volume 6: On the Eve of America’s Entrance into World War I, 1915—1916; Volume 7: Labor and World War I, 1914—1918; and Volume 8: Postwar Struggles 1918—1920. All are published by International Publishers, New York.
34 For an excellent overview, see Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (Cambridge, England and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
35 See Ronald Radosh, American Labor and United States Foreign Policy: The Cold War in the Unions from Gompers to Lovestone (New York: Vintage Books, 1969).
36 Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945—1968 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 219—233.
37 See Philip Foner, U.S. Labor and the Vietnam War (New York: International Publishers, 1989).
38 Albert Lannon, and Marvin Rogoff, “We shall not remain silent: building the anti-Vietnam War movement in the house of labor” Science and Society Vol. 66, Issue 4 (2002—2003), pp. 536—544.
39 “Neither pure nor simple: The AFL-CIO and Latin America,” NACLA Report on the Americas, May—June 1988, pp. 13—23.
40 Tim Shorrock, “Toeing the line? Sweeney and U.S. foreign policy,” New Labor Forum (Fall—Winter 2002), pp. 9—18.
41 See the U.S. Labor Against the War Web site at http://www.laboragainstwar.org
42 Available online at http://www.iamaw.org/publications/imail/imail_09122001.htm.
43 Duncan Hallas, “The CP, the SWP and the rank-and-file movement,” International Socialism 95 (old series), February 1977, p. 13.
44 Lee Sustar, “The war at Accuride,” Socialist Worker, March 1, 2002.
45 Dan Lane and Bill Davis, “Labor against the war,” Socialist Worker, January 24, 2003, p. 5.
46 JoAnn Wypijewski, “Workers against war,” available online at http://www.counterpunch.org/wypijewski01172003.html.