The future of class struggle in the US

A radical road to labor's revival?

February 2018 highlighted both the threats to—and hopes for—the future of the US labor movement. On the twenty-fourth of that month, public-sector unions held smallish and politically weak rallies in cities across the United States in opposition to the expected anti-union decision from the US Supreme Court in the Janus case.1 If the antilabor majority on the court prevails, public-sector unions will face conditions similar to so-called right-to-work laws governing the private sector that have helped drive unionization rates in private industry to the lowest point in a century.

But while public-sector union officials across the United States prepared to accept defeat, striking teachers in West Virginia were preparing to reject a tentative agreement. Suddenly, a struggle reluctantly led by two teachers’ unions had transformed into a coal-country labor classic: the wildcat strike.2 A state held up in the media as quintessential Trump Country was the scene of a labor revolt against the Republican politicians who control the state. The West Virginia working class—so often viewed with pity and contempt in the liberal media—pointed the way forward for the entire labor movement. Teachers in Oklahoma followed their example in early April.3 Far from public-sector union strongholds in the Northeast, Midwest, and California, fed-up teachers were showing labor how to fight.

West Virginia teachers won a solid victory in an electrifying struggle that saw mass protests and widespread community support. And the simultaneity of the Janus arguments in the Supreme Court and huge teacher rallies at West Virginia’s capitol building to demand improvements in low pay and shaky health insurance underscored the hard choices confronting US unions, particularly those in the public sector.

Private-sector unions, meanwhile, faced difficult questions of their own: backing Donald Trump in his imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum or taking a consistent and principled stance against the most anti-union administration in nearly a century. United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, a Canadian social democrat, chose the Fox News website to make his views clear: “Chinese trade violations [are] completely killing off American producers, leaving our country without domestic suppliers of metals essential for nationaldefense.”4 Essentially, Gerard asked steelworkers to put their faith in Trump’s foray into economic nationalism despite the administration’s efforts to aggressively advance big capital’s interest on every other front. The notion that Trump’s tariffs are intended to help steel and aluminum bosses was never even considered by Gerard.

For all these reasons, the US labor movement, having faced a mounting crisis for decades, now faces a test of how, and even whether, it can continue in its current form.

The argument that follows in this article is threefold: Unions face their greatest threat in a century; the revival of militancy on a mass scale is essential for the regeneration of the labor movement; and radicalism, socialist politics, and organization will be a critical elements in the renewal of the unions, just as they have been in previous decades.

The battles ahead will be bitter. Success can come only at a cost. High-stakes confrontation, West Virginia-style, is inherently risky and could put the institutional survival of the unions on the line. Former bastions of industrial union power such as the rubber workers, paper workers, and the oil, chemical, and atomic workers unions no longer exist, after their decline compelled mergers into larger organizations, with private-sector union density at its lowest point in a century. Public-sector workers now face the same threats, and may seek mergers to shore up institutional resources. But trying to live to fight another day has only resulted in a steady drain of organized labor’s capacity to resist Corporate America’s efforts to deal a decisive blow to what used to be called Big Labor.

The choice for the unions boils down to this: continue to avoid conflict wherever possible at the price of continued decline, or develop a realistic but bold strategy for taking on an increasingly aggressive US capitalist class by mobilizing workers, based not only on workplace issues but also on the multiple economic, social, and political issues that shape working-class life. This dynamic, which has emerged repeatedly in US labor history—most powerfully in the 1930s—can be glimpsed in the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Their fight was shaped not only by low pay but also by the challenge of teaching children in a state ravaged by unemployment, poverty, and the opioid crisis—and a rich history of labor radicalism that includes a 1920 armed clash between thousands of striking coal miners and law enforcement. Even the New York Times acknowledged that “It is not a surprise to anyone here that the first teacher strikes came out of coal country.”5

In the mid-twentieth century, union leaders could isolate such militant strikers and shrug off their critics on the labor Left. Today, however, business unionism—the dominant current in US labor for more than a century—has collapsed, both in terms of the unions’ negotiating clout and their ability to exercise political influence. Union membership and strike levels are at historic lows. The union leadership’s strategy of an incremental labor revival based on National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections is in tatters. The Republican-controlled White House and Congress are using every lever at their disposal to recreate the open-shop America of the 1920s, with the quiet or enthusiastic support of the bulk of Corporate America, whatever distaste some CEOs may have for Donald Trump.

The West Virginia teachers’ revolt notwithstanding, labor’s crisis, which has been unfolding for decades, has reached a qualitatively new—and negative—stage. The central measure is the long decline of union density in the private sector from an estimated 33 percent in the 1950s to just 6.5 percent in 2017. 6 This figure includes a 0.1 percent increase over the prior year, the result of a stronger labor market, with a net gain for unions of 262,000 workers. But this was only enough to stabilize the overall numbers, even after eight years of economic recovery, which in the past had favored the growth of unions. Decades have passed since organized labor was able to set the agenda for pay and conditions for private-sector workers in both the union and nonunion workforce—a key reason that wages have stagnated despite the recovery.7 State-level anti-union right-to-work laws—in which nonunion members can opt out of paying fees to unions to represent them—have in recent years expanded to former union redoubts such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana.8

With the Janus case, the same threat looms over public-sector unions, which represent 34.4 percent of government workers and, given the decline in private-sector unions, are now a slight majority of the 14.8 million union workers in the United States. The anti-union majority on the Supreme Court is likely to allow workers in the public sector not only to opt out of joining unions but also to refuse to pay agency fees for representation in collective bargaining agreements.9 This would then reinforce the right-to-work forces—backed by Koch Industries, Walmart, and others, who will seek a legal vehicle to try and impose right-to-work at the national level. A headline in Bloomberg BNA Daily Labor Report summed up the situation: “Right-to-WorkGroups EyeFinishLine, 40 Years Later.”10 Meanwhile, the Trump National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is poised to roll back proworker decisions, including an Obama-era ruling that found corporate giant McDonald’s to be a joint employer with franchisees, which made it harder for the company to avoid bargaining with unions.11

Nevertheless, there are some bright spots and potential leverage for a union revival. The West Virginia teachers’ strike showed the potential to make the strike a weapon for labor once again. Key parts of the transportation industry, central to the logistics revolution of recent decades, remain heavily organized. Unions maintain local, regional, and statewide clout, such as in California, New York, Michigan, and Illinois. And while the overall percentage of workers represented in unions resembles that of a century ago, the composition of the unions are vastly more diverse in race, gender, and occupation than the overwhelmingly male, anti-immigrant, and craft-oriented unions of the early twentieth century.

Union leadership, while remaining as subservient to the Democratic Party as ever, is more open to social-issue organizing. In the wake of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, union officials even tolerate a discussion of socialist politics (as long as it doesn’t challenge support for the Democrats). Internal politics in several unions at the national level over the past five years indicate members’ preference for a more assertive (and sometimes democratic) unionism, as reformers have won office in the American Postal Worker Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union, and captured several top positions in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The tight labor market in health care has given new leverage to nurses’ union organizing efforts and the formation of the National Nurses Union. Higher education has seen organizing efforts by adjuncts and graduate employees, and the Fight for 15 organizing efforts for low-wage workers—while suffering from lack of clear aims other than passage of local laws—has highlighted a willingness of workers to organize.

More recently, an uptick in union membership of young people—a product of the retirement of the baby boomers and the recovering economy—opens a channel from the wide working-class youth radicalization (e.g., Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, immigrant rights organizing) into the unions. The two-day AT&T Mobility strike of 2017, which was dominated by young people with little or no union experience, showed that potential. Nurses’ strikes, once a rarity, are now more common. Moreover, the reform leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, which won a strike in 2012, and SEIU Local 1021 in California have shown that the strike can be a weapon despite an overwhelmingly negative balance of class forces—and indeed, that such struggle is the only way to change those dynamics. The West Virginia teachers added another element into the mix: a rank-and-file rebellion that pushed the struggle forward when moderate union leaders were willing to make an inadequate deal, striking in defiance of the law.

Yet while it is possible to identify the potential for a labor comeback, the challenges of realizing that potential are enormous. The forty-year war on unions has become even more ferocious under Trump as the employers seek to finish off organized labor as a relevant force. No gain by labor can be assumed as safe; no union recognition agreement can be regarded as permanent. Further, the transformation of the economy since the neoliberal era has, as Kim Moody puts it, put the US working class on new terrain, in which the organized working class must defend its remaining strongholds while moving into growing sectors of the economy and largely nonunion regions.

Consequently, socialists in the labor movement face a dual task: building the basic institutions of the working class—the unions, including organizing the unorganized—while simultaneously taking steps to build a revolutionary working-class party that can uproot capitalism itself.

In some ways, the tasks facing socialists in the unions parallel those faced a century ago. Back then, however, there were many thousands of active and politically organized socialists in the unions—many of them veterans of dramatic strikes and struggles in which hundreds of thousands of workers participated. Today, the numbers of organized socialists are far fewer and the experience of struggle is much more limited after decades of decline in the unions and the even greater decline in strikes. This makes the formulation of a socialist strategy for organized labor problematic, to say the least. A strategy presupposes not only a certain relation of forces in the class struggle in general, but also the requisite personnel to execute that plan of action in order to achieve a goal. Moreover, it is quite possible that the regeneration of the unions will come from outside the existing union structures—as was largely the case in the upsurge of the 1930s, in which socialists played a central role.

A short history of a long decline

The US labor movement’s degeneration began at the apparent height of its power following the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, when 30-40 percent of the potential workforce that could organize was in the unions. The old craft-dominated AFL unions absorbed the industrial unions of the CIO, which had weakened itself by purging—and carving up—left-led unions, most importantly, the United Electrical workers. The leaders of what was then known as Big Labor rid the unions of the communists and socialists who had played key roles in the 1930s upsurge, and enmeshed their expanded bureaucracy with the NLRB, government boards, and labor-management bodies.

Bert Cochran, who had been a pioneering Trotskyist autoworker militant in the 1930s, noted in 1958 that:

Many of the biggest corporations cannot operate any longer on an open shop basis. Outright union busting now takes place mostly in the unorganized sectors. . . .

With the unions now bargaining for such a sizable part of the work force, amounting to 100 percent in some of the country’s basic industries, the major wage agreements set a pattern that is followed to one degree or another throughout the business community.12

But behind labor’s seeming strength, Cochran noted, was a growing weakness that was directly related to the labor bureaucracy’s war on the Left. Cochran highlighted problems that remain unsolved more than six decades later:

The new organizational campaigns announced at the time of the AFL-CIO merger have been stillborn. There is no substantial organization of new fields in progress. The South remains the haven of the open shop and runaway plant. Chemicals and textiles are largely unorganized. No inroads are being made among white-collar workers.

He pointed out that even the business magazine Fortune had predicted that the organizing drive would fail because of “the absence of a group of radicals able and willing to handle that kind of work.”

Nevertheless, Cochran accurately predicted a “stormy decade ahead” once the contradictions of the postwar boom came to the fore and wider social struggles involved the working class, in which the Left could play a role:

Where upheavals spread through a number of unions, and reflect broader social issues rather than passing grievances of a strictly local union nature, such native union radicalism tends to fuse, to one extent or another, with political radicalism––whatever the precise mechanism by which the fusion is realized.

The storm broke, as Cochran anticipated, in the labor movement in the 1960s and 1970s in the form of a rank-and-file rebellion that was suffused with the civil rights, Black power, and women’s movements as well as the mass movement against the Vietnam War. A revived revolutionary Left played a significant role in these struggles. The anti-union and political backlash that followed—and continues unabated—has been chronicled and analyzed in Sharon Smith’s Subterranean Fire and a number of International Socialist Review articles by this writer.13

These previous ISR articles, building on the work of previous socialists in the United States and internationally, situated the US labor movement in the Marxist theory of the trade unions. In this framework, unions are seen as the basic organizations of the working class which arose in the nineteenth century as a counterweight on the employers’ ability to pit workers against one another as individual competitors. The unions developed a layer of full-time officials charged with negotiating with employers and removed from the day-to-day pressures of the workforce, eventually constituting a bureaucracy that could play a mediating—and vacillating—role between labor and capital.

This dynamic can be seen in all industrialized countries with a legal labor movement. In the United States, with its absence of a labor or social democratic party, the union bureaucracy was uniquely procapitalist and, outside stormy periods of grassroots labor revolt such as the 1930s, devoted to what the Old Left called class collaboration—“partnership,” in the parlance of today’s US labor movement. The counterweight to this tendency is a mobilized, organized, rank and file anchored by left-wing politics—the project of revolutionary socialists in the labor movement in the United States since the era of the Russian Revolution.

By the 1960s, the union bureaucracy, steeped in McCarthyite anticommunism and determined to maintain its partnership with employers, set itself against both the nonpolitical militant rank and file as well the Left. Top union leaders were involved in the “AFL-CIA” operations abroad that took aim at leftists unions worldwide. This dynamic was best illustrated by the social democrats that led the United Auto Workers (UAW) and helped bankroll the civil rights movement, but denounced the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit, that had led effective wildcat strikes at a key Chrysler plant, as “Black fascists.”

The rank-and-file rebellion continued into the mid 1970s, with the illegal national wildcat postal strike of 1970—led by its heavily African American workforce in the major cities— a watershed moment. The number of strikes or lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers peaked at 424 in 1974, compared to fifteen in 2016.

Sections of the union bureaucracy tried to tap the upsurge for its own union power. This militant business unionism was not always, or even mostly, led by progressives. Jimmy Hoffa Sr., the notoriously corrupt Teamsters president, put himself at the head of freight truck drivers’ demands for a national master contract and succeeded in 1969, even as the Teamsters local officials and their mobster allies worked to crush rank-and-file organizing efforts that would lead to a wildcat years later.

In the public sector, AFSCME was able to tap into the energy of the civil rights movement, a dynamic highlighted by Martin Luther King’s public support for striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 before he was assassinated.14 In this period, AFSCME was able to grow from its regional strongholds, such as Wisconsin, to project itself into a big national force even before public-sector collective bargaining rights could be organized.15 SEIU, historically a union of building service workers, also launched successful efforts to organize public-sector unions on a mass scale.

The revival of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) followed a similar arc. The illegal strikes in New York in the early 1960s got the backing of the local Central Labor Council and sparked a national teachers’ rebellion, financed by the UAW and other unions powered by a new generation of young women who had come into higher education. Under pressure of the AFT, the National Education Association, a boss-dominated organization for more than a century, transformed itself into a genuine union. Illegal teachers’ strikes were commonplace by the early 1970s, with the national AFT maintaining bail funds.

By the early 1980s, public-sector unionism had expanded dramatically to represent about 40 percent of all workers, with state and local collective-bargaining legislation passed—willingly or not—in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, with even California Republican Governor Ronald Reagan signing a bill into law.16

The honeymoon didn’t last. In 1975, New York City, where AFSCME and the AFT led a sweeping breakthrough to organize the public sector, became the laboratory for what came to be known as “concessions bargaining”—sitting down with management not to negotiate gains, but givebacks. AFT leader Albert Shanker, who had already moved to the right to organize a racist strike against Black community control of some schools years earlier, now emerged as a “labor statesman” in which the unions agreed to use their pension funds to help bail out the city and sign off on layoffs of thousands. The AFSCME leadership did the same. The arc from radicalism to respectability that had taken the CIO some twenty years was recapitulated by the public-sector unions in a fraction of that time.

Concessions moved next to the auto sector, where in 1979 the UAW agreed to wage cuts at a near-bankrupt Chrysler as part of a government bailout. Two years later, the target was on a public-sector union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), which struck the new Reagan administration in the summer of 1981. Reagan retaliated by firing all 11,000 strikers and destroying their union.

PATCO was a signal to Corporate America and anti-union politicians everywhere that it was open season on organized labor. There was heroic resistance, even in defeat: the 1983 Phelps-Dodge copper strike, broken by a Democratic governor who sent in the National Guard; the 1986 Hormel meatpackers strike in defiance of strikebreaking by top union leaders. There were some important victories, too, notably the 1989 NYNEX (now part of Verizon) strike in New York in which a striker was killed by a scab driver.

But the defeats were far more numerous. The epic Caterpillar strikes of the early- and mid-1990s, fought by the same generation that had been rebellious young workers of the 1970s, were defeated, as were the other “War Zone” battles in central Illinois at A. E. Staley and Bridgestone-Firestone. The strike defeats of the 1980s and early 1990s and concessions bargaining began to generate opposition within the unions and splits at the top. The passage of NAFTA in 1994 under Democratic President Bill Clinton was another aggravating factor, as labor’s political clout had obviously diminished.

The election of reformer Ron Carey to lead the Teamsters in 1991 signaled the shift; by 1995 the leaders of AFL-CIO were having the federation’s first leadership fight in forty years. The victor was SEIU President John Sweeney, who had presided over the movement’s most effective organizing efforts of that period. Sweeney’s “New Voices” program had three elements: a more assertive stance towards Corporate America; stepped up organizing efforts; and increased activism in the Democratic Party. The aim was to revive the labor-management “partnership” that had existed in the 1950s and 1960s.

The effort soon fizzled. Union-household voting went up, but the Clinton-era Democrats continued their procorporate policies. Organizing wins could not outstrip the shrinking percentage of workers in unions as the economy and workforce grew.

There was some success on the industrial front, centrally with the UPS strike of 1997. The subsequent government-sponsored ouster of Teamsters President Ron Carey—on corruption charges for which he was eventually acquitted—highlighted the employers’ determination to stop an overwhelmingly popular strike from inspiring similar struggles.17 Carey’s ouster was passed over in silence by other union leaders perhaps fearful of the same fate. Even so, the late 1990s saw a certain revival of struggle, with a series of mostly successful local auto plant strikes over staffing levels and a strike at Bell Atlantic (Verizon) in 1998. Organized labor showed some new openness to the Left in 1999 during the World Trade Organization (WTO) protest in Seattle, making common cause with environmentalists and young activists. But the recession of 2001 and the intensification of manufacturing job losses during and afterwards soon dragged labor back into crisis—this time resulting in a split in 2005 with the formation of the ridiculously named Change to Win federation led by SEIU and the Teamsters. The fight was, on the surface, about how much money to spend on new organizing; the subtext was about how much dues money should go to prop up declining industrial unions. The fight at the top of the labor movement reflected the disarray, with the following period of overall defeat and decline, punctuated by several moments in which the revival of struggle had the potential to create a new dynamic but failed to break through.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to point to a better future: Obama had promised to take his picket-line shoes to the White House and back the Employee Free Choice Act to streamline union organizing. The law went nowhere in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Since then, Change to Win has had its own internal split, and neither federation has been able to reverse the downward trend in union density. Strikes and lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers plummeted to record lows. The dream that a Democratic administration would revive the partnership of the heyday of Big Labor had now been twice dashed—first by Bill Clinton, then by Barack Obama.

The 2010 Republican sweep of Congress, statehouses, and governors’ mansions put new tools in the hands of labor’s enemies. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker began his term with a measure that would gut the power of public-sector unions in the state where they had first been established some six decades earlier. The weeks-long occupation of the state capitol and the mass protest that followed in February 2011 electrified union members and supporters across the United States with round-the-clock protests that anticipated the Occupy movement that would emerge a few months later. National union leaders rushed to the scene. But rather than call workplace action, union officials steered toward a seemingly less risky course of launching a recall campaign. The recall effort—backing a moderate Democrat—failed, and public-sector unions in Wisconsin today are eviscerated.

The impulse behind the Wisconsin labor uprising could be seen elsewhere. The following year, the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike tapped into wider working-class solidarity, highlighting the potential for union militancy and making the strike a weapon. In the same period, a series of strikes overseen by the reform locals of SEIU Local 1021 showed similar potential. The successful 2016 Verizon strike—where the union had leverage over a company trying to build out its new network and move into Hollywood—recalled the CTU strike in terms of its popular support and energized, mobile picketing.

Nevertheless, the catastrophic public-sector labor defeat in Wisconsin, like PATCO before it, set the pace for a new round of attacks—this time in the form of anti-union right-to-work laws, including in union-heavy states where such moves would have been unthinkable not many years earlier: Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Wisconsin itself. (A similar law in Missouri has not gone into effect pending a voter referendum in 2018).

By the 2016 elections, labor’s ebbing power, the miserably slow growth since the Great Recession, and continued manufacturing job losses and disillusionment with the Democrats created an opportunity for the Trump campaign to pose as a defender of (white) working people on trade issues.

The Trump shock: Labor and politics

The Republican takeover of the White House and Congress in 2016 ushered in the most right-wing, anti-union government since the 1920s. Top union leaders, having failed to advance their agenda in the Obama years, were spooked by real or perceived membership support for Trump and worried about a new corporate onslaught on labor. After decades of having mostly avoided risky struggles in the name of institutional survival, union leaders saw in Trump a possibly safer means of getting more jobs for members and protection from Corporate America’s remorseless antilabor machine.

Some union leaders, like Mary Kay Henry of SEIU, with a membership that is heavily people of color, hunkered down and denounced the administration for its racist and anti-immigrant policies.18 Even before Trump took office, SEIU announced a 30 percent budget cut in anticipation of a negative decision in the Supreme Court Janus case on public-sector workers and electoral priorities for 2018 and 2020.19 AFT President Randi Weingarten toured a public school with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in April 2017, but, following a groundswell of criticism from union members, swung into sharp opposition a few months later when the DeVos privatization agenda became clear.20

Other union leaders embraced Trump, or at least tried, until Trump’s behavior and policies made it untenable. Building-trades union leaders, hoping that their members would benefit from promised infrastructure spending, flocked to the White House.21 UAW President Dennis Williams, United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo Gerard and International Association of Machinists (IAM) President Bob Martinez engaged with Trump to raise trade barriers and pull out of NAFTA. Laborers International Union of North America President Terry O’Sullivan, who had staked out a position for immigrant rights for the previous decade, issued a statement headlined, “It is Finally Beginning to Feel Like a New Day for America’s Working Class.”22 United Mineworkers President Cecil Roberts hailed Trump’s decision to abandon the Clean Power Plan.23

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has tried to navigate between the two approaches. In a speech to the April 2017 convention of the United Steelworkers, he remarked that

two very different factions have emerged. There is a Wall Street wing that seeks to undermine Donald Trump’s promises to workers, and a competing wing that could win much-needed progress for working people. . . . President Trump needs to decide who he stands with. The steelworkers, coal miners, farmers, and other regular Americans who he promised to help in the campaign, or the Wall Street billionaires who rigged the economy at our expense? This decision will be the single greatest test of his presidency.24

Whether Trumka actually believed this, or whether it was a ginger attempt at winning over Trump-supporting union members, is not particularly relevant. The point is that an overture to Trump could only negate the more progressive elements of his speech, such as opposing Republican efforts to gut health care and the statement that Trump’s “executive orders on immigration criminalize our workplaces and violate our basic principles.” Trumka’s concluding call was for solidarity—“real solidarity, not empty gestures and bandwagon posturing. The type of solidarity where the outcome is still uncertain and it may cost you something in the short-term.” But having praised a supposed pro-worker wing of the White House, the question of just who to fight, and how, was confused at best.

Trumka’s balancing act came to end in August 2017 following Trump’s statements praising “fine people” among the Nazis and white supremacists at the protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a Nazi killed Heather Heyer who had come to protest the Far Right. Trumka, like assorted CEOs, quit the National Manufacturing Council—the union federation had never been invited to attend anyway— and issued a statement: “We cannot sit on a council for a president who tolerates bigotry and domestic terrorism. President Trump’s remarks today repudiate his forced remarks yesterday about the KKK and neo-Nazis. We must resign on behalf of America’s working people, who reject all notions of legitimacy of these bigoted groups.”25

But the AFL-CIO’s shift left rhetorically hasn’t ended the hopes of union leaders to engage Trump. The divisions were on display at the October 2017 AFL-CIO Convention in St. Louis, where the downsizing of the federation—both in terms of budgets and affiliation—was obvious.26 The IAM called for onshoring of defense jobs to be created by Trump’s military buildup. A bloc of building trades and the United Mineworkers quashed resolutions on sustainable energy.27 However, the Left did score some gains, with Bernie Sanders and proponents of an independent labor party succeeding in passing a political resolution that goes beyond “lesser evil” choices and another with a call for independence. The Left also succeeded in passing a resolution calling for Medicare for All.28

The success of those resolutions highlights how labor leaders have grown more tolerant of the Left—partly because their apparatus doesn’t have the capacity to suppress it any longer, and partly because they recognize, at least vaguely, that the Left brings youth, energy, and numbers that the movement needs. Thus many AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions have for the past decade backed Occupy protests, Black Lives Matter struggles, immigrant rights organizing, and more. But the threat of Trump will drive the union bureaucracy still closer to the Democratic Party as the 2018 and 2020 elections approach. In most cases, that will mean backing “viable” moderate candidates at the expense of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members and Sanders supporters. The AFL-CIO used its January 2018 Martin Luther King conference in Houston to launch an all-out election effort to support the Democrats, whatever their politics.29

These dynamics could be seen in the 2017 fight for a single-payer health care bill in California. There, SEIU split from National Nurses United to sabotage single-payer legislation and support the speaker of the California Assembly’s move to sideline the bill.30 The openness to discussing the proposals from the left may exist, but the machinery of the unions will still be put in service for whatever Democrat challenges a Republican, no matter what the Democrat’s positions on labor issues.

Labor’s crisis, by the numbers

The aggregate national numbers—union density, strike levels, and so on—give an overview of labor’s challenges in the Trump era. But a closer look shows how the relentless legislative and judicial attacks on unions and industrial restructuring have combined to have a wider impact on the working class in terms of the effects of inequality, poverty, and life expectancy, with the specially oppressed sections of the working class—women, African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color and LGBT people—faring worst. Trump’s labor agenda—that is, policies enacted by the corporate operatives in key positions—will exacerbate the crisis.

A survey of the social crisis in the US working class is beyond the scope of this article. Readers are referred to Sharon Smith’s definitive account in a previous edition of the International Socialist Review quoted below:

The US working class was the highest-paid in the world during the post-World War II economic boom, but its wages entered a downward spiral in the mid-1970s. Today it is the lowest-paid among OECD countries, with the greatest proportion of low-wage jobs, defined as paying less than two-thirds of the nation’s median income. Twenty-six percent of jobs in the US fell into this category, earning less than $23,390 in the OECD’s 2014 report.31

As always, specially oppressed workers bear a disproportionate brunt of this worsening inequality. In December 2017, African American men earned just 69.3 percent of their white counterparts; for African American women, the figure was 82 percent. Workers in the Bureau of Labor Statistics category of “Hispanic” fared somewhat worse.32 Median wealth of Black families is on track to become zero in 2053; for Latinos, the wipeout would come a few decades later.33

The pay gap for women persists at 81.3 percent of the median weekly income for men.34 Along with low wages comes high rates of sexual harassment—or worse. Two studies in recent years found that half of all women working in restaurants and fast food establishments faced “unwanted” sexual behavior, pointing up the class impact of sexual harassment and rape that sparked the #MeToo moment.35

This ratcheting up of racial and gender oppression is a corollary of economic restructuring that has transformed the US economy over the last thirty years and dramatically increasing the rate of exploitation of all workers. The driving force behind these developments are explored at length in Kim Moody’s recent book, On New Terrain. While the loss of manufacturing jobs has hit unions hard—from 19.5 million in 1979 to about 12.5 million today—Moody argues convincingly that the decisive factor was not the offshoring of jobs and imports, but a dramatic growth of productivity that has led to a dramatic increase in manufacturing output in the United States.

A more likely explanation for manufacturing job losses on the scale of the last thirty years or so, one that is internal to the workings of US capitalism and, indeed, capitalism generally, is to be found in the rise of productivity extracted after 1980 by the introduction of lean production methods, new technology, and capital’s accelerated counteroffensive against labor—an explanation based in class conflict itself.36

Compounding the shift in job loss in historically union-heavy manufacturing centers is the shift to nonunion bastions in the South, often by different capital entities with nonunion US operations, such as German, Japanese, and South Korean automakers. The historic failure of the US labor movement to organize the South to avoid confronting racism and the power of “Dixiecrat” Democrats in the 1940s and 1950s has become an ever more powerful advantage to the capitalist class as it builds new centers of production in the South and generalizes Southern anti-union labor law to the rest of the United States. The employers’ longstanding plan to free US manufacturing from unions is coming to fruition. As late as 1983, some 32.1 percent of workers manufacturing durable goods were represented by unions. By 2017, that figure was just 10.1 percent.37

The dense clusters of nonunion manufacturing in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi would have been hard to imagine just a few decades ago. Boeing broke with decades of relations with the IAM to build a second plant to make its state-of-the-art 787 airliner in North Charleston, South Carolina, where a union election drive failed dramatically in 2017.38 Now, if an IAM strike halts production of the 787 in Washington—the state with the third highest union density in the United States—the South Carolina nonunion operation could function as usual.

By 2016, three Deep South states—Louisiana, North Carolina, and Alabama —were in the top fifteen states ranked by share of manufacturing to that state’s economy.39 South Carolina was number 11; Mississippi, long one of the poorest and least developed states in the United States, ranked number 13. Illinois, still a manufacturing center in terms of output, came in at number 20 in terms of the overall significance to the state’s economy.

Further, a ranking of states by overall manufacturing output is also revealing about the shift in production to nonunion areas. California, unsurprisingly, was on top with $288.98 billion in 2016; the union density rate there was 15.5 percent in 2017. Second was Texas—with a unionization rate of 4.7 percent—with $225.78 billion, twice that of the $106 billion in Ohio, with its union density of 12.6 percent.40

North Carolina, with $99.78 billion in manufacturing output and a union density of just 3.4 percent, by 2016 was the fifth-largest state for manufacturing output in the United States. Next was Illinois, where 15 percent of workers are in unions. Alabama, with its unionization rate of 7.4 percent, ranked twenty-third in manufacturing output, with $35.72 billion, ahead of Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, and Colorado. Alabama’s factory output is set to grow, as that state was recently chosen as the site of a new $1.6 billion Toyota-Mazda plant.41

The industrial geography of the United States has been transformed. But capital need not move to the South to avoid unions, thanks to the spread of right-to-work laws. Indiana, which had a European-level union density of 40.9 percent in 1964, today has a union density of just 9 percent, not far off the levels of southern states. Indiana, which derives 40 percent of gross state product from manufacturing—the highest of any state—is the home of nonunion auto plants owned by Subaru, Toyota, and Honda, as well as a Caterpillar rail car plant moved from Canada to avoid organized labor.

Wisconsin, with a unionization rate of 34 percent in 1964, had by 2016 a union density of 8.4 percent—itself a sharp drop from 14.2 percent in 2010 on the eve of the anti-union law that gutted public sector unions and the right-to-work legislation that followed in 2015.42 The total number of unionized workers in the state was just over 200,000 in 2016, less than half the number in 2000. Wisconsin officials touted the right-to-work law as a key factor in attracting a new plan from electronics giant Foxconn.43

Collective bargaining and strikes

The unions such as the UAW and IAM that once set the pace for pay and benefits even for nonunion giants like IBM and Xerox today negotiate contracts that often do the reverse. Labor analysts in the airline industry point to “reverse pattern bargaining” in which employers have used bankruptcies to push labor concessions from one company to another. The UAW in 2009, as a condition of the government bailout of GM and Chrysler, agreed to “industry standard” pay and conditions—that is, pay and benefits that were ratcheted downward to align with the US operations of Toyota, Honda, Kia, and others.44 Decades of union gains were lost, and lower-tier pay for new hires locked in.

After being hammered with layoffs and concessions in the Great Recession, unions have struggled to claw their way back into making gains. But union-negotiated pay raises in recent years (excluding lump sums—bonuses and the like that don’t compound over years) are roughly the same as the average pay raise, which itself is close to the rate of inflation. In 2017, the average pay increase in the United States was 2.9 percent.45 The average first-year base wage increase in union contract settlements negotiated in 2017 just before year-end was 2.7 percent, with total pay a 3.1 percent when lump sums are considered—a slight drop from the previous year.46

There remains a powerful union advantage in pay, however. The Bureau of Labor Statics reported in 2011 that private-sector union members were paid $3.51 per hour more in wages than their nonunion counterparts, and $7.11 more per hour in benefits.47 In some sectors, unions have in recent months finally gained leverage on pay at the bargaining table, according to the Daily Labor Report: “Union contracts settled in 2017 with hospitals in Kentucky, West Virginia, California, and Washington, DC, increased nurses’ wages next hit after unions complained new hires were making more than those with many years of experience.” The corporate tax cut, economic growth, and high profits are expected to further strengthen union demands at big employers with upcoming contracts in 2018.48

Yet even in the recent tight labor market, union-negotiated pay raises are often below the going rate that employers must pay to attract new hires. According the jobs website Glassdoor.com, starting pay in 2018 for part-time warehouse workers at UPS is $11.06, compared to $12.63 per hour for an Amazon warehouse “associate.” Certainly, the benefits at UPS—if part-timers hold on to the job long enough to be eligible—are superior. And there is no possibility of an Amazon worker progressing to the pay of a full-time UPS package driver. Still, the union pay premium is under pressure in many sectors.

The union advantage isn’t just wages, of course. It’s about power: the capacity of workers to use collective action, including the strike, to bargain not only over pay and benefits but also working conditions, such contract language protections against racism, sexism, homophobia, boss favoritism, and much more. The power ultimately comes from workers’ ability to withhold their labor—the strike weapon. However, as the result of labor’s long crisis and bureaucratization, many workers see their unions as something remote, akin to an insurance agency offering benefits, rather than an organization that can fight for their interests and defend them from harassing managers and the endless, dehumanizing drive for higher levels of productivity. Even where unions have a foothold in the increasingly important logistics network, such as at UPS, they are ineffective at best. Two decades after a dramatic strike victory at the company, the Teamsters, under Jimmy Hoffa Jr., have only a weak presence among the more than 4,000 workers at the Chicago Area Consolidated Hub, a critical nodal point in the UPS network and one of the most important logistics facilities in the United States.

In this context, it is not surprising that many of the striking West Virginia teachers were not members of any of the three teachers unions in that state. The dynamic was similar in Oklahoma, where although roughly half of teachers are not members of the Oklahoma Education Association, a widespread strike movement was underway as the ISR went to press.

The flat-lining of strike levels in the last decade is a key measure of workers’ consciousness of, and confidence to use, that power. As the Bureau of Labor Statics reported in 2017: “The period from 2007 to 2016 was the lowest decade on record, averaging approximately fourteen major work stoppages per year. The lowest annual number of major work stoppages was five in 2009.” Today’s strike levels are 95 percent below that of 1947, when the BLS first began tracking the figures.49

The government measures work stoppages—strikes and lockouts—involving 1,000 or more workers. The figures therefore exclude a series of dynamic and important struggles, such as the heroic A. E. Staley lockout of the mid-1990s in Central Illinois or, more recently, several of the SEIU Local 1021 quick strikes against local government entities in Northern California.

Nevertheless, a broader measure of strike activity shows a similar steep decline—and the drop in strikes is not a simple function of the drop in union density. “Over the last quarter century, the number of strikes shrank by about 87 percent,” the Daily Labor Report notes. “That’s roughly six times faster than union membership’s decline in the same time period. In 1990, about 16.7 million US workers were members of unions. In 2015, that figure was 14.8 million. The number of strikes held in 1990 was 793, and that dropped to 102 in 2015, according to Bloomberg Law labor data.”50

The few big strikes that did take place in 2015–17 were therefore noteworthy just for taking place. In some cases unions had clear wins, partly because of greater worker leverage in an expanding economy and partly because of the activism and demands of rank-and-file workers. The most important victory came in 2016 involving 39,000 workers at Verizon, where the Communications Workers of America (CWA) had leverage during the company’s expansion phase—a win that saw active picketing and lively support for forty-five days. The deal had flaws, but the CWA—which had struck the company and its predecessors four times in eighteen years—defeated the company on key points. The company backed off attacks on retirement, dropped a plan to force workers to take jobs out of town, scrapped a hated productivity program for technicians, and agreed to a union foothold in retail stores.51

But in most cases, unions did not fare as well as they contended with deep-pocketed and aggressive bosses who deployed the anti-union weapons honed over the last several decades. The Minnesota Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United (NNU), struck the Allina Health hospital network for thirty-seven days in 2016 and encountered an unexpectedly well-organized scab operation. The contract settlement saw nurses give in to the employer’s demand to replace their nurses-only health plan with one controlled by Allina. The strike signaled that hospital bosses are adopting the tactics of their factory counterparts to take on the NNU. The employers’ win “had national implications,” said Roger King, a management-side labor lawyer at the HR Policy Association, which represents hospital chains across the United States.52

The outcome was even more harsh for the workers at Momentive, a chemical plant in Upstate New York. After a 105-day strike, the workers, some 700 members of the CWA affiliate IUE, voted 317-211 for a deal brokered by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The deal was largely on management’s terms, and includes cuts in health insurance, ends health care coverage for retirees, and reduces vacation time. The strike did not immediately bring back to work twenty-seven strikers who were fired for picket-line activity, leaving the matter for further arbitration.53

It is worth pointing out that the Momentive strike, which recalled the tenacious struggles of the “War Zone” battles of the mid-1990s, was negotiated by officials of CWA District 1, who were a key part of the leadership of the Verizon strike. In the case of Verizon, the institutional threat posed by Verizon’s demands from above, pressure from a huge, strike-tested workforce from below, and a favorable bargaining environment opened the way to struggle and a victory. The Momentive strike, by contrast, was all too typical of the strikes of the last twenty-five years, in which the call to last “one day longer” than management exhausted and demoralized the struggle while well-funded employers ran scabs and waited out the fight. The CWA leadership, which was willing to put itself at the head of the aggressive mobile picketing at Verizon initiated by a reform local in New York City, was unwilling to mobilize the same kind of solidarity for Momentive workers, a tiny fraction of the union’s membership. District 1 leaders were instrumental in negotiating the deeply concessionary contract.

The Momentive strike—like many before it in the last thirty years—shows that the question of restoring the strike as a weapon isn’t just about hitting the picket line, but employing the strategy and tactics that can win as quickly as possible. The Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 did not face a threat of scabbing, but did risk injunctions and fines. Solidarity from the community and an active support network were enough to stave off that threat. A similar dynamic was key to the Seattle teachers strike victory of 2015, when administrators and politicians folded after a show of force by union members, parents, and community organizations.54 The 2018 West Virginia strike—popular enough to pressure school superintendents into simply closing schools—showed the same capacity for strikes to generate solidarity even in very different political and economic environments.

Effective strikes will mean challenging scab operations to disrupt or shut down production, including carrying out solidarity actions that are outlawed under the Taft-Hartley Act. In fact, the low level of strikes is an indication that union officials understand this reality very well. Faced with the possibility of permanent replacement of workers by scabs, financial crises, and institutional collapse, union officials have sought to avoid sending workers to the picket line whenever possible.

Immigrant workers, most of them nonunion, have shown themselves willing to take dramatic strike action, most notably in a national movement on May Day 2007 that shut down much of meatpacking and other industries where Latino labor was central. The unions supported such actions in many cases, but failed to capitalize on the opportunity to bring new forces into the unions.

However, the dominant union strategy is to limit concessions as much as possible while trying to “grow the union” through organizing the unorganized. But efforts to organize without a credible strike weapon are limited at best.

Organizing the unorganized

Despite their weakness, unions are popular. According to Gallup, public support for unions in 2017 is greater than 60 percent, the highest such number since 2003. Yet unions have for decades struggled to turn that potential support into membership.

The ferocious anti-union effort by employers is, of course, is central. The Obama-era Department of Labor estimated that 71 to 87 percent of employers hire anti-union consultants and issued a rule—slated for reversal by the Trump administration—that bosses disclose how much they spend.55 The tactics that were disclosed in a 1993 book, Confessions of a Union Buster, have only become more sophisticated, expensive, and effective in the quarter century since.

Both the New Voices leadership that took over the AFL-CIO in 1995 and the breakaway Change to Win unions a decade later promised to pour more money and resources into organizing. New strategies, they said, would make the efforts more effective. There were indeed important wins, particularly among low-wage workers such as janitors and in growing sectors such as health care. But the promised breakthroughs never came.

Jane McAlevey, a former organizer and union leader for SEIU, argues in her 2017 book that the effort was bound to fail because of the top-down mobilizing model that stressed professional staff leadership over a CIO-style organizing model in which union organizers seek to recruit and train organic worker leaders in the union rank and file. She writes:

A critical factor in the failure of the union revitalization effort after 1995 has been the strategic choice made by key leaders of New Labor [New Voices] to move away from workers and the workplace. Because of adverse labor laws and unfriendly court rulings, these leaders decided they could no longer win traditional union elections. They shifted their strategy to securing so-called card check and neutrality deals and fair election procedure accords with employers. Such agreements are anchored in a core idea: getting the employers to stop fighting unionization. New Labor unions invented new mechanisms for what they deemed carrots and sticks.56

Behind the mobilizing model, McAlevey argues, is a combination of bureaucratic elitism and Saul Alinsky’s community-organizing methods in which organizers anoint grassroots “leaders” while exercising real—and unaccountable—leadership behind the scenes.

However ineffective their organizing strategy, union leaders are certainly correct that private-sector union elections through the NLRB favor the employers with delays that average 189 days as well as belated and weak penalties for bosses who violate labor law, such as by firing union activists.57 And it isn’t just old-line factory bosses who try to bend the NLRB to their agenda: the Columbia University administration has joined other private universities to appeal to the new Trump appointees on the board to reverse an earlier decision that recognized the union while it refuses to bargain.58

The Trump-controlled NLRB board is highly likely to oblige. In November 2017, Peter Robb—the man who litigated President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking PATCO workers in 1981—became general counsel of the NLRB.59 According to the Daily Labor Report, Robb’s to-do list includes a review of NLRB decisions requiring employers to continue to deduct union dues from paychecks after collective bargaining agreements expire.

Even before Robb took office, the NLRB moved swiftly to implement the employers’ agenda. The Daily Labor Report sums up the NLRB’s work in the first year of the Trump administration:

In a series of 3-2 rulings, the new Republican majority rejected the controversial 2015 Browning-Ferris expansion of joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act, and the Specialty Healthcare decision that was blamed for encouraging unions to organize workers in “micro-units.” The board also changed course and announced that it will allow employers’ “civility rules,” and apply a new test to claims that employer policies intimidate workers exercising their rights under the NLRA.60

The New Voices and Change to Win mobilization model of bargaining to organize has failed, and an NLRB-only strategy to organize in the Trump era is ludicrous. What is needed, as McAlevey, argues, is a rediscovery of the left-wing, militant unionism of the CIO era, often called social movement unionism, which made the strike a weapon and won wide working-class support radiating from the point of production into the community. Or, as Bert Cochran put it in the 1950s Big Labor era, what is required is another “fusion” of “native union radicalism” and “political radicalism” to provide an alternative to the union’s bureaucratic conservatism and class collaboration and propel the movement forward. The West Virginia teachers’ strike could be a harbinger of that effort.

The prospects for such a revival—and the role of the socialist Left in that effort—will be discussed in a future article.


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Issue #73

September 2010

From Reform to Rebellion

Image and reality in the Bolivia of Evo Morales
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