FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A New Strategy to Reverse Labor’s Decline?

by LEE SUSTAR

With the AFL-CIO in decline, a group of major labor leaders join together to propose a dramatic reorganization of the unions. Their argument: Without drastic change, organized labor faces a crisis. So they move ahead to set an example. Word goes out that the top AFL-CIO leaders will be dumped.

All this will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the development of the New Unity Partnership (NUP), a grouping of big unions formed last year to propose a vast restructuring of the labor movement. But it’s really a description of 1995–when the United Auto Workers (UAW), International Association of Machinists (IAM) and United Steelworkers of America (USWA) announced a three-way merger in a move aimed at strengthening union power in the metalworking industries.

At the same time, a faction of union leaders maneuvered to force the resignation of AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, a conservative who pushed for concessions to employers and support for U.S. policy during the Cold War. Kirkland’s successor, John Sweeney, the head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was known for aggressive organizing.

“Organize or die” became the slogan of Sweeney’s “New Voices” leadership campaign. Two years later, the big Teamsters strike victory at United Parcel Service electrified the nation and appeared to mark a real turnaround for labor.

But when Teamsters President Ron Carey was subsequently ousted by the government, labor turned its back. AFL-CIO Organizing Director Richard Bensinger was fired when he stepped on too many toes of top labor leaders, demanding that they spend at least a third of their resources on new organizing.

Lack of resources for organizing wasn’t the whole story. New organizing was also undermined by labor’s unwillingness to mobilize to win difficult strikes and lockouts at employers such as Caterpillar and the Detroit newspapers in the mid-1990s.

The UAW, for example, damaged its own efforts to organize nonunion Japanese-owned auto plants when it abandoned workers at the Accuride wheel plant in Kentucky after a strike and four-year lockout. Now the UAW has agreed to lower wages for newly hired auto plant workers, too–helping to drive down wages in manufacturing and further undercutting labor’s appeal.

For its part, the IAM accepted huge wage cuts in the airline and aerospace industries–and the USWA allowed the elimination of retiree health care and pension cuts through bankruptcy. What of the planned merger of these unions? It was quietly killed by bureaucratic rivalries years ago.

Labor’s share of the workforce in the private sector is just 9.6 percent today and 13.2 percent overall–with the numbers expected to drop when new figures are released next month. It’s in this context that the NUP has emerged.

Led by the SEIU, Sweeney’s old union, the NUP includes the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) and the textile and garment union UNITE, along with the Laborers and, unofficially, the Carpenters’ union, which is outside the AFL-CIO. Their proposal: a top-down restructuring in which small unions would be merged with larger ones and jurisdictions redrawn according to 15 targeted industries.

According to documents leaked to the media, local labor councils would be abolished and replaced by appointed officials, while 77 percent of union budgets would be devoted organizing, with most of the rest slated for politics. But ruthless centralization and greater resources for new organizing won’t reverse labor’s decline.

First, union democracy isn’t an optional extra. It’s the essence of what makes labor a movement. A leaner, more energetic labor bureaucracy is still a bureaucracy.

And there’s no way labor will recruit new members to reverse its decline if it can’t defend the interests of the members it has today. That’s why the ongoing strike and lockout of 70,000 grocery workers in Southern California is more important for labor’s future than the charts and spreadsheets of the NUP strategists.

A labor movement that routinely accepts concessions will never be able to organize the unorganized on a mass scale. And that’s a question that the emerging debate around the NUP has so far ignored.

LEE SUSTAR writes for the Socialist Worker, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net

 

 

LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 22, 2017
Paul Street
Russiagate and the Democratic Party are for Chumps
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer, the Progressive Caucus and the Cuban Revolution
Gavin Lewis
McCarthyite Anti-Semitism Smears and Racism at the Guardian/Observer
Kathy Kelly
Reality and the U.S.-Made Famine in Yemen
Kim C. Domenico
Ending Our Secret Alliance with Victimhood: Toward an Adult Politics
L. Ali Khan
Profiling Islamophobes
Calvin Priest
May Day: Seattle Educators Moving Closer to Strike
David Swanson
Jimmy Breslin on How to Impeach Trump
Dave Lindorff
There Won’t Be Another Jimmy Breslin
Jonathan Latham
The Meaning of Life
Robert Fisk
Martin McGuinness: From “Super-Terrorist” to Super Statesman
Steve Horn
Architect of Federal Fracking Loophole May Head Trump Environmental Council
Binoy Kampmark
Grief, Loss and Losing a Father
Jim Tull
Will the Poor Always Be With Us?
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s “March Massacre” Budget
Joe Emersberger
Rafael Correa and the Future of Ecuador: a Response to James McEnteer
March 21, 2017
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt
On Being the “Right Kind of Brown”
Kenneth Surin
God, Guns, Gays, Gummint: the Career of Rep. Bad Bob Goodlatte
David Rosen
Popular Insurgencies: Reshaping the Political Landscape
Ryan LaMothe
The Totalitarian Strain in American Democracy
Eric Sommer
The House Intelligence Committee: Evidence Not Required
Mike Hastie
My Lai Massacre, 49 Years Later
James McEnteer
An Era Ends in Ecuador: Forward or Back?
Evan Jones
Beyond the Pale
Stansfield Smith
First Two Months in Power: Hitler vs. Trump
Dulce Morales
A Movement for ‘Sanctuary Campuses’ Takes Shape
Pepe Escobar
Could Great Wall of Iron become New Silk Roadblock?
Olivia Alperstein
Trump Could Start a Nuclear War, Right Now
David Macaray
Norwegians Are the Happiest People on Earth
March 20, 2017
Michael Schwalbe
Tears of Solidarity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit, Nationalism and the Damage Done
Peter Stone Brown
Chuck Berry: the First Poet of Rock and Roll
Paul J. Ramsey
What Trump’s Travel Ban Reveals About His Long-Term Educational Policy
Norman Pollack
Two Nations: Skid Rows vs. Mar-a-Lago
Michael Brenner
The Great Game: Power Politics or Free Play?
Sam Gordon
Falling Rate of Profit, What about Some Alienation?
Jack Random
Sidetracked: Trump Diaries, Week 8
Julian Vigo
The Limits of Citizenship
James Graham
French Elections: a Guide for the Perplexed
Jeff Mackler
The Extraordinary Lynne Stewart
Lee Ballinger
Chuck Berry: “Up in the Morning and Off to School!”
Binoy Kampmark
Romancing Coal: The Adani Obsession
Nyla Ali Khan
Cultural Syncretism in Kashmir
Chad Nelson
The Politics of Animal Liberation: I Can’t Quit You Gary Francione
Weekend Edition
March 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
John Reynolds
Israel and the A-Word
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail