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:
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Fearsome: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
Binoy Kampmark
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail