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

Weekend Edition
February 12-14, 2016
Andrew Levine
What Next in the War on Clintonism?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Comedy of Terrors: When in Doubt, Bomb Syria
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh – Anthony A. Gabb
Financial Oligarchy vs. Feudal Aristocracy
Paul Street
When Plan A Meets Plan B: Talking Politics and Revolution with the Green Party’s Jill Stein
Rob Urie
The (Political) Season of Our Discontent
Pepe Escobar
It Takes a Greek to Save Europa
Gerald Sussman
Why Hillary Clinton Spells Democratic Party Defeat
Carol Norris
What Do Hillary’s Women Want? A Psychologist on the Clinton Campaign’s Women’s Club Strategy
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Election: Any Good News for Palestine?
Linda Pentz Gunter
Radioactive Handouts: the Nuclear Subsidies Buried Inside Obama’s “Clean” Energy Budget
Michael Welton
Lenin, Putin and Me
Manuel García, Jr.
Fire in the Hole: Bernie and the Cracks in the Neo-Liberal Lid
Thomas Stephens
The Flint River Lead Poisoning Catastrophe in Historical Perspective
David Rosen
When Trump Confronted a Transgender Beauty
Will Parrish
Cap and Clear-Cut
Victor Grossman
Coming Cutthroats and Parting Pirates
Ben Terrall
Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy
David Yearsley
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Formation: Form-Fitting Uniforms of Revolution and Commerce
David Mattson
Divvying Up the Dead: Grizzly Bears in a Post-ESA World
Matthew Stevenson
Confessions of a Primary Insider
Jeff Mackler
Friedrichs v. U.S. Public Employee Unions
Franklin Lamb
Notes From Tehran: Trump, the Iranian Elections and the End of Sanctions
Pete Dolack
More Unemployment and Less Security
Christopher Brauchli
The Cruzifiction of Michael Wayne Haley
Bill Quigley
Law on the Margins: a Profile of Social Justice Lawyer Chaumtoli Huq
Uri Avnery
A Lady With a Smile
Katja Kipping
The Opposite of Transparency: What I Didn’t Read in the TIPP Reading Room
B. R. Gowani
Hellish Woman: ISIS’s Granny Endorses Hillary
Kent Paterson
The Futures of Whales and Humans in Mexico
James Heddle
Why the Current Nuclear Showdown in California Should Matter to You
Michael Howard
Hollywood’s Grotesque Animal Abuse
Steven Gorelick
Branding Tradition: a Bittersweet Tale of Capitalism at Work
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s UN Victory and Redemption of the West
Patrick Bond
World Bank Punches South Africa’s Poor, by Ignoring the Rich
Mel Gurtov
Is US-Russia Engagement Still Possible?
Dan Bacher
Governor Jerry Brown Receives Cold, Dead Fish Award Four Years In A Row
Wolfgang Lieberknecht
Fighting and Protecting Refugees
Jennifer Matsui
Doglegs, An Unforgettable Film
Soud Sharabani
Israeli Myths: An Interview with Ramzy Baroud
Terry Simons
Bernie? Why Not?
Missy Comley Beattie
When Thoughtful People Think Illogically
Christy Rodgers
Everywhere is War: Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories
Ron Jacobs
Springsteen: Rockin’ the House in Albany, NY
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too
Charles R. Larson
No Brainers: When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail