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Labor at the Crossroads
I began reading Kim Moody’s new book US Labor in Trouble and Transition just as news of the 2007 United Autoworkers strike against General Motors began filtering over the airwaves. As I delved further into the book, the news regarding the strike touched on several of Mr. Moody’s points. Indeed, the nature of the union leadership’s statements during the rather brief walkout proved his point over and over that big union leadership is out of touch with the nature of their members’ lives.
A brilliant overview of the current economic situation and how those of us in the capitalist nations got to this point begins the book. While these three chapters do have a good number of graphs and charts–just like other economics texts–the text that accompanies the graphics provides an analysis one rarely found in traditional economics books. Naturally, this is because those texts give the capitalist economist viewpoint of why things are the way they are. In addition, they also usually consider the solution to any problems can be found in the so-called free market–a market that is actually usually free only to the biggest players in the global capitalist playground.
Moody continues on this track by explaining how big unions have generally accepted this theology of capital and, by doing so, have created the dismal situation they find themselves in. Even worse, their actions (and lack thereof) have placed working men and women in the US and elsewhere in what is usually an even worse situation. Unlike other critiques of big labor in the US that tend to look for individual officials and unions to blame for the situation organized labor finds itself in, Moody correctly identifies the reasons for the unions’ ineffectiveness on the nature of corporate capitalism in the last twenty-five years. Included in this scenario, of course, are the numerous wars, incursions, subversions, and other military actions undertaken by the Pentagon, along with the dependency of the US workforce on the industries associated with capital’s wars. This dependence naturally convinced the labor leadership to support the imperial foreign policy of Washington. It also fed a trend towards less labor militancy-a phenomena that not only pleased corporate America, but placed the union leadership’s interests closer to the corporation men sitting across from them at the negotiating table. In other words, the union benefited from the same war-based economy as the corporations.
Moody acknowledges that this was not new to the Cold War United States, but the cold war did affirm and connect organized labor and the corporations whose workers it organized in a deeper and more permanent way. One of the first byproducts of this unsavory alliance was the purge of all communists and socialists from AFL-CIO unions and the dismissal of all unions unwilling to cooperate with the purge from the CIO itself.
A couple years back, several large unions split from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Coalition. Moody examines this move and provides a different perspective on the move than that provided by wither the AFL-CIO or Change to Win. One of his contentions is that this attempt at reform from above (as he calls it) is actually quite similar to a corporate maneuver that consolidates localized units under one centralized command. When it comes to unions, this type of centralization makes it local job actions-including wildcats and other work stoppages-not only less likely but also illegal under union rules. Once an action is declared against union rules it loses access to union strike funding and places the workers involved against both the company and the international union. The union, in essence, joins the employer in trying to break the locals will.
Simultaneously, Moody discusses attempts at reform from below. Perhaps the most famous of these was the 1997 strike against UPS. The strike, which was successful, was followed by a scandal regarding misuse of Teamsters funds and resulted in the reform element in the national leadership of the union being replaced by the old line element identified with the Hoffa family. This reinstatement of the anti-reform element predicated what was essentially the abrogation of the 1997 contract and its replacement with a contract much more palatable to management. Despite this example, Moody remains optimistic that worker-driven reforms to empower workers at the local levels and grassroots attempts to organize non-union workers can succeed.
The UAW strike against GM was over by the time I finished reading Moody’s book and the outcome was not that great for the workers. There were concessions around retirees’ health benefits and a mere two year guarantee that current workers’ benefits would remain as they were before the strike. Rumors were also leaking out on to various listservs that the leadership had agreed to a two-tier pay system that would make new workers maximum pay rate half that of currently employed members. On top of that, the six-hour pseudo-strike called by the UAW leadership against Chrysler ended in a contract that not only creates a two-tiered wage system and ends medical retirement benefits for new workers, but also transfers the medical care piece from the company to the union. The union bureaucrats wanted this because of the high profits to be made. Unfortunately for the workers, this contract does very little in the name of job security. In short, the malaise Moody details so well continues in the US labor movement. To the workers’ credit however, they were voting the contract down as of this writing.
US Labor in Trouble and Transition is more than a look at the state of unions in the United States. It is also a warning of how a unionless future would look and how the current policies of the big unions in the U.S. could well make such a future a reality. Simultaneously, it provides the labor-friendly reader with some hope that the rank and file of America’s working classes-immigrants and native-born together-can prevent that future.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org