Never before has the half-century decline of American labor revealed itself more clearly than in the last several weeks.
Largely relegated to the sidelines, national union officials are making little effort to interject independent working-class solutions into the current debate of how to resolve the enormous social crisis affecting millions.
“Free market” apologists dominate discussion of both the cause and remedy of the most dramatic collapse of major capitalist financial institutions in over seven decades. Labor’s voice is seldom heard on the air waves or in national newspapers and is certainly excluded, as well, from inner political circles in Washington.
For those of us disgusted by the self-serving solutions being suggested by Wall St., the silence of a genuine alternative is deafening. It is also unprecedented during previous times of profound crisis in American history.
Early Labor Reform Movements
With far less financial and logistical resources than unions have today, early-organized labor played a very prominent political role championing the interests of the working class. Many of our most important social gains were actually achieved in periods of crisis.
Public education and shortening the 16-hour workday were first won during the tumultuous robber-baron years of the late 19th and early 20th century. Social security, unemployment insurance and other “New Deal” reforms were legislated right in the middle of the Great Depression. And finally, the historic GI bill was passed while the government was arguing, unsuccessfully, for “patriotic” extension of the WWII wage freeze.
From a business point of view, any profits diverted to social spending or to increased wages and benefits is a waste. As a result, all these reforms required enormously-powerful popular movements or serious threats of social upheaval such as the incredible 1946 rolling-strike wave in which 10 million participated.
Fortunately, from the very beginning there were many within the ranks of American labor who openly challenged capitalism’s primacy of private profit over public welfare.
In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were actually some 323 newspapers and periodicals that took up the cause of democratic socialism and kept a steady check on the now thoroughly, historically-discredited JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Rockefeller industrialists.
The Appeal to Reason, one of the most widely read socialist papers, reached a weekly circulation of 600,000 copies in 1912.
On Election Day in that same year, labor’s universally-recognized national icon, Eugene V. Debs, won 897,000 votes for President as candidate of the Socialist Party (SP)–and this was before women had the right to vote. The SP had almost 118,000 dues-paying members.
In fact, even the most conservative labor leaders of that era such as AFL leader Samuel Gompers wore the socialist label (some would say through a misunderstanding) because anti-capitalist ideas were so popular, especially among recent European immigrants.
Labor’s Political Decline is More than Numbers
Of course, this is very much unlike today, where the right wing invents a caricature of socialism to muzzle any talk of regulating the "free market."
In no other developed country in the world is the word socialism so anathema to the political discourse. This did not happen naturally.
Thousands of socialists and radicals were physically driven out of many unions in the late 1940s as a result of unconstitutional, repressive and sometimes violent McCarthyite purges. Several proud and defiant unions such as the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) were expelled from national union federations for refusing to remove elected officials holding anti-capitalist political views.
Pressure to tone down progressive influences was enormous.
Uncritical political acceptance of capitalism became the norm within most unions as the alliance with the Democratic party deepened, especially since those pesky radicals were mostly gone.
Eventually, greater and greater distance grew between union officials and the rank and file as both shared the supreme illusion that big business would create unlimited prosperity.
Based on this false confidence, labor officials and members settled into a mutually-dysfunctional relationship – union officials sat on top running the show without much involvement of members as long as raises and benefits would periodically flow downward to disengaged members.
Everything seemed to be working fine. The exclusive political alliance with one of the capitalist parties seemed quite justified as post-war prosperity appeared to have no end. Relying on politicians as the unions’ primary bargaining leverage became even more crucial after membership involvement receded more and more each year.
Union strength was gauged by the extent of political connections to the establishment rather than on the number of members participating in the affairs of the organization.
As a result, more than at any other time, labor has today thoroughly immersed itself into the Democratic Party. The AFL-CIO powerful national labor federation has declined to either schedule events to discuss the crisis or to organize protests objecting to a bailout which clearly favors wealthy investors and financial institutions.
Yet, it is precisely today when millions of working class people so desperately need to hear an alternative program.
Labor has a Program
The AFL-CIO actually has very good reform proposals derived from its history and role as a working class organization. It calls for “a moratorium on the foreclosures that are causing the economy at every level to hemorrhage.”
“The ‘Change to Win” coalition of several other national unions, including the Teamsters and SEIU, also calls for “freezes on foreclosures.” Neither of the two major parties advocate this elementary protection for working families.
Another very important national Labor proposal reminiscent of working-class agitation during the1930s calls for massive job-creating public investment to rebuild America’s infrastructure. Our tax dollar "bail-out" money would, as a result, be spread throughout the whole economy instead of just lining the pockets of Wall St. financiers.
Labor also calls for guaranteed protection of retiree pensions that have suffered serious losses as a result of the greed and speculation of those same "fat cat" financiers who are primarily the beneficiaries of the Congressional bail out.
Many believe organized labor has lost its clout due to its much-publicized dramatic drop in membership. Unions today represent a little over 15 million workers which is 12% of the workforce, down from a high of 35% in 1955.
But numbers don’t tell the full story. Labor’s dramatic decline in power and influence derives more from it’s lack of political independence from the essentially pro-big business, liberal establishment than from fewer members.
In fact, unions today possess far larger staffs and much bigger treasuries than ever before. For example, AFL-CIO affiliates are expected to fork over an unprecedented $250 million during this election cycle. SEIU is alone predicted to pitch in another $85 million to win the White House for Barack Obama.
Is it not fair to ask what we are getting for our money?
How much support do we loose by not signaling to our members and to the working class as a whole that labor has our own distinct proposals directly responding to their needs? How much credibility do we risk by not honestly advancing criticisms of the worst excesses of the capitalist race for profits at the expense of the greater good? How much of our political identity do we sacrifice by being considered virtually identical to Democratic Party candidates and policy?
If not now, when will criticisms of the capitalist system be any more warranted or relevant?
Millions of working people already enduring rising gas prices, inflation, home foreclosures and dried-up credit are now expected to assume the costs of bailing out banks, major investors and brokerage firms.
We see that Labor has valuable ideas for consideration in the public debate but is reluctant to launch an aggressive national campaign because of its alliance with the Democratic Party to which it politically defers.
Whatever one believes regarding Labor supporting Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, and I obviously don‘t feel too good about it, can’t we agree that labor must still not surrender it’s own unique and independent voice?
CARL FINAMORE is former President (ret), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org