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Dimensions of the Crisis

American Labor at a Strategic Impasse

by JACK RASMUS

The trade union movement in the USA today is on the road to nowhere.  The decline, in progress for more than three decades, is now accelerating.  Once a major force in the USA economy and politics, Union Labor in the USA has been steadily in retreat—growing progressively weaker industrially and politically since the late 1970s.

Given current trends and developments, anything resembling an independent and viable trade union movement in the USA may virtually disappear in another decade.

So far as this writer is aware, there has yet to occur a broad-based, grass roots discussion and debate within the ranks of union labor in the USA as to why Labor’s basic strategies of the past four decades—strategies associated with union organizing, collective bargaining and industrial action, and political orientation—have failed to prevent its now precipitous decline.

Lest it be misunderstood that the foregoing remarks are the complaints of some ‘outsider’ or ‘leftist’ with no roots in the movement itself,  the reader should be aware the preceding views are offered by one who has spent decades in the union movement in the USA at the grass roots level—as an organizer, contract negotiator, strike coordinator, delegate to labor councils and national union conventions, and as an elected local union president and vice-president for various unions over the course of sixteen years, including communications workers, hotel & restaurant workers , city & county local government employees, and the national writers union.

What follows is therefore not offered lightly. Nor is it done with the intent of union bashing, but rather with the sole purpose of initiating a much needed open, public discussion that critically examines the movement’s fundamental strategies of recent decades—i.e. organizing, bargaining, and political—and why those strategies have so clearly been failing.

In an effort to stimulate the same public discussion of Labor’s current strategic impasse, as host of the weekly radio show, ‘Alternative Visions’, on the Progressive Radio Network in New York, this writer has been interviewing a number of long-time local union leaders and activists in the USA over the past year: Organizers, seasoned business reps, elected local officers, labor council delegates, strike and corporate campaign leaders, and other ‘grass roots’ voices, each with experience of 40 years or more in the union movement.  Veterans of labor struggles on the ground who had experienced USA labor’s power and achievements before the 1980s—as well as witnessed its steady decline ever since.  The interviews have explored questions such as: why was Labor once effective and is no longer so today, where is it going, why is membership in decline, why are wages and benefit gains in deep rollback, why are there so few strikes and victories any longer, why does union labor continue to tie itself to the Democratic Party when the latter has been less and less attentive to the interests of union workers? What’s fundamentally wrong and in need of change?

These questions have relevance not only to the future direction of union labor in the USA, but to unions globally as well—at least in the economies of western Europe, Japan, and other OECD countries. For the decline of union labor in recent decades is a global phenomenon of the early 21st century.  Discussion and analysis in this multiple part essay on union decline in the USA will therefore hopefully have some relevance perhaps for union workers and activists worldwide as well.

Part 1 of this multiple part essay introduces the theme ‘Union Labor at Strategic Impasse’.  It roughly defines the dimensions of the current crisis of union labor in the USA. Part 2 of the essay, to follow in a subsequent week, will summarize the radio interviews of the long time union veterans, conducted over the past year by this writer, focusing on their suggestions as to how union labor might break out of its current strategic impasse. Thereafter, in a concluding Part 3, this writer will offer in more detail his own views and recommended changes necessary for the resurrection of union labor in America—including a topic that has been missing in much of the discussion thus far with regard to why Union Labor today is experiencing such a historic retreat: i.e. the organizational changes that might be required to implement new strategies necessary for that revival.

The main dimensions of union labor decline in the USA are threefold, starting with the long term fall in the percent of the USA work force that is unionized.  Union membership in the private sector is now barely 6.5% of the total USA workforce, and membership has begun to decline as well in recent years in the once stable government sector. Having represented 22% of the UA labor force in 1980, and 50% to 70% in basic industries like construction and manufacturing at that time, union memberships today is but a shell of what it once was. Had union labor maintained its overall 22% membership level today, it would have nearly 35 million members instead of well less than half that number.  The collapse of union labor membership therefore represents an organization strategy that has clearly failed.

That membership decline is obviously attributable to causes beyond union labor’s current strategies for organizing.  However, fault needs to be laid to labor’s own doorstep as well. Strategies to ‘organize the boss’ instead of the workers themselves in recent years—so clearly evident in the failures of the United Auto Workers union to organize new members—are in part responsible.  The inability of Labor today to successfully leverage the uprising of low wage restaurant and other workers into direct membership growth is yet another example.  Growing successes of corporate and billionaire-driven open shop movements in once union labor bastion states like Michigan are yet another indicator of the need for fundamental change. Meanwhile, where unions have had some limited success in organizing and membership growth, as among nurses and hospital workers for example, the lessons of those successes have not been internalized throughout the broader union movement.

Part of Labor’s organizing failure is due the ‘smokestack’ structure of unions themselves, a residue of a century old economic structure, where a union member is conceived as belonging to a particular occupationally and industrially defined union—i.e. in autos, communications, county government, electricians, etc.—and where dues are paid to that narrowly defined union entity. But this definition of what constitutes a union member per se is clearly anachronistic.  A broader definition of union membership, more appropriate for the 21st century, has yet to be determined—just as it had been redefined in times past on several occasions in the 19th and 20th centuries, when redefinitions and organizational restructuring of unions took place.  Union labor once again needs to reinvent itself organizationally, in order to resurrect itself strategically.

Many unions still pursue organizational growth through government controlled elections. But as many still doing so know full well, this is a dead end organizing strategy since those very same government agencies have become largely controlled by corporate interests. Their role is to slow, complicate, and otherwise thwart union organizing not enable it.  Nevertheless, unions have continued to stick to the ‘national labor relations board’ (NLRB) elections process today, unable to envision an effective alternative apart from reforming it by means of what is called a ‘card check’. But even when temporarily successful in this ‘finger in the dike’ approach, little of major consequence for union membership growth has followed even when occasional pro-union directors are appointed to the NLRB.  The NLRB-government regulated process has retained a built-in pro-corporate bias regardless of who is temporarily at its helm.  Nevertheless, senior union leaders expend significant money and political capital on who directs the NLRB—despite its strategic focus of declining importance.

The declining effectiveness of traditional collective bargaining represents a second major dimension of union decline— whether measured in terms of jobs, wages and hours worked, healthcare, pension and other benefits, declining worker and union rights vis-à-vis expanding management rights, or working conditions in general.

Full time employed workers, whether union or not, earn real wages today about the same as they did thirty years ago in 1982-83, when adjusted for inflation. Aggregate wages for all categories of union workers today, not just full time workers, are no doubt even less: When union unemployed, involuntarily part time employed, millions of union workers who have left the labor force, those who prematurely took disability to avoid layoff, those pressured to take early retirement packages that prevent them from working and pay less, etc., are all factored in—union wages may actually be lower in adjusted real terms than they were even three decades ago.

Over the same thirty year period, at least five to ten million union jobs have been lost to offshoring, to technological displacement of labor, to free trade agreements and other trade deals, and to other anti-labor initiatives of the past three decades. On the benefits front, tens of thousands of union negotiated pensions have been destroyed since the 1980s.  The cost of union negotiated health care plans has been steadily shifted from employers to workers, with most of the same union plans destined soon for elimination by 2018 as a result of recent Obamacare legislation.  Available hours of work have declined, as tens of millions of new ‘contingent’ workers have been added to the workforce–while stripping of union and worker rights by courts and government agencies in recent years are too numerous to recount.

The hallmark of traditional collective bargaining today is called ‘MOB’, or maintenance of benefits bargaining. With MOB, unions for decades have been giving up wage increases in order to pay for ever-rising health care benefit premiums, copays and deductibles even as the quality of coverage has simultaneously declined. Not only their own share of rising healthcare costs, but their employer’s share which has been steadily shifting to workers as well.

MOB has been the central theme of union bargaining since the mid-1990s at least.  But it is now faced with an approaching implosion.  All the wages foregone for two decades will have been for nought, as it is now becoming clear that employers (with government collusion and assistance) are dumping their pension plans. Meanwhile, union negotiated employer health care plans are about to disappear in the next few years as well due to provisions of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, slapping a 40% tax on all union health care benefits while denying subsidies under the act to low paid union workers as well. In other words, wage concessions for decades, that were foregone to ‘save’ workers retirement and health care benefits, will have been conceded for nothing, in retrospect, in exchange. Both pension and healthcare bargaining are destined to fade from the workplace in the not too distant future.

A third major indicator of union labor decline is the inability of the union movement to influence legislation to protect U.S. workers’ interests at both the national (Washington DC) and state levels.  That influence has been in steady decline as well since the late 1970s, and represents a fundamental failure of union labor’s political strategy of the past four decades—i.e. a strategy characterized by its growing dependency, as it grows weaker over time, on the Democratic Party, which today delivers less and less while simultaneously Labor ups its campaign contributions to Democrat politicians more and more. In the 2008 US election cycle union labor reportedly contributed more than $400 million to elect Democratic party candidates, and at least another similar amount in 2012.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to recall even one piece of national legislation or presidential executive action since 2008 that has been passed or introduced on behalf of union labor and its members.

Had any other movement and its organizations produced so little, for so long, at such a growing financial and other cost to its membership, it would have undertaken a fundamental revision of its basic strategic approach long before now.  However, union labor’s efforts to address its failing strategies over the last four decades have been token and tentative at best. Not much has been done to confront, or otherwise challenge and change, labor’s obviously failed strategies of the past four decades—neither at the ‘top’ among its national leadership nor at the ‘local level’ of local union membership. That fundamental strategic discussion is now long overdue.

In subsequent Part 2 and Part 3 follow ups to this initial essay, veteran union local leaders and activists with decades of experience at the grass roots will share their views on the preceding critical strategic issues.  In Part 3, this writer will further contribute to the discussion and debate as to the causes and consequences of Union Labor’s decline in the USA and what might be done strategically to reverse the decline.

Understanding the causes and consequences of the historic decline of Union Labor in the USA, and the failure of its strategic focus of the past four decades, is of the utmost historical importance.  Not only for the USA, but for whatever light it throws on what is clearly a global phenomenon of a world wide decline in influence of union labor.

There have been three great events of the past four decades that explain in large part why global capitalism, and its dominant American variant in particular, has become increasingly aggressive in recent decades.

One such event clearly has been the collapse of the Soviet Union. American policy ever since 1991 has been to keep the remaining states of the former USSR fragmented politically, disunited economically, and militarily in check.  Recent events in the Ukraine and Europe are clear evidence to that effect.

Another major great event has been the more complete economic integration and absorption by American Capital of its former competitors and adversaries in the European Union and Japan. American Capital conquered Western Europe and Japan militarily in the 1940s and never left. After more than 70 years, tens of thousands of US military forces remain in those regions, with no intention of ever departing.  US Capital subsequently deepened the integration Europe and Japan economically into its orbit over the ensuing decades. Neither regions are permitted to pursue a truly independent political or diplomatic strategy—whether in relation to Russia and the Ukraine with regard to Europe or in relation to China with Japan.  Both represent modern economic satrapies, with the US Capital retaining the economic and monetary levers of power sufficient, when required, to ‘turn the screws’ on either region whenever it so chooses, when events it considers of strategic importance arise.

But there is yet a third, no less an important event of equally great consequence for understanding the renewed aggressive initiatives by American Capital in recent decades. That been the progressive decline of any effective organized domestic opposition by USA Union Labor.

The virtually unfettered economic expansion of American Capital since the 1980s cannot be fully understood without understanding how and why union labor in the USA has declined.  Nor is the checking of the further expansion of American Capital globally possible without a resurrection of Union Labor in the USA as a force capable of checking American Capital on occasion within its home territory.  However that resurrection will first require a fundamental reappraisal of Union Labor’s current failed strategies, replaced by a new strategic reorientation, before any such revival is

Jack Rasmus is the author of ‘Epic Recession: Prelude to Global Depression’ (2010) and ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’(2012), by Pluto Press, London, UK, and the forthcoming ‘Transitions to Global Depression’(2015). He hosts the Alternative Visions radio show on the Progressive Radio Network, and serves as the ‘Shadow’ Federal Reserve Chair, in the Green Shadow Cabinet. His website is www.kyklosproductions.com. He blogs at jackrasmus.com, and tweets at @drjackrasmus.