A quiet lull briefly settled over the United States in the weeks immediately following 11 September 2001. The silence was a respite from the usual din of commercial and cultural transactions and allowed for a space of remembrance for the many firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians who had risked their lives in the collapse of the World Trade Centre, and died there. This was more than a memorial; it was a heartfelt salute to the courage of men and women who routinely risk death in their everyday work.
In ordinary times it takes great power or wealth to become a hero, but these workers were hailed for being workers. And to be honoured for doing humble work is a big thing in a society where decades of neoliberal dogma have erased workers from the social imagination. The gratitude expressed to and for workers after 9/11 was an uncommon gesture of recognition for the usually invisible.
But this quiet reverence was quickly overwhelmed by the noise of vengeance and war. The Bush administration, which had previously shown indifference to workers and contempt for their unions, discovered that it could use its war against terrorism to front another kind of low- intensity warfare against workers and trades unions. New laws were quickly passed to create a new Department of Homeland Security. This meant an enormous reorganisation of federal agencies, stripping 170,000 workers transferred into the new super- agency of all rights to collective bargaining and civil service protections. As the nation was still honouring the (unionised) firefighters and policemen who had died on 11 September, President Bush was claiming that unionisation posed a national security threat.
He amplified the anti-worker tone of his presidency more after the Republican gains in the mid-term congressional elections of November 2001. When he could not eliminate public employee unions by fiat, he intended to speed up the privatisation of the federal workforce, permitting non-union and low-wage subcontractors to bid for the jobs of some 850,000 federal workers, many of whom are union members.
This assault on public sector unions came in the context of a ferocious 25-year campaign of anti-unionism by employers and their trade associations in the private sector, where the rate of union membership has fallen to 9% (the overall rate of 14% is propped up by higher rates of unionisation in the much smaller public sector). In many European societies social benefits are mandated by the state. But in the US union membership matters very much and is hard to secure.
There are few statutory regulations upon employers, so union membership is one of the few ways for a worker to get reasonable social benefits and protection (paid health insurance, a pension plan, paid holidays, a legally enforceable grievance resolution system). Gaining union status is not easy in the US; it must be won through a process of social combat governed by judicial rules that overwhelmingly favour the employer.
The Bush administration has used the congressional powers conferred because of the war on terrorism against workers in the private sector. When Bush moved to save the airline industry with a $15bn bailout against losses suffered because of a slowdown in air travel after 9/11, he offered almost nothing to 100,000 airline workers who had been laid off, and used the power of injunction under the anti- Labor 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to end strikes at two major airlines. He made a rhetorical link between the interruption of economic activity and national security.
This was reinforced in the US national consciousness in autumn 2002, when Bush actively intervened on the side of shipping companies after they locked out some 10,000 longshoremen from their jobs at 29 West Coast ports. Before the lockout, the shippers had formed a coalition with some of their biggest customers, mostly large retail chains like WalMart and Gap, and had met a task force from the Bush administration to prepare strategy. The administration’s actions against the longshoremen’s union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), were a warning to the rest of the Labor movement. In the middle of negotiations between the union and the shipping companies, Tom Ridge, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, and representatives of the federal Department of Labor telephoned the head of the ILWU to dissuade the union from shutting the ports. They warned that any strike or interruption of work on the docks would be treated as a threat to national security and that the government was prepared to deploy the military to replace striking workers (echoing Ronald Reagan’s actions in 1981). According to a principle elaborated by the US de fence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in the war against terrorism all commercial cargo, not only goods directly intended for military use, would be considered to have a military importance.
The Bush administration has adroitly used regulatory mechanisms as a powerful weapon against the unions. In contrast to the administration policies on the environment and corporate governance, where the White House has fiercely opposed any regulation of air and water quality, food safety, and business practices, the Labor Department issued new regulations in December 2001 that will require unions to itemise every expense over $2,000 on organising workers, striking, and legislative or political activities. This means an administrative nightmare that will cost millions of dollars and weigh down their already overburdened staff in bureaucratic practices that have limited US unions for decades.
In Bush’s current budget, funds have been dramatically increased for auditing and investigating unions while funds for enforcing health and safety laws, child-Labor regulations, and violations of the minimum wage have been cut. The unions have responded to this. At the end of February, the leadership of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations) registered its opposition to the war on Iraq.
This was unprecedented, because the Labor movement has for 50 years been a strong voice for military intervention, a dependable ideological combatant throughout the cold war. Anti-communism was obligatory for entry into the top leadership of almost all US trade unions (and most US institutions), and there was a recognition that millions of the jobs that sustained industrial unionism depended on the policies of postwar “military Keynesianism”. The attack on anti- war demonstrators by hundreds of construction workers in New York City in 1970 gave the working class a militantly pro-war image.
This has now changed. Since 1995 a younger and more militant leadership group, with roots in the more dynamic service sector unions, and less burdened by the cold war imperative, have taken over leadership of the Labor federation. The change is reflected in the willingness to break with the Bush administration on Iraq. The shift is not only evident at the top, but throughout the movement, where a longstanding ideological curtain of self-censorship has been lifted and the accusation of being “soft on communism” has lost its bite (although forces on the right are trying to provoke fears with the charge of being “soft on terrorism”). The result is a more critical voice from the Labor movement, and opposition from new organisations that have emerged as vehicles of Labor mobilisation.
Besides the executive council’s resolution against the war, the leaders of 400 Labor groups, representing nearly 5 million union members, signed an even stronger resolution calling the drive to war a “pretext for attacks on Labor, civil, immigrant and human rights at home” and warning that the main victims of war “will be the sons and daughters of working class families serving in the military and innocent Iraqi civilians”.
Once the war began, the open opposition muted, as a curtain came down over all debate, in deference to an enforced tradition of national unity and support always invoked when US troops go to war. When they entered Baghdad, a lunchtime rally to “support our troops” was held on the site of the World Trade Centre (organised by the conservative New York building trades unions), drawing over 10,000 union workers.
If the positions of the unions have changed, so has the US military since 1973. It is half the size it was at the height of Vietnam, with 1.4 million active duty members, and an almost equal number of reservists. The draft, discontinued at the end of the Vietnam war, gave way to the current “volunteer” force, a term that perhaps misdescribes the social compulsions at the intersection of civilian and military Labor markets. This is most evident with African- Americans, for whom the US army has been a central institution of social maintenance and mobility (1). In 1988 10.6% of the army officer corps were African-Americans (including 7.4% of the generals, the highest officer rank), an increase of nearly 300% since the war in Vietnam (2).
The US military is overwhelmingly working-class, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, 90% of whom enter the forces with just a high school diploma, and come from families with a median income of $33,000 a year–about one-third below average national income (3).
It is ironic that working-class soldiers will come home from Iraq to a socio-economic reality that has been shaped by the costs of a huge military establishment. Americans pay for an annual military budget of $400bn and rising–yet they go without national health insurance or affordable childcare, and have an educational system full of inequities.
The Bush administration mandates huge tax cuts for the rich and encourages the governors of 50 states to reduce spending by privatising their workforces. Even more progressive governors are left with little choice but to privatise because almost every state staggers under the the expense of homeland security, which the administration has required states to implement without providing federal funds to cover the costs.
As US troops entered Baghdad, the administration was quietly proposing changes to the federal Fair Labor Standards act to exclude millions of workers from overtime pay for work over 40 hours a week (workers in the US are paid time and a half for every hour over 40). By reclassifying previously protected workers as managers and administrative employees, and removing overtime protections from workers in aerospace, de fence, healthcare, and hi-tech industries, the Bush administration is handing to employers who are already laden with gifts an especially generous handout. The workers, including those soon to be discharged from military service, will pay for this gift.
Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss are sociology professors at Smith College in Massachusetts and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively, and joint authors of the forthcoming Hard Work: Remaking the US Labor Movement (from the University of California Press, autumn 2003).
(1) African-Americans aged between 18-24 years old make up 14% of the population as a whole, but almost 22% of the military. For the past 25 years the army has offered them a more reliable education system than almost any other US institution.
(2) Charles C Moskos, Soldiers and Sociology, US Army Research Institute for Behavioural and Social Sciences, 1988.
(3) Vicki Haddock, “Who will fight the war?” San Francisco Chronicle, 2 March 2003.
This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.