State of Emergency, Signs of Renewal

A sense of emergency pervades the U.S. labor movement. Scattered organizing successes haven’t compensated for job losses due to plant closures and restructuring. Labor-management “partnership” arrangements involving traditionally powerful unions have resulted in tens of billions in concessions in the steel, auto and airline industries. Originally proposed as temporary solutions for hard-hit industries, these givebacks are fast becoming the standard. The three biggest supermarket chains made similar demands to force 59,000 1grocery workers onto the picket lines for several months beginning in October 2003-a battle which has gained widespread solidarity and support despite repeated strategic blunders by the union.

Meanwhile, labor is fast losing leverage with which to bargain. The proportion of workers in unions-union density-in the private sector dropped from 9.6 percent in 2002 to 8.2 percent in 2003. 2By contrast, peak union density in the mid-1950s-about 35 percent-was virtually all in the private sector. In some industries, “the very future of collective bargaining is in question,” write the editors of a recent book on labor relations. 3State intervention against the unions is on the rise, from George W. Bush’s anti-union measures to federal bankruptcy judges who regularly threaten to rewrite labor contracts.

The crisis has spurred a coalition of major union leaders, known as the New Unity Partnership (NUP), to demand a far-reaching restructuring of the labor movement to organize the unorganized. Talk abounds of a formal break with the AFL-CIO. 4A separate split emerged between the mostly blue-collar unions that backed presidential candidate Richard Gephardt, known for pro-labor votes in Congress, and Howard Dean, who promised unions nothing but was seen as “electable” by the heads of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The result was a double debacle for labor: With the SEIU and AFSCME pushing Dean’s “electability” and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters touting Gephardt’s Washington connections, union voters went for a candidate who could claim to be stronger on both counts-John Kerry. Labor then shuffled into line behind Kerry, with perhaps less political clout than ever. 5

There are other, hopeful elements emerging in the labor movement, however. There is a growing willingness from the rank and file to fight back and a greater opening for political activism beyond electoral politics.

The last months of 2003 saw strike victories by workers at Yale University and at Chicago sanitation companies. 6Soon afterward, a rebellious rank and file nearly forced the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union to call a strike against a poor contract. 7Votes in three important Teamsters locals in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle ousted incumbents aligned with the union’s conservative top leadership. 8Meanwhile, labor backed a series of rallies to support immigrant rights as part of the cross-country Freedom Rides that culminated in a rally of 100,000 in New York in October. 9The following month, unions turned out 20,000 workers in Miami to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)-and stood up to police violence to hold a march that the authorities tried to prevent. 10 Next, thousands of workers demonstrated in cities across the U.S. for the right to organize on International Human Rights Day. And throughout 2003, U.S. Labor Against the War, while modest in size, legitimized antiwar and anti-occupation politics in the unions-a long overdue and important development, especially given labor’s decades of collaboration with U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. 11

To be sure, unions will throw everything into the 2004 elections. Nevertheless, the struggles and activism seen in recent months reflect labor’s efforts to come to grips with its crisis, however haltingly and unevenly. Both labor’s potential and limitations were on display in the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) fight against concessions on health care and other givebacks, with the main battle in southern California mobilizing labor solidarity on a scale unseen in years despite the UFCW’s confused and contradictory strategy. Whether or not the workers prevail, the struggle has already shown concretely that unionized workers and working-class communities will rally behind a struggle over issues that effect all working people, both organized and unorganized. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told the Los Angeles Tim es, “Some strikes begin to transcend themselves and this is one of them. It is becoming a politicized event which people need to take a stand on, one way or another.” 12

Escalating attacks from the employers above, stirrings from the ranks below, splits in the leadership, new openings to activism and organizing-all this makes for a potentially explosive combination. The run-up to the next AFL-CIO convention in 2005 will therefore lead to a much more far-reaching debate over labor’s future than was the case when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney ousted the old guard in 1995. The left in the unions, weak though it is, will have an opportunity to engage in that debate to put forward a strategy of rank-and-file organization, union democracy, opposition to concessions, and union organizing campaigns based on workers’ activism and movement-building.

The employers’ offensive in overdrive

The recession of 2001 and the weak recovery have allowed business to escalate its assault on workers on a scale unseen since the Ronald Reagan presidency of the 1980s. As in the Reagan era, tax cuts for the rich provided an ideological and political packaging for a multi-front war on workers. Real wages stagnated or declined for the majority of workers as a growing share of income was channeled to profits. 13 To compensate, workers increasingly relied on borrowing, often using credit cards with sky-high interest rates as consumer debt topped $2 trillion and personal bankruptcies reached a record 1.6 million in 2003. 14 Moreover, the loss of three million jobs since 2001 led to the worst job market since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Long-term unemployment increased by 70 percent between 2001 and 2003, with two million people jobless for twenty-seven weeks or more. 15 Holding onto a job is only part of the battle. Of the approximately forty million people without health insurance in 2001, nearly 26 percent were employed by a large company. 16

Employers have held down hiring by boosting productivity gains to levels even beyond those seen during the boom years of the 1990s-an increase of 4.3 percent in 2002_2003. 17 There was virtually no investment in the high-tech equipment that had supposedly boosted productivity in the nineties. The implication: Fewer people on the job worked harder to produce more, even as their wages stagnated or declined. 18

The Bush administration may have accelerated the employers’ offensive, but it continued unabated during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton presided over the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), welfare “reform,” deregulation, balanced the budget by eliminating jobs and cutting social spending, and catering economic policy to Wall Street bankers. 19 While the Democrats and Republicans advance this program in different ways, they both carry out the agenda set by big business in the early 1970s. As the Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it, “You can’t understand what’s happening in America today without understanding the extent, causes, and consequences of the vast increase in inequality that has taken place over the last three decades, and in particular the concentration of income and wealth in just a few hands.” 20

The unions: The dimensions of the crisis

As the chief obstacle to this transfer of wealth from labor to capital, unions have been in Corporate America’s crosshairs continuously. Employers used the 2001 slump and persistent unemployment to complete the virtual elimination of collective bargaining in some industries. The transformation is most stark in freight, where organized truck drivers were once the symbol of Jimmy Hoffa Sr.’s Teamsters and union power. Today, union membership in trucking stands at just 18 percent, with United Parcel Service (UPS) accounting for a disproportionate share. The younger Jimmy Hoffa’s poorly planned and ultimately defeated strike against the trucking company Overnite only highlighted the union’s weakness, and the increasing presence of non-union Federal Express in freight has put additional pressure on the union. The truckload carrier sector of the industry is essentially deunionized. “It is reasonable to believe that at some point union contracts will be untenable in the industry,” wrote Michael Belzer, a former Teamster and now an academic authority on the industry. 21

Even where unions retain substantial leverage, employers have used the weak economy to demand concessions that have eliminated more jobs and limited or cut wages and benefits-and union officials have in most cases endorsed the givebacks. This is true even where the employers are highly profitable. At Verizon, the dominant telecommunications company in the U.S., the union agreed to concessions on health care and job security worth $1 billion, according to company executives. 22

In the airlines, employers used losses to justify concessions that rolled back years-if not decades-of union gains. Justified as necessary to rescue the airlines after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the concessions were in fact the employers’ solution to the overcapacity, which has characterized most U.S. industry in recent years. At bankrupt United Airlines, the cuts in wages, jobs, and work rules will total $2.56 billion in each year of a six-year contract. 23 (United’s mechanics then punished the International Association of Machinists (IAM) by voting to replace it with a craft union). At U.S. Airways, also bankrupt, the company obtained $7.9 billion in concessions over seven years and terminated the pilots’ pension plan. 24 American Airlines used the threat of bankruptcy to extract $1.8 billion annually in a four-year agreement-and then disclosed the existence of a bankruptcy-proof pension plan for top executives. 25 The union givebacks, moreover, follow a decline in real wages in the airline industry since the 1980s, with flight attendants wages dropping by at least 20 percent. This has taken place in the most heavily unionized private industry, where about 39 percent of workers belonged to unions in 2002. 26

In the steel industry, some 600,000 retirees are the primary targets for concessions. Backing an industry restructuring through bankruptcy courts, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) has allowed employers to cut off retiree health benefits and dump pensions into the government’s Pension Benefits Guarantee Corp., which is more than $11 billion in the red and pays only a portion of what retirees are owed. 27 This, as well as teaming up with employers to push higher tariffs on steel imports, is the union’s strategy to protect the remaining 124,000 steel jobs-at the cost of abandoning previous generations of workers. To this end, USWA President Leo Gerard has forged a high-profile alliance with Wilbur Ross, a Wall Street financier who launched the International Steel Group (ISG) on the ruins of LTV Steel and Bethlehem Steel. (U.S. Steel made a similar acquisition, taking over bankrupt National Steel and cutting off 35,000 retirees and dependents from benefits.) 28 Ross supported the now defunct steel tariffs on China and other countries. Yet ISG has sold an entire former LTV steel mill and shipped it to China, where it will launch production in two or three years and put additional low-priced steel on the market. 29

The United Auto Workers (UAW) also made unprecedented concessions in a four-year contract negotiated in September 2003 covering 307,000 workers-but mainly targeted workers of the future. New employees at Delphi, formerly owned by General Motors (GM), and Visteon, a spin-off of Ford, will make about $14 to $16 an hour, about $10 per hour less than current workers and workers in assembly plants. The exact size of the wage cut wasn’t immediately known, however, because the UAW agreed to finalize negotiations after the contract was ratified. The agreement abandons a sixty-six-year-old principle of equal pay for equal work-and to ensure its ratification, the UAW pooled the votes of GM workers with those at Delphi; likewise with Ford and Visteon. 30

Assembly plant workers will take a hit, too, paying more for prescription drugs. The deal includes a signing bonus. Pensions won’t increase at all for the first time in decades, and base wages will rise just 5 percent over the next four years. 31 In fact, base wages of auto assembly workers have been virtually unchanged since 1980, once inflation is taken into account. 32 On the shop floor, the contract opens the door for more “team concept” production in which many job classifications-and the seniority-based right to bid for them-are eliminated. 33 These so-called modern operating agreements will help speed UAW job losses. By the end of the new contract, the UAW, which had a peak membership of 1.5 million in 1979, will be left with only 600,000 members, many of them outside the auto industry. 34

The UAW’s plan to rebuild its membership centers on gaining neutrality agreements with employers to organize parts plants. In exchange, the UAW takes wage cuts and helps improve quality. So when parts maker Metaldyne bought a DaimlerChrysler parts plant in New Castle, Indiana earlier this year, the UAW agreed to reduce wages by one-third in exchange for the opportunity to organize that company’s non-union plants. 35 Workers’ paychecks may be shredded, but the UAW dues base can expand-or so union officials hope.

The reality is that the UAW, which set the standard for raising wages in manufacturing to ensure a decent standard of living for blue-collar workers, is now setting a precedent for driving them downward. One wonders how union leaders conclude that this strategy will appeal to the 80 percent of auto parts workers who are nonunion-let alone the better-paid workers at nonunion “transplants” owned by Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes, BMW, and others.

The scope of the concessions in the auto, steel, airline, and other industries may be shocking to many union members. Yet they are perfectly logical from the perspective of labor-management partnership that has characterized U.S. union leaders’ strategy for the past half-century. In the heyday of U.S. capitalism, during the 1950s and 1960s, this approach could deliver rising living standards for workers, even if capital was given a free hand to extract enormous levels of profit. With the emergence of a more competitive, globalized economy since the 1970s, however, employers seek to obtain concessions-or impose them-at every opportunity. Well-paid union leaders, insulated from the rank and file and accepting of the primacy of profit, have with rare exceptions agreed to help the employers carry through cuts and “restructuring” in return for a guarantee of their privileged positions. Thus, the fiery labor leaders to be found in the history books have given way to a new generation of colorless technocrats, well schooled in selling management’s reasons for demanding givebacks-a bad economy, foreign competition, a budget deficit, anti-union laws. Balanced between the employers and the workers, the labor bureaucracy seeks to avoid confrontation whenever possible.

Concessions: The next wave

However much union leaders may try to avoid it, more conflict is inevitable. A case in point is the attempt by UPS to pull out of the multi-employer pension plan that covers Teamsters in the freight industry. During the 1997 strike, the union won not only a chance to get full-time jobs for part-timers, but also defended the union’s pension plan. This time, UPS-which had already won concessions in the 2002 contract that will reverse the part-timers’ gains-is trying to get its way through Congress. The proposal to partition UPS pensions from other companies would leave thousands of Teamster retirees’ pensions at as little as $12,900 per year-about a third of current benefits. 36 (Meanwhile, Teamster pension trustees have agreed to substantial benefits cuts in one major plan, provoking a series of rowdy protests in several Teamsters locals. 37 )

If UPS succeeds, the rest of Corporate America will follow. David Stockman, former budget director in the Reagan administration and now CEO of auto parts maker Collins & Aikman, in November called on the federal government to establish a trust fund to take over pensions for the auto industry. 38 Overall, corporate pensions are underfunded by at least $350 billion. 39 Several large businesses have threatened to terminate their pension plans and toss them to the government, a move that would slash benefits and aggravate the crisis still further. 40

What about the public sector, where unions retain more influence? A full analysis is difficult because of the many and diverse government entities with which unions have contracts. (It should be noted that, due to anti-union laws in many states and at the federal level, nearly seven million public sector workers lack the right to collective bargaining. 41 ) However, a brief look at the nation’s three largest cities makes it clear that they face the same issues as their private sector counterparts: outsourcing, rising health care costs, and demands for greater productivity.

In New York, the largest public sector union, the 120,000-member AFSCME District Council 37, hasn’t had a contract-or a raise in base wages-since July 2002. The union remains in a drawn-out battle with Mayor Michael Bloomberg over the city’s demands for streamlined work rules and cuts in sick days, vacations, and more. Bloomberg intends for his models to be the public schools, where he’s demanding a “thin contract” that would wipe out forty years of teachers’ union work rules overnight to boost productivity as well as privatizing custodial services. 42

Across the country, Los Angeles County public sector workers, members of SEIU Local 660, didn’t face such aggressive demands on productivity in their contract signed in late 2003. They did agree, however, to a one-year wage freeze in 2004 and a below-inflation pay raise in the following two years. If the county’s health insurance costs rise above a specified level-a strong possibility-it will wipe out even that small increase. 43 Next in line to negotiate a public sector contract in the LA area are teachers, who’ve already experienced cuts related to California’s budget crisis and are now expected to surrender much more. 44 In Chicago, where municipal unions have long been entrenched in the Democratic Party political machine, labor leaders felt compelled to call an emergency protest against Mayor Richard Daley’s plans for 1,000 pre-Christmas layoffs-the latest in a series of job cuts and productivity campaigns by the city. 45 The pattern is similar throughout the public sector.

If employers-public and private- are confident enough to push these aggressive demands, its because they’re working hand in glove with the most anti-union White House in decades. Since taking office, George W. Bush has announced preemptive bans on airline strikes, used the anti-union Taft-Hartley law against West Coast dockworkers, barred unions in much of the Department of Homeland Security, moved to implement new rules cutting overtime pay for millions of workers, imposed restrictions on union finances, and more. In their frequency and aggressiveness, these anti-labor attacks by the White House recall those of the Republican administrations of the 1920s.

This anti-union drive set the stage for the biggest labor battle since the late 1990s-the grocery strike and lockout.

The grocery wars

Unlike the more powerful unions in heavy industry or the airlines, the grocery workers’ union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) had little room to retreat when confronted with a new round of harsh demands over health care and wages. With Wal-Mart now surpassing Kroger as the number one grocery retailer in the U.S., the big grocery chains (and some smaller regional ones) resolved to break the power of the UFCW with a series of simultaneous attacks across the U.S. in the autumn of 2003. A month-long strike of 10,000 workers against locally owned chains in St. Louis ended in a partial victory; a two-month walkout at a West Virginia-based Kroger chain concluded with a partial defeat. 46 But the main battle was bound to be in southern California.

The numbers explain why. Some 59,000 workers are employed by the three biggest grocery retailers-Safeway’s Vons and Pavilion stores, Kroger’s Ralphs chain, and Albertsons stores. Both union and management agree that the outcome in southern California will set the standard for the entire industry in advance of ongoing contract negotiations in Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, and other cities.

Even by today’s harsh climate for labor bargaining, the California employers’ demands are devastating. They seek an agreement that would force workers to pay a share of health care costs that, according to UFCW estimates, would total $95 per week for insurance-a huge sum for low-wage and often part-time workers. In addition, wages for new hires would be capped at a lower tier. Managers would be able to outsource union work without limits and have greater say over the number of hours employees could work. UFCW leaders had to draw the line. 47 The union walked at Safeway’s Vons and Pavilions stores October 11. Ralphs and Albertsons locked workers out the following day.

Unlike the steel or airline bosses, the top three grocery chains can’t plead poverty. Their combined operating profits rose from $5.1 billion in 1998 to $9.7 billion in 2002. 48 However, the threat of Wal-Mart is pressuring them to move decisively while they can-and they’ve got the firm support of big capital. “When talks aimed at settling the Southern and Central California grocery strike resume, the supermarkets’ negotiators will have a staunch, if invisible, ally at the bargaining table: Wall Street stock analysts,” the Los Angeles Times reported in late December. Mia Kirchgaessner of the investment bank Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. wrote that the strike and lockout is “one of the best investments food retailers could make,” one that “is likely to continue to pay off over a number of years.” 49

In Los Angeles, where unions have made their greatest strides in organizing in recent years among low-paid immigrant workers, a defeat for the UFCW would be an especially damaging blow. From the beginning, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, led by Executive-Secretary Miguel Contreras, took the UFCW under its wing. The UFCW leadership also understands the stakes. In early December, the union convened a national meeting of local presidents and top officials in Los Angeles. “We want to throw the question out there, ‘How do we win this strike?’ Because we can’t lose it,” said Greg Denier, the union’s communications director. 50

Realizing that a strike is too big to lose isn’t the same as knowing how to win it, however. The UFCW has mobilized labor solidarity unseen in years, yet shies away from the kind of tactics that could win the struggle. First, the union withdrew pickets from regional distribution centers that supply the warehouses, apparently under pressure from the Teamsters, which represents some 6,000 drivers and warehouse workers at the company. Next, it pulled picket lines from Kroger’s Ralphs chain as a show of “goodwill” to a southern California public hard hit by the autumn wildfires-even though the UFCW was still on strike against that company in West Virginia. (It was later disclosed that the three chains are sharing profits for the duration of the strike/lockout, negating the union’s attempt to play one off against the others.) Just before Thanksgiving, the UFCW returned pickets to the warehouses as the Teamsters agreed to pay strike benefits to members who honored picket lines. A month later, the warehouse pickets were pulled again, apparently because the Teamsters’ chief, Hoffa, chafed at paying strike benefits any longer. 51

Returning to negotiations just before Christmas, the UFCW offered to accept what union leaders said was $350 million in health-care concessions-but the employers refused and talks collapsed after one day. 52 As the struggle passed the three-month mark, most workers saw their health care benefits cut off. The stepped-up involvement of the AFL-CIO lent some new energy to the struggle with a lively January 31 rally of 20,000 union members from across the LA area. Days later, however, the UFCW leaders sowed confusion by suddenly proposing binding arbitration to settle the strike. 53

And even as the AFL-CIO worked to spread solidarity actions across the U.S., the UFCW couldn’t get all of its own local leaders on board. In Chicago, the big UFCW Local 881 has refused to participate in an anti-Safeway publicity campaign, seeking to negotiate a separate contract with that company even as it moves to close several stores in its Dominicks’ chain. Highlighting its internal disarray, the UFCW announced-four months into the struggle-that the number of workers on strike and locked out was 59,000, not the 70,000 it had long reported. Some 11,000 workers had remained on the job at smaller chains whose owners will eventually sign the master contract.

The UFCW leadership’s erratic conduct of the strike is in keeping with its history. Formed in a merger in 1979, the union has steadily absorbed smaller unions-some entirely outside its jurisdiction, and in most cases keeping their own bureaucracies intact. 54 The result is a union that’s large but scarcely coherent-an organization dominated by powerful, and sometimes corrupt, regional chiefs and extravagantly paid top officers. 55 The union is notorious for breaking the strike of Hormel meatpackers by UFCW Local P-9 in Austin, Minnesota in 1985_1986, where workers took a stand against concessions. The UFCW president at the time, William Wynn, argued that givebacks were necessary to restore a pattern in the meatpacking industry. The result of his strategy was the transformation of one of the best-paying blue-collar industries into one characterized by sweatshop conditions endured by low-waged immigrants. 56

The hatchet man in the takeover of Local P-9 was Joseph Hansen, who became the local’s trustee and who negotiated a union-busting contract. Today, he’s the secretary-treasurer of the UFCW and in charge of collecting solidarity donations for the grocery struggle. Douglas Dority, who became UFCW president when Wynn retired amid corruption charges, was also personally involved in the takeover of Local P-9. The impact of that betrayal is still being felt: UFCW officials recently allowed an 11-month strike by 400 meatpackers at a Tyson plant in Wisconsin to die an agonizing death. 57

The New Unity Partnership and the debate on labor’s future

In 2002, a top official of the SEIU, Stephen Lerner, published a document on a strategy to reverse labor’s decline. “The labor movement as it is currently constructed is incapable of increasing the size and power of unions in the United States,” he wrote, adding later, “We cannot wait for consensus. A group of organizing unions needs to start acting like a labor movement and demonstrate how labor should operate.” 58

A year latter, that group had taken shape as the New Unity Partnership (NUP). It’s core is the three Ivy League-educated union presidents, Andrew Stern of the SEIU, John Wilhelm of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), and Bruce Raynor of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). Also taking part are the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), and, from outside the AFL-CIO, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters which withdrew from the federation in 2001. The NUP’s plans were leaked to the media on the eve of the August 2003 meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council in a bid to upstage Sweeney and seize control of labor’s agenda. While a formal split may or may not be in the offing, there’s no doubt that Sweeney will face a strong challenge when he seeks re-election at the 2005 AFL-CIO convention.

The crux of the NUP’s argument is that unions have weakened so much that they can no longer set the standards for non-union workers within the same industry. This in turn weakens their leverage with employers and their appeal to non-union workers in that industry. Lerner argues:

Unions diluted their industrial strength by organizing haphazardly in a misguided effort to survive…. Trying to gain members to make up for losses-a little public sector here, a little manufacturing there-these unions are becoming “general workers’ unions.” They become “jack of all trades and master of none,” attempting to improve conditions in many industries where they represent too few workers. “General worker unionism” allows a union to mask its decline in its core industry. 59

There is little to argue with here. What’s controversial is the NUP’s solution, outlined in the leaked document: a radical, top-down restructuring in which small unions would be merged with larger ones; jurisdictions redrawn according to fifteen targeted industries; local labor councils would be abolished and replaced by appointed officials; and 77 percent of budgets would be allocated for organizing, with most of the rest slated for politics. As for the rank and file? “The workers…would be no more than the dues units they already too often are, though every once in a while they’d be herded onto buses, dressed in identical T-shirts and ‘mobilized’ for some purpose decreed from the top,” wrote labor journalist JoAnn Wypijewski. 60

Some have compared the NUP to the Committee for Industrial Organization, the caucus within the old AFL that later split to form the independent Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936. The difference of course is that the CIO was created in response to an insurgent strike movement, led by socialists and communists, which organized general strikes in three cities in 1934. As Herman Benson of the Association for Union Democracy wrote, “The ideological flavor of the [NUP] plan recalls the old-fashioned disputes of yesteryear; a weird combination of old AFL conservatism with its strictly assigned jurisdiction and the old radical industrial unionism with its imaginary unions concocted out of wheels and charts.” Benson notes that Lerner calls discussion of union democracy “too narrow,” concluding that the “NUP seems to see union democracy as an inconvenience, even an impediment.” 61

Politically, the NUP is thoroughly contradictory. It groups progressives like Stern and Wilhelm with the old-guard Laborer’s chief Terrence O’Sullivan and the conservative Douglas McCarron of the Carpenters, who’s made a point of forging a close alliance with George W. Bush. Yet even here, the supposed leftists are willing to make a right turn in the name of pragmatism: Stern, Wilhelm, and O’Sullivan called on other union leaders to join them in donating $1,000 or more to the re-election of Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The same three, along with McCarron, bought tables at a Republican Congressional Campaign Committee dinner.

It’s this emphasis on political realism that led the SEIU to back Howard Dean for president, breaking with Sweeney and the blue-collar unions aligned with Richard Gephardt. Stern’s longtime rival, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, later joined him in the effort, driving another wedge into labor’s top leadership. Thus, for all the talk of innovation and willingness to break with tradition, the SEIU, the driving force of the NUP and the largest union in the AFL-CIO, is pushing organized labor to back a candidate with a long record of anti-union positions such as privatization. Such is the core of the radical-sounding rhetoric that surrounds NUP: a leaner and meaner labor bureaucracy that’s interested in membership mobilization (as opposed to democracy) in order to organize the unorganized and gain bargaining clout. Nor is NUP’s political strategy an innovation. It’s essentially a repackaging of labor’s dreary tradition of punishing enemies and rewarding friends-who turn out to be enemies as well. As election 2004 approaches, the NUP, alongside the rest of the labor establishment, will be working all-out to elect a Democratic candidate, no matter who it turns out to be. For NUP leaders are just as hostile as Sweeney to the development of an independent political alternative to the Democrats.

When it comes to fighting concessions, the NUP has no alternative either. In Chicago, for example, SEIU Local 73 is preparing to accept the outsourcing of public sector janitorial jobs. In exchange for retaining the right to represent those workers, the union will accept a $5 per hour wage cut. Membership dues, presumably, will not be reduced. The question remains: How can labor organize the unorganized when it fails to defend even the status quo for its current membership? The NUP has no answer.

Nevertheless, the debate created by the formation of NUP is to be welcomed. Just as Sweeney’s ouster of the conservative Lane Kirkland in 1995 opened the door for more activism and openings to the Left, so too the NUP debate will force another discussion of the state of organized labor. The house of labor has been on fire for some time, but only now has someone sounded the alarm. The rivalries and splits at the top-along with the activism seen around the grocery strikes-are setting the stage for arguments and struggles in which long-held assumptions of the labor movement will be questioned-from picket-line tactics to unquestioning support for the Democratic Party. Moreover, their rivalries will create a tendency for one faction or another to outbid its competitors for support by undertaking new organizing drives, protests, and more. And the more resources that are put into organizing-even with a flawed bureaucratic scheme-the better potential for activists in the shops to carry out the necessary one-on-one work that’s essential to reviving union growth.

The recent protests against the FTAA in Miami provided a glimpse of things to come in the labor movement. The AFL-CIO made a high-level decision not only to protest in the streets after a long absence from such activity, but also to reach out and forge alliances with direct-action protesters, global justice activists, and international supporters. Sweeney as well as NUP leaders Stern and Raynor were on the scene to address the crowd with speeches-and all three denounced the brutal police tactics. The politics were often contradictory-gestures of international solidarity came alongside calls for higher tariffs-but the dominant message was one of workers joining across borders in a common struggle. This was a very different approach than labor took in the battle over NAFTA in the early 1990s. Furthermore, workers ranging from south Florida construction trades, to laid-off UNITE textile workers in North Carolina, and Steelworkers from the Midwest showed themselves to be open to radical and socialist ideas. Finally, the harsh treatment of the unions at the hands of the state foreshadowed the treatment that workers in struggle will face in the coming months and years. It was a blunt message from capital to labor that said, in effect: Our days of treating unions as respectable partners are over-so what are you going to do about it?

What will it take to win?

For all its poor leadership, the grocery strike and lockout shows the potential for a very different kind of struggle-one based on more militant action. The grocery workers’ solidarity rallies have attracted unions from across southern California-teachers, electricians, communications workers, health care workers, public sector employees, and others. The highlight was a “stop-work” rally by the ILWU, which used its contractual right to hold a meeting during work to shut down the docks and stage a noisy mass picket and rally with the UFCW in November. Asked why the dockworkers took such action, an ILWU member replied simply, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” 62 Many LA labor and community activists have turned out for several protests and mobilized their unions and community groups to participate. Some of the most spirited action took place during Thanksgiving week, when the Teamsters were honoring picket lines and morale was high. The rallies reflected the tremendous diversity of the U.S. working class today-Black, white, Latino, Asian, all united in a common struggle.

The Teamsters’ support, while it lasted only for a month, nevertheless represented a break from the picket-line crossing that has become routine in strikes. University of California-Berkeley labor expert Harley Shaiken called the Teamsters’ decision to honor picket lines “the rebirth of labor solidarity.” 63 When the Teamsters officials pulled back from that decision, many rank-and-file members were reluctant to go along. At two distribution centers, where UFCW members work alongside the Teamsters, the UFCW members defied their leaders and refused to withdraw the picket lines, keeping the facilities shut down. 64 Unfortunately, the UFCW members didn’t have the confidence to spread their pickets to other warehouses.

If the UFCW leadership’s strategy has been vacillating and contradictory, it’s because there is a lack of organization in the rank and file that could push the struggle forward, as is the case with virtually every union today. Still, because the union has been forced to move into action by pressure from the employers, they’ve set in motion activity and opened up debates that can create the context for just such an organization. Until rank-and-file union members are capable of asserting themselves in such struggles, however, the likeliest scenario is one of further hesitations-putting up a fight, then retreating when the employers raise the stakes.

Whatever the outcome, the activism and solidarity of the strike/lockout have set new standards for the labor movement. It has shown conclusively that workers-both union and non-union-will rally behind such a struggle and give it enormous material support. Further, the grocery struggle shows that labor has the potential to take the step that union leaders failed to take in the defeated strikes of the 1990s-action to stop the employers’ mass scabbing operations. The question is whether and when the pressure to do so will emerge from among rank-and-file union members.

The outcome of the grocery wars will be judged by hard numbers-wages, benefits, work rules, and so on-and rightly so. However, there is also a less tangible, but nonetheless crucial, criteria-whether the struggle can help knit together networks of labor activists in the UFCW and across different unions. This is important not only to continue to build solidarity for future struggles, but to discuss how to revive the labor movement and take the first steps towards rank-and-file organization.

The possibility of doing so is clear-and not only in southern California. There’s a connection between the fortitude of a worker standing strong after four months on a picket line in LA, and the determination of steelworkers from Arkansas protesting the FTAA in Miami despite a police-state crackdown in the streets. The union banners at the massive immigrant rights rally in New York City recalled the best of organized labor’s traditions of solidarity and justice, as did the ILWU stop-work rally in support of the grocery workers.

These protests and struggles, coming despite the tremendous losses the movement has suffered, provide a hint of the potential for labor to meet the challenges ahead.

Socialists in the unions today

It has been half a century since the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunts physically removed socialists as a significant organized current within the unions-one that could mobilize for struggle and hold union leaders accountable. The impact of speed-up, inflation, and the confidence that came with a full-employment economy led a wave of strikes from the late 1960s to the early 1970s-a rebellion that was influenced by the antiwar and Black Power movements, particularly in the automobile industry. The rank-and-file rebellion in those years did create the opportunity for some renewed organizational connections with socialists and a militant rank and file.

Many socialist organizations sent members to “colonize” industry to help develop these struggles. The International Socialists was the most systematic in this regard and played an important role in establishing rank-and-file groups in several unions, most importantly in the Teamsters. Other such groups developed independently, such as Miners for Democracy, which ousted a corrupt leadership that had a reformist rival killed.

While Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) survived as a reform group, the onset of recession in the early 1970s and the subsequent employers’ offensive led to the demise of virtually every rank-and-file organization. After decades of conservative business unionism and the virtual absence of socialists in the unions, efforts to consolidate rank-and-file organization were especially difficult. As Kim Moody writes:

The absence of a well-organized socialist left in most of these movements meant that the fragmented consciousness inherited from the modern business union practices of the post World War Two years, though challenged by action, was not displaced with a broader class consciousness or significant movement toward independent working class politics. Even the more visible rank and file organizations had little contact with one another. They fought their battles with their employers largely within the spheres of their own “private welfare states.” Furthermore, they fought from a position of assumed job security, while the new militancy kept real wages ahead of inflation for most groups. As noted above, the economy was growing fast and the impact of falling profit rates on the economy as yet marginal. The “common sense” of the period had been challenged by the actions taken by millions of workers, as well as by the anti-war and social movements. But there was no socialist left within the working class, nor even a left focused on workers’ struggles, that was big enough to bring these strands together…. The fragmented consciousness encouraged by modern business unionism not only survived, but was now reinforced by a sense of economic insecurity across the class that allowed the bureaucracy to re-impose its authority and to open a new period of retreat and concessions bargaining in the 1980s. 65

These retreats still weigh heavily on the labor movement. The votes by autoworkers, steelworkers, and machinists to accept devastating concessions in recent years flows from nearly two decades of retreat. Gains in wages in the late 1990s-along with overtime-partially made up for lost ground in the 1980s, and employers and union leaders alike have crafted union contracts to include early retirements and lower-tier wages for new hires as a way to undermine union strength without unnecessary confrontation. Distrustful of union leaders’ willingness to lead a real fight, workers have accepted such deals at the expense of labor solidarity. Given the lack of political alternative, even good trade unionists often feel that they have no choice but to accept what they are offered. Many are class conscious and bitter about the growing pressures in their lives, but have become cynical or lack the confidence to fight.

Elsewhere, however, the employers have either been confident enough, or felt compelled to, carryout more aggressive measures, while workers have tried to draw the line and elect more assertive or reformist leaders. Examples of this include the Chicago Teachers Union and the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City, which represents subway and bus workers. In both cases, new leaders were elected-with the support of key activists who are socialists-as a rejection of the accommodations and concessions by the old guard. Yet in both unions over the last two years, these leaders stopped far short of achieving their promised goals in bargaining and went to extraordinary lengths to pass contracts. They were able to do so because there was no rank-and-file organization that was able to mobilize for action when the leaders were reluctant to do so. In the 1970s, by contrast, rank-and-file movements were able to carry out wildcat strikes or force official ones in the old-guard dominated Teamsters union.

The case of the Teamsters in the 1990s highlights the limits of reform union leadership without sizable rank-and-file organization on the ground. Reformer Ron Carey’s election in 1991 would have been impossible without the long years of work by TDU and other activists in the union. The successful UPS strike of 1997-which electrified the country and won an outpouring of support-should have set the pace for the entire labor movement. Instead, Carey was removed from office on corruption charges (found to be baseless in federal court years later) with no support from the AFL-CIO or even TDU. Certainly, it would have been difficult to mount a successful campaign to defend Carey given the intensity of the government’s drive to remove him. But it could have provided an opportunity to organize against state intervention in the labor movement, which has only increased in recent years.

The argument here isn’t that the election of reformers is irrelevant. Sweeney is preferable to Kirkland. The election of Carey was an enormous step forward for the Teamsters, and James P. Hoffa’s subsequent election was a huge step backward. Nor is the argument that union activists should wait before electing reformers to office. Rather, the point is that the revival of the labor movement won’t come from above-from individual reformers or initiatives like the New Unity Partnership-but from the source it always has: the rank and file. This is inevitably a long-term process.

Where does this leave socialists in the unions today? Unlike the 1930s or even the 1970s, socialists in the unions are seldom concentrated within the same industries and unions. Some have been activists since the 1970s, and a newer generation of socialists has established itself as activists in recent years. The challenge, therefore, is how to move from individuals or small groups of socialists in a particular union to initiate the activity that can lead to the kind of rank-and-file organization that can influence union politics in the long haul. While this activity may at times include running candidates for union office, the goal of the rank-and-file organization is different.

The intent is to increase workers’ own capacity to fight for their interests on an ongoing basis-to prepare the ground for the future when socialists will contend for leadership in working-class movements. This isn’t a matter of abstract debate about what the world should look like, but a contest over the ideas, strategies, and tactics put forward by the labor movement-from how to handle an abusive supervisor to how to win a strike. Thus, while rooted in the struggles on the job, the rank-and-file strategy is also aimed at connecting workers’ day-to-day struggles with a broader socialist analysis of the world and the building of a political alternative. It is in this way that the links between socialist organization and the working-class movement will be re-established over time.

Today, strike levels remain at historic lows. But the activism around the southern California strike, following the victories at Yale and the Chicago sanitation strike and the near-strike in the teachers’ union in Chicago, point to new possibilities for building a labor movement that knows how to fight.


The labor movement’s crisis, evident for more than two decades, is approaching a breaking point in the months and years ahead. It will likely take some organizational expression in the form of splits and mergers, but will also open up political debate in the movement on a scale unseen in decades.

In this context, socialists will have an opportunity not just to make their ideas heard, but to have their strategies tested in practice. Where union leaders seek to solve the crisis with bureaucratic restructuring at the expense of workers’ democracy, socialists will counterpose a vision of grassroots activism, militancy, resistance to concessions, and solidarity. In any case, the employers’ increasing aggressiveness guarantees that more-and more bitter-confrontations are in the offing. A confident, well-organized group of socialists in the unions, however small, can make an important contribution to the rank-and-file resistance that’s taking shape.

LEE SUSTAR is labor editor for Socialist Worker newspaper. He can be reached at:

This article originally appeared in the International Socialist Review.


1 “UFCW Revises Number of Workers in Labor Dispute,” Los Angeles Times , February 13, 2004. The union initially claimed that 70,000 workers were involved, but later disclosed that 11,000 workers employed at smaller chains remain on the job.

2 “Union Members in 2003,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 21, 2004, available online at

3 Paul F. Clark, John T. Delany, and Ann C. Frost, “Private Sector Collective Bargaining: Is This the End or a New Beginning?” in Clark, et. al, Collective Bargaining in the Private Sector (Champaign, Illinois: Industrial Relations Research Association, 2002).

4 Aaron Bernstein, “Breaking Ranks with the AFL-CIO,” BusinessWeek, September 5, 2003.

5 “AFL-CIO set to endorse Kerry next week,” Associated Press, February 13, 2004.

6 LEE SUSTAR, “Sanitation Workers Win in Chicago,” Socialist Worker, October 17, 2003, available online at; Kim Phillips-Fein, “Yale Workers Win,” Nation , October 6, 2003.

7 Jesse Sharkey, “Chicago Teachers Say ‘No Deal,'” Socialist Worker, October 24, 2003.

8 Stephen Franklin, “Upset in Teamster Elections: New Local Chief Ousts Incumbent on Second Try,” Chicago Tribune, December 8, 2003; Teamsters for a Democratic Union Web site, “Reform Teamsters Sweep Local 174 Election,” and “Reformers win in Milwaukee Local 200,” available online at

9 “10,000 [sic] Rally for Immigrants Rights in New York,” Associated Press, October 24, 2003.

10 LEE SUSTAR, “Defying the Police State in Miami,” Socialist Worker, December 5, 2003.

11 See U.S. Labor Against the War Web site, available online at http://

12 Nancy Cleeland, “No End in Sight for Store Strike,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2003.

13 Paul Krugman, “Our So-Called Boom,” New York Times, December 30, 2003.

14 William Branigin, “U.S. Consumer Debt Grows at Alarming Rate: Debt Burden Will Intensify When Interest Rates Rise,”
Washington Post, January 12, 2004.

15 Economic Policy Institute, “Economic Snapshot,” January 14, 2004, available online at

16 Commonwealth Fund, Sherry Glied, Jeanne M. Lambrew, and Sarah Little, “The Growing Share of Uninsured Workers Employed by Large Firms,” October 2003, available online at

17 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Productivity and Costs: Preliminary Fourth Quarter and Annual Averages for 2003,” January 12,

18 Bureau of National Affairs press release, “Tepid Labor Market Will Restrain Wages,” January 15, 2004.

19 Lance Selfa, “Eight Years of Clinton-Gore: The Price of Lesser-Evilism,” International Socialist Review 13, August-September

20 Paul Krugman, “For Richer,” New York Times Magazine, October 20, 2002.

21 Michael H. Belzer, “Trucking: Collective Bargaining Takes a Rocky Road,” in Collective Bargaining in the Private Sector, 330-31.

22 Steven Greenhouse, “Labor Adopts New Strategy,” New York Times, September 20, 2003.

23 Micheline Maynard, “United and Delta Increase Pressure on Employees for Concessions,” New York Times, January 15, 2004.

24 Micheline Maynard, “US Airways Outlines Case for Additional Concessions,” New York Times, February 7, 2004.

25 Edward Wong, “New Labor Realities,” New York Times, April 17, 2003.

26 Nancy Brown Johnson, “Airlines: Can Collective Bargaining Weather the Storm?” in Collective Bargaining in the Private Sector,
16, 34.

27 Kathy M. Kristof, “Pension Bill Seen as Band-Aid,” Seattle Times, February 3, 2004.

28 Michael Arndt, “The Steelworkers’ Leo Gerard is On a Rescue Mission,” BusinessWeek, February 3, 2003; Nanette Byrnes, “Is
Wilbur Ross Crazy?” BusinessWeek, December 22, 2003.

29 “Shuttered Steel Plants Sail From U.S. to China,” Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2003.

30 Ted Evanoff, “Auto-Parts Giants Target Wages in UAW Talks,” Indianapolis Star, October 5, 2003.

31 Jamie Butters and Jeffrey McCracken, “GM Execs: UAW Pact Will Save Billions,” Detroit Free Press, October 16, 2003.

32 Harry C. Katz, John Paul MacDuffie, and Frits K. Pil, “Autos: Continuity and Change in Collective Bargaining,” in Collective
Bargaining in the Private Sector, 64. Inflation data were obtained by using the inflation calculator at the Columbia Journalism Review, available online at

33 Mike Hudson, Bill Vlasic, and Mark Truby, “UAW, Big 3 Unite to Rebuild,” Detroit News, September 21, 2003.

34 Bill Koenig, “Big Three Plans to Close Eight Plants, Putting Thousands of Jobs at Risk,” Bloomberg News , October 16, 2003.

35 Evanoff.

36 Mary Williams Walsh, “Congress to Weigh Easing UPS Role on Pension Funds,” New York Times, December 16, 2003.

37 Details can be found on the Teamsters for a Democratic Union Web site, available online at

38 Jeff Plungis, “Big 3 Seek Pension Relief,” Detroit News, November 9, 2003.

39 “Pension Perniciousness,” Washington Post, January 26, 2004.

40 LEE SUSTAR, “Corporate America’s Pension Rip-off: Don’t Let Them Steal Our Future,” Socialist Worker, January 30, 2004.

41 United States General Accounting Office Report GAO-02-835, “Collective Bargaining,” September 13, 2002, 10.

42 David M. Herszenhorn, “Teachers’ Union Warns of an Impasse in Talks With the City,” New York Times, February 7, 2004; “Bloomberg is Urged to End Use of Private Custodians in Schools,” New York Times, February 12, 2004; Steven Greenhouse, “Labor Escapes Givebacks, But Future Battles Loom,” New York Times, June 26, 2003; and “Competence Questioned in Nasty District Council 37 Election,” New York Times , December 29, 2003.

43 Sue Fox, “LA County and its Largest Union Hammer Out Pact,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2003.

44 “High Stakes for the Schools,” Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2003.

45 Fran Spielman, “City Hall Warns Unions of Layoffs,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 23, 2003; Rachel Osterman, “1,000 Join Protest of Layoffs by City,” Chicago Tribune, December 18, 2003.

46 Thomas Lee and Jack Naudi, “Grocery Worker Vote Could Have National Impact,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch , October 31, 2003; “Kroger Workers in 3 States Ratify Deal,” Associated Press, December 12, 2003.

47 Kelly Candaele and Peter Dreier, “A Watershed Strike,” Nation , October 23, 2003.

48 Candaele and Dreier.

49 James F. Peltz, “Wall Street is Chains’ Not-So-Silent Partner,” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2003.

50 Nancy Cleeland, “No End in Sight for Store Strike,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2003.

51 Nancy Cleeland, “Missteps Hurt Union in Supermarket Strike,” Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2004.

52 N. Renuka Uthappa, “Supermarket War of Attrition Drags into Fourth Month,” Labor Notes, February 2004.

53 Mike Freeman, “Union Proposes an Arbitrator Decide Long-Running Dispute,” San Diego Union-Tribune, February 5, 2004.

54 Leslie Papp, “Big Unions in Retail Industry to Merge,” Toronto Star, June 11, 1993.

55 Richard Greer, “Showdown Expected When Food Workers Gather,” Atlanta Constitution, July 25, 1993.

56 For a full account of this struggle, see Peter Rachleff, Hard Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1993); Hardy Green, On Strike at Hormel: The Struggle for a Democratic Labor Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). For an overview of the UFCW’s decline in the industry, see Disintegration and Change: Labor Relations in the Meatpacking Industry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, Labor Relations and Public Policy Series, 1989).

57 Bill Linville, “Tyson Strike Goes Down to Defeat,” Socialist Worker, February 6, 2004.

58 Stephen Lerner, “Labor’s Structure Stands in Way of Organizing,” Labor Notes , December 2002.

59 Ibid.

60 JoAnn Wypijewski, “The New Unity Partnership: A Manifest Destiny for Labor,” Counterpunch , October 6, 2003, available online at

61 Herman Benson, “The New Unity Partnership Bureaucratizing to Organize?” Counterpunch , December 1, 2003, available at

62 Sarah Knopp and Dana Blanchard, “This is Solidarity,” Socialist Worker, November 14, 2003.

63 Harley Shaiken, “Grocery Strike Animates Unions ,” Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2003.

64 Karl Swinehart and Gillian Russom, “UFCW Strike at Crossroads,” Socialist Worker , January 2, 2004.

65 Kim Moody, “The Rank and File Strategy: Building a Socialist Movement in the U.S.,” Solidarity Working Paper (2000), available online at



LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker