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Does Organized Labor Have a Future?

There is still time during the holidays to purchase labor journalist Steve Early’s very readable and quite reflective latest book, Save Our Unions, published by Monthly Review Press.

But books on labor are notoriously misunderstood and conspicuously undersold. This is really too bad.

Like other books describing how people live and what they struggle for, Save Our Union records a very human story – a running narrative from an author who was directly reporting, and often directly participating, in the unfolding human drama as it occurred.

In 335 pages, Early analyzes the leadership, organization and strategy of the most significant labor struggles, debates and controversies of the past 40 years, right up to now.

It was during this period that Early informs us “overall employee compensation—including health and retirement benefits—dropped ‘to its lowest share of national income in more than 50 years while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share over that time.’”

Thus, as the low-wage and benefits period we are now suffering through today would indicate, most of the strikes, struggles and union reform movements in those decades were not successful – but not because of lack of passion or determination by the workers at the bottom, as Early describes it, but by a combination of serious mistakes made by otherwise honest militants and/or by the failed conservative leadership at the top.

Is There a Sea Change in America?

But quite different from the last 40 years, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there seems to be a more radical consciousness developing today.

Of course, it began with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) which changed the whole national dialogue away from speaking about the fake “deficits” of government toward the very real “surpluses” of Wall Street.

As Early summarizes it: “whereas the Tea Party activity of 2009–10 scapegoated taxes, immigrants, and big government, Wisconsin and OWS refocused public attention on the real threat to all working people, namely the power of big business and the political agenda of those doing its bidding.”

I do believe OWS anti-establishment consciousness has been reawakened – all this time, still latently residing in the public’s mind even as the protestors themselves were forcibly evicted from the public’s spaces. It has just taken awhile for its spirit to reappear in somewhat different forms.

For example, Kshama Sawant, a socialist economics professor, has just been elected with over 93,000 votes as Seattle city supervisor against an entrenched Democratic opponent. Voters also passed a $15 minimum wage ordinance for their Seattle international airport workforce. And, thousands of Boeing workers in that same area rejected a concessionary contract even though strongly recommended by national union officials and even after the company threatened to close up shop.

And this isn’t just a west coast thing. A national contract agreement covering 30,000 employees with United Airlines, also highly recommended by union officials, was also turned down by the long-suffering membership a few months ago, the first time in decades this has happened.

Plus, on Dec. 5, fast food workers and their allies mobilized in 100 cities demanding a $15 minimum wage. Polls indicate most Americans believe in their cause, thus compelling President Obama to up his anemic minimum wage proposal from $9 to $10.10.

But the Democratic Party shouldn’t get off so easy. Ralph Nader recently called out both Clintons for not publically speaking out in favor of a $10.50 minimum wage proposal that would still only bring it back to 1968 levels. No surprise there despite a well-cultivated liberal image, Hilary Clinton served on Wal-Mart’s board of directors from 1986-1992 and was completely silent as they fought employee organizing efforts.save our unions logo

Liberal politicians should be worried about polls showing more and more realize that the Democratic Party is part of the problem. But an alternative solution has always been too difficult to even contemplate for most folks.

Problem solved in Lorain, Ohio.

Labor Notes reported recently that “union-dense Lorain County, Ohio, is now home to an independent labor slate of two dozen newly elected city councilors—recruited and run by the central labor council there. Lorain County AFL-CIO President Harry Williamson said ‘when the leaders of the [Democratic] Party just took us for granted and tried to roll over the rights of working people here, we had to stand up.’”

What all this means will become clearer in the months ahead. I hope I am right that we are turning a corner and that a radical consciousness might just be taking hold, in which case, Save Our Unions is coming out just at the right time with a potential wider audience eager to learn its hard-learned lessons.

Looking Back to See Forward

As in his previous 2011 book, Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, the reader will hear authentic voices of genuine local worker leaders. Their stories are quite compelling because of the personal cost to them and to their families after confronting overwhelming corporate power while at the same time often battling against conservative bureaucratic union officials.

Put these two institutional forces together and it’s not hard to figure out why so many rank and file reform movements are squashed, and not only in this country.

Early quotes a British Miners Union attorney remarking to a labor rally in the 1990s that “I want to talk about trade union rights, and I will be short because we don’t have any.”

As was so effectively done in his last book mentioned previously, Early also includes analysis and comments from academics, union officials and rank and file dissidents, often conflicting, to round out the history. Of course, this is very beneficial for the reader.

In addition, while Early clearly has a point of view of “bottom up change” he does not preach. He documents the record, mentions opposing views and then provides a postscript for each chapter that informs the reader of how it all worked out in the end.

I really appreciate this approach because along the way, some myths are dispelled.

For example, there are times when union reform movements fall back even with the most honest and militant leaders at the top. So, Save Our Unions examines for the reader those serious pitfalls that inexperienced leaders sometimes stumble into.

Perhaps the most tragic failure described by the author is of the valiant and brave Miners for Democracy (MFD). Its candidates ran a successful 1972 campaign for the presidency of that great union against the entrenched and corrupt regime of Tony Boyle.

Boyle was later convicted of orchestrating the brutal 1969 assassination of his election reform opponent, Jock Yablonski, and his wife and daughter.

However, the MFD tragically fell apart a short time after their 1972 victory and today, the legendary union, which has such a celebrated part in American history, has less than 20,000 working members.

Former UMW General Counsel Chip Yablonski seems to be reluctantly conceding some mistakes by remarking in Save Our Unions that not all of his union’s “failings are self-inflicted.”

Around this same time as the MFD, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) reform movement faced many of these same violent obstacles. Early examines both these two pioneering movements and “challenges to the leadership of other now declining industrial unions.”

We learn that not all reform movements developed in the same way. In some cases, it wasn’t rank and file rebellions from below but “inside” union leaders like two dissident regional directors in the Midwest. Ed Sadlowski, from the Steelworkers, who formed “Steelworkers Fight Back” in the late 1970s and Jerry Tucker, from the Auto Workers, who formed the “New Directions” caucus a decade later.

In addition to describing more recent union reform movements such as the current battles in healthcare between the rebel upstart National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and SEIU, the book discusses tactics and strategies of the country’s most important strikes and analyzes and offers critical assessments of different approaches toward organizing – familiar organizing terms like colonizing, SALT and inside committee will be explained for the reader.

A very important section explains how even a dedicated union staff can sometimes interfere in developing rank and file leadership and a “steward army,” as Early refers, something he believes is so necessary to beating back corporate power and transforming unions into militant defenders of the social and economic needs of all working people – immigrants, women, minorities and youth.

It’s a lot to take on but there are concrete examples in our history, in some small measure, how struggles attempted to put these various economic and social elements together. Early cites the successful 1989 NYNEX-Verizon four-month strike of telephone workers over health benefits. The IBEW and other striking unions won new community allies by campaigning for national healthcare for all.

Unfortunately, in all too typical fashion, the unions, over time, backed off their national “healthcare for all” campaign once their own members won the strike and once labor lobbying eventually resulted in passage of Obamacare. This is the sad legacy of narrow “Maintenance of Benefits (MOB) bargaining just designed to preserve  pensions, sick leave and healthcare for union members while these same benefits remain far out of reach for most Americans.

MOB bargaining began in the early 1950s when union membership was at its height. But it contributed to further political isolation from the rest of our class and proven in recent years of mounting premium payments for employer health plans and termination of pensions to be an utter failure for current union members as well.

Today, union members are left even more isolated bargaining for “me, me, me” employer benefits instead of campaigning for “we, we, we” national government health, retirement and sick leave benefits for all, the same as enjoyed by citizens in other major industrial countries.

As a result, both union power and size has steadily declined in this country with membership now comprising a smaller and smaller fraction of the working class.

But I’ve told only part of the story. The bigger picture of how working people resisted these past decades  and what worked and what didn’t deserves to be studied more fully by today’s youth and Saving Our Unions is a good place to start.

Carl Finamore is former president (ret) of Machinist Lodge 1781 & its current delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com

More articles by:

Carl Finamore is Machinist Lodge 1781 delegate, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com

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