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Building Workplace Organizations Anew

Workplace solidarity in the face of the neoliberal onslaught is as crucial as ever, yet present-day unions become ever more fearful. How do we build solidarity in an era when the tools of the past have lost their effectiveness?

New types of organizations are not only necessary, it is essential to look at past upsurges in union activity, particularly those of the 1930s, with clear eyes rather than romanticization, argues Staughton Lynd in Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below. A new re-issue and updating of a classic work, the book has lost none of its timeliness. Critical to understanding how unions lost their way, becoming too cozy with the corporate managements they are supposed to challenge, is the stifling of rank-and-file activity, particularly of militant tactics, by Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) unions in the 1930s.

Self-activity from below in the mid-1930s catalyzed a big upsurge in union membership; solidarity through striking was a critical component. When the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, was moving toward enactment in the 1930s, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) opposed it because they foresaw the National Labor Relations Board that would be formed to arbitrate disputes would hinder the right to strike. The board would inevitably aid capital, not labor, they believed.

The Wagner Act was passed, the board came to be, and although specific decisions have favored one side or the other at different times, those fears have come to pass. Mr. Lynd argues that the CIO opposed and suppressed rank-and-file and independent activity, opposed an independent labor political party and agreed to no-strike clauses that would be in force the entirely of contracts, thereby handing all power to company management. And although Mr. Lynd doesn’t discuss it, many of the gains that were achieved in the Wagner Act were taken back a decade later with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which further restricted union activity, including prohibiting sympathy strikes, a serious blow to solidarity.

In U.S. labor mythology, the CIO is the “radical” union umbrella organization, infusing new life into Great Depression organizing after the slow pace of unionization under the guidance of American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions. But CIO contracts ceded decision-making to management in all aspects of operations from the start, while union leaders promoted themselves as guarantors of labor peace. Going back to the CIO of 1936 or 1945 is useless, Mr. Lynd argues, because it set out to suppress independent activity from the start.

Democracy is the essential ingredient

Interestingly, he also argues that the dues-checkoff system is another factor contributing to the undemocratic and collaborationist tendencies of unions, because it makes union leaderships unaccountable to the rank-and-file. New worker organizations must be democratic to have any chance of being effective. Building new labor organizations of a different kind, that demonstrate their usefulness in responding to problems, is the way forward. Mr. Lynd writes that democracy is the starting point:

“Trade unions are among the most undemocratic institutions in the United States. Far from prefiguring a new society, they are institutional dinosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the corporations we are striving to replace. … Democracy means, at a minimum, the freedom to criticize frankly and fully. Union bureaucrats have a tendency to view criticism as treason. But rank-and-file members must be able to criticize, not just the policies of incumbent union officers, but the structural shortcomings of the labor movement. For instance, CIO contracts have always contained no-strike and management-prerogative clauses, but if we think (as I do) that these clauses are wrong and should be abolished, we should be free to say so.” [page 21]

From such democracy arise the conditions to begin moving toward a better world, instead of the defensive retreats of recent decades.

“Working people believe in solidarity, not because they are better than other people, but because the power of the boss forces workers to reach out to each other for help. Because of the vision and practice of solidarity, the labor movement with all its shortcomings does prefigure a new kind of society within the shell of the old. And by building organizations based on solidarity, rather than on bureaucratic chain-of-command, we build organizations that by their very existence help to bring a new kind of society into being.” [page 24]

The author gives three local examples from the area around Youngstown, Ohio. One was a solidarity club consisting of workers from several unions that organized united actions in defense of strikers and other workers facing layoffs or other unfair labor practices; one was a group of retirees that defended pension benefits, especially since, as retirees, they were not allowed to vote on contract changes; and the third organized in defense of workers suffering health problems due to working with toxic chemicals.

Solidarity, not bureaucracy

Although each of these three groups won victories, the author acknowledges that they did not have far-reaching impacts. They did, however, demonstrate what is possible with different kinds of labor organizations that are democratic and based on direct action. Mr. Lynd writes:

“I want to suggest that trade unions as they now exist in the United States are structurally incapable of changing the corporate economy, so that simply electing new officers to head these organizations will not solve our problems. I argue that the internationalization of capital, far from proving that such centralized unions are needed more than ever, has, on the contrary, demonstrated their impotence and the need for something qualitatively new.” [page 47]

Putting life into the concept of “an injury to one is an injury to all” by striking on behalf of workers in other enterprises in one form of this necessary solidarity. Shop-floor committees that organize around grievances and problems rather than negotiating contracts and that use direct action, even in opposition to their union leaders, and “parallel central labor bodies” that organize workers in a geographic region, across industries, are two alternative forms the author advocates. As an example, he recounts a 1916 incident where the 2,000 workers of a factory walked out when an organizer was dismissed; within a couple of days, 36,000 workers across the region walked out in an organized show of strength.

Militancy is what is needed:

“The critical analytical error … of established unions about their current crisis is the assumption that labor and management have the same or mutually consistent interests. … It is the assumption that underlies business unionism, because it induces trade unions to leave investment decisions to management while directing their own attention to wages, hours, and working conditions, and to surrender the right to strike (for the duration of the collective bargaining agreements) in the belief that workers no longer need the strike to protect their day-to-day interests.” [page 78]

By ceding all decision-making to capitalists, negotiating over wages, hours and working conditions will always be defensive because unions are bargaining the extent of their members’ exploitation and can do nothing more. Staughton Lynd has given us a concise guide to thinking about workplace organization differently. (At barely a hundred pages in compact form, I was able to read Solidarity Unionism in a single evening.)

And once we realize we don’t need capitalists to make decisions for us, and learn to organize collective self-defense, getting rid of bosses and running enterprises ourselves enters our imagination.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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