So Why don’t we have better unions?

Union busting is nothing new; the atavistic trait was never bred out or beaten out of capital. While the business class fights among itself like stray cats— witness Dirty Digger Rupert Murdoch’s feral relations with communications rivals real and imaginary— that class also maintains a good deal of commonality on shaping the state and treating unions even in boom times as irritants. And when it comes to making workers pay for an economic crisis or on denuding funds for public needs, it reads from the same hymnal. Even the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, where the Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers traded social welfare for labor peace, was more a one-front  Christmas truce than an industry-wide peace accord, let alone the preferred model for industrial-labor relations in many other industries.


By the late 1970s, even the treaty was shredded, with the UAW’s Douglas Fraser denouncing a “one-sided class war.” It’s been one-sided since.

Only now, with its numbers among the working population so downsized that the obscenity of “right to work” can pass for sober public policy in northern states, too, are our unions getting on the same verso page, or at least the same chapter, and beginning to act with the kind of minimal unity that typified corporate behavior throughout the postwar period.

[pullquote]Still, the adoption of a virulent right-wing agenda by arriviste Republican governors is just the fecund flavor of a political moment in the unfolding of a nearly 40-year retreat. That’s not to say nothing’s changed; tactics matter, for them and us.[/pullquote]Among we Leftist brethren, there’s a tendency to deal with unions and union leaders by delineating what we as the very model of very modern radicals consider wrong—and there’s plenty wrong. We know about the seductive careerist pitfalls that can turn a shop-militant lion into a quotidian staff mouse if not a supervisor/administrator and the risks of conflating the union leadership with its members or the sorry history of missed opportunities that came from replacing organizing from the bottom-up and listening to members  with glad-handing of political friends. Then there’s the danger of focusing on the small number of unionized workers while giving little attention to the some 88 percent who are unorganized, often underemployed and frequently undocumented.  Social justice unionism isn’t just a noble sentiment, it’s a survival tactic.

We know all about the tawdry poverty of labor solidarity; how Gompers’ “more” for me translated as “less” for you;  how U.S, unions back to the 1830s fought pitched jurisdictional battles;  how even today self-interested union leaders (and not just because of bad labor laws or binding contract provisions) promote scabbing and sweetheart deals; witness Longview, Wash. last winter, where the operating engineers supplied scabs to break a longshore workers’ job action or the unending SEIU efforts to destroy a healthcare rival.  Or where the Laborers broke bread with the Koch brothers in pursuing an environmentally calamitous cross-continent shale-oil pipeline, something even the nominally eco-friendly AFL-CIO now promotes. The federation’s Rich Trumka called it “connecting the dots.” It’s more like oil splatter.

Even labor’s messaging is befuddled. Unions, which are increasingly media savvy, as least technically, don’t directly attack the neoliberal agenda or offer a point-by-point counter agenda. It talks too often about “fairness” and about a “middle class” that needs a fair shake. Oligarch J.D. Rockefeller, Jr. used the same language almost a century ago. It doesn’t get validated, let alone subversive, when it comes from union tops.  It’s the whole corpus of neoliberalism that needs thrashing.

Neoliberalism in practice is more than an austerity gambit by grasping politicians, or an exercise in unfairness. It’s a confiscatory regime in which the working class pays and the business elite get a pass. British National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workersleader Bob Crow talks about missed union opportunities and about how the fight is not essentially about austerity or derivatives or greed but about capital. That’s a common enough and easily digestible message. It’s not too late to correct the damage and say it. Why not Rich Trumka?

Okay! We know all this, or we should. It’s Intro to Commie Studies 1. It’s not the whole of the discipline, and talking bad about unions—if that’s all we proper Leftists say — is as mindless as going on about what’s so very right with them.  “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories” was never a union commandment in my lifetime, but telling half the story is no virtue, either.

Yes, unions can only be expected to function purely as fighting class institutions only in the last instance; for most of its history, the bulk of US American unions fought sector-by-sector when not employer-by employer, and damn the consequences for others. But in the present cold climate it sure feels like we’re nearing the heated age of last instances.

When Occupy Wall Street damned the richest 1 percent and defended the rest of us, most union leaders I knew rushed to adopt Occupy slogans as their own. The Right, at least since Reagan, has peddled the trope that labor represents a special interest, while business as job creators has a broader mandate. What Occupy did so successfully was resurrect and popularize the notion of “them and us,” with a keen sense that “us” is the overwhelming majority of Americans and that the corporate class is a coddled if not parasitic minority. For months, “inequality” if not yet “exploitation” replaced “deficit spending” as the media’s great satanic motif. My own teachers union in New   York City housed the Occupy central command, while the State, County and Municipal Workers and other city unions lent meeting space gratis. Construction workers joined in the occupying, and unions cosponsored mammoth support demonstrations here and in hundreds of cities.

Today, attacks on living standards and union rights in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Florida are forcing the kinds of labor-community alliances only dreamed of in our philosophies just a few years ago. Public sector workers in transit, health care and education are already breaking down the fourth wall, appealing to community groups not only about their own members’ needs, but advocating for theirs, too.

Sure, this isn’t a settled process. Yesterday’s porkchopper isn’t today’s Spartacus. It’s just that the effect of the late 2007 economic collapse and the unrelenting attacks on working people and unions is creating a context in which even the most routinized time server can’t realistically pine for the shining days of the golden handshake. Social unionism is a necessity.

Internationally, unions are taking a page from the employer’s book, with the ILO, the International Trade Union Federation and the United Electrical Workers fostering co-operation across borders and even in some cases merging. Global unions as the counterpoint to global capitalism may still be a stretch, but labor is focusing on coordinated international campaigns against conglomerate employers. The properly reviled News Corp has a five-continent strategy. That part at least is a model worth copying.

Unions, even the progressive ones, need to do some housekeeping first. We need to stop saying there’s a zero-sum relationship between internal and external organizing, or stop thinking that servicing existing members comes at the expense of organizing the unborn. .The servicing model is not dead; it just never was enough in and of itself. On the day of the proletarian seizure of state power, there will still be union members who won’t attend meetings or even have the courage to file a grievance, let alone build a countervailing workers council or staff barricades. Jettisoning the paternalistic slogan “experts in collective bargaining” doesn’t require the bear-hug-like embrace of “building union density,” or what the “Brits call “skull counting.” They’re both demobilizing, if that’s all you do.

[pullquote]On research, the AFL-CIO puts out an excellent Executive Paywatch. Why not a Capital Planwatch? [/pullquote]It’s not just ALEC and the Koch brothers or the deep-pocket contributors to both national parties’ campaigns that need watching; it’s the legislation written and pursued by lobbyists greasing palms and the market-bought think tanks plotting longer-range strategy that need naming and exposing, too. The invaluable Economic Policy Institute does some of this, as do Left publications and freelance or blogging muckrakers. Individual unions cover their own corporate and public masters’ misadventures—usually in the run-up to contract time— but it’s not done systematically. Or system wide.

Labor political action could use an overhaul, too. I won’t second guess organized labor’s doglike endorsement of Obama; would there were an electoral alternative in toss-up states that was anything more than a lifestyle choice or a moral gesture. But if labor decided it was too dangerous to let even this failed president (and what else are his two administrations for working people?) twist in the wind of what once looked to be a Republican superstorm, nothing required the unions to support him with preposterous language about what a grand president he’d been or how the only enemy for the nonce was spelled GOP.

So if labor’s walking away from the lesser evil of two neoliberal parties is sadly a nonstarter, there’s nothing stopping it from putting up its own candidates in primaries or in third party election-day efforts in discrete districts. A pilot where labor and community allies run their own candidates on a program that unmistakably calls for high taxes on the rich and the Wall Street gamblers, affordable housing and jobs programs, real healthcare for all, defense of community schools and a democratic foreign policy is at least viable.  Even if purely local, those campaigns could be a lodestone for every union leader in the country.  And those campaigns can start early enough so that candidates are more than a name on a ballot.

Unions are not passé, at least not until working people decide they are. Building newer and better class organizations is historically contingent on other factors, not the least of which are crises and—invoking the old catechism—an inability of rulers to govern with any degree of equity joined by a refusal of people to be ruled in the old way.

Yes, it also requires union leaders with a taste for winning the final conflict and the humility to learn from others. It isn’t just that modern capitalism produces generations of union leaders who don’t believe, for example, in the utility of Rosa Luxemburg’s mass political strikes. It isn’t just that entrenched union leaders may be threatened by rank and file insurgencies or locked into particularistic demands or fantasize that legislative reforms alone can defang the beast. It’s worse than that! We don’t have a class either sociologically or politically in any position yet to do much better.

Rosa Luxemburg didn’t pull the idea of the mass strike as the political weapon of the class out of her musings; she paid attention to what workers were actually doing elsewhere. It was the movement of Belgian workers at the end of the 19th century that offered her a peek at workers’ power at its apex, just as was the Paris Commune for Marx or the factory councils for Russian radicals or the Italian revolts for Shelley.

Memo to Logos readers: Marx was frustratingly vague in The German Ideology when referring to “the real movement of the class,” but he wasn’t vague about his preferring it to even an artfully constructed party program that didn’t take the class-in-formation as its starting point. As Gramsci understood, a workers’ newspaper, for example, had to be “a mirror to the class,” a compendium of bravery and best practices by themselves and others, deliciously written and cogently delivered.

Isn’t that labor’s real starting point, too?


Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor writer and union staffer.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Melvyn Dubofsky: Does Organized Labor Have A Future?

By Bill Fletcher, Jr: Now What? Labor Unions and the Inevitability of Class Struggle

By Michael Hirsch: So Why don’t we have better unions?

By Rand Wilson , Steve Early: Is It Time For Just Cause?

By Douglas Kellner: The Sandy Hook Slaughter and Copy Cat Killers in a Media Celebrity Society: Analyses and Plans for Action

By Lawrence Davidson: Israel’s 2013 Elections

By Kevin Anderson: Resistance versus Emancipation: Foucault, Marcuse, Marx, and the Present Moment

By Spencer J. Pack: How the Right Got Adam Smith Wrong on the Eve of Environmental (and hence Economic) Catastrophe

By Axel Fair-Schulz: A “Wandering Jew:” Stefan Heym’s Humanist Socialism

By Alicia Ostriker: Ghazal: America the Beautiful

By Andy Clausen: Home of the Blues

By Eliot Katz: Poem Written During and After Hurricane Sandy

By Leonard Quart: Aging in Films and Amour

By John G. Rodwan, Jr: Kurt Vonnegut among His Admirers

By Peter N. Kirstein: Oliver Stone’s America

By Brian Trench: Ben Goldacre: Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Misled Doctors and Harm Patients (Faber and Faber, 2013)

By Warren Leming: Kevin Avery, Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Books, 2011)

By Kurt Jacobsen: Lost and Found Books: Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity: Writing on Writing (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998)