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The Failure of Business Unionism


I woke up this morning, checked e-mail, and found my  friend Vince Emanuele had sent me an article about the failure in Wisconsin by Matthew Rothschild.  (On-line at www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=36963 .)  It's the best thing I've seen yet on the failed recall against Scott Walker.

In this article, Rothschild points out that "According to the exit polls, 38% of union households in Wisconsin voted for [Walker]–even more than last time!

And then, Rothschild states something that is all too true:  "Something is seriously wrong with the union movement in Wisconsin when so many of its own members actually vote for the guy who's got his boot on their throats."  No shit.

Last year, after having 5-6 weeks of massive mobilization–when over 100,000 people were in the streets at least twice in a city of approximately 220,000–and when labor leaders decided not to launch a general strike or do anything other than try to recall a bunch of politicians (ultimately, including Gov. Scott Walker), I concluded that the Wisconsin Upsurge showed unequivocally that the predominant form of US unionism–business unionism–was dead.  If Labor had this level of popular support–and it did–and it's leaders couldn't pull the plug through nonviolent direct action OUTSIDE of established political institutions, then by turning their forces back into the established political apparatus, they had lost and provided no future for the labor movement or progressive forces.

I had hoped that I was wrong–but I knew in my heart that I wasn't.

Business unionism has prevailed for over 60 years in the US labor movement, since the CIO expelled 11 left-led unions in 1949.  By "business unionism," I'm referring to a form of unionism that only focuses on the wages, working conditions and benefits of their own members, regardless of impact on other workers.  (If benefits extended to non-members, that was ok, but that was never the intention or purpose.)  It is, quite frankly, collective individualism.  It doesn't care about others–it is the epitome of the "I've got mine, screw you, Jack" culture and society that predominante in the US today.

Business unionism is a form of unionism that tends to be hierarchical, with leaders telling members what to do:  it is anti-democratic.  (The closer to the base, the local union, the more likely they are to be really democratic–although it varies by local union–but in almost all cases, the higher you go up in the hierarchy, the less demoracy, the less member control there is:  regardless of the rhetoric!)

This type of unionism is obviously failing:  in 1954, about 34% of all non-agricultural workers were in unions–today, it is about 12.1% (with about 6.8%–less than in 1900!–in the private sector).

This is the form of unionism that takes money from the US Government and engages in labor imperialism–particularly the the "developing countries" of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East–in colloboration with the government and the corporations its supports.

This attack on workers oversees is connected with, and parallel to, the top-down, non-democratic way the labor movement is run at home.

Labor activists have been fighting this business unionism since at least the late 1960s.  We know of its failures.  Yet, we labor activists have not been able to overcome the weaknesses, the corruption, the rot within the labor movement, to prevail and create a new day for Labor in this country.  Results of the recall show we are right, that the union movement must be transformed at home and abroad if it is to survive, much less prosper.

We labor activists must take our blinders off, and ruthlessly examine OUR strengths and weaknesses so as to be able to win the fight to transform the labor movment.  The progressive movement needs us to win, even if most of them don't even know we exist.  We must build a larger, INCLUSIVE labor movement that fights for the rights, benefits, well-being of all working people, members or not, and that has the vision so as to suggest how we all move forward together.

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Kim Scipes has been active in the labor movement for over 30 years.  His currently is the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union, UAW #1981.  His latest book is AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers:  Solidarity or Sabotage?  (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2010 hardback, 2011 paperback)–for details, links to reviews, and 20% off of cover price, go to http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm .)

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