DOES LABOR’s reform wing have a program that can turn the unions around?
That question will be at the center of the discussion among the 2,000-plus attendees at this week’s Labor Notes conference  in Chicago. It is likely to be the largest-ever of the biennial gatherings held since 1979 in association with the magazine and website Labor Notes.
The meeting will bring together top officials and members of local and international unions that have elected progressive leadership in recent years, including the Chicago Teachers Union, which in 2012 scored labor’s biggest strike victory in many years. Also on hand will be leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union, American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021.
Reform caucuses in a variety of unions will be there, too. Workers in the same industry but who belong to different unions–such as nurses–plan to renew connections. Low-wage workers who are fighting for a $15-an-hour wage and a union will attend as well. Labor’s involvement in independent politics–a crucial issue given the pro-business consensus of the two main parties–is also slated for a workshop featuring socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant of Seattle and veteran union activist Mike Parker, who is campaigning for mayor of Richmond, Calif., as a left-wing independent.
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THE EXPECTED big turnout may seem surprising, given labor’s continuing crisis. Corporate America, having pounded away at unions since the mid-1970s, is now trying to finish them off as an effective force. Private-sector employers seized on the Great Recession to slash wages and benefits, while their public-sector counterparts cited budget deficits as a pretext to slash jobs and demand steep concessions–especially on pensions.
The crisis, however, has given labor reform currents a new sense of urgency. Union activists must now strategize over how to resist an employer program aimed at imposing a deep cut in the standard of living on the U.S. working class.
The aim of the capitalist class is to create the conditions for a long-term economic revival based on low wages, a low social wage (cuts in Social Security, Medicare, etc.), low corporate taxes and cheap energy through the domestic gas and oil boom. It wants to bolster U.S. competitiveness against its rivals, not only in Europe and Japan, but also China and the newly industrializing countries. To that end, business continues to ratchet up even more pressure on the unions.
Public-sector union bargaining has followed a similar pattern since the recession. President Barack Obama has himself pushed the anti-union agenda through the harshly anti-labor terms of the 2009 auto bailout , the teacher-bashing Race to the Top legislative program , a right-to-work-style regime in the Federal Aviation Administration, the elimination of tens of thousands of U.S. Postal Service jobs , and a pay freeze for federal workers–recently rescinded, but which is worth remembering the next time you hear Obama talk about raising the minimum wage.
So far, employers have been overwhelmingly successful in pursuit of this agenda. Some 95 percent of the total income gains during the period of economic recovery  from 2009 to 2013 went to the richest 1 percent.
Meanwhile, for the majority of people, living standards continue to decline five years into an economic recovery–the first time that’s happened since the Second World War. People of color, as always, have been hit hardest, with unemployment among African Americans at twice the level of whites, and Latino joblessness also much higher than average, too.
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FACED WITH this blitzkrieg, top union leaders have offered unprecedented concessions in the hope that they can revive labor-management partnership from the long-gone days of Big Labor in the 1950s and ’60s. But Corporate America is more interested in crushing unions than collaborating with them.
As a result, labor strategies that could once deliver–at least some of the time–are completely inadequate in today’s economy, and in the face of the bipartisan consensus around pro-market policies known as neoliberalism.
Demands for wage and benefit improvements get laughed off the bargaining table unless unions can make a credible strike threat. Workers who strike in the private sector face the threat of permanent replacement unless they can muster the solidarity needed to stop scab operations. Public-sector workers who seek decent pay, pensions and working conditions are pilloried in the media for supposedly taking tax money away from other workers.
The numbers tell a grim story. Unions in 2013 lost 400,000 members despite the improving economy . Labor’s total membership is 14.3 million. The continued growth in the size of the working class means that union density–the percentage of workers in unions–declined sharply, too, from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent. In the public sector, some 35.3 percent of workers were in unions; for the private sector, the figure is 6.7 percent, a 97-year low.
Union leaders’ strategy–if it can be called such–to come to grips with this decline is contradictory at best.
One positive development is that unions have increasingly tried to organize low-wage workers, starting with immigrants in the 2000s, and today in the various Fight for 15 campaigns around the country. At their best, the Fight for 15 campaigns have tapped the energy seen around the Occupy Wall Street movement  and focused it on a fight to improve workers’ standard of living.
At the same time, however, top union leaders have abandoned defense of “American Dream” living standards in labor’s old strongholds in manufacturing.
The United Auto Workers (UAW), for example, maintained its “partnership” with the Detroit Three automakers by agreeing to “industry standard” pay and working conditions as part of the 2009 federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. In practice, this meant abandoning decades of union gains  and adopting the standards of the nonunion U.S. plants operated by automakers like Toyota, Nissan and Honda. These concessions were a major factor in the UAW’s recent failure to organize workers at a Volkswagen plant  in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Similarly, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) graphically put its relationship with aerospace giant Boeing ahead of the interests of rank-and-file union members. When Boeing threatened to move production of the new 777X airliner to a nonunion facility in South Carolina unless Boeing workers in Washington state took drastic concessions in a contract reopener, the rank and file decisively rejected the proposal–but IAM President Thomas Buffenbarger rammed it through on a second vote  at the end of the holidays break.
The weakness of the manufacturing unions was further highlighted with the passage of anti-union “right-to-work” laws in Indiana and Michigan –something unthinkable just a decade ago.
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THE BIG public-sector unions, too, are painfully lacking in a strategy to move forward against the assault symbolized by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, a law that effectively eliminates collective bargaining by public employee unions. After steering the mass labor protests of 2011 away from protests and job actions into failed recall election  for Walker, public-sector union leaders in that state now preside over a crippled movement .
The top leaders of the two teachers unions–which together represent the single-biggest group of unionized workers–are also on the retreat. Even after the successful CTU strike  of 2012, a special issue of the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine  urged its members not to follow the fighting example of Chicago, but instead seek greater collaboration with school officials. Meanwhile, the unions are conceding decades’ worth of bargaining gains around job security and pay.
The big unions’ retreats shaped the most recent convention of the AFL-CIO , held last September in Los Angeles. The labor federation, recognizing that unions are weak and in danger of isolation, threw open its doors to groups like the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and the Sierra Club.
For a movement that has historically been insular and even hostile to social movements, this was in some respects a step forward, legitimizing a range of political debate over racism, immigration and the environment within the unions. Yet in the conception of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, labor was further positioning itself not as a champion of movements in struggle, but rather recalibrating its place within traditional liberal interest-group politics inside the Democratic Party.
There are strict limits to these alliances, too: despite labor’s overtures to environmentalist groups, Trumka has endorsed the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline , putting the creation of a few thousand union jobs ahead of a likely environmental catastrophe.
Further, the AFL-CIO has reorganized its structures at the state level to dovetail with Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. This marked a further retreat from the union’s historic role as the representative for workers at the point of production.
For its part, the SEIU, initiator of the breakaway Change to Win labor federation, explicitly abandoned shop-floor representation several years ago . The union replaced shop stewards–people who represent the union in the workplace–with call-in centers to handle workers’ complaints.
In this view, shop stewards were old-fashioned and ineffective. Modern trade unionism, the argument went, depended on the creation of huge institutions that could square off against big corporations on equal terms. Using that reasoning, the SEIU has engineered the merger of locals into huge entities that are extremely difficult for rank-and-file members to control democratically.
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THE LABOR Notes conference and the publication by the same name, by contrast, have always argued that union power must be rooted in the workplace–and that union democracy was essential to achieve this. For that reason, Labor Notes has always been a reference point for union reformers from a variety of backgrounds.
The record of union reformers in office has been uneven. In more than a few cases, new leaders were voted into office by members fed up with an ineffective old guard, but they didn’t have an activist base in the rank and file that could withstand a backlash from both employers and hostile elements within the union bureaucracy. The result, all too often, has been that reformers themselves were tossed out of office after failing to deliver.
This process isn’t inevitable, however. The CTU strike of 2012 showed the potential for a rank-and-file movement to gain control of the union while continuing to build its base among an active membership. The result was a successful strike against one of the most powerful politicians in the U.S. , Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Now, the example of the CTU strike has been followed by teachers’ union locals around the U.S.–CTU-style contract campaigns and serious preparations for a strike won teachers good contracts in in Portland, Ore., and St. Paul, Minn., not to mention smaller towns and cities.
Similarly, in SEIU Local 1021 in Northern California, a reform leadership has restructured the union to be more democratic and made the strike into a weapon again. Both the CTU and Local 1021 have sought to revive social movement unionism–that is, a conscious and active effort to build labor-community alliances by taking up wider social issues, such as racism in the schools or the lack of affordable housing.
More recently, the new leadership of the APWU has launched a similar campaign to save the postal service , building an alliance with the other postal unions and community groups around the U.S. National Nurses United has taken up issues of inequality and environmental crisis . The New York State Nurses Association is forging alliances in the fight to prevent hospitals from closing .
The impact of these efforts on the wider labor movement is so far limited–but they are important nonetheless. They point to the potential for labor to position itself as fighters for the interests of all working people, whether union or nonunion. As the UAW’s defeat at Volkswagen showed, the unions won’t be rebuilt by simply organizing plant by plant or office by office, but by building a wider social movement.
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HOW CAN we achieve this? As Alexandra Bradbury and Jane Slaughter write in Labor Notes , “We need more experienced activists in the mix–people who both know what to do practically and have the vision to do it. In the 1930s, radicals and socialists in the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] played this role.”
What was true in the 1930s–another era when the employers used an economic crisis to try to weaken or eliminate unions–is true today. What’s needed is a stronger labor left–with a socialist current within it–with no illusions in the Democratic Party or the possibility of “partnership” with the bosses.
By taking on the issues that divide workers–like racism, sexism, immigrant-bashing and homophobia–a militant labor left can both push back against the employers’ divide-and-conquer tactics and connect unions with vibrant expressions of social struggle that involve working people, both members of unions and not, throughout U.S. society.
But the contribution of such a labor left isn’t just about raising political issues. It’s also about rebuilding union power, based on the centrality of the rank and file and the willingness to use militant tactics. Having “experienced activists in the mix” is decisive in shop-floor organizing and taking action.
Unless and until unions can assert their power on the job, employers will continue to roll over them. It was the sit-down strikes at General Motors in 1936, after all, that compelled business to finally recognize the big industrial unions.
For this power to be rebuilt, a focus on independent rank-and-file organization is essential. Even the most dynamic and progressive reform union leaders will come under tremendous pressure from employers. A self-activated, political conscious rank-and-file movement is central to moving the struggle forward.
Turning around unions and getting the movement moving again is a long-term project, of course. But the Labor Notes conference comes at the right time to make a contribution toward building labor’s fighting left wing.
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