Reorganizing American Labor


no time in the past 70 years have American workers and unions been
under more direct and intense attack by corporate America. Moreover,
that attack continues to show signs of becoming increasingly virulent
and bold. 

In the heartland of U.S. unionism, the auto industry, 100,000 union
jobs will soon be lost in a second major wave of offshoring to China
and Asia, textile union membership reels under the effects of the
last year’s passage of CAFTA, construction jobs plummet with
the emerging collapse of the housing industry, airline and railroad
employment falls as management costcutting continues unabated, while
regular full time jobs constrict in the manufacturing sector of
the economy despite the quadrupling of profits in that sector since

Beyond manufacturing, for the U.S. economy as a whole, government
data released this past June revealed that profits rose 123 percent
from the end of the Bush recession in 2001 to the start of 2006,
from $714 billion to $1.59 trillion. Measured in terms of national
income, that is equivalent to the growth of profits as a share of
national income from 7 percent to 12.2 percent—the fastest
rate of growth since records were first kept in 1947—according
to the international business source the

Financial Times


In the midst of union membership loss and the obscene growth of
corporate profits, companies across the board continue to accelerate
their abandonment of pension plans, health care costs continue to
shift from employers to workers at a growing rate, a new model to
undermine public employee unionism and bargaining takes shape in
the Midwest, the hiring of temporary and contract workers outside
bargaining units at lower pay and fewer benefits becomes increasingly
the norm, while employers everywhere watch intensely the outcome
of bankruptcy courts’ pending decisions to legitimize wage
cuts of 50 percent, eliminate pensions altogether, and cut remaining
benefits to the bone. 

Today, more than ever before, workers and unions in the U.S. need
to take a hard look in the wake of last year’s split in the
AFLCIO and begin debating seriously what new strategies, new creative
grassroots and shop floor tactics, as well as what new forms of
organization are necessary to directly confront the intensifying
corporate offensive. 

The Collapse of Union Membership 


ad the union movement today been able to
maintain the 22 percent membership level that it had in 1980 it
would now have approximately 27 million members instead of today’s
14 million. The contributing factors to the decline of union membership
have been many. At the top of the list have been the “free
trade” policies and practices of government and corporations
and the consequent exporting of millions of jobs as a result of
those policies. More than 7 million jobs have been lost in manufacturing
since 1980. More than 4.6 million of those were union jobs. NAFTA
has cost the U.S. more than a million jobs, China trade another
two million. With trade deficits running $700 billion a year further
losses in manufacturing jobs and union membership are imminent.
According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, every $1 billion in trade
deficit causes a loss of 13,000 jobs in the U.S. Other major contributing
factors to the loss of union jobs have been:

  • the restructuring of jobs in the U.S. from fulltime permanent
    union jobs to parttime, temporary and contract nonunion jobs 

  • the institutionalization of unchecked outsourcing 

  • widespread redefinition of bargaining units with the support and
    assistance of the NLRB and the courts 

  • aggressive union decertification and union avoidance efforts by
    an increasing number of companies 

  • the expansion of offshoring from manufacturing to additional sectors
    of the economy, such as technology and business professional services 

  • deregulation driven destruction of once unionized entire industries,
    including court ordered destruction of union contracts and deunionization
    in industries, such as airlines and the federal government 

Moreover, looming large on the horizon is the deunionization drive
now beginning to take shape targeting public employees in several
states, as politicians seek to return to the days when archaic “civil
service” rules determined wages, benefits, and the rights of
public workers. 

Union Membership Decline 


he historic decline in union membership has
been accompanied by a decline in the worker’s real wages, earnings,
benefits, hours, and conditions unequaled anytime since the early
1930s. The following are some of the more noteworthy results of
what has happened in parallel with the rapid decline in union membership
in America: 

  • The real median take home pay of the American worker is around
    $1 an hour less today than in 1982 

  • The average hourly wage for more than 100 million workers has
    risen by only 31 cents since 1980. That’s an average wage
    increase of 1.2 cents a year 

  • The value of the minimum wage has fallen approximately 40 percent,
    leaving 19 million workers and their families below poverty level

  • Nearly 12 million quality jobs have been permanently eliminated
    in the U.S. since 1980, more than 7 million of those wellpaid
    and mostly union manufacturing jobs 

  • The effective unemployment rate in the U.S. in 2005 was 12.6 percent
    when those unofficially unemployed and involuntarily underemployed
    are added to official government totals—19 million are without

  • There are more than 60 million workers in the U.S. today without
    a regular, permanent, full time job. Nearly half of the total
    employed workforce 

  • The U.S. worker toils for the most hours by far compared to workers
    in any other industrial nation—1,978 hours on average a year
    compared to 1,400 to 1,700 a year in Europe and 1,800 in Canada 

  • More than 46 million U.S. citizens have no health insurance coverage
    at all, including more than 31 million who are working and employed 

  • In the past five years workers’ share of healthcare costs
    have risen from 26 percent to 32 percent 

  • Since 1985 more than 97,000 defined benefit pension plans, mostly
    union, have been dismantled in the U.S., leaving workers with
    a fraction of what their retirement otherwise would have been 

  • From
    1984 to 2004 more than $1.68 trillion in workers’ payroll
    tax contributions to social security (plus trillions more in interest)
    were permanently diverted from the Social Security Trust Fund
    to cover general U.S. budget deficits 

  • From 1980 to 2002 the median working family’s total federal
    tax burden (income and payroll tax) has risen from 23 percent
    to 30 percent while the tax burden for the wealthiest 1 percent
    of households has fallen from 31 percent to 21 percent 

  • George W. Bush’s cumulative tax cuts from 2001 through 2004
    will amount to $11 trillion when made permanent, 80 percent of
    which will go the wealthiest 20 percent of households and corporations 

  • More than $900 billion every year is transferred from working
    class Americans to the wealthiest 10 percent of households as
    a result of the above 

The central organizational question facing U.S. labor today is what
kind of organizational restructuring is necessary to restore union
membership to what it once was in 1980, at the time of the launching
of the current corporate offensive? What new organizational forms
are necessary to achieve a more effective division of labor—i.e.,
between coordinated labor action at the point of production (e.g.,
organizing, bargaining coordination, strike support, boycotts, corporate
campaigns, defense of community struggles, etc.) and political action
at the legislativeexecutive level? 

The crisis faced by the trade union movement today is more than
a matter of organizational structure. It is just as much a matter
of membership mobilization. For this mobilization a fundamental
change in how organized labor operates at a local grassroots level
is just as necessary. 

Creating An Effective Membership 


o begin to restore union membership levels
to the 22 percent that existed at the start of the 1980s, AFLCIO
and CTW unions will need to nearly double their current combined
membership, adding more than 10 million employed members over the
coming decade—one million new members a year. 

Organizing one million new union members a year requires creating
a new crossunion membership core that is mobilized to participate
in new forms of solidarity activity involving multiple unions and
unioncommunity support activities. Effective membership means members
that are active and committed beyond more than just their immediate
workplace group. Creating that kind of active membership will in
turn require the creation of new kinds of “centers of solidarity
activity” for membership involvement, in addition to and apart
from the typical and limited steward roles at the workplace or the
miscellaneous organizational projects in local unions that most
members find boring at best. I’m referring to a new kind of
labor movement membership apart from, in addition to, and not in
lieu of, membership in a specific union. The best, most selfless,
most committed would become members both of their respective industry
union, and members of the American labor movement as well. Their
task is to build solidarity actions. 

What is also envisioned here is a new organizational structure that
will facilitate new forms of activity— within and between unions,
between unions and community organizations, and between the unionized
and the unorganized; a structure and activities that will mobilize
union members, friends, and allies at the local level. That will
create a new critical mass necessary for noninstitutional approaches
to organizing (i.e., outside the NLRB) that will be required in
order to organize one million new members a year.  

The restructuring chart inclucded here represents an initial proposal
for restructuring to permit a refocusing on both organizing and
on other point of production activity in general, to create a new
layer of mobilized membership, a new kind of tighter relationship
with local community interests, and to do so without abandoning
political action. 

The current AFLCIO would divide into two coequal structures: an
American Council of Unions with a primary mission at the point of
production and an American Federation of Unions with a primary mission
addressing political action, job training and search, and other
traditional administrative activity. 

Parallel CoEqual Structures 


he American Federation of Unions would look
much like the current AFLCIO in both tasks and functions, with one
important new functional task added. The AFU would focus mainly
on those activities the AFLCIO has tended to do in the past: namely,
political action, international affairs, and traditional staff administrative
support functions. Added to these traditional functions, however,
would be the new mission of developing job training and job search
programs for the unorganized. 

training and search are two critical benefits that can serve to
attract unorganized workers to the union movement and develop a
sense of loyalty to unions that could be leveraged in numerous ways
in subsequent organizing campaigns. The union as the avenue to getting
jobs was once a powerful benefit provided by organized labor. Until
the late 1940s, in many industries jobs could only be gotten through
the union hiring hall. The closed shop and hiring hall were the
path to work. They were also a critical source of union loyalty
and solidarity. That path and source of loyalty and solidarity was
consciously eliminated by the corporate elite with the passage of
the TaftHartley law in 1947. Labor now needs to find new ways and
new forms to provide job benefits to workers once again. Developing
those forms and ways would be a major mission task of the American
Federation of Unions, the AFU. 

Parallel to the new AFU would be a new American Council of Unions,
or ACU. There is no need to end the current AFLCIO and replace it
altogether with a new organization. Let it do what it has been doing
as a revitalized AFU. There is a definite need, however, to create
a new organization in parallel to the AFU that is able to do those
tasks the current AFLCIO has proved unable or unwilling to undertake;
namely tasks at the point of production like organizing coordination,
strike and bargaining cooperation between unions, implementation
of boycotts and corporation campaigns, mobilizing members and organizing
local protest actions on behalf of community struggles, effective
resolution of union jurisdictional disputes, implementation of mergers
between unions, and other actions to bring about greater union density
and to help reestablish industrywide bargaining once again. 

The American Council of Unions is not the old Industrial Union Council
of the AFLCIO, but something quite different. It would have the
authority to carry out a broadly defined mission at the point of
production. The Council would also serve as the primary organizational
form for achieving a closer integration of labor and community solidarity
actions at the local level. It would be the workplace action and
mobilization arm of the union movement, in contrast to the politicaladministrative
arm, the American Federation of Unions. 

Just as the American Federation of Union’s task is to work
toward achieving political density, the American Council of Unions’
task would be to lead and coordinate organizing drives, interunion
bargaining and strike activity, and in general mobilizing current
union members, the unorganized, and community allies around concrete
events and struggles. The AFLCIO as structured today is incapable
of effectively pursuing both objectives of political and union density
at the same time. It tends to fall back to the pursuit of the former
at the expense of the latter. The tasks must therefore be divided
and the AFLCIO today restructured into two coequal parallel bodies
to enable the effective pursuit of both tasks. The American Council
of Unions mission is to focus on mobilizing workers around workplace
and community issues and struggles. 

The Council and the Federation would be coequal in other ways. Both
would provide a cochair for each of the State Federations of Labor.
This latter organizational structure exists today and would thus
continue, but now with additional tasks and under a dual leadership
structure. Each State Federation would provide two delegates, one
from the American Council of Unions and one from the American Federation
of Unions to the new Parliamentary policy body, the American Workers

American Workers Congress 


his proposed new organizational body would
be a parliament of labor that would meet quarterly and set general
policy directions. It would have no executive authority as that
would reside solely with the American Council of Unions and the
American Federation of Unions, in areas of their respective distinct

The current structure of the AFLCIO has a fundamental conservative
bias that renders it unable to make major strategic or policy changes
quickly enough in crises situations. Its many small unions become
dependent on a few in the AFLCIO in leadership roles who then rely
on that highly fragmented support to stay in office for extended
periods. Only a major rebellion from time to time by a significant
faction of unions is able to unseat the leadership and change policies.
This is a very ineffective succession process and is harmful in
times of crisis when a more rapid change and response is necessary.
In addition, a greater role in the determination of policy needs
to come from the field, from below. Even the Democratic Party has
a more dispersed policy making body comprised of representatives
from the field, its central committee. 

Labor needs a broadbased policy making body more closely reflecting
the voice of its members. The American Workers Congress idea represents
a shift in that direction, toward opening organizational policy
making to the field and from below. State level representatives,
two each from each State, would constitute delegates to the American
Workers Congress, with the proviso that one representative from
each state would come from the new American Council of Unions and
one from the American Federation of Unions. 

key to successfully organizing 10 million new union members happens
at the local level. As noted, structural organizational change at
the top will not lead to the successful organizing of 10 million
new union members. To achieve that level of union growth will require
a mobilized effective membership base as well as the broad involvement
of community forces and organizations in the organizing process.
In turn, to achieve that kind of effective membership and community
involvement requires extending AFLCIO restructuring and reorganization
down to the local grassroots level. Thus the key to organizing the
10 million lies fundamentally in the creation of the new American
Council of Unions focusing on the workplace and the local community,
and in particular with new Local Mobilization Committees reporting
to that Council. 

The current Central Labor Councils of today’s AFLCIO at the
local level would continue to exist and would report to the new
American Federation of Unions. They would continue their work in
the area of local politics and in the new task of developing job
training, job search, and placement services for the unorganized.
But alongside the Central Labor Councils locally a separate local
organization would take form and would report directly to the Council
of American Unions structure. This new organizational form is the
Local Mobilization Committee. 

The Local Mobilizing Committee would be staffed by two fulltime
paid local organizers. The two LMC coorganizers would have the task
of coordinating organizing campaigns, boycotts, community protest
actions, strike support assistance, corporate campaigns implementation,
etc. at the local level under the direction of the regional American
Council of Unions. This is the level where the creation of the idea
of effective membership would begin, engaging union members as well
as community and unorganized workers in common support activities
and struggles. Here is where new centers of solidarity activity
would develop and emerge, bringing together union members, the unorganized,
and members of community groups in joint activities across organizations
and respective membership bases. This kind of crossunion membership
cannot develop without a formal local structure to enable it or
without resources provided to those who may lead it. 

It is important as well that the LMCs are local bodies staffed and
supported from below and not appointed from above. The LMCs would
also work closely with the local Central Labor Councils and their
affiliated unions when mobilizing support for point of production
activities for a particular union, such as organizing drives, boycotts,
strike support, etc. In turn, the CLCs would provide job training
and job search support for the unorganized. The LMC union coorganizer
would be elected from among union delegates to the local Central
Labor Council. The community coorganizer would be elected according
to an appropriate process agreed upon by those organizations and
endorsed by the regional ACU. Both coorganizers would be paid by
and report to the regional body of the American Council of Unions,
which would prioritize and assign their activities, as well as coordinate
those activities with other regional ACUs when appropriate (e.g.,
a nationwide organizing drive at WalMart and mass protests against
the destruction of union pension plans, elimination of funding for
section 10 public housing, closing of public schools in communities,

Comments on Organizational Change 


he above organizational proposals are only
initial suggestions. There are many unanswered and other critical
questions not addressed by these proposals and the proposals, in
turn, raise other important organizational questions requiring further
consideration and discussion. 

The revitalization of U.S. labor must be based on a massive organizing
campaign that will have to employ new strategies and tactics based
on a new organizational structure for the labor movement if labor
is to succeed bringing in ten million new members over the next
decade. Certainly organizing via the NLRB won’t do it. Nor
will organizing via neutrality agreements and card checks. Whatever
the new approaches, they can only be successful if a real mobilization
of the union base occurs and if this mobilization at its core includes
uniting labor with community allies in ways and structures not previously
developed. Without such new structures there is virtually no possibility
of organizing ten million new members, restoring union bargaining
and political density, or having the slightest chance that workers
may yet check the current corporate offensive now raging against
workers and their unions in the U.S. today—an offensive about
to intensify still further in the months immediately ahead.


Rasmus is vice president of UAW 1981, AFLCIO and the author of

War At Home: The Corporate Offensive From Ronald Reagan To George
W. Bush

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