Bill Fletcher Jr. inscribed into my copy of his new book "Never forget the class struggle." Wise words to readers who at their best treat the war of the classes as a Sunday catechism.
That’s why if there is one analysis of the labor movement people should own and read and pass around this year, it’s Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press, 2008), co-authored with Fernando Gapasin. The authors, a longtime union organizer and quondam top assistant to the AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney, and a Central Labor Council president and labor educator, come armed not only with critical and informed insiders’ views of the strengths and limitations of American trade unions but also of the international capitalist context in which a war against working people is fought every day. They also understand that unions, as institutions of resistance in that war, need to speak for more than their dues-paying members in bargaining, grievance handling and political action but have a vision of fighting alongside and mobilizing working people as a whole
For the authors, the new world of capitalist globalization holds no place for the Gompersian notion of cooperation with capital on mutual interests. It doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did episodically and if working people can even locate business partners wanting to collaborate. What’s needed are unions that go beyond representing their members to representing a class.
Their vision entails more than taking sides on the ostensibly divisive and irreconcilable issue of organizing vs. politics that divided the AFL-CIO majority from those breakaway unions that formed Change to Win (CtW) in 2005. They think nothing short of what they call "social justice unionism" can survive in the new century. That’s a movement including all those who work, plus the unemployed. It’s where unions don’t organize solely by craft, by industry or even by sector — the CtW model — so much as city by city, building social blocs and contending for power
They even chastise the labor federations for short-shrifting the Central Labor Councils, venerable citywide institutions perfectly situated to organize by geography, not simply by sector, and they counterpoise to industrial or sectoral organizing the earlier Union Cities effort and the Jobs for Justice(JwJ) model as "a means for labor activists to connect to struggles outside of the normal parameters of the union movement." They call JwJ "an interesting experiment, serving both as a mass organization for individuals who wanted to be active but had been blocked by the bureaucracy of their unions and as a means of expanding the notion of workers’ rights."
They chastise the International labor federations for being slow to fight multinational corporations across borders even as capital has gone on to re-organize the world, creating new forms of imperial domination and provoking new kinds of wars.
While much of the book deals with the shared weaknesses of much of the union movement, the authors are especially critical of the CtW federation for sounding like fired-up "resolutionary socialists" while in practice tamping down the heat and announcing, as SEIU President Andy Stern did, that "class struggle is a thing of the past" They appropriately knock Stern for offering "unions that solve problems, not create problems" to would-be business partners.
For the authors, it’s class struggle waged by business that forces unions to fight, and limits what even supine labor leaders would otherwise concede No amount of tripartitism, or company-union-government cooperation, as exemplified by the current industrial relations system in Ireland, can secure the future for today’s unions. Only an effort to organize militantly and class-wide can do that.
One such opportunity squandered was on behalf of Katrina victims. Instead of the effort that did go on — a costly if simple act of charity the authors do commend — help could have been less short-term and one-shot, but instead aimed at building a movement and serving as a teachable moment: one that showed how capital is mismanaging, how neoliberalism was bankrupt and how its victims are everywhere, even among the invisible poor of the ninth ward. It’s the same paradigm the authors use to fault the unions, including the Sweeney leadership, for not railing against the Clinton administration’s support for "welfare reform," of which the TANF program is correctly seen as "an attack on the poorest sections of the working class." Instead of at minimum speaking out, the labor movement let it happen. An injury to one was myopically seen as somebody else’s problem.
So what must unions do? Lots of things. They need to involve their members, not just in mobilizations but in education and in shop-floor activism and decision-making. They need to understand that "class struggle" is not an apocalyptic Marxist wet dream, but a permanent reality for working people that can only be mediated or reversed by contesting for power. They argue that unions can no longer — even for their own survival — limit their mission to representing their members or even attaining an uptick in membership, but must instead engage the class. They also think unions are doomed without a revival of a consciously left labor current.
In some ways, the authors overreach, as when they reduce grievance handling from one level of struggle to an exclusively routinized "process" that traps even once — or would-be — militant practitioners. While that’s sadly factual in the main, there are also stewards, elected officials and rank-and-file activists who know to use the contract as a weapon, and the actual grievance-handling machinery as one way to employ that weapon.
Fletcher and Gapasin also, while criticizing one union for "narrowing its views to issues of seniority" themselves take a narrow view of the 1968 teachers strike in New York, where they fault the teachers for striking "in effect, against the communities of color." There is no question that unions need to "reconceptualize their relationships with other progressive social movements," including the black freedom movement, as the authors say — something that has been ongoing at least since the mid-1990s. But any union that hopes to speak and act for more than just the current generation of dues payers, yet doesn’t act in defense of basic due process in job transfers and firings — what the teachers saw themselves as up against in 1968 — sells out its own present members. Where’s the value-added in trading one for the other?
Worst of all, Fletcher and Gapasin tend to fetishize the strengths and the wisdom of the trade union left of the 1940s, claiming that the post-war anti-communist purge of radicals was key to housebreaking labor militancy. As a source, they solely cite Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin’s highly problematic work, Left Out; Reds and America’s Industrial Unions, in declaring that Communist-led unions were both more effective on bread-and-butter issues and more democratic than their socialist, non- or anti-Communist rivals. For this reviewer, the contrast is a wash.
None of the ‘sides’ was committed to — if not mostly clueless about — how to build what the authors say was wanted: "a combative, class-conscious industrial union movement" in the post-war period. Given the actually existing, fragmented left of the time and the strength and raging anti-union biases of business, all factions — CPers, socialists, radicals, Trotskyists, anarchists, Reutherites and better or worse — would have been at sea facing down the American Century leviathan. Having more lefties surviving as shop floor militants would have been a better problem; it would certainly have left more in the way of a birthright to the virtually orphaned New Left generation of the 1960s. These (we) in the absence of any counterarguments about the salience of class and unions bought into C. Wright Mills’s derisive depiction of a reigning "labor metaphysic," that was said to validate trade union leaders’ potential no matter their politics. No matter. Even without a purge of the mostly Communist Party left, big capital would still have called the shots.
At bottom, business didn’t need collaborators in the postwar period. Nor were they looking for any. The Treaty of Detroit was convenient and cost effective. Like Mario Puzo’s Godfather, business made an offer labor couldn’t refuse — at least not then.
Still, the authors are on surer ground about what needs doing today. They want a labor movement that isn’t shy about public debate — something neither side in the AFL-CIO/CtW split acted on before the split. Instead of launching monologued broadsides, a better movement would have encouraged discussion about its future. It would have involved the ranks, rather than keeping discussion as a rarified exchange of position papers that never engaged an argument. It would continue what JwJ does in microcosm: the hard job of working on long-term institution building with anyone who would work with them. It would organize, speak for, listen to and involve every working woman and man, including — and not just including — its current members.
Like class struggle, that’s also something never to forget.
Michael Hirsch is a labor journalist and union staffer in New York City. A member of the national political committee of the Democratic Socialists of America, he is on the editorial boards of New Politics and Democratic Left. This review will appear in the latter’s Winter 2008-09 issue.