U.S. labor in the crisis

THE ELECTION of Barack Obama last November seemed to promise a new era for organized labor. With Obama in the White House and a solid  Democratic majority in Congress, it appeared that unions would finally be able  to get action on their main legislative agenda—passage of the Employee Free  Choice Act (EFCA), a measure that would make it easier for workers to join a  union. And with the world’s press gathered outside Obama’s Chicago home during  the transition period, a victorious factory occupation at the Republic Windows  and Doors plant in that city captured the imagination of the country, and even  got some encouraging words from Obama himself. Soon afterwards, workers at the  huge Smithfield pork processing plant in North Carolina voted to unionize after  more than a decade of vicious anti-union actions by the company. Hopes were  high that unions were set to go on the offensive.

A few months later, the picture is quite different. The  chances for the passage of EFCA appear bleak. The biggest union in the country,  the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was embroiled in the undemocratic  takeover of its 150,000-member West Coast health care local.[1] At the same  time, the SEIU intervened in the internal conflict of another union, UNITE  HERE, once its closest ally, to annex 150,000 members of a breakaway faction.  The old UNITE leader, Bruce Raynor sought refuge in the SEIU because, he  claimed, the HERE side was spending organizing money wastefully; the top HERE  official, John Wilhelm, accused Raynor of bargaining for low wages and poor  working standards, Stern style, in order to convince employers to allow  unfettered organizing. At stake is not only union jurisdiction over hotels and  casinos, but control of the only union-owned bank, the Amalgamated Bank, which  had $4.47 billion in assets in 2008.[2]

As a result of this internecine battle, the SEIU-dominated  Change to Win group of unions was in tatters. A 2005 split from the AFL-CIO,  the Change to Win unions had failed to deliver a promised breakthrough for  labor. Instead, it was edging toward some sort of reunification with the labor federation—but  only under pressure from the Obama administration, which insists on the  convenience of one-stop shopping when it deals with the unions.[3]

Certainly the Republic Windows and Doors occupation to win  workers’ severance pay—and the solidarity and excitement that this action  garnered—remains an inspiration. But what followed wasn’t similar victories,  but one of the most catastrophic setbacks in the history of the U.S. labor  movement. Private employers were demanding, and obtaining, concessions from  unions in industries ranging from newspapers to trucking companies. Even as  expectations of Obama mounted in advance of Inauguration Day, Chrysler and  General Motors were slashing jobs and gutting union contracts as they drifted  toward bankruptcy amid the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.

It was during that 1930s crisis that the United Auto Workers  (UAW) stormed onto the scene with dramatic factory occupations led by  communists, socialists, and other radicals. Today’s UAW, though, is a vastly  different organization. It has followed its long-established strategy of  partnership with employers to an extreme conclusion by becoming, through  health-care trust funds, a major shareholder in GM alongside the U.S.  government and the majority (55 percent) shareholder in Chrysler. To achieve  this bizarre form of employee ownership—the union trust fund will get just one  seat on the company board—the union agreed to ban strikes for six years,  eliminate work rules negotiated over decades, cut overtime pay, and further  concessions.[4] The result of all this is the virtual elimination of the  difference between UAW-organized plants and nonunion ones. The UAW, which once  steadily raised the bar for wages and benefits for the entire U.S. working  class, is now leading the way down.

The driving force in obtaining these concessions is the  Obama administration, which publicly claimed that it had been tougher on the  UAW than the Bush White House.[5] Rather than use the $50 billion  nationalization of GM to launch a green industrialization program, the Obama  administration wants to create a slimmed-down “new GM” while selling off  unwanted assets at fire-sale prices. This will intensify the crisis in the auto  parts industry.

Even mainstream liberal commentators were aghast at the  terms of Obama’s GM bailout. “Wouldn’t it be better to use the money to convert  GM and other declining manufacturing companies into producing what America  needs, such as light rail systems and new energy efficient materials, and  training laid-off autoworkers for the technician jobs of the future?” said  former labor secretary Robert Reich.[6] Rather than use GM to create good  paying jobs, the Obama plan will further downsize GM’s UAW. “At the end of the  1970s, when the first round of concession bargaining began in the U.S., the UAW  had 450,000 members at GM,” wrote Sam Gindin, a former economist for the  Canadian Auto Workers:

   Today, after repeated contracts that allegedly “won” job security in  exchange for workplace, wage, or benefit concessions—sold by the union as well  as the companies—the UAW’s GM membership is down to 64,000. If GM is  “successful” in its current restructuring, that will be further reduced to  40,000. Thirty years of concessions and a 90 percent loss in jobs. If ever there  was a failing strategy for workers, this was it.[7]

The capitulation by UAW leaders has boosted the confidence  of employers everywhere in their effort to make workers pay for the economic  crisis. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger met no union resistance when  he imposed unpaid leave on state workers, which amounted to a 9.2 percent cut  in pay. He planned to seek another 5 percent cut as this article was being  written.[8] Fifteen other state governors have made similar moves.[9] And when  United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) dared to show resistance by organizing for a  one-day strike to protest layoffs, they were hit with a judge’s temporary  restraining order that banned the action by threatening to levy fines that  would bankrupt the union and strip the credentials of any teacher who walked  out. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the most active of the  big-city labor councils, failed to mobilize in response.[10]

If union leaders can see a bit of a silver lining in one of  these many ominous clouds, it’s the appointment of a pro-union member of  Congress, Hilda Solis as labor secretary.[11] But that’s little compensation  for Obama’s leave-no-banker-behind economic policy. So far, Obama’s funneled  trillions in U.S. taxpayer money into enormous bailouts for Wall Street,  compared with only modest tax cuts for workers and an economic stimulus plan  that will create far fewer jobs than the six million jobs that the recession  has already destroyed.[12]

Besides this immediate onslaught, the U.S. working class  faces an epochal shift as the result of three intertwined crises: a protracted  economic crisis that will lead to plant closures and layoffs (“restructuring”  in the employers’ parlance); a generational transition in which younger workers  find that decently paid union jobs held by their parents are no longer  available; and a great demographic shift in which immigrants account for an  increasing share of the working class. Before we can assess the prospects for  labor’s revival, we need to take account of these developments and understand  their economic, social, and political implications.

Kim Moody, the veteran socialist, labor activist, and  author, has made an invaluable contribution to this task in his recent book,  U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition. Moody argues that organized labor,  already weakened by decades of decline, has become further disoriented and  thrown onto the defensive by several trends, including an aggressive attack on  unions by Corporate America, demographic change, and a restructuring of  manufacturing around “lean production” that involved steady job loss—not simply  as a result of globalization, but through new labor-saving technology and a  shift to nonunion operations in the U.S. South. The analysis that follows will  take Moody’s work as a point of departure.

Impact of the economic crisis

The recession—or perhaps, depression—is greatly exacerbating  the problems of the U.S. labor movement. Even as the economic downturn began in  December 2007, one labor economist pointed out that, “17.5 percent of all  unemployed workers were long-term unemployed, compared with just 11.1 percent  in March 2001,” the start of the last recession.[13] And if job growth had  simply kept pace with the population increase, there would have been an  additional 3.2 million more jobs in the U.S. economy by 2008.[14] Today,  workers are facing what the Economic Policy Institute calls a “jobs desert,”  with joblessness at 9.4 percent in May 2009, the highest level since 1983. One  in four of the unemployed—some 3.9 million people—had been jobless for at least  six months.[15]

The leadership of organized labor has been unable—and in  many case unwilling—to resist job losses among unionized workers. Rather, they  have concentrated on organizing the unorganized. This led to an increase in the  numbers of workers in unions by 311,000 in 2007 and by another 428,000 in 2008,  bringing the so-called union density rate to 12.4 percent, up from 12.0 percent  in 2006.[16] These gains—especially in the context of a recession—highlight the  fact that tens of millions of workers are prepared to organize, a conclusion  supported by recent opinion polls.[17]

While these increases in unionization are important, the  pace is far too slow to change the balance of power between labor and  capital—and the recession and the anticipated “jobless recovery” will likely  wipe out these advances. Further, unionization is down from about 35 percent in  the mid 1950s. In the private sector, union density is just 7.5 percent, a  figure comparable to that of a century ago. Yet even these stark numbers fail  to convey the extent of labor’s crisis. Half the country’s union members (about  eight million people) live in just six states—New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois,  Ohio, Michigan, and California. The South remains a bastion of anti-unionism,  where six states had unionization rates below 5 percent.[18]

The union bureaucracy has sought to overcome its crisis  through political solutions via the Democratic Party. And unions did play a  major role in Barack Obama’s presidential victory, spending $300 million on the  elections and mobilizing enormous numbers of union staff and members.[19] This  led labor to look forward to the political spoils—chiefly, the passage of EFCA.  But, as usual, organized labor badly overestimated the support of its supposed  Democratic friends in Congress and the White House. Instead of using its  election field operation to launch a campaign for EFCA, the unions pulled back  just as big business geared up.[20] Nevertheless, union leaders continue to look  with hope toward the Obama administration for a political solution to their  problems—if only because they have no other strategy to deal with the  employers’ escalating demands for givebacks.

Indeed, the auto crisis is only the most egregious example  of concessions bargaining that has taken place since the onset of the recession  in December 2007. For example, Teamster officials reopened a contract at YRC,  the parent company of the Yellow and Roadway freight haulers. Union officials  agreed to, and workers ratified, a 10 percent cut in pay and mileage  compensation. In return, the workers will get part ownership in the  company.[21] YRC’s main unionized competitor, ABF, is expected to demand  similar givebacks.

Many other companies are pressing similar demands, reported  the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), a private research company. Other large  contracts set to expire this year include regional grocery store agreements  covering 110,000 workers. Overall, contracts covering 2.2 million  private-sector workers will come up for negotiation throughout 2009.[22] It  should be added that most unions that took major concessions in the last  recession of 2001—such as the airlines—have still not overcome the job losses  and pay cuts that they took then.

One big showdown could come at AT T, which demanded  concessions this spring in contracts that cover 100,000 workers. Despite $2.6  billion in profits last year, the company recently laid off 12,000 workers. Now  management wants health-care concessions that amount to a 7 to 10 percent pay  cut.[23] After mobilizing for a possible strike, the CWA allowed an April 4  contract deadline to pass without an agreement, apparently to allow its other  contracts with the company to expire to better coordinate bargaining.

A notable exception to this concessions bargaining trend is  Boeing Co., where a long strike by machinists last fall forced management to  back down on demands for virtually unlimited outsourcing and minor gains on  pensions.[24] Boeing’s backlog of orders gave the union leverage despite the  slump. Nevertheless, the strike victory did not roll back previous concessions  on outsourcing and lower-tier pay for new workers. Moreover, despite a huge  backlog of orders for new airplanes, the economic slump has led Boeing to  announce 10,000 layoffs.[25]

Meanwhile, in the public sector, recession-driven budget  cuts are leading to layoffs and aggressive management demands at the bargaining  table. In New York City, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg has extracted $400  million in health-care concessions from public-sector unions as he pushes to  eliminate 2,000 jobs.[26] New York governor David Paterson, a Democrat, backed  off a plan to lay off 9,000 state workers, will eliminate 7,000 union jobs  through buyouts and attrition, and reduce workers’ retirement benefits.[27]  Across the Hudson River, yet another Democrat, New Jersey governor Jon Corzine,  also used the threat of layoffs to get state workers’ unions to agree to an  eighteen-month wage freeze and ten unpaid furlough days, a giveback worth $304  million.[28] Across the country, in Washington State, Governor Christine  Gregoire, another Democrat, submitted a budget that eliminates funds for pay  raises that the state had previously negotiated with unions.[29] There are  similar examples from other states.

Organized labor’s failure to resist concessions has lowered  the living standard of all workers. According to the BNA’s Wage Trend Index,  annual wage growth in 2009 will be about 2 percent, as the economy will  “eliminate any ability for the vast majority of workers to negotiate higher  wages,” said Kathryn Kobe, the economist who worked on the report.[30]

The recession will accelerate the transformation of the U.S.  into a low-wage economy—a trend that is already far advanced. As the New York  Times’ Louis Uchitelle wrote last year:

   The $20 hourly wage, introduced on a huge scale in the middle of the  last century, allowed masses of Americans with no more than a high school  education to rise to the middle class. It was a marker, of sorts. And it is on  its way to extinction…. The decline is greatest in manufacturing, where only  1.9 million hourly workers still earn that much. That’s down nearly 60 percent  since 1979, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.[31]

What’s more, household income was propped up only because of  the increasing role of women in the workforce—that is, it took two (or more)  incomes to achieve the living standards that one wage earner could have  supported previously.

As the Economic Policy Institute noted with the release of  the State of Working America 2008/2009,

   although the economy has expanded by 18 percent since 2000, most  Americans’ household income does not reflect that growth. Quite the opposite:  real income for the median family fell by 1.1 percent from 2000–2006. A small  increase in the median family’s hourly wages (1 percent) was more than wiped  out by the 2.2 percent drop in annual work hours. Moreover, whatever wage  growth occurred since 2000 was based on the momentum from the 1990s  recovery—wages did not improve at all over the 2002–07 recovery.[32]

As measured in today’s dollars, the State of Working America  authors note, “from 1979 to 2007, wages are up only slightly, from $16.88 in  1979 to $17.42 in 2007, a growth of just 0.1 percent per year over nearly 30  years—virtually stagnant, despite some rapid growth in the late 1990s.”[33]

In the recovery of the 2000s, the share of national income  going to profits reached a forty-year high. This change in the distribution of  national income, the authors’ estimate, is “the equivalent of transferring $206  billion annually from labor compensation to capital income.”[34]

For African Americans, as always in U.S. capitalism, the  system is qualitatively worse, owing to the legacy of slavery and the  persistence of racial discrimination. The Black jobless rate in May 2009 hit  14.9 percent.[35] If there is still a controversy among economists whether to  call this downturn a recession or depression, in Black America there’s no  debate.

In short, U.S. workers are experiencing a rapid and sharp  drop in income, employment, and living standards, with slim opportunities for  improvement in the foreseeable future. This will have far-reaching social and  political consequences. The aim here is to try and frame some of the questions  facing the labor movement that will arise from this crisis.

The one-sided class war

The 1960s and 1970s are remembered as the heyday of the  civil rights and antiwar movements. But it was also a time of worker rebellions  in the “basic industries” of auto, steel, and coal mining as well trucking.  Much of a revived revolutionary left threw itself into union organizing. Then  came the PATCO strike of 1981. President Ronald Reagan used the full power of  the state not only to replace 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, but also  to obliterate their union. The signal to employers was clear: It was open  season on unions, and “concessions bargaining”—negotiations in which unions  surrendered pay and benefits—became the norm.[36]

The obliteration of PATCO also encouraged further government  intervention in strikes, from routine injunctions limiting picket lines to  violence by police deployed to protect strikebreakers. The National Guard was  used to violently break strikes by Arizona copper miners in 1983 and Minnesota  meatpackers in UFCW Local P-9 in their heroic 1985–86 strike against wage  cuts.[37] A decade later, striking newspaper unions in Detroit abided by court  injunctions after the violent police tactics that shut down effective, militant  mass pickets during the opening weeks of the long Detroit newspaper  strikes.[38] In January 2000, South Carolina state troopers attacked a picket  line in Charleston, S.C., which led to five longshore workers being placed  under house arrest for more than a year until a solidarity campaign forced  charges to be dropped.[39]

The heavy hand of the state ensured that most picket lines  would remain symbolic rather than active attempts to stop production, as they  had been in the militant struggles of the 1930s. Striking unions adopted the  slogan, “one day longer” to show their willingness to outlast employers.  Workers sacrificed enormously in what were often valiant, but losing, battles,  such as the Illinois “War Zone” struggles at food processor A.E. Staley, heavy  equipment maker Caterpillar, and tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone.[40]

The big exception to this pattern is the victorious 1997  Teamsters strike at UPS—a major employer was caught flat-footed by workers’  solidarity and widespread pro-union sentiment. UPS could make no serious  attempt at strikebreaking. But UPS was able to use its political connections to  mount a campaign against then-Teamster president Ron Carey, who was elected on  a reform slate. In the months after the strike government overseers of the  union removed Carey from office for campaign violations by his staff, even  though Carey, who passed away recently, was later cleared of all wrongdoing in  federal court.[41]

In the post–PATCO labor movement, the heaviest judicial  hammer has come down on Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, which  represents 38,000 bus and subway workers in New York City. In 1999, a judge put  in place an injunction in which fines of $25,000 for strikers and $1 million  against the union would double each day of the strike. After the union did walk  out for sixty hours in 2005, a judge imposed a fine of $2.5 million on the  local, banned the automatic deduction of union dues from workers’ paychecks,  and ordered the brief jailing of union president Roger Toussaint.[42] Local  100—already weakened by ex-reformer Toussaint’s high-handed administration—has  yet to recover.[43] The New York injunctions were apparently the template for  the judge who banned the planned one-day strike by L.A. teachers. This hard  line recalls the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when unions  routinely faced “injunction judges,” violent attacks on picket lines by police  and armed forces, and naked class justice.

In this environment, unions have all but abandoned the  strike as a weapon. In 2008, there were just fifteen work stoppages involving  1,000 or more workers, compared to 424 in 1974. In the last two decades, there  have never been more than fifty-one such work stoppages in a given year.[44]  Less union militancy led directly to organizational decline, Moody writes:

   [Unions] grew when they fought for something and in particular, as in  the 1960s and early 1970s, when they fought to sustain or increase power in the  workplace. These days, the notion that growth and militancy have any  connection, except possibly a negative one, is angrily dismissed by precisely  those who lay the greatest claim to strategies for growth…above all…the  SEIU.[45]

A bureaucratic solution to union decline?

Labor’s long crisis led to the victory of John Sweeney’s New  Voices team, which took over the AFL-CIO in 1995. Sweeney’s team gave a liberal  makeover to the stodgy Cold War federation apparatus, and promised a labor  renewal. (Under Sweeney there was also a repackaging of, but not a fundamental  change in, the AFL-CIO’s largely government-funded foreign policy operation,  notorious for its collaboration with the CIA.[46] That, however, is beyond the  scope of this article.)

To survive, Sweeney’s AFL-CIO developed a strategy with four  basic elements: (1) encourage mergers with other unions to compensate for  shrinking membership; (2) organize in industries that cannot be shipped  overseas, such as in health care, hotels, and construction; (3) collaborate  with management to try and gain employers’ neutrality in union elections; and  (4) pour big money and member activism into electing a Democratic president and  Congress in the hope of prolabor legislation.

This approach is pursued by both the AFL-CIO, the historic  national labor federation, and the Change to Win (CTW) coalition, which broke  away in 2005. It’s a perspective that fits the needs of the top levels of the  union bureaucracy. The top union officialdom functions as a buffer between  capital and labor, and, in the U.S., most embrace that role enthusiastically.  Far removed from the shop floor (if they ever worked there at all—many are  lifetime staffers), leading U.S. union officials have a lifestyle and social  connections that tie them more closely to management and politicians than to  the rank and file. While crises and splits in the union hierarchy can open the  door to reform candidates and pressure from the membership, the union  bureaucracy will at best vacillate unless pressed forward by rank-and-file  action.

And that’s exactly what today’s union leaders are keen to  prevent. While their methods differ, both the UAW’s Ron Gettelfinger in the  AFL-CIO and SEIU president Andrew Stern in Change to Win have essentially the  same goal: create a union machine that is unaccountable to, and impregnable  against, the rank and file. Stern’s method is to create gigantic “locals,”  often more than 100,000 workers that span one or more states, run by people who  were appointed or installed through electoral maneuvers orchestrated by union  headquarters.[47] In this way, Stern, argues, SEIU can have the clout to force  employers into neutrality agreements. Yet this has most often involved top-down  organizing in which the workers are passive, even unknowing, recipients of  union membership.[48]

Stern’s scorched-earth effort to destroy the  opposition-controlled United Health Care Workers-West with dismemberment and  trusteeship is only the biggest and crudest expression of the authoritarian  rule that has become the norm in SEIU. Stern’s authoritarianism was on display  in April 2008 when hundreds of SEIU members were sent to physically attack the  Labor Notes union activist conference outside Detroit as part of a dispute with  the California Nurses Association (CNA).[49] Stern called off the dogs a year  later and made peace with the CNA and its affiliate, the National Nurses  Organizing Committee, which led to trades of members in Nevada hospitals, a  move that, as union democracy organizer Herman Benson put it, left “nurses on  both sides feeling like bartered chips.” This, in turn, was part of a complex  regroupment of the CNA and registered nurses into a new 185,000-member union  affiliated with the AFL-CIO.[50]

The SEIU’s deal with the CNA wasn’t a case of Stern turning  softhearted, however. The deal preempted an emerging alliance between the  nurses’ union and the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which  was founded by leaders and members of the SEIU’s United Health Care  Workers-West after the local was put into trusteeship by the SEIU  International.[51] In any case, the seamy side of Stern’s regime came to light,  as corruption scandals took down two important union leaders in Southern  California and another in Michigan.[52]

In defense of these organizing methods, Stern and his  supporters claim that workers are more interested in power than democracy.[53]  It’s true that SEIU has had major success in organizing mostly immigrant  janitors after achieving a breakthrough in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. But  as Moody points out, the L.A. janitors’ real wages fell by around 10 percent  over the course of two consecutive five-year contracts.[54] More recently, the  SEIU policy of “bargaining to organize” has led to strict limits on traditional  union workers’ rights, including the right to speak out on bad conditions in  nursing homes. The agreements also included a low wage increase and bans on  strikes.[55] In Stern’s eyes, the crime of Sal Rosselli, who was then president  of the SEIU’s United Heathcare Workers-West, was to resist such deals and  challenge the SEIU’s approach to partnership.[56] Now head of the new National  Union of Healthcare Workers, Rosselli has the support of tens of thousands of  SEIU members, most of whom, for the moment, are legally prevented from joining  the new union, which calls for a fighting, democratic labor movement.[57]

For his part, the UAW’s Gettelfinger is also seeking ways to  preserve the bureaucracy by making it as independent from the rank and file as  possible. The means to do so was to be the retiree health-care trust fund  handed over to the union by GM, Chrysler, and Ford under the terms of the last  contract. Now that those funds give the union ownership stakes in GM and  Chrysler, the union itself will be the enforcer of harsh working conditions,  lower-tier pay, and a ban on strikes.

Of course, unaccountability and hostility to rank-and-file  militancy have long been the norm in the U.S. labor bureaucracy. But Stern and  Gettelfinger have pushed bureaucratic control to new extremes. Their argument  to the rest of the labor movement is that the union machinery must do whatever  it takes to survive. In this view, unions must help make employers profitable  and minimize, if not eliminate, union democracy in order to permit leaders to  make difficult, unpopular decisions. This will allow the unions to survive and  rebuild a new base among different sections of workers in nonunion industries.  Moody calls Stern’s program “corporate bureaucratic unionism,” a leap beyond  even the class collaboration of traditional American business unionism.[58]

The rest of the union bureaucracy hasn’t gone as far in this  direction as Stern and Gettelfinger. But many union leaders would do so if they  could. Indeed, the issue in the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO had more to do with  control over money and resources than any clear-cut differences over labor or  political issues. Essentially, Stern and the leaders of the other CTW  unions—including unions of workers in health care, food, farms,  trucking-driving, and construction sectors—no longer wanted to be dragged down  by the declining manufacturing unions that remained in the AFL-CIO. Splitting  the federation didn’t resolve those issues; neither will the proposed  reunification ahead of the AFL-CIO convention set for later this year.

Another failure for labor law reform?

Whether or not they reunite, the AFL-CIO and CTW are both  focused on trying to pass EFCA. The employers have made it clear that they will  do whatever it takes to prevent this “armageddon,” as the head of the U.S.  Chamber of Commerce called it.[59] But the shift of momentum to the employers  recalls labor’s last two failed attempts to pass labor law reform under  Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter in 1978 and Bill Clinton in 1994, which went  nowhere despite Democratic control of Congress.[60]

Some in the labor movement have criticized EFCA as an effort  to substitute a legal mechanism for the hard work of organizing the  unorganized.[61] Certainly, EFCA in itself wouldn’t overcome all the problems  that have hindered union organizing for decades: bureaucratic, top-down methods  that use arbitrary checklists and timelines rather than cultivating and  encouraging rank-and-file militants over the long term; jurisdictional disputes  that pit rival unions against one another as they compete for “hot” shops; and  a reluctance to use job actions and other militant tactics to pressure  employers.

Jerry Tucker, a former UAW regional director from the New  Directions reform caucus and a leading labor activist, argues that EFCA won’t  automatically make it easier to organize unions. “I would take it back to  labor’s culture,” he says, “its actual activity and what it represents to  workers. Organized labor doesn’t represent a movement at this point that  workers can attach themselves to—where they feel a certain sense of upsurge or  upward momentum.”[62] Moreover, EFCA wouldn’t necessarily lead to the kind of  strategic focus needed to rebuild the U.S. labor movement. Crucially, no union  has been willing to commit the resources necessary to organize (or reorganize)  the critical supply chains of trucks, trains, and warehouses that are integral  to today’s just-in-time production methods. (The failure of the Teamsters’  poorly planned and ineptly run 1999-2002 strike for unionization at the  Overnite trucking company—now UPS Freight—highlighted this problem.)[63]

The most import thing about EFCA or similar legislation is  that it could reinforce the idea that there’s a federally protected right for  workers to organize. As in the 1930s, when organizers used New Deal legislation  to claim “your president wants you to join a union,” today’s union officials  and rank-and-file activists could use EFCA to encourage workers to be confident  to organize. They can use Barack Obama’s own words as justification.[64] The  United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) took an important step in this  direction when it used the EFCA debate to relaunch its effort to organize  Wal-Mart.

But even the best labor law reforms won’t overcome the  crisis of organized labor. As U.S. labor history demonstrates, unionization has  increased not in small increments, but in great upsurges of struggle, as in the  1930s.

Immigration and the unions

Amid the latest escalation of the employers’ relentless war  on labor there are also signs of the possibility of renewal. On May 1, 2006,  millions of immigrants and their supporters marched in cities across the U.S.  against proposed federal legislation that would have criminalized the estimated  12 to 14 million undocumented people in the United States. In response,  immigrant labor took to the streets. As Moody points out, companies in industries  heavily dependent on immigrant labor—from the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach  truck drivers to meatpackers to textiles and landscaping services—were shut  down for the day, demonstrating the power of immigrant labor in those  sectors.[65] These actions revived May Day, International Labor Day, in the  country where it began during the struggle for the eight-hour day in 1886. The  marches were won of the biggest displays of workers’ power seen in the U.S. in  many years.

The impact of the immigrant rights demonstrations  underscored big demographic changes in the U.S. population—especially in the  working class. Moody sees the new prominence of immigrant labor as evidence of  a third great demographic transformation in the U.S. working class, following  the earlier wave of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century and the  changes wrought in the mid-twentieth century by the mass African American  migration into the cities, the North, and industry, and the large-scale entry  of women into the workforce. Each of these changes posed challenges to  organized labor, which sometimes rose to the occasion (uniting white and  African American workers in the old CIO mass production industries, for  example) but often did not. Today, he notes, “immigrants are already attempting  to organize in a variety of ways. The question is, are the strategies and  structures of today’s unions fit for the job?”[66]

To be sure, many unions, especially the SEIU and UNITE HERE,  have for many years sought to organize immigrant workers. Those efforts  resulted in a historic policy shift in the AFL-CIO in 2000, when the union’s  executive council voted to call for amnesty for undocumented workers. This is a  big break with the past, when most unions saw immigrant labor as a threat and  supported restrictions on immigration. In 2003, the HERE union of hotel workers  helped organize “Immigrant Freedom Rides” across the U.S., linking the historic  struggle of African Americans for civil rights to immigrants’ willingness to  struggle.[67]

But even as the immigrant rights movement erupted in 2006,  labor became consumed in a debate over whether to support employer programs for  a guest-worker program. The SEIU and UNITE HERE favored this approach,  collaborating with employer organizations to advance that agenda; the AFL-CIO  opposed it.[68] It wasn’t until President Obama began pushing for immigration  reform legislation that the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federations agreed on  an approach that opposes guest-worker programs and proposes a national  commission to decide on future levels of immigration of permanent and temporary  workers.[69]

This is a step forward from supporting guest worker  programs, even if it fails to live up the AFL-CIO amnesty position of 2000. But  the unions are still far from coming to grips with the changes that immigration  has brought to the U.S. working class—and the potential to organize in a  radically different way. In the big May Day marches of 2006 and 2007 in  Chicago, for example, unions easily could have passed out flyers announcing informational  meetings in immigrant neighborhoods in and around the city to explain how the  marchers could unionize their workplaces. The self-organization that enabled  uncounted numbers of workers to negotiate with bosses for time off—or together  plan not to show up—could have been the starting point for workplace  organization.

However, most union officials, locked into the narrowest  cost-benefit analysis of organizing, simply couldn’t grasp the fact that  immigrant workers were willing and able to organize themselves. Other union  officials may have understood that potential—but were unwilling or unable to  give their full backing to a movement that was beyond their control.

Organize the South—or die

A key focus of Moody’s U.S. Labor in Trouble is the shift in  production to the South. While there certainly has been a shift in jobs  overseas, the numbers are questionable, Moody points out, because much of the  job loss is the result of technological change that makes a smaller number of  workers vastly more productive. As a result, even though the number of  manufacturing workers in the U.S. now stands at 12.3 million—a drop of 5  million over the past decade[70]—the U.S. remains a fundamentally industrial  economy: “the ratio of service output to goods and structures, as the  government measures these, has not changed much in almost half a century…. The  industrial core remains the sector on which the majority of economic activity  is dependent. Hence it is the power center of the system.”[71]

The continued centrality of production could allow U.S.  manufacturing unions to retain their clout, despite job losses. But the unions  have not only failed to maintain wages and conditions in their historic  bastions, they’ve been unable to follow w

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