Why Aren’t North American Workers More Militant?

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

May 1 is the day of international working class solidarity. It was born or created at a time of great working class militancy, a fight for the eight-hour working day and more. Over the years, there have been many peaks of working class struggle, just some of them, for example, the 1877 railroad strike, which went national and started right here in Baltimore; 1919, a general strike in Winnipeg, Canada; in 1930s, industrial unions were organized in both countries, both the United States and Canada; after World War II, in 1946, there were more strikes organized in the United States than there’d ever been before or have been organized since; and in the 1960s, another peak in working-class struggle.

But where is it now? Well, unionization rates are declining now. In the United States, about 11 percent of workers are in unions, but if you take out the public sector it’s only about 6 percent. It’s around double that in Canada, maybe 30 percent overall organized, industrial workers maybe around 14, 15 percent–I should say private sector workers. But, again, the rates there are declining. But even with those numbers, it’s still millions of people–the United States, over 14 million people in unions.

But the level of militancy does not seem comparable to times past. So why is that?

Now joining us from Toronto is Sam Gindin. Sam is the former assistant to the president of the Canadian Autoworkers Union and adjunct professor in political science at York University. He’s the coauthor with Leo Panitch of The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire.

And joining us from Maryland is Bill Fletcher Jr. He’s a columnist, activist, author, and labor organizer. He’s the executive assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Bill’s also the author of the book “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths about Unions.

Thank you both for joining us.


JAY: So, Bill, as I pointed out in my introduction, there’s been–most of the last 100 years, there’s been peaks–of course, there’s always ebbs and flows in any movement, but there have been real peaks of working-class militancy. But it seems like it’s been some time since we’ve seen that in either the United States or Canada, for that matter. Why is that?

FLETCHER: There remains considerable militancy, but it’s episodic in the United States. And it really has a lot to do with two strategic defeats that workers faced in the United States. One was the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, went into effect in 1948, which put severe restrictions on the ability of workers to organize, to engage in militant collective action. And the second strategic defeat is what I call a slow-moving one that took place roughly between 1975 and 1985 as global capitalism reorganized itself. And in that situation, with the plant closings, with relocation of industry, with changing technology, a series of other things, the situation for workers became quite dismal and there was an unease in terms of fighting back. But on top of that–those are the external factors. On top of that, we had within the union movement a real problem at the level of vision and strategy. And the leadership of much of organized labor continued to believe that it could operate in an old way, you know, assuming that they were accepted by the business elite. And that simply wasn’t the case. And yet the strategies, the tactics, the forms of organization didn’t change, and we have been in a constant retreat.

JAY: Sam, I guess we’ll have to–you can’t always talk about U.S. and Canada together, ’cause the conditions are so–in many cases are also quite different. So let’s focus on the United States for now. And I know you’re quite familiar with that situation as well.

The issues Bill raises are to some extent external factors. The opposition to Taft-Hartley could have been a heck of a lot stronger. The unions had tremendous influence in the Democratic Party. Taft-Hartley’s passed during a time when the Democrats are in power. How much of this has to do with how assimilated so much of the union leadership had become by that time, and even much earlier, into the ruling elites and not wanting to take on these kinds of battles?

SAM GINDIN, ADJ. PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Well, there really is a process. I mean, you’re absolutely right. When Bill talks about the first defeat right after the war, part of that defeat had to do with isolating the left, marginalizing the left, and then focusing on integrating workers into the United States. And even when labor was at a peak, even when labor was quite strong–and I think this is also what Bill was hinting at–you saw the weaknesses then already. There was a certain economism in the trade union movement. Unions are sectional organizations. They were defending themselves in that unique period. They could do quite well defending themselves at that moment. And then the circumstances change and capital gets very radical. And we’ve never gotten that radical. And that’s the problem. We’ve had this defeat that isn’t just of the labor movement, of the left, and we haven’t re-examined the organizational structures we have and asked whether they’re still capable of defending the working-class and making gains, given what’s been happening.

I just want to add one other thing. I mean, the process of making capitalism is both of making people the kind of people who can fit into capitalism, individualize them, fragments them. And it’s also been–what’s been so important is capital, and the state especially, figuring out how to constantly disorganize the working class. So it’s always crucial that we’re strategizing in a way to offset that. And that’s what hasn’t been happening.

JAY: Before we kind of get into that conversation, which I think is a little more contemporary and what should we do now, I just want to explore a little bit more the roots of all this. I mean, when you look at Taft-Hartley, what came after Taft-Hartley is McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee. And it’s always Hollywood that gets all the attention in that, but to a large extent the real target of all that was the unions, was it not, Bill, and trying to get militants out of the unions?

FLETCHER: The target was suppressing dissent. When the U.S. and the British launched the Cold War, they had external reasons as well as internal reasons. And the internal reasons was absolutely to suppress dissent. And the most significant force in the United States at that point was the trade union movement. The black freedom movement was beginning to gain steam and was also a target, in a different way, of the Cold War.

And what happened in the U.S. was that when Taft-Hartley passed, which included this thing called red clauses that restricted the ability of communists to hold union office–and, in fact, it ended up meaning alleged communists–when that happened, you had a wholesale purge of the union movement, a purge of unions, as well as trade unionism. This significantly weakened the union movement. And the union movement–which goes to a point that you are raising, Paul–the union movement could have responded differently to Taft-Hartley. It chose not to. [incompr.] combination of sizing up the balance of forces, as well as believing–which I think was the dominant factor–believing that if they got rid of the left, that they could create some sort of Faustian bargain with capital. And for a while it seemed to be working.

JAY: Working for the upper stratum of the workers who were in the more privileged unions, like auto and transport and things like that.

FLETCHER: Yeah, I wouldn’t even call them upper stratum, but I would say it certainly worked for the leadership of organized labor, and it worked for much of the organized to section of the working class, that there seemed to be relative stability, at least until the late ’50s and ’60s. By the late ’50s, you’re starting to feel, at least in the back and chicano working-class, the impact of suburbanization and automation, which ends up having a dramatic impact, which later affects white workers in dramatic amounts in the 1970s. During that entire period, organized labor, the leadership of organized labor, did not itself retool. It did not rethink the situation. They continued their adamant opposition to virtually anything that was left or perceived to be left.

JAY: Well, and there also–many of the international leaders of the big unions are living like rich–like millionaires. They have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ salary and credit card perks that puts them into living more like multimillionaires.

FLETCHER: Or like living as a labor aristocracy.

JAY: Yeah, exactly.

FLETCHER: And that’s exactly what happened.

But it was also the case that in the post-World War II period–and this is something that can’t be overstated, that there was a relationship between increasing productivity and increasing wages and other parts of the living standard. That was part of the deal. And people came to believe that their lives would continue to improve and that the lives of their children would also improve. And that was the basic deal. By the 1970s, the mid 1970s, that deal was off. And it goes back to what Sam was raising earlier.

JAY: So, Sam, pick up the story, then. So if that deal is off and it’s more or less in U.S. and Canada, as the–certainly as–get into the ’80s and such, why then don’t we see a kind of reawakening of the unions and a more militant fight? I’m not saying there wasn’t a fight, but not at the scale one would have expected or thought might be necessary.

GINDIN: I just want to reemphasize what Bill said. This wasn’t just a question of oppression. They actually were making concessions to the working class through the ’50s and ’60s that wasn’t just for an elite of the working-class. It actually did spread. People did make gains. But at the same time, the form of unionism that develops over that period of time is a form of unionism that emphasizes legalisms. It depends on the grievance procedure. It begins to retreat from raising larger questions like control over investment, control over prices, really taking on inequalities as long as the pie is growing. So it means that it’s a labor movement that’s very vulnerable once capital begins its attack.

So what happens in the ’70s–in the ’70s there was still a lot of militancy in Canada. It continued into the ’70s. But it was very much of an economistic militancy. It was demanding more or trying to protect what you had. And that kind of militancy couldn’t work, given how radical the attack now was. To fight that kind of attack, it needed unions to start thinking in class terms. They had to develop a class sensibility so that they could unite across the organized and the unorganized, so that they could mobilize the unemployed, so they could put larger questions on the agenda. And that’s what didn’t happen, because that requires essentially a revolution inside the trade union movement. And in the absence of a left–and that’s what we have to keep remembering is the left was defeated. In the absence of a left or in the presence of a very weak left, that’s a very difficult thing to do. And that’s part of the crisis that we face now.

JAY: So, Bill, what’s the state of that fight now in American unions? I know you can’t lump all the unions together. Some are far more militant than others, and in various unions there’s a real fight going on over just these kinds of issues.

FLETCHER: Well, the situation is very uneven, Paul. You can point to examples. And there are examples of interesting innovations within both the established trade union movement as well as in the broader labor movement, for example the Chicago teachers strike that took place a couple of years ago, where the teachers won and they won through both internal education as well as outreach to the broader community, and their strike became a strike for the kids. You have those examples. You have the growth of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, where taxi workers are organizing and where they have no legal right to organize as a union. You have, outside of the formal union movement, the National Domestic Workers Alliance. There are these various points of struggle and innovation that are there. You have the Amalgamated Transit Union with a leadership that is determined to transform the way that the organization operates, reaching out to the community, paying attention to environmental issues.

That said, there remains caution, and within much of the leadership, and this sense that while we’re not dead yet and we don’t necessarily have to take the great risks that are needed because maybe the pendulum will turn, maybe we’ll get another–a switch in the Congress that will help us or something along those lines. And all of this is sort of fool’s gold, but it’s something that nevertheless many of these leaders believe.

JAY: Okay.

FLETCHER: At the base–.

GINDIN: And I would just add to what Bill was saying. It is very uneven and you’ve got all these great examples. But what’s interesting is you probably have more innovation and more experimentation in the United States, just because it’s been in such a mess.

But, you know, the problem is that even when leaders begin to say, okay, in the public sector we can’t win unless we really position ourselves as representing the class, as representing–is being leaders in the fight for social services, even then the response remains so small given to what that would really require. In other words, it’s not a question of passing good resolutions, having good spin; it’s a question of actually recognizing that if you want to make your union into a leader in the fight for social services, what that really implies in terms of changing everything about how the union functions, in terms of its relationship to the community, it’s relationship to its members, what it’s puts resources into, how it trains its staff. And that’s what hasn’t happened.

JAY: Well, a lot of that has to do with the attitude, I think, of the unions towards politics and political parties. And in the next segment of this discussion, we’re going to take up the question of the relationship of the unions, and particularly in the United States with the Democratic Party.

So please join us for part two of this discussion on more or less the state of the working-class movement in North America on The Real News Network.

JAY: Okay. Bill, again starting with you, it seems to me part of the issue–and let me just say to our audience, if you haven’t watched part one, you’ve really got to, because we’re just picking this up from there.

One of the issues in the United States is how wedded most of the union leadership is with the Democratic Party. Now, I know this isn’t a simple issue. If you look at what’s happening at the state levels and the federal level, particularly the state level, some of the Republican governments are passing even more draconian laws against unions than there already were. I understand that sometimes unions feel themselves a bit between a rock and a hard place, because if they don’t finance and help support the Democratic Party, they can be looking at a far, far worse situation.

That being said, they–certainly at the national level and mostly at state levels, they rarely have put enough pressure on Democratic parties when they do get elected to actually change much in their favor. Certainly with President Obama, they were promised the Employee Free Choice Act, and that never happened, and you hardly hear a word about it from any trade union leaders. And I often–when I see these millions of dollars of donations in television ads, I always wonder to myself: where is the campaign of the unions to try to persuade unorganized workers to get into unions and deal with some of the myths you dealt with in your book? And there doesn’t seem to be a heck of a lot of union money spent on that. So what do you make of why the unions, you know, keep getting caught in this same box over and over again?

FLETCHER: Desperation, pure and simple. We are getting squeezed. We’re facing annihilation. And the leadership is very desperate, and they believe that the solution actually rests in certain forms of political participation–and I say certain forms because there is a form of political participation in which they could engage that would actually be quite dramatic. You know, you could imagine the unions joining with other groups and developing a platform and forms of organization, running candidates in Democratic primaries, and turning things upside down as the Tea Party did in the Republican Party. It is absolutely doable. This is not rocket science.

The problem is that even if you go that route, that means in many cases clashing with certain leaders in the Democratic Party that much of the leadership of organized labor would like to believe are our friends, for example the Clintons. You know, you have to remember, in the primary that took place a few years ago against then senator Blanche Lincoln, there were incredible attacks against the unions for supporting an insurgency within the primary, and there were many leaders in organized labor that really were shaken by that entire experience. So desperation drives them, they are holding on tight, and they’re very reluctant to take the risks that are necessary.

JAY: Right. I once sat at a lunch with some very senior people in one of the biggest unions, and one of their sort of Washington advisers was there. And I asked this exact question: why don’t you contend for leadership within the Democratic Party? Why do you cede it, and essentially cede it to Wall Street, certainly in the case of President Obama, but not only President Obama, most of the nominees for a while? They really represent a section of the elite that has–big section of capital. I said, why don’t you contend? And the answer was immediate and simple: ’cause they’re the ones with the cash, they’re the ones who are liquid. If you want to fight the Republicans–and we do–we need their cash to fight. And that was the limit of that vision.

FLETCHER: It’s a ridiculous limit. It’s a ridiculous vision, I should say. See, Paul, we’re in a situation–they talk in military terms of asymmetrical warfare. We cannot fight the other side with the illusion that we have the same resources, under the best of circumstances, as the other side. And we’re not going to have the money. And I’m tired of hearing union people complain and cry about we don’t have the money of the Koch brothers. We’re never going to have the money of the Koch brothers. We’re not going to have those resources. We don’t have Fox News that is battering people with this right-wing propaganda. So it’s an asymmetrical situation.

The challenge for the union movement is to understand that it is asymmetrical, and therefore for us to figure out what sort of strategy corresponds to that situation. What tactical initiatives can we take that will build up strength? How do we position ourselves so the idea of relying on Democrats or anyone else to supply us with the types of resources we need in order to win elections, that is a strategy that is doomed to failure?

JAY: I get a chance to talk to a lot of union leaders, national union leaders, and with the exception of a handful, they’re out of steam, they’re out of energy. I mean, this discussion and the kind of things both of you are talking about, this isn’t going to come from them; it’s going to come from younger and other workers in the unions. And so what do you have to say to them, Sam?

SAM GINDIN, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, obviously there’s differences within the leadership. But generally, if I was looking at what’s happening in Canada, a lot of the leaders are just overwhelmed by what’s happening. It’s difficult. They’re not sure what to do about it. Other times, they actually look to suggesting vote NDP, vote social democrat, because if they don’t have that to put forth as an alternative, they have to ask–you know, they’d have the members always asking them, well, what are you going to do? And it raises all the questions that Bill is raising. And that raises a very a lot of very uncomfortable questions, because it really does mean changing the whole structure of the unions.

And one of the depressing things to me about what’s been happening over the, you know, last three decades, but especially since the crisis, is we aren’t even having that kind of serious debate about our limits inside the trade union movement, which is so absolutely crucial to even get started.

And you’re right: this is not going to–you know, the dilemma we’re in is it isn’t going to be changed from the top. I think, you know, it’s clear enough that that can’t happen. The question is: can it happen from below? And that’s also incredibly difficult. You know, the workers have all kinds of pressures on their daily lives. They don’t have time. They’re fragmented. They don’t even have the resources that the leadership have.

And, you know, you make comparisons to the ’30s for example. The point is there was a left. There was a left that could actually bring a larger perspective to workers, give them confidence, create structures that they could work through. That’s what’s missing.

And I think the critical problem is that this isn’t going to change. And I’m speaking for Canada, but I think very much for the U.S. as well. Until we have a left that can actually show people that there are structures through which you can fight and make a difference, that can begin to link people across workplaces so they’re not so divided, that can say, look, there’s all this pressure on you to think about the short-term–that’s why you’re quickly hoping that if you vote for somebody it will change. But unless you start thinking about the long term, we’re always going to be in that short-term bind. And those are the kind of things that a left can do. And that’s absolutely critical to thinking about what can change [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah, it seems to me the unions are to a large extent still very rooted in, you know, what they used to call Gomperism, you know, trade unions pure and simple, that workers should worry about wages and working conditions but leave politics, you know, to the essentially capitalist parties. And, like, just to build on what you’re saying, Sam, if there’s not a vision for what a different kind of society can look like, can you actually revive these trade unions?

GINDIN: I just want to add that, you know, there are trade union leaders who, you know, have learned certain things about it. They talk now more about social movement unionism, they talk more about alliances. But I think what they’re not getting is that if you really want to do this–you know, the extent to which things have been polarized. To do really really do those things isn’t just, you know, changing some marginal thing and bringing in some social movements or giving them some funds. And that’s the problem. For that to happen, that kind of profound change, I think would actually require the kind of a left that has its feet inside and outside the labor movement.

JAY: Bill, are there signs of that in the United States?

FLETCHER: Well, yeah. Let me–yes. And I just want to qualify something slightly that Sam was raising.

There are no saviors. But the transformation of the union movement is going to necessitate a combination of energy at the base, as well as good leaders. And we can’t underestimate the importance of good leaders. If you look at the Amalgamated Transit Union, for example, it makes a difference that Larry Hanley is the president and that he is calling upon people to openly engage in a transformation process. That makes a very big difference. And it makes a difference in reverse when you have unions where the leadership is silent, is complacent, etc. So I think that we’re going to need both of these things to happen.

And, yes, I continue to remain optimistic, Paul, that this can actually be turned around. But it does necessitate, in order for that to happen, fervent ferment at the base. The Chicago Teachers Union again I go back to. It’s not just the Chicago Teachers Union. You have in Milwaukee, you have in a number of cities around the country these locals that are emerging with new leaders that are posing some very, very provocative questions not only about unionism, but also about education, public education. That is the sort of direction we need. We have–I mentioned the Amalgamated Transit Union. The United Steelworkers that has been entertaining this entire idea of the pact with the Mondragon cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain. There are reasons to be excited and intrigued by various possibilities that are out there. The question is ultimately whether these things will cascade.

And that takes us directly to what Sam was saying about the critical importance of a left. Without a left, without a force that’s there that understands the need to actually transcend capitalism, ultimately, and has people dedicated to that, we won’t see a fundamental transformation of the union movement.

JAY: Okay. Thank you both for joining us.

GINDIN: Great to be here.

FLETCHER: It’s great to be on the program.

JAY: Thank you.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.