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(en) US, The Agitator Index* Work Place Organizing: The Decline of Labor Unions and the Current Debate within Organized Labor: What does this mean for Radical Politics? By Mathias

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 12 Mar 2005 12:13:20 +0100 (CET)


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The modern labor union is a dying institution. This statement holds
true not only in the United States but almost every country is
experiencing an increasing rate of union decline. Deunionization
doesnít happen over night. The process has been compared to that
of a frog in a pot of water. The frog is not cognizant of the gradual rise
in temperature which is slowly cooking it to death. Its moment of
clarity occurs at a point in which it is too weak to escape its fate.
Last year, the modern labor union reached its moment of clarity.
This moment was marked by the beginning of a debate which has
since engulfed every major union in the United States and has spread
to include academics, activists, and even the pages of the mainstream
business press.(1) In this brief article Iím going to explore the
main contours of this debate by looking at a document which has
served as the debateís focus. From there I will weigh the potential
effectiveness of this documentís proposed reforms given the
current socio-economic context. Finally, I will close with some
thoughts on this debateís significance to radical politics.(2)

The Labor Debate

If one had to point to a singular event marking the entrance of this
debate into the national consciousness it would be the leaking of a
document by the Carpenters for a Democratic Union in early 2003
titled: Draft Program of the New Unity Partnership. The New Unity
Partnership (NUP) was an alliance of five AFL-CIO affiliates (3);
UNITE (garment and textile workers), HERE (hotel and casinos),
Carpenters, Laborers, and the Service Employees International Union
(janitors, healthcare, public sector workers and more). Drawing heavily
on the analysis of SEIU strategist Stephen Lerner, the document put
forward a program based on the following theme:

American union members and leaders face a choice: Make history by
fundamentally changing their unions to respond to todayís
economy or continue current practices and preside over organized
laborís continued decline.

The fundamental changes sought by NUP can be grouped into three
main categories; restructuring, organizing, and politics.
Restructuring

By far the most controversial aspect of the NUP program involves the
forced merging of AFL-CIO affiliates into 15 mega unions which are
rationalized by industry and sector. This restructuring is meant to solve
the Ďorganizing = bargaining strengthí paradox. This paradox
states that in order to increase bargaining strength more workers need
to be organized. However, to successfully organize more workers
unions need increase their bargaining strength so they can win real
improvements in their existing contracts which will attract workers to
join.

NUPís solution to this paradox is based on the notion that workers
united by industry and sector will have more leverage over employers.
Currently, the AFL-CIO is structured in such a way as to render
jurisdictional lines irrelevant. For example, the steelworkers union
conducts organizing campaigns in the healthcare industry and the
autoworkers union is organizing graduate students. In fact, all unions,
including those signed on to the NUP proposal, have strayed from
their core jurisdictions.

There is an important reason why these jurisdictional distinctions have
disappeared without, until now, serious complaints from AFL-CIO
affiliates. It is a concept that was unknowingly borrowed from modern
portfolio theory: Diversity lowers risk. Being tied in to one particular
employer or industry puts a union at the mercy of that industry or firm
and how it navigates the vagaries of the market. This diversification
goes beyond organizing outside of oneís core jurisdiction. In some
cases the union administrative function becomes the loss leader for
more lucrative business forays into banking and real estate. This
development has been an organic response by unions to changes in the
economy.

NUP views the above as problematic. The division of workers into
multiple unions within the same industry or firm has created a
situation where employers can pit several different unions against each
other. The end result is the lowering of standards in that industry.
Likewise, this situation makes building effective political and
organizing strategies more difficult if not impossible. As political
beings unions may (and often do) develop rivalries with one another
making a joint campaign difficult to pursue. Additionally, taking on
todayís firms requires significant resources which are difficult to
cobble together when divided among many different unions.
Organizing

After restructuring the NUP program calls for each union to develop a
Ďstrategic growth planí for the industry under its stewardship.
Unions would be expected to shift the majority of their resources
towards the implementation of these plans. Leaders of these various
unions would then be held accountable for failure.

Very few AFL-CIO affiliates currently have industry specific strategies
and many do not devote a significant portion of their budget towards
organizing.
Electoral Politics

The primary difference between NUPís political program and that
of the AFL-CIO lies in how support is determined. The AFL-CIO
continues to behave as an appendage of the Democrat Party. NUP
believes this has led to a situation where politicians in both parties take
laborís political support for granted. Their political strategy would
include reaching out to Republican Party in an attempt to foster
competition between the parties and politicians for laborís support.

Can the NUP Program Reverse Laborís Decline?

In order to measure the potential effectiveness of the NUP program
their proposals must first be viewed in light of the current economic
context. Iím employing this approach in order to tease out what
may be the fundamental flaw of the NUP program and which
incidentally points to an opening for the emergence of radical politics
into the debate.
Restructuring

The logic behind the proposed restructuring seems solid: Unions
would have more leverage if workers in the same industry belonged to
one union particular to that industry. However unions, no matter how
they are structured, are actors constrained by the socio-economic
context of the time. If the current situation makes it cheaper to
produce cars in China and Steel in Brazil then having a singular union
for each industry doesnít address the fundamental problem.

Australian labor unions recently went through a restructuring similar
to that proposed by NUP. Thus far gains have been negligible. There
are also examples closer to home which expose problems with
NUPís strategy.

Unlike the airline and healthcare industry where there are multiple
unions, both steel and auto have unionís particular to their
industry. There is no doubt that this has been beneficial for workers.
During the liberalization of markets which began in the late 70s both
unions were able to successfully lobby the government for policies
which saved many, but obviously not all jobs in these industries. Even
George Bush provided Steelworkers some temporary relief recently by
putting tariffs on foreign steel imports. This would have been
impossible had these workers not been organized and would have been
difficult to pull off if these workers were divided into multiple unions.

Despite the advantages provided by the existence of industry specific
unions in steel and auto, at a fundamental level, they were unable to
avoid the ultimate reality these industries and workers faced once
markets began liberalizing in the 1970ís. Both the auto and steel
industries still shed well over a million unionized jobs over the years
and those that remain have been fundamentally altered by years of
concessionary labor contracts.

Likewise, it probably holds true that one union for airline workers,
healthcare workers, or workers in other industries would not
fundamentally change or alter the problems faced by workers in those
industries.

Organizing

The NUP program suggests that not only would this type of
restructuring protect current members, which I showed above isnít
ultimately true, but they also think that these industry specific unions
can provide the necessary foundation for creating effective organizing
campaigns.

While US auto manufacturing has declined in the United States there
has been an explosive growth of foreign auto manufacturing,
particularly in the southern states. As of this time the UAW has yet to
unionize a single one of them. And it is not due to lack of trying or
creative organizing tactics.

It is difficult to see how unions would fare better in organizing if they
restructured along the lines recommended by NUP. This is evidenced
by the inability of the UAW to organize the tens of thousands of new
autoworkers in this country as well as the inability of the Steelworkers
to organize the new mini-mills despite the fact that both are the sole
union within these industries.

Part of the problem lies in what was mentioned earlier. When due to
economic forces unions are forced into concessionary agreements with
companies non-union workers view unions as unable to make a
significant difference in their lives. Workers at foreign owned US auto
plants have consistently voted against unionizing because the
contemporary argument for unionization is too nuanced. In the 40s
and 50s it was clear that significant material gains awaited the worker
who unionized, today those gains are not there for most industries.
Electoral Politics

For years, electoral politics has been a dead end for labor. Jimmy
Carter deregulated the airline and trucking industries which caused
massive deunionization. Bill Clinton passed NAFTA which caused and
is still causing the loss of thousands of unionized manufacturing jobs.
While Clinton stayed out of the successful UPS Teamster strike in
1997 within that same term of office he killed the Teamster organizing
drive of Federal Express by issuing an executive order putting their
company under the Railway Labor Act . (4)

Politicians, regardless the stripe, consistently choose policies which
complement and advance the current economic order, even if it goes
against what their labor constituency wants. This holds true even in
countries such as France and Germany where worker and union rights
continue to erode despite the social and political capital unions and
workers wield in these countries.

The NUP program implies that the real problem in politics is that
Democrat politicians take labor for granted. By reaching out to
moderate Republicans the NUP program suggests that it may be able
to play the parties off of each other for the benefit of labor.

This may create some gains for labor, more likely at the state rather
than national level, but in terms of being able to make significant
change in the political arena labor, regardless of electoral program, is
hamstrung by the same problem facing restructuring and organizing.
The economic context makes it extremely difficult for any politician to
put forward legislation that would make a significant difference for
labor even if it could be passed into law.

Take for example a law which made union organizing easier. Such a
law would probably result in more workers joining unions every year
but most likely would not affect the net change in union members.
This is largely because legal regimes are not the primary cause of
deunionization. Remember, labor enjoyed rapid growth in times when
it was illegal to join unions and when employers were using thugs to
beat and sometimes assassinate workers and union activists.

Similarly, a law which bans the permanent replacement of striking
workers may have put more teeth in the strike weapon in the 50s but
has little effect in 2005 when firms can relocate to other countries or
even the Southern U.S. at a cost cheaper than settling with the union.
Summary

Restructuring unions, shifting money towards organizing and altering
political strategies is not enough. The underlying criticism of the NUP
proposal is that their program fails to recognize the fundamental
changes that have occurred in the economic order. It proposes a
reorientation of labor as a response to perceived changes in how firms,
politicians and workers now operate. However, labor needs to analyze
the primordial cause of this change in the economic order rather than
the surface effects of that change being witnessed in the behavior of
firms, politicians and workers.

If we were to view the interaction of capital and labor as a game played
upon the socio-economic field we would say that in the current period,
which started in the late 1970s, labor no longer has the ability to
influence the rules of the game.(5) Given this framework, laborís
current ability could best be described as having limited influence over
only the gameís referees.

The key here is that the nascent unions of the 30ís, 40ís and
50ís helped create the Ďrules of the gameí which governed
the behavior of firms, unions and workers until the late 1970ís.
The power and novelty of labor unions as a progressive institutional
force able to bring about significant material gains for workers hinged
on this ability. Absent this rule making ability, labor unions have been
useful only in a limited sense for workers who were already members
but deemed not worth the trouble for those outside laborsí fold.
This is best exemplified by a quote from a Colorado Wal-Mart worker
who despite being frustrated by her employment situation still voted
against union representation:

"I really wish Wal-Mart would become better," she said. "But even if
we get a union, it will be a long battle. Wal-Mart doesn't have to agree
to anything. The message we got was, 'You're a small bunch of guys,
and you can stand out there and strike, and we're going to replace you.'
They'll never agree to a contract, out of pure stubbornness. I'm so
confused." - NY Times 2/26/05

Ms Sylviaís impression was that bringing in a union would not
fundamentally change her employment situation. Without articulating
it as such she perceived that a labor union in her situation could not
change the Ďrules of the game.í

NUP does not offer a program that even attempts to move the modern
labor union or workers into a position that enables them to affect the
rules-of-the-game. This is because it perceives the contemporary labor
problem as one of strategy. Players on a field may alter and change
their strategy but if the rules of the game preordain one side as winner
alternative strategies for wining become moot.
What Does this Mean for Radical Politics?

The question NUP should have asked itself when it embarked on this
path of introspection and analysis is the following. Has the change in
the socio-economic context been so fundamental that the tools of the
modern labor union have been rendered useless? Are the defining
features of the labor union, such as collective bargaining and seniority
systems, still effective tools or were they designed and useful only for
an economic order which no longer exists?

The preceding analysis suggests that the answer is yes. If so labor is
confronted by at least two possible scenarios:

1. Labor unions or a new type of labor organization can once again
prosper by adapting to the current incarnation of capitalism. Just as
worker organizations of the 19th century looked very different from
those of the 20th century so till will a 21st century worker organization
arise which both benefits its membership and is complementary to the
current economic order.

Or

2. Capitalism has reached a stage where unions can no longer feasibly
adapt to it meaning the prospect for a new ďtypeĒ of labor
organization that is able to benefits its members and integrate with the
economic order is not possible.

The above two scenarios is where the real debate within labor lies in
the coming years. This is the same question which was played out in
the late 1800s early 1900s when economic order was in transition and
new forms of worker organizations were in ascendance.

Radical politics played an important role then in battling for the hearts
and minds of the working class. They attempted to show that
collaborating with the capitalists would not work and that only a
fundamental change in the economic order of society could bring
about the change workers truly desired. The radicals were wrong, at
least in the short term, labor unions were able to wield significant
influence and bring material gains to the nationís workers. The
debate has come full circle and once again there is an opening for the
emergence of radical politics.

NUP has put forward a compelling proposal that has won over many
who are excited to see this kind of open debate occurring within labor.
Many are also excited that labor is finally doing ďsomething.Ē
The question for radicals is different. If the strategies being
implemented by unions that agree with the NUP proposal fail and
unions continue to decline will radical politics have anything better to
offer workers?


Mathias currently works as a research analyst for a labor union. He
spent the previous 10 years as a forklift operator and rank and file
activist in his local union for 10 years. He was also a member of Love
and Rage and is still currently a member of the ABCF

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
End Notes:
(1)Iíve purposely left out workers union and non union. The rank
and file, except in rare circumstances is not taking part in this debate
nor are most aware of it.
(2) I define radical politics as a mix of progressive values oriented
towards a critique of both the current capitalist system and previous
attempts at building socialism with an as of yet unformed but nascent
ideology.

(3) I use the past tense here because in early 2005 the New Unity
Partnership ended its alliance. However the main points of their
program remain central to the debate over the future of labor unions
and the AFL-CIO. (4) US companies generally fall under one of two
labor statutes. The National Labor Relations Act (UPS falls under this
one) or The Railway Labor Act. Among other things, the Railway
Labor Act makes organizing more difficult if not impossible. In the
case of the Teamsters, with Fed Ex being under this act they would
have to conduct a national election rather than having the option of
organizing each Fed Ex location separately(5) The game description
here is derived from a paper by the author which uses game theory as a
conceptual framework for analyzing, understanding and integrating
various theories of union growth and decline.
------------------------------------------------------------------
All papers related to the debate in the labor movement are archived on
the web in two locations.

http://labornotes.org/nupdiscussion/index.html

www.unitetowin.org
=========================
* By the antiauthoritarian anticapitalist revolutionary
Bring the Ruckus! initiative.


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