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The Future of the USA Labor Movement

Disclaimer - The following article is reposted here because it is an issue with some relevance to the IWW.  The views of the author and the publisher do not necessarily agree with those of the IWW and vice versa.

Original URL:  http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=1186

The future of the USA Labor Movement
by Patrick Star - Northwest Anarchist Federation Friday, Aug 19 2005, 11:30am
north america / mexico / workplace struggles / feature

The proposal for restructuring the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization

This decline in union membership across the USA is being felt through the decline of the standard of living. Wages have not kept up with the increased cost of living. There is a crisis in the labor movement and workers are going to have to devise strategies that will lay the foundations for the eventual upsurge in organizing at work.

The Ivy League labor aristocrats at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) think they can solve workers problems. Their proposal called for a restructuring of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). These proposals may seem radical and pushing towards creating an upsurge in the labor movement, yet, all it really means is a bureaucratic restructuring of the labor movement.

Don't Take the Purple Pill


From the New York Times to the lunch room at work, people are seriously debating the future of the U.S. Labor Movement. A look at some statistics show where this concern is coming from. In 1948 31.8 percent of workers were organized into union and since the 1960's this number has been on a steady decline. 1980 saw only 23.2 percent of workers organized and in 2004 only 12.5 percent of the U.S workforce held membership in unions.

This decline in union membership is being felt through the steady decline of the standard of living in the U.S. Wages have not kept up with the increased cost of living and the labor movement is no longer setting the standards for wages, benefits, and work conditions. The problem is obvious, workers need to organize. Yet, the proposed solution thus far is not coming from workers, it is coming from pencil pushing labor aristocrats who think they can solve the crisis in the labor movement through statistics and grand sounding strategies created by people who have hardly worked a day in their lives, people who don't know first hand the problems we workers face when it comes to power at work. There is a crisis in the labor movement and workers are going to have to devise strategies that will lay the foundations for the eventual upsurge in organizing at work.

The Solution From Above

The Ivy League labor aristocrats at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), folks who've never cleaned floors for a living, think they can solve workers problems. Andy Stern (the old New England money bags) president of SEIU came out with a proposal for the labor movement called Unite To Win. This proposal called for a restructuring of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). The main points of this proposal are centered on industry wide organizing, union density, and more money put towards organizing. Although these may sound like some good ideas, there are some serious problems with them. But first, I'll overview the two main points of the proposal:

Granting the AFL-CIO the authority to require coordinated bargaining and to merge or revoke union charters, transfer responsibilities to unions for whom that industry or craft is their primary area of strength, and prevent any merger that would further divide workers strength.

Rebate 50 percent of the dues unions pay to the AFL-CIO if unions put 10 percent of their budget towards organizing new workers.

These proposals may seem radical and pushing towards creating an upsurge in the labor movement, yet, all it really means is a bureaucratic restructuring of the labor movement. The first point basically is a preventative measure against unions raiding other union's membership, or, a way for unions like SEIU to justify their current raiding wars against unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employee's (AFSCME) and officially move those members into SEIU. The first point will create larger industrial unions and destroy smaller unions, as well as put a stop to unions like the United Auto Workers organizing university workers. This may seem like a reasonable re-organization of unions and a refocusing of union organizing to their specific industry, yet, it does not take into account what workers want and the plain and simple fact the workers get organized from their own self-activity, not the sole efforts of union organizers.

The second point is simply that unions should put more money into organizing and less into servicing their members. Sure, I would rather my union dues go towards organizing my fellow workers as opposed to fat cat salaries for union officers. Yet, I beg the question: what kind of organizing are we talking about here? SEIU is real fond of organizing the bosses, not workers. A case in point is their Justice for Janitors campaign. Instead of trying to organize all the janitors in a city, SEIU is pressuring building owners to give cleaning contracts to union janitorial companies. My union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) does the same thing. UBC organizers pressure non-union contractors to sign up with the UBC through secondary picketing.

For example, in Portland, Oregon, my union is picketing the U.S. Bank Tower because non-union carpenters are doing the Tenant Improvement work in the building. The UBC organizers are attempting to get the building owner to use a UBC contractor instead of the non-union contractor, Russell Construction. And I wouldn't dare leave out the sham method shamefully titled organizing called market recovery. My union actually gives money to union contractors, my dues, so they can underbid non-union contractors for jobs. Hey, I'm a union member; I buy my right to work union (about $20 a week)!! These are the models of organizing that unions 'at the forefront' of the labor movement in terms of organizing, are using. The labor aristocrats have forgotten where our strength as workers comes from, US, THE WORKERS!

The Change To Win Coalition

In the month preceding the AFL-CIO convention in July, six or so unions signed up with the Change To Win Coalition. The basic tenants of the coalition are the same as the Unite To Win proposal. Put more money towards organizing. As argued above, the fundamental question is what kind of organizing is this and is it real worker organizing? And the answer is still no.

The last week of July saw the Teamsters, SEIU, and the UFCW withdrawal from the AFL-CIO. UNITE-HERE, The Laborers, and The United Farm Workers, all members of the new coalition, are also threatening to pull out of the AFL-CIO, but as of yet, they are still making up their minds.

The Change To Win Coalition is still very new. In the next months we will see what it has to offer, but many are doubtful they will fundamentally change to labor movement. The structure of the Change To Win Coalition is just as undemocratic as the AFL-CIO, hell, there was no membership vote over affiliation with this new coalition. Andy Stern and Jimmy Hoffa junior, with approval from their national executive boards, not local unions, made the undemocratic decision to withdraw from the AFL-CIO and join the coalition. There has been no democratic vote from the membership of the coalition unions over affiliation. Once again, the labor aristocrats are deciding the future of the labor movement, not us rank and file union members.

There once was a time when workers felt like they had the power to fundamentally alter the economic and political structure of the U.S. In the 1930's workers started to organize themselves and create their own organizations, their own unions. The 1930's saw the largest upsurge in worker organization ever in the U.S. When you look into how these elders of the labor movement accomplished this, you'll see that it was because they were self-organized. They were the power at work, through direct actions, strikes, and generally a willingness to put their economic power into action, the workers of the 1930's wielded real power to better their lives. Coming out of the 1930's, the statistics show the militancy of the newly organized workers to take action to maintain and grow their power. In 1945, 1,435,000 workers were out on strike. In 2004, only 171,000 workers took to the picket line to maintain and grow their power.

Many factors play into this dismal crisis in our power. The two largest factors in the minds of many labor militants is workers complacency due the acceptance of the middle class mindset that what matters in life is two cars, a house in the suburbs, and fancy toys; the American Dream, and the second factor is the lack of ownership of our unions due to their good ol'' boy structure (the labor aristocracy) and upper class take over by the likes of people such as Andy Stern.

As proven by the experiences of the 1930's, we rank and file militants are the ones who have the power to turn this crisis into an upsurge. We have to develop strategies around organizing our fellow workers in a way that builds power on the job, not just a collective bargaining agreement. It is high time for us to shake the hopelessness from our minds and start engaging in militant tactics and strategies that hold the potential for an upsurge in our power. I don't pretend that I know what the answers are, but I do know we have to start looking and acting. An upsurge in Labor Movement will most likely come out of economic crisis that takes years of development and hardship until workers start to stand up and fight. We must prepare the militant bare bones structure that will facilitate this upsurge. This means testing tactics, building organizations of rank and file militants, and recognizing that we don't have to get this all done right now. We have time, keep a long term outlook or we'll get lost in the seeming futility of it all.

Patrick Star is a member of the Firebrand Collective, a member collective of the Northwest Anarchist Federation. He is also a rank and file member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Local 247.