Behind labor’s long retreat

February 22, 2008

Adam Turl reviews a book by Kim Moody on the crisis of the U.S. union movement.

IN 2005, organized labor split into two factions: The longstanding American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the new Change to Win (CTW) federation.

With little of substance differentiating these rivals, the split in reality gave an organizational expression to more than two decades of retreat and decline for unions.

By 2005, labor represented less than 10 percent of the private-sector workforce, down from a one-time high of over 30 percent. This fall in unionization has been accompanied by declining pay and worsening working conditions. Manufacturing jobs have dwindled with increased corporate competition, offshoring and rises in productivity. Average wages have fallen by 13 percent since 1972 after inflation is taken into account.

It has been argued that labor's decline flowed from unstoppable economic developments that are often summed up in the catchall phrase "corporate globalization." In fact, the leaders of both the AFL-CIO and CTW accept much of this argument.

What else to read

Kim Moody's book U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition charts developments in the U.S. labor movement over recent decades and analyzes the potential for future struggles.

Many of these same issues and challenges for labor have been taken up in the International Socialist Review. See Lee Sustar's "The failure of partnership" and "The labor movement: State of emergency, signs of renewal."

Adam Turl makes a more detailed analysis of the changing U.S. working class in "Is the U.S. becoming post-industrial?" published in the ISR.

For an excellent history of the U.S. working-class movement, including an analysis of the corporate offensive of the past three decades and labor's prospects today, see Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States.

Kim Moody's U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition challenges this claim by explaining how these attacks are a result of an offensive by capital against labor-and how they have been aided and abetted by the failed strategy of labor's top ranks, their fear of mobilizing the rank and file, a lack of resources devoted for organizing, a lack of union democracy, and labor's unreciprocated fidelity to the Democrats.

WHILE CAPITAL'S onslaught was inevitable, the one-sidedness of the battle was not.

As Moody notes, the economic changes that gave rise to neoliberalism and "corporate globalization" came to a head in the 1974-75 recession. The rate of profit declined in the mid-1960s, with falling productivity and stagflation (inflation without growth) taking hold in the period that followed.

U.S. business set out to restore declining profits by taking them out of labor.

Previously unknown in the postwar period, concessions from unions began to appear in some labor contracts in the late 1970s. But the tide really turned in the early 1980s, with union membership declining in absolute numbers after the labor movement telegraphed its unwillingness to put up a real fight and allowed Ronald Reagan to fire striking PATCO air traffic controllers without a challenge.

In the wake of the PATCO strike's defeat, an already bureaucratized union leadership turned to labor-management cooperation and union mergers "as a means to institutional salvation," in Moody's words, even icing out union locals that didn't go along with concessions.

From the 1970s to today, Moody concludes, "the world of the worker…was turned upside down," with concessions, two-tier wages, and part-time and temporary work becoming the norm.

Technology was used to increase output and productivity. The percentage of fixed investment that went to equipment rose from 61 percent to 81 percent between 1991 and 2004.

Lean production-sold as a way to help corporations stay competitive (and save jobs)-increased the workload while throwing "unnecessary workers" overboard. Outsourcing was used to break up unions, with parts of the production process parceled out to low-wage areas of the U.S., and then to whole countries with lax labor standards.

These developments led many observers to believe that the U.S. had-for good or ill-become a "post-industrial" society in which the very basis for trade unions had been undermined.

But as Moody points out, this isn't a new development. He shows that there "never was a time in the U.S. when goods-producing labor outnumbered service-producers." The closest point came in the late 19th century, when "goods-producing" workers constituted 48 percent of the non-farm workforce-in other words, long before labor's greatest successes in the 1930s and 1940s, or the unions' lesser upsurge of struggle in the early 1970s.

Even today, a substantial core of manufacturing-with some 15 million workers-remains anchored in the U.S., due to the need for advanced machinery and technology, a stronger infrastructure, and proximity to the market for the products.

But within the U.S., this core has increasingly shifted to the largely non-union former Confederate states, known for lower wages, greater levels of racism and anti-labor "right-to-work" laws.

According to Moody, between 1999 and 2003, the value added in Southern manufacturing increased even as the value added nationally declined. Foreign Direct Investment in the U.S. South rose from $178 billion to $344 billion between 1990 and 2003.

Since the mid-1970s, the makeup of the U.S. workforce changed almost as dramatically as its geography. By 2004, female workers were 46 percent of employees, and together, Black and Latino workers made up more than 24 percent of the workforce. In 2003, women made 81 percent of men's hourly wages-white workers averaged hourly wages of $16.82, Black workers $12.23, and Latino workers $10.67.

IT WASN'T preordained that these changes would result in labor's decline. But the AFL-CIO was ill-prepared to confront Corporate America's attack, and rank-and-file organization (including socialist organization) wasn't strong enough to force an atrophied bureaucracy into a battle for which it had little stomach.

As Moody observes, "According to mainstream economic theory, real wage increases are financed by increases in productivity." Trade unions are "cautioned" not to fight over their share of "the economic pie," but to increase output "so all can have more." Actually, productivity increases mean more exploitation and unemployment. But the mainstream view is shared by much of labor's leadership.

In particular, this idea seeped through the AFL-CIO during the post-Second World War economic boom, when higher profits and moderate wage growth were both possible. The labor movement grew increasingly bureaucratized, but as Moody notes, it was still far more willing to use the "strike weapon" in the 1950s and 1960s than today.

However, the stage was being set for future defeats. In the mass strikes of the 1930s and 1940s, workers won some shop-floor control. In the post-war years, this control was exchanged for wage increases that left labor less prepared for the rekindled class war of the 1970s.

Likewise, the South's persistence as an anti-union haven can be traced to AFL-CIO's scuttling of its "Operation Dixie" organizing drive, which was suspended for fear of alienating a Democratic Party that still administered apartheid in the Jim Crow South.

During the Cold War, the AFL-CIO also helped undermine more combative unions overseas, in the name of advancing the American "national interest" and U.S. foreign policy.

Finally, the 1950s McCarthyite witch-hunts rooted out radicals and socialists out of the unions. That contributed to the failure of an alternative labor strategy to come together in the 1970s, despite the spread of wildcat strikes and some local and sectional successes by socialists and rank-and-file groups such as Teamsters for a Decent Contract, which later became Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

The 1974-1975 recession shut down the possibility of profits and wages rising together as they had in the postwar period. But the AFL-CIO continued to hold onto false notions about the "national interest" and the idea that increased productivity leads to wage increases, even when reality proved otherwise.

As union defeats accumulated in the 1980s, parts of the bureaucracy did grow alarmed at the shrinking dues base and labor's declining political clout. In 1995, John Sweeney's reform "New Voices" team won leadership of the AFL-CIO.

Coming on the heels of the so-called "War Zone" labor struggles in central Illinois and the successful Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, it seemed as if labor's fortunes might change. New Voices got rid of anti-communist rules, abolished labor's formal links with institutions of U.S. foreign policy, turned the union movement toward immigrants, and called for more organizing.

Many of these changes were important. However, a lot didn't change.

The AFL-CIO under New Voices pursued very few new organizing initiatives. Attempts to overhaul the bureaucracy resulted in even more high-ranking positions, shifting the center of gravity within unions further upward. Despite some flirtation with forming a Labor Party during the neoliberal presidency of Bill Clinton, more union funds found their way into "political action" in support of Democratic Party candidates who delivered little in return.

Most importantly, the logic of business-labor partnership didn't change. As Sweeney told a group of executives in 1996: "We want to increase productivity. We want to help American business compete in the world and create new wealth."

Ten years after Sweeney took office, there were 1 million fewer unionized workers in the private sector and far fewer annual National Labor Relations Board elections for union representation.

Once again, this course of events wasn't inevitable. For example, in 1991, Ron Carey defeated the corrupt old guard of the Teamsters union, with the support of reformers in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and became president. Carey would lead the 1997 UPS strike-the most successful national strike in the era that followed the PATCO defeat.

But when Carey was witch-hunted by the federal government after the UPS victory, the broader labor movement didn't come to his defense.

The late 1990s saw a small increase in unionization rates and strikes. Organized labor also gave support to the global justice movement, including the Seattle protests that shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in 1999-and it organized the immigrant workers freedom rides that helped set the stage for today's immigrant rights movement.

But these modest steps forward were thrown back by the patriotism whipped up in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001-and by the AFL-CIO's renewed determination to spend millions on "political action" against George Bush.

THE FORMATION of the CTW offers nothing new in terms of devoting labor's resources to organizing versus "political action"-and the new federation may be even worse on issues of union democracy and rank-and-file control than the now-diminished AFL-CIO.

An alternative strategy for the labor movement will have to come from below-from the rank and file and the millions of unorganized workers. Such a strategy does not exist in full form today, but some of its outlines can be seen in the actions of groups of workers-such as the Freightliner Five activists from Cleveland, N.C., or the Cygnus workers in Chicago who went on strike and won last year despite not belonging to a union.

The immigrant rights demonstrations that began with the March 10, 2006 "Day Without Immigrants" rally in Chicago put the workplace-and the principle of not working-at the center of the fight against anti-immigrant legislation. Since then, this has begun to translate into organizing at the grassroots by workers centers and community activists.

There are big challenges yet to come-including in organizing the increasingly industrial South, as the Freightliner Five struggle highlights.

But as Moody concludes, developing and bringing together the different strands of labor struggles today, while no easy task, is the only winning option for a working-class movement that has been under attack for three decades.

Further Reading

From the archives