Richard Leitch reviews “Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice“ by Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin (University of California Press, 2008).
There are a number of books examining the crisis of trade unionism in USA. Fletcher and Gapasin’s account takes the recent 2005 split within the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) as its starting point, then works back to expose the split’s fundamental structural and ideological roots, before charting an alternative, “ a different theory and practice of trade unionism” which they call ‘social justice unionism’ (SJU).
Their core argument is that the ‘New Voice’ – ‘Change to Win’ dispute has achieved very little, failing to address the challenges confronting US labour and the long-standing limitations of ‘business unionism’. To do so requires a radical break with existing approaches, tackling the issues of globalisation, the constituency for modern trade unionism, and of the union role in processes of social change.
Part 1 of the book provides an overview of the historical development of the US labour movement, showing how today’s crisis has its roots in long running trends and divisions concerning the scope and agenda of trade unionism. Most important here is the racist form that competition between workers has taken, creating a divide between white and non-white workforces (black, asian, latino) that ruling elites have fostered to maintain social control. This shifting dynamic of inclusion and exclusion has crippled US trade unionism from its earliest days, allowing a narrow and exclusive ‘white’ option to flourish and concern itself with maintaining pay and conditions for skilled workers at the expense of unskilled, female and coloured labour.
From AFL craft unionism through the Gompers era of ‘business unionism’ and beyond, the predominant model for US labour has survived the challenges from more radical alternatives – the IWW, some of the CIO industrial organising of the interwar period, the radical caucus movement of the Sixties – and continues to shape the practices of today’s contending mainstream factions. Efforts to organise the masses of unorganised workers, to adopt a class-based perspective on union action, and to engage in political activities beyond electioneering, have all been resisted or diluted into safer forms. The result is a legacy of intraclass division and disunity.
The current crisis of US labour is one the authors see as detonated by the end of the post war boom, and the different responses of class forces to this. From above, USA capital and the political Right have elaborated a new model of neo-liberal globalisation, designed to restore profitability and social power at the expense of workers and progressive social movements. Organised labour soon found itself under attack, economic recession and industrial collapse combining with a sustained political assault on its abilities to organise, strike and negotiated pay and benefit increases.
AFL-CIO’s business unionism was severely exposed in these changed circumstances, tied to a role as subordinate partner in the development of US capitalism that no longer delivered substantial economic returns. Dramatic restructuring of industry and economy further limited its ability to fight back against processes of outsourcing, deregulation and casualisation of labour. The Left in the labour movement, trapped at the margins, was unable to make any major advances, and saw its remaining organisational bases shrink, leaving activists either as solo operators in mainstream unions or moving outside to try new, experimental forms of labour organising.
By the early 1990s the scale of organised labour’s decline and the huge challenges it faced from industrial restructuring on a global scale prompted a reform movement within AFL-CIO. Fletcher and Gapasin consider that this new ‘organising model’, embodied in the likes of SEIU’s ‘Janitors for Justice’ campaign, represented a genuine advance – substituting activist mobilisation and issue-based organising for the bureaucratic grievance procedures of post-war business unionism. They are, however, critical of its shortcomings, especially the singular focus upon organising without addressing other crucial elements of union renewal: those of representation (‘who is to do the organising’) which led to a top-down practices; of defining the overall goals of trade unionism; and the need for a membership education programme to give members an active role in the renewal process.
Similarly, the authors view the ‘New Voice’ reformist leadership that took control of AFL-CIO after 1995 as an incomplete project, producing a number of welcome changes but failing to transcend many aspects of the legacy of ‘business unionism’. These barriers were compounded by the significant economic constraints now faced by labour movements in the US and beyond. They list a number of factors here: production relocation to non-union sites (at home and abroad); expanded production networks, subcontracting and shifting divisions of labour transforming the organisational terrain for union activity and recomposing its working class constituencies; class stratification along racial and ethnic lines; and structural unemployment in areas of traditional union strength. Questions of where, who and how to organise in this unfamiliar and complex economic geography demanded new and creative responses, ones that the authors believe ‘New Voice’ failed to deliver.
Part of the problem lay in its failure to overcome the structural weakness of AFL-CIO vis-à-vis its affiliated unions, who retained the power to direct their own organising strategies and refused to take up new initiatives ‘New Voice’ tried to launch. The authors here note that promising attempts to encourage new forms of multi-union and geographically-based organising, in particular through reviving the Central Labor Councils (federal bodies operating at state, county and city levels) lacked sufficient support. The case of Los Angeles is instructive. While the labour federation at county level was able to revive union fortunes (in alliance with local immigrant rights and living wage campaigns) and to broaden its political reach and agenda, plans for a multi-union organising project in the manufacturing base of the Alameda Corridor were thwarted by affiliates’ lack of collaboration.
On other issues, ‘New Voice’ remained ideologically trapped within the parameters of AFL-CIO traditions. Its response to globalisation was restricted to a critique of TNC dominance and free trade, failing to connect the military strategies of US foreign policy to this overall neo-liberal project, in keeping with the historical complicity of business unionism in US imperial adventures. Thus ‘New Voice’ was repeatedly thrown off balance by international events – war in Iraq, 9/11 – which demanded a strong oppositional stance to US foreign policy. Domestically it never established an independent political position vis-à-vis the Clinton administration, nor set out a vibrant alternative to the Bush regime. Over the whole of its tenure, as the authors soberly note, the organising model supported by ‘New Voice’ actually witnessed a drop in union membership, down to a historic low of 12%.
The slow pace of organising was one of the central issues behind the historic split of 2005 in AFL-CIO. However Fletcher and Gapasin find little to cheer in the strategic preferences of the ‘Change to Win’ breakaway movement (dominated by SEIU, HERE-UNITE, UFCW and the Teamsters). In place of an alternative confronting the most pressing issues ‘New Voice’ had overlooked, ‘Change to Win’ have instead restricted themselves to a narrow set of concerns on ‘organising’ and building union power.
‘Rationalising’ union structures and practices through organisational consolidation and establishing core jurisdiction loom large for the CTW’s lead union SEIU. These options are seen by the authors as oversimplifying the relationships between size and union power, neglecting the impact of economic changes on industrial boundaries (implying new organising approaches) and marginalising prospects for greater inclusiveness amongst female and coloured labour. It is not coincidental that CTW unions are generally located outside the manufacturing sector, and hence shielded from the challenges of organising along extended producer networks and across global supply chains. Additionally, CTW’s agenda has shied away from any concern with a political focus beyond tacking between the mainstream parties to gain maximum advantage for its members. Whether there is any mileage in this vis-à-vis courting Republicans must be open to doubt. The overall result, for Fletcher and Gapasin, is not a turn towards SJU but rather a ‘neo-Gompersian’ project, lacking any transformative vision and aiming only to extract the best bargains on offer within capitalism.
The final part of ‘Solidarity Divided’ offers a detailed discussion of the social justice unionism (SJU) alternative, drawing upon the authors’ extensive experiences within the US labour movement and its most innovative campaigns. For SJU, organising alone is not sufficient. Instead it looks to a profound transformation of both internal and external union relations, all designed to build workers economic and political power within society.
The starting point of SJU is the reality of class struggle and the development of a broad class agenda rooted in the workplace and beyond. Taking up class concerns around housing, welfare, employment and citizenship / immigration, SJU operates on a wide terrain and can create long-range alliances with progressive community groups and social movements. The recent growth of the Workers’ Centre, an innovative labour movement body dealing with unemployed, immigrant and contingent workforces at community level, is seen by Fletcher and Gapasin as having a central role in such workplace – community alliances.
Class struggle alone is insufficient for SJU. There are other social struggles around race and gender that need to be addressed to attain a “consistent social justice” (p 168). It is only by actively tackling such issues that a genuine class unity can be forged, within the workplace, at community level and in union structures themselves. Without this, competition and social divisions will continue to fragment and weaken the labour movement to the advantage of ruling economic and political powers. Again, this aspect of SJU puts the issue of allying with other progressive forces on the union agenda – recent efforts within the mainstream to support immigrant rights go some way towards this.
In terms of union organising itself, the book looks to a number of new strategies. These include multi-union organising to tackle globally structured production networks; non-majority unionism as a means to build power in sectors or geographical regions where collective bargaining is absent; ‘political – geographical’ projects to boost the rights of black and immigrant workforces, incorporating non-union organisations. Central Labor Councils (CLCs) are identified as crucial actors here, local coordinating forces that can help build workers economic power. The CLC has a wider role too in SJU, becoming the base for efforts to create institutional structures (working people’s assemblies, strategic political blocs) that take forward the broad class agenda of SJU and sustain its organisational alliances in the arena of local politics. It is the key vehicle for unifying the progressive forces around a common set of objectives and strengthening working people’s power and influence in society – a vision far beyond the narrow electoral politics of traditional unionism.
For Fletcher and Gapasin, none of this can be achieved without a parallel transformation of internal union relations. Unlike ‘New Voice’ or ‘Change to Win’, SJU cannot be imposed from above, but only through a radical process of democratisation and membership education that brings political and cultural change to US unions. Existing power relationships must be ‘cracked open’ and shifted in the direction of greater inclusiveness and local influence, giving members a greater role in shaping the direction of union policy. Within this seismic shift, and a crucial precondition of it, Left forces promoting SJU (both inside and outside the unions) must establish some sort of institutional presence to underpin these new labour practices – initially a network but eventually crystallising into a political organisation.
And lastly, but never least, a genuine internationalism is central to SJU, one creating truly reciprocal relationships with unions in the Global South, and forging regional alliances against TNCs and international trade regulations. Furthermore, a complete break with the enduring subordination of US labour to imperialist foreign policy is essential, establishing political independence and a more combative response to instances of war, political repression and human rights abuses.
Such a broad internationalist agenda will boost efforts to link US labour with progressive social movements (e.g. that for global justice) and allies from the Global South in our common struggle against the destructive policies of neo-liberalism.