This book by Dan Clawson (Cornell 2003) is the most thorough overview of innovative campaigning in the US labour movement seen so far, reports our intrepid reviewer Richard Leitch.
Clawson is not content to simply record developments in union organising strategies — he claims they point towards something much bigger: a genuine revival of the labour movement, ‘the next upsurge’. He reminds us that historically US labour has never developed in a regular incremental fashion but through discontinuities, including periods of upsurge where membership soars and the existing forms and expectations of trade unionism are radically redrawn. The 1930s was one such period, witnessing a dramatic shift in organising focus from craft to industry-wide basis, that transformed labour relations and impacted upon wider economic and political environments. That upheaval led to the foundation of the ‘New Deal’ labour relations system that dominated the second half of the twentieth century. Now however this framework is unable to meet the realities of a changed social and economic environment, putting the issue of labour renewal firmly on the agenda.
Clawson believes today’s innovative campaigning contains trends that can counter the recent threats to US labour and make renewal a reality – i.e. its isolation from other progressive social movements, its lack of rank-and-file mobilisation, and the sustained employer assault. The future must be built from below, in alliance with other social forces, and outside the traditional NLRB procedures. His survey of ‘the new’ is preceded by a clear discussion of the characteristics and limitations of the ‘New Deal’ framework. Channelling the militance of the 1930s into controllable forms, in exchange for accepting organised labour’s right to organise and bargain, this system did deliver significant material benefits in the early post-war decades. However its narrow focus on servicing existing members, bureaucratic procedures and deal-making with employers, left US labour increasingly unable to mobilise its own ranks. It could not respond effectively to later legal challenges and the sustained assault on the framework launched by employers from the 1970s onwards (both in the workplace and political arenas), which together made it ever harder for labour to win within this system.
Belatedly recognising it too needed to launch a broad counteroffensive in response, US labour has so far been trapped within top-down reform programmes (like that of the ‘New Voice’ leadership of AFL-CIO), failing to fundamentally rebuild the house of labour from below as a vibrant social movement, embracing a diversity of organisational forms.
In the rest of the book Clawson explores the potential of innovative campaigns around issues of gender, community and globalisation to contribute to such an ‘upsurge’. The changing structure of the US workforce, where increasing numbers of service-type jobs employing women are found, carries with it a significant new agenda that unions must address. ‘New Deal’ assumptions of full-time male workers depending on a family wage and massed in manufacturing plants are now increasingly redundant, in an era where equal pay and ‘work – family’ issues are pressing concerns.
Clawson notes that the past failures of the labour movement to build links with the women’s movement has had a damaging effect here, missing a chance to connect with workplace groups established in the wake of the sixties that did address gender concerns – e.g. women’s caucuses and the likes of ‘9 to 5’. Equal pay remains a key concern for working women, gender-segregated employment and job design being arenas for a feminised labour movement to tackle. The successful struggle by Yale university female clerical workers to gain substantial pay and benefit increases through campaigning around issues of ’comparable worth’ is one example of this new agenda in action. The ‘work – family’ nexus meanwhile contains a range of issues – childcare, flexible working and overtime.
One breakthrough in this area has been the struggle of SEIU homecare workers in Los Angeles who successfully united concerns over childcare access with the poor pay and conditions face d by this workforce itself. Beyond this new agenda, Clawson also asks us to consider whether organising and campaigning styles need to be reworked in the light of this feminising of the labour force. A struggle by female clerical workers at Harvard University in the late 1980s illustrates what this could mean. Led by an independent organising body of ex-union officials, this (HUCTW) campaign pursued a traditional pay an benefits agenda through a new organising style adapted to ‘women’s culture’. It replaced traditional macho militance and conflictual approaches with extensive personal contacts, ‘community building’ and a reduction of the fear and tension levels within the workforce during the union election run up. Subsequent high recruitment rates and an avoidance of traditional contractual agreements (beyond a commitment to joint problem solving) were equally distinctive features of the post – election period of campaigning. Though many have seen the HUCTW campaign as akin to ‘company unionism’ and prone to essentialist notions of ’women’s style’, Clawson defends its efforts, believing them to be appropriate for many white collar workforces and able to open up the hitherto uncharted area of private sector clerical workforces to union organising.
The key point to recognise, he says, is that worker mobilisation can take many different forms: “different kinds of jobs require altered strategies and create new kinds of unions” (p89). Innovation in the ranks of US labour has been especially associated with the twin realities of community and colour, sites of organising efforts that have operated on a geographical (rather than craft or industry) basis, campaigned on issues beyond the workplace and thereby helped redefine what a ‘union’ can be.
Clawson points out that community organising has intermittently played a crucial role in US labour history. It is becoming relevant again today due to changing material conditions and a shift in the overall balance of class power, along three axes. In the growing number of migrant labour communities, work is closely entwined with other inequalities (housing, transportation, citizenship) that offers a broad agenda for unions to work with; the spread of service-type employment has weakened possibilities for production relocation as a response to union campaigns; and the neo-liberal assault by employers is pushing US labour towards a recognition that it needs a radical alternative to regain strength.
Many of the examples Clawson refers to here are familiar from other labour movement literature – Justice for Janitors, the workers centres, etc. Less well-known is the Stamford organising project he looks at in some depth. This four union alliance in Connecticut combined workplace and community organising within the local service economy (targeting care workers, janitors and hotel staff), where affordable public housing was a major concern. Mobilising local communities, initially to oppose redevelopment plans, the project found its activities had positive knock – on effects when the participating unions began organising later campaigns for the workplace. The overlap between the two arenas expands our understanding of what unions can do and become: though dependent on AFL-CIO funding, their positive alliance with other progressive social forces and community action paved the way for the organisation of 4500 new workers and helped deliver strong contracts. Clawson says this approach is a far better bet for genuine labour renewal than efforts to rebuild a new social contract through political deals with employers and politicians.
The third area of investigation is that of globalisation. Seen by many as the greatest threat to the labour movement today, Clawson argues we need to clearly distinguish it from the associated trend towards neo–liberalism which is actually the greater danger; and take heart from the range of labour movement campaigns launched against the neo-liberal form of globalisation, which point towards a new alternative. There are a number of options canvassed by organised labour here. Advocates of capital controls, argue this can increase our economic leverage over capital and underwrite expansionary social and environmental policies. The struggle for international labour standards has been a main demand of US unions – but it has come up against serious barriers in terms of the voluntary nature of ILO conventions, WTO hostility to workers rights, and the toothless agreements attached to international treaties such as NAFTA.
Cross-border organising offers the prospect of labour and progressive social movements uniting around a common programme of “class and rights” beyond national borders. There have been some notable victories in this area of struggle – e.g. the organisation of a Philips Van Heusen maquiladora plant in Guatemala, and the Teamster campaign against UPS – with national unions, NGOs and retooled global labour organisations (the International Trade Secretariats) all playing their part. Clawson however devotes most attention to the raft of living wage and anti-sweatshop campaigns launched in recent years. These represent, he says, both a major advance and significant danger for US labour.
Targeting low-paid and difficult to organise workforces across cities and university campuses, living wage campaigns are pushing organised labour towards new organisational forms, acting for whole communities and forming effective coalitions with community groups in their mobilisation of political pressure upon municipal authorities and campus management. In so doing they have successfully increased pay for thousands of the lowest paid, especially in the public sector. Their anti-sweatshop colleagues have been equally vital, initially targeting TNCs such as Nike, to drive out low pay and extreme exploitation from their global supply chains. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) took this campaign onto numerous university campuses, forcing universities into procuring non-sweatshop goods and apparel; and setting up an independent monitoring body – the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) – to ensure effective inspection of suppliers.
Having said all that, Clawson sees a great danger in this activity, insofar as it tends to exclude those low-paid workforces it sets out to help from the direction of the campaign itself. This substitution prevents any effective self-organisation of these workers, thus undercutting the very rationale of progressive trade unionism itself. There are, however, some examples where this danger has been fought against – e.g. students working with union locals to organise university ancillary staff – illustrating the potential of living wage and anti-sweatshop campaigns to reshape labour organising in terms of its very constituencies, sites of mobilisation and strategies.
By way of conclusion, we can see that on this account a vibrant social movement unionism holds the key to labour’s future. And this entails, at the very least, a willingness on the part of organised labour to work in more collaborative ways with other progressive social movements; and to tap into the radical democratic potential embodied within labour unions – i.e. the right and power of workers to participate in decisions about their own lives and work. One final, but very important point follows from this. Labour renewal, according to Clawson, requires not only new organising but also an internal transformation of existing unions, democratising their structures and practices to involve the membership and develop their capacities for decision making. Such a change could also assist traditional organising activity, as outsiders would be attracted to vibrant unions exercising their powers and growing in strength.
Only if masses of people do become active will social movement unionism become a reality and labour fundamentally reverse its current decline.