Class struggle in the USA

Submitted by cathy n on 9 December, 2006 - 10:20

Kim Moody is a labour historian, teacher and activist in the United States. He is prominent in Labor Notes, a rank-and-file bulletin for working-class militants. He is the author of several books, including Workers in a Lean World. He spoke at the AWL's 2006 Ideas for Freedom event.

There were two events of great importance recently. The first took place in the spring of this year, beginning on 25 April and reaching its culmination on 1 May.

It amounted to a general strike of immigrant workers in the United States. At least five million workers were involved, probably the greatest event in American labour history. Most of these workers are not in unions. Many of them however are becoming union members, or organising unions of their own. As often as some of these unions try and go out to organise immigrant workers, or talk about it in any case, immigrant workers are now organising their own unions. They often affiliate to an official union, but the effort often begins from their own efforts.

The second event - much less dramatic - was the split in the AFL/CIO, the American version of the TUC.

In the 1980s, almost all of the unions who'd been outside this federation were brought back in; the Teamsters, the mineworkers, the auto-workers...

The only union of any size to remain outside of it was the National Education Association, one of the two teachers' unions, which is actually the biggest union in the United States. Other than that and the tiny United Electrical Workers, almost all unions up until late last year were affiliated to the AFL/CIO.

At that time, a number of unions left and formed the Change to Win coalition. Who were they?

The Service Employees International Union is the key union. Next to the National Education Association, this is the biggest union (with 1,800,000 members) in the United States. It organises building maintenance workers - the famous Justice for Janitors campaign - healthcare workers and some public sector workers. This is a union that's usually regarded as being on the left. It passed a resolution opposing the war on Iraq.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Teamsters have a complicated story. It's not the corrupt union it once was and although it still has corruption, it'd different now because of a period of reform in the first half of the 90s, and because of the existence of a relatively strong, well-organised rank-and-file group the "Teamsters for a Democratic Union".

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters. The Carpenters are traditionally associated with the right-wing of the labour movement. Like all unions, it's gone through some changes; it can no longer exclude people of colour the way it once did, but it still carries that heritage and its leadership is still pretty right-wing. They're leaders who might endorse Republicans, for example.

"Unite HERE". Unite is the union for the garment industry. It used to be two unions that merged a few years ago into Unite. Not very long ago it merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees which, unlike a lot of these other names, exactly what it says it is. Now it's in with the garment workers, so it's no longer a clear industrial union.

The Labourers' International Union is another union with a reputation for mob connections and so forth. I don't think the current leadership are mob connected, but it wasn't too long ago that this was the case. In these unions like the Teamsters and the Labourers, you will find locals that still have that connection.

The United Food and Commercial Workers is a union that was created out of very many mergers. Consequently, it contains all kinds of people doing all kinds of work. Meat-packers, meat-cutters, insurance salesmen, Its biggest constituency are people who work in grocery stores. They just had - and lost - a big strike in Southern California. The UFCW have a certain reputation for losing strikes.

The United Farmworkers. If you had to think of a "social movement union" from American history, this would be it.

The "Change to Win" coalition is quite a melange.

What's behind the split? First of all, something in our theory has always told us that imperialism is supposed to allow capital to buy off labour - or at least a section of it. Well, something went wrong in the mechanism and imperialism got a nicer name - "globalisation" - and backfired on the American working-class. So, far from people doing better in this period of American dominance, they've done worse. Average weekly wages are 12% below what they were in 1972, for non-supervisory workers.

4,000,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1979, and 4,000,000 union members have been lost since 1979. Union membership now covers just over 12% of the workforce, and in the private sector it's under 8%. This is a historic low. We obviously have a serious crisis in labour.

The only way people keep an annual income (as opposed to the weekly wage) up is to work more, so that the average American manufacturing production worker now works two weeks more than they did in the early 1980s. A lot of that is overtime.

Another thing behind this split is the failure of the last attempt to solve these problems. That was in 1995, when John Sweeney and Rich Trumka of the mineworkers and Linda Chavez-Thompson of the State, County and Municipal Workers (which is sort of like Unison in the UK) ran against the old incumbent leadership. There's always been opposition - bureaucrats don't always agree amongst themselves - but to have a public contest was an unusual thing. In 1995, people were so concerned with the future of the federation that John Sweeney and his so-called 'New Boys' team ran against the old guard and won. The irony is that the previous old guard - a guy named Lane Kirkland - had brought into the AFL/CIO, as I mentioned, the auto-workers, the Teamsters and the mineworkers. It was these three unions who voted the old guard out in terms of the numbers.

The American labour bureaucracy in this period that I'm talking about (from the late 70s 'til now) had three pillars to its strategy for survival. It made concessions to the employers. Beginning in the late 70s and early 80s, the unions would bail out, like in the air traffic controllers' strike that was smashed by Reagan. Events around that time opened the floodgates to concessions, and those floodgates have never been closed.

Number two pillar is "labour-management cooperation" or "partnership". This was tried throughout the 80s, 90s and today. It has a lot of forms; it can mean "team working" in the workplace itself, it can mean having "partnership in jointness" programmes where unions and management have joint committees which meet all the way up the hierarchy of the corporation. They're supposed to give the union a say in things like lay offs and so forth, but never do. There are a variety of other programmes that put forward the notion that the interests of labour and capital are basically the same in the global world.This idea has been around in the American labour bureaucracy for decades. What was new was globalisation and international competition. Now you united with your boss not just to save your own boss or your own company, but to
unite against the foreign foe - whoever that might be in that particular time. Today it would be China. Labour-management cooperation is not only a class-collaborationist ideology, but also an increasingly nationalist and, some would say, racist ideology.

The third pillar was union mergers. The argument for union mergers in the United States in the early days was "well, the corporations are merging all over the place. Why shouldn't we?" The problem is that the two things don't have anything to do with each other. Corporations are merging across borders; unions are not. The mergers they carried out had nothing to do with the changes in the organisation and circuits of capital. Often, they had nothing to do with anything that one could see.

The United Food and Commercial Workers were the champions of this - picking up everybody - but the Teamsters did it, the SEIU did it, the UAW did it. For example today, the auto-workers' union organises graduate students. You merge together and this keeps your union big even though you know you're losing members all over the place. But, says the theory, your size stays the same. Your dues base stays the same. Your political clout - meaning how much money you can give to the Democrats - stays the same.

The only problem didn't. Only two or three unions only grew out of this strategy. Most of them merged like mad, like the Steelworkers, and declined anyway.

Anyone with half a brain could see that these things were not working. The unions were shrinking as a whole, and individually too.

Maybe the union leaders wouldn't have done anything, but something happened in 93 and 94 that woke them up. First was the fiasco around Bill Clinton's Health Security act. This was the bill that was supposed to bring in a system in which everyone, one way or another, would be taken care of. The problem was that the union really didn't know what they wanted. Most unions in America before this time had gone for what're called "single payer plans", which they have in Canada. It's not like the NHS, but you have one insurer - the government. The care delivery can be a mixture of public and private. It's a workable system compared to what there is in the United States. But this was killed long before they got to 1993 and Bill Clinton by none other than John Sweeney, who was the head of the AFL/CIO's Health Policy Committee, who said "this is not feasible, so we're not going to back it." Labour went into the fight divided.

1993 was also the year that Bill Clinton introduced the North American Free Trade Agreement - NAFTA. Clinton's got a problem - labour doesn't like the North American Free Trade Agreement but sort of likes the Health Security act. Business doesn't like the health act, but loves the North American Free Trade Agreement. So Clinton chose North American Free Trade and business - not a surprise - and consequently the health security act, for a variety of reasons including its own ineffectiveness, failed. Labour didn't get anything.

Then came 1994. The Republicans, largely because of the fiasco around healthcare but also because of other Clinton-related things, swept the Congress on a very right-wing programme. This was a demonstration to the labour bureaucracy that their political clout was down the toilet. It sent a shock-wave through a lot of unions that think they're going to get something through official "politics" as much through actual organising or struggle or conflict of any kind.

It's out of that experience that a new coalition formed inside the AFL/CIO. It was a shifting coalition, but it was always headed by the SEIU and their president, Andy Stern.

This coalition arises, and they say "John Sweeney and his supporters have failed utterly. They have not organised, they've had all this talk, created task-forces and institutes, and we're still in a mess."They said the AFL/CIO
has to change itself, and they had a plan.

This plan was drawn up by a guy named Steve Lerner, who's one of the SEIU's intellectuals, and what it said was half right. It said the problem with the unions in America is not only that they're not organising, but that they
don't have any focus. You go out and you organise graduate students one day, parking wardens the next day, factory workers the third day; there's no coherence. So if you look at any industry in the United States, the union density is shrinking. Except of course in healthcare with the SEIU, where it's doing its thing. He said we have to be get back to the notion of an industrial focus.

Today in modern global capitalism it's sometimes difficult to define what an industry is. What group of capital are you relating to. We know the auto industry is the auto industry, but they're owning all kinds of things and half of them are from Europe or Japan, so you're fighting with companies that are worldwide. What is an industry?

They came up with fifteen to twenty 'sectors'.

Manufacturing was one of their sectors - not the auto industry, not steel; it's broad. Healthcare - well, that's more or less right. Services - services is not a sector. Services is a melange of lots of different types of work. But they felt that this was a strategy, and if you could identify these fifteen to twenty 'sectors' in the economy, then you needed fifteen to twenty unions that matched these sectors. But the problem was that all unions in America are general unions. There are no industrial unions in the traditional sense.

So how would you get to this place of fifteen to twenty unions when you currently have about sixty four? The implication was that you could do this in one of two ways. You could raid, and have a bloody civil war in the labour movement - probably not a good idea. Or, you could have the top leaders sit down and trade off jurisdictions.

The SEIU does this. The SEIU is serious about their sector focus - they recently gave away some hotel workers to HERE.

Before it was called 'Change to Win' it was called the 'New Unity Programme.' The plan was utopian, unworkable, ridiculous and no-one took it seriously. But what they were trying to say is "actually, we don't want to give money to the AFL/CIO any more because they don't know how to spend it right," which is almost certainly true. The "Change to Win" people were saying that 30-50% of the AFL/CIO budget should go to organising. Of course, the leadership of the AFL/CIO was not happy with this idea. They [the "Change to Win" unions] also demanded that they reduced the dues the affiliated unions pay to the federation by 50%. John Sweeney could see his salary diminishing, he could see his staff dripping away, so they couldn't agree on that.

The issue was organising. A lot of AFL/CIO unions, including the federation itself, don't do much organising. The problem was that the people who do do the organising were on both sides of this fight. The Communication Workers' Union was a union that does organising, in the same way that the SEIU does. In fact, in the negotiations just before the split happened, one of them spilled the beans and said "there were no differences of principle here. The only question I could locate here was the question of dues." And that's what it came down to - the American labour movement split over the question of dues. This is not a good sign.

Now we have these two things; a big immigrant workforce, and unions with a new federation that says its going to organise. They will organise, and so will some other unions, but they're not organising fast enough.

The SEIU almost represents something similar to the old Soviet economy's eleven "departments", with a central bureaucracy that determines how things are done. Rather than having local unions they are destroying or merging local unions into giant, mega-departments. The first one came several years ago in St Louis. A local of janitors had been in St Louis for a long time, and all of a sudden they discovered that the SEIU was putting them in a "local" with workers in Chicago. These cities are several hundred miles apart. Kow are you going to have a union meeting when you have thousands of members spread out across three or four states? The answer is that you're not, because they don't want you to. They got their members to vote for these things, so it was technically democratic.

In the last couple of years they've taken the New York local janitor's union of 35,000 members - which had a corrupt leadership for years after its ex-leader, John Sweeney, handed it over to a semi-mobster. A reform movement got rid of him. This local was very big, and very powerful - they were the best paid janitors and doormen in the country. Now, they're part of a 'local' (although they don't even call it that any more - they call it a "unit") that runs from New York City to Baltimore and Philadelphia. These are three or four hour train rides. This is big geography.

They're turning this union into an administrative structure. It's already a very staff-heavy union, and unlike some of the old industrial unions most of the staff do not come out of the ranks. A lot of them are off college campuses. And they're getting more staff heavy - they call this concept "staffing up."

This is the kind of union that leads the "Change to Win" coalition. The SEIU and Andy Stern are the leaders of this. Some of the other unions, like the garment people, are kind of old, right-wing social democrats or something like that, but mostly, the others are run-of-the-mill, semi-corrupt, business-unionists in the old American business-unionist model. We're not talking about the CIO here. This isn't the 1930s, and some new, progressive formation.

Both federations now hove liberal unions and conservative unions, bureaucratic unions and semi-bureaucratic unions. So there's no principled difference, and we really don't know what the future of this will be. There have been some clashes. Mostly, however, so far there haven't been major clashes.

I don't have a fetish with the idea of there being one labour federation. If it was France you could have a socialist one, a communist one, whatever - but this is America and we don't have things like that. So what it comes back to is organising. We'll simply see if the competition actually improves the motivation for organising. That's a possibility.

The SEIU first became famous in the early 90s for the Justice for Janitors struggle in Los Angeles. It was done in a militant, confrontational style. You may have seen the Ken Loach movie Bread and Roses, which is based on that struggle. What is not in the movie is that, after they won and they were organised, the SEIU model kicked in and the janitors in Los Angeles were thrown into this huge, multi-jurisdictional local.

But they rebelled. They organised along with black workers what was called the "Multi-Racial Caucus", ran for position in the union and kicked out the entire executive board that ran the large local. But they didn't get the president, and the president complained about the factionalism. The union came down (in fact it was John Sweeney), and in the end they worked out a deal in which the janitors were putted into a different, huge, half state wide local that was a bit more industrially compatible and had Latino leadership.

They will use militant tactics from time to time in what they call the "organising model." But for the SEIU and most American unions the "organising model" somehow rapidly turns back into the "service model"(the bad one that we didn't like), and that goes for many unions in the AFL/CIO as well.

"Service" is not enough. The American labour movement is confronting global capital. It's not going to beat it by imitating corporate organisation, it's not going to beat it by the occasional use of militancy or with partnership.
Andy Stern is big on partnership; he can't understand why the employers don't want it. It's so obvious - they have so much in common.

I think there will be an upsurge amongst immigrant workers and I think it will spill over into other groups of workers. Immigrant workers often work in jobs that are different from other people, but not everywhere. There's a lot of manufacturing, there's a melange of blacks, Latinos, Asian workers, white workers and so forth.

You're not going to crack the American labour scene, you're not going to take on American capital, without organising the South. They have failed again and again to do this, and in fact given up for decades. But manufacturing has been moving to the South for some time; it's losing some of that to Asia, but it's still the big manufacturing area and almost totally non-union. The South is key. It's key for other reasons - Wal-Mart and Overnight. Trucking has become the key to the whole inter-global system. These huge Southern-based companies, Overnight Trucking and Wal-Mart, are of course, non-union.

One union, under Hoffa, tried to organise Overnight and fluffed it, but this is what has to be done. Transportation, manufacturing and these huge new big-box retailers. You cannot change the balance of class forces without getting those.

These bureaucratic unions could do that. To organise the South, you have to be for conflict, not partnership, because Southern capital is not interested in that (nor is German capital or Japanese capital, which is now Southern capital).

You also have to take on the race question. Every attempt to organise the South without addressing that has failed.

So how will any of this happen? I always come back to the same thing, the unavoidable thing - the rank-and-file.

There's always rank-and-file activity in American unions. You can go through the list of unions, and there's been some kind of opposition in every one. Often, it's very small. Usually it's crushed, but it's there because working conditions push it there. As working conditions get worse, it'll continue. I believe that something like a rank-and-file upheaval is needed - both inside the unions and outside them, particularly in terms of immigrant workers who come into the unions and bring a different idea of what a union is.

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