American labor unions and the future

The New Deal is regarded as the emancipator of the American labor union movement.  By giving Americans a legal right to bargain collectively through labor unions of their own choosing, the National Labor Relations Act gave unions a recognized place in society.

Under the NLRB umbrella, American labor unions in the 1930s and 1940s became greater in size and power than they ever were before or have been since.

But Stanley Aronowitz in his new book, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF AMERICAN LABOR: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (2014), said that the NLRB in the long run proved a trap.

aronowitz.death&lifeamericanlabor03,200_Aronowitz said that unions agreed to restrictions on their only weapon, the strike.  During the course of a contract, unions themselves were responsible for suppressing unauthorized strikes.

Employers became adept at using the NLRB to thwart union organizing.  In the interim between a petition for a union election and the election itself, they could weed out the union supporters (although this was technically illegal) and threaten and propagandize the employees.

Labor leaders gave up the goal of transforming society in return for place at the table where decisions about the U.S. economy were made.  But they didn’t even get a place at the table.

Over the years, new laws weakened union rights and imposed new restrictions.  Union leaders became less and less able or willing to use their basic weapon—the strike.  Union membership is below 11 percent of the American work force, the lowest level since before the New Deal.

Aronowitz, a professor at City University of New York and a former factory worker and union organizer himself, wrote that if the labor movement is to survive, workers and labor leaders must break out of old ways of thinking.

They need to engage in direct action, outside the NLRB framework, as has was done in the recent Walmart and fast-food walkouts.

Aronowitz noted that these actions were taken without union recognition or expectation of a contract, but were effective nonetheless in forcing management to respond to workers’ demands.

Unions should not agree to contracts with no-strike provisions, he wrote.  Or, if they do, only as a last resort and for a limited time.

I always thought that the Walmart and fast-food workers, who are continually at the brink of destitution, showed great courage by defying their employers like that.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible if it hadn’t happened.  Maybe in this case freedom really is just another word for nothing left to use.

Aronowitz said unions must organize all workers, including temporary workers, part-time workers, professional workers (as teachers unions are doing) and workers arbitrarily classified as managers.

They should not limit themselves to collective bargaining, but instead should fight for the overall interests of working people, including the unemployed.  The Occupy movement’s fight against mortgage foreclosures shows the way.

Unions should fight for better public schools, better transportation and publicly-financed housing at affordable rents, he wrote.

I’d add that the interests of public service unions in general align with those of the public, contrary to right-wing propaganda which tries to pit them against each other.  In Chicago, teachers unions and parents have joined forces to fight Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school closings.  Elsewhere transit unions and bus-riders have a common interest in maintaining public transportation.

Aronowitz said unions must free themselves from dependence on the Democratic Party, which does not represent the interests of working people.

Instead they should organize a labor party and run their own candidates, until and unless major-party candidates embrace labor’s goals.

He had a long list of legislative proposals, many reflecting his own philosophy rather than workers’ felt needs.  But he also wrote that unions should take the initiative in serving the public welfare instead of waiting for the government to act.

His example is the Black Panthers in the 1960s.  The Panthers organized school breakfast programs, street festivals and schools for children and adults in which they were taught not only basic skills, but an alternative view of how society works.

Aronowitz wrote that the long-time goal of American labor unions should be economic democracy, otherwise known as worker ownership of the means of production.

This should not be confused with government ownership, he said.  Instead banks should be transformed into credit unions, privately-owned apartments into housing co-ops, manufacturers into producer co-ops and retailers into consumer co-ops—a new society being built in the shell of the old.

Even in such a cooperative commonwealth, there would still be potential conflicts between workers and management, he wrote.  Unions still would be needed.

Aronowitz said it is unrealistic to expect the current American union leaders to adopt his ideas anytime soon.  He hopes for militant minorities within unions who can educate their fellow workers on their true situation.

I’ve become much more sympathetic to ideas such as this in the past few years.  I would have been content with certain moderate, reasonable changes in American society, but I now realize the power elite will not accept even moderate changes that are to their long-range benefit.  So if there is no choice but all-out struggle, why not follow the example of our forefathers in 1776 and create the kind of country we want?

His ideas resemble the ideas of radical labor leaders such as Eugene V. Debs, Big Bill Haywood and Joe Hill, who flourished a century or more ago.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  All the conditions of that era, including the position of the plutocracy, are being recreated..


A ‘Post-Political’ Labor Movement, an interview of Stanley Aronowitz for In These Times.

How Labor Can Save Itself, a book review by Michael Hirsch for The Indypendent.

Review of Stanley Aronowitz’s The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers Movement by Robert Parmet for the History News Network.

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One Response to “American labor unions and the future”

  1. bridget watts Says:

    Aronowitz is right about labor law. Unions have been hurt in the long run by the regulation of labor disputes, especially since Taft-Hartley outlawed one of labor’s most powerful weapons, the secondary boycott.

    But he is unfair to labor leaders. As in any human endeavor, some are hacks, some are inspired and dedicated. But they are constrained by the very structural problems he describes, so why does he say the problem is weak leadership? This is a discussion that has been going on for decades. Union leaders have a responsibility to their current members, the people who pay dues, to look out for their interests as best they can, in negotiations and grievances. Not an easy job in an environment where worker power is waning and even successful employers try to cut benefits and wages just because they can (see the struggle at Motts Apple Juice in Wayne County a couple of years ago).

    Because of the legal and political environment in this country, organizing new workers into a bargaining unit and getting a first contract is incredibly expensive, difficult, and rarely successful. So I find it hard to criticize unions for not doing it more.

    And yet, I agree with Abramowitz that the way forward is to build coalitions, to find new ways to organize the unorganized, and to engage in direct, militant action. Unions have tried some of this, with mixed success. For us on the outside, I think the best thing is to support labor, both the already organized and the unorganized. Show up for local unions’ picket lines, show up for fast food workers’ events, support the drive to raise the minimum wage, and speak up in defense of labor.

    (well, that was a verbose comment. Obviously you’ve hit on a topic that interests me!)


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