American labor unions may not survive

Garret Keizer wrote about the desperate plight of American labor unions in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine.  His thinking is the same as mine.  In the following passage, he quotes himself.

“I grew up with the assumption that there was labor and there was management,” I tell him, “and they’d always be locked in this struggle, and sometimes labor would win and sometimes, probably most of the time, management would win, but they’d be wrestling back and forth, and that’s how it would go on, and in some ways that would be how society progressed.

“And now I’ve started to wonder whether that’s the right way of thinking about it, whether it isn’t a wrestling match but a fight to the death and there are only two possible outcomes.

“One is that labor, not by itself but in a coalition with other groups, prevails to the extent of being able to restructure society in some basic ways.

“Or management, or whatever you want to call it—the One Percent—will destroy all unions and basically there will be masters and slaves.

“What’s wrong with that construction?  What am I missing?”

His question is addressed to Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America and chairman of the board of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution movement.

“Nothing,” he says.

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Labor union membership has been declining as a percentage of the American work force since the end of World War Two; it’s been declining in absolute numbers since the start of the Reagan administration.

Beginning with the Taft-Harley Act of 1947, labor unions have been increasingly restricted as to how they can govern themselves, who they can represent and what they can bargain for, while losing more and more of their rights.

The Trump administration, the Republican Congress and the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court are as anti-labor as they have been since before the 1930s New Deal.

The USA is fast returning to the situation of the 1920s and before, in which labor unions and their members have no rights except those they can create through their own strength and militancy.

Keizer in his article talked to embattled union members and leaders, representing teachers, nurses, auto assembly line workers, structural steel iron workers, railroad track maintenance workers and a Haitian immigrant “way finder” at La Guardia airport who works 32 hours a week for $11 an hour.  He focused in particular on the National Nurses Union (NNU_ and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

They all were proud of the work they did.  They all were loyal to their unions.  They all felt they were being pushed to the wall and had no choice but to fight back.

The NNU claims to strike more than any other American union.  A militant RN named Donna Stern, aka “Eugenia Debs,” told how hospitals are increasing nurses’ patient load, even though each additional patient increases the risk of death for all the other patients by 7 percent.  This is called the “hotel management model”  “Since when did human beings become widgets?” she asked.

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Keizer sees the UE is a model of union militancy and democracy.  Its motto is, “The members run this union.”  The union’s constitution, adopted in 1936, forbids discrimination on the basis of race or gender and says the president cannot have a salary greater than the highest-paid worker in the industry.   Its endorsement of Bernie Sanders was its fifth presidential endorsement in 81 years and the first in a primary, but, Keizer said, is in line with its tradition..

Politically, the labor movement is caught between the Democrats, who take labor’s support for granted but do little or nothing in return. and the Republicans who are actively hostile to labor—even though many union members voted for Donald Trump in the last election.

There are two elephants in the room: one is Trump and the sizeable number of union members who vote for him (close to half, according to some estimates); the other is the elephant still trying to pass itself off as a donkey.

Bill Fletcher, an African-American scholar who studies the labor left, said it is a mistake to ask whether white workers vote for Trump out of economic anxiety or because they’re racists and nativists.   Rather their economic anxiety takes the form of fearing competition from African-Americans and immigrants.  Fletcher has no use for diversity training.  “The main thing is not getting people to like each other,” he said, “The main thing is understanding who is the enemy and who is not.”

And, of course, labor union members, like other people, will tend to choose their livelihoods over broader political goals.  It is one thing to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline; it is another thing for a pipefitter to oppose a project that will create jobs in is craft.

Politically, many of the labor leaders complain of the indifference of President Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders.  The take labor’s support for granted, but they won’t fight for legislation labor wants.  One union leader compared the U.S. labor movement to an abused spouse who can’t break off a dysfunctional relationship.

In Chicago, school teachers struck in 2012 against the Democratic administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Among their demands was that children be granted textbooks on the first day of school.  the teachers won their contract, but the following year Emanuel closed 50 schools and laid off thousands of teachers.

Neither Keizer nor the people he interfered see a clear political path ahead.  Keizer regretted the failure of labor leader Tony Mazzocchi to create a labor party in the 1990s.  He presented Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution in a favorable light.  But nobody quoted in the article proposed a break with the Democratic Party.

What the article implies is that the way forward is through a militant labor movement strong enough to compel the two political parties to heed its wishes.  Keizer wrote:

In the months following the Trump victory, I began noticing an interesting difference between progressives who belonged to unions and those who didn’t.

The non-union progressive—and I’m talking about the decent, open-hearted sort who doesn’t think he walks on water because he owns an electric car—was inclined to say, “We need to get out there and talk to those peope.”

The union figures I spoke with were more likely to say, “We need to get out there and listen.”


Labor’s Last Stand: Unions must either demand a place at the table or be part of the meal by Garret Keizer for Harper’s.

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4 Responses to “American labor unions may not survive”

  1. Fred Says:

    The only problem I have with this is that no organization with an agenda ever hears other than what it wants to hear. To every holder of a hammer, problems always get seen as nails. Glues and screws will put him out of business.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. louis walsh Says:

    Unfortunately labour unions have turned against the working class and are now the enemy of poor and marginalized. Like just about all organisations that claim to represent the oppressed or vulnerable in society they have turned on the poor and the unemployed , not to mention immigrants , blacks , gays etc. The fascist of the future will be called anti fascist…….true , very true.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. philebersole Says:

    During the past 25 or 30 years, the USA and many other Western countries have seen a decline in wages, working conditions and economic security of working people.

    Along with this has been an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny group of bankers, corporate executives and holders of financial assets.

    Organized labor is the only force in society whose mandate is to represent all working people—male and female, black and white, gay and straight, immigrant and native-born.

    It’s true that many labor leaders are complacent and some are corrupt—although corrupt labor leaders are punished more severely than than corrupt bankers, Wall Street speculators and corporate executives.

    But I don’t see any other group or force in society that could take the place of labor unions.

    The Democratic Party was pro-labor during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945).

    But in the present era, most (not all) top-level Democratic politicians care more about their wealthy campaign contributors than they do about the people who put them into office.

    The Clintons, Bushes, Obama and Trumps are all rich celebrities who have more in common with each other than they do with me and presumably with you.


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