There’s a reason workers and unions are losing in America; we don’t fight
Workers and unions have been losing all my life. I joined a union for the
first time in about 1982. We were just starting to lose; big time! First,
it was the UAW (United Auto Workers), as massive numbers of workers were being
laid off in the American auto industry. We continued to lose, watching the
rest of America’s heavy industry get shipped to cheaper workforces through
the 80s. We watched and lost as whole industry-wide wage and benefit levels
were trashed in an orgy of corporate realignments. We lost again when we willingly
grasped the new logic of “concessionary bargaining”, as our wages and benefits
were bargained against wholesale job eliminations.
But, institutionally speaking, our unions never lifted a finger. We never
fought back. The leaders of our great American Labor Movement adapted to the
new way of things without missing a step. Here is where the new slogan of
the American Labor Movement was born, “It could have been worse”, as workers
took cut after cut, and union presidents took new seats on a hand full of
This lack of fight bothered me though. It made no sense to me. “Isn’t it
precisely times like now”, I thought to myself, “when workers are getting
hammered, that they and there unions are supposed to hammer back?” Silly me,
The truth of the matter is, American labor unions hate a fight! It might
be well and good for French public sector workers to close the nation down
for six weeks over pension cuts. It might be OK too for German workers to
strike over sub-minimum pay raises and benefit cuts, or over a reduction in
weekly work hours. Spanish and Italian workers are notorious strikers, chronically
making a mess in the Italian and Spanish worlds of capital and commerce.
Here, in America though, when workers are threatened, we merely bargain….
And we lobby.
The trend has gotten pretty clear in the last 25 years or so. Workers in
an industry are threatened with job lose and pay cuts. Our union leaders instantly
go behind closed doors; “bargaining” we are told. Eventually they will emerge,
agreement in hand, and will optimistically announce to their members, “It’s
the best deal we could have gotten!” And hopefully, the membership will agree,
wiping the collective sweat off their foreheads with a healthy, “Well, it
could have been worse!”.
Our unions lobby too. Slashes in overtime pay, high unemployment, new record
levels in the pauperization of American workers. You can always count of a
delegation of union presidents to testify to Congress, to meet with the President.
In short, to lobby.
This antipathy to a fight goes pretty deep in American unions. In 1994,
I was leading a strike at the Flint, Michigan American Red Cross. This was
a small strike, maybe 70 nurses, phlebotomists, and mobile donation site truck
drivers. Most of the workers were paid a pittance, most of them were part-time,
and the issue was a sizeable wage increase.
So, here we were, maybe three weeks out on the picket line…. By the way,
a fun, happy, and militant picket line, when up comes this woman who is the
Community Services Representative from the Genesee County AFL-CIO Labor Council.
She asks me how things are going? She wants to know if she can help, maybe
with referrals to poverty agencies or public health offices.
“We’re doing pretty good”, I say. “Hey”, I tell her, “It’s July, its warm
and sunny, the picket line is fun, morale is great, and we’re winning!” I
tell her how easy the strike is. Our members are drawing $250 per week in
strike pay. Given that many of our mostly women and poor workers made about
$7.50 per hour for 25 hours a week, they were making money on the strike….
At minimum, breaking even.
The woman from the Genesee County AFL-CIO was horrified. “It’s a mess! Joe
Blow from the Teamsters told me that workers just won’t settle; they make
too much in strike pay. These guys need to accept reality! Do they think they
can strike forever?”.
A few years later, I was listening to a president of a local union talking
to a new union organizer; a young guy just out of the university. “No”, the
union President said, “We don’t have a strike fund. If the members really
want to go out (on strike) they can, but they really need to want to go out;
there won’t be any strike pay”.
Another year or two later, there’s a strike at a Cooper Industries factory
in upstate New York. Seemed that the corporate representatives showed up four
days before the labor agreement was to expire. They didn’t show up to negotiate;
they showed up to deliver the corporation’s ultimatum. The union’s negotiators
accepted the ultimatum. The membership voted the ultimatum down, and this
local affiliate of the UAW semi-consciously, backed its way into a strike.
The strike lasted two days. International Union reps were not to be found.
The local membership cannibalized the local leadership…. And the strike just
sort of collapsed under its own dead weight.
So yeah, I know, some small highly subjective personal impressions from
the author. But, consider this:
There has not been an industry wide strike in the auto industry since 1970.
Autoworkers are probably the best-paid workers in America, but they pay a
price with year after year of vacation-less 60 to 72 hour workweeks. Six or
seven years ago, when a Flint, Michigan based local union struck over excessive
work hours and not enough workers, the support from the rest of the union
wasn’t there. The international union had pretty much accepted the 72-hour
workweek as a necessary part of auto business culture; not to be challenged!
During the 1980s, America’s industrial base began its dismantling as corporations
went overseas to break industry-wide labor agreements…. And incidentally,
make bigger profits. Literally, millions of industrial workers were thrown
on the national garbage heap. Folks were losing their homes, their cars, were
selling the shirts off their backs. Did we fight back? Did we seize equipment
and occupy factories to be closed? No. Did we strike key facilities; attempt
to disrupt the corporate flight to cheaper wages? No. Did we demand that
the government hold corporations accountable to some sort of wider social
good? No. No, what we had were two “Solidarity Days” spread over a couple
of years, where a million workers showed up on the Capitol Lawn to hear Labors’
leaders cry, “They’re (the corporations) not being nice to us!” Solidarity
Days were a great success…. For Washington D.C.’s restaurant and hotel owners.
Right now, it’s the big airlines crying trouble. Seems there’s a race going
on where each airline tries to scream “bankruptcy” first, so they can open
all their labor contracts for another round of cuts, thus, being slightly
ahead of their competitor airlines. And, the airline unions are cooperating…
towards new wage cuts, healthcare cuts, pension cuts, you name it!
And, as public money flows to Iraq for an occupation without end, public
school teachers and their unions are agreeing to work days and weeks without
pay, to make up for the budget shortfalls.
I don’t want to paint things all black, as far as American workers and unions
go. Two years ago, The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union)
fought a winning battle against West Coast port operators, who were out to
destroy the union’s power to negotiate unified terms covering all West Coast
port workers, in Canada and the U.S. Indeed, the West Coast port operators
even had the support of George W. Bush, and potentially, the US Army. Nonetheless,
through near total worker solidarity, and really good tactical thinking, the
ILWU prevailed, as did its contract with the port operators, covering all
Pacific port based workers.
Then there is the UMW (United Mine Workers) who fought a winning battle
with Pittston coal about 10 years ago. There’s the USWA workers (United Steel
Workers Union) who won 12 or so years ago at Ravenswood Aluminum. But these
battles are the exception.
I have no easy solutions to the powerlessness of American workers and their
unions. But I do have some ideas worth considering.
A good place to begin might be to remember why workers formed unions in
the first place. Very early in the game it seemed workers understood that
if they didn’t work, capitalists didn’t make profits. Thus, the strike! Thus
too, through striking, workers demonstrated, and learned themselves how very
powerful they could be. It might now be well worth the trouble to look at
what we can do to have more strikes that last longer, and that are designed
Years ago, we had an international workers’ movement that took seriously
the idea that workers could build and run a far more just and human world.
Seems this sentiment has been lost in the neo-liberal glow of the last 20
or 30 years. There is however, no way that modern global capitalism can meaningfully
offer workers’ a better life. Maybe our unions should pass this dirty little
secret to workers? Maybe they should even suggest that there are alternatives
to the, capitalist-competition-until-you-drop, model?
These ideas aren’t much, but they would represent an important change in
orientation; that unions are supposed to oppose the corporate agenda, not
surrender to it! And with the vast amounts of money and resources owned by
American unions, the slight change in orientation could mean a lot.
What I do know for sure is that the last 25 years of surrendering to the
corporate agenda has not improved workers’ lives, income, power, or well-being.
So let’s stop!