Monday, March 11, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Freefall of the House of Labor by Peter Laarman


PHOTO: Sheffield Tiger
The Freefall of the House of Labor
by Peter Laarman
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse noticed a curious thing when he covered the national convention of the State, County & Municipal Workers (AFSCME) that took place just a few short weeks after the failure of the recall vote in Wisconsin: meeting in Los Angeles, the convention delegates uniformly denied that there had been anything wrong in their approach. All they had to say about Wisconsin is that the pro-labor forces had been outgunned by big money pouring in from the Right. Greenhouse needed to turn to a labor economist (Gary Chaison) in order to get a quote for his piece to the effect that public sector unions might not be fully in sync with public sentiment these days.

Denial is nothing new for organized labor, it goes without saying. Just after I began working for the United Auto Workers in 1982, UAW chief Douglas Fraser and other union officers could not quite believe that Honda, the first Japanese car company to start major manufacturing operations in the US, was resisting unionization of the young workforce they had just recruited from the cornfields of rural Ohio. The union’s leaders were stupefied for two reasons: (a) the UAW had been pushing very hard to get the Japanese companies to “build here what you sell here” and had used considerable political muscle to get elected officials in Ohio to roll out the welcome mat for Honda via juicy tax incentives, and (b) Fraser thought that he’d reached a handshake bargain with Honda’s patriarch on this matter during a special secret meeting in Tokyo. But despite taking a huge battering throughout the decade, UAW leaders were still living in denial when I left my job there in 1990. Only this time they could not quite believe that Caterpillar, a fully unionized company for decades, was actually planning to crush UAW power in the plants by using scab workers and by mounting a very effective anti-UAW communications campaign right in the heart of Caterpillar territory: factory towns in Illinois and Iowa.

If these vignettes appear to have me taking a scornful view of labor, let me be clear that my sympathies and loyalties are still very much with working people and their organizations. I want unions to grow stronger, not weaker. I want them to break out of their cocoon of denial. Most of all, I want progressives of all kinds to rally to the side of a horribly beleaguered labor movement before it’s all over for American unions. Empirically speaking, however, it is very difficult for me to envision how this might happen.

Legends of the Fall
PHOTO: Fibonacci Blue

Many theories have been offered to explain US labor’s sharp decline over the past four decades. The unions themselves tend to make these points:

•Although rarely discussed, the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act was a real body blow that began the downward spiral.
• The shift of manufacturing to the American South and then to the Global South cut out the heart of the labor movement (i.e., the industrial unions) and also gave employers the capacity to whipsaw domestic unions into submission at the collective bargaining table.
• Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating up to the present day, employers developed techniques to block or thwart representation drives using a small army of “union prevention” consultants and specialized law firms.
• Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating up to the present day, two-faced Democratic politicians begged unions for volunteer help and for campaign cash but have turned their backs on labor’s agenda once elected. 

Unsympathetic critics have made very different points:

• Unions in the US were always a kind of alien imposition–a remnant of 19th century European class struggle. As immigrant workers assimilated and became “true” Americans, unions had no chance of surviving here.
• Unionism cuts against the American grain by stifling individual initiative and drive and by treating everyone the same, using mechanical seniority rules, applying rigid work rules, etc.
• Unions protect incompetents and slugs, thus making both private companies and public agencies less productive and resilient.
• Unions are led by corrupt, self-serving people who spend dues money to maintain lavish lifestyles; why would any self-respecting person want to pay dues that will go to support such people?

More neutral academic observers tend to cite still other reasons:

• Unions have been very slow to learn new organizing and communications techniques; they were also slow to adjust to new workforce demographics.
• Unions set the stage for their own demise by lifting working-class people into the middle class (sometimes shorthanded as “turning Republican on a UAW paycheck”).

My own analysis very definitely takes into account the devastating role played by deindustrialization and by the effectiveness of the union-prevention specialists in thwarting the intent of national labor law. The perfidy of leading Democratic politicians also cannot be ignored. I was in the trenches with labor when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and yet would not pass significant labor law reform that might have leveled the playing field.

For readers who may not know how important the labor law question is, the New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was clearly intended to promote unionization. The Act calls for workers who want representation to sign authorization cards that the union hands out and collects. When 50% or more of the people in a given workforce have signed these cards, agents of the National Labor Relations Board are supposed to conduct a prompt secret-ballot election. If a majority of workers then votes for representation, the union is officially certified as the workers’ bargaining agent. Negotiations toward a first contract are supposed to commence so that newly-negotiated gains are delivered quickly.

In practice, many provisions of the NLRA work today in the employer’s favor. Using highly-paid lawyers and consultants, the employer first fights the union over who is eligible to vote (i.e., which workers properly belong in what is called the bargaining unit); the employer then wages a lengthy campaign of intimidation and misinformation against the union and its organizers, often firing key union supporters; if the union prevails despite this full-on campaign, the employer will often dispute the vote results and delay final certification; then, if the union still prevails and is certified to bargain, the employer simply refuses to bargain in good faith, leaving the workers frustrated and also causing them to question why they bothered to take the risk and make the effort.

These abusive employer practices remain an open secret and a clear violation of the original Act’s stated intent. Yet Democratic politicians have stalled and equivocated again and again in respect to embracing and enacting needed reforms. Union leaders who feel bitter about this have every right to feel that way. They have even more right to feel bitter about the many neoliberal Democrats, led by President Clinton, who rushed to embrace corporate-driven free trade schemes like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). It is na├»ve for anyone to suppose that the rapid offshoring of US manufacturing that took place from 1980 onward was a purely natural phenomenon; neoliberals not only paved the way for this but even applauded the transition to a “service” economy as a very good thing.

Culture Wars, an Aleatory Society, and a Misplaced Resentment
PHOTO: US Farm Security Admin./Office of War
Labor and War: Don Nelson, Chairman of the War Production Board, meeting with AFL president William Green, and CIO president Philip Murray in Washington, DC (1942).

I have no interest in re-hashing conventional explanations of union blues without introducing cultural factors and broad changes in the common culture. Just now I dated myself by mentioning my work with labor in the 1980s. Let me date myself even more by mentioning that I was a late-sixties college student activist who, after graduating, joined roughly thirty other activists in a community organizing effort that took place in Brockton, MA, from 1971 until 1974. We in the Brockton Project, most of us from Ivy League schools, decided in advance against doing any workplace organizing ourselves or even supporting union campaigns led by others. One big reason is that we were appalled by the pro-Vietnam War stance taken by George Meany’s AFL-CIO. And we were culturally repelled by the racist, sexist white men running all the major unions.

The rapid culture changes and surging liberation movements of the Sixties and Seventies were not at all kind to a labor movement led and in some ways exemplified by socially-conservative Cold War Liberals. We who were young wanted nothing to do with these dinosaurs, but increasingly neither did liberal academics or even liberal religious leaders. Transitional figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., still stayed close to labor (King in part because he was heavily bankrolled by Walter Reuther). But younger Black radicals, first-wave feminists, gay liberationists, and the early environmentalists all went off to build their own movements independently of labor. It is a telling sign of this rupture that Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) got its start via the labor movement (through financial support from a labor-backed institute) yet very quickly found itself on the other side of the barricades from labor over Vietnam.

The point to be made about the breach between unionists and culture liberals is that this rupture never really healed. Even now, the vast majority of sophisticated progressives “care” about everything under the sun about new threats to women’s rights, the LGBT cause, mass incarceration, militarism, the environment–except for the plight of working people and their unions. In recent years many unions have tried to reach out to help repair the breach. They have created LGBT caucuses and embraced LGBT rights; they have filled their leadership ranks with women and people of color; they have tried to build alliances with leading environmental groups. Alas, none of this has had much effect. Even the Occupy movement, which was all about attacking widening economic inequality, had a very hard time embracing trade unionism, which has been attacking economic inequality in American society for at least 150 years. It is as though there is something slightly unclean about workers and about the labor movement in general.

This hold-the-nose reflex among liberals has a long pedigree. The roots of middleclass fastidiousness and mistrust regarding workers and unions go back into the early 19th century and derive quite directly from old school Protestant notions of property and respectability. As Sean Wilentz’s magisterial Chants Democratic and many other histories of early industrialization make clear, the proprietor class of the 1830s and 1840s tended to be Protestant, whereas their restive and exploited workers were often Catholic or (later) Jewish. Catholic immigrants held vaguely collectivist ideas about social advancement that primed them for an avid embrace the union cause; good Protestants were expected to make it on their own “merit.”

Just before and during the Civil War, Protestant grandees in the North charged immigrant workers–especially Irish workers–with dishonor and disloyalty for seeking to avoid military service against Confederate forces. In the view of these same workers, however, the Protestant Unionists (and especially the outspoken Abolitionists among them) were total hypocrites for wanting freedom and dignity for Black slaves while simultaneously enforcing brutal wage slavery in Northern factories and workshops. Respectable white middle-class loathing of workers and unions grew still worse during the great age of rapid industrialization (roughly 1870-1895), when struggling unions sometimes did include violent anarchists and syndicalists within their ranks. Never mind that the violence on the owners’ side was ten times greater: trade unionists were branded in the public mind as filthy, foreign, dangerous, and possibly traitorous.

Today it almost doesn’t matter that racially and religiously diverse middle-class liberals have finally become dimly aware of the ways in which support for contemporary union struggles also equals support for Black and Hispanic economic empowerment and for immigrant advancement. It almost doesn’t matter that support for the labor movement also constitutes our best defense against the total domination of political life by corporate money and corporate interests. There is still the old squeamishness about The Great Unwashed. And there is still the lingering stereotype of old George Meany chomping on his cigar, or of squinty-eyed Jimmy Hoffa taking care of some business with the help of friends in waste management.

Apart from the rise of culture liberalism and the concomitant decline of an older social-democratic liberalism, a second cultural sea change needs to be taken into account in appraising unionism’s Great Fadeout. I call this the Aleatory Society problem, or the problem of magical thinking.

Millions of Americans these days, but especially our young people, seem to think that they might strike it rich at any time. As their actual life prospects dim (ironically, in part due to a shrinking labor movement), their fantasy life prospects grow ever brighter. For them it’s all about luck, all about that big break.

Two years ago, during the worst of the Great Recession, one of the hottest lyrics on the airwaves and in teenagers’ iPods was “I want to be a billionaire so frickin’ bad” in a song called “Billionaire” by Bruno Mars and Travie McCoy. The clear sentiment of the vocalist, presumably one shared by those playing the tune again and again, was “this COULD really happen to me.” This is the same aleatory sentiment driving people to line up for lottery tickets and gluing their eyeballs to fantasy-based TV shows in which the lives of nobodies are instantly transformed by body makeovers or home makeovers.

The relevance of the Aleatory Society to the union question is simply this: If you are lionizing the rich and famous, and if you are fantasizing about becoming suddenly rich and famous yourself, how much interest or respect will you have for trade unions? Unions operate on the basis of a very different sentiment and proceed from a very different philosophy: you may not advance far–and in fact it isn’t even desirable to advance so  far as to become “one of them”–but you can advance, and you can gain just enough for a decent and reasonably-secure life, through collective struggle and in solidarity with others.

The obvious need for a collectively minded consciousness to support union organizing points to yet one more cultural factor militating against today’s unions. It’s not just the avoidance of social solidarity that unions today have to contend with, but it’s a positive wish to see others pulled down and humiliated.

Just now I mentioned widespread fascination with the rich and famous. One celebrity attracting significant attention is Donald Trump, who is hardly a selfmade mogul and who it is hard to imagine serving as anyone’s beau ideal of a human being. Nonetheless, Trump’s reality TV show–The Apprentice–has been hugely popular, in part because viewers can hardly wait to hear The Donald use his famous punch line: “You’re fired!”

Widespread reveling in the humiliation and even the degradation of others is one sure sign of a decadent culture. I am sorry to say that this is the culture we now have, and it is anything but a healthy culture for purposes of union success. Because unions traditionally raise incomes and create better working conditions, it is entirely logical to expect that people wishing to rise would identify with unions and support unionization. In our decadent state, however, this logic does not apply. Many working people who aren’t doing at all well themselves seem instead to resent unions and wish harm to their neighbors who happen to be represented by a union and thus enjoy slightly better wages and benefits than they enjoy.

Irrational resentment: how else to explain the success of right-wing efforts to strip public employee workers of basic collective bargaining rights and also to strip away pension and health benefits enjoyed by unionized public sector (and private sector) workers? The vast amount of money behind these right-wing efforts cannot fully explain how working class voters come to support the trashing of the public employee unions. The reason can only be a misplaced resentment.

And here the great irony of an Aleatory Society comes into sharp relief: no one craving to be a billionaire “so frickin’ bad” wants to see billionaires cast down from their thrones: after all, these fantasy aspirants identify with the idle rich. But they do want to see Jill Schoolteacher or Joe Fireman or Jim Sanitation Man get cut down to size. In this there might even be something of Freud’s “narcissism of small differences.” It surely takes a Dr. Freud to explain it.

This, then, is the new class warfare in America: not an organized working class tilting against Malefactors of Great Wealth, but one part of the working class trying to take down another part. Not an edifying spectacle by any means.

Is There A Path Forward?

I am a solid union guy who will never not stand with organized labor. I get myself arrested at regular intervals in labor organized actions in Los Angeles. I am also a Christian minister who is supposed to be able to cling to hope even when the evidence for anything hopeful is very hard to discern. (And to you empiricist readers, did not the great William James identify a religion of healthy-mindedness? I need to check. I know he called a blowing northwest wind “the Champagne of North America,” which for me as a Midwestern farmer’s son is enough for me to love him.)

In thinking about what comes next, I have just four hopeful things to offer:
  1. The persistence of social democratic thought. In the course of this article I have once or twice used terms like “social democratic” or “social democrat.” The great and irreplaceable Tony Judt, in his elegiac Ill Fares the Land, makes it very clear how social democracy is a rare and delicate flower, the product of centuries of social struggle and centuries of careful cultivation. This much is irrefutable. What interests me now is that, as social democratic thought appears to wane in certain parts of the West, it crops up again and again in social insurgencies in non-Western settings. Social democracy is unbounded, free, and universal. What I am saying is that we do not have to attach all of our hopes to social democratic prospects in the United States, never a fertile field for them in any case. I can imagine a time in which US trade unionism takes hope and borrows from a social democratic flowering elsewhere that spreads back into our own discourse.
  2. Human self-respect. The late lamented Occupy movement in the United States was an exercise in elemental self-respect. The movement had many problems, none of which should surprise anyone who takes seriously the challenge of finding and sustaining renewal within a deeply decadent overall context. Beyond the collapse of Occupy, human self-respect remains an irreducible factor. Unions at their best are rooted in human self-respect. Ergo, trade unionism is never really “over.”
  3. The power of narrative. One of the coolest things about younger labor activist is the way they communicate very differently from their predecessors. Even though stories and very concrete examples of struggle and triumph were always a central part of the trade union fabric, mid-20th century unionism managed to lose this juice and get mired in abstract argument and in generalized concepts. Today’s young organizers go back to the movement roots and make vivid (in social media and in real-time actions) how “the union makes us strong.”
  4. Demographic diversity. This to me is the big one. White men, once the bedrock of American unionism, are in some ways lost to the movement and tuned into Fox News. That’s the sad news. The happy news is that unions are winning fairly consistently in well-run organizing drives among workers who are not white men. And workers who are not white men are the future of the American workforce. Glory hallelujah! 

Amen.




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