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International Socialist Review Issue 42, July–August 2005

A debate at the top of the labor movement fails to address the key issue…
The Failure of Partnership


Lee Sustar is a frequent contributor to the ISR on labor issues.

THE AFL-CIO could be marking its fiftieth anniversary with a split. A contested vote over a restructuring proposal at the federation’s executive committee meeting in March sets the stage for a final confrontation at the July convention in Chicago. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) appeared set to force the issue after union leaders voted to authorize its leaders to bolt. Yet a closer look shows the difference between labor’s two main camps to be narrow.

Essentially, the proposal by SEIU President Andrew Stern and Teamster President James Hoffa aims to restructure the federation in a way that would give dues rebates to affiliated unions in exchange for organizing new members. The plan reflects the view of many union leaders that the huge AFL-CIO bureaucracy, created in the epoch of “Big Labor” in the 1950s and 1960s when one in three workers were in unions, carries too much dead weight as unions continue to shrink. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney himself was forced to face that reality in May, when the federation announced big layoffs and budget cuts.

The hard numbers explain why. Unions today represent just 7.8 percent of workers in the private sector—a figure comparable to the early 1900s—and just 12.5 percent overall. In the third year of an economic recovery, unions in the airline, auto, and aerospace industries are being pounded into surrendering billions in concessions.

Manufacturing job losses have also hit unions in the region where they can least afford a setback—the South—where much of the textile industry has shut down in the face of cheap imports or moved production overseas. North Carolina lost 14,000 union jobs, leaving only 97,000 union members in the state. With a mere 2.7 percent of workers in unions, the state is the least unionized in the country. Texas lost 41,000 union jobs and has a union density of only 5 percent. Labor’s failure to organize the South—owing to its purge of the Left in the 1950s and its historic unwillingness to confront the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation—continues to cripple the unions. Today, the eleven states of the old slaveholding Confederacy have a union density of 5.5 percent—less than half the already abysmal national average.

Of the many statistics that highlight the decline in union power, the most revealing are data that show a 4.3 percent annual increase in productivity from 2001 to 2004—a level that was last matched in 1948 to 1951. In that earlier period, rapid productivity growth led the employers to conclude that it was tolerable to grant demands for improved wages and benefits to a labor movement that represented one in three workers. Profits, after all were increasing much faster. It was in this period that unions in the “basic industries”—coal, steel, auto, and rubber—won the initial contracts that became the foundation for the working-class “American Dream.”

Today, however, a far weaker labor movement has been unable to resist as capital grabs the greatest share of national income during an economic recovery than at any time since the Second World War. Moreover, compensation for nonsupervisory workers in the private sector—about 80 percent of the workforce—dropped 0.4 percent in 2004. This marks the consolidation of the free-market, neoliberal economy, in which capital relentlessly squeezes labor until workers are incapable of resisting and fighting back. The American Dream of steadily rising living standards for U.S. workers died years ago; the current recovery only shows how deeply it’s been buried.

It’s this crisis, of course, that drove the SEIU’s Stern to sound the alarm among U.S. labor leaders a year ago and initiate the New Unity Partnership (NUP)—since disbanded to facilitate Stern’s alliance with Hoffa. Yet in view of the enormous challenges facing labor, the debate among top officials remains quite limited. The reality is that Stern and Hoffa are out to restore the labor bureaucracy to its role of “partnership” with employers and the state, the role it achieved—or at least claimed to—during the thirty-year boom after 1945. Rebuilding a fighting labor movement isn’t on their agenda.

Since the 1970s, however, free-market, anti-labor policies have voided that arrangement, and management has steadily raised the ante since with ever-greater demands for givebacks and increasingly aggressive strikebreaking tactics. Union officials, nevertheless, continued on largely as before, clinging to their financial resources and privileges while negotiating job losses and cuts in pay and benefits as union membership plummeted. These business unionists, usually groomed by careers within the union bureaucracy and accustomed to collegial relations with employers, simply couldn’t grasp the reality of the new climate of class war.

Finally, in 1995, the “New Voices” campaign of John Sweeney forced a debate on labor’s decline with the slogan, “organize or die.” Yet even the best years of organizing in the late 1990s barely kept ahead of the losses suffered through the elimination of union jobs—and given the expansion of the workforce, union density continued to decline. The recession of 2001 and its aftermath also wiped out many of the small advances in new organizing.

The formation of the NUP did compel the labor movement to confront the failure of the Sweeney leadership. This has led many on the Left to welcome its formation. Yet Stern accepts the same framework as Sweeney—including support for the Democratic Party and partnership with employers. He defends negotiating concessions when “necessary”—which explains the NUP’s silence on the staggering level of union givebacks in the airlines, auto, steel, and other industries. This isn’t a question of traditional union protocol of refusing to comment on other union’s internal affairs. After all, Stern readily broke with tradition in his demands for the elimination of small unions through mergers and alliances in a kind of labor movement version of the Survivor reality TV show.

On the contrary, the NUP’s silence on concessions is a reflection of the entire union bureaucracy’s acceptance of the limits of neoliberal capitalism—and the continued commitment to partnership with employers in which labor collaborates with management to boost profits. “Stern talks about giving ‘added value’ to employers, some of whom have come to view him, warily, as a partner,” noted the author of a flattering New York Times Magazine profile of Stern.

What’s different about Stern’s proposal is that it aims to restore the labor bureaucracy’s social and political clout as a whole at the expense of small unions—and union democracy—to rebuild leverage in particular industries. Unlike the upsurge of the 1930s, in which rank-and-file initiative spread unions like wildfire from below, Stern wants to use a highly centralized, corporate model that uses superior financial clout to dominate labor markets from above. This is the logic behind efforts such as the Hospital Accountability Project in Chicago, in which the SEIU seeks to organize the Advocate health care giant by exposing its practices through a corporate campaign. The aim is to pressure Advocate to sign a neutrality agreement towards union organizing, which would then allow SEIU to organize several thousand members. This method has achieved some success elsewhere. The effect in Chicago, however, has been rather bizarre—an organizing drive that hardly involves workers, but focuses on white papers, press conferences, advertising campaigns, and community forums. SEIU staffers involved say they expect that it could take a decade to win such an agreement—hardly the timetable needed for a reversal of labor’s fortunes.

The political expression of Stern’s big-is-best approach is to pour huge amounts of money and resources into political campaigns. Despite Stern’s occasional rhetoric about breaking with the Democrats, the SEIU gave the Democratic Party $65 million, a full-time staff of 2,000 SEIU members and nearly 1,000 SEIU staffers, plus 50,000 rank-and-file volunteers during the presidential election. (By comparison, the American Federation of State, County and municipal Employees [AFSCME] spent $50 million on Kerry and the Democrats; the AFL-CIO, $45 million.) The SEIU’s show of political “independence” has been limited to donations to Republicans, including $500,000 to the anti-labor Republican Governors’ Association. Stern’s checkbook says a lot more about his politics than his speeches before union members.

Stern’s accommodation with Hoffa is also revealing. Both men want member unions to receive a rebate on dues to the AFL-CIO if the affiliate agrees to spend those funds on organizing new members. And both favor a highly centralized top-down leadership of unions—at the expense of union democracy.

As for combining unions, Hoffa’s Teamsters have already been on a merger binge of their own. The Teamsters have absorbed small railroad unions to slow a loss of membership, but this hasn’t compensated for losses in the union’s former core industry, freight truck drivers. Mergers won’t overcome the Teamsters’ losses in freight—a fact that was underlined recently when UPS, the biggest Teamster employer, bought out Overnite, a viciously anti-union freight carrier that defeated a badly-run Teamster strike for recognition on Hoffa’s watch.

Stern and the NUP proposed to bring order to this process with a strategic plan to combine unions in particular industries, rather than create catchall general unions. The Teamsters, however, are exactly that type of one-size-fits-all general union. The union represents workers at UPS, factory workers, nurses, meatpackers, government white-collar workers, sanitation workers, airline mechanics, and much more. Stern’s stated opposition to such grab-bag unionism apparently takes second place to an opportunity to create an SEIU-Teamsters bloc to dominate the AFL-CIO.

Yet if Stern has had to backtrack from his original proposals, his opponents have already been made to swallow his merger medicine. For example, United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard, was forced by membership losses to merge with the PACE chemical and paperworkers’ union to form the USW earlier this year. Both unions had earlier absorbed a series of smaller unions to try and stay afloat.

Stern’s biggest critic within organized labor, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), certainly isn’t opposed to mergers. It has absorbed a series of smaller labor organizations since the 1980s, driven by a loss of telecommunications jobs through new technology. According to a recent report, the number of union workers in the industry has dropped from 625,000 to 275,000, making traditional communications workers a minority within the CWA.

But rather than focus on specific industries that Stern and the NUP want, the CWA has used its traditional base in telecommunications as a springboard to pick up members wherever and whenever it can—for example, in the airlines, among government workers, clothing manufacturers, and elsewhere.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) has taken a similar approach. After repeated failures to organize the foreign-owned “transplant” auto assembly plants and to reverse its decline in the auto parts industry, the UAW has used its resources from its “partnership” with the Big Three automakers to launch organizing efforts among graduate employees in colleges—a jurisdiction traditionally covered by the American Federation of Teachers and, outside the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association. While the number of autoworkers in the UAW keeps shrinking—General Motor’s recently announced cuts of 25,000 jobs—a base in the auto industry still gives the UAW considerable resources.

The unions that originally comprised the NUP, by contrast, lack a single, stable partnership with a major employer. Although the SEIU is the biggest union in the AFL-CIO and has a central role in the public sector in California and several other states, nationally it lacks the reach of the public sector union AFSCME. And while the SEIU is the leading union in health care, the industry is only weakly organized and remains fragmented among multiple employers.

Similar problems beset two other founders of the NUP: UNITE, the traditional garment workers’ union, which has seen its manufacturing base disappear; and HERE, the hotel and restaurant union, which has been confronted by big corporate employers outside its base in the big Northern city hotels and Las Vegas. Financial considerations, more than any strategic convergence, led to these unions’ merger in 2004, as UNITE HERE.

Moreover, the two construction unions involved in the NUP, the Laborers and Carpenters, negotiate with multiple local and regional management entities and have seen much of their industry go nonunion. Stern’s proposal to create super-sized unions for particular industries, therefore, appealed to these unions by creating the possibility of establishing new partnership arrangements with employers.

Other leaders, such as Thomas Buffenbarger of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), are reluctant to give up what few organizing gains they’ve made. Job cuts have eliminated 100,000 IAM jobs over the last four years. Buffenbarger—who’s authorized to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO if Stern’s allies take over—has apparently concluded that it’s a better bet to preserve the IAM’s clout by using the union’s remaining leverage at Boeing or Lockheed Martin as a base to organize wherever it can—for example, among limousine drivers in New York City. Stern’s proposals would force the IAM to abandon such efforts and seek a merger among metalworking unions. In fact, Buffenbarger reportedly killed a proposed merger with the Steelworkers and UAW in the late 1990s in order to preserve his own job and the IAM apparatus. The Stern-Hoffa alliance represents an effort to pressure Buffenbarger and others to get in line and find a merger partner.

In any case, union mergers don’t necessarily lead to better or more effective unions. The best—or rather, worst—example is the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), created in 1979 to create a giant in the grocery and meatpacking industries. The concessions and terrible conditions in the meatpacking industry, detailed in a recent report by Human Rights Watch, show just how ineffective the UFCW has been. The defeat of the six-month-long Southern California grocery strike of 2003–2004, and the string of concessionary contracts negotiated since then, are further evidence that one of the biggest unions in the AFL-CIO is also one of the weakest.

The Stern camp would argue that the problem with the UFCW is that it’s dominated by autonomous local leaders rather than national officials, making effective action impossible. Thus, the NUP’s proposals to impose centralized, corporate style decision-making on unions. In the SEIU, this has meant a series of trusteeships of local unions to install pro-Stern leaders, and constitutional changes to concentrate power at the top. If such changes were adopted by the UFCW, union members would see unaccountable, corrupt local barons who trample union democracy replaced by a national, unaccountable bureaucracy that tramples union democracy. For Stern, labor-management partnership—a dead weight on U.S. unions for more than fifty years—isn’t up for debate.

Fifty years ago, partnership allowed the main industrial unions to construct what the labor writer Kim Moody calls “privatized welfare states” with big companies like General Motors or U.S. Steel—job security, rising wages, and a decent retirement in exchange for a commitment to the company’s long-term profitability.

In today’s neoliberal era, however, the partnership approach yields only disastrous concessions—wage cuts a dumping of retirement benefits at United Airlines, and proposed health care reductions at GM, and the liquidation of retired steelworker’s health care—to name only a few. Trying to build a labor movement on partnership with individual firms is a non-starter in the neoliberal era, in which production can be outsourced even as capital’s power is more centralized.

Thus, Boeing recently sold its Wichita, Kans., aircraft plant to the Canadian company Onex. The first act by the new owners was to lay off the entire workforce, force employees to reapply for jobs, and demand massive givebacks from the IAM. Boeing, of course, will still get the airplanes and the lion’s share of the profits. There’s a similar process underway in the auto industry, where the UAW recently agreed to job cuts at Visteon, formerly the parts division for Ford. GM’s former parts company Delphi is next.

Having accepted the logic of profitability of the individual firm as the basis for collective bargaining half a century ago, U.S. labor officialdom is either unable or unwilling to take a class approach to fighting back—economically, with coordinated resistance in the airlines and other industries, or politically, with national campaigns for health care, pension reform, and living wages. Also missing is any serious plan for labor internationalism to confront corporate globalization. The AFL-CIO’s recent abolition of its International Affairs Department—which collaborated with the State Department and the CIA in the Cold War era—was simply a question of budget cuts. Labor’s international work will now be outsourced entirely to the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, a nonprofit controlled by AFL-CIO officers that gets virtually all of its funding from government sources, funneled mainly through the unaccountable National Endowment for Democracy.

While union struggles are few, scattered, and defensive, capital is carrying out an increasingly generalized assault on workers. The employers are backed by aggressive state measures, from George W. Bush’s use of the antiunion Taft-Hartley law against West Coast dockworkers to federal bankruptcy court judges who systematically back management’s efforts to shred airline union contracts, to budget-slashing at every level of government. Efforts to organize the 87 percent of workers outside the unions won’t succeed on any mass scale until organized labor is capable of defending its previous gains, and building on them.

To survive as a serious social force, organized labor will necessarily have to abandon the pretense of partnership and turn to a more generalized, militant approach—what used to be called class-struggle unionism. In the heyday of the AFL-CIO, union leaders could sneer at such a strategy as nothing more than the romantic dreams of isolated socialists and leftists. Their bureaucratic methods were the only realistic approach, they argued. And for a long time they could point to results, at least for a sizeable minority of workers. That (always limited) success story ended more than twenty-five years ago—and the Stern challenge has at last forced labor leaders to admit as much. Yet his proposed solutions don’t at all break with the constricted framework that generated labor’s long crisis.

It’s unclear just how the debate in the AFL-CIO will play out. More deals and alliances among top union officials could be in the works; a split is possible, too. The question for the Left in the unions is how to use the debate to advance a different perspective—one based on rank-and-file organizing, union democracy, and political independence from the Democratic Party.

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