I’ve been thinking about us-vs-them a lot lately, and even more so in the wake of Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Nevada, Florida, Michgan, New Hampshire, and more. I would join a union in a heartbeat if they would have me. I’m eternally grateful for what the labor movement has made possible for me. As much as I would love to do so, I’ve never had the opportunity to join a union. Why? Because I’ve never been held a job in a union shop. No union shop job, no union membership. That always seemed kind of back-assward to me.
Surely, this unrelenting assault on working-class /middle-class Americans isn’t about left vs right, union vs non-union. This is about the right of workers to say no. Period. After all, it hasn’t been just union members out there protesting! We must all hang together and not allow the powerful to divide us. More importantly, we must not divide ourselves. Is that possible?
Richard Fink’s What is Union Democracy, gives a brief history of the roads the U.S. labor movement has taken to get to the precarious position it occupies today. He offers a conclusion that, in light of the popular reaction to events in Wisconsin and beyond, may just be the answer.
What is Union Democracy? (excerpted)
One reason for the shift against unions that followed the downturn may be the De Tocqueville syndrome. Explaining the hostility of the French towards the aristocracy prior to the Revolution, the French historian observed that the aristocrats’ loss of power was not accompanied by a decline in their fortunes. As organized labor shrinks in numbers, it seems more and more like a powerless labor aristocracy. The comparatively high pay and benefits won by workers over the years offer targets for resentment, which the Right, if it knows anything, certainly knows how to motivate. Another possible reason for the Right’s ascendancy is that the Left — particularly organized labor — doesn’t offer broad channels for popular opposition and the Right does. In the Tea Party we see what labor hasn’t been for generations: a social movement. The ratio of paid to unpaid participants is low; formal organizations are bypassed by mass action from below; individual fear is channeled into collective indignation; and a common purpose is achieved. Today, about a quarter of the U.S. electorate identifies with a very militant, albeit malignant movement.
[ . . . ]
You can see how Trumka is boxed in. What’s he to do? Lead a march on Washington against the guy he just got appointed? His dilemma follows as a predictable consequence of organized labor’s traditional inside the beltway strategy. Labor’s subordination of itself to the national Democrats goes back to pre- WWI days, to Samuel Gompers’ decision not to form a labor or socialist party — like European trade unionists — but to operate as a pressure group inside the national Democratic Party. Gompers’ decision, in turn, was foreordained by the locals’ strategy, going back to the 19th century to line up behind big city Democratic machines like Tammany Hall. Trumka’s box is a cage that has been forged by decades of vassalage. [bluelyon note: I see the same problem within the Women's Movement.]
That the local union acts as a kind of political Lunesta is bad. Worse though than the centrifugal forces isolating workers, are those antagonistic forces created by the goal of the local union premium. The whole legal infrastructure of exclusion, coercion, and exclusive bargaining is designed to enable local members to earn a wage higher than those doing the same work outside the local. Unsurprisingly, the local union member tends to see other workers in competitive terms: both the non-unionists undercutting his contractual wage — as well as other unionists seeking to take “his” work . Whereas the most basic aim of unionism is to unite workers by taking wages out of competition.
My first sense that there was something deeply wrong — not just with this or that labor leader or even with their collective propensities — but with foundations of American unionism came on a picket line. It was being manned by a Local 608 carpenter whom I later got to know and work with on Hard Hat News, a rank-and-file paper. He was an Irish-American very active in the carpenter reform movement who at the time was picketing the use of non-union labor in a Wall Street office-to-residential conversion that was so common during the downturn of the early 90s. The workers on the job were Asian carpenters. Patrick expressed no racial animosity. He simply insisted that Asians were welcome to join the union. Only though, if they could persuade their contractor to become a union contractor. So the non-union workers faced a real catch-22. They were regarded as scabs because they were working non-union; but effectively, they weren’t allowed to join the union either. This exclusionary feature of craft unionism goes back to the 19th.century. J.S. Mill criticized it; so did Engels. Union democrats don’t.
This does feel like putting the cart before the horse, doesn’t it?
The real democracy deficit in American labor unions is not that the locals are bureaucratic. It’s that there are American style locals at all. What’s missing from the one-dimensional ideology of union democracy, imprisoned in the metaphor of bottoms and tops, is any sense of the scope of political conflict.
The aim of the Right is always to restrict the scope of class conflict — to bring it down to as low a level as possible. The smaller and more local the political unit, the easier it is to run it oligarchically. Frank Capra’s picture in A Wonderful Life of Bedford Falls under the domination of Mr. Potter illustrates the way small town politics usually works. The aim of conservative urban politics is to create small towns in the big city: the local patronage machines run by the Floyd Flakes and the Pedro Espadas.
The genuine Left, of course, seeks exactly the opposite. Not to democratize the machines from within but to defeat them by extending scope of conflict: breaking down local boundaries; nationalizing and even internationalizing class action and union representation. As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider wrote a generation ago: “The scope of labor conflict is close to the essence of the controversy.” What were the battles about industrial and craft unionism; industry wide bargaining sympathy strikes, he asked, but efforts to determine “Who can get into the fight and who is excluded?”
The first step in the transformation of American unionism in the 21st century is to get beyond exclusion, accomplishing a task that unions in other countries accomplished as early as the 19th. A labor Left that breaks with the old playbook will bypass the autonomous local union, it will fight to end monopoly unionism, creating a system of representation that offers workers a choice of political ends, transforming finally a culture that breed sectionalism into one that promotes solidarity. Because what the left Labor needs is not union democracy but working class democracy.
- Jobs with Justice – http://www.jwj.org
So, is there hope? There are some who think so. The key is to stand united.
No single one of us could ever have resisted alone. The struggle in Wisconsin immediately united working people as we remembered a few simple truths: We are much more alike than we are different. We all deserve a decent existence. We all have been robbed by the rich and powerful. And the mainstream media’s conventional wisdom and false paradigms represent corporate interests, not ours. In order for this large group of organized, committed individuals to come together in Wisconsin, we relied on the same tools that our grandparents used: our unions. Without unions, the convergence of common citizens and taxpayers seeking representation and dignity may have never occurred. With unions, there is a fighting chance to battle injustice. We may not have the money or the power, but there is great strength in numbers, which is exactly why the minority elite wish to see unions permanently destroyed.
What is the difference between working-class and middle-class anyway? If you depend on others for your livelihood, and if that’s how you pay your bills, you are a member of the working class. Income level may vary within that group, but when the rubber meets the road, that the majority of us are working class is the cold, hard truth. It’s time to wake up to that reality.
Are we ready for a national workers’ party? I am.