Sunday, September 29, 2013

Labor's Final Step

It's not often that one witnesses the end of a social movement--usually they just gradually fade away. But perhaps we have just seen the end of the trade union movement. The AFL-CIO convention held September 8th through 11th may represent the swan song.

Trotskyists are all atwitter about the event, with lead articles appearing in The Militant, Socialist Action, and Solidarity. Missing from the list are Socialist Viewpoint, which has too slow a publication cycle, and Mr. Proyect, who (to his credit) has been busy covering Syria, and is not interested in economics in any case.

The best-written, most informed, and funniest article appears in Solidarity, by Steve Early. A former leader of the Communications Workers of America, he is now involved in a reform effort known as Labor Notes. Socialist Action's contribution is also good, authored by Bill Onasch. Mr. Onasch is the proprietor and (as far as I can tell) the sole member of the Kansas City Labor Party. Finally, The Militant chimes in with a piece by the venerable Susan Lamont.

The signal event is succinctly summarized by Ms. Lamont in her lede:
Marking a further retreat by the current labor officialdom from any perspective of actively organizing workers into unions and bringing union power to bear, delegates to the Sept. 8-11 AFL-CIO convention overwhelmingly approved a resolution to begin incorporating nonlabor political organizations into the federation and shoring up its dues base with “workers centers.” 
The labor movement can’t be “limited to workplaces where a majority of employees votes 'Yes,” said the resolution.
Liberal political organizations that share the labor federation’s orientation to the Democratic Party, including the NAACP, National Organization for Women, National Council of La Raza and the Sierra Club, are invited to join the labor federation as well.
Or, put another way, the AFL-CIO is dissolving itself into the larger progressive Left. Right now the outside organizations are called Solidarity Partners. Mr. Early dubs them alt-Labor. All three authors argue that this dilutes both the purpose and the effectiveness of unions as organizations charged with fighting for workers' rights.

And indeed, contradictions abound. The unions are terrified of Obamacare (aka ACA). Mr. Early writes
With the AFL-CIO’s active support, the Obama Administration came up with an Affordable Care Act that now threatens to put labor-backed Taft-Hartley trust funds, covering 20 million people, at a fatal disadvantage and possibly out of business altogether.
On a similar note, Mr. Onasch notes that the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare received a tepid welcome at the convention--if anything can put union benefit packages out of business faster than Obamacare, it would be something like single payer. So unlike their Solidarity Partners, the AFL-CIO finds itself allied with Republicans (very ironic since they originally supported the ACA).

Unmentioned in any of the articles is the growing gap between the public employee unions (PEU) and those in the private sector. Just yesterday the Wall Street Journal posted an article saying how Governor Chris Christie has divided New Jersey's PEUs from the construction trade unions. The former can't stand the governor, while the latter are rallying to his cause.
"My guys haven't gotten a raise in two years because their entire raise went to their health and pension costs," Mr. Sweeney said. "New Jersey has a government that we can't afford any longer."
Mr. Sweeney, a former Ironworkers official, is now a Democratic state legislator. So the rank and file rubes are finally catching on--that it's them who are paying for the gold-plated benefits packages awarded to the parasite class. The AFL-CIO is going to have a hard time patching up this divide.

A similar chasm exists between the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) and those solidarity partners in the environmentalist movement. The latter oppose the Keystone pipeline, whereas LIUNA strongly favors it. Likewise, alt-Labor is against anything that might produce income: fracking, mining, off-shore drilling, power generation, and on and on and on. The progressive Left (including Trotskyism) is ultimately pro-poverty, while unionists are actually interested in earning an honest living.

Then there is the effort to "organize" the unorganized--fast food workers, New York taxi drivers, Walmart, etc. Ms. Lamont describes it nicely:
The AFL-CIO will encourage “worker centers” like “OUR Walmart” and “Fight for 15” to affiliate. These union-initiated groups, which also involve students, social service organization staffers and others, have organized protests around the country calling for higher pay and better working conditions for retail, fast-food and other workers, but without organizing the ranks themselves to establish actual unions.
She implicitly admits that the so-called "fast-food strike" was a bit of a fraud--most of the strikers didn't work in fast food. And similarly for the putative drive to organize Walmart.

All three authors take the unions to task for not organizing more workers. They attribute this failure to class collaboration. Quoting again from Ms. Lamont:
By promoting class collaboration with the bosses and election of “friendly” capitalist politicians as the unions’ main purpose, the officialdom’s decades-long class-collaborationist course has hamstrung the union movement. It has been key to the union’s continued bleeding of membership and inability to recruit new forces, at a time of capitalist crisis when workers are starting to look for a way to fight back.
Mr. Onasch says the same thing, and then offers a solution:
The problem created by those in charge of the House of Labor is not their emphasis on politics but their refusal to recognize the need for class-based politics. Our side should be directly fighting for political power, not begging or bribing politicians beholden to our class enemy. There is no more important question for the American working class today than launching a party of our own. Despite their present weakness and disorientation, our unions, and the allies they now solicit, are the foundation upon which such a party can be built.
These views don't pass the reality test. They are based on the Scrooge McDuck Model of Capitalism, which claims that there's some huge stash of cash hidden somewhere that, if the workers just throw a big enough temper tantrum, can be liberated to solve all problems. But there is no such stash, and the union tops know that. They're doing the best they can with the resources available.

The truth is that there is no longer any economic space for unions. Fast food workers can't earn enough to pay union dues, and it is certainly not in their interest to have that expense foisted on them. And likewise for Walmart employees, or, for that matter, auto workers in the South. Unions depended on inefficiencies during the rapidly growing economy of the 1950s and 1960s, from which they collected rents. Those inefficiencies don't exist anymore.

Computerization, globalization, and automation have made the economy much more efficient--there are no more wasted nickels left to pick up off the floor. But the money doesn't go to capitalists. No, instead it goes to the consumer. There is no stash of cash, and there is nothing for the unions to win, even with biggest temper tantrum in the world.

The AFL-CIO has apparently recognized reality and thrown in the towel on organizing workers. They're looking for a new niche.

The union movement is over.

Further Reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment