Does the labor movement in the US have a pulse? Given the unrelenting drop in union density (the percentage of workers organized into unions), many have concluded that labor is in decline both as an effective weapon for workers and as a social force in US politics.
It is easy to forget that some of the largest industrial unions arose from small, but determined organizing committees that faced brutal company resistance. Despite these obstacles, they grew into powerful forces shaping the political and social agenda both in industrial cities and on the national scene within little more than a decade. Unions birthed by the modest Committee for Industrial Organization in the mid-1930s sprung into powerful instruments for social change. It was a long standing tenet of labor advocacy that workers could not be organized and gains made during a period of high unemployment and diminished profits. And yet some of the US’s most militant unions came into being and won in the throes of the Great Depression. In the period immediately after World War II, labor was often the decisive factor in approving and electing officials, largely through its pervasive influence on the Democratic Party.
Today, the labor movement remains yet the most resource-laden, influential element in a progressive movement itself relatively powerless and adrift owing to the failing strength and near-dormant militancy of labor.
The United Autoworkers Union (UAW), one of the pillars of the industrial union movement of the 1930s, dramatically reflects this failing. Autoworkers today at one of Detroit's big-three auto companies can start at a wage as low as $14 an hour, an hourly rate conceded in 2007. At that time, the UAW agreed to a two-tier wage and benefit system that left new employees with roughly half of the package earned by existing workers. Today, over 30,000 UAW big-three employees are stuck in low wage hell (tier 2) out of a unionized work force of roughly 80,000 unionized employees (Bloomberg Businessweek). At Chrysler, a new hire makes a bit more ($15.78/hour), but more than half the workers are stuck at tier 2. At the same time, Bloomberg reports that Chrysler earned an adjusted net profit of $2.4 billion in 2014 and GM and Ford are expected to earn $7 billion and $6 billion this year, respectively. Profits are robust, but wages are dismal.
But matters are even worse with the UAW-represented auto parts companies. According to the Wall Street Journal, new hires at American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc make as little as $10/hour, reportedly comparable to what a local Wal-Mart pays in Three Rivers, Michigan. It is not uncommon for UAW workers at parts manufacturers to make in the $11-12/hour range.
In the last decade, the average hourly wage for parts-manufacture workers was down 23%; the average hourly wage for auto-manufacture workers was down 22%.
For the most part, UAW workers' compensation is on a par or little better than non-union auto workers in the US.
Given this bleak recounting of the UAW's failure to deliver for workers, two questions rush to mind:
1. How did a once militant, democratic, independent, and socially engaged union-- a model of class awareness and struggle-- reach a point where it can deliver a contract leaving workers with little more income than workers at the local Wal-Mart?
2. How will such a union maintain and grow in size and influence if it can promise to achieve no more than declining wages and benefits and parity with non-union shops?
For those of us who see a strong, fighting labor movement as necessary for developing any kind of vibrant and effective progressive movement, answering these questions is unpleasant, but essential.
The decline of militancy began with the purges, the legal restraint, and the raiding of the most powerful industrial unions, a blow inflicted in the early Cold War. And the UAW was at the cutting edge of class collaboration, redbaiting, and the expulsion and raiding of militant unions, beginning with the election of the social-democrat, Walter Reuther as president in 1946.
The vanguard of the trade union movement lost its most militant, class-conscious leaders to anti-Communist inquisitions, at the same time it was battered by the constraints of Taft-Hartley legislation, and met corporate power with a fragmented movement.
In its place, a careerist, bureaucratic leadership faced the future with an historic compromise: a Cold War compact that traded labor peace and support of imperialism for wage and benefit increases roughly commensurate with the rise in productivity. The US ruling class gladly conceded this policy in order to receive US labor's blessings in its brutal assault on class-oriented workers' organizations throughout the rest of the world. The crass, opportunistic labor leaders guiding much of organized labor enthusiastically retired the strike weapon and replaced it with a lame notion of “bargaining” that appropriately fit the naive embrace of labor-management collaboration. Accordingly, be-suited labor negotiators sat across tables from be-suited corporate negotiators in a friendly ritual of trading minor concessions and counter-concessions.
Into the last quarter of the twentieth century, US corporations faced dramatic challenges to profitability. Unsuccessful military adventures and rampant inflation from profligate military spending and competition from lower wage rivals employing cutting-edge technologies drove the ruling class to sever its unspoken deal with US labor leaders. The rulers unilaterally reneged on their commitment to “sharing” the fruits of labor. Instead, they launched an all-out war on labor while insisting that labor must surrender its previous gains to improve US competitiveness. Even today, few labor leaders will acknowledge that they have been betrayed by their former partners. With no imagination, no ideology, US labor leaders continue to plead with their “partners” for some accommodation, some willingness to return to benign bargaining.
The excellent labor historian, Roger Keeran, explains this development in the UAW as follows:
The peak of the red-baiting assault on labor occurred in 1947 with Taft-Hartley and the 1948-49 CIO expulsion of the so-called red unions. So, what happened between then and the first significant concessions by the UAW at the bargaining table in the 1980s? Of course the losses of the Cold War expulsions and anticommunism was the main explanation, but there were a couple of other things. For nearly 30 years, the Big Three did not face serious competition, and thus could raise wages and increase benefits by passing the cost to consumers. This changed with the rise of competition from Japanese and European auto makers, who by the late 70s had rebuilt their factories devastated by World War II and were beginning to make inroads in the American market. Secondly, for years the UAW and others were able to live on the reputation and the gains produced by the militant years. But the earlier militants, even the non-Communist ones, were eventually superseded by leaders with no experience and no stomach for struggle. For awhile, these leaders were able to pull some rabbits out of hats by trading previous gains in some areas for small wage gains.
Soon they ran out of hats.
Many commentators acknowledge this one-sided class war, but few place its cause in the sell-out of class struggle prompted by Cold War perfidy.
The Other Side of the Coin
The class collaboration spawned by the McCarthyite purges created another toxic byproduct: the unrequited fealty of the labor movement to the Democratic Party. Before the purges, the left core of industrial unionism had a close, but critical relationship with the Democratic Party. The new born industrial unions played a large role in revitalizing the Democratic Party in urban areas, providing the troops and organization for Democrats to return to power given an opportunity afforded under the banner of the New Deal. To some extent, New Deal Democrats recognized the debt owed to organized labor and very often responded with a generally pro-labor agenda.
But with the ruling class betrayal of the unspoken post-war pact came a similar betrayal of labor on the part of the Democratic Party. By the election of Barack Obama only a handful in the Democratic Party leadership carried forward the New Deal perspective. Nor does the Party pay more than lip service to labor and its agenda.
Yet top labor leaders continue the charade of a partnership with capital and the Democratic Party. They defend the imperative of corporate “competitiveness” by generously sacrificing the membership's wages and benefits; they donate millions of the membership's collective resources to re-elect Democrats who scorn labor's needs.
We desperately need a fighting union movement, larger and more militant than what we have inherited. Clearly the “partnerships” that have been fostered only result in a toothless, shrinking, and aimless movement. Without a new direction, there will be no need for a union like the UAW that can promise workers no more than what comparable workers make in the non-union sector, that forge no radical alliances, that provide no independent leadership, that offer no hope for real change.
But history shows that there are alternatives. The history of the UAW, the CIO and its predecessors show what a few dedicated organizers and leaders can accomplish. And history shows what a militant, class-conscious, class-partisan union movement can mean to the fight for change.
Many thanks to Roger Keeran for his helpful comments on an earlier draft.