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Why Johnny Can’t Organize

On the dust jacket of his book, America Needs A Raise, recently elected AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney compares his first months in office to FDR’s celebrated 100 days. Certainly, like Roosevelt, he’s been driving the Republicans crazy. In the fall ’96 campaign, the Wall Street Journal estimated that labor’s spending for congressional and presidential races more than tripled its previous high, topping $50 million. And Sweeney pledged $20 million more for organizing drives; his “Union Summer” campaign put 1,500 students from elite college campuses in the field; he’s supervised a new outreach from the Federation to minorities and women; he’s replaced Cold Warriors with radicals in upper-echelon staff jobs. Sweeney even joined the Democratic Socialists of America.

But is this renewal for real? There have been turnaround efforts before: The 1970 purging of the Teamsters was supposed to show how serious labor was about getting rid of institutional corruption, just as letting them back in unreformed in 1980 demonstrated labor’s new no-nonsense pragmatism. In 1986, the federation presided over a stunningly frank analysis of the labor movement’s weaknesses accompanied by a program for renewal. The program was never implemented.

A decade later, it’s not too cynical to ask whether this is a comeback of George Foreman proportions or whether we’re just witnessing another of organized labor’s Judy Garlandesque recoveries—a temporary gathering of resolve, accompanied by rave reviews, only to be followed by the inevitable relapse. What makes the question so crucial is the spreading recognition that what’s pushed America so far to the right, and made the United States the country with the greatest income inequalities and crummiest welfare state in the OECD, is nothing other than advanced capitalism’s feeblest labor movement. At the same time, we owe labor plenty. What we still have in the way of public education, pensions, public assistance, and the eight-hour day were things that organized labor delivered. It matters terribly if we have terrible unions.

So how is Sweeney doing? The politic stance would be to declare that it’s too soon to tell. The strength and significance of unions can’t be measured by the number of people paying dues. Still, it tells you something if organized labor can’t organize anyone.

“Well, that’s the French,” you might say. “They have a revolutionary tradition.”

The latest, unpublished figures from the National Labor Relations Board suggest that little has changed to arrest labor’s slow march to extinction. In the first nine months of Sweeney’s tenure, the number of organizing wins fell to an all-time low. So did the number of victories as a percentage of total elections. As a result, the share of workers who are union members fell another half percent—to 14.5. And the number of private-sector union members actually fell to below 10 million. It was 17 million in 1970, when there were more than 30 percent fewer private sector workers.

Richard Rothstein, a careful student of labor organizing and supporter of the new organizing focus, cautions in the American Prospect that labor needs to triple the number of workers it organizes to reach a 15 percent share sometime in the early 2010s.

Given the magnitude of the task, what’s striking is not how much money labor is devoting to organizing, but how little. Unions may be member poor, but they’re asset rich. Every year AFL-CIO unions take in $6 billion. Consider also that the $20 million Sweeney plans to spend on organizing is to cover two years. And that Sweeney announced recently the federation was spending $150 million on a real estate project in San Francisco.

The yawning gap between labor’s means and its ends raises fundamental questions about how seriously the AFL-CIO leaders take the problem of their disappearing membership. It strikes to the heart of the question of American unions’ identity, and the reasons why they don’t act like unions in other advanced capitalist countries.

Can anyone imagine what took place in France in December 1995—when public-sector workers closed down the country in the fight against austerity—happening here? Can you close your eyes and envision the French scenario happening in a single city? “Well, that’s the French,” you might say. “They have a revolutionary tradition.”

But in October 1995, Canadian workers were able to present a solid front that nearly shut down Toronto. That same month, 475,000 German metal workers protested sick-pay cuts. And in Israel, last summer’s protest against the Likud’s plan for shrinking family child allowances mobilized 500,000 workers in protest (the equivalent of 35 million in the United States). Recall, by contrast, that when Clinton signed the welfare bill last summer, Sweeney sent a telegram.

Our unions act differently from European unions because they are institutionally different. In France—as in Italy and Spain—three main federations, corresponding to the three major political tendencies on the left—compete for members. In northern Europe and Scandinavia, unions sit on corporate boards. And they control labor parties that even in opposition can veto government policy.

What distinguishes American unions from unions elsewhere is not just that they don’t have a labor party. It’s not just their weak leverage in a weak state. What really marks them is their peculiar localistic character.

But what’s wrong with local unionism? Won’t local leaders be closer to members than remote bureaucrats off in some D.C. headquarters? Maybe, but at the same time, American unions have not only the most highly paid leaders, but the most staff, and the most highly paid staffs in the world.

These bloated staffs don’t make American unions “bureaucratic.” To be bureaucratic requires centralization, the power to administer a law or a contract. The fragmentation and competitive relations between American unions makes real bureaucratic administration impossible. The staff people aren’t true bureaucrats. They constitute a kind of patronage machine.

American unions—especially the crafts, but also Teamsters, Hotel Workers, Laborers—are a lot like the dying urban Democratic Party machines they support. Race and ethnicity provide the glue for boss-client relations. At best, leaders provide services for members rather than allow democratic participation in the life of the union. Moreover, it’s the self-perpetuating local character of American monopoly unions that makes them so uniquely weak, corrupt, and undemocratic. It’s the same localism that explains the continued and largely undiscussed exclusion of non-whites and women from the construction trades.

America is a big country that’s never been organized. We’ve always had a core of craft and locally based unions like the Teamsters. But even in the 1930s, we never fully reached the stage of national bargaining. The UAW and the Steelworkers stopped at the Mason-Dixon line.

What the CIO achieved—opposed mightily by the AFL, remember—was the 1935 Wagner Act, which provides American workers with the only rights they have against employers. But the Wagner Act gives workers precious little leverage against their union leaders. Unlike other countries, where workers can choose what union to join, in America workers have no alternative.

In states with closed-shop laws, the union is the workers’ exclusive bargaining representative. You don’t have to join. But you must pay dues. Power over workers is especially great in unions where there is a hiring hall. The union can determine whether a worker works or not. Dissidents don’t work.

In the United States, the existence of the AFL-CIO as a national coordinating body obscures the localistic character of American unions. The AFL-CIO’s president has extremely limited power over the member unions. Think of Kofi Annan in relation to the heads of states of members of the United Nations and you begin to get an idea of the scope of his powers.

There is no national bargaining going on among the individual craft unions. Each union bargains within its local jurisdictional franchise. Last summer in New York, construction unions bargained with contractors in a fragmented way—bricklayers, carpenters, painters, and sheet metal workers each signed separate agreements. And the same is true of city workers: teachers, cops, firemen, and transit workers, all bargain individually. Even the Auto Workers, Steelworkers, and Rubber Workers unions, which came closest to the European social-democracy model of national unions, have lost their power to carry out pattern bargaining.

To see why localism works this way, consider an urban construction local—say, the New York City Carpenters, with 19,000 dues-paying members. Look at the local from the standpoint of the leadership. Forget the cash that comes from managing pension funds, health funds, vacation funds, etc., and just look at the income that comes from dues: 3 percent dues on $50,000 a year per worker. That’s $28.5 million to spread around.

How do the leaders make sure that cash flow continues? By organizing the unorganized? That might bring in more dues. But work is scarce. And as we’ve seen, creating more slots for apprentices means less work for those already waiting in the hiring hall.

Then, too, there’s the politics of the local monopoly. Self-perpetuating political machines don’t strive for the highest turnout. They strive to get their people to cast ballots. Union machines work similarly. They rely on those whom they’ve given staff jobs. The New York carpenters employ nearly 300 people just in managing their various funds. These individuals can be counted on.

Only somewhat less reliable are the workers who get sent out on jobs from the hiring hall. Essentially, union members are clients of business agent bosses. A change in business agents might mean a change in who gets to work. Thus for staff workers and leaders alike, bringing in new members upsets the electoral status quo. That’s why, for example, there are vanishingly few non-white carpenters in the Bronx although the Bronx is overwhelmingly non-white.

Of course, the most secure union leader is the one who suppresses voting altogether. Elections in American unions rarely exist at all above the local level. In the handful of unions where members do elect national officers, it is usually because of a Justice Department consent decree—as in the Teamsters and Laborers Union.


The goal of the leadership is unaccountability. And they succeed in meeting this goal well over 90 percent of the time. Of course, not being accountable to anyone doesn’t promote democracy, honesty, or true organizational strength. Our unions substitute staff for member participation; a narrow pursuit of local self-interest replaces broader solidarity; a corrupt boss-client system replaces socialist perspectives.

Aren’t the bosses more corrupt? Why not focus on corporate crime?

Privately, many “friends of labor” will concede that the construction unions are corrupt. “But that’s really a minority of all the unions,” they point out. Actually, at the crucial local level, the construction unions aren’t a minority. They dominate central labor councils across the country. And what does it say when the big political campaign mounted this year by New York’s Central Labor Council is not to defend tenants, but landlords in their effort to strip three million apartment dwellers of rent protection; not to protect their own members against the mayor’s plan to replace them with 135,000 people who would work only for welfare checks, but to defeat legislation aimed at removing mob-connected union leaders who control produce markets.

Leftists frequently insist we shouldn’t mention union corruption. Aren’t the bosses more corrupt? Why not focus on corporate crime? Certainly it’s greater in dollar terms. But bosses’ corruption comes at stockholders’ expense. Union corruption comes at the expense of members. More fundamentally, corruption reinforces the separation between the members and the leaders, especially since corruption can’t be understood simply as a matter of personal lapses. Frequently it’s the aim of office.

It’s difficult to quantify the corruption of labor leaders. But sometimes the brazenness involved can be revealing, especially since the leaders are already so overpaid. The head of the French CGT makes the equivalent of $29,000. Edward Devine, until a few months ago the head of the carpenters union in New York City, made $350,000. And after the Justice Department forced him out of office, he stole paintings from the walls of headquarters. Recently, the world’s largest collection of Joyceana—personal effects of James Joyce—went on sale at an auction house in New York. The seller? Bernard Silverman, formerly of Teamster’s Local 858. Mr. Silverman needed cash after being forced to leave office by the Justice Department.

Unions define their problems in external terms. They lack members because of bad labor laws, Republicans in Congress, employer hostility, union-busting lawyers. All true. But how can millions of members be mobilized to combat these forces? Especially when their leaders’ survival depends on machines designed to transform them into passive consumers of union services.

Our peculiar local monopoly, boss-client system—which reminds one more of European feudalism than European social democracy—is what constitutes the true obstacle to organizing. Patronage, racial exclusion, lack of democracy, and corrupt practices don’t constitute abuses of the system. They are the system. Nor is the rest of the Left academics, journalists, staffers, “friends of labor”—entirely innocent. By keeping silent on the internal sources of labor’s decline, focusing only on the approved external sources, and ignoring the fight for union democracy, progressives trade off the truth for institutional access, consulting contracts, staff jobs, speaking engagements, and organizing grants.

In this century, the great gains made by American labor have never been achieved by following the strategies of the mainline federation leaders—the Lane Kirklands, George Meanys, and William Greens. Initially, the AFL even opposed the Wagner Act. What’s always made the difference in workers’ lives has been mass organizing, factory occupations, sitdown strikes, a war of maneuver. Not the protracted war of position envisioned by Sweeney. Who will win a contest between capital and labor where the battlefield is the NLRB, the courts, and the Congress, in which the contestants are professional staffs, and the primary resource is cash? It is, unfortunately, not too soon to tell.