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The Labor Movement

Compared with most of the world, American workers enjoyed higher standards of living for several decades, due largely to the fierce union struggles of the past. Although there has always been a vast sub-stratum of the class, working in minimum wage, non-union jobs under poor conditions, for a significant sector, it seemed that things weren’t so bad under capitalism after all.

However, with population growth and the emergence of new markets such as China, India, and Eastern Europe, where rock-bottom wages and poor conditions prevail, the capitalist class is forcing U.S. workers to compete for increasingly low wages, benefits and deteriorating conditions.  The IMF recently reported that the “effective global labor force” has risen fourfold over the past two decades. This has served to push down wages in the advanced industrialized countries, particularly among unskilled workers. Some analysts predict that the mass layoffs and “offshoring” of the past period are just the beginning - as many as 30 to 40 million more jobs could be lost in the coming years.

In their never-ending pursuit of profits, the capitalists are aggressively dismantling U.S. industry and shifting their investments to other countries and the services sector.  This has led to the decline of organized labor, which has been losing ground for the last 30 years. Over this same period, the standard of living of U.S. workers has also suffered a steady fall. One sector after another of the working class has come under attack, a trend that is set to intensify in the coming years. However, it is not just the changes in the world economy that have led to the decline of organized labor.

The current union leadership’s class collaborationist policy of “partnership” with the bosses is in large part to blame for the crisis facing the labor movement. The major unions’ continued support for the Democratic Party (and sometimes even the Republican Party) is another part of the equation.  Both these parties represent and defend the capitalists, whose interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of working people.

The trade unions are the traditional mass organizations of the U.S. working class. They are the basic units of economic organization through which workers can struggle collectively against the bosses. The U.S. has a long and militant trade union history, but in the last few decades, class consciousness has been thrown far backwards. It can be laid out as an historical law that in periods of acute class struggle, workers are more likely to participate actively in their unions.  But in periods when the class struggle is not so open, when things seem to be improving at least somewhat, workers tend to leave the running of the unions to the “professionals”. As a result, a conservative bureaucracy emerges which is closer in lifestyle, social milieu, habits, and outlook to the bosses. This situation has been taken to the extreme in the U.S. over the past 25 years, with the union leadership more interested in cozy relations with the employers and their government than with defending the interests of the workers they are supposed to represent.

But everything has its limits. Consciousness lags behind events – it has taken a long time for the labor movement rank and file to really become aware of drastic changes that are taking place in the economy and their place in it. Symptoms of a simmering discontent in key sectors is evidence that there is at the very least the beginning of a changing mood, of a desire to organize a fight back against the bosses in defense of workers’ rights, wages, and conditions. This will first be expressed through the unions themselves, for example, as the rank and file confronts the current leadership’s notion that strikes can’t be won. Eventually this must also find a political expression in the form of a mass, class-independent party of labor based on the unions.

When the AFL merged with the CIO in 1955, it was the world’s largest union, with 15 million members. Today, the AFL-CIO has been reduced to around 6 million members, with rapidly shrinking representation in the private sector. The percentage of workers in both public and private sector unions has steadily declined since the late 1970s. In 1977, 23.8 percent of workers were in a union; in 1983, about 1 in 5 workers in the United States was a member of a union. By 1991 the number had fallen to 16.4 percent. As of 2006, only 1 in 8 workers was a union member. The situation in the private sectors has gotten even worse. In 1983, about 1 in 6 private-sector workers was in a union. Twenty-three years later, the share fell to 7.4 percent, or about 1 in 14.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics annual union membership report, for the first time in U.S. history, 2006 union membership rates were lower in manufacturing than in the economy as whole. The largest decrease in union membership was in manufacturing, where membership dropped 1.3 percentage points to just 11.7 percent. Overall, the number of U.S. workers in a union fell last year by 326,000 workers, to 15.4 million, or 12 percent of workers.

The capitalist class has mobilized aggressively in the last period to root out unions where they exist, and has spared no expense to try and prevent new ones from being organized. In its report “Dropping the Ax: Illegal Firings During Union Election Campaigns,” the Center for Economic and Policy Research statistically quantified what trade union activists have long known to be true: there has been a steep rise in the number of illegal firings of pro-union workers. The report relied on government data made available through the National Labor Relations Board.

Although employee termination for union activities is illegal, the punishment by the NLRB amounts to a mere slap on the wrist. With so many loop holes and such poor enforcement of the few protections workers legally have, it is easy for bosses to intimidate potential union members by firing a few of them, and at most paying a small fine.The report also shows that over time, the chances of being fired for union activity has increased substantially. In the 1970s, workers had a 1-in-100 chance of being fired for union activity. Today, one in every five union activists can expect to be fired as a result of his or her activities in unionization campaigns.

The long-term decline has also been reflected in strike activity. From 1950 to 1980, there was an average of 300 major work stoppages per year. But between 1981 and 2000 there was only an average of 46 strikes per year. A major turning point was the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981. The PATCO union went on strike and was immediately challenged with Federal intervention by the Reagan Administration, with the President authorizing the sacking of every single striker and their replacement with military personnel.  Instead of mounting a united defense of the PATCO strikers, the AFL-CIO allowed itself to be intimidated by the power of the bosses and their government. Labor-Management “cooperation” was offered instead of struggle. Today’s generation of workers is still paying the price for this one-way “cooperation”.

Faced with these declines, one would expect significant union resources and energies to be channelled into strengthening existing unions and to organize new layers of workers. However, millions of dollars that could be spent on this effort are instead being spent on enormous salaries for many union officials and staffers. According to information released by the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), the number of labor officials and staff earning over $100,000 a year more than doubled between 2000 to 2004, the latest year for which complete data is available. During that same period, the number of officers and staff earning more than $150,000 increased by 84 percent. Also over the course of those years, 5,646 union officials / staff were paid a total of $733.6 million in salaries over $100,000, including multiple salaries, while 870 were paid $181.7 million in salaries worth over $150,000.

To put these figures in perspective, union officials earning over $157,000 found themselves among the richest five percent of all U.S. households, at the same level as many corporate CEOs. Meanwhile, the average rank and file union member earned just $43,000 per year, putting them above the median individual income of $36,500, but well below the level of those that are supposed to be representing us.

The breaking of the PATCO strike by the Reagan government and the “partnership with the bosses” approach of the union leadership paved the way for an upswing in the profits of the biggest U.S. corporations - at the expense of the U.S. working class. Real wages for most workers have stagnated or declined since the late 1970s. 47 million Americans don’t have access to health care. Millions of quality union jobs have been destroyed. Yet for an entire period, with a few notable exceptions, such as the 1997 nation-wide Teamsters strike at UPS, the labor movement has been unable to mount a serious defense, let alone an offensive.

Many bourgeois professors - paid apologists for the ruling class - have gone to great lengths to “prove” that American workers will never again enter the arena of mass struggle because they are “too privileged”, or that they’re “middle class”, or that the class struggle itself no longer exists, or that unions don’t matter anymore. But not only are American workers still proletarians who sell their labor power for a wage, but an upswing in the labor movement is inevitable at a certain stage. When will this happen? Where will it first erupt? It is impossible to say with any precision - this will be worked out by the complex historical process itself. But what we do know is that a pendulum cannot swing one way forever. We must keep our our finger on the pulse of the movement, continually working out our perspectives, methods, approach, and analysis. As Marxists, it is our duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with our class brothers and sisters wherever they may be, particularly in the mass organizations.

The U.S. auto industry and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union that represents most of its workers has been among the hardest hit in the last few years. Since 1999, 790,000 jobs have been lost in this formerly mighty sector of the U.S. economy. The UAW’s membership is now at just around 500,000, down 116,000 from the end of 2004, and only one-third its size in 1979. Some 50,000 jobs were lost in 2006 alone.

When it first entered the scene in the 1930s, the UAW was able to employ militant tactics and organized auto workers on an industry basis rather than a craft basis. At that time, workers in the auto industry and the rest of mass industrial production were almost totally unorganized and had few or no rights. Within just a few years, these workers were waging militant battles with the bosses and the state, occupying factories and winning contract after contract. By 1945, every single auto company was unionized. Through mass struggle, these workers won what would today be considered a true living wage, along with unprecedented benefits and job security. However, the leadership of the UAW at that time limited the struggle to “their” membership.  The lack of a broader class-wide perspective, of fighting for higher wages, benefits, and conditions for all U.S. workers, meant that it was only a matter of time before the capitalists came back to exact their revenge and to take back the gains wrested from them in the past.

Decades removed from the mass struggles of the auto workers, the bosses have come to take back what they lost in the past.  For its part, the current UAW leadership is in favor of bargaining for concessions with the bosses – i.e. betraying the interests of those they represent. The Big Three automakers say that they can’t compete with foreign companies and that they have to trim capacity. The UAW leadership has done nothing to resist these predations and instead offers pay and benefit cuts at best, or goes along with plant closings and mass layoffs at worst. This sorry cycle has been going on for more than 20 years. Plant closings and layoffs are the weapon of choice for the Big Three in their effort to rid the industry of the unions. The “one way street” of worker-employer cooperation has been an unmitigated disaster for the entire labor movement.

On February 14, Daimler-Chrysler announced plant closings and job cuts that will go into effect in 2008 and 2009. They plan to cut 13,000 jobs across the U.S. and Canada by 2009, mostly by shift elimination. As part of this restructuring plan the company will cut U.S. production capacity by 400,000 units through 2009. Company management has also threatened to sell off its Chrysler unit. Canadian autoparts maker Magna International has offered up to $4.8 billion to purchase Chrysler. But according to recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, it appears that Daimler-Chrysler doesn’t have an earnest interest in selling Chrysler. This confirms the perspective that the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” announcement was intended as a means of blackmailing the UAW into another concession contract. The bosses want to quiet the stirrings of the rank and file in the UAW by holding the threat of plant closures and layoffs over their heads like a sword of Damocles.

This is despite the fact that Chrysler is the most profitable U.S. auto manufacturer and has done well over the past few years. While it’s not ruled out that Daimler-Chrysler may indeed sell off its U.S. operations or close plants and carry out its layoff plans, the timing of the announcement in the lead up to the UAW bargaining convention (and the upcoming contract negotiations with Chrysler in September) makes it clear that the main intention is to intimidate the UAW leadership into making even more concessions at the expense of the workers.

With their backs against the wall, many workers are disillusioned and looking for the least painful way out of the mess they find themselves in. But there are others who are sick and tired of their union serving as a mere appendage of the Big Three automakers. Signs of a changing mood in the UAW are emerging, for example, with the rise of the Soldiers of Solidarity and other militant rank and file groupings across the Midwest. There are many indications that this frustration will increasingly reflect itself through the rank and file pressuring the leadership to put up a fight.

An April 15 article in the Chicago Tribune, titled “UAW Voices Cry for Militancy” highlighted this growing mood.  According to Paul Baxter, a 28-year UAW member from Zilwaukee, MI, “We’ve trained a generation of union leaders to be cooperative, and they don’t know how to fight back. We’ve lost our militancy. We’re actually cooperating in our own demise. Our leaders are far removed from the realities of the workplace. Whatever the company says we need to do, the union goes along with it. We’ve become an enabler, like someone who enables an alcoholic to keep drinking.” Another UAW member, Mike Parker, a skilled trades worker at a Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, MI had the following to say: “Part of the union is clearly broken, and a lot more is under threat. There’s a lot of discontent with what’s going on among the membership. They feel alienated from the union and the company.”

As explained to the Chicago Tribune by Gary Walkowicz, a UAW autoworker at a Ford assembly plant in Dearborn, MI: “We have to draw a line in the sand and give no more concessions. I really believe that is where a lot of members are today who think things are going the wrong way. It just may not have bubbled up to the surface yet.” The article continues: “Walkowicz and some co-workers circulated petitions at the Dearborn plant recently that called for a halt to concessions and obtained signatures from 1,000 workers in four days. Workers at other plants heard about the petition, and 1,000 more active and retired UAW members signed it.”

The current contract, in effect since 2003, allows automakers to replace some workers who make about $27 an hour with new ones who start at $18 an hour. At parts-maker Delphi, replacements start at $14. Todd Jordan, who works at a Delphi plant in Kokomo, IN had the following to say: “The two-tier [wage structure] opened the floodgate to concessions. Everywhere there is two-tier, there’s a divided union and chaos. We’re no longer a union in a sense. It’s run like a business, not a union. We feel the UAW is going into the negotiations in a concessionary mode. They’re almost like the human resources [office] for the Big Three.”  This is just an indication of the pressure that is building not only in the UAW, but throughout organized labor. Many in the rank and file are eager to organize a fight back against the attacks of the bosses.

The trucking industry is another key component of the U.S. economy. Over the past 50 years, there has been a steady rise in the use of over-the-road trucks to move all kinds of manufactured and agricultural goods across the country. This places the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) in a very strategic part of the economy. Edna Bonacich, a professor at the University of California, Riverside and a specialist in supply-chain issues explains the power of the trucking industry this way:  “There’s a vulnerability there.  If any group in this supply chain were to go on strike, it would cost the companies millions.  A coordinated strike could cost them billions.”  The IBT is the traditional organization for workers in the trucking industry, and even if they are now only a fraction of that industry, the potential is there to cause a major disruption to capitalism and to give the working class as a whole a sense of their true power.

The capitalists understand this as well. They have put the Teamsters under tremendous pressure to bend to their will. But the Teamsters union is in crisis, with the members putting increasing pressure on the leadership. With contract negotiations at UPS looming and pressure mounting within the union, there is the potential for a nationwide conflict between UPS and the 215,000 Teamsters that work there.

With 1.4 million members, the IBT is the largest union in the U.S. Like the UAW, the Teamsters were tempered in the white heat of the class struggle of the 1930s. By 1949 there were one million members, and in 1964, the union won a national bargaining agreement for all freight drivers. But the “old guard” leadership of the union was corrupt to the core. It was connected with the mafia and embezzled millions from the union’s treasury. These people are still around - the “old guard” is still alive and well and have their representative, James Hoffa Jr. in power.

These people, like their concession-happy cousins in the UAW, have only managed to weaken the union and lose members. No wonder Bush Jr. sings Hoffa Jr.’s praises. At a recent Teamster Labor Day rally in Detroit, George W. Bush described Hoffa Jr. in these terms: “You’ve got a good man running the Teamsters in Jimmy Hoffa. Let me tell you another thing about Jimmy Hoffa. He’s running a good union and in an aboveboard manner. And make no mistake about it, people are beginning to notice, particularly in Washington, D.C.”.

Membership in the union has dropped by 155,000 over the past few years. A recent dues increase has raised an extra $525 million, but only 3.3 percent of this goes to the Teamster strike fund, and just 2.2 percent to the union’s organizing fund. However, as in the UAW, there is a growing ferment of discontent. The November 2006 election campaign for Teamsters President between Hoffa Jr. and Tom Leedham is an important example.

Only 21 percent, or 294,000 Teamsters voted in the election. This is the lowest turnout since the rank-and-file first won the right to vote on March 13, 1989. Hoffa received 65 percent of the votes cast and Leedham 35 percent, roughly equivalent to the 2001 elections. One of the most striking facts of the election was that, according to documents filed with the Election Supervisor, Hoffa outspent Leedham by over $2,000,000.  Yet only 13 percent of the overall membership voted for Hoffa, leaving 80 percent completely unmoved by the large amounts of pro-Hoffa propaganda.

The lack of involvement of the vast majority of the members is a testimony to Hoffa’s failed leadership.  His “partnership” with the bosses has necessarily resulted in a series of concessionary contracts where workers have found themselves on the losing side of the bargain.  The employers have simply insisted that in order to remain in business, they must be competitive, which in turn means lowering production costs to a minimum, including labor costs.  Instead of recognizing that workers and their employers have diametrically opposed interests, which means that workers can gain only at the expense of the employers, and that workers must be mobilized to fight for their own interests, Hoffa has demobilized the rank-and-file and in the process has demoralized much of the membership.  

But the fact that over 100,000 members voted for Leedham indicates that there is an instinctive left-wing within the Teamsters union, which, if organized around a program of struggle against the bosses’ attacks could develop into a conscious class-struggle tendency, especially in response to the ongoing pension and health care cuts.  Leedham won this level of support from rank-and-file members mainly because he comes from a wing of the union that had gathered around the militant Ron Carey in the 1990s. Carey’s administration implemented many reforms throughout the 1990s, including eliminating multiple salaries for union bureaucrats, organizing 20 Overnite terminals, and leading the first successful strike in decades in this country against UPS.  The conflict with UPS proved once again that strikes are still an effective weapon against the employers when they are led by those who actually intend to use the strike to win. This represented a grave threat to the policy of class collaboration practiced by the majority of the union bureaucrats, and to the profits of the employers.  For this, Carey was framed by the state, and in the end abandoned by many of his supporters in the union.

The examples of the UAW and the Teamsters are an indication of what is developing beneath the surface of the labor movement. The U.S. does not exist in a vacuum, and the longer it takes for the class struggle to find an open, organized expression, the more explosive it will be when it does erupt. The lack of a political alternative for working people is also a major contradiction confronting American workers; this will be discussed in detail in another section.

It is the duty of Marxists to work within the unions, taking jobs in unionized workplaces whenever possible. In this work, we not only want to introduce propaganda to workers but lead them in their day-to-day struggles.  This means that our struggle must be aimed first and foremost against the employers, not against the union bureaucrats for their class collaboration.  In order to point the way forward to workers, we must be prepared to make practical proposals involving class struggle tactics.  This might involve demanding higher pay, better benefits, or more job security.  It might mean raising the demand of 30 hours work for 40 hours pay if workers are confronted with layoffs. It might mean demanding that seniority be respected.  Or it might involve championing the needs of part-timers in order to lift them to the level of the full-time workers so that the workforce is no longer divided.  No matter what the situation, by showing the way forward to the membership as a whole, tremendous pressure will be placed on the bureaucrats to put up a fight.  Then, if they refuse, the members will see with their own eyes and through their own experience that the bureaucrats must be replaced.

The way forward for working people is clear.  We must wage a relentless struggle against the strategy of forming a partnership with the bosses.  This strategy has led only to a lowering of the standard of living for working people.  We must urge our co-workers to organize independently of their employers and independently of the Democratic Party which is tied to big business just as much as the Republicans.  When we are organized and mobilized to fight, workers wield tremendous power.  After all, capitalism cannot exist for a single day if workers refuse to go to work.

A clear example of the potential strength of organized workers can be seen in the massive movement of immigrant workers that erupted seemingly out of nowhere in the spring of 2006.