The Death and Life of American Labor : Book review

Published by Verso Books in 2014.

In the book ‘the Death and Life of American Labor’, Stanley Aronowitz constructs a wide-ranging criticism of how American unions have functioned in the last four decades. He uses a historical understanding of the labour movement and numerous examples, to examine what ails the labour movement in the present. Finally he states a vision for the future of the labour movement based on successful social struggles in other spheres, like the women’s movement and the civil rights movement.

The union organizing in the United States since the 1930’s has happened under the framework of the the National Labour Relations Act (NLRA). This Act (passed in 1935 and legalized by the Supreme court in 1937) recognized workers’ right to form unions of their own choosing, and to negotiate with employers over wages, working conditions and other issues. This law was passed in the backdrop of intense labour struggles — like the miners’ and apparel workers’ strikes of 1933, successful general strikes in San Francisco and Minneapolis in 1934, a nearly general strike in Toledo, Ohio, a textile national strike in which 400,000 workers participated.

However, industrial unions formed post-NLRA and operating within the framework of that law, had weaknesses. These unions were committed to collective bargaining and to employ the strike as a last resort. Under the law, the union’s job is to negotiate and enforce a contract. The lengths of contracts have increased over the years, and typically contain a no-strike clause. Today more than 90% union contracts have it. When workers grievances are inadequately addressed when the contract is in force, and they go on a wildcat strike, the union is obligated to ‘order’ workers back to the job. Thus under the law the union acts as managements’ police force. By 1953 more than a third of private sector workers were union members, which is the highest union density in American history. Large corporations like GM, US steel and GE agreed to unionisation because they preferred peaceful organization achieved by unions, and through collective bargaining, and thus, labour was made a predictable factor in production.

From its heights of membership in the 50s, and from the heights of radical activity in the thirties, unions today are in a sorry state. This is illustrated by events in Wisconsin in 2011. In February 2011, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker introduced a bill banning collective bargaining in the public sector. This lead to huge protests. The state capital was occupied, and a general strike was threatened. At this time, the state Democratic party (that is supported by all the unions) asked for the recall of four Republican senators who had won their elections by slim margins. This served to change the movement from a mass-based one to an electoral one. Effectively the movement ground to a halt. In the neighbouring state of Ohio, where a similar law was passed, the measure was put on the ballot and was defeated by a two-thirds majority!

The labour movement has transformed from a militant movement, to a movement lead by large unions in the middle of the century to a teetering movement currently that is just trying to preserve existing ground. They have surrendered their material gains to capital in the hopes of preserving their institutional arrangements. The author lists some causes for this trajectory:

1. The union leadership is a class of its own.
As the NLRA confined the role of unions to negotiating and grievance redressal, the character of unions has also changed.
Unions have developed a deep reverence for authority (especially the authority of the law), and a love for hobnobbing with powerful politicians. The union office has powers associated to it, so that union leadership is becoming a ‘self-enclosed oligarchy’. As a result, from being an outlaw social movement, they have become tools for capitalists to discipline the union membership. Such a role is reinforced by the fact that unions are not ‘of and by the rank and file’. Union leadership is dominated by lawyers, professional union representatives and relatives of former union representatives; with little or no shop floor experience.

2. Failure to adapt to changing scenarios.
Increasingly, unions have just been preserving their gains from the past, with no imaginative steps to adapt to the changed times, and to demand more.
The last major success of the Labour movement was Medicare of the 1960s. Since then the labour movement has been in a state of retreat. As jobs have diminished due to technological advances and offshoring, workers have been in a state of fear and have not made bold demands. Unions have accepted these changes as inevitable, and adapted their collective bargaining strategies to a changed environment, rather than question the changes themselves. An exceptional example is that of the west coast’s ILWU (International Longshore and warehouse union p115).
When containerization was being introduced in the ports in the 1960s, instead of resisting the technology, they negotiated that workers be paid whether they worked or not. Through this strategy, they were claiming a share in the enhanced profits of enterprise not as a bonus but as a right.

3. Failure to include the service sectors, supervisory and managerial class in the struggle.
Since World War 1, the salaried middle class consisting of professionals, service and administration-related jobs have been growing. Unions haven’t focussed on organizing this class. They have focussed only on a narrow segment of workers in production, industry and public sector. This lack of breadth is killing the labour movement. NLRA does not cover workers in managerial and supervisory positions. Rather than question this omission, unions have just not tried to organize these workers.

4. Unconditional support to the Democratic party
AFL-CIO has become an appendage of the Democratic party. The union has focussed its resources on getting Democratic Party candidates elected, even as the party has relegated worker issues to the margins. The union has never threatened to boycott candidates who do not follow the union line, or run progressive candidates in the primaries, much less form their own party.

5. Monolithic unions, disinterested rank and file.
The 1930s and 1940s were marked by huge organizing momentum, and intense jurisdictional wars between unions. In 1955, AFL and CIO merged, and Article 20 was passed. Under this article, when an affiliate was recognized by the employer and by the law as as the collective bargaining agent by a group of workers, another affiliate could not ‘raid’ that group of workers. Union leaders were pleased to end the labour wars, but ‘historical record shows that periods of intense inter-union rivalry were also periods of rapid union growth’. In the following years, there were many unions whose leadership worked with an iron hand, tolerating little internal opposition.

This also coincided with the McCarthyist purge of the left wings of unions, carried out by union leaderships. The book discusses the example of USW (United Steel workers). Founded in 1942, under the leadership of Phillip Murray, it was one of the handful of top-down unions under CIO, and was run with an iron hand. The book says “Even so, Murray cooperated with the CIO’s left until persuaded by the Truman administration and the Catholic church to abandon is stance.” Murray later also became president of the CIO, and he led the ‘organization squarely into the Cold war camp.’

These monolithic leaderships were challenged by rank and file movements, some of which resulted in successful actions. For example, a successful UPS strike demanding more permanent jobs was carried out by TDU (Teamsters for a democratic union) which was the longest lived rank and file movement. In other cases, rank and file leaders eventually turned into iron fist leaders eg. Albert Shanker of the teachers union.

6. Not engaging with workers’ lives
Another failure of the labour movement has been a failure to take up issues of workers’ lives outside the workplace, like mounting student debt, the housing and mortgage crisis and environment issues. The ranks of the unemployed have soared since the 2008 crisis,  but unions have not taken up the opportunity of organizing the unemployed. In fact, in some cases, unions have had counterproductive stands, they have not opposed polluting projects like the Keystone pipeline in the hope of protecting a small number of low paying jobs. They have not opposed credit card companies (which have preyed on the working class for their profits), because the unions themselves are investors in these companies. As the labour movement develops a vision that includes all aspects of the lives of the working class, alternate investment options would be to invest in co-op housing for workers, or to provide capital for worker-owned co-operatives.

Prescription : A more militant movement
In summary, unions have confined themselves to wage negotiation and collective bargaining, and working within the contract, and have surrendered the strike weapon. They have accepted the status quo of capitalism in the economy, legalism and electoralism in politics, and the sanctity of contract in the workplace. Unions have operated in a state of retreat, because of workers’ fear of losing their jobs. The author advocates that the labour movement take a more radical path. As an example of a more aggressive strategy, he asks: When the extended benefits for the long-term-unemployed were terminated in 2014, unions did nothing more than lobby the Congress. What if they had mobilized the jobless to take direct action?

The author advocates for labour to not fight within the above frameworks, but to imagine a ‘good life’ for the working class. This is what was done by the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. These movements were lead by radicals (as opposed to liberals) who proposed a more egalitarian vision, and propelled mass protests. Today, with the amount of technology we have, workers should envisage having a share in the wealth created by industries and corporations. They should be not just fighting for wage, but for control in factories — in deciding how production is organized, how technology is used. The ideal should be to move towards workers’ democratic control of production, say via co-operatives and factory occupations by workers. The author’s long-term vision is that of a society organized as a commonwealth of worker owned co-operatives.

Some demands which the labour movement could currently unite on, include a basic Income Guarantee, a higher minimum wage, and shorter working hours. These are important necessary structural reforms in the post-2008 economy. Now, a high unemployment rate is here to stay, and is not just a cyclical phenomenon. Progressive economists have argued for a massive jobs program, like the New Deal. But the author claims that it would not be enough to solve problems of unemployment. The New Deal was a massive jobs program launched in the 1930s to reverse the massive unemployment caused by the great depression. But, in reality the unemployment problem was solved not by the New Deal, but by the second world war.

What is lacking in the book:
As the author prescribes a more militant course for the labour movement, he ignores the problem of the marginalization of labour because of technology and off-shoring, and state oppression of the working class movements (example Occupy). He wants the current generation of workers to bring back the militancy of the 1930s, but at that time workers had a bigger bargaining power. Production was much more dependent on labour. It is unlikely that a movement can be built entirely on just a vision of a better life for the working class.

The question of how to face the issue of off-shoring of jobs is entirely ignored. To tackle this issue, labour movements need to build international solidarities. The fight for reasonable working conditions and a sustainable living wage has to be taken to every corner of the world.

Although the book analyses the organizational and structural reasons for the decline of unions, there are no suggestions provided in this front. How should the fight for a ‘co-operative commonwealth’ be organized, so that the failures of the past are not repeated. Have unions declined beyond a point of no return so workers find other ways to organize, or is there a way to make them more militant? The examples in the book in this context are the successes of the black and women’s rights movements. According to the author, these movements succeeded because of their radical visions. But in addition it would be helpful to know the material conditions and organizational structures that helped their success.

The book also underestimates and ignores the threats posed by the Right. The author seems to limit the Right’s role to executing the agenda of big business, and having a mass appeal based on cultural issues (with limited success). But in recent years (especially after the book was written), all over the world, the Right has come up with very insidious and divisive articulations to address problems of unemployment and the shrinking middle class. The examples of the Brexit vote, victory of Trump in the US presidential elections, and victories of right wing parties in many countries across Europe demonstrates that the Right has beaten the organized Left into addressing working class voters. This is another challenge that has to be addressed as we go ahead.

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