“The Nation” Spotlights Sweeney and the Labor Movement

by Charles Walker


It’s been six years since AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney took in hand the reins of power over America’s “House of Labor.” Elected in 1995 on a platform of revitalizing the country’s labor movement in an unprecedented contested election, the victorious New Voice slate of Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, and Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson was welcomed by many labor activists, academics, and liberal commentators. After decades of organized labor’s declining membership rolls and fading political clout under the misleadership of George Meany and his appointed heir, Lane Kirkland, it seemed even to some who should have known better that a new day, a better day for workers, was at hand.

Very quickly, however, the honeymoon glow began to dim. Just six weeks after his election Sweeney asked 400 business and civic leaders to “join us in building a bridge between management and labor.” Sweeney asked them to renew the “unwritten rules—a social compact,” which the bosses tore up in 1978. At that time the United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser said, “I believe leaders of the business community with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country — a war against working people.”

Sweeney has poured the AFL-CIO’s resources into his “Voice at Work” organizing campaign and into politicians’ campaigns, mostly Democrats. Still, Sweeney hasn’t been able to turn the clock back. The bosses are still waging their one-sided class war against workers, and workers are still taking it on the chin.

Surely the nation’s workers can’t be hopeful that Sweeney is going to turn things around. But the sixteen million workers whose dues maintain the labor federation don’t have a voice or a vote in deciding who spends those dues monies — or any other direct, officially recognized way to let those at the very top of organized labor know what the dues payers think about the job they’re doing

On the other hand, some unionists and labor allies have access to a variety of “respectable” papers and magazines, and they can and do vent their views on organized labor, perhaps in hopes of catching the eyes of the AFL-CIO tops. In the September 3 issue of The Nation, a liberal (not a radical, nor a socialist) journal, ten commentators evaluate the Sweeney regime, primarily in terms of the federation’s much-publicized goal of organizing millions of new members.

The commentators include a Democratic Party politician, an international union president, a former central labor council head, several university academics, and an editor of an independent labor journal. While all of them have some suggestions for Sweeney and Co., a few sort of imply that labor’s biggest problems (including achieving its ambitious organizing goals) can’t be worked out by an undemocratic union officialdom.

For example, Kate Bronfenbrenner (director of Labor Education Research, Cornell University) writes, “For more than ten years, the majority of newly organized workers have been women and people of color. But too many unions still see these new members simply as dues payers for the status quo, failing to grasp that they expect a seat at the table and a voice and power in the union.”

Adolph Reed, Jr. (a New School University professor) also sees the entrenched officialdom as “devalu[ing] member education and mobilization.” He doesn’t say why the labor tops keep the ranks demobilized, but clearly wishes that the AFL-CIO practiced less of the “imagery of social movement unionism” and “the symbolism of women’s and black and brown people’s struggles for civil rights” and more of the real thing. “This image consciousness gives the appearance at times that the new model is all tactics, no strategy.”

Of the ten writers, only Bronfenbrenner, Reed, and Kim Moody (a founder of Labor Notes) come close to identifying the root problem of the American labor movement—its bureaucratic officialdom. The others confine themselves to tactical prescriptions or external circumstances.

For instance, Nelson Lichtenstein (a university history professor) says, “In the 1930’s and the 1960’s, all sorts of maladroit, stodgy unions did quite well. The challenge, then and now, is to transform management behavior so that executives and public officials calculate that the political and economic fallout from breaking or resisting a union is just too high.” That’s to be done, he says, by utilizing “the power still retained by a post-1960’s sense of rights consciousness.” Lichtenstein doesn’t offer an explanation as to why the union officialdom after three decades has failed to embrace “a sense of rights consciousness.”

Bruce Colburn (an AFL-CIO deputy director and former head of the Milwaukee Central Labor Council) says that the AFL-CIO and its unions need to build a “social movement that focuses the full power of the labor movement on the fight to win a voice at work [sign up more members] for all who want to organize.” Although the labor movement is not there yet, Colburn believes “the momentum is clearly in the right direction.” Colburn says that with a straight face despite the numerical decline of union membership. For some reason Colburn’s myopia brings to mind George Meany’s outrageous statement in 1972 to the effect that he wasn’t worried about organizing new members—because somehow organized labor got along without them.

Moody comes closest to getting at the truth about the labor hierarchy, but speaks more like a college professor than a would-be rank and file leader. He calls the officialdom’s failure to mobilize the ranks a case of “inertia” that flows from the lack of internal democracy and the “confusing social vision” of a partnership with the bosses. As long as the leadership monopolizes real decisions and debate, Moody says, “inertia will remain the dominant force.” The best example of the effect of rank and file democracy, Moody rightly says, was the 1997 UPS strike led by Ron Carey.

Since the bureaucratic officialdom opposes that kind of “democratic effect,” Moody rightly concludes that the union officialdom offers “no clear alternative” to workers suffering the daily effects of “stagnant or declining incomes, downsized/intensified work and insecure futures…”

Socialists have no need to speak of “inertia” or a “confusing social vision.” In the socialist tradition there is a plainer, but no less accurate vocabulary for talking about workers getting worked over by the bosses, their political agents, and fat-cat bureaucrats.

Unions were born of the need for workers to defend themselves from the bosses. Try as they might, the bosses have not been able to wipe out the union movement, but they have curbed it.

However, the bosses needed the help of union insiders. So they cultivated those union officials who could be tempted with social prestige and encouraged their accumulation of privileges, big and small. In other words, the bosses successfully have used the divide-and-conquer ploy to waylay the unions.

In time, most unions became dominated, not by a few bad apples in the barrel, not by some officers who randomly went “bad,” but by a self-perpetuating layer of dyed-in-the-wool labor bureaucrats whose privileged, parasitic livelihood would be threatened by a mobilized membership. The bureaucrats have a self-protective ideology. Socialists don’t call it a “confusing social vision.” Socialists call it class-collaborationism, the false notion that workers and bosses have common social and economic interests. At contract time, union officers usually dress up the idea of class collaboration in the phrase, “Careful now, people, you don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg!”

Class collaborationism in the form of concessions bargaining and joint labor-management schemes that extend from the boardroom to the shop floor have become so common as to be barely remarkable or unusual to many workers forty to forty-five years old, or younger.

The lack of union democracy is critical to the lifestyle of the union bureaucrats. It’s also critical to the bosses’ control of workers, as tragically evidenced by the government’s ouster of Teamsters President Ron Carey, following the UPS strike, the fourth virtually unprecedented national strike he called during his first term in office.

Socialists understand that the ranks are between a rock and a hard place; that is, grasping bosses and their political henchmen, on the one hand, and class collaborationist union bureaucrats, on the other. And all of them are intent on keeping workers in their place, their supposedly subordinate place.

But that condition is not destined to last forever. Capitalism doesn’t provide that kind of social stability, as profoundly evidenced by the Great Depression, which gave rise to industrial unionism. What are the odds that today’s workers will encounter a profound social crisis? And be forced to fight for survival, which a stricken capitalist system could no longer provide?

For the first time since the end of World War II, a few mainstream economists see looming on the horizon the specter of a worldwide depression, no less terrible than the catastrophe of the 1930s. If they’re right, count on the ranks pushing forward new leaders to end the bureaucrats’ defeatist practice of refusing to fight back against the capitalists’ one-sided class war, of keeping the ranks demobilized as the bosses walk all over them.

And there’s another factor to keep in mind. A radicalized labor movement, a mobilized rank and file, can count on the energy, idealism, and selflessness of young workers and students in the vanguard of today’s budding anti-capitalist movement. That will make organized workers’ battles with bosses and bureaucrats easier to win.