Beyond “Charlie Brown”

ROBERT FITCH

Anyone who watched Rich Trumka’s performance January 29th on Bill Moyers’Journal has got to be impressed by his impersonation of Charlie Brown.  The newly selected AFL-CIO chief won’t let organized labor’s repeated legislative, organizing and political failures keep him from pursuing the same discredited strategies – any more than Charlie Brown would give up trying to kick the football that Lucy always pulls away at the last moment.

Moyers portrayed Trumka glowingly as an authentic, principled, militant son of Pennsylvania coal country. But he asked “Rich” several pointed questions. What about EFCA (“card check”), labor’s highly prized but hopelessly stalled legislative initiative?   It will pass, Trumka insisted. “It’ll take some creative doing. But we’ll do it.” (An estimate not shared by the bill’s most important Senate sponsor Iowa Democrat, Tom Harkin.) Asked Moyers: Why did the AFL-CIO file a friend of the Court brief in support of the conservative initiative to give corporations free speech? “We didn’t.” Trumka replied.  That wasn’t our intention; we just wanted to be able to talk to our members at election time.  Moyers wanted to know why labor still gives unconditional support to the Democrats.  “So far, one year into this administration,” Moyers observed, “you haven’t gotten anything that I can see that you wanted in ‘08.”  “That’s not so.” said Trumka.  Congress “hasn’t been able to pass the big bills yet, but we’re getting there. And we’ll get them done.”

Moyers asked. “What’s happened that unions don’t seem to be fighting back the way they did in the 1930s?”  “We are fighting back,” Trumka maintained. But instead of giving inspiring examples, he offered only reasons why resistance is so hard.

Still, Moyers was sensitive enough to his guest’s feelings, not to ask him to comment on figures just released from the Labor Department that showed organized labor’s share of the private sector workforce down to 1901 levels.  He didn’t mention the biggest drop off in public support for unions in 2009 since Gallup started keeping track in the 1930’s. Nor did he raise the issue of membership in Trumka’s own United Mine Workers which now represents less than 7% of America’s miners.   Nor did Trumka have to answer a question about the unseemly jurisdictional battles that appear, over the last few years, to have absorbed the principle share of top union officials’ energy and passion.

What Trumka’s responses – or lack of them — show is that politically speaking, organized labor in America is no longer in a crisis.  It’s in a coma.  To expect a top U.S. labor leader to respond appropriately to the challenges workers face is like supposing someone in a profoundly vegetative state is going to spring out of bed and resume normal activity.

But we’ve known that for a long time.  The real question is not about labor’s top honcho’s, it’s about us.  What about the labor Left?   Aren’t we following – albeit critically! – in the wake of the two big federations with our own Charlie Brown routine?

If this were thirty, twenty or even a dozen years ago, it might be possible to hope that just doing the same thing, showing patience, staying the course, keeping our eye on the ball will work and it will finally sail, end-over-end, through the uprights.

For the last thirty years though, we’ve been playing pretty much the same inside game.  We’ve seen our task as reforming the unions.  By working inside progressive unions as staffers, or by supporting rank-and-file caucuses that target “bureaucratic” leadership. We’ve sought to  replace the bureaucrats with reformers who would promote democracy, participation, and bottom-up initiatives.  Through these struggles, the slogan went, we will “put the movement back into labor” and, eventually, business unionism will be no more.

The reform project of the labor Left receives our continued support because we share the political values invoked. As democratic socialists we obviously favor democracy and bottom up initiatives.  But after a generation of, at best, rather modest and often contested successes – like Ron Carey’s presidency, the ’97 UPS strike, SEIU’s janitor and homecare organizing campaigns and the advent of John Sweeney’s New Voice – it’s incumbent on us to ask whether we haven’t been looking for democracy and bottom up initiative in all the wrong places.

We have to ask whether “union democracy” doesn’t ignore the most important affronts to genuine democracy.  Defining features of American unions go unremarked by the labor left but actually constitute violations of the UN and ILO Charters – legal features promoting exclusion, compulsory membership and exclusive bargainingthat have long disappeared from labor institutions in other countries where unionism is far stronger.  In France, for example, unions face a crisis, but they’re not comatose: they still represent over 90% of the workforce – the unions display far more combativity without the need to corral their members with compulsory membership or dues arrangements. Workers can support whatever union they want or none at all.

We have to ask further whether in the struggle to democratize and extend union membership we haven’t been dealing with effects rather than causes.  The unique American model of labor unionism – based on local autonomy, forced membership, exclusive bargaining and jurisdictions – is designed to produce a union premium – a wage higher than that earned by non-union workers.  For a lot of unions – the carpenters for example – this means exclusion rather than inclusion, sectionalism rather than solidarity.

How surprising is it that these institutions – given their economic base and their legal infrastructure — aren’t all that open to substantive democratic reform? The natural political superstructure that forms in our unions is not a bureaucracy or a democracy but a machine, one founded on patronage and generally on ethnicity whose function it is to distribute the economic surplus and the union perquisites that arise from jurisdictional monopoly to the machine’s constituents. Even with the best political will, reformers can’t escape the limits of the institution. “Bottom-up” reform campaigns don’t abolish the machine; they merely change in its beneficiaries.

We’re not talking Michels here; the point is not to assert the existence of an iron law of oligarchy.  But rather that we, the labor Left, need to aim at a higher standard of democracy; be less insistent on what we the U.S. labor Left have accomplished; and more aware of what workers and socialists have accomplished in other countries.

What’s needed right now is an open discussion of the future of the labor Left; specifically whether the present generation should try to replicate the strategy of the last 30 years or whether a new course is required. And what that course would look like.

There is one principle that ought to serve as a touchstone for the discussion. Both for those who want to stay the course and those who would strike out on a new one. It’s the first rule, written by Karl Marx, of the International Working Men’s Association:

That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; that, the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.

While written approximately 150 years ago, the principles stand less in need of revision than of remembrance and re-application.  The point of the labor movement is not to elevate one section of the working class over the other, or to restrict membership to a labor aristocracy, but to liberate working people as a whole. Evidently, “emancipation” means liberation of workers from dependence on a boss, but it also must mean independence from the will of a union boss.  Nor can a labor movement that depends on state-awarded legal privileges rather than the consent of its members be emancipatory. Finally, emancipation is not consistent with dependence on a party which in turn is dependent on a class adversary.

In capitalism’s last great crisis, labor radicals didn’t play an inside game, waiting for the CIO to form or for Congress to pass the Wagner act making it easier to organize.  In Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis, small organizations of socialists led by figures like A.J. Muste, Farrell Dobbs, and Harry Bridges created new forms of organization and new forms of resistance.  We can’t expect that the experience of the 1930s will repeat itself without taking the same political initiative and personal risks that were taken by the labor radicals of the 1930s.

I would like to join with other DSA members in a discussion about how to join new forms of organization to old labor principles.

Robert Fitch is the author of Solidarity for Sale and “Card Check: Labor’s Charlie Brown Moment?” from the Spring 2010 issue of New Politics. He can be reached at rfitch@nyc.rr.com.  Visit the Talking Union blog for more labor commentary.

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12 Comments

  1. Note: very inexpensive copies of Bob Fitch’s important book, Solidarity for Sale, are available here:

    http://product.half.ebay.com/Solidarity-For-Sale_W0QQtgZinfoQQprZ46452430

  2. Why is Trumka’s Charlie Brown act any worse than the one done by the DSA? Has there been a single election in which the publishers of this magazine told us to just let the Dems tickle our tonsils and try to control our gag reflex?

  3. Although Ironically, the activist did publish this a month ago: http://theactivist.org/blog/dsa-on-the-health-care-struggle

  4. Actually, Mr. Turnabout makes something of a fair point. IMHO, DSA has traditionally engaged in way too much Democratic tailing and tends to confuse the labor tops with the labor movement (and, in turn, the official labor movement with class politics). I will give him that. But that perspective by no means completely dominates the organization (I think this blog offers ample proof of that), and furthermore the left’s relationship with the Democratic party (a very complicated organization that is really a collection of sometimes very different ideological viewpoints bunched together under the same letterhead) is and should be much more complicated than the rather simplistic rejection of any relationship with the Dems that I would imagine Mr. T would advocate. What do your preferred political and electoral strategies look like anyway?

  5. I hope we can keep the discussion on track, i.e. less about DSA and electoral politics and more about what we can do about the fact that we don’t really have anything worthy of the label “labor movement” in the U.S….

    Bob Fitch is essentially saying that the existing unions are, for the most part, not salvageable, and that it’s time to start from scratch. Fond as I mostly am of that idea, I have no idea how it could be done outside of major splits in the existing unions — think NUHW vs. SEIU writ large — and even then, the resulting dues arrangements and such might be too close to U.S. union tradtion. So I don’t claim to have an answer and would love to hear from others on this question.

    • Well, there’s always the return to the one big union…ok, that might not sound serious, but simply an organization as visible as the Knights of Labor circa the turn of the century or the IWW pre-WWI that isn’t a union with dues and contracts and whatnot per say but is built on the premise of bringing together workers under a premise of “an injury to one is an insult to all” would be good…and with the internet, organizing on a mass scale is more possible than ever.

    • I thought Sam Gindin had some really good, if still somewhat vague, ideas in a piece he wrote recently for Socialist Project: http://www.socialistproject.ca/relay/relay28_gindin.pdf. It seems to me that what folks like us should be doing is trying to build organizations in our communities that address the concerns of working people in as broad a fashion as possible. I’m not entirely sure how such an effort could then be tied back in to reforming the way unions work in this country, however.

      In the shorter term, those of us who are fortunate enough to still be union members, especially in public sector unions, should start trying to refashion their organizations so that they are leaders in the fight to maintain public goods and stop budget cuts. This could help build support among the public by showing that unions are not just out to protect their own members and cut down on the perception that unions (especially in the public sector) are a special interest that deserves to die.

      But maybe it’s just time to say screw it and call for the repeal of the Wagner Act. It formalizes business unionism and gives management the upper hand more often than not, and it would hasten the death of all of the horrible and dysfunctional unions out there.

  6. I can’t say I have much of an inside track to the rank and file of most unions. I’m a member of our union, but we’re not granted bargaining rights by the state of Virginia so I can’t tell you much about the bargaining process and actually doing more than just being a lobby group, so pretty much all we can do is be like Trumka and hope we get listened to (not likely). As far as providing a model for democratic rank-and-file unionism, I was particularly impressed with the Raleigh sanitation and public works workers union, UE 150, when I still lived there. In theory, and mostly in practice, this was a union that encouraged the rank and file to be the face of their negotiations with the city. The only problem was that one of the “rank-and-file” leaders was actually a “proletarianized” member of Worker’s World, and he was the one doing most of the pushing. Then again, with such a small portion of workers aware of what power they wield collectively, especially in the wake of all the demoralization that has come in the past 30 years, how do you initiate grassroots union democracy when it’s not just occurring spontaneously?

    How do we go about encouraging the rank-and-file to take control of locals?

  7. Yeah, I need to get ahold of it. I did read Solidarity Divided a few years back and I’d recommend that, too. Passed it on to another YDS member elsewhere after I read it, so hopefully it’s still circulating.

  8. Indeed. It’s solidarity in more than one sense. Some of the construction unions are still somewhat exclusionary, esp. towards recent immigrants, and a lot of the unemployed in America today are in those fields. Same goes for manufacturing and other areas dominated by easily-fired recent immigrants and working poor. Not to say that industrial unions are exclusionary in the sense of some craft unions, but there’s no reason why the unemployed shouldn’t be organized.

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