The well-documented decline of U.S. union membership, bargaining clout, and political influence has more than workers worried. Two of America’s better known left or liberal commentators on labor relations have weighed in with new books that lament the current state of working class organization and suggest various methods of resuscitation.
In The Death and Life of American Labor (Verso, 2014), sociologist Stanley Aronowitz points the way “toward a new workers’ movement,” drawing on his own youthful experience as an industrial union organizer and, more recently, as a faculty union activist in New York City.
Aronowitz has been an influential thinker on the labor left for nearly fifty years. During the 1960s, student radicals turned to him, as a former factory worker and staff member of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW), for advice about the New Left’s then still pending and much debated “turn toward the working class.”
As he did in past books like False Promises, Working-Class Hero, and From The Ashes of the Old, Aronowitz criticizes mainstream unions for their lack of militancy, diversity, internal democracy, and progressive politics. Now he offers a blueprint for how a “militant minority within unions and the larger workers movement” can make American labor “more combative in challenging capital and the repressive state” over issues like “the super-exploitation of the working poor.”
Veteran labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan is a fellow advocate of union democracy and reform. But Geoghegan, unlike Aronowitz, remains very oriented toward the Democratic Party as a vehicle for political change. Through his new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us (New Press, 2014), Geoghegan apparently hopes to persuade “the party’s elite to identify with the cause of labor” once again—just like national policy makers did during the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “To recover the purchasing power the country’s economy needs, we need some measure of democracy” within private companies, he argues, echoing the liberal architects of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in the mid-1930s.
As he did in Which Side Are You On, his first book, Geoghegan pleads for greater public understanding of what unions accomplished for their own members and, indirectly, millions of unrepresented workers after their Depression-era re-birth. Like Aronowitz, he vigorously defends their past contribution to reducing economic inequality. Yet, he too is forced to conclude that “we need something radically different than old fashioned U.S.-style collective bargaining [in order] to raise wages for a workforce that seems perpetually stuck at the entry level without any real control over what they do in their jobs.”
New Forms of Worker Organizing
The two authors find common ground on some issues, while diverging widely on others. Both note the emergence of worker formations in retail and fast food that function with voluntary membership, no legal certification, and a greater reliance on what Aronowitz calls “innovative direct action,” including short duration protest strikes.
This type of organizing activity reflects, in part, the steady erosion of an 80-year old system of unionization based on “exclusive representation.” Under the New Deal model, a single union could win the right to represent all the workers in a particular “bargaining unit” based on a Labor Board-conducted election. Employers—sometimes under strike pressure—could also voluntarily agree to union recognition after being presented with evidence that a majority of their employees had signed union membership cards.
Once an obligation to bargain was established—and assuming that further management resistance could be overcome--the end result was a union contract spelling out wages, employment conditions, and “fringe benefit” entitlement. On the union side, one much-sought provision in such collective agreements was a clause requiring “dues check-off.” Except in so-called “right to work” states,” this “union security” provision obligated employers to deduct dues from the paychecks of workers belonging to the union (or deduct an equivalent amount in the form of “agency fees” from non-members).
These arrangements were enshrined in the private sector via passage of the NLRA. Three or four decades later, about half the states passed laws granting collective bargaining rights to public employees within a similar legal framework. One downside was the tendency to make unionization an all or nothing phenomena; if an organized minority of workers tried to act collectively in an otherwise “non-union” workplace, there was little management obligation to deal with their demands and, very often, little sustained union backing for their shop-floor activity.
An Eroding New Deal Model
As Aronowitz observes, “the era of labor-management cooperation that was initiated by the New Deal and supported by succeeding legislation… has come to an end.” He argues that continued union reliance on a last-century institutional framework, now under attack by private corporations and right-wing politicians alike, is not helping “workers meet the challenges created by globalization and its significantly aggravated anti-union political and social environment.”
Geoghegan agrees, warning, in dire fashion, that “if the agency shop goes away in the public sector, it will—sooner or later, under one rationale or another—in the private sector as well….Once gone, as in Michigan, that system of collecting money is not coming back…[I]t’s hard to see voters turning out to save compulsory dues…If right to work-to-work laws keep spreading, labor will not be able to service even the little it has, much less expand.”
In the U.S., the old labor law regime also created legal obstacles to workers’ switching unions or building new ones. As a result, many union members have had more trouble holding their national and local organizations accountable to the rank-and-file than trade unionists abroad. Where insulated from the threat of membership defection to rival organizations—and reform from within--incumbent union officials in the U.S. have been much freer to embrace labor-management partnering. One upside of the current crisis, according to Aronowitz, is the possibility that greater union pluralism will emerge, in the form of left-led unions acting as a spur to “the slumbering mainstream.”
“Any association that chooses to independently organize workers within an established union’s jurisdiction, even workers from a group that the union has effectively abandoned, is going to be seen as a threat. This is not necessarily a bad thing: competition may goad the conventional unions to undertake their own organizing. As we have seen, competitive unionism is often a stimulus to mobilization and ultimate success.”
A Community-Labor Strike Coalition
Both Aronowitz and Geoghegan take encouragement from increased militancy among public school teachers and successful union alliances with students, parents, and others opposed to education privatization. In his labor law practice, Geoghegan represented the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), when that left-led local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers tried to defend its senior members against being laid off, without recall rights, in the wake of school closings engineered by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. A leading Democrat, Emmanuel has been a key ally of corporate-backed “education reformers” who favor privately-operated (and non-union) charter schools.
Geoghegan also experienced, first hand, the galvanizing effect that the CTU’s 2012 strike had on working class Chicagoans and the city’s communities of color.
That inspiring walk-out by 25,000 teachers “created something new in Chicago, a movement, or even a kind of opposition party to the mayor,” Geoghegan argues. It was “a political strike because it pulled in parents and others in community” and challenged “the mayor and the billionaires for control of the city.” As he witnessed at rallies and on picket-lines, “teachers and young people who never dreamed they would be in the streets” ended up there anyway, marching in red CTU T-shirts. Invoking education theorist John Dewey, Geoghegan hails the consciousness raising and living lessons in “collective action” that the strike provided to many thousands of people.
“If there is no democracy in the workplace, it is only logical that there would be no democracy in the schools—and that there should be a ‘corporate’ model of education, which prepares children like cogs to fit into machines and crushes out any example of what Dewey called ‘embryonic community life’ or ‘spirit of service’….That is the point of privatizing education. Unless teacher unions go, some kids will not fit like cogs into a machine.”
With their own pluralistic advocacy of union reinvention, Geoghegan and Aronowitz illustrate how much needed change in the U.S.-- whether shaking up the Democratic Party or creating viable alternatives to it—is unlikely to occur without broader working class participation. Labor, community, and political organizers of all types will find these books well worth debating as part of their collective efforts to turn crisis into opportunity, through education and action among those who need a “new workers movement” more than anyone else.
(Steve Early has been active as a labor journalist, lawyer, organizer, or union representative in the U.S. since 1972. He is the author, most recently of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013) For more about his work, see www.steveearly.org He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.)