Carl Finamore’s article, “Missing in Action, AFL-CIO Should Be in Ferguson” is an accurate and indispensable description of current day unions’ disconnect with the struggles and aspirations of communities of color in a society with embedded racism, both subtle and not so subtle. When a white policeman murdered unarmed 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black community’s pent up anger erupted in mass, sustained protests over more than ten days, an event that may mark a turning point in police relations with Black communities nationwide. Individual union members are undoubtedly sympathetic, but unions as basic organizations of 12.5 million members have not taken the initiative in coming to the support of and being involved in the protests against over-the-top police brutality.
The author is critical of the AFL-CIO’s cautious statement, which he calls spineless, and faults them for not following their words with action. But he takes their passivity as a given without explaining its cause. He cites the victorious strikes of the 1930s that were the result of the militancy of some existing unions as well as the creation of new industrial unions. This high point in union organization and activity obviously had widespread support in the working population, both union and non-union, but the level of union strength as a force in society began a decades-long decline that is in need of an explanation.
The successful strikes of the 30s and subsequent growth of unions along with the passage of a number of reforms that significantly benefitted workers — the Wagner Act that legitimized unions, Social Security, unemployment insurance, WPA and others, had the effect of blunting the social crisis that had been building up in the U.S. as a result of mass unemployment during the depression. Since these reforms had been authorized by Franklin Roosevelt and his Democratic Party administration, union leaders began to attribute these reforms as equal with the militancy of the unions as grounds for an alliance with the Democrats.
They were able to convince their memberships on the basis of pragmatic facts that an alliance with the Democrats was the key to Labor’s salvation, and an alliance was established that has lasted to the present day.
But as time passed and the crisis abated, the partnership between the two groups who had opposing interests underwent a change. The AFL and the CIO turned out their members to vote for Democratic Party candidates as well as making significant donations of money from union treasuries. In exchange the Democrats offered promises. Number One promise was to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act. It never happened. After decades it’s still the law and is still instrumental in curbing union solidarity.
Workers became accustomed to union leaders’ arguments that improvement in their standard of living was contingent on electing Democrats to office who would then be able to make necessary reforms. The need for unions to take concerted action was put on hold; it was to be reserved as a threat but never to be used. Reliance on Democrats, who are the political arm of the capitalist class, gradually displaced the notion that unions could actively and independently determine their own destiny.
This was gratifying to employers and their political representatives, the Democrats, and also served the interests of the union bureaucrats as well. As union members continued to believe that progress lay with the Democrats instead of relying on their own strength, militancy, and solidarity, they became more passive. This relieved the union officials from having to arouse their members to a fight, and, instead, they promoted the idea that strikes had become “outmoded.”
Union offices, while subject to election, came with a hefty increase in income. Most officials make many times more than what they had made on the job. Election to office became an end in itself, and with it an increasingly conservative outlook — don’t rock the boat, compromise is better than nothing.
Seeing the boss’s point of view, whose objective is to be more competitive than other capitalists in order to increase their own profits, was necessary to cement the traitorous alliance. And the bosses relied on the officials to defuse any tendency toward militant initiative on the part of the union membership.
So in order to criticize the unions today for lack of connection to community issues — especially such an explosive event as is happening in Ferguson — it is necessary to explain the decades-long growth of a bureaucracy that acts as a barrier to rank and file initiative and militancy.
In spite of all obstacles, an independent voice from the ranks will inevitably emerge as the living standards of working people continue to fall to challenge the dead weight of union officialdom that, as socialist Daniel DeLeon rightly called them more than a century ago, the “labor lieutenants of capital.” Then a revived labor movement will not hesitate to come to the defense of Black communities across the nation that are the victims of racism.