Book Review: America Needs a Raise

Bill Leumer
Book by AFL-CIO head Sweeney reveals same old failed policies

America Needs a Raise:
 Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice

Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996

Review by Bill Leumer

[First published January 1997 in Socialist Action]

If you are looking for a book as a gift idea for that special someone who you think deserves to suffer immense weariness, then this is your book.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney tediously rehashes virtually every misconception imaginable concerning the nature of social relations under capitalism. Then, not so remarkably, he offers as the solution to the real problems workers face today — declining living standards, unemployment, etc. — the same old tired, failed, class collaborationist policy that is in part responsible for these problems.

Sweeney depicts society as inherently harmonious, where each social class has its fixed place. If not for the bad capitalists and the Republicans who serve them who are driven by greed, all would be just fine!

His proposal is that labor and employers should return to the utopian formula of cooperation as “equal” partners so that all our living standards will improve. This is to be accomplished by organizing workers so they can then better help the employers compete with their rivals. And in this way, workers and employers can simultaneously benefit, one with higher profits and the other with higher wages.

“Common purpose”

But why, one might ask, are these inanities being peddled as such profound material? There are many possible answers. One in particular is that Sweeney, as he says, “majored in economics in college.” This could be where he learned to view reality from the fetishized perspective of the employers — where capitalism is seen as permanent and inevitable and where labor’s place is merely to assist the employer in order to ensure everyone’s prosperity.

Sweeney also peddled this line when he ran for and was elected district leader of the Democratic Party in New York City prior to becoming a union official.

In fact, the only “economic law” that Sweeney seems to have mastered in college, by way of self-exemplification, is the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Intelligence to Fall, which is always operative among the apologists for capitalist society. This is especially true today among the less sophisticated minions who exist in the comfort zone of the highly-paid union bureaucracy, far removed from the reality of every-day life of the dues-paying rank and file.

These folks, who no longer work for an employer, can afford to actually believe the mush that Sweeney is attempting to promote. After all, capitalism, even in its period of decay — with nothing but one disaster after another for workers — has been good for them. They hope that this situation will continue, with the members’ dues rolling in to pad the already extravagant life style of these so-called leaders.

Furthermore, they are aided by pseudo-leftists who support these and other labor fakers, thereby contributing to the utterly false claim that Sweeney and company even remotely represent something new or an alternative to their ideological twin — former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland.

The problem, writes Sweeney, is that “today, workers are working for less than they earned in 1979.” Productivity is up, “but their productivity hasn’t been rewarded with higher wages. Corporate America converts productivity gains into higher profits. … These same profitable corporations are wiping out tens of thousands of jobs.”

Sweeney mentions that 43 million jobs were eliminated between 1979 and 1995. This has resulted in “the most lopsided distribution of wealth since just before the Great Depression.”

Yet the problem, he says, “isn’t just money. It’s a sense of powerlessness and voicelessness in a new economy where old rules no longer apply. Traditional ties of loyalty between employers and employees have been cut.”

Sweeney insists, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Rather, what is required is the common purpose” that will unite all Americans “across the lines of color, class, and culture that divide us today.” He goes on, “Our goal is a new social contract by which workers will share not only in prosperity but in power.”

This sounds ambitious until we find out that the power he refers to is none other than “working people needing a voice in improving the quality of goods we produce,” etc.

This is because “small differences in quality spell success or failure in the ultra-competitive global marketplace.”

Returning to “High Hopes”

With his rose-colored glasses securely in place, Sweeney wants us to return to “the best years” when companies “saw their purpose as raising the standard of living for all, not accumulating enormous wealth for just a few.” No doubt this description of corporate motives will perplex all those workers who had to fight like hell against the corporations to increase their standard of living.

But to prove that such a harmonious time existed, Sweeney’s recourse to historical evidence proves a bit thin: “It was typical of the times that John F. Kennedy’s campaign tune was a popular song entitled ‘High Hopes.’”

But elsewhere Sweeney admits that the reason “why since 1960 America lost hundreds of thousands of jobs in textile and clothing industries” was due to “employers leaving union strongholds….” Those workers were probably not singing that tune, but the fact that this statistic flatly contradicts his Garden of Eden image of this time period does not deter Sweeney in the least.

Continuing with his mythical analysis of the cause of our declining living standard and the increasing income gap between workers and the rich, Sweeney asserts with conviction that “the root cause of our problem is that corporate America decided to meet these challenges the wrong way.” That is, they “decides to break the post-war contract and to meet the challenge of global competition by wiping out jobs and driving down wages in pursuit of short-term profits.”

Moreover, “they didn’t do it by building on America’s traditional strengths: the know-how and love of experimentation that helped us develop the advanced technologies and the teamwork we displayed during World War II and the next decades when business, labor, and government worked together to help all Americans move forward.

Gaining the “competitive advantage”

Aside from exempting the labor bureaucracy from any responsibility, this analysis becomes even more confused because of Sweeney’s misunderstanding of the nature of capitalism.

He acknowledges that competition from Japan and Western Europe has developed to the point where the United States no longer dominates the world economy as it did for over a quarter of a century in the post-World War II era. This in part explains why wages have been driven down along with the loss of millions of jobs.

In addition, “when the economy is sluggish, workers have a hard time getting raises.” And so, in order to reinstitute “the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress,” the labor officials must encourage American workers to aid their employers in gaining the competitive advantage.

But what Sweeney fails to admit is that because employers compete with one another, they are compelled to maximize their profits at the expense of workers wages, not only here but in Japan as well as in Western Europe. And one inexorable law of capitalism is that, all other things being equal, if wages decline then profits rise and vice versa.

In other words, the employers did not simply make a “wrong decision.” They were compelled to pursue their policies because of increased competition here and abroad.

Moreover, to lower their costs of production vis-a-vis their competitors, the most accessible avenue available to employers is to reduce the actual amount of labor employed. This cost reduction is accomplished by employers introducing new production techniques or new machinery so that either the same or more products are being manufactured with less labor. This explains the increase in productivity that occurs while wages decline and jobs are eliminated.

Thus, the competitive war being conducted among the capitalists themselves results in a contest to see who can discharge the most workers and gain the temporary advantage. As more workers are thrown out of work, the competition for jobs then increases, resulting in a further decline in overall wages.

Part of the problem

Sweeney’s strategy, which he shares with the rest of the misleaders of the AFL-CIO, of reestablishing the “partnership” between labor and business to “pursue their common goals,” far from being the solution, is in fact part of the problem.

Needless to say, the bosses just love to see union officials helping them to maintain their system by subordinating the membership’s interests to theirs.

What Sweeney misses when he looks back at American capitalism during World war II and subsequent decades is that the partnership was a losing proposition for workers even then. That is, while the wages of some rose with productivity, jobs were nevertheless irretrievably lost. And the political voice he thinks that workers enjoyed during this period was only the feeble whine of labor bureaucrats, not their rank and file.

But what is even more damning to Sweeney’s analysis is that this period that he romanticizes was an exceptional stage in the history of U.S. capitalism. It was a time when U.S. capital had very little international competition, so that the bosses could afford to concede to higher wage demands.

But now that international competition is back on track, Sweeney’s advocacy of a renewed partnership will prove utterly disastrous to the workers he pretends to represent. Because of his commitment to a capitalist framework, Sweeney becomes equally incoherent and contradictory when he steps into the political arena.

He begins by noting, “In 1992 we helped elect Bill Clinton. With the help of the president and Congressional leaders we won some long-overdue victories … family and medical leave. … Yet on some of the issues that matter most to working people it was hard to tell our friends from our enemies.”

And he then goes on to admit that “as government serves the wealthy special interests, most people conclude that the political system is corrupt and broken.”

Moreover, Sweeney cites two public opinion analysts who concluded on the basis of a poll of union members that “members too often perceive unions as pursuing a largely ineffective strategy — namely, trying to gain influence inside a failed political system by cultivating relationships with the Democratic Party.” They concluded, Sweeney says, “that union members want political action to be something different and better.”

On the basis of this poll Sweeney concludes, “In essence we’re going to bring the same organizing vision to the political world that we bring to the workplace.” That means, Sweeney informs us, “building an independent movement that mobilizes working people” and “raises their issues in public debate.”

Does this mean building a labor party based on the unions so that workers can have a political party independent of the two major capitalist parties? Unfortunately, no.

It means that the unions “become a kind of Consumer Reports for workers where “we will earn a new credibility with our members.” And that “will make our endorsements [of Democrats] more valuable.”

Sweeney assures us that “our goal is not to elect Democrats and Republicans,’ but flip-flopping shortly thereafter, he brags that “we’ve already had a trial run for a political strategy that treats election campaigns as opportunities to educate and mobilize working families. In January 1996, labor helped to elect the first Democratic senator from Oregon in many years.”

In other words, Sweeney’s talk of political independence for workers is a mere sham. His “vision” means continued political slavery for workers who would remain shackled to the boss-controlled Democratic Party.

And if all this is not enough to indicate that the AFL-CIO tops are essentially filing for strategic, tactical and political bankruptcy, the Dec. 17, 1996, New York Times informs us that:

Richard Trumka, the federation’s secretary-treasurer, announced another new initiative: to use union pension money to pressure corporations to abandon practices that he said were harmful to workers, like having some jobs contracted to businesses outside the company. Mr. Trumka said unions would engage in proxy fights and run union members for corporate boards.

Despite the much heralded “choice” between Sweeney and Lane Kirkland’s lieutenant, Thomas Donahue, to head the AFL-CIO, what we ended up with is a misleader whose policies are identical with his predecessor’s.

What America needs instead is a new class-struggle union leadership that will break with the bosses’ parties, the Democrats and Republicans, and build a labor party that fights for all workers.

The central organizing issues of the unions and the Labor Party must be to reverse the decline in the standard of living of all workers and address the problem of unemployment. Only by launching a campaign around the fight for a shorter work week with no cut in pay, will the party immediately have the potential to win the support of all workers and their allies.

Only when workers organize independently of the bosses to defend their own class interests will the prospect of improving all workers standard of living be seen as a possibility by millions.

You can be sure when that day comes, and it will, that those now sitting on top of the AFL-CIO will be booted out of office, and their books will be left to the gnawing criticism of mice.


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About the Author: Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.), former member of IBT Local 216 and was a pro-Carey TDU member. He is a writer for Workers Action and may be reached at