Organized Labor: To Be or Not To Be

Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer
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With the landmark case Friedrichs v. California Teacher Association scheduled to be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court soon, organized labor is bracing itself for a possible crippling blow. A negative ruling will establish “right to work” throughout the country for public sector unions, meaning that public workers who are not union members will no longer be required to pay a “fair share” fee to help cover costs of the union efforts that benefit all workers at the site. Not only will non-union members no longer pay for the union benefits they enjoy, many union members will decide it is more “profitable” to terminate their membership. They will continue to receive union benefits, only they won’t have to pay for them. After all, this is the culture of capitalism: everyone is encouraged to maximize their individual well-being without regard for anyone else and least of all for the common good.

As reported by Labor Notes, public unions have been taking proactive steps to prepare for the worst. For example, they have aggressively augmented member-recruitment drives on the assumption that workers will be less likely to quit a union than join one if “right to work” prevails.

Unfortunately, simply doing more vigorously what unions are already doing will hardly suffice to revive organized labor, since unions have been in a slow decline for decades. Union membership has dropped from a high of 35 percent in the 1950s to a mere 11 percent today where it seems to lie in a state of stagnation. Clearly, the problems of organized labor run far deeper than the impending Supreme Court ruling.

Unions, of course, tend to blame external factors beyond their control for their decline. In all fairness, globalization has surely weakened labor’s position since companies can easily pack up and leave for more favorable labor conditions in other countries. Moreover, corporations have recently adopted an aggressive anti-union stance that has made organizing difficult. But these are problems that, while formidable, are not insurmountable in the face of a strong labor movement.

However, labor’s deepest problems emanate from within the unions themselves. Unions were originally established on the principle of solidarity: An isolated individual is powerless when confronting a hostile employer but a united workforce can bring a corporation to its knees by stopping production. But unions seem to have abandoned that principle and in its place have adopted the surrounding culture of capitalism – the culture that extols the isolated individual in competition with others in a quest to maximize material self-interest. Rather than fighting for the common good, unions seem to operate in their own narrow self-interest, and the leadership at the top operates above all in its self-interest, evidenced by their easy willingness to negotiate concessionary contracts for their members.

Consequently, many unions have assumed a corporate structure: they are run as top-down institutions where an often lavishly paid elite makes all the decisions in its own interests. There is no effort to involve the membership in any significant decision-making; in fact, the membership isn’t even informed of many of the decisions. The top leadership conducts meetings in which minutes are taken but never publicized to the rest of the membership, leaving the rank and file disconnected and uninvolved. Later, when the leadership does call for member participation at a rally or picket line, there is, not surprisingly, a lackluster response with only a small handful willing to appear. From the standpoint of most members, the union is a foreign institution.

This pursuit of narrow self-interest was taken to an absurd extreme in New York where building trade unions joined with business interests to mount a campaign to lower the wages and benefits of public workers. The building trades were calculating that less money to public workers would translate into more money for infrastructure projects that would in turn create jobs for themselves. For exactly the same reason, the building trades have endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline.

With this kind of philosophy currently prevailing in the union movement, there can be little wonder that unions no longer enjoy a high approval rating. In California, for example, a 2013 poll revealed that more people believe unions play a negative rather than a positive role, a reversal from 2011 when most people thought they played a positive role.

But some unions have been taking positive steps in opposition to this corporate culture. SEIU, for example, has championed the fight for $15, a struggle that is targeting workers who are not primarily members of SEIU but who desperately need higher wages. And in so far as the campaign is successful, it will benefit all workers because those who already make more money will be in a stronger position to demand even more yet, since expectations will have been adjusted upward. In a similar vein, the AFL-CIO joined demonstrations in Ferguson, MO to demand justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed African American youth shot and killed by the police. And, of course, the Chicago Teachers Union transformed itself into an entirely democratic union, fighting tenaciously for its own members as well as for the surrounding community.

But for organized labor to rebound, these positive steps cannot be episodic. They must become the rule, so that the labor movement is seen as the defender of a radically different and alternative culture than the greed and selfishness served up by the corporations. Labor must be seen as the champion of the common good – of the vast majority of the population – and especially of those who are weakest and most vulnerable.

This means, for example, that the union movement must not rest content with bargaining exclusively for their own members – which is business as usual for most unions – but they must prioritize fighting for all working people. Currently, the corporate class rules by funneling money to politicians. But it also rules by disseminating its everyone-out-for-oneself culture that then serves to justify its political hegemony. In such a climate, corporations have truly flourished with record profits. And they have fought successfully to lower their taxes by insisting on cuts to government spending, including around issues of vital importance for most people such as education, health care, pensions, subsidized housing, and so on.

Meanwhile, most working people are suffering. Many are slipping out of the middle class. Many are going into debt paying for their children’s education or for their family’s health care expenses. Many others are being pushed out of their homes because of high rental costs. In other words, lower taxes for the corporations mean austerity for everyone else, not to mention a polluted environment.

In response to this generalized suffering, unions can play a leading role by championing those issues that resonate with working people in general: jobs with living wages, quality education, affordable health care and housing, an adequate social security pension, a clean environment, and so on, all to be paid for by taxing the rich. By emphasizing the most important issues to most people, unions can bring working people together, forge a sense of unity and “class consciousness,” and create a new culture that insists on the priority of the common good where society operates in the interests of the majority. Of crucial importance is the selection of issues that activate people – issues they are prepared to fight for and can be mobilized around. In the end such a movement must culminate in challenging the corporations for political power.

In other words, rather than accepting a political landscape where workers are consigned to fighting among themselves for an ever-smaller allotment of social wealth, the unions can lead a movement that is powerful enough – because it unites the vast majority – to demand a re-configuration of the landscape so that relations are reversed: corporations are required to pay far higher taxes in order to ensure that everyone enjoys a decent standard of living.

Of course, such a movement must also prioritize defending the needs of the most oppressed, which would include, for example, forging an alliance with Black Lives Matter to combat police brutality. The labor movement should be in the vanguard calling for jobs, high quality schools, health care clinics, head start programs, after school programs, prosecution of criminal police, and entirely humane living conditions for those in poor communities, especially those who are victimized by racism. The movement must also come to the defense of immigrants by demanding citizenship for all, as opposed to President Obama’s weak reform that would deny hope for most immigrants, a policy the AFL-CIO is currently supporting.

This means that organized labor must cease subordinating the interests of working people to the demands of the Democratic Party, which has been thoroughly infiltrated by the corporate culture, not to mention corporate money. The labor movement must stand unambiguously for working people and at last give people the opportunity to come together, unite, and fight for their common interests.

Corporations, with their unique culture, have ruled for centuries. They have finally brought humanity to the brink of disaster with environmental catastrophe and economic injustice, signaled by ever-widening inequalities in wealth. It is time that people were afforded the opportunity to determine their own economic destiny and embrace a different culture so that the good of all becomes the highest good, and a strong sense of community replaces the rapacious pursuit of private material gain. For its own survival and everyone else’s, the union movement could come to the rescue.

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About Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

View all posts by Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer
Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.