With all the recent coverage of the possible auto industry bailout and the daunting unemployment numbers in Michigan and the rest of the United States, it would be beneficial to look at the current state of organized labor in the US. Co-authors Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin provide a timely look at unions in their new book Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice.
Solidarity Divided begins with an important overview of the history of organized labor and points out that the more radical sectors of organized labor –the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)–were targeted for repression in the later part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. Other unions, such as the Ameican Federation of Labor (AFL), under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, embraced the ideology of capitalism and only fought to improve certain conditions such as wages for workers. The authors point out that not only did Gompers support organized capital, he endorsed US imperialism abroad and racial repression at home.
It was this combination of business unionism and allegiance to state policy that has dictated much of organized labor’s evolution over the past 70 years. Solidarity Divided does point out that these positions are at time challenged like in the case of the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement of the 1960s and 1970s or the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in Detroit. However, Fletcher and Gapasin point out that these movements were successful in large part because other movements were active and in solidarity at the time. Both of the movements just mentioned were beneficiaries of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. However, the AFL-CIO tended to distance themselves from such movements or co-opt them into embracing a more “pragmatic” approach to organizing.
The rank-and-file frustration with this type of organizing led to the hope that with the election of John Sweeney to head the AFL-CIO in 1995, there would be some changes. Several major labor battles at the time provided an opportunity to see if the new regime would listen to rank-and-file concerns. Among the more high profile campaign were the Staley strike in Illinois, the Detroit newspaper workers strike, and the UFW strawberry campaign. The AFL-CIO participated in each effort, but with limited resources and a very weak strategy. Fletcher and Gapasin believe that Sweeney missed huge opportunities to change the direction of the union from being a business union to what they call solidarity unionism.
By the end of the 1990s, after five years of NAFTA and little challenge from the AFL-CIO on major trade policies, new groups formed to challenge the neo-liberal economic model. This resistance was best demonstrated in 1999 at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle. There are popular images of Teamsters and Turtles that both protested against the WTO, but the authors make it clear that the AFL-CIO did not want to be associated with the anti-globalization movement, nor did they want to hurt their relationship with the Clinton administration.
The last section of the book deals with the growing rank-and-file frustration that eventually led to some unions leaving the AFL-CIO and forming the “Change to Win” coalition. However, Fletcher and Gapasin believe that this new labor coalition tended to replicate some of the same problems that existed with the AFL-CIO, such as too much of a top-down mentality and not enough emphasis on solidarity.
The book concludes with the notion that US workers in the labor movement need to shift from pragmatic unionism to adopt social justice unionism. For the authors, social justice unionism is more class conscious and has an international perspective. The authors never come out and say that a social justice union would be anti-capitalist, but they would see that for US unions to be in solidarity with workers worldwide they would need to challenge US foreign policy. This idea was best expressed in a comment from one Colombian trade union activist who said, “The most important thing that North American activists seeking to support trade unions in Colombia can do is to work to change US policy towards Colombia, especially its emphasis on military and policy aid.”
Fletcher and Gapasin believe that unless workers in the US see the connection between the imperial adventures of the United States and US capitalism there is no hope for unions to effective in the 21st Century. Solidarity Divided can help us see that connection.
Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, (University of California Press, 2008).