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The Epic Failure of Labor Leadership in the United States, 1980-2017 and Continuing

By Kim Scipes - CounterPunch, August 4, 2017

The US labor movement is in terrible shape; in 2016, union membership was only 6.4 percent of workers in the private sector, and 34.4 percent of the public sector, giving an overall percentage of 10.7 percent.[1]  (It had been 33.4 percent in 1954.)  But, worse than the actual numbers and percentages is the all-but-total lack of vision as to what to do about this.  The labor movement has been under direct attack since at least the PATCO strike in 1981, and the leaders of the labor movement—and focus here is on the AFL-CIO, although there are others labor organizations outside of its ambit—have had no vision and, arguably, no clue about what to do about this.  And other than perhaps a nine-year window under John Sweeney (1996-2005)—I’m being generous—it has been blind and vision-less.  And this continues today under Richard Trumka.[2]

This problem is a major reason for the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, aided strongly by working class voters, and I’m speaking of those who are not generally racist, sexist, homophobic and/or xenophobic.

The fact is that, no matter how good any one of our national/international union leaders might be as an individual trade union leader, that does not necessarily make them a good labor leader.  By “labor leader,” I’m referring to those who look out for the well-being of working people in general in this country; i.e., those who go beyond members of their own union to think about working people overall.  I would give the AFL-CIO leaders, individually and collectively, an “F” for their efforts since the early 1980s—with Sweeney possibly getting a D for the nine years referred to above.

This failure is even worse in light of myriad efforts by rank-and-file activists, lower level leaders and staffers, and labor researchers/academics who have spent years of their lives struggling to get the labor movement to address its’ weaknesses and change its ways.  Whether through organizing new members, educating and mobilizing current members, analyzing what we can learn from workers’ struggles in the past as well as from studying contemporary efforts at home and overseas, and thinking about how we can revitalize the labor movement so as to seriously address the problems facing working people in this country, there has been extensive efforts by those “below” to overcome the lack of vision and ineptitude of national labor leaders; but the institutional power granted these “leaders” has overcome all efforts to date to initiate progressive, life-enhancing change.[3]

I’m going to argue that this organizational failure is more than individual failures, which could perhaps be overcome by the election of new leaders, although obviously individual leaders can have a significant impact once put into office.  However, I’m going to argue that the primary problem is in our very model of trade unionism in this country:  I argue that the model of trade unionism that has dominated US unionism—business unionism—offers no viable way forward and must be replaced by another model, that of social justice unionism.  I’m going to argue that unless this change from business unionism to social justice unionism is made, and made soon, the US labor movement is going to fade into irrelevancy, with its power and importance diminishing even further as years go by.

Several steps must be made to develop this argument.  First, the theoretical delineations of business and trade unionism are presented, which are crucial to understand the argument being made.  Then, a historical overview is presented, with a primary focus on the CIO years, 1933-1955, and special attention is paid to the removal of “the left” from the CIO in the late 1940s.  This is followed by a discussion of “global competition, the US economy and the attacks on working people,” and then a question:  “where is the AFL-CIO leadership?”

Following, there is an effort to make sense of why the AFL-CIO leadership has been “missing in action.”  Key to understanding this, it is argued, is to connect the lack of AFL-CIO initiative in domestic situations to the initiative it shows in international affairs—and that requires discussion of the US Empire, and the AFL-CIO leadership’s support of it.  And why they support the US Empire.

And then, there is the beginning of a discussion of how progressive workers can reclaim our labor movement.

Anger from the underground: Bulgarian miners in wildcat strike

By evgeni5150 - libcom.org, June 5, 2017

The miners from Obrochishte - the third largest manganese mine in the world, located in eastern Bulgaria, went on wildcat strike on 01.06.2017. The strike was supported by the anarchosyndicalists from ARS (Avtonomen Rabotnicheski Sindikat / Autonomous Workers Union), while the bureaucratic union in the mine opposed the strike and sided with the bosses.

17 miners from the day shift refused to come out of the mine and stayed underground for 5 days. All the workers from the other shifts, around 150 people, joined the strike. The miners, alongside with the anarchosyndicalists, blocked the main portal so the trucks of the company could not get the goods out. The strike broke out after the management refused to comply with the collective bargaining agreement that was signed earlier this year. The collective agreement was the result of similar strikes in March, when the miners went on hunger strike and organized mass protests to demand raise in salaries, improvement of the working conditions and review of the mining concession contract. Wages in the mine are extremely low - between 230 EUR ( the minimum wage in Bulgaria) and 305 EUR per month. Workers do not receive the necessary equipment, no food vouchers, they don't have transportation provided and the working conditions in the mine are terrifying.

The current 25-years concession contract for the mine was made back in 1999 by the right wing government of Ivan Kostov, famous for his mass privatization policy. For the last 18 years, the private operator of the mine - "EuroMangan", failed to comply with any of the concession agreements, which led to ecological and social disaster in the region. During all those years not a single inspection or regulation was made by the authorities. The organization is owed by a Cyprus offshore company with unclear ownership, but the day-to-day operations are managed by a women named Teresa Dankova, famous among the workers as 'the satan'. She regularly insults the miners, refuses to sign their papers for their social benefits and once she even refused to open the gates for an ambulance to pick up a heavily injured worker. During the March strike, the CEO of "EuroMangan" David Wellinges called the miners' demands - "an extortion". Nevertheless, following pressure from the workers, and through the mediation of the Minister of Energy and the Ombudsman, a collective labor agreement was signed, which stipulated an increase in salaries (albeit with the pitiful 75 EUR), transportation for the workers and also the employer made a commitment to abide by the labor laws.

But it turned out the collective agreement means nothing to the company. They have so far failed to fullfil any of the agreed terms. Furthermore the management has yet to pay salaries for April. That's why the miners went on strike again, but this time with more radical demands - they want all the bosses to leave the mine for good. The strikers got a lot of media attention and solidarity. Autonomous Workers Union organized actions of solidarity with the miners in the capital city of Sofia. Workers from the Varna's section of the union (the closest big town to the mine) joined the strikers in their blockade and raised money for food supplies.

The strike ended on 05.06.2017 when the government officials stepped in, "freezed" the concession and gave 14-days term to terminate it permanently. With this semi-victory, the miners went out from the underground after 5 days, but said that the blockade of the mine stays, as well as strike-readiness, and that if the bosses return after the 14-days term, they will resume the direct actions. In that period, Autonomous Workers Union plans to organize more solidarity actions as well as protests in front of the ministry of electricity (the ministry that is in charge of the concession), so it can put pressure on the officials to comply with the workers' demands.

The World Needs Big Ideas — Here are 10 from the Far Left

By Mary Lorax - Medium, March 4, 2017

The world is in crisis — socially, economically, and environmentally. The world needs big ideas, people want big ideas, and the Democratic Party doesn’t have any. That’s why Hillary lost — she offered nothing.

Bernie offered some narrative, and some solutions, too — like free college — and that’s why he gained a following, and why he was polling ahead of Trump. But Trump offered explanations for our crises too. And not only that, he offered ideas, BIG IDEAS, as terrible as they may have been.

The radical left has a lot to offer. We have new, innovative, and necessary ideas. However instead of promoting them and developing them, we often get caught up in reacting to an increasingly far-right, neoliberal political landscape — always on the defensive. We need to be developing our own ideas, and creating and sharing visions. We can’t be afraid of presenting bold proposals for fear of them sounding too far-fetched in an extremely right-wing media and political climate. People want big, revolutionary ideas.

So here’s a list of some of the left’s coolest ideas.

Are Americans Ready to Strike?

By James Trimarco - Yes Magazine, February 14, 2017

It was April 2012, and I was standing outside a Brooklyn subway station, handing out fliers for the May 1 general strike. Organizers were calling on employees to refuse to go to work and for students to refuse to go to school. We were urging everybody to gather in the streets instead for a festival of resistance and to demand economic justice.

Our fliers said “No work, no school,” and we meant it. We knew that getting even 5 percent of the city’s workers and students to strike would show the 99 percent’s willingness to walk away from an economy that exploited them. “Just try running this city without our labor,” we wanted to say.

But when May Day came around, we found most businesses bustling. Shopping and banking went on without a hitch. Even though thousands of people in cities across the United States participated, our organizing just hadn’t been strong enough to make a dent in business as usual.

Today, there are new calls for strikes in response to the actions of the Trump administration. The novelist Francine Prose published the first of these at the Guardian website. “Let’s designate a day on which no one (that is, anyone who can do so without being fired) goes to work, a day when no one shops or spends money, a day on which we truly make our economic and political power felt,” she wrote. Shortly after that, the creator behind the TV show The Wire, David Simon, suggested the date of Feb. 17 on Twitter. “No one spends, no one produces,” Simon tweeted in response to a critic. “The metric they understand is profit.”

Organizers quickly put together a website and are organizing local events in almost every state via a Google doc. This strike has two specific demands, according to its website, both of which ask members of Congress to stand up for the U.S. Constitution.

But Feb. 17 is just the beginning.

General Strike: How the Working Class Takes Control

By Jack Rusk - Left Voice, February 9, 2017

Since the Women’s March brought millions into the streets the Saturday after inauguration, there has been a rising clamor on social media for a ‘general strike’ against the Trump administration.

Since the Women’s March brought millions into the streets the Saturday after inauguration, there has been a rising clamor on social media for a ‘general strike’ against the Trump administration. The call to stop work was picked up by the U.K. Guardian, Washington Post and now by Cosmopolitan magazine. And the discussion took off so quickly, it gave us multiple proposals for when the strike should happen: February 17 (to counter President’s day), March 8 (International Women’s Day), May 1 (the international workers’ holiday and anniversary of the huge immigrant-led protests of 2006). And the proposals emphasize different kinds of demands, from general resistance to Trump, to defending the rights of women, Black Lives Matter, and immigrants through mutual action to enforce those rights.

But numerous leftists also came forward to announce concerns about the feasibility of a general strike, especially if labor unions are not involved in organizing it. Among the first was Alex Gourevitch, writing in Jacobin, who gives an informative history of militant strikes in the U.S. that faced repression by the state and (sometimes) won. The implication of this and similar pieces is that a general strike call is irresponsible for this spring because organized labor is simply not in a position to carry out the work stoppage and protect striking workers:

If you’re going to ask people not just to risk losing their jobs but potentially face the armed apparatus of the state, there had better be preparation, leadership, and some evident readiness for mass labor actions… It would be reasonable for workers to dismiss the call for a general strike. It looks like they are being asked to be actors in someone else’s drama, by people who just cottoned on to the fact that things are shitty out there.

Gourevitch has the elements of a good argument there, but this kind of naysaying about general strikes misses the point. Of course the workers in the U.S., after decades of setbacks, can’t carry off the kinds of strikes that are difficult even with high levels of organization. But it is very important to recognize that strikes called for Black lives, women’s safety and immigrant rights are not appeals from outside the workers’ movement, they are bottom line calls for solidarity that labor must take seriously if it is going to defend the working class and mobilize against anti-union and anti-strike laws.

What is remarkable, and should be lauded by everyone on the left, is that the mass movement in this country has settled on a tactic that is not just rooted in the working class, but involves the whole class as a class — the general strike. Not to enthusiastically support and amplify this demand is for the left to fall behind the mass movement and the consciousness of the most active workers.

What socialists can advocate, which Gourevitch does not, is just how powerful the strike weapon can be, and how to get from the big protests we can expect on February 17 and March 8 to an actual shutdown of U.S. capitalism, starting with a true holiday from all work on May Day. To see that, we have to look outside the U.S. and have an international view of the workers’ movement that is lacking in the Jacobin article. Because the kind of action that we are now talking about — a massive political protest launching into a strike wave — is exactly how the worker’s movement usually revives itself, most recently in the protests to bring down the dictatorship in Egypt.

Let’s Get to Work

By Erik Forman - Jacobin, February 7, 2017

The Left has a long tradition of asking ourselves, “What is to be done?” Ever since Lenin posed this rhetorical question, it has served as the hook for an ever-expanding genre of think pieces and calls to action on every imaginable social-movement dilemma.

“What is to be done?” bounces from movement to movement, crisis to crisis, and occasionally illuminates more foundational existential problems of the Left. In that spirit, Jacobin’s recent “Rank and File” issue examined one of our more urgent contemporary questions: what is to be done to revitalize the labor movement?

Contributors offered up numerous diagnoses and prescriptions. Charlie Post pointed out the crucial role the militant minority played in labor’s twentieth-century successes; Jane McAlevey called for “whole worker organizing,” Joe McCartin urged unions not to squander the brief window between the Friedrichs decision and the next attack on collective bargaining rights; and Sam Gindin proposed the “class-based left” as an alternative to social movement unionism.

Since publication of these articles, labor’s crisis has deepened. The right wing now controls all three branches of the federal government and the majority of states. The sequel to Friedrichs, Janus v. AFSCME, is headed for the Supreme Court, threatening to decimate public-sector unions nationwide. Talk of a national right-to-work law is spreading.

Figuring out “what is to be done” has only become more urgent. But there’s a problem with this question, evident first at the level of grammar. “What is to be done?” commits every writing teacher’s cardinal sin: the passive voice. Who is the subject here? Who is going to do what needs to be done?

The absence of an active subject is more than a grammatical problem — it represents the problem of the labor left. The militant minority is small to nonexistent, and it’s not even clear who is going to do the work to rebuild it. There is a large gap between the intellectual left and the working class it discusses.

Working-class voices are rare among the talking heads who dominate left discourse. Most theorists on the Left write of labor from the perspective of intellectuals who stand above the class struggle, rather than workers in the thick of it.

The decision-makers for labor are often literal miles away from their own rank and file. As a result, we more often talk about unions organizing workers than workers organizing unions. Workers are positioned as the objects rather than the subjects of their own organizations.

This alienation manifests in a variety of ways: members don’t participate in meetings, are unready or unwilling to strike, accept concessionary bargaining, and as the recent election made clear, express alarming levels of support for right-wing candidates.

Labor liberals believe these problems can be corrected with small-picture fixes: social media, paper coalitions with community groups, narrow campaigns against this or that particular right-wing legislation, and other tactical shifts that leave the structure of the union unchanged. The present moment shows that this band-aid approach has failed to reverse labor’s decline.

And even if they could, they would not go far enough. The labor left must seek not just to salvage labor’s existing institutions but to transform them and build new ones. Our goal should be to make workers the subjects rather than the objects of their own organizations — and of history.

Our prescription for the labor movement’s renewal needs a new grammar. Instead of asking “What is to be done?”, we could start with a different question: “What should I do?”

As it turns out, the right-wing hecklers we’ve all encountered are half right: we should get jobs. And then we should do what we tell workers to do all the time: organize our workplaces.

This tactic has a name and a history. It’s called “salting,” and it was foundational to the development of the American labor movement.

Democratize the union: let the rank-and-file decide!

By Alexander Kolokotronis - ROARMag, January 25, 2017

According to exit poll data, Donald Trump won Ohio union households 54 percent to 41 percent against Hillary Clinton. At the national level, Clinton achieved a narrow victory, winning 51 percent, to Trump’s 42 percent. This despite the fact that labor unions spent more than $100 million in support of Clinton. Of course, factors relating to race, gender and class are at play. Nonetheless, the right-wing slant of union households should also be cause for concern.

Unionization of US workers has declined both under Democratic and Republican administrations and congresses. In the 1950s, approximately 35 percent of US workers were in unions. Today, this number has dropped to a mere 11 percent. Unless organized labor finds solutions to problems pervasive within its own organizations and structures, union membership numbers will continue to shrink, and remaining members will be too cornered to mobilize effectively.

To tackle longstanding administrative and organizational problems endemic to labor unions, we must start with how we approach union dues. That is, creating member-focused and driven mechanisms which endow the rank-and-file with direct control over dues allocation a fiscal base amounting to $8.6 billion in the United States.

Fortunately, such mechanisms of direct control like participatory budgeting  have been tried and tested in other areas of social life. Participatory budgeting has revitalized social life and empowered people through its implementation in municipalities, in schools and colleges, in public housing and now even at the national level. What problems could participatory budgeting address in labor unions? And how can it provide a socialist thrust to one of the bulwarks of the American left?

Labor under Trump part 3: death of the labor movement?

By S Nicholas Nappalos - Recomposition, January 18, 2017

For years now commentators have predicted the collapse of the unions. This has not happened. There has been a long slow decline with areas of victories as well. Following the Trump victory speculation has been rampant and has led to various proclamations yet again of the death of labor. It is clear that Republican domination of all branches of government poses a real threat to the Democratic-party aligned unions, particularly public sector unions, and that we are entering a new era both for the working class and the vestiges of their historic organizations. Our third piece exploring the potentials for labor under trump comes from one of our editors S Nicholas Nappalos. He argues that while these dangers are real, they also come with new possibilities for a militant participatory workers movement. Moreover it is not apolitical unions that can address the weaknesses of the labor movement heading into a collision with this government, but an active politicized union movement marking its opposition to both capital and the state. 

Labor’s death under trump? the potential for a renewed workers movement in an era of dangers

It’s no secret that the labor movement of the United States is in serious danger. Every year union membership continues to shrink. This happens despite large scale organizing attempts by the minority of unions willing to do something about it. Having put all their eggs in the basket of the Democrats, AFL-CIO and Change To Win unions were handed a spectacular failure with the election of a Republican sweep of all branches of government. All this comes on the heels of a broad decay of living conditions amongst the working class in general, but disproportionately concentrated upon women, blacks, latinos, and indigenous communities in particular. The Democrats kept their loyalty to business interests at all costs and the unions largely didn’t flinch.

Today the vast majority of union members are public employees, and attacks on their ability to bargain and sustain union membership are all but certain by the incoming Congress. If something significant doesn’t change we can anticipate nation-wide union membership in the single digits, whole regions virtually union free in some areas (many states in the South presently sit at less than 3-5% unionization rates), and a calling of the question on the labor movement’s ability to defend the workers. 2016 is set to close with ominous tones as the second largest union in the US, SEIU, plans to cut their budget by 30% as revealed in a leaked internal memo with clear implications for organizing in the coming days.[1]

Video: How to Organize a General Strike

By New York City IWW - January 14, 2017

The solidarity ecosystems of occupied factories

By Liam Barrington-Bush - ROARMag, January 16, 2017

At first glance it is a factory: heavy machinery, crates, palettes, industrial barrels and men doing manual labor. Little catches the eye, except maybe the homemade banners hanging up around the warehouse. They’re in Greek, so you might not be able to read them, but you can tell these are not the stock decorations from the ‘IKEA industrial chic’ catalog.

Over a couple of days, you might also notice that you’re unlikely to see those men doing the same specific jobs, day after day, as you would in most factories. They seem to rotate their roles, mixing up batches of soap, pouring them into frames and cutting it into bars, but also cleaning toilets, taking product orders and coordinating distribution.

However, overall, when you walk into VIO.ME, it mostly looks like countless other industrial workplaces in the north of Greece and beyond. At least, until you come back on a Wednesday or a Thursday and find part of the administrative office converted into a free health clinic for workers and the wider community.

… or when you arrive first thing any day of the week and see all the workers gathered together, sharing updates on the work and making sure they are all in the know around the pertinent aspects of the business for the day ahead.

… or if you go into one of the store rooms and discover members of different migrant solidarity groups sorting through donations that are stored at the factory, for ongoing distribution around Thessaloniki’s many migrant squats, camps and occupations.

Over time, you notice that beneath VIO.ME’s sometimes mundane veneer, a series of radical changes are taking place. These are changes that offer alternatives to how we organize work, community and society at large. While VIO.ME has become a hallmark of these shifts in Europe, what those who work and support the factory are discovering is not unique. It is spreading, offering an alternative vision of how radical changes might occur in the ways we work, live and relate to the planet as a whole.

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