The AFL-CIO “On the Beach”
In the chilling 1959 cold war apocalyptic film, On the Beach, the entire northern hemisphere has succumbed to radiation sickness after a nuclear war. A few pockets of humanity remain in the southern hemisphere but, the characters in the film discover, their demise is inevitable as wind currents slowly move the nuclear fall- out toward them. Life goes on as usual, albeit at a more frenzied and desperate pace, as people await their doom while the radioactive cloud creeps toward them, silencing other outposts as it moves.
At the risk of being overly dramatic, it could be said that today’s AFL-CIO is “on the beach” and awaiting its own demise while attempting to carry on as if it still had a future. Formed in 1955 with a merger meant to end two decades of bitter infighting, the AFL-CIO’s primary purpose was to consolidate and administer the post-war collective bargaining regime. There was a reason why its new headquarters building overlooked the White House. The premise of that regime was that labor was a limited partner with capital in a relationship mediated by the federal government.
This arrangement made workers and their unions particularly vulnerable to the rise of neoliberal globalization. Moreover, a labor movement whose mission focused on collective bargaining with individual employers, and with many of the fundamental functions of working- class solidarity outlawed or constrained, left little scope for a national labor organization to mobilize and lead an organized working class in campaigns against capital.
Instead, we got a federation whose primary internal function was not to unite but to mediate between autonomous unions and whose exter- nal function was to intervene in a regulatory state and serve as a junior partner in a multi- class political party. (Until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. labor movement also performed the additional function of serving U.S. foreign policy interests.)
Today, labor’s influence has been reduced to a few diminishing private-sector outposts. Capital has long moved on, embracing a neoliberal world order with no place for unions or any restraints on its mobility or autonomy. The strange fruits of the November 2016 presidential election make a Friedrichs’-style open-shop public sector all but inevitable. The current Congress and Trump administration may well enact a national right-to-work regulation and do whatever else they can to undermine the right to organize and bargain.
The AFL-CIO has been grappling with this existential crisis since 1995 when, in the only contested election in the history of the AFL- CIO, the New Voices slate was elected with the promise to stop doing business as usual and implement an organizing-intensive program to revitalize the labor movement. The proximate cause of all of this ferment and change was the realization that the Democratic Party had also been captured by neoliberalism. This was driven home by the Clinton administration’s indifference to labor law reform, deference to the medical industrial complex, attacks on federal workers and abandonment of the New Deal/Great Society principles of a social safety net and its embrace of punitive models of social regulation.
Unfortunately, the New Voices leadership never addressed the need to break out of its entrapment within the neoliberal Democratic Party. They actively discouraged the significant union-sponsored effort to build an independent Labor Party that emerged in the late 1990s.
Instead, they doubled down, giving more and more money and organizing resources to Democratic candidates and getting less and less in return. Each election was “the most important fight of our lifetime.” Each victory gave us nothing. Each defeat had disastrous consequences.
This political accommodationism meant that there would be no real improvements in the laws regulating workers’ rights to organize and bargain nor restrictions on plant closures and offshoring. The unrelenting decline in private- sector union density continued, creating a hollowed-out labor movement in all but a few northeastern and west coast states. Union density in Wisconsin in 2011 (the year of the pas- sage of the state’s anti-union public-sector legislation) was less than the union density in Mississippi in 1964. First in Indiana and Wisconsin and then throughout much of the old industrial heartland, anti-union state governments began to aggressively dismantle public- and private-sector organizing and bargaining rights.
In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led five national unions out of the AFL-CIO and launched the Change to Win Federation with a promise to shift resources from politics to organizing. Despite its sound and fury, Change to Win failed to reverse the forces leading to the broad decline of the institutional labor movement. They tripled down on accepting the two parties of neoliberalism as the eternal and unchanging reality of American politics and adopted an instrumental politics that would make an old school building trades local proud: we offer this support in exchange for an agreement to unionize these workers under these terms.
Live by the sword, die by the sword. As union density and political clout diminish, a new cadre of anti-union politicians has abrogated these “organizing” agreements as quickly and as easily as they were established by their predecessors. Today, Change to Win mostly exists on paper while the SEIU spends more on political candidates than does the AFL-CIO.
The logical conclusion of the SEIU’s organizing strategy has been described by “new labor” superstar David Rolf, president of Seattle-based SEIU Local 775, as the “nurse log metaphor” (a nurse log is a fallen tree in the forest that provides nourishment for other plants). Under this scenario, the institutional labor movement’s primary function is to trans- fer resources from organized, dues-paying members to new initiatives like the Fight for $15 campaigns that can rapidly improve conditions for broad sections of the working class without the hassle and difficulty of building a permanent workplace organization. The problem with this, of course, is that it fails to leave behind the type of organic working-class insti- tutions that can nurture leadership and a sense of collective power. At best, the end result is hollowed-out structures like those unions created by administrative fiat to “represent” home health care and family daycare workers.
One alternative to this approach is what journalist Rich Yeselson has called “fortress unionism”6: Defend the remaining bastions of high-density unionism, strengthen existing union locals, build coalitions with other social movements, and then, “Wait for workers to say they’ve had enough.” This is not unlike the characters in On the Beach who wanted to believe that the radioactive clouds would dissipate before they got to them. Defending collective bargaining where it is still viable is a necessary but not sufficient response to the crisis. “Fortress unionism” as a strategy would merely replicate on a much smaller scale the post-war labor movement’s acquiescence to a non-union South after the defeat of Operation Dixie in 1946-1947.
This is the paradox of the American labor movement trapped in a dying collective bar- gaining regime. On the one hand, its very existence is an affront to the neoliberal consensus that views any effort to intervene in the market as parasitic rent-seeking. Its very survival requires that it mobilize workers to confront massive political and economic power, and the threat of that mobilization is what focuses the organized power of capital against it. On the other hand, on a day-to-day basis, the labor movement must deal with the quotidian concerns of its dues-paying members. This is the world of compromise and contract enforcement, of shift schedules and work boot reimbursements, and of defending the guilty so the innocent will not be harassed. They used to call this stuff industrial democracy but now it just befuddles and bores those staffers and “leaders” who never worked in a union shop or experienced what it is like to be a shop steward coming into work in the morning and seeing ten coworkers waiting by the time clock.
The growth of alt-labor worker centers and similar organizations offers some hope as groups such as the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance evolve from foundation-funded “set- tlement house-style” centers that treat workers as clients to membership-driven organizations intent on building worker power. They may very well develop new models that embed worker organizations into workplaces without relying on the legal entailments and formalities
of the collective bargaining regime. But most workers are not willing to sign up for a lifetime of guerrilla warfare. They want security, respect, and enforceable rights and conditions. It certainly makes for great visuals when fifty immigrant construction workers take the day off and picket the boss’ house when they are robbed of their overtime pay, but, I can assure you, most would rather pay union dues so that they could file a grievance under an enforceable labor contract.
What does all this portend for the future of the AFL-CIO? The Federation is being riven by barely acknowledged ideological debates. The dispute over the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline construction projects exposed the fault lines between those who saw labor’s future as linked to a partnership with capital in an expansionist and extractive economy model and those who saw the potential in a labor movement aligned with the advocates for a planned and regulated green economy. The 2016 Democratic primaries also heightened the contradictions between those who have accepted the neoliberal world order as inevitable versus those who want to build a new social democratic alternative to neoliberalism, and the Trump administration will certainly intensify these differences. So far, the AFL-CIO has not proven to be a good forum in which to hold these debates. It has taken a hands-off approach and tried to sweep the contradictions under the table. But these contradictions persist nonetheless. They show up in debates over who to support for DNC chair and in the growth of informal caucuses of the left, right, and center. The decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growth of these tendencies based on very different visions of the role of labor in the age of Trump can only accelerate the demise of a Federation model that was crafted in different times for different purposes.
In addition to the ideological pressures, the AFL-CIO is facing a huge financial crunch that will be made worse as the large public-sector unions reduce expenses in anticipation of the loss of agency fee revenue under a new Friedrichs decision. The Federation may soon no longer be able to afford its penthouse terrace overlooking the White House.
But there is something to be said for labor unity, especially in a time of crisis. Many of the central labor councils and state labor federa- tions play a vital role in bringing together the best and the brightest, supporting workers in struggle and engaging in ground-level political mobilization. Compared with the one-party states that characterize most unions, even many of the progressive ones, these structures allow leaders and activists to escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns. If there is to be a real debate about labor’s future, it has to be within structures like these.
If nothing else, this would ensure that the debate would take place within organic structures of leaders connected and accountable to real constituencies and capable of committing organizational resources to a common program. One of the temptations afflicting many in the nominal left is to substitute their own prescriptions for the kind of programmatic unity that can only emerge from such a process. There is no shortage of ideas, many of them quite good, about what the labor movement ought to be doing next. What is needed is not more good ideas but a unified left pole that can give life to a common plan for a revitalized labor movement. This can only happen if key national and local labor organizations are at the table from the beginning of the discussion and feel like they own the outcomes.
There will probably be an AFL-CIO until the radioactive clouds envelop the last outposts of unionism. But time is running short for those who would like to see the AFL-CIO as a catalyst for a revitalized labor movement. To move forward, the Federation must embrace the “spirit of 1995” and acknowledge that we are in deep crisis and need an open and wide-ranging debate about solutions. This must involve a recognition that a revitalized labor movement needs a new vision of politics and a commitment to shift resources toward transformational programs such as single-payer health care, green infrastructure development, and expanding the public sector to support collective bar- gaining goals while building new relationships with social movements and working-class constituencies. There are certainly leaders, staffers, and activists at all levels of the labor movement who recognize the urgency for change. As we deal with the fallout from the disastrous elections and prepare for the AFL-CIO’s upcoming quadrennial convention, this a good time to begin.
One more thing about On the Beach. At the very end, the camera scans the deserted streets of Melbourne, Australia and settles on a Salvation Army poster. “There is still time,” it says. . . .
1. See Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, “Labor Party Time? Not Yet,” 2012, available at http://thelaborparty.org/d_lp_time.htm.
2. Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/23/385843576/50-years-of-shrinkingunion-membership-in-one-map.
3. Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/big-laborunions-step-up-presidential-election-spending-1476783002.
4. Harold Meyerson, “The Seeds of a New LaborMovement,” American Prospect, October 30,2014, available at http://prospect.org/article/labor-crossroads-seeds-new-movement.
5. For further discussion of this tension, see Jane McAlevey, “Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing,” New Labor Forum 25, no. 3 (2016): 87-89.
6. Rich Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism,” Democracy,Summer, 2013, available at http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/29/fortress-unionism/.Response to Mark Dudzic’s”The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”
Mark Dudzic is a long-time union activist and former national organizer of the Labor Party. He currently serves as national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare.
Response to Mark Dudzic’s “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”
Julie Kushner with Kitty Weiss Krupat
There are progressive trade unionists (from the AFL-CIO down to the shop floor) who are engaged in debate about the future of the labor movement—a movement that is struggling to regain its power to defend the rights of workers against the overwhelming force of capital and corporate dominance. For over forty years, I have been part of those debates, as has Mark Dudzic. I began reading his article, “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach’” but almost stopped dead after his opening gambit, an apocalyptic vision from the film On the Beach as a metaphor for the AFL-CIO— all washed up and “awaiting its own demise . . .” But I read on and found myself in agreement with Dudzic on several points. That said, I think, in the main, his conclusions are unbalanced or unfair, dismissing too freely the complexities and contradictions inherent in any organization structured as a federation with voluntary membership.
His narrative begins in 1955, with another metaphor of sorts—the establishment of the AFL- CIO in a building overlooking the White House. What emerges is a picture of the AFL-CIO as a disembodied structure—an imposing marble building with a professional staff and a “marriage” of convenience with the Democratic Party. Largely absent from this picture are unions and the workers they represent. From this limited perspective, Dudzic places the burden of survival on the AFL-CIO, without fully considering the role of its affiliates or examining the policies, prac- tices, and actual campaigns carried out by individual unions and their members. I believe this is a common weakness in labor analysis.
Rightly, Dudzic warns against the danger of divisions within the AFL-CIO on ideological or political grounds, but he overlooks the impor- tant role the Federation plays in bringing unions together to support one another’s organizing or collective bargaining campaigns. He does not mention the enormous resources provided by the Federation, including statewide Leadership Institutes that bring union leaders together across jurisdictional lines to debate critical labor issues. He urges labor activists to “escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns” without reference to Working America, a community affiliate of the Federation that gives non-union workers opportunities to organize around such issues as health care, education, and housing.
We have to wait until the final paragraphs of “On the Beach” to learn something about the important work going on at state federations and central labor councils. Dudzic leaves the impres- sion that these labor bodies are somehow separate from the AFL-CIO. In fact, they are directly char- tered by the AFL-CIO, and many are financed by the Federation in the form of “Solidarity Grants.” These grants help to support the development of labor–community alliances around the country that have resulted in such campaigns as the Fight for $15. In his discussion of alt-labor groups, he points to the Taxi Workers Alliance as a prime example, failing to note that the Alliance is a char- tered member of the AFL-CIO, the first “non-tra- ditional” union of independent contractors in the Federation.
I share Dudzic’s desire for labor unity around a progressive social and political agenda, and I think his critique of the alliance between labor and government is a cogent one. But I also think it is unrealistic to suggest that we ignore the main- stream political arena. Dudzic carefully explains how the alliance has led labor into the neoliberal establishment, but he sidesteps the issue that immediate and constant pressure to save members’ jobs has often driven individual unions into the conservative camp on particular issues such as the environment or trade. I wish Dudzic had spent more time contemplating long-term solutions to that problem, rather than condemning unions for their failures to unite around a left political agenda. I also wish he had noted unions, such as the Utility Workers, who are committed to job creation through Blue-Green alliances and investments in infrastructure development as well as in education and training to help workers transition from old jobs to new ones. Dudzic’s failure to recognize the significant accomplishments of labor through the Working Families Party is also a serious omission.
I do not want to whitewash the weaknesses in labor’s political work. We have failed to convince union members to vote in their own interests, and that is a bottom line. Nevertheless, political action is a necessary part of our work, which can result in important benefits for workers. The 2016 Verizon strike is a good example. Because of its relation- ship to the Democratic Party, labor was able to call upon then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to facilitate a settlement that added 1,300 new jobs and created the first contracts at several Verizon stores—all without concessions on job security and flexibility. The appointment of a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration allowed university workers to regain rights to organize they had lost in the Bush era.
Dudzic suggests that low union density in Wisconsin and Indiana was the enabling factor in allowing state governments to dismantle organiz- ing and bargaining rights in the public sector. I do not think density can be isolated as the factor in that or any other labor struggle. We have to give the Koch brothers some credit. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates poured money and resources into the Wisconsin fight. Unions from around the country came together in the greatest show of labor soli- darity in recent memory. But the combined power of the national labor movement was no match for the power of accumulated capital in the hands of the Koch brothers.
Ultimately—and I am sure Mark Dudzic would agree—we need to encourage and stand with those of our members who are ready to persist and resist. More challenging and more difficult, we need to develop effective ways to engage with, and change the minds of, those members who allow race, gender, homophobia, and fear of difference to divide us. I certainly agree with him that wide-ranging debate is a necessary first step in that direction.
Julie Kushner is the director of UAW-9A, a region that encompasses New England, parts of New York, and Puerto Rico. In this capacity, she is a member of the International UAW Executive Board.
Kitty Weiss Krupat, a union organizer and labor educator, recently retired as an associate director of the Murphy Institute. Her publications include Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance, co-authored with Patrick McCreery.
Mark Dudzic Respondes
Julie Kushner rightfully stresses the many impor- tant things that individual unions are doing to “defend the rights of workers against the over- whelming force of capital.” However, the intent of my essay was to focus on the prospects for the future of the AFL-CIO in light of the continuing decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growing differences among the national unions that make up the federation (her reference to the Utility Workers’ excellent work in promot- ing a Blue-Green Alliance in contrast to more conservative approaches taken by other unions exposes one of those fault lines).
Kushner agrees that the AFL-CIO has diffi- culty functioning as a unified working-class voice because of its federation structure, mak- ing it ill-suited to lead at a time when the con- tradictions with capital have intensified. This structure holds the AFL-CIO hostage to the effective veto of any action by any one of its affiliates. These limitations have convinced union leaders like Larry Cohen, former presi- dent of the Communications Workers of America, that “Too often a particular union’s stance may reflect a private employer’s growth plans, not the general good for working people” and that we should “. . . not necessarily focus on [labor] unity about political strategy.”1
Recent layoffs and reductions in programs at the AFL-CIO are indicative of the precarious- ness of its financial situation and are probably just the beginning of a painful process of finan- cial retrenchment. This situation creates its own death spiral. Will the affiliates continue to prop up the AFL-CIO as it sheds programs and services and is increasingly unable to rise to the challenge of opposing a sustained and concerted attack on the foundational rights to organize and bargain?
Moreover, the Federation has been unable to resolve the tension that Kushner identifies between transactional and transformative politics. The relentless drive toward the lowest common denominator means that the long-term interests of the working class—precisely what a national labor organization should, in theory, be consti- tuted to promote—are often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. At a time when right-wing populism poses an existential threat to the principles and values of an independent labor movement, these compromises can prove disastrous.
I agree with Kushner that perhaps the most important raison d’être of the AFL-CIO is the nur-turing of solidarity, discussion, and labor unity at the local and regional level. Like Kushner, I am not ready to give up on the promise of a unified and activist national labor movement and believe that the institutional labor movement continues to be the source of the resources, organizing capacity, and constituency without which any progressive change is inconceivable.
But time is truly running short. And we are not well served by any perspective that seeks to minimize the extent of the crisis or paper over the internal differences. We must begin by rigorous self-examination and debate led by leaders and activists who actually have a stake in the outcome. In the end, a newly revitalized labor movement in the United States may look very different than today’s AFL-CIO.
1. David Moberg, “This Is What Progressives—Especially Labor—Can Learn from Bernie Sanders’ Campaign,” In These Times, July 27,2016, available at http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19330/this_is_what_progressives_especially_labor_can_learn_from_bernie_sanderss_c.