Beyond “Charlie Brown”

Guest author: Robert Fitch

Anyone who watched Rich Trumka’s performance January 29th on Bill Moyers’Journal has got to be impressed by his impersonation of Charlie Brown.  The newly selected AFL-CIO chief won’t let organized labor’s repeated legislative, organizing and political failures keep him from pursuing the same discredited strategies – any more than Charlie Brown would give up trying to kick the football that Lucy always pulls away at the last moment.

Moyers portrayed Trumka glowingly as an authentic, principled, militant son of Pennsylvania coal country. But he asked “Rich” several pointed questions. What about EFCA (“card check”), labor’s highly prized but hopelessly stalled legislative initiative?   It will pass, Trumka insisted. “It’ll take some creative doing. But we’ll do it.” (An estimate not shared by the bill’s most important Senate sponsor Iowa Democrat, Tom Harkin.) Asked Moyers: Why did the AFL-CIO file a friend of the Court brief in support of the conservative initiative to give corporations free speech? “We didn’t.” Trumka replied.  That wasn’t our intention; we just wanted to be able to talk to our members at election time.  Moyers wanted to know why labor still gives unconditional support to the Democrats.  “So far, one year into this administration,” Moyers observed, “you haven’t gotten anything that I can see that you wanted in ‘08.”  “That’s not so.” said Trumka.  Congress “hasn’t been able to pass the big bills yet, but we’re getting there. And we’ll get them done.”

Moyers asked. “What’s happened that unions don’t seem to be fighting back the way they did in the 1930s?”  “We are fighting back,” Trumka maintained. But instead of giving inspiring examples, he offered only reasons why resistance is so hard.

Still, Moyers was sensitive enough to his guest’s feelings, not to ask him to comment on figures just released from the Labor Department that showed organized labor’s share of the private sector workforce down to 1901 levels.  He didn’t mention the biggest drop off in public support for unions in 2009 since Gallup started keeping track in the 1930’s. Nor did he raise the issue of membership in Trumka’s own United Mine Workers which now represents less than 7% of America’s miners.   Nor did Trumka have to answer a question about the unseemly jurisdictional battles that appear, over the last few years, to have absorbed the principle share of top union officials’ energy and passion.

What Trumka’s responses – or lack of them — show is that politically speaking, organized labor in America is no longer in a crisis.  It’s in a coma.  To expect a top U.S. labor leader to respond appropriately to the challenges workers face is like supposing someone in a profoundly vegetative state is going to spring out of bed and resume normal activity.

But we’ve known that for a long time.  The real question is not about labor’s top honcho’s, it’s about us.  What about the labor Left?   Aren’t we following – albeit critically! – in the wake of the two big federations with our own Charlie Brown routine?

If this were thirty, twenty or even a dozen years ago, it might be possible to hope that just doing the same thing, showing patience, staying the course, keeping our eye on the ball will work and it will finally sail, end-over-end, through the uprights.

For the last thirty years though, we’ve been playing pretty much the same inside game.  We’ve seen our task as reforming the unions.  By working inside progressive unions as staffers, or by supporting rank-and-file caucuses that target “bureaucratic” leadership. We’ve sought to  replace the bureaucrats with reformers who would promote democracy, participation, and bottom-up initiatives.  Through these struggles, the slogan went, we will “put the movement back into labor” and, eventually, business unionism will be no more.

The reform project of the labor Left receives our continued support because we share the political values invoked. As democratic socialists we obviously favor democracy and bottom up initiatives.  But after a generation of, at best, rather modest and often contested successes – like Ron Carey’s presidency, the ’97 UPS strike, SEIU’s janitor and homecare organizing campaigns and the advent of John Sweeney’s New Voice – it’s incumbent on us to ask whether we haven’t been looking for democracy and bottom up initiative in all the wrong places.

We have to ask whether “union democracy” doesn’t ignore the most important affronts to genuine democracy.  Defining features of American unions go unremarked by the labor left but actually constitute violations of the UN and ILO Charters – legal features promoting exclusion, compulsory membership and exclusive bargainingthat have long disappeared from labor institutions in other countries where unionism is far stronger.  In France, for example, unions face a crisis, but they’re not comatose: they still represent over 90% of the workforce – the unions display far more combativity without the need to corral their members with compulsory membership or dues arrangements. Workers can support whatever union they want or none at all.

We have to ask further whether in the struggle to democratize and extend union membership we haven’t been dealing with effects rather than causes.  The unique American model of labor unionism – based on local autonomy, forced membership, exclusive bargaining and jurisdictions – is designed to produce a union premium – a wage higher than that earned by non-union workers.  For a lot of unions – the carpenters for example – this means exclusion rather than inclusion, sectionalism rather than solidarity.

How surprising is it that these institutions – given their economic base and their legal infrastructure — aren’t all that open to substantive democratic reform? The natural political superstructure that forms in our unions is not a bureaucracy or a democracy but a machine, one founded on patronage and generally on ethnicity whose function it is to distribute the economic surplus and the union perquisites that arise from jurisdictional monopoly to the machine’s constituents. Even with the best political will, reformers can’t escape the limits of the institution. “Bottom-up” reform campaigns don’t abolish the machine; they merely change in its beneficiaries.

We’re not talking Michels here; the point is not to assert the existence of an iron law of oligarchy.  But rather that we, the labor Left, need to aim at a higher standard of democracy; be less insistent on what we the U.S. labor Left have accomplished; and more aware of what workers and socialists have accomplished in other countries.

What’s needed right now is an open discussion of the future of the labor Left; specifically whether the present generation should try to replicate the strategy of the last 30 years or whether a new course is required. And what that course would look like.

There is one principle that ought to serve as a touchstone for the discussion. Both for those who want to stay the course and those who would strike out on a new one. It’s the first rule, written by Karl Marx, of the International Working Men’s Association:

That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; that, the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.

While written approximately 150 years ago, the principles stand less in need of revision than of remembrance and re-application.  The point of the labor movement is not to elevate one section of the working class over the other, or to restrict membership to a labor aristocracy, but to liberate working people as a whole. Evidently, “emancipation” means liberation of workers from dependence on a boss, but it also must mean independence from the will of a union boss.  Nor can a labor movement that depends on state-awarded legal privileges rather than the consent of its members be emancipatory. Finally, emancipation is not consistent with dependence on a party which in turn is dependent on a class adversary.

In capitalism’s last great crisis, labor radicals didn’t play an inside game, waiting for the CIO to form or for Congress to pass the Wagner act making it easier to organize.  In Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis, small organizations of socialists led by figures like A.J. Muste, Farrell Dobbs, and Harry Bridges created new forms of organization and new forms of resistance.  We can’t expect that the experience of the 1930s will repeat itself without taking the same political initiative and personal risks that were taken by the labor radicals of the 1930s.

I would like to join with other DSA members in a discussion about how to join new forms of organization to old labor principles.

Robert Fitch is the author of Solidarity for Sale and “Card Check: Labor’s Charlie Brown Moment?” from the Spring 2010 issue of New Politics. He can be reached at  Visit the Talking Union blog for more labor commentary.

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