Main Document Index  |  ETOL Home Page


The Decline of American Unionism

by Frank Lovell

A review of An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism by Kim Moody. Verso, London and New York, 1988. 376 pages, $16.95.

This is the most comprehensive and most current of several recent books on the decline of the union movement in the U.S. It opens with a chapter on the situation in which organized labor finds itself at the close of the 1980s, using the five-and-a-half-month 1986 steel strike as illustrative of the wave of wage cuts, plant closures, and failed strikes during the second Reagan administration.

From this recognition of what is, the cruel reality, the author begins his review of the history of the modern union movement in the post-World War II years. He traces the emergence of the system of “political bargaining” which began during the war, explains the rise of “modern business unionism” (not essentially different from the business unionism of Samuel Gompers in the old American Federation of Labor prior to World War I), and describes the organizational crisis of the unions created by the transformation of U.S. industry brought on by the internationalization of the productive process in the 1970s.

Moody is mainly interested in discovering how changes in prevailing concepts and perceptions of unionism can be brought about, and how a “new unionism” can be created. As executive director of Labor Education and Research Project, which publishes the monthly magazine Labor Notes, he is a political activist and participant in union reform movements. His insights and his writing show it. Union members are his audience. He knows firsthand the problems and the people he writes about. And this makes his book different from others like it.

Looking Back

The union movement appeared to prosper as the U.S. economy expanded in the 1950s and first half of the 1960s. The major industrial unions in auto, steel, rubber, coal, oil and chemical, and trucking had all established industry-wide bargaining, gained company-paid health care and pension plans (and other fringe benefits including wage escalators geared to rising prices, and various forms of supplementary unemployment benefits), and enjoyed amicable labor/management relations through a system of negotiations and arbitration which resolved all on-job conflicts. During these years many strikes occurred, some long ones, but they were resolved finally to the mutual satisfaction of union and management with top negotiators on both sides congratulating themselves (and each other) on the virtues of collective bargaining.

This state of affairs depended on and was regulated by government labor policy. It endured so long as the economy continued to expand and social stability prevailed, a period of two decades (1947-1967). And during this period the unions deteriorated while continuing to show numerical growth. As working-class organizations they became divorced from their members and developed a top-heavy bureaucratic structure. The officialdom acquired a new self-image, and the membership perceived the union differently. They no longer saw it as their organization, as their fathers had in the 1930s and 1940s.

The unions had now become institutions sustained by the company dues-checkoff system, existing independent of and separate from the workers they were supposed to represent. Union officials made all decisions governing the affairs of these institutions, usually in consultation with government or management representatives, and in most cases these union officials at all levels from shop steward to international president saw themselves as evenhanded mediators elected to adjudicate differences between labor and capital, between workers and their supervisors.

The Big Shift

In the mid-1960s this cozy union-management relationship began to cool off because the rate of profit slipped and social unrest developed. Moody says, “Employers pushed for extra profits by trying to lengthen the workday, while workers accepted the overtime so that they could finance their new levels of consumption.” But this was no solution to the underlying problem.

At this juncture the cost of living rose sharply, and civil rights struggles erupted in the North. The result was a series of wildcat strikes in several industries, directly affecting airline mechanics, auto workers, coal miners, and others. Many of these wildcatters sympathized and identified with the anti-Vietnam war demonstrators of the time and with the ghetto uprisings. In the unions this sentiment found further expression in organized opposition caucuses seeking to oust the established officialdom, usually at the local level. Awakening Black militancy added yeast to the union ferment. All-Black caucuses, encouraged by the growing popularity of nationalism and guided by the teaching of Malcolm X, announced themselves in several unions and made their presence felt. The most highly publicized example was the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in the United Auto Workers (UAW), which Moody describes in some detail.

Missed Opportunity

An opportunity to prop up and possibly restructure the sagging union movement at this critical time was missed, an opportunity that civil rights leader Martin Luther King hoped to seize. On April 4, 1968, the day King was murdered, he told American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) president Jerry Wurf, “What is going on here in Memphis is important to every poor working man, Black or white, in the South.” In February 1, 300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, had gone on strike, and King was there to support them. Moody says,

The U.S. labor leadership which had the resources to turn a vision into a massive campaign, didn’t get the message. In 1968 it cared more about nominating and electing Hubert Humphrey (the Democratic Party candidate for U.S. president) than organizing the unorganized.

There was also another reason the union bureaucracy failed to hear King’s message. It was paralyzed with fear, and it didn’t want to hear any action proposals of any kind. It vaguely sensed that some momentous changes were occurring in existing relations among nations and peoples throughout the world, changes that were not at the time clearly understood. But the U.S. ruling class was well advised that its dominant position in world economy was weakening, and that government policy changes were required both at home and abroad. This went beyond the immediate problem of war in Vietnam. And these concerns were undoubtedly transmitted to Meany and other top AFL-CIO officials.

Signs of the Faltering Economy

The bleak future of institutionalized unionism was signaled in 1971 when the government’s “New Economic Policy” was announced. The U.S. would no longer redeem dollars with gold in the international monetary markets, thus forcing a revaluation of currencies. The other side of this policy was a wage freeze in this country. Top union officials expressed outrage. AFL-CIO president George Meany denounced the new policy as “patently discriminatory” against American workers. Leonard Woodcock, then president of the UAW, said, “If this administration thinks that just by issuing an edict, by the stroke of a pen, they can tear up contracts, they are saying to us they want war. If they want war, they can have war.” This was all bluster. Top union officials soon accepted posts on the new wage-price boards appointed by government to monitor the wage freeze.

The working class standard of living continued to decline through out the 1970s as inflation climbed. Working conditions in organized industry deteriorated. In some major unions cracks began to appear in the bureaucratic crust. A serious threat to overturn the old ruling group was mounted in the steel union in 1976 by secondary officials. Revolt against an incompetent leadership festered in the coal mines. And the entrenched leadership of the UAW felt threatened for the first time since one-party control was imposed in 1947 by Walter Reuther. In the trucking industry Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) was founded.

Moody describes these and similar developments in a range of unions with all necessary details and the assurance of an eyewitness reporter. He also describes what was happening to the productive forces worldwide and what was happening, concomitantly, to international exchanges of commodities, and capital investments. He relates all this to the closing of steel mills and auto plants, to mass unemployment in the U.S. industrial heartland, and to the struggles for democracy in the unions and against wage givebacks and other concessions to the employers by company-oriented union officials.

International Production

The transformation of industrial production on a world scale which began in the 1960s, took hold in the 1970s, and dominated the market in the 1980s, had its genesis in the U.S. multinational corporations. In a chapter on “Economic Power Shift” Moody argues that as U.S. economy became internationally integrated it was forced by the dictates of capital investment to restructure. The U.S. Steel Corporation is an example of restructuring. This giant corporation closed its steel mills and invested where the rate of profit returns on capital was greater. Since it was no longer mainly a steel producer the corporation changed its name to USX, a highly diversified corporation. How does this affect the unions? Moody observes that “these changes would demand of organized labor and its leadership a flexibility and a political awareness that was altogether missing in the routine of business unionism.” The failure of the leadership of the steel union to respond with a program of social demands and appropriate independent political action to the closing of steel mills is an example of what was missing and how the union was affected.

Soft Talk

As union leaderships retreated in disarray from the obligations imposed upon them by the restructuring of U.S. industry, the employers pressed for wage cuts and other concessions (in fringe benefits such as health care, paid holidays, pensions, etc.) in exchange for promises of “job security.” Some employers with tacit agreement of the majority also sought to free themselves of industry-wide bargaining on the pretext that consideration in the form of downward wage adjustments ought to be granted to allow them to stay in business and “save jobs.”

These spurious arguments seemed valid in the context of union-management cooperation, the long-accepted basis of contract negotiations. But there was no easy way this could be made acceptable to profitable companies. They argued in negotiations with the unions that companies paying below-standard wages would have an unfair competitive advantage, as unorganized companies have always had. The test came in 1979, when the Chrysler Corporation faced bankruptcy and pleaded for a government bailout. It was argued that this would benefit society: the creditor banks, certainly; the company stockholders, of course; the workers whose jobs would be saved, obviously; and the consumers who would retain the wider choice of products, caveat emptor. But in negotiations for the government loan, society’s representatives (a committee of the U.S. Congress) discovered that since taxpayers were being asked to take financial risks in this matter, others should also make sacrifices, namely the Chrysler workers who were told to take a wage cut to guarantee the loan. UAW officials agreed, “to save jobs.”

This agreement opened the floodgates to “concession bargaining,” to which Moody devotes a chapter of his book. He explains the results in several industries. What happened, of course, was the introduction of new standard wage rates. In union negotiations the employers demanded an industry-wide standard wage, but now it had to be fixed at the lowest level to satisfy “fair competition.” The most destructive results of this were in the meatpacking industry, where the leadership of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) agreed with the employers and cooperated to reduce wages to the level of the unorganized sector of the industry in exchange for continued union recognition and the dues checkoff.

These sections of the book are written for union militants who are trying to understand what happened to their unions. During the past 15 years some unions, like the printers, have all but disappeared; others have been transformed into hardly more than shells of what unions once were. With the decline and transformation of the old industrial unions the character and composition of the union movement as a whole has changed. The industrial unions have sought to recoup losses in membership through random mergers with smaller unions in various occupations. Moody believes this has produced a new kind of unionism, “general unionism,” the UFCW (now the largest AFL-CIO affiliate) being one of the most lamentable examples.

Hard Facts

The composition of the union movement has shifted from predominantly industrial workers toward the so-called white-collar sector of the workforce. From 1950 to 1980 unions in basic industry lost almost three million members, but the number of white-collar union members increased by seven million. In the 1950s, 80 percent of all union members were classified “blue-collar.” Today the collar ratio is about 50-50. Almost six million public employees belong to unions, the majority of them blue-collar workers or low-paid service and clerical workers. A high percentage are Black, Latino, women, and third world people. This contributes to the changed character and composition of the union movement.

Likewise the character and composition of the American working class has become more Black, more multinational, and poorer than in the 1950s. Moody calls attention to a new sector of the modern working class, “the new proletarians,” who work long hours for low wages in the private service sector of the economy. This is a new industry, comparable to the rise of mass production industry at the turn of the century, which has emerged in response to the transformation of industry and internationalized productive process. It employs millions and remains totally unorganized. The data Moody cites are impressive:

In the decade of the 1970s, 13.4 million of 19.6 million new jobs created, or 68 percent, were in the private service sector. In the first half of the 1980s, all of the new jobs created (that is, all net job growth) were in service industries, while goods-producing industries lost jobs in absolute numbers.

Moody attributes the fact that no effort is made to organize these millions of highly exploited unorganized workers to the moribund, business-minded AFL-CIO leadership, questioning whether it is possible for the union movement in its present state of disarray to mount a serious campaign to organize the great mass of unorganized workers. From the beginning of his book, either explicitly or by implication, Moody questions the viability of the unions under present leaders. But he explains that unions by nature are not helpless and points to signs of renewed vitality. The formative years of the CIO are his model of what unions ought to be, unions of aroused workers inspiring and leading broad social movements to end the injustices of the workplace and establish new economic and social relations to benefit all members of society. This is what the great mass of industrial workers who founded the CIO wanted in the 1930s, “social unionism.”

Union Reform

Reformers and some opposition caucuses in the unions say they want to return to the concepts of social unionism and are working against great obstacles to that end. The best organized of these reform movements is Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), founded in 1976 at a convention of 200 Teamsters determined to take control of their union and improve working conditions. They publish a national news paper for members of the Teamsters union and have grown steadily (with some disappointments and setbacks) from the beginning. They hew to the essential tasks of education and organization and presently are in alliance with union militants and dissidents who hope realistically to elect a new international president in 1991 and sweep out the gangster-ridden incumbent regime.

Moody has assisted TDU for more than a decade and understands its problems, and the problems of the trucking industry as well. He says, “Teamsters reform cannot exist in isolation from the conditions and consciousness of the rest of the working class,” this in conclusion to a brief history of TDU as part of his chapter on organized opposition to the union bureaucracy, titled “other voices.” At present these other voices are few compared to the packs of bureaucrats that prowl the unions; and they are scattered, without political identity or a unified purpose. This is a serious weakness in the working class that this book, An Injury to All, will help to overcome if it finds the broad circulation it deserves.

Two That Were Different

At the union level two bitterly fought strikes in the mid-1980s illustrate the possibilities and limitations of factory workers in a single plant — determined of purpose, well organized and with able leaders from their own ranks — to protect themselves against wage cuts and life-threatening working conditions. One strike was in Austin, Minnesota, at the Hormel meatpacking plant; the other was at a cannery of about 1,000 workers in Watsonville, California, organized by a local of the Teamsters union.

In reporting the superb organizational methods and broad support in these strikes, both lasting several months, Moody says,

P-9 (the local union of meatpackers in Austin, an affiliate of UFCW) gave tens of thousands of labor activists something more than a successful strike: it gave them a vision of what working class people are capable of doing and the kind of unionism they can create.

This also applies to the Watsonville strike, which lasted longer and, unlike the one in Austin, defeated the local plant owner, forcing the banks to take over the property and find new management.

Both strikes at the outset faced the hostility and duplicity of top union bureaucrats who hampered their struggle and sought to appease the employers. Both were opposed by local government and suffered police repression. In Austin the Minnesota National Guard was used to protect strikebreakers. In Watsonville the strikers seemed at first to be burdened with an additional handicap of a different kind. None of them spoke English. But during the strike this proved to be an asset because of the solidarity within the economically and socially isolated Spanish-speaking community.

Union Help and Community Solidarity

One of the unique features of these strikes, in addition to the adroitness of the local leaderships, was the. immediate response of some sectors of the union movement and others to their appeals for help. This came from local unions and from volunteer support committees of union members and backers in the surrounding areas, over the opposition of union bureaucrats. A third contributing factor was the existing network of well-edited, informative, antibureaucratic labor publications such as Labor Notes. In defining the character of these projects he says they were all organized and staffed by people with a background in labor who regard themselves as socialists. And he adds, with more understanding than most radicals who have tried to influence the union movement since World War II, that “these projects were directed primarily at activists who were not socialists. From different angles, most of these efforts attempted to recreate the bridge between leftist intellectuals and ideas and working class activists that had been destroyed by the end of the 1940s.” He says this intellectual/worker activist connection “had been a key element in the creation of the CIO and in the generally progressive and militant direction it took in the early years.” And the final ingredient in the truly heroic struggle in Austin and Watsonville was the support the strikers received from other social movements in the working class not connected to the unions as presently constituted: the women’s movement, the campaigners for women’s rights and for organized working-class women in particular (women were prominent in the organization and leadership of both strikes); the Black community, especially those in the front lines of the uphill battle against racism; the new immigrants, still unorganized but cohesive enough to sympathize with and help the Watsonville strikers; a new generation of student radicals, present and helpful in both strikes; and a show of international solidarity from South African unionists and others in third world countries.

The Future of Unionism

Moody foresees the rise of a “new unionism,” which is developing through persistent struggles and shifting moods within rebellious sectors of the modern American working class: independent organizations of women in industry, new expressions of nationalist consciousness among Black workers, growing hostility inside the established unions to bureaucratic repression, signs of political awakening in the huge (and growing) “party of non-voters,” disillusionment of new third world immigrants in “wealthy America,” and the insecurity of “middle class” workers still employed in restructured manufacturing industries. All this contributes to growing social restiveness, none of it yet able to find broad organizational expression. “The potential for millions of workers to organize,” he says,

depends on the attractiveness of unions. Unions that preside over the pauperization of the working class, that demonstrate no willingness to defend either the economic or special social interests of their members, that raise the banner of competitiveness, that are not organized along lines capable of influencing capital, and that offer no vision beyond nickels and dimes will not appear as a natural channel for workers to express social grievances.

This does not mean, however, that the great mass of unorganized have consciously rejected unions as possible means of self-help or as established support agencies. Nor that those 15 million presently paying dues are prepared to abandon their unions. The struggle to reform the unions will continue and simultaneously new organizations and new movements of social protest will develop as the class struggle sharpens. In these struggles the new unionism that Moody visualizes will be forged, just as the new CIO unions were created in the 1930s. Again the new unionism will be a social movement, a movement of millions of workers demanding social justice and bent on transforming society.

“Just as part of the human material for the transformation of unionism lies in the activists, leaders, and veterans of the union and social movements of the recent past,” Moody says, “so the ideas that provide an outline of the direction of a new unionism have emerged from all these attempts by sections of the working class to put their imprint on the social order.” What he seems to be saying here is that the program and leadership of the new unionism have been created (or will be formed) from the “social movements of the recent past.” But precisely what this program is and who the new leaders are is not stated. Nor does he imply that the process is finished and all the elements are in place waiting for the transformation of the labor movement to happen. To the contrary the tenor of his analysis is that organizing efforts, strike struggles, and misdirected political moves during the past 15 years are the beginning stages of the transformation of the American working class and its growing self-awareness of its potential as a political force in society.

Political Action

In light of persistent failures by various sectors of the labor and radical movements, including recent efforts of the Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition, to change the character of the Democratic Party from a political instrument of the employing class to a bipartisan defender of rich and poor alike, Moody concludes that the question of independent working-class political action is again on the agenda. He says this question has come up in every period when the working class has been forced to create new union structures to defend its economic interests and cites as historical examples successful local labor party campaigns in the 1880s, 1920s, and 1930s, as workers sought political protection for the unions they were forming. He does not argue that history will repeat this way. But he is convinced by the weight of evidence already in that unprecedented socioeconomic changes are occurring and that the formation of a labor party in the U.S. is inevitable. He expects nothing from the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, which looms as a solid pillar of the status quo, dead set against working-class political action. “A new political party in the U.S.,” he says, “will have to be the result of a confluence of the current breakdown of American party politics and the kind of mass movements from below that are also the basis for a new unionism.” In this view of the gestation of the new unionism and the creation of a labor party both are part of the same process. How a labor party will emerge is unpredictable, the catalyst unknown. “The combination of a break of any major social constituency of the Democratic Party — for example, a large part of the Black vote, and the activation of significant numbers of working-class non-voters could well serve as such a catalyst,” Moody says.

The program of the labor party will embody the aims of the new unionism:

The weight of Black, Latino, and women workers in both existing and newly organized unions lays the basis for a confrontation with racism and sexism, for example. Such a movement could address the dismal meaning of old age in the U.S. It could lead the fight for jobs and/or income necessary to take on the problems of the Black underclass. At the deepest level, it could challenge the domination of business/individualist values in American culture.

It would also, of necessity, address the problems of international exchange and trade, and working-class solidarity. Moody foresees this process unfolding in the context of the entropic demise of the capitalist system, hastened by the rise of a vigorous new labor movement capable of resolving the contradictions of the old society.

This very informative history of the modern union movement is, in many ways, a continuation of Labor’s Giant Step, which concluded with the AFL-CIO merger and the formation of “The World’s Largest Union,” about which that book’s author, Art Preis, was overly optimistic at the time. History has not justified his high hopes. The reasons the AFL-CIO unions turned sour are explained from several vantage points in the pages of An Injury to All, which concludes cautiously optimistic:

In the final analysis, under any foreseeable circumstances, the ability of the working class or large sections of it to break out of organizational and political paralysis depends on the growth of a shared vision of plausible lines of action...[and] through their actions, the fighters of the American working class, in their growing numbers, have begun to shape the uncertain future.

The Main Political Currents

The question of working-class leadership in terms of party and pro gram is beyond the purview of this book, but it is inherent in the socioeconomic process described in it. If the formation of a labor party in the U.S. is inevitable, that party must have a more clearly defined program than is suggested by Moody. And it will require political organizers who see further than “a large part of the Black vote” and “significant numbers of working-class non-voters.” The implication is that these political breakaways, in the struggle to free themselves from the capitalist confines of the Democratic Party, will contribute to the political program and help produce the far-sighted leaders to implement it.

At one point, referring to the fundamental concept of democracy in the working-class organizations, Moody says: “The working class cannot remake its own institutions unless it controls them.” This is profoundly true, but it leaves open the question of how the working class will exercise control over its own institutions such as the labor party and the revitalized unions. These new organizations will be subject to the same hostile pressures of capitalist society as the present union structure. What will prevent the new institutions from falling under bureaucratic control of treacherous leaders?

This, of course, is not a new question for union militants and radicals. And given the present stage of union disintegration it is certainly reasonable to concentrate on the enormous task of restructuring the union movement along lines suggested by Moody, and building a labor party independent of the capitalist parties as a necessary part of the process. He has demonstrated convincingly enough that these tasks cannot be accomplished except through democratic methods of organization and struggle. And if they are eventually accomplished won’t the new firmly established democratic institutions of the working class embody the necessary experience and resources to guard against bureaucratic degeneration? So what is to be gained by discussing the possible dangers of future degeneration when the process of regeneration and structuring has just begun? There’s much work to be done. The socialist-minded researchers and political propagandists associated with Labor Notes and similar projects — in collaboration with union activists in TDU and in several New Directions caucuses which take their name from the present opposition group in the UAW, and with organizers of migrant workers and other progressives — have already taken the lead and demonstrated successful methods of work, including international solidarity.

Main Document Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists' Internet Archive