Lee Sustar Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Lee Sustar

A New Labor Movement?

(Summer 1997)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 1, Summer 1997.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The U.S. labor movement has been in decline for more than two decades now. Many heralded the election of John Sweeney, former president of the Service Employees International Union, as a turning point in the labor movement, a sign of labor’s revival. LEE SUSTAR looks at new developments in organized labor since Sweeney’s election.

SINCE HIS election in late 1995, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has shown flair that would have been unimaginable of his predecessors, Lane Kirkland and George Meany. Abandoning Bal Harbour – the wealthy Florida resort that has been the site of labor leaders’ winter meetings since the 1920s – Sweeney used the 1997 AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Los Angeles to meet and march with rank-and-file workers and announce his backing for a multi-union organizing drive in Las Vegas and the organization of workfare recipients. [1]

Yet Sweeney’s confrontational speeches are belied by his call for a new “social contract” – partnership with the employers and reliance on allies in the Democratic Party. This strategy is fundamentally the same as that of Kirkland and Meany. It is incapable of resisting today’s intensified employers’ offensive, let alone organizing the unorganized.

Unions lost nearly 100,000 members in 1996, Sweeney’s first full year in office. [2] The AFL-CIO’s reported gain of 12,000 was entirely due to the affiliation of the 100,000-member health-care union 1199. This decline underscores the cost of spending $35 million of the federation’s money for Democratic Party campaigns, compared to $20 million for new organizing. In the first six months of 1996, the number of union elections declined slightly to 1,374 from 1,424 a year earlier. [3]

There has been an increase in class consciousness among rank-and-file workers. The slogans of the “new” AFL-CIO represent in part labor leaders’ attempt to adapt to this change. Yet rank-and-file workers so far have lacked the confidence, politics and organization to challenge union officials’ poor conduct of the struggle. Thus while labor’s image has changed, union leaders’ losing strategy remains.

This article examines the dynamics of the employers’ offensive, the failure of the unions to resist it, and the limits of reform union leaders such as Sweeney. Further, it argues for the centrality of rank-and-file action to revive the unions – and the necessity of reintroducing socialist politics into the labor movement to help develop workers’ consciousness, organization and capacity to fight for their interests.

From Social Contract to Employers’ Offensive

The social contract that Sweeney seeks to renew was based on United Auto Workers (UAW) contracts in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It went beyond high wages to include health, pensions and other benefits. Given the unprecedented expansion of the system, union and nonunion employers alike were willing to make such concessions. But there was a price: union leaders had to surrender the shop-steward shop system established in the 1930s, opening the way to continual speedups. [4] As long as workers’ living standards improved, labor leaders could claim justification for their “business unionism” – running unions like companies seeking profits (increasing dues) and avoiding risky investments (strikes, mass organizing drives).

The social contract could not override the contradictions of U.S. capitalism. By the late 1960s, Vietnam War spending created inflation that undermined the wages of all workers. Speedups that were tolerable when real (after inflation) wages were rising suddenly became a flashpoint for struggle. Between 1967 and 1971, an average of 49.5 million strike days were lost, reaching a peak of 66.4 million in 1970. [5] Unofficial “wildcat” strikes initiated by the rank and file were characteristic of this period, particularly in the auto plants. [6]

Politically militant Black workers often sparked such struggles by confronting the racism of management and union officials. [7] The radicalism of the Black, women’s and anti-war movements reinforced workers’ rebelliousness. But U.S. workers did not develop the generalized class consciousness of their counterparts in France, Italy or Britain. As Kim Moody put it in 1969, “... [T]he long term of expansion of living standards created considerable apathy among industrial workers, and what is more important, the separation of political consciousness from industrial consciousness ... Thus the struggles which won the working class the gains of the 1950s were conceived of and led by the labor leadership without going beyond legal or ‘acceptable’ practices and without mass initiative by the workers themselves.” [8]

The shock of joblessness in the 1974–75 recession enabled employers to launch their anti-union drive. The attack on labor was the central element in a wider program that aimed to restore the competitiveness of U.S. capitalism, overcome the legacy of defeat in Vietnam and roll back the gains of the 1960s social movements. The economist David Gordon concludes that “there can be little doubt that corporations resolved to gain substantial ground with both unionized and non-unionized employees.” [9]

The Impotence of the Trade Union Bureaucracy

Labor leaders date the employers’ offensive from Republican President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. In fact, the offensive was in full swing under Democratic President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress, which defeated the moderate Labor Law Reform Act of 1978. Moreover, a study of unfair labor practices by management shows that “the big uptick ... begins during the late 1970s, not the early 1980s.” [10] In 1957, 922 workers were reinstated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after being illegally fired for union organizing. By 1980 the figure was 10,000. [11] Reagan did not lead the employers in attacking unions. The employers dictated that strategy to him.

Moreover, union leaders collaborated with a Democratic administration in New York City to devise a “social contract,” which eliminated 20 percent of the city’s workforce during the 1975 fiscal crisis. [12] The bitter national coal strike of 1977–78 forced union leaders like then-UAW president Doug Fraser to acknowledge the employers’ anti-union agenda:

The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress ... [That compact] survived in part because of an unspoken foundation: that when things got bad enough for a segment of society, the business elite “gave” a little bit – enabling government or interest groups to better conditions somewhat for that segment ...

But today, I am convinced there has been a shift on the part of the business community toward confrontation, rather than cooperation ... I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war on this country ... [13]

Months later, the UAW was at the center of that class war when Chrysler demanded givebacks from the UAW to avoid bankruptcy. Fraser agreed to wage and benefit cuts (and a seat on Chrysler’s board) while the company received huge government loan guarantees. [14] The autoworkers, whose struggles won the social contract and the American Dream, were now expected to make concessions. Fraser and the UAW set the precedent for labor’s retreat, not PATCO.

Nor can the PATCO defeat be blamed solely on Lane Kirkland. William Winpisinger – then president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and a self-described “socialist” – refused to allow machinists to honor PATCO picket lines. The AFL-CIO’s “Solidarity Day” march in Washington weeks later made little mention of the strike. [15] Kirkland and the left-wing “maverick” Winpisinger both sought to maintain a partnership with employers and political ties to the Democratic Party. An illegal solidarity strike against the government would risk destroying these relationships. But it would have won the strike in a matter of days.

Despite their differences, Winpisinger and Kirkland shared the inherent conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy. Cut off from the rank and file and the threat of management discipline or unemployment (and drawing far more pay), the bureaucracy constitutes a social layer separate from the working class. It remains dependent on the rank and file for its social position and must therefore at least partially articulate workers’ grievances. But the bureaucracy’s instinct is to protect the treasury and institution of the union by seeking stability in relations with the employers even when this conflicts with the interests and demands of the rank and file. As Tony Cliff puts it,

The union bureaucracy is both reformist and cowardly. Hence its ridiculously impotent and wretched positions. It dreams of reforms but fears to settle accounts in real earnest with the state (which not only refuses to grant reforms but even withdraws those already granted); it also fears the rank-and-file struggle which alone can deliver reforms. The union bureaucrats are afraid of losing their own privileges vis-a-vis the rank and file. Their fear of the mass struggle is much greater than their abhorrence of state control of the unions. At all decisive moments the union bureaucracy is bound to side with the state, but in the meantime it vacillates. [16]

Those vacillations depend on pressure from above (the employers) and below (the rank and file). In the 1980s, the pressure came from above. With PATCO, the government encouraged companies to use scabs. Union leaders were intimidated. Strikes involving 1,000 or more workers dropped from 187 in 1980 to 54 in 1985 and to 44 in 1990. [17] Nor was there pressure from below to take strike action. After the 1980-82 recession, “full employment” seemed to confirm the conservative ideas of the Reagan-Bush era.

Rather than fight, the trade union bureaucracy accepted concessions to to re-establish “partnership” with employers. Union officials embraced management’s “teamwork” and “jointness” – “cooperative” work programs which supposedly replaced adversarial labor-management relations. [18] Workers agreed to such sacrifices to help U.S. firms compete in the world market, especially against Japan. As Sharon Smith reports, “By 1987, in the midst of the Reagan boom, almost three quarters of all contracts covering 1,000 or more workers included concessions. For manufacturing workers, the figure was 90 percent.” [19]

The self-defeating logic of the “partnership” strategy came home in 1985-1986 strike against Hormel by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local P-9 in Austin, Minnesota. The UFCW leadership wanted P-9 to accept lower industry-wide wages. When P-9 continued to strike, the UFCW sent a letter to every local in the AFL-CIO asking them not to support P-9. The UFCW ended the strike by putting P-9 into receivership. Although the strike strategy centered on a corporate campaign (more on this below), workers often did confront scabs. Hundreds of rank-and-file workers joined the P-9ers on the picket line, including two blockades that defied a National Guard scab-herding operation. Over 550 workers were fired for honoring roving pickets at other Hormel plants. More than 6,000 supporters defied union leaders and attended a rally in Austin in April 1986. [20]

The UFCW’s strategy allowed the employers to gut the wages and conditions of meatpacking workers. Hourly pay, which peaked at $19 in 1980, dropped to $12 in 1992 and continued to slide. Unionization in 1995 was half the 1963 level. Injury rates skyrocketed to 36 per 100. Companies like Iowa Beef Processing increasingly employ undocumented immigrants, whom management terrorizes by periodically calling in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The average hourly pay of 209 workers arrested in a 1996 Immigration and Naturalization Service sweep was $6.02. [21]

By contrast, the 11-month strike at West Virginia coal operator Pittston in 1989 defeated demands for concessions as it spread to 30,000 miners in seven states. [22] Like Hormel, Pittston showed that a class-conscious minority of workers sought a way to fight back, yet the disintegration of the rank-and-file movements of the mid-1970s meant that there was no continuity with those earlier struggles. Nor was there a labor left capable of knitting together such militants, who were unable to overcome the dead weight of the trade union bureaucracy.

Clinton’s Broken Promises

Labor backed Clinton with the expectation that a Democratic President and Congress would enact jobs programs and pro-union labor laws. Instead, Clinton ditched every reform seriously opposed by business. His program – rationalizing the welfare state and making U.S. companies more competitive – is shared by the employers, who intensified their offensive during his administration.

Clinton’s failed health-care reform has given way to corporate managed care and the exclusion of 43 million people from coverage. After his $16 billion jobs program died in 1993, Clinton’s “reinventing government” measures helped cut federal employment from 3 million in the late 1980s to 2.8 million in 1995. [23] And the White House gave its blessing as arms-industry mergers wiped out tens of thousands more jobs.

The supposed “friend of labor” Clinton attacked unions’ “muscle-bound tactics” as he backed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); a bill that would have banned permanent replacement workers in strikes “never inspired the midnight phone calls and political arm twisting that the White House lavished on other difficult issues like [NAFTA] or last year’s budget,” the New York Times reported. [24]

Working-class anger and disillusionment with Clinton – and a lack of an alternative on the left – opened the door for the Republican sweep of Congress in the 1994 elections. Clinton then moved still further to the right, endorsing Republican budget cuts, anti-immigration laws and welfare repeal.

Clinton did shore up labor support for the 1996 elections by backing the minimum wage increase. He also attempted to ban companies which permanently replace strikers from doing business with the federal government, but dropped the issue after a federal judge blocked the measure. Upon re-election, Clinton again bowed to Republican demands for budget cuts and a reduction in the Consumer Price Index, which would reduce spending for Social Security and other programs by tens of billions of dollars. [25]

Clinton’s most anti-union move was his use of the 1926 Railway Labor Act to ban a strike by American Airlines pilots in February, 1997. “[E]veryone understands that [American CEO] Bob Crandall’s latest coup is getting Bill Clinton to side with management against labor,” editorialized the Wall Street Journal. [26] Economist Leo Troy added: “Organized labor is one Clinton constituency that cannot say it is better off after four years, and that will likely feel the pain even more acutely as it crosses his bridge into the next century.” [27]

The Employers’ Offensive Intensifies

By the late 1980s, the employers’ offensive generalized into a system of “just-in-time” or “lean” production, in which companies minimize employment, inventory and pay. [28] With economic growth rates less than half that of the 1960s boom, leading companies pushed speedups even during the recovery. From 1992 to 1996, output per hour increased 2.1 percent, while overall compensation declined 0.2 percent. [29] Economist Lester Thurow notes that “never before in American history have real wages fallen for most workers while our economy is growing.” Overall, real wages have declined 19 percent since 1973. [30]

“Leanness” was often a euphemism for mass layoffs carried out by the likes of Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, who wiped out 11,200 jobs at Scott Paper before moving on to destroy another 6,000 – half the workforce – at Sunbeam, where he compared his method to the invasion of Normandy. [31] Even with a net growth of 12.2 million jobs since 1992, mass layoffs continued at recession levels. Between 1993 and 1995, 8.5 million workers lost their jobs involuntarily. [32] Unemployment rates of less than 5.5 percent did not reduce the threat of joblessness.

After eliminating “non-essential” employees, manufacturers tightened the screws on those who remained. Production workers in their 50s and 60s at the Big Three automakers work mandatory overtime in short-staffed factories, causing several local strikes. [33] Already by 1990 U.S. manufacturing employees worked 320 more hours – the equivalent of two months – than did their counterparts in West Germany or France. [34] In 1996, overtime for factory workers reached its highest levels since records were first kept in 1956. [35]

While long working hours consume the lives of millions, millions more are denied enough work to make a living. Only one third of laid-off workers who found jobs by February 1996 were making as much or more than at their previous jobs. [36] Many companies hire “contingent” employees, whose lack of benefits make them 40 percent less expensive than full-time hires. [37] Contingent workers include 2.1 million temporary workers, 2–3 million “leased” employees and a similar number of contract workers. [38]

Given the lack of well-paying, full-time permanent employment, 2.2 million workers held two or more jobs simultaneously in 1995. Of 22 million part-timers, 4.5 million wanted, but could not get, full-time jobs. As the New York Times put it, “Many problems that workers faced only in bad times have become fixtures at all times. Some wages are still falling, people must be ready to work 12-hour shifts and 6-day weeks, and no job is for keeps.” [39]

Lean production made for fat profits: between 1992 and 1996, profits for the 500 biggest corporations has increased 7 percent a year, with stock values rising twice as fast. [40] Given the success of their aggressive strategy, employers will not willingly make concessions. Labor must compel them to do so. The question is whether Sweeney’s AFL-CIO is capable of leading that fight.

A New Voice for Labor?

For years it seemed as if top union leaders were indifferent to the steady decline in the proportion of U.S. workers in unions. “To me it doesn’t mean a thing,” AFL-CIO President George Meany said in 1972. “I have no concern about it ...” [41]

By the early 1990s, some union leaders attempted to resist decline through mergers and by becoming “general” unions. (Autoworkers, for example, are now a minority in the UAW.) A few unions began organizing low-wage service workers. [42]

Such changes escaped media notice until John Sweeney’s more militant speeches re-injected labor into political debate. A 1996 speech before the Rainbow Coalition is typical:

There’s a free-floating anger among hardworking people for whom the American dream is turning into a nightmare of unpaid bills and unfulfilled aspirations. Increasingly, American workers are down on their government, down on their employers, and down on their future. American workers are running out of hope. [43]

Significantly, Sweeney called for racial diversity within organized labor’s leadership, symbolized by his choice of Linda Chavez-Thompson, a Latina, for the newly created post of AFL-CIO Executive Vice President.

Sweeney explains the shift this way: Under Clinton, “labor continued to lose almost as many legislative battles in Washington as we won…Our sense of alarm increased with the November 1994 elections, when Republicans, intent on repealing 60 years of social progress, captured control of both houses of Congress.” [44] In 1995 the 78 member unions of the AFL-CIO dumped Kirkland’s hand-picked interim successor, Tom Donahue, to elect Sweeney. It was the first fight for labor’s top office since the AFL merged with the CIO four decades earlier.

Sweeney was the candidate of change because his Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was one of the few major unions to grow in the 1980s (although two-thirds of the growth came through mergers). Sweeney did back aggressive organizing methods in its Justice for Janitors campaigns in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, he was a creature of the union establishment. He was on the AFL-CIO Executive Council for almost all of Lane Kirkland’s 16-year reign. As SEIU president, Sweeney drew two union salaries, tolerated corruption in his home New York local and put into receivership Local 399 in Los Angeles after Black and Latino rank and filers captured union offices. [45]

If Sweeney is a typical bureaucrat, then why the fight at the top in 1995? To answer the question, it is useful to examine the split in the labor movement exactly 60 years earlier. It was John L. Lewis, a lifelong Republican and anti-Communist, who split the AFL to found the CIO to organize industrial unions. The split wasn’t created by Lewis, but by the severe crisis of 30 percent unemployment and the mass strike wave of 1934, which included general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco. The pressure of the rank and file split the trade union bureaucracy down the middle – symbolized by Lewis’ punch to the jaw of carpenters’ leader Bill Hutcheson as the industrial union leaders stormed out of the 1935 AFL convention. [46]

By contrast, 1995 wasn’t a year of depression, but one of economic recovery. Unlike the 1930s, the pressure on union leaders was overwhelmingly from above rather than below. And where a sharp split at the top led to the creation of the CIO, Sweeney’s fight for the leadership was easily contained within the bureaucracy. He immediately conciliated with the conservatives by giving them positions on the AFL-CIO Executive Council in a “unity” deal cooked up behind closed doors. [47]

For Sweeney, aggressive tactics are merely new methods to preserve the old way of operating. He regularly calls on workers to accept the employers’ profit-seeking agenda:

We can no longer afford the luxury of pretending that productivity, quality, and competitiveness are not our business. They are our business, our jobs, and our paychecks. [48]

In October, 1996, Sweeney told members of Business for Social Responsibility:

We want to help American business compete in the world and create new wealth for your shareholders and your employees. We want to work with you to bake a larger pie which all Americans can share, and not just argue with you about the existing pie. [49]

Sweeney’s logic, if not his language, is the same as that of George Meany in the 1950s:

In the final analysis, there is not a great deal of difference between the things I stand for and the things the [National Association of Manufacturers] leaders stand for. I stand for the profit system; I believe in the profit system. I believe it is a wonderful incentive. I believe in the free enterprise system completely. I believe in the return on capital investment. I believe in management’s right to manage. [50]

Sweeney differs from Meany in that he thinks that unions must pressure employers into renewing the social contract. But this is by no means a fundamental break from the AFL-CIO policies of the past. As Tony Cliff puts it,

All the national union leaders take it for granted that they operate within the system, and intuitively accept that they can only operate successfully if the system itself enjoys success. They hope against hope that capitalism will continue to prosper, as in the past, so that their own form of trade unionism can continue to prosper with it. [51]

Sweeney’s strategy is failing because capitalism can no longer concede what it did in the 1950s.

If Sweeney’s strategy is a dead end economically, it offers still less politically. Sweeney does argue that unions must be “political watchdogs, not political lapdogs” [52] and tolerates the Labor Party, a non-electoral organization sponsored by a handful of unions. But criticizing Democrats and calling for a labor party is nothing new for U.S. union officials. It was Dave Beck, the reactionary, corrupt Teamsters president, who said in 1953 that anti-union politicians “will live to see the day when American labor will follow England’s and tie progress to political action.” [53]

Sweeney, like Meany and Kirkland before him, continues to pour resources into the Democratic Party. Clinton responded by embracing Republican themes rather than appealing to workers as the 1996 elections reproduced the status quo. Still, Sweeney toed the White House line, backing the scandal-plagued nomination of Alexis Herman as labor secretary and keeping quiet when Clinton banned the strike by American Airlines pilots, whose union is not affiliated with the federation.

Sweeney’s biggest claims to success are the “living wage” campaigns that raised minimum wages in some cities, and the increase in the federal minimum wage. (It should be noted that it was right-wing demagogue Pat Buchanan, not Sweeney, who first put the issue into public debate). Yet labor markets had already effectively lifted wages above the minimum for all but 4.2 million workers, just 3.3 percent of the total. [54] What is more, the flood of subminimum-wage workfare workers – projected to reach 4 million by 2000 – threatens to depress the wages of or displace many of the 38 million workers who earn $7.50 per hour or less. [55]

Sweeney’s efforts to organize the unorganized have made some important differences, such as circumventing the slow National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election procedures to try and force employers to recognize unions when a majority of workers sign cards, known as a card check. But such tactics alone cannot reverse the decline in union membership. Overall, unions today represent 14.5 percent of U.S. workers, down from 14.9 percent in 1996 – and 35 percent in the mid-1950s. [56] Just to halt further decline, unions must add 300,000 workers a year for the next 20 years. To return to the level of the 1950s, labor must recruit one million workers per year over the same period. [57] Sweeney’s strategy cannot meet those goals.

Does Changing Leaders Matter?

The Case of the Teamsters

Sweeney’s failure to make a decisive break with past AFL-CIO policies does not mean that a change in union leaders is unimportant. The AFL-CIO – a bureaucracy on top of a bureaucracy in which workers have no vote – must be distinguished from its member unions, especially those in which workers directly elect their leaders.

The best example is the Teamsters, where rank and filers ousted the corrupt old-guard leaders to elect Ron Carey in 1991 and 1996. The result is a more combative union, most notably in a one-day strike in 1994 against United Parcel Service and a month-long strike against carhauler Ryder Systems in 1995. Where the old leadership resorted to violence to squelch opposition, today’s Teamsters have the most open debate of any major union. And a rank and file made more confident by its role in ousting its leaders is likely to be more willing to stand up to the employers – and ready to challenge union leaders when they fail to fight.

Nevertheless, even the most left-wing union leader (which Carey, a longtime Republican, is not) cannot transcend the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy. As full-time professional negotiators removed from the rank and file, even left-wing leaders owe their power to the union apparatus, are dependent on it, and continue to work within the limits imposed by it. Subject to the same pressures as right-wing union leaders to cooperate with management and the government, they prefer to win reforms for workers rather than mobilize the rank and file.

Carey is by far preferable to the mob-tied old guard. Yet he has not broken with business unionism, surrendering the right to strike over grievances in the 1994 freight strike settlement. Embittered, freight drivers backed the old guard’s candidate, Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., who challenged Carey in the 1996 union elections. [58]

Upon his re-election, Carey declared that the old guard should get on board or get out of the way. But he was slow to appoint rank-and-file UPS workers to the national bargaining committee. Instead, the committee was comprised of a majority of Hoffa supporters as Carey moved once again to mend fences with the old guard. [59] Even many pro-Carey local leaders oppose the reforms and rank-and-file activism that were key to Carey’s victory. [60] And the Teamsters continue to spend just 3 percent of the union budget on organizing, compared to the 30 percent called for by Sweeney. [61]

Carey’s uneven record poses a challenge for Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the reform organization instrumental to his election. TDU’s grassroots efforts have opened the way to increased rank-and-file activity. But Carey’s vacillation shows the necessity for TDU to pursue an agenda of rank-and-file mobilization, even at the risk of clashing with union leaders.

Indeed, the limitations of Carey – or any other reformist union leader – underlines the importance of the traditional socialist principle in regard to union leaders as put forward by the Clyde Workers’ Committee in Scotland during the First World War: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” [62]

The High Cost of the New Social Contract

Sweeney’s efforts to establish a new social contract has completely failed. The average wage settlement in 1996 was identical to that of 1995 – and 13 percent of settlements included a wage freeze. [63] In fact, the pay increase for union workers was below that of nonunion workers. Nor did the “new” AFL-CIO put up a fight. Work stoppages (strikes and lockouts) involving 1,000 or more workers did increase from 31 in 1995 – a 50-year low – to 37 in 1996. But this is far from the 187 recorded in 1980 and a mere fraction of the 1970 total of 381. [64]

Nevertheless, the strikes of the mid-1990s revealed a new growth in working-class consciousness. In the “War Zone” struggles of central Illinois – the lockout at A.E. Staley and strikes at Caterpillar and Bridgestone-Firestone – “road warriors” visited hundreds of union locals across the country to appeal for solidarity. Several leading activists become socialists. It is this changed character of the struggle, not strike statistics, that distinguishes the current period as one of transition from the downturn in struggle of the 1980s to the future upturn.

Yet workers’ confidence and self-organization have not yet caught up to their new consciousness. They continue to accept union leaders’ argument that it is impossible to shut down production by stopping scabs, even when the officials’ passive approach leads to disaster.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, major employers did not try to break strikes with scabs, let alone hire permanent replacements. An entire generation of workers grew up believing that picket lines were purely symbolic. Today that is no longer true, if it ever was. Unless strikers are prepared to physically prevent scabs from continuing production, they are surrendering without a fight.

The struggle at Caterpillar should have made that clear. After provoking a strike with demands to cut pay and conditions, management announced that scabs would be permanent replacements. A stunned UAW leadership called off a five-month strike in 1992 with no contract. Workers kept up the fight with in-plant demonstrations and a series of wildcat strikes that pressured union leaders into calling an unfair labor practices strike in 1994. [65] A UAW slogan claimed the union was “defending the American Dream.” But the tactics that enabled the UAW to establish the social contract and the “dream” in the 1950s resulted in a crushing loss in the 1990s. Eighteen months into the second strike, the UAW surrendered again – still without a contract. Caterpillar wanted to keep scabs as permanent replacements, but could not do so in an unfair labor practices strike. [66]

Fully 80 percent of Caterpillar workers voted against returning to work, but were forced to do so when UAW officials cut off their strike benefits. Back on the job, workers were banned from wearing union buttons, hats or T-shirts and even fired for refusing to shake hands with scabs. [67] Larry Solomon, former president of the UAW Caterpillar local in Decatur, reported that 12 Caterpillar workers committed suicide shortly after the strike ended in December 1995, even as the company’s profits surged to $836 million. [68] This was the price of relying on union leaders who seek “partnership” when management wages all-out class war.

Caterpillar was the most serious defeat for labor since PATCO. Yet workers could have forced Caterpillar to back down – but only by stopping production. This would have required physical confrontation with scabs at plant gates, arrests, fines, violations of court injunctions and more. But that is exactly how the UAW was built in the 1930s. Such tactics cannot guarantee victory in advance. But without such a fight, employers like Caterpillar will turn the UAW into an empty shell. Between 1992 and 1997, Caterpillar opened 15 new non-union plants, 11 in the largely non-union South. Four of the new facilities will handle work formerly done at the unionized plant in York, Pennsylvania, which is slated for closure. [69]

The best known of the “War Zone” struggles, the lockout at Staley, attracted widespread solidarity and radicalized many of its activists. The struggle began in 1992 when workers responded to Staley’s demands for 12-hour rotating shifts with a work-to-rule strategy that cut production in half. But once locked out, leaders of United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) Local 7837 had no plan to stop production. And although the workers eventually won the official backing of the AFL-CIO, building trades union members and Teamsters crossed picket lines throughout the lockout. Local leaders, facing court injunctions, actively discouraged mass pickets. As at Caterpillar, such tactics would have been a serious undertaking. Police attacked a peaceful sit-in with pepper gas during a demonstration near the plant on June 25, 1994. But the union’s failure to stop production allowed the company to wait until an exhausted workforce voted to accept management’s original offer two and a half years after they were locked out. [70]

Staley workers relied on a corporate campaign to win their struggle. Developed by Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign Inc., corporate campaigns rest on the assumption that strikes cannot be won on the picket line, focusing instead on public relations and financial pressure on companies and their backers. During the Staley lockout, a Rogers-run corporate campaign focused on Staley’s backers and organizing boycotts of the products of Staley’s largest customers. The boycotts – which continued after Rogers was fired by the local – were explicitly counterposed to stopping scabs. The strategy was identical to that used in strikes at Brown & Sharpe, Hormel and International Paper in the 1980s – all of which saw workers defeated. In fact, a detailed study of 28 corporate campaigns between 1976 and 1988 showed that they were largely failures, particularly when used in strikes. [71]

When a company is prepared to hire permanent replacements, a corporate campaign-style boycott is at best an auxiliary strategy to mobilize solidarity. Yet even with its unbroken record of failure, the corporate campaign is now an official tactic of Sweeney’s AFL-CIO. It fits officials’ desire to keep the rank and file active while avoiding costly confrontations with scabs, police and the courts. As long as the rank-and-file workers lack the confidence to take such steps on their own, the corporate campaign will seem to many militants as the best that can be done. And so even as the corporate campaign failed at Staley, it was endorsed by union leaders in the Detroit newspaper strike of 1995–1997.

The strike began over management demands to wipe out work rules and seniority provisions. At first, strikers turned to mass pickets, as a Labor Day weekend action by 4,000 picketers in 1995 prevented newspapers from being distributed on time. [72] But after a court injunction banned such pickets, union leaders discouraged them and promoted a boycott and the circulation of a rival union-staffed newspaper, the Detroit Journal. The boycott succeeded in driving down circulation. Yet the newspapers’ owners, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, were, like Caterpillar and Staley, prepared to accept losses in the short term to cripple the union in the long run. [73] The boycott and corporate campaign strategy led directly to the disaster of an unconditional offer to return to work. [74] The unions and the AFL-CIO have tried to cover up this surrender by claiming that this was a “new stage” in the struggle to win back workers’ jobs. But Sweeney’s announcement of a national march could not disguise the fact that the unions had surrendered in a key battle in the archetypical union town of Detroit.

If the Caterpillar strategy of gutting unions has inflicted grave damage on organized labor, so too has Sweeney-style “partnership.” This is clearest in the automobile industry, where the UAW’s rearguard defense of assembly plant jobs, which allowed union membership in auto-parts makers to drop from 70 percent in 1976 to 18 percent in 1995. [75]

In early 1996 it appeared as if the UAW would use its muscle to seek real gains. A strike by 3,200 workers at a Dayton, Ohio, brake plant idled nearly 200,000 GM workers and shut down the company’s entire North American production system, costing the company $900 million. Nevertheless, the UAW settled for a management promise to hire workers it was contractually bound to add anyway. [76]

The Dayton strike showed that the UAW had the power to extract concessions from the Big Three. Yet despite strikes at two GM assembly plants over local issues to let off steam and prod the company to make a deal, there was no national strike. GM followed Ford in agreeing to “guarantee” 95 percent of existing jobs. But the fine print showed that several parts plants were excluded from that provision. And the UAW agreed to allow Ford to pay parts workers in new plants less than union scale, breaking a 60-year UAW tradition of equal pay for equal work. With half of GM’s workers set to become eligible for early retirement within the next four years, the company was content to grant security to current workers while lowering the wages and conditions of future hires. [77] (Sweeney, strictly observing protocol in the trade union bureaucracy, said nothing about the deal.)

Opponents of the UAW leadership – which, unlike the Teamsters old guard, are generally not corrupt and are politically liberal – were unsuccessful in opposing the contracts. With tens of thousands of autoworkers nearing retirement, union leaders could sell agreements that protect current workers but which will allow considerably worse wages and conditions in the future. Still, UAW leaders were worried about the potential unpopularity of its “partnership” among the rank and file. They campaigned to oust the opposition New Directions caucus from the leadership of Local 599 in Flint, Michigan, which led a 1994 strike that forced GM to hire 800 new workers. Unless New Directions was defeated in 1996 local elections, union leaders said, the plant would close. New Directions lost the election – and GM announced it would close the plant anyway, wiping out 4,500 jobs. [78]

The “partnership” between GM and the UAW does not preclude struggle. Three months into the new contract, half of the local plant agreements had not been signed. UAW leaders gave permission for local strikes at assembly plants to force GM to hire more workers at understaffed facilities. Yet these conflicts take place within the parameters agreed to by both sides – in which the union continues to make concessions.

Thus the union best positioned to fight for Sweeney’s “new social contract” has avoided the battle. After failing to “defend the American Dream” at Caterpillar, the UAW is allowing its gradual disappearance from the auto plants before the next generation of autoworkers arrives. This approach may avoid the catastrophe of Caterpillar. But it is still a strategy of retreat.

In one notable case – the Boeing strike of 1995 – the rank and file was able to challenge union leaders’ conduct of a strike. For the first time in the history of the IAM, workers voted down a contract recommended by national leaders. The strike continued until Boeing retreated on demands for unlimited outsourcing. Granted, Boeing was not prepared to go as far as Caterpillar to break the union, because of the inherent difficulty in selling scab airplanes. Moreover, Boeing’s lack of competition enabled the company to pass on to its customers the costs of any concessions to workers. Therefore, rank-and-file workers never had to face the challenge of physically stopping scabs. Nevertheless, the role of a loose opposition caucus, Unionists for Democratic Change (UDC), was key in agitating for a better contract. First organized around the 1989 contract, UDC had gained credibility through its ability to identify concessions in the fine print of contracts and to organize against them. Without this opposition, union leaders probably would have been able to sell Boeing’s original offer. [79]

Can the Working Class Fight Back?

A few weeks after Sweeney took office, the New York Times concluded that the Caterpillar strike was “a stark demonstration of the increasing futility of a weapon with which unions could once paralyze whole industries in promoting their members’ interests.” [80]

It is not strikes which are futile, but trade union leaders’ conduct of strikes. The Dayton GM strike was a spectacular demonstration of workers’ power to shut down the country’s largest manufacturer. But at Caterpillar, Staley, Bridgestone-Firestone and the Detroit newspapers, unions faced opponents who maintained production by returning to the confrontational tactics of the 1930s. Unions were defeated because their leaders clung to the passive methods of the 1950s, desperately trying to renew a social contract that is gone forever.

Workers seeking to challenge their leaders’ failed strategy must contend with fear and uncertainty among their workmates. In 1991, in the depths of the recession, 25 percent of workers surveyed feared being laid off. By 1996, at the peak of the boom, 46 percent were afraid of losing their jobs. [81] However, the pressures that inhibit struggle in the short term eventually become a focus of resistance. There are already signs that this is beginning to happen, even with the low level of strikes.

Indeed, strike statistics cannot be equated with the level of class consciousness or even struggle. Government statistics no longer record work stoppages of fewer than 1,000 workers, excluding, for example, the Staley lockout. Also, statistics tell nothing about the level of rank-and-file activity during a strike, such as the series of demonstrations of janitors in New York in 1996. [82] Nor do statistics indicate struggles that don’t result in strikes. And there are no official reports on internal union debates like the controversial contract votes in the New York City municipal unions in 1995–1996. [83]

Even the figures for union membership can be misleading. Despite its decline, organized labor is in a far stronger position objectively (the level and type of membership) than it was in the pre-CIO period of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Then, unions were mainly small, overwhelmingly white male craft unions which represented barely 10 percent of the working class. Although weak, today’s industrial unions are mass, multiracial organizations of both men and women. They retain the social power to halt the employers’ offensive and to reconquer lost ground.

The difficulty is that subjectively (the level of class consciousness and political organization), the working class is far weaker. In the early 1930s, the 9,000-member Communist Party was rooted in the working class and embodied a tradition of struggle. The Socialist Party was of similar size. [84] Whatever the Stalinist distortions and reformist limitations of their politics, communist and socialist workers played an indispensable role in leading the struggles of rank-and-file workers far beyond the policies of conservative union officials. By contrast, socialists have no base in the rank and file today, owing to the anticommunist witchhunts of the 1950s.

Yet the accumulation of grievances ensures an eventual fightback. The new rhetoric of AFL-CIO leaders validates union members’ anger against the employers. What is more, a poll found that 44 percent of workers would support a union in their workplace – a huge increase over the 30 percent recorded in 1984. [85] This sentiment can be the basis for the solidarity needed to defend the unions as well as to organize the unorganized. It has already found expression in such organizing efforts as the United Farmworkers’ strawberry workers campaign and the repeated efforts of truckers in the Port of Los Angeles to unionize despite their legal status as “independent contractors.” Moreover, the shift to the card-check organizing strategy must, to be successful, tap rank-and-file action. Employers will not recognize unions without a fight, up to and including strikes for recognition.

Labor leaders may not be willing to see such struggles through. But by devoting resources to organizing, the AFL-CIO’s new leaders provide an opportunity for rank-and-file activists to push the movement forward. The task of union militants (and those trying to organize unions) is to make use of the new openings created by changes at the top.


In 1994, Business Week made it clear that the employers had no intention of letting up on their anti-labor campaign:

Few American managers have ever accepted the right of unions to exist ... [but] over the past dozen years, U.S. industry has conducted one of the most successful anti-union wars ever, illegally firing thousands of workers for exercising their right to organize. To ease up now, many executives feel, would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. [86]

Sweeney’s strategy of renewing the social contract is incapable of resisting such attacks. Far from making concessions, capital is determined to snatch back reforms already granted. This does not mean that it is impossible to win reforms. Rather, it is less and less possible to win reforms through traditional reformist methods. Effectively fighting for concessions from the employers increasingly requires a political understanding that no reform under capitalism is permanent. Politics, in turn, provides a guide to action – action that must often be more militant and confrontational than that of union leaders.

While more militancy is necessary, it is not sufficient. Socialist politics alone can offer a clear analysis of capitalism’s decline and the role of unions and their leaders. And because socialist politics draw on the historical and international experience of the working class, they help workers generalize the lessons of past struggles as well as build the solidarity needed for the battles today. Crucially, such politics must be linked to building an organization that can unite class conscious activists. For the longer such militants remain scattered and isolated, the more difficult the task of rebuilding rank-and-file confidence and combativity will be.

In the short term, defeats may outnumber victories as a new generation of workers learns that only their own activity can achieve real progress. The strikes of recent years show that a layer of workers is coming to precisely this conclusion. While on strike against Bridgestone-Firestone, rubberworker Robert Borders said:

I’m working for a company that treats me like a dog. That makes me want to fight back. It makes me dislike the people who are doing this to me. And eventually if they keep doing this all over the country there’s going to be a revolution ... I’m not trying to sound radical or off the wall, but there’s getting to be an underlying feeling in this country by people who are suppressed and kept down, and someday in the future that’s going to explode, because they’re not going to be able to keep it under control forever. [87]



1. AFL-CIO, Media Advisory for AFL-CIO Executive Meeting, February 1997.

2. Labor Relations Week, Jan. 29, 1997

3. Bureau of National Affairs, NLRB Representation and Decertification Election Statistics (Washington 1996).

4. Stanley Weir, USA: The Labor Revolt (Part One), International Socialism 29 [old series] (London), 1965.

5. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics, Washington, 1978.

6. Jack Weinberg, Detroit Auto Uprising 1973 (Highland Park, Mich: Network Publishing Group), 1973.

7. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974), pp. 29–159.

8. Kim Moody, The American Working Class in Transition, International Socialism 40 [old series] (London), 1969.

9. David Gordon, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial “Downsizing” (New York: Free Press 1996), pp. 204–207.

10. Ibid., pp. 208

11. The New Republic, May 23, 1994.

12. Mark Maier, City Unions: Managing Discontent in New York City (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), p. 170.

13. Quoted in Gordon, op. cit., p. 205.

14. Sharon Smith, Twilight of the American Dream, International Socialism 54 (London, Spring 1992), p. 25.

15. Ibid., p. 24.

16. Tony Cliff, On Perspectives, in International Socialism 36 [old series] (London), 1969, quoted in Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle (London: Bookmarks, 1986), p. 29.

17. Chicago Tribune, February 18, 1997.

18. Bob Filipczak, Unions in the ’90s: cooperation or capitulation?, Training (May 1993).

19. Smith, op. cit., p. 26.

20. Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1993), pp. 113–125.

21. Marc Cooper, The Heartland’s Raw Deal, The Nation, Feb. 3, 1997.

22. Smith, op. cit., p. 38.

23. New York Times, June 11, 1995.

24. New York Times, July 13, 1994.

25. Wall Street Journal, Feb. 26, 1997.

26. Wall Street Journal, Feb. 17, 1997.

27. Wall Street Journal, March 18, 1997.

28. Manufacturers share efforts to cope with unpredictable change, MfgNet (Internet newsletter), posted April 10, 1997.

29. John Miller, Putting People First? Clintonomics and Post-Prosperity Capitalism in Dollars & Sense, September/October 1996.

30. Lester Thurow, Falling wages, failing policy, Dollars & Sense, September/October 1996.

31. Economic Notes, December, 1996.

32. Socialist Worker, Jan. 31, 1997.

33. New York Times, Feb. 20, 1994; Socialist Worker, March 28, 1997.

34. Juliet Schorr, The Overworked American (New York: Basic Books, 1991), p. 2.

35. Wall Street Journal, April 7, 1997.

36. Socialist Worker, Jan. 31, 1997.

37. Business Week, Oct. 17, 1994.

38. New York Times, July 3, 1995; Christopher Cook, Workers for Rent, In These Times, July 22, 1996.

39. New York Times, July 3, 1995.

40. Miller, op. cit.

41. Haynes Johnson and Nick Kotz, The Unions (New York: Pocket Books, 1972) p. 14.

42. Wall Street Journal, Sept. 1, 1995.

43. AFL-CIO news release, March, 1996.

44. John Sweeney, America Needs a Raise (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), p. 90.

45. Robert Fitch, Labor Pains, The Nation, Nov. 25, 1996.

46. Irving Bernstein, The Turbulent Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), pp. 386–397.

47. Sweeney, America Needs a Raise, op. cit., p. 95.

48. AFL-CIO news release, April 1996.

49. Quoted in Jane Slaughter, Sweeney: Pass, Fail or Incomplete?, Against the Current, March–April 1997.

50. Quoted in Tom Kerry, Workers, Bosses and Bureaucrats (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980), pp. 205–206.

51. Tony Cliff, The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism? (London: Pluto Press, 1975), p. 130

52. Sweeney, America Needs a Raise, op. cit., pp. 105, 107.

53. Quoted in Kerry, op. cit., p. 186.

54. New York Times, Oct. 1, 1996.

55. New York Times, April 1, 1997.

56. Labor Relations Week, Jan. 29, 1997.

57. Janice Fine and Richard Locke, Unions Get Smart: New Tactics for a New Labor Movement, Dollars & Sense, September/October 1996.

58. Henry Phillips, New Teamsters 2, Old Guard 0, Against the Current, March–April 1997.

59. Socialist Worker, March 14, 1997.

60. Phillips, op. cit.

61. Cooper, op. cit., p. 15.

62. Quoted in Alex Callinicos, Socialists in the Trade Unions (London: Bookmarks, 1995), p. 33.

63. Labor Relations Week, Feb. 5, 1997.

64. Chicago Tribune, Feb. 18, 1997.

65. New York Times, March 3, 1994.

66. New York Times, Dec. 5, 1995.

67. Labor Notes, January 1996.

68. Socialist Worker, Jan. 19, 1996.

69. Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 18, 1997.

70. Interviews with Staley workers Art Dhermy, Dan Lane and Lorell Patterson, Socialist Worker, Jan. 19, 1996.

71. Paul Jarley and Cheryl Maranto, Union Corporate Campaigns: An Assessment, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 43, No. 5 (July 1990) pp. 505–524.

72. Labor Notes, October 1995.

73. New York Times, March 11, 1997

74. Labor Notes, December 1995.

75. The New York Review of Books, Feb. 29, 1996.

76. Staughton Lynd, The Dayton Strike, New Politics 21, Summer, 1996, pp. 55–59.

77. Jane Slaughter, Overlooking Outsourcing: Union Wage Vulnerability and the UAW-Big Three Contracts in Multinational Monitor, December 1996.

78. Labor Notes, January 1997.

79. Socialist Worker, Jan. 5, 1996; interviews with Boeing worker Keith Thomas, June 1996.

80. New York Times, Dec. 5, 1995.

81. Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1997.

82. Socialist Worker, Feb. 16, 1996.

83. Socialist Worker, Dec. 8, 1995; Jan. 5, 1996; Jan. 19, 1996; Feb. 2, 1997.

84. Rhonda F. Levine, Class Struggle and the New Deal (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1988), pp. 58–59.

85. Chicago Tribune, Feb. 23, 1997.

86. Quoted in Sharon Smith, Dogs Bite Back, Socialist Review (London), September 1994, p. 21.

87. Quoted in Ibid.

Lee Sustar Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 30 July 2021