Life After Death for Labor?

— David Cohen

The Death and Life of American Labor:
Toward a New Workers’ Movement
By Stanley Aronowitz
Verso Books, 2014, 224 pages, $19.95 paperback.

IN HIS NEW book, veteran labor activist/academic Stanley Aronowitz offers a critique of what is wrong with the labor movement in the United States, as well as a 10-point manifesto for the steps “Toward a New Workers Movement.”

His analysis of the labor movement revolves basically around the following:

• Unions concern themselves with negotiating contracts with employers, a mistaken priority that began with passage of the National Labor Relations Act.

• Unions are concerned with representing the majority of workers (to get dues, and to force labor peace on them). Real unions should remain a militant minority.

• There should be many unions in each workplace, as in Europe.

• Unions have refused to organize technical workers and precarious workers.

• Reform movements in the labor movement are on the wrong track, because they too support “contract unionism.”

• Workers’ Centers that never try to achieve labor agreements, and occasionally involve workers’ struggles on the job, are the best model for the new movement.

• The labor movement is not revolutionary, and it should be.

His 10-point manifesto, which I will discuss later, then outlines some immediate struggles that the “new workers’ movement” should take up, and some far-reaching structural changes that need to be made.

Are Contracts a Defeat?

The preface begins with a look at the recent defeat of the UAW in the representation vote at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee. In this brief opening Aronowitz introduces several themes that will resurface throughout the book. To quote one of his central contentions that contracts are a defeat for workers:

“The contract is a compromise between labor and an employer, private or public. The workers agree to suspend most of their demands for a designated period of time, which grows longer in duration every contract season...The Union is responsible for enforcing the contract, and for disciplining workers who violate the agreement through direct action.” (21)

This characterization clashes with my view of contracts. I think achieving a contract represents a defeat for the bosses, not the workers. Employers generally do not want unions in their workplaces, except for company unions, gangster unions or other fake unions, and the latter represent a very small percentage of unions.

In most cases a union contract reflects the given strength of the workers versus the employer at a specific moment, as well as the strength not just of the workers in a particular workplace but in society as a whole at that given time. Stanley is right that long-term contracts are bad, but again I think that is a reflection of the lack of power many unions feel in this period.

He argues:

“In this regard it is worthwhile to recollect that minority unions, many of them without collective bargaining agreements, were common before the National Labor Relations Act became law. Since then, eager to achieve stability and peace, nearly all unions in manufacturing, private retail services, entertainment, technical services, and the public sector have chosen the winner-take-all path, signed increasingly long-term collective bargaining agreements banning strikes for the duration of the contract, and yielded to management demands for wage and work-rule concessions, not only during recessions but also in flush times. The typical contract also concedes management’s right to direct the workforce as it pleases; the union may grieve unfair practices but under such agreements they are in no position to contest management prerogatives.” (10)

The UAW prior to 1937 was a minority union with no contract and no recognition from General Motors. The sitdown strike in Flint won several things for the UAW. Recognition of the UAW as the union for its members (a members-only union) in General Motors and an agreement to enter into contract negotiations for a collective bargaining contract. That was the path many unions took in that era.

I was recently training a group of unionized workers, from several different workplaces and locals. The discussion centered on the question, “what kind of power do we have in the work place, what kind of power does the boss have, and how does our power show itself?”

Several workers came from a workplace where the union was completely disorganized and the boss was ignoring the union as much as he could. Some of those workers expressed the thought that they had no power and no union. Others then began to talk about how the power of the boss was limited by having a union, even a weak one. They were not “employees at will,” they had a “just cause” clause in their contract, and they could file and fight over grievances.

To them the problem was not the “union,” that is, some outside force, or the union contract. The problem was that they were not organized and had not convinced the majority of workers that they had rights and could fight for a better life. The workers from the disorganized union agreed but thought they had a big task ahead of them.

Buying into the System?

Other basic themes run through the book: Unions and union leadership basically accept the capitalist system and by accepting that they tie the hands of workers from taking necessary action to overcome the capitalist system. Union reform groups that focus on union democracy and militancy are just buying into the same system and so are blind to what really needs to be done.

Aronowitz asserts that the Occupy movement must be seen as a “labor movement of a new type — a class fight — and that a large number of its constituents were declassed intellectual workers and professionals who had studied for years only to discover that there were no jobs, that at best they could work in various service occupations such as those in the food industry, where employment is precarious and often part time and its rewards uneven.” (37)

Much of the book’s criticism of the labor movement and labor law has been fodder for debates that have been going on for decades, such as the reliance of the AFL-CIO on the Democratic Party while getting nothing in return, and the inability of unions to organize new members, among others.

Stanley raises other criticisms as well. He says the labor movement does not have any real educational programs for its members and their families (except for CUNY in New York) and those that do exist are not radical enough in their critique of society.

Further, the labor movement does nothing to stop technology that he contends is the real cause of job loss in the United States, not job “migration” to other countries. It has refused to organize technical workers who are becoming the basis for all production work still done in this country. Finally, unions have done nothing to challenge management control of the shop floor, not just in production facilities but also in schools, and hospitals.

Is Union Reform a Delusion?

While I understand the challenge of writing a short book trying to outline the problems that exist, I find this and many other chapters of this book quite unsatisfying. There is no attempt to acknowledge the work that has been done by people in the labor movement on all these issues.

In many places teachers are fighting management prerogatives on class size and content. Nurses are demanding “safe staffing” ratios in order to safeguard patients. There have been movements for the shorter work week, and there is a national organization of unions that support single payer health insurance. Let’s not ignore U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW), campaigns around wage theft, and Fight for $15.

In this regard I find it interesting that nowhere in this book is Labor Notes or the Labor Notes conferences mentioned. This is a major omission. At the last Labor Notes conference there were over 2000 attendees, and the workshops covered all the issues that Stanley raises and many more, like fighting racism and sexism in the workplace.

An important development at the Labor Notes conferences is that some attendees, coming to learn and share experiences in making their own unions more democratic and militant, are also meeting with unionists from other countries and with workers who are part of worker centers. There are also many union members attending with official sanction from their local or International unions, which recognize that the training and experience they get at the conference is needed in the struggles of today.

In the chapter “Struggle for Union Reform,” Stanley recounts various rank-and-file caucuses and what happened to them. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, The New Directions movement in the New York City Transit Union (this section is very heavily concerned with New York City), the Chicago Teachers Union, and teachers in New York. In the end, he basically dismisses this work.

Yet the reformers are still in the thrall of contract unionism, on the one hand, and on the other, their efforts are mostly directed toward their own members rather than to the broader working class in their communities, the nation and the world. Finally, union reform movement addresses itself generally, to full-time workers and largely ignores the changing nature of the labor market, especially the growing “precariat” of contingent, part-time and temporary workers.

A discussion of the Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997, when the reformers were in power and which focused on making part-time workers fulltime, would lead to a slightly different conclusion about reform perspectives. I would also add the movement to organize part-time and adjunct university workers.

The other point here is the larger significance of rank-and-file movements for union democracy and militancy. For those of us who want to build a democratic socialist future this is very important: If workers cannot run their own organizations, unions, in a democratic manner, then how will we run society?

In general, all the work that is happening today to break out of the prevailing “business unionism” model is dismissed because it does not fit into Stanley’s theory of the labor movement:

“The burden of my analysis is that current unions are, in the main, incapable of and unwilling to make the radical shift necessary to convert themselves from service organizations into a fighting force that takes on power in many dimensions. Further, they are not prepared to offer workers and the larger public an alternative to the prevailing setup.” (136)

“Setup” is explained in a footnote to mean “the complex economic, political, and social power institutions that govern U.S. society.” I think, since we’re being radical here, that the term capitalism could be used; workers aren’t afraid of hearing that word.

The Program

He then lays out a political agenda for a new workers movement in a chapter titled “Towards a New Labor Movement, Part One.” There is much here that any activist would agree with, and many points that are missing.

1) Fight for a shorter work week, by pushing for new legislation and by taking direct action in the workplace. Don’t wait for the Democratic Party to enact changes. Fight in the streets for this.

2) Fight for a basic guaranteed basic income and a higher minimum wage.

3) Devise strategies to intervene in the process of technological change, to demand control over its introduction and design, and a say in how the product is made. This is a call to all the workers of the world, because “the moment for workers of the world to answer the Manifesto’s call and rise together to fight their oppression has come.” (144)

4) The new labor movement must address all the problems in workers’ lives, not just as wage earners. Fight mortgage foreclosures, for better education, mass transit, challenge the cultural apparatus that controls our free time, etc.

5) Fight for workplace democracy, that is for workers’ control of the workplace and fight for worker ownership through co-operatives. Use union pension funds to bankroll this takeover. (On this see The North Will Rise Again by Jeremy Rifkin, 1978.)

While advocating for these points, Stanley in this chapter does not think that the fight for single-payer health insurance can ever succeed. “Considering the hostility of most of those who benefit from that structure (Obamacare) towards all forms of socialism, it seems unlikely.” (152)

I would respond that while of course it‘s an uphill battle to win single-payer health insurance, there is a vibrant section of the labor movement that supports the struggle.

Stanley includes a long section on the need to fight for cooperatives and sees them as key in the fight for a “cooperative commonwealth,” a term he prefers over “socialism.” He feels that this does not have to wait for a “radical social transformation of the prevailing system,” but rather it can begin immediately by workers occupying their factories and other facilities or by buying abandoned industrial and service spaces.” (155)
“Toward a New Labor Move­ment, Part Two” begins by arguing that what is needed is a new organization that is separate and distinct from unions, basically a new political party dedicated to fighting for the “cooperative commonwealth.”

Aronowitz points out that the most progress in organizing unions was made when most of the radicials belonged to the Communist Party, Socialist Party, the IWW or anarchist organizations. He discusses the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) formed by William Z. Foster and CP militants in the 1920s to fight for industrial unionism.

The point is made that today’s radicals fighting in disparate union reform groups never meet with each other or work together. Again, the role of Labor Notes in providing cross-fertilizing information across struggles for union reform and left politics is not mentioned.

He sees a new TUEL as a force to coordinate rank-and-file struggles and for organizing new unions in those sectors currently not unionized, like “restaurant workers, day laborers, and among scientific, administrative and technical formations.” (166) Minority unions would be the preferred form of organization.

In 2004, Judy Atkins and I wrote an article called, “A Proposal for a Twenty First Century Trade Union Education League” that was published in Working USA (available online at —ed.) We looked at TUEL as a model adaptable to today’s situation, in view of the difficulties in union organizing and the continued drop in union membership.

Concerning the TUEL, our point was that the left, especially the socialist left in this country, had a role to play in organizing the unorganized, and it was wrong for socialists to think that was a job only for unions.

The second point was to discuss the considerable experience our union, the United Electrical Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) had in organizing workers’ committees in factories on a large scale. These committees (focused at that time in plastics factories) fought for wage increases and other things by engaging in concerted activity, a right workers have under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. In some areas these workers committees would meet on a regional or city basis.

We discussed the successes achieved and problems that arose. For example, we cautioned that these “minority unions” could also be used for discriminatory reasons — e.g. including just skilled workers, just white workers, etc. — and that organizers would have to be able to stop this if necessary.

For us it was a given that building minority unions is a tactical approach toward achieving majority status. What we are talking about is power, and that does not come from remaining a minority union.

The minority union approach meant basing a union on the strength of workers in a workplace who knew that they had to fight to win, not just vote for a union. The fighting minority union that grows into a majority union will be more democratic, because workers know that they are the union, not some outsiders.

A 10-Point Manifesto

Stanley Aronowitz concludes with a ten-point manifesto for a new labor movement, some of which repeats the points made in the previous chapter:

1) Bargaining over wages and working conditions should not culminate in a signed contract; workers are better off without them.

2) Fight for a shorter work week, both legislatively and through direct action.

3) Fight for national legislation for a guaranteed annual income.

4) Fight for socialized medicine. This is a must for the new labor movement and needs a large fraction of the old labor movement to join in. (This contradicts his previous statements that single-payer cannot be won).

5) Deterioration of food must push the new unions to start producer and consumer coops, financed by worker-run credit unions. (In Quebec there is much experience of the labor and co-op movements taking this approach.)

6) “The rank & file should demand the right to create minority unions. If traditional unions refuse, the radical labor movement should seize the opportunity to replace the old order altogether.”

7) Fight racial, gender and ethnic discrimination, especially in the building trades.

8) Both new unions and old unions should organize precarious workers. If the old unions refuse then the new unions must step in despite cries of “Dual Unionism.”

9) Fight for union democracy (in the old unions, I assume) but do not assume union leadership. Rank and file demands for a decent contract are “antediluvian.” The role of rank and file caucuses is to build alliances with the 247 existing workers centers. The Taxi Workers Alliance, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Restaurant Opportunities Center in New York take direct action, are without union contracts, and therefore may be the template for the whole of the new labor movement.

10) U.S. workers must be truly internationalist.

Other reviewers have called some of these proposals controversial — and there is no problem with that. The purpose of a book like this is to stir up debate and discussion. In fact, some of the proposals he offers to stir debate are those that harken back to the debates around and within the Industrial Workers of the World in the early years of the 20th century.

Should unions fight for contracts? “No,” said the IWW in the early years. Reject totally the old “reactionary unions” (that were reactionary in ways that you do not see in most unions today, despite all our problems) and build a revolutionary separate labor movement.

Build minority unions and stay in the minority? The IWW would have rejected this slogan; they believed in winning a majority to their union, and with that strength you wouldn’t need a contract.

Using the workers centers model as the template for the new labor movement? There is no doubt that the growth of workers’ centers shows that they fill a need. They are not all cut from the same cloth, however. Many are dependent on outside money, which limits what they can do. Many are not democratic or run by the workers themselves. Some cannot organize as unions because the workers they represent fall outside current labor law.

The question that must be asked of these organizations, just as we scrutinize unions, is whether they’re providing an organizational form that gives the workers power in relation to their bosses.

Does not having contracts give them more power? They might have the right to strike at any time, which we should all strive for in our contracts, but do we really see restaurant workers in New York City starting their shift each day by bargaining with the boss over what today’s wages, hours and working conditions will be?

Do we see the taxi cab drivers striking every day over establishing their wages, hours and working conditions?

The fact is that a policy of not having contracts did not help the IWW grow or achieve stability.

There are several quick closing points I would make responding to some of Stanley’s manifesto. What would it mean to really follow his call for doing away with union contracts? Should radical elected officers of local unions now get up and propose to do away with their union contracts? How in the real world would this play out?

Point 6 on building minority unions seems to be issuing an ill-defined call for dual unionism. In some European countries, historically, trade unions arose as representing political parties, so there were Catholic unions, socialist unions, communist unions, etc., achieving representation on the workplace union committee depending on how many workers vote for them. Our history is different for better or worse, but we will not suddenly morph into a European model.

I would say that his point that union reform groups should not fight for leadership is wrong. Every union local has the person who sits at the back of the union hall and criticizes the union for what they have done, but never runs for union office.

In my experience people like that have a few followers but basically there is little respect for them amongst the membership. Being holier than thou is a dead end path for union reformers.

As I have said before, there is much in Stanley’s book upon which we will agree. Much of the criticism of what the labor movement doesn’t do rings true. His call for a stronger, more open socialist orientation for the labor movement is welcome. (Actually many union leaders and quite a few union members call themselves socialists. This socialism may be ill defined but the thoughts, I would contend, are there.)

My main criticism, beyond the specifics mentioned above, is that 40 or so years after the capitalist class started an open aggressive attack, we need to do more than recite our criticisms and create lists of what the “labor movement” should do.

We need to talk concretely about what is happening in the labor movement, the good and the bad. We need to talk about how we are going to do things differently, not just that we should.

Unions, and workers centers, are made up of real people, and in order to project programs we need to have some understanding of where workers are at politically, organizationally and ideologically. That is not an easy task in a country as large as ours and with the most diverse working class in the world, but it is necessary.

July-August 2015, ATC 177

Long overdue reality check on arm chair pontification

Submitted by Rand Wilson (not verified) on July 10, 2015 - 11:49am.

Great job Dave. Just one small point (and I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again). Let’s be optimistic and project our goal of reaching majority status: It’s not minority unionism, it’s "pre-majority" unionism!