<< In fact, the retail sector as a whole has added almost as
many workers in the last two years (893,000) as work in the entire motor
vehicle industry. If unions can't organize those workers, they're dead.
Phew, something we completely agree on. Generally the BIGGEST failure of unions in this country is the inability to organize people outside heavy industry -- and IMHO the reasons for this failure fall into two broad categories:
1. The physical organization of unions in the AFL/CIO do not accomodate themselves to the new workplace. 2. The ideology of unionism in this country has a cultural/social tradition which does not match the cultural/social traditions of the current workforce.
To expand, I'll start with point 2 since that really guides point 1 (and I am too lazy to delete the points and retype them).
Now, keep in mind that this is a BRIEF outline of my argument which could probably fill pages. Also, this little diatribe is exclusive to the USA, since that is the union tradition I know the most about. There are two primary union traditions. The AFL tradition was to organize skilled trades or crafts which were not part of assembly line work. These unions usually organized individuals from a union hall, rather than at the workplace site. Generally, afl unions are exclusive, and frequently membership is passed from father to son. The CIO unions began organizing assembly line work which was of no interest to afl unions. Beginning in the early twentieth century and lasting through world war two, communists and socialists entered the union movement and radicalized it to a large extent, creating a larger base for non-economic demands. However, the union movement had a focus on community demands prior to this organized left involvement: the ten hour day movement beginning in the 1850s, the demands for public education, especially in the north, and the massive social movements against the railroads which led to localized armed struggles throughout the USA in the 1870s (read Gutman's "Who Built America"). The high point of unions and community involvement came with the passage of social legislation during the FDR era: social security, welfare, etc. This also coincided with the highest percentage unionization in this country, right around 30%.
While unions worked in a tradition of community involvement, their records on race issues were mixed at best and their records on gender were almost universally abysmal. These problems, however, took second place to the positives of the union movement at a time when most union jobs were white and male, and when unions fought for social legislation which benefitted the community at large -- including women and people of color. However, following WWII and the elimination of the left from almost all union leadership positions, with the air of conservatism heralded by the McCarthy era, and with the narrowing of the focus of unionism to economic issues, the grounds for the diminishment of unionism were laid. Briefly: 1) the focus on economic issues cost the unions vital community support -- support which union leadership to this day does not recognize as important. 2) the focus on economic issues made the primary agenda of those in power staying in power, so most leaders scrambled to consolidate their positions making their agendas radically different than that of their rank and file members. 3) with only economic issues of their immediate members on the agenda, unions became exclusive clubs which kept out members not 'in the family' and which saw opening their doors as a threat to exclusive positions. (there can be many more points here, but you get the idea).
The result of this change led to an inability of the unions to respond to the faces of the new workforce. By maintaining an exclusively male, primarily white membership, the unions did not recognize the value of organizing the new workforce which was increasingly female and nonwhite and immigrant. By 1955, women hada higher labor force participation rate than they had at the height of WWII. In the last 25 years, the vast majority of new jobs have been in areas traditionally populated by women. Increases in other service sector jobs, especially low pay, low benefit jobs, have also meant an increase in minority and immigrant employment: restaurants, hotels, illegal garment shops, and a growth in the 'off the books' market.
Finally getting back to point 1, the ideology of afl/cio unions coupled with organizational forms has led to a complete lack of new organizing. While women are THE ONLY GROWING SECTOR of unionism in the USA -- almost no unions deal with reproductive issues: child care, maternity leaves, benefits for part time work, union meetings which dovetail with childcare responsibilities, etc. Further, many women's jobs are individual and temporary -- manpower inc. is the largest employer in the USA. In fact, AFL unions (all those construction trades) in the nineteenth century organized under just such conditions. Why should women work for Kelly girls instead of a union hall? Why should it be any harder to organize women clericals than it was to organize solitary sheet metal workers, carpenters, and brick layers? Primarily because of our illusions as to what is a valued worker and what SKILL is. There is absolutely no reason why temporary clericals shouldn't be organized into unions, but no one in the union movement is willing to try it because: they don't recognize clerical work as a skilled form of labor, most unions are still basically anti-female, and unions are not attached to a community ideology which seeks to place a positive face on unions for female jobs. Unions still see the family wage as a MALE wage and refuses to degender the concept. Finally, the assembly line cio unions have traditionally given women workers short shrift -- and continue to do so, read anything about unionism by Ruth Milkman.
Of both the AFL and CIO unions, where there is mixed race/ethnic employment, the leaderships remain stubbornly caucasian. Racism within worker ranks is not dealt with at all, and in pass-a-long unions, membership remains white because new openings are taken by family members, and most familys reproduce within narrow racial/ethnic bounds . (however, according to the US census, the numbers of inter-racial marriages have increased four fold in the last twenty years)
in short, both the ideological and organizational problems of unions need to be addressed to revitalize the union movement in this country -- the belly of the beast of capitalism. Given all the problems, unions are still the only organizational form which can best represent worker interests. maggie coleman mscoleman at aol.com