I have regularly read your contributions to this list with anticipation and the expectation that I would find a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and critically analytical as well as uniquely insightful message. I have been rarely disappointed, even when I disagreed. While I agree with some of your particular criticisms here of unions, I find it is peppered with erroneous factual information and some weak arguments. Rather than enter into a wide-ranging response, I will address those particular points where I think you do a disservice to your own arguments and in some cases to the historical record. My comments are interspersed within yours.
At 11:59 AM 7/12/98 EDT, MScoleman at aol.com wrote:
>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
>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.
>two primary union traditions.
Actually there are more than two and many hybrids in between them. Company unionism (welfare capitalism, etc.) is a long-standing tradition of worker organization (albeit a dysfunctional one from the point of view of the left). So is associational unionism as typified by the NEA and ANA and hundreds or thousands of public employee and professional associations that moved into collective bargaining. Gangster unionism has also been a continuing form in American labor history. Beneficial unionism played an important early role that filled social welfare and cultural needs of workers who had no legal right to organize and who lacked the political power to extract support from the state, and its influences continue today within the service model of business unionism that is so common. Staughton Lynd and others have also written extensively on social movement and community forms of unionism, based on solidaristic traditions. (Take a look at Robert Hoxie's *Trade Unionism in the U.S.* and Simeon Larsen & Bruce Nissen (eds.) *Theories of the Labor Movement*; also work by Galenson & Lipset for some useful typologies.)
The AFL tradition was to organize skilled
>trades or crafts which were not part of assembly line work.
Actually, the AFL contained a number of traditions, among which the craft model you describe was dominant but not exclusive. Recall that the UMWA was also an AFL union, and once Wagner was passed, AFL unions actually organized as many or more industrial workers than did the CIO (which helps explain how the AFL came to dictate the terms of the merger in 1955).
>usually organized individuals from a union hall, rather than at the workplace
Hiring halls were a feature of many but certainly not all AFL unions, but they also are a feature of industrial unions like the ILWU.
Generally, afl unions are exclusive, and frequently membership is
>passed from father to son.
While patronage and nepotism are associated with some AFL unions, and were clearly more powerful influences in the pre-WWII era than after (not to say they do not still exist), they are practices that would not characterize most AFL unions and are not exclusive to AFL union. There are industrial unions where Business Agent jobs are routinely passed to relatives and cronies, just as there are AFL unions with long-standing traditions of business agents elected in bitterly contested races.
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").
Community or social movement unionism can be traced back to the Knights of Labor (or earlier), which collapsed as the AFL was coming into its own. But is it fair to characterize all CIO unions as practitioners of broad social issue unionism? Were they not also (even primarily) deeply involved in struggles around basic issues of wages, hours, and working conditions? While the AFL opposed unemployment compensation and social security early on, were AFL unions not deeply involved in postwar struggles for OSHA, pension reform, and other broad issues of concern to all workers? In many respects AFL union apprenticeship training has brought them into significant associations with public education and adult vocational education in ways that have not similarly engaged some of the more progressive industrial unions. Many apprenticeship training programs require that apprentices take labor history and other courses within community college systems.
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%.
Actually, this is just plain wrong. The highest percentage of union density was achieved in the 1950s (about 34%) on the eve of the merger of the AFL and CIO. The New Deal saw the most rapid rise in the rate of unionization, especially between 1936 and 1939, followed by a drop until the U.S. entered the war. Rates then climbed again, reflecting wartime employment and the labor-management-government wartime compact. The rate dropped precipitously as soon as the war ended but rose against at a very rapid pace between 1946 and 1947, as pent up postwar consumer demand and the early Cold War security state spending stimulated the economy.
I'm not sure what you are thinking of when you point to the "high point of unions and community involvement" in the New Deal. There is a difference between union advocacy of social welfare legislation that serves all workers and union involvement beyond workplace concerns in the life of communities. Certainly leftwing parties and organizations that bridged both workplace and community were deeply involved in both union organizing and organizing the unemployed, rent strikes, responding to evictions, struggles against Jim Crow, etc., but that is not synonymous with involvement by unions (whether CIO or AFL). This is not to say there was none, but I think you paint picture that overstates it.
> 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.
Again, on the issue of race, I think you may have a strong point but overstate it. CIO unions helped break the color lines in hiring and organizing in many workplaces. They suffered many of the expressions of racism that was indemic in society, but they certainly should not be brushed aside as either uninvolved in struggling against racism in hiring and promotion, or being actively exclusionsary in barring Blacks from membership. On the gender issue, you have a stronger point, given that the CIO and AFL both collaborated with the government in pushing women workers out of the workplace and back into the kitchens, but here again, the record is mixed. Dorothy Sue Cobble has documented the organization of unions composed largely of women (waitresses, for example) that continued to operate with substantial female membership throughout this period. Black women generally never left the workplace, although the forms of work available to them changed, and unions offered minimal relief to them as a group.
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.
Among the most accessible and useful treatments of what happened to organized labor following the war and into the 1970s, see Nissen (ed.), *U.S. Labor Relations: 1945-1989, Accommodation and Conflict*. I also address this issue in the March/April issue of *WorkingUSA,* an abridged version of a chapter that will be published later this year in a collection edited by Ray Tillman and Michael Cummings, *Transformation of U.S. Unionism.* But there is a large literature on this topic (postwar labor-management postwar "accord", "truce", "accommodation", etc.).
>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).
I think it is misleading to suggest that unions ever had anything but a primary focus on economic issues. The difference has been in how those issues were understood ideologically and what relationship struggles around them had to broader concerns of working class communities. As for staying in power, can you name a labor leader who has not been preoccupied with reelection? If you look at Hoxie, who wrote in the early part of this century, you will see that differences in the interests of union hierarchies and their members did not appear as a new phenomenon after WWII. Business unionism is a long-standing problem in the U.S. labor movement. (See *Making of the Labor Bureaucrat* by Van Tine.) An examination of the histories either the UAW or USWA as examples of CIO unions will show that battles for and to retain leadership were intensely important factors throughout their history. All labor leaders, without exception, are concerned with issues of control over the terms and conditions of their own existence and perpetuating their power, influence, and status, and the perks that derive therefrom. The differences come with respect to what role and capacity the rank and file have to hold their leaders to account, to monitor their activities, to participate in decisions affecting the organization and its strategies, etc.
> 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.
The reality of the postwar era is that unions were not committed to organizing anyone -- white, Black, male or female. Between the 1950s and 1990, the number of union elections plummeted by 40%, while the number of employer unfair labor practices rose by more than 550%. The size of workplaces involved in those elections that occurred also dropped, with the number of units over 500 falling precipitously. "Operation Dixie" was a bust, as was the Houston project. Unions moved from strategic organizing to opportunistic "hot shop" campaigns, while some unions dismantled their organizing departments altogether or kept them on but used "organizers" as patronage positions or to have henchmen for whatever regime was in power. Growth in union membership that did occur was derivative of growth in the economy -- in those sectors and businesses that were already organized -- and in the public sector. It is also true that unions failed to note changes in the demographics of the labor market, ignoring sectors where women were largely employed, and in the changing structure of workplaces. Having forfeited control over the production process to managerial prerogatives and rights that became enshrined in their contracts, and having accepted compulsory arbitration rather than direct action as the means for resolving grievances, unions disarmed themselves in dealing with technological change, corporate restructuring, plant location and relocation issues, and a host of other concerns that affect the welfare of workers.
> 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 --
Not so, union membership among Latinos and other immigrants has been a growth area, and Black workers are more likely to vote for a union than nearly any other group of workers. Women membership has grown in no small part as a consequence of the growth of public sector unionism and education, not because unions are organizing lots of women in the service sectors. In 1995, women were 39% of union members, compared to 34% in 1985. Female union membership rose by 12% over that period. During the same period, union membership among minorities other than Blacks increased by 62%, while Black membership increased 3% (largely because they tended to be employed in unionized sectors most affected by corporate restructuring, down-sizing, and plant closures, and least likely to recover union-represented employment). All of the increase among Black workers was among Black women. Educational attainment also made a huge difference. Union membership among workers with some college increased by 43%, while among those with a college degree or higher, it increased 36%. Membership among those with a high school degree increased a small percent. All of the net loss in union membership (635,500 fewer) was among those with less than a high school diploma.
>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
Part-time work among women between 1985 and 1995 increased by almost 20%; among men it increased 25%. A higher proportion of women worked part-time in 1995 (28% vs. 12% of men); in 1985 these were 28% for women vs. 11% for men.
>unions (all those construction trades) in the nineteenth century organized
>under just such conditions. Why should women work for Kelly girls instead of
It is worth recalling that the craft unions that organized in the 19th century were almost entirely SELF-organized. Few unions had full time organizers. Indeed, the explosive growth in unionization during the early part of the New Deal era was largely a result of self-organization. Union density began its climb in 1929, dropped between 1932 and 1933, then climbed steadily again through the period 1933 and 1936 -- a period before organizing was legally protected (except in rail). Passed in 1935, it was not until 1937 that the Wagner Act was declared Constitutional by the Supreme Court. During the intervening years, employers vigorously resisted unionization and ignored the law.
We see among immigrant workers today (dry-wallers, janitors, and others in L.A.) the same phenomenon of self-organization.
>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?
It is not any harder; it is easier, as women, Blacks and Latinos are more prone to vote for a union than are white men (according to the AFL-CIO's own studies). But, we also do not see widespread self-organization among women workers. Naturally there are many factors that influence this, but the structure and nature of their employment is certainly as big a factor as is the will and effort of unions to organize them. Actually, the unions that are doing the most organizing these days are SEIU, AFSCME, CWA, and others whose membership includes a larger percentage than average of women and whose targets for organizing also do. Where significant organizing is not occurring is in clerical occupations in FIRE and other sectors that employ large numbers of women (retail and restaurant employees). But then, men in those sectors are also not being organized. Another large employer of women is the electronics industry, about which I commented previously. I will not repeat what I said then.
>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
I think you miss something more important than the level of sexism with respect to the attitudes of male union leaders toward the value of women's work. Unions don't organize in these sectors a) because they are not organizing generally; b) they do not have a strategic view of organizing on a sectoral basis; c) they use a cost-benefit approach to the organizing they do and conclude that the costs outweigh the benefits, or return on investment, in places like restaurants, insurance companies, law offices, dry cleaners, electronics manufacturers, etc., which employ large numbers of women (and immigrants of both genders); and d) they do not understand the work (electronics) or how to organize the workers in ways that do not result in the employer simply closing up shop and moving on or firing workers to terrorize them. In that sense, the loss of a job is a more effective threat to some women, who are sole supporters of their families or who face discrimination in the job market on the basis of both sex and race/ethnicity (the double whammie). Attributing the entire cause to gender bias of union leaders muddies a good analysis, which is the starting point for actually doing something to change things. In that sense, we ought to take note that the Organizing Institute has trained more young people of color and women than white men. The consequences of this, however, are not going to be seen immediately, as it takes a number of years for an organizer to gain the experience and seasoning needed to be fully effective...not to mention changes that need to occur within the unions for which they work.
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)
Attributing the lack of female or minority leadership simply to stubborn racism and sexism in the working class or to nepotism (which affects only a small proportion of union officials and jobs), creates a very distorted explanation that misses entirely the institutional obstacles to leadership generally. This is not to understate the problem of racism or sexism in the ranks of unions or among union leaders, but to say it is not dealt with at all is to overstate the argument and thereby trivialize it. In CWA, for example, there are some women in leadership positions who operate in much the same manner as the men they replace. They are creatures of the institution. Having hung in there long enough and clawed there way to positions of influence, they adopt the same self-perpetuating control habits as the men they replace. (I worked for CWA for three years, so I am not speaking without any experience.) On the other hand, while still inadequate, the measures taken by the AFL-CIO to diversify its executive council are important affirmative steps to overcoming the barriers erected to keep women and men of color out of responsible positions of leadership. While the Executive Council still has far to go, the administrative staff of the AFL-CIO has changed dramatically, with people like Bill Fletcher and Marilyn Schneiderman (to name but two) holding down positions of major significance in the bureacratic structure.
I think note should also be taken of the ways in which employers, via their hiring and promotion decisions, influence who gets into unions and what role they may play. Putting all the fire on unions omits the larger problem of capital's control over the workplace.
> 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
On your final point, we have no disagreement. Whatever their deficiencies, and they are many, unions are the single greatest source of potential power in the lives of almost all workers. What remains is for us to struggle in ways that get them to fulfill that potential.
In solidarity, Michael