On the Future of Trade Unionism

Dick Howard



t should have been the time for a celebration of the golden anniversary of a calculated mariage de raison that had endured in spite of sometimes serious disagreements.  Instead, the couple created in 1955 by the fusion of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the AFL-CIO) has experienced a separation that will certainly lead to a bitter divorce.  Two of the largest of the federated unions refused to participate in the quadrennial convention that took place from July 25 to July 28 in Chicago; and the departure of others will surely follow in the immediate future.  Superficially, since the leader of the dissidents, Andrew Stern (54 years old) had been the protégé of the president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney (71 years old); the rupture has all the ingredients of an Oedipal drama.  In an interview with the New York Times (July 29 2005), Sweeney—who had come to power ten years ago in a coup in which Andrew Stern was a crucial player—claimed that his opponents wanted to “force his retirement” and to “dictate” the person who would succeed him.  But, obviously, the causes of the divorce are found at a deeper level.

At the time of the marriage, in 1955, nearly a third of American workers were members of unions, whereas by 1985 only 19% remained enrolled, and last year their number had dropped to 12.5 % (of whom barely 8% were in the private sector).  The AFL-CIO nonetheless has some 13 million members, whose national dues (of $7.23 per person) support an organization that federates 57 unions (of different sizes), and is capable of mobilizing its supporters for important political fights (for example, 24% of John Kerry’s voters in 2004 came from union households).  The national headquarters in Washington forms an impressive lobby whose weight is felt in a variety of debates that concern working families.  But it’s precisely this orientation that has become a problem, counter the critics of the AFL-CIO, who have united under the slogan “Change to Win.”  Mobilizations around particular issues and influence brought to bear in the halls of power no longer suffice; trade unions have to begin once again to enroll new members and to expand their reach beyond the declining industries to organize in the neglected sectors of the economy.  At the moment, however, only five affiliated unions devote more than 30% of their resources to organizing, whereas the dissidents have demanded that all member unions spend at least 50% of their funds on recruitment projects.

The first impact of the split will be to weaken the AFL-CIO, which will lose 4 million members and roughly 25 million dollars in dues payments each year.  (If more unions leave, as predicted, the losses will be higher.)  The departing unions criticize the present leadership for devoting too many resources to the quest for political influence while neglecting the principle duty of the trade unionist: to recruit and unite workers so that they can defend themselves.  One source of the problem is obviously the fact that traditional industries are disappearing, moving production abroad with the result that the existing unions have no reason to spend their money in searching for new members; their obligation, it seems rightly to them, is to protect their existing adherents and prior gains.  Those sectors of the economy that are growing, such as the services, health and public employees, remain largely untapped.  This distinction between an old and a new economy explains the optimism of Andrew Stern, the head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) whose membership has grown from 700,000 to 1,8 million during the past decade.[1]

“Was it necessary to cut all ties?” is the question asked by the allies of John Sweeney.  They wonder whether it would not have been better to seek a compromise—which indeed, they had proposed.  They were willing to increase the resources devoted to organizational work—though not quite as much as the dissidents wanted, but still to a reasonable degree.  More important, their counter-argument continues, the crucial point to recognize is that the true hindrance to developing further the power of trade unions comes from anti-union laws voted by Congress (such as, for example, the obligation to certify a union as representing the workers of a given firm, and the definition of what counts as bargaining in good faith by businesses that don’t hesitate to employ union-busting practices).  It is in Washington, they argue, that we will be able to change things, and that’s why we devote so much of our resources to lobbying, as well as legislative and electoral projects.  From this point of view, their self-defense turns into a counter critique:  the competition that will grow from your splitting to go your own way, they tell the dissidents, will weaken us both[2]; each of us will be tempted to poach on the territory of the other while the allies of capital will sit back and apply the age-old principal of divide et imperium.  And so, at the conclusion of his interview with the Times, John Sweeney mocks his critics as spoiled children who, when they saw that they could not win, picked up their marbles and went home.  In spite of their claims to principled opposition, their behavior represented, he concludes, nothing but a quest for power.

In order to understand the split that is occurring, we need to return to the origins of the cold-blooded mariage de raison of 1955.  At the time, the trade unions representing the professional sectors of the economy had been long united in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which sought to increase the well-being of its members while excluding explicitly any broader project of social change.  That vision of “pure and simple trade unionism” had overcome the opposition from various socialist movements—until the Great Depression of the 1930’s, which gave rise to new radical demands.  The Keynesian politics of the New Deal proposed new rules that sought to encourage the development of the union movement.  The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was born in this context.  It sought to organize unskilled workers in such industries as automobile, steel and coal, which the AFL had neglected.  The success of the CIO was greater than anyone had hoped, and the great sit-down strikes of 1936 at General Motors remained a model, and a threat.  But these successes could not be repeated; neither history nor capitalism stands still.  At the end of the war, a new tendency began to be felt.  In spite of president Truman’s veto, the republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley law that took back many of the advantages won by labor during the New Deal. In the meanwhile, the anti-communism of the Cold War led to purges among the more militant unionists.  It was in this context that the mariage de raison between the AFL and the CIO—between whom no love was lost—took place:  each needed the other in order to preserve its influence.

The supporters of “Change to Win” base their hopes on the analogy between their project, which seeks to organize the neglected (or new) strata at the bottom of society and the early success of the CIO.  They suggest that the new activism that they incarnate will revivify a union movement that has remained—like the old AFL­–– the captive of its past and a hostage to its members who want to preserve their prior gains and the social relations they guaranteed.  This analogy can be pushed further.  Since the majority of workers in the service sectors are ethnic minorities, the new unionism will have to follow the model of the early CIO in denouncing the implicit racism of those who put their narrow self-interest above the collective well being of a democratic society in which social divisions must not become quasi-hereditary, passed on from one union family to another.  The same historical comparison suggests the need to create cross-union alliances to fight against such contemporary heirs to the old industrial giants as Walmart or Federal Express—just as the CIO mobilized social and political movements to fight General Motors or U.S. Steel.  Up until now, those giants had taken advantage of the fact that the AFL-CIO is a loose federation whose president does not have the power to act against destructive inter-union competition.  The divisions that result prevent coordinated action:  57 unions under one rickety umbrella make conflict inevitable, as the AFL-CIO itself recognized by proposing the need for consolidations (although it is unable to wield sufficient power to put its wishes into practice).  This is another ground for the split, argue the dissidents, who want to create a more tightly run ship[3].

The analogies drawn by the dissidents are interesting, but the America of the new twenty-first century is not that of the New Deal.  Indeed, in a sense, the worm was already in the fruit of the success of the CIO.   The successful organization of the industrial giants led inevitably to the integration of the unions as increasing numbers of blacks moved north after the war.  Racial tensions followed.  These were exacerbated by the support given to the civil rights movement by the leading progressive edge of the CIO, the powerful United Auto Workers led by Walter Ruether and his progressive allies.  At the same time, the Vietnam War brought about an increasing alienation between political liberalism rooted in the CIO and the anti-communist trade unionists of the AFL, whose socially conservative members found it difficult to understand the morals of a new generation. With the advent of the inflation (or “stagflation”) in the outgoing 1970s, the election of Ronald Reagan comes as no surprise.  But his first act, at the beginning of 1981, the firing of the striking air traffic controllers and dissolution of their union, was a sign of the times to come.  This aggressive element of republican politics, interrupted for a moment by the 1992 election of Bill Clinton—who had to confront a republican Congress after 1994—has been accentuated by George W. Bush.  If all history is a history of class struggles, capital seems to have won the battle in the United States.

The wager of “Change to Win” is enormous.  Its bet is all or nothing.  The media have stressed mostly the negative consequences for the Democratic Party, at both the national level and in state and local politics, where unions bring with them an important contribution of activists and money.  From this point of view, John Sweeney and his supporters seem to have the better argument when they insist that change has to make use of the existing political channels.  And they are not wrong:  the members appointed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that was created by the New Deal to level the playing field between capital and labor can challenge union gains by interpreting laws favorably to business.  But the critics are not wrong either.  They stress that the attempts to play on the political terrain have been marked by a series of defeats, and that it is useless to continue to ram one’s head against the same brick wall while repeating the mantra that a just cause will always, ultimately, triumph. They add that such repeated failures will, in the long run, discourage eventual allies who could emerge from sectors of society that have been hitherto ignored.  If the traditional political path is closed (at least for the time being), then a new vision is needed in order to revivify those whose (justified) discontent does not, by itself, constitute a strategy.  If the economy is no longer what it used to be, and if the chasm between the rich and the poor has deepened, then perhaps one should take advantage of the fact that the out-sourcing of mass production industries does not affect the service sectors that tend to escape from the threatening effects of globalization.  This poses the question whether victories on this economic terrain could find a political translation?  Could the dissidents be the carriers of a new perspective that has not yet found an adequate political formulation?

It is impossible to predict who will prove to be right, much less who will win.  But it should be noted that the opposition between these two perspectives repeats a well-known dilemma present throughout the history of the Left.  Beyond the opposition between reform and revolution, what is at stake is the alternative between a transformation that comes from the top down—by means of the state—and another vision that emerges from below—through the self-organization of workers.  But that historical dichotomy was challenged by the emancipatory movements of Eastern and Central Europe that led to the rediscovery of the power of the forgotten democratic civil society.  Americans, who think that they incarnate democracy, never reflected on how communism fell.  But the new movement could force a reflection. Whereas the CIO organized workers of mass industries who worked in the same place and who became conscious of their unity because the union was recognized as representing them in negotiations, employees in janitorial services, salespeople at Walmart, health care workers and so on work in separated job-sites and come together only when they make an effort to participate in the work of the union.[4]   As a result, the kind of solidarity that arises in the service sector differs from the unity that is created by a trade union that represents workers in mass industries.  The latter type of unity comes from the top-down, passively, whereas the new solidarity emerges from a sort of “horizontal” sharing of experiences among individuals who are at first more isolated from one another.  Could one imagine that, in this case, the result of a new trade-unionist advance would be a reflection on the (discouraging) state of the American political and social relations similar to the one that resulted from the emergence of the CIO?  It would be clear that, in the last resort, trade unionism is not a corporatism that works for the sole good of its members.  Since its birth, it incarnates the idea that power must not be concentrated in a single place outside of society.  Society, in its plurality, has always the right to challenge those who think they can monopolize its interests.  Reflections such as these, that are implicit in the challenge posed by the supporters of “Change to Win” could lead trade unionists and their allies to recognize that their role is not limited to realizing a utilitarian logic of self-interest that, in the end, is hardly different from the one practiced by capitalism.  If it does, American democracy will benefit from it.


[1] It should be noted that Stern’s predecessor was non other than John Sweeney, who is hardly the archetype of the old-time trade unionist.

[2] The AFL-CIO voted in increase in national dues of 43 cents for each member in order not only to replace the lost dues from the dissident unions but also, explicitly, to fight back against raids by the new competition.

[3] It should be noted that the principal ally of Andrew Stern is the Teamsters’ Union, who have for a long time had bad relations with the AFL-CIO, which excluded them for some years due to their cooperation with organized crime.  Furthermore, not so long ago, the Teamsters supported republican candidates, whereas the AFL-CIO has been staunchly democratic.  And the fact that “Change to Win” wants to get support from social movements such as the ecologists could well run up against the sectorial interests of employees of the trucking industry.  Another marriage of convenience?

[4] It is not surprising that a recent poll suggested that 52% of non-organized workers said that they would like to be able to join a union.  But of course the interpretation of the procedures for certification of a union depend on the National Labor Relations Board, whose republican majority does not make things any easier.


This essay is a translation, by the author, of a weekly “Chroniques de la démocratie américain” that will cover the year from the November 2004 election to November 2005 forthcoming from éditions Buchet-Chastel, Paris in early 2006.

Dick Howard is Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and the author of The Specter of Democracy (Columbia University Press.)