Labor's War at Home
by Lee Sustar
Review, April 2003
While the war drive against Iraq has focused
the world on the Bush Doctrine abroad, there is a domestic equivalent-a
dramatic escalation of the 25-year employers' offensive. With
the White House leading the way, Corporate America aims to deal
a series of decisive defeats to organized labor and to consolidate
a balance of class forces that overwhelmingly favors employers.
With union membership in the private sector down to just 8.5 percent
(and 13.2 percent overall),' business sees an opportunity to achieve
Many, if not most, unions face their greatest
struggle in decades-not just to hold on to some gains, but to
even survive. In February, the leaders of five of the largest
unions, seeking to push a more aggressive strategy for organizing
staged what Business Week called a "palace coup" on
the AFL-CIO Executive Council to create a smaller executive committee
to drive policy.
Moreover, there is deep unease in the
ranks of organized labor about George W. Bush's agenda, reflected
in the passage of antiwar resolutions in union after union and
the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War. Even the AFL-CIO
Executive Council has voiced opposition to a unilateral U.S. war
on Iraq-a major departure from top union officials' lockstep support
for U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War. The controversy
over the war could presage a wider debate among union members
about how to reverse labor's decline.
The urgency of such a debate can't be
overstated. Even in union strongholds, labor is in retreat in
the face of employer demands for givebacks in wages and benefits.
Unions have already agreed to billions of dollars in concessions
over the last two years in steel, aerospace, airlines and telecommunications.
Where unions hesitate to accept cuts, such as at United Airlines,
Bush's Air Transportation Stability Board and bankruptcy judges
are imposing them anyway. Meanwhile, in the public sector unions
which represent 37.5 percent of those workers, the fiscal crises
of states and cities have prompted government demands for cuts
in jobs, pay and working conditions in the public sector as well.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to impose
12,000 layoffs if municipal unions refused to accept $600 million
in concessions. In Portland, Oregon, the public school teachers'
union agreed to a 5 percent pay cut and to work 10 days for free.
Even "good" contracts, such as the Teamsters' agreements
with UPS and freight companies, mask concessions by allowing the
companies to grind down the number of good jobs and working conditions
over the course of five-year deals.
Government intervention is playing a central
role in this offensive. Since taking office, George Bush has banned
strikes in the airlines, invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act
in the West Coast dock dispute; banned unions from key parts of
the Department of Homeland Security; imposed new financial reporting
requirements on unions and announced plans to privatize some 850,000
federal jobs, most of them unionized.
Bush's anti-union campaign is by far the
most aggressive one from the White House since President Ronald
Reagan fired nearly 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in
the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO)
in 1981. Just to make sure union leaders got the point, the White
House dispatched Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to the annual
AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Florida in February to add
insult to the many injuries Bush has inflicted on labor. When
asked by International Association of Machinists (IAM) President
Thomas Buffenbarger about the new restrictive reporting requirements,
she read out accounts of corruption involving IAM officials. AFL-CIO
President John Sweeney called Chao "insulting at times,"
adding that, "In all my years, I've never seen a secretary
of labor so antilabor."
Chao's attack was a rebuff to conservative
union leaders such as Teamsters President James Hoffa, who has
sought to build an alliance with Bush on issues ranging from oil
drilling in the Alaska wildlife reserve to war on Iraq. Hoffa,
along with Carpenters President Doug McCarron, who took his union
out of the AFL-CIO in 2001, had attempted to consolidate a right-wing
opposition to Sweeney. In late 2002, the Carpenters re-affiliated
with the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department
(BCTD), a violation of the AFL-CIO constitution and a test of
Sweeney's resolve. The building trades are also at odds with Sweeney
over their handling of the $335 million insider trading scandal
that enriched the top labor officials who direct the union-run
insurance company ULLICO, which handles $6 billion in pension
funds for the building trades." Former BCTD chief Robert
Georgine, who is CEO of ULLICO, has refused to make public an
outside review of the scandal, which prompted resignations from
the ULLICO board by Sweeney and two other top AFL-CIO officials.
The formation of the new, smaller executive
committee can be seen at least in part as a countermove against
the right by more liberal-left union leaders. While this isn't
a division remotely on the scale of that which led to the split
of the old CIO from the AFL in the 1930s, the tensions are real
enough. Certainly, the politics of individual leaders matter in
this dispute-the palace coup was engineered by the liberal leaders
of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Hotel
Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) and the Union of Needletrades,
Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).'3 The key factor, however,
is the pressure from the employers and the U.S. state on one side
and an increasingly bitter and angry union rank and file on the
In fact, the major union contract battles
of 2002 highlighted the increasing pressure on labor officials
from their restive memberships. Although labor officials bowed
to employers' demands in every major battle, bitterness in the
rank and file over concessions has forced leaders of a number
of unions to sharpen their rhetoric against the employers and
at least partially mobilize the membership for action.
If union leaders have been able to get
away with making concessionary agreements, it's because the rank
and file does not yet have the confidence and organization necessary
to take the initiative in the struggle. Nevertheless, the growing
support for antiwar resolutions in union bodies, as well as labor
participation in antiwar protests, reflects a politicization of
sections of organized labor.
This article isn't intended to be comprehensive
account of labor struggles over the last year-recent articles
in the International Socialist Review provide such an overview.
The aim, rather, is to briefly summarize trends and provide an
analysis. It will conclude with a discussion of the kind of politics
and organization necessary to reverse organized labor's long decline.
The employers' offensive intensifies
While the employers' offensive has continued
for more than two decades, the economic boom of the 1990s gave
unions greater leverage to resist and sometimes make serious gains.
After the long strikes and lockouts at A.E. Staley, Caterpillar,
Bridgestone-Firestone and the Detroit newspapers in the mid-1990s,
the 1997 Teamsters strike at United Parcel Service demonstrated
that workers can take on powerful corporations and win. Reform
Teamster President Ron Carey was ousted by government intervention
in the aftermath of the strike on trumped-up corruption charges
for which he was eventually cleared. Nevertheless, the UPS strike
finally broke the automatic assumption that a strike equals defeat
that had overshadowed the labor movement since the destruction
The next three years after the Teamsters'
win at UPS saw strike victories for the Communications Workers
of America (CWA) at Verizon (twice) and US West, for technical
workers at Boeing and janitors in Los Angles and Chicago. This
must be put in perspective, however. While the number of strikes
and lockouts involving more than 1,000 workers jumped from 17
in 1999 to 39 in 2000, it fell to 29 in 2001 and just 19 in 2002.
The number of person-hours lost due to strikes was the lowest
since records were first kept in 1947. (Final figures for 2002
were not available at the time of publication). Even in 1986,
in the heyday of Reaganism, there were 69 such work stoppages.
In 1974, at the height of the rank-and-file rebellion, there were
424 strikes and lockouts.
The onset of recession in 2001 gave employers
greater leverage to press their demands in both the private and
public sectors. The 12-day Minnesota public sector strike at the
same time as a New Jersey teachers' strike at the time signaled
an attack on public sector unions at the federal, state and local
levels that is intensifying today. (Those strikes also showed
that even under the ideological pressure of patriotism after September
11, workers were willing to fight). Despite the recession, union
membership held steady at 16.4 million in 2001, but dropped to
16.1 million in 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Virtually the entire decline came in the private sector, where
unions represent the smallest proportion of workers in nearly
a century. For the three "heavy metal" unions, the losses
in recent years are staggering. Over the last five years, the
United Auto Workers have lost 95,000 members; the Machinists,
33,000; the Steelworkers, 121,000. The losses would be greater
except for mergers and new organizing pursued outside the unions'
traditional jurisdictions. For many unions, the membership figures
are much worse: The 15 biggest of the 66 affiliated unions in
the AFL-CIO represent 10 million of 13 million of the federation's
With the economy still limping along in
2002, union job losses continued to mount, especially in manufacturing.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, hiring is at its lowest
level in 20 years, and the economy has lost 2.2 million jobs since
the recession began in 2001. Employers used the opportunity to
bring back "concessions bargaining"-the term for unions'
agreement to surrender wages and working conditions that began
in the late 1970s and accelerated following the PATCO defeat.
Twenty years ago, union leaders from former
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland on down tried to justify concessions
on the grounds that the U.S. economy had to be more competitive
with Japan in order to prosper. The escalation of the Cold War
in those years provided additional ideological justification for
This time, union leaders have taken a
different approach. While they have claimed that it was necessary
to take concessions in order to "save" companies like
bankrupt United Airlines and US Airways, in many cases they have
tried to resist them, however half-heartedly. This is not due
to stiffer backbones in the union leadership, but to the increased
working class consciousness after 25 years of sacrifice and expectations
raised in the 1990s boom. In the early 1980s, the employers could
claim that free-market policies were the cure for the economic
stagnation of the 1970s, and workers were prepared to accept it.
Today, in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and the recession, workers
are bitter and suspicious.
As a result, union leaders have had to
articulate the pressure from below and talk tough. In New York
City, for example, Randi Weingareen, president of the 130,000-member
United Federation of Teachers, last year organized an authorization
vote for an illegal strike. While it was a symbolic gesture, he
was able to secure a better-but still concessionary- deal than
originally offered. Similarly, Roger Toussaine, the reformer who
now heads New York's subway union, Transport Workers Union Local
100, also mobilized for an illegal strike before accepting an
improved-but again, concession
Elsewhere, however, union leaders' efforts
to sidestep confrontation have led to disaster when employers
were determined to press their advantage. At Boeing, where the
1999 contract supposedly guaranteed job security, 30,000 workers
lose jobs. The IAM leaders went through the motions of calling
for a strike vote on a job-killing proposal from management and
when canceled the vote's results. On a re-vote, the contract was
defeated but strike authorization was denied because the rejection
was less than a two-thirds majority, allowing the deal to pass.
With union officials abdicating leadership, a sizeable minority
of rank-and-file workers, seeing no alternative, had concluded
that there was no alternative but to accept the deal.
The IAM also found itself under severe
attack at United Airlines. Faced with demands for concessions
from management-where it has a seat on the board-IAM leaders pushed
concessions on workers just months after they agreed to a new
contract making up for wage cues taken in 1994. At the last minute,
they canceled the vote as United filed for bankruptcy. A federal
bankruptcy judge has imposed the cuts anyway, and IAM officials
have done nothing to oppose them.
There was a similar pattern at Verizon,
where the CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical
Workers (IBEW) mobilized against layoffs despite the company's
$2.3 billion profit in the last quarter of 2002. The center of
the battle was the CWA in New York, where the phone company had
never had a layoff, even in the Depression of the 1930s. But after
months of protests, rallies, lobbying and a multimillion dollar
media blitz, the CWA simply caved when the company laid off 2,300
workers in New York and 3,450 overall-six days before Christmas.
The struggle of the West Coast dockworkers
in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) showed
the same dynamics at work. President James Spinosa mobilized the
union with protests and rallies, in keeping with the ILWU's unparalleled
tradition of militancy and rank-and-file action. But Spinosa represented
more conservative, better-paid elements in the union and behind
the rhetoric he was looking to accommodate the employers without
provoking an explosion in the rank and file. Spinosa signaled
his willingness to come to terms by refusing to take a strike
authorization vote. Management engineered a crisis with a 10-day
lockout giving the pretext for Bush's use of the anti-union Taft-Hartley
law to ban any job action by workers. Negotiating with a gun to
its head, the ILWU leadership agreed to a concessionary agreement
that will allow the elimination of hundreds of the best-paying
jobs and open the door to outsourcing and downsizing.
Elsewhere, union leaders accept concessions
as inevitable and have openly embraced what socialists have traditionally
called class collaboration. Ron Gettelfinger, the new president
of the United Auto Workers, is sleepwalking his way into this
year's negotiations with the Big Three automakers, even though
it has been clear for months that employers will use the problems
of overproduction and declining profits to demand plant closures
that may cause the elimination of tens thousands of jobs at assembly
and parts planes.
The picture is even grimmer in the steel
industry. United Steelworkers of America (USWA) President Leo
Gerard, the Canadian social democrat known for his fiery left-wing
speeches at global justice rallies, is working with a Wall Street
financier to restructure bankrupt steel companies LTV and Bethlehem
by shifting retiree pensions to a government board (cutting benefits
by half or more), and virtually eliminating retiree health care-not
to mention concessions on working conditions for those workers
still on the job. "[Gerard] is allowing the merged companies
to dump most of the enormous pension and retiree health-care costs
that weigh down an industry with 600,000 retirees-and only 124,000
active workers," BusinessWeek noted. "It's the ultimate
irony that after a long history of bitter clashes with management,
it has taken a labor leader to salvage what's left of Big Steel."
Gerard's collaboration with management
may be extreme but it's not exceptional. It follows a logic of
what is called business unionism instead of working-class solidarity-that
is, defending workers' interests by helping management to be profitable.
The struggles and almost-strikes of the last several months have
highlighted the fact that virtually every top union leader, whatever
his or her political stripe, accepts this framework, despite its
disastrous implications for workers.
The crisis of "Sweeneyism" and
the labor bureaucracy
The return of concessions bargaining has
exposed a crisis in AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's strategy
to revive labor since taking office in late 1995. His aim was
threefold: organize the unorganized, strengthen labor's clout
within the Democratic Party and convince Corporate America to
join the unions to create a partnership for a "high road."
Concessions, as shown, have made nonsense
out of partnership. New organizing, while making some inroads
in health care and low-wage service jobs, has failed to reverse
labor's long decline. Teamsters President James Hoffa took a step
in the direction of the kind needed to organize the unorganized
when he called a national strike against the nonunion trucking
company Overnite. But the company's use of replacement workers-and
the unwillingness of the Teamsters to use a more aggressive strategy
on the picket line-meant that the strike was defeated. Labor saw
another big defeat in late 2001 when the UAW lost its third organizing
drive at Nissan, highlighting the failure of the union to organize
foreign-owned transplants even as more are being built. Only one
in three organizing drives succeeds, in large part because labor
laws are so blatantly rigged in favor of employers that even Human
Rights Watch concluded that U.S. workers' legal right to organize
is almost meaningless.
Labor's political strategy is in total
disarray as well. Despite their success in helping Al Gore get
the most votes in the 2000 elections, the unions soon scrambled
in different directions following Bush's installation in office.
Hoffa and the Carpenters' McCarron quickly allied with Bush. But
even a traditional left-winger, Dennis Rivera of 1199/SEIU in
New York City, lined up with Republican Governor George Pataki
in the 2002 elections. Despite labor's attempt to redouble its
efforts in the Congressional elections, labor tailored its message
to individual Democratic candidates rather than clearly articulate
working-class issues. The Democrats' failure to take on Bush,
in turn, led to the GOP sweep and further split between union
chiefs opposed to or allied with Bush. In addition, the new Democratic
governors elected with labor's support in New Jersey, Illinois
and Michigan are administering austerity that will hit workers
The crisis can't be simply reduced to
Sweeney's policies, of course. It flows from the role of the labor
bureaucracy in society and is aggravated by the absence of any
working-class political party in the U.S.
After the rise of the militant mass movement
of the CIO in the 1930s, the labor bureaucracy consolidated itself
during and after the Second World War, which dramatically expanded
union membership. As full-time officials removed from the pressures
of the shop floor, union officials have more in common ideologically,
socially and politically with the middle class than the rank-and-file
members of their own unions. After the stormy period of the 1930s
and the pressures of wartime, union officials sought to stabilize
the situation-in particular, their own positions.
So, following the passage of the Taft-Hartley
law in 1947, which severely limited union activity and banned
Communists from the leadership, union leaders protested but quickly
adapted. They were happy to collaborate with the employers and
government in anticommunist witch-hunts to remove critics on the
left in the rank and file. In return they were accorded the status
of "Big Labor" to negotiate with "Big Business"
and "Big Government." Unlike their counterparts in Western
Europe, U.S. unions didn't press for an expansion of the welfare
state (such as a national health insurance program) after the
Second World War.' Instead, labor contracts in industries like
steel, auto and rubber shaped wages and conditions for the 65
percent of workers not in unions. Unions were seen as such pillars
of the U.S. establishment that a leading liberal sociologist,
C. Wright Mills, could title his 194S study of labor leaders The
New Men of Power.
Burt Cochran, a socialist autoworker in
the 1930s, wrote in the late 1950s:
[S]ince the passage of the Taft-Hartley
law, labor has been preoccupied with rear-guard actions. The labor
movement's achievement of coming through trying rimes is likewise
compromised by its ready adaptation to the rules of the game as
laid down by the dominant business community. The labor leaders
are nor framers of decisions that determine the structure of this
society. They are not even dissenters in a decade of unexampled
reaction. They have sought rather to become one of the components
of the status quo in the hope that they would thereby be permitted
to consolidate their organizations as a reward for good behavior.
Labor and U.S. imperialism
One of the most important terms of American
capitalism's acceptance of the union bureaucracy's deal with American
capital was labor officials' total support for the Cold War and
U.S. imperialism. In return, union leaders believed, their organizations
would get jobs in defense industries where wellpaying work would
always be guaranteed.
The pattern was set in the First World
War, when Democratic President Woodrow Wilson solicited the support
of AFL President Samuel Gompers for the military "preparedness"
campaign and then entry into the war. In return, the AFL obtained
a quasi-guarantee of government support for the right to organize
in booming wartime industries such as steel and meatpacking. After
the war, the government turned its back as business launched what
would become known as the "open shop movement" or, more
fittingly, as "the American Plan."
The rise of the industrial unions of the
CIO in the 1930s and the pressures to meet wartime production
needs compelled Washington to launch a new round of labor-business-government
partnership, this time with much greater union involvement. Clothing
workers' leader Sidney Hillman became co-director of the government-run
Office of Production Management, and the Roosevelt White House
catchphrase, "clear it with Sidney," reflected labor's
new clout. In return, union leaders policed the rank and file,
enforcing their no-strike pledge (with the help of the Communist
Party, which justified its efforts on the grounds of patriotism)."
The Second World War provided the framework
for hard-line support for U.S. imperialist interventions afterward,
from the wars in Korea and Vietnam to Washington's military and
political interventions in Latin America and the developing world.
A former Communist Party leader, Jay Lovestone, became the chief
foreign policy operative for AFL-CIO President George Meany and
involved the U.S. labor movement with both the State Department
and the CIA. His handiwork included U.S. union involvement in
repression of democratic and anti-imperialist unions, which earned
the labor federation the nickname, "AFL-CIA."
The growth of the antiwar movement during
the U.S. involvement in Vietnam did lead to some significant labor
opposition. The expectation that the war would mean both guns
and butter had broken down in the late 1960s as working-class
draftees were being killed in Vietnam and inflation created by
wartime spending ate into paychecks. The attack by some hard-hat
construction workers at an antiwar demonstration in New York has
left a false stereotype about blue-collar support for the war.
In fact, there is evidence that opposition to the war was higher
among workers than other parts of the population. Indeed, it was
pressure from the rank and file that pushed UAW President Walter
Reuther to eventually oppose the war. Morever, the liberal and
left-wing elements that had survived the McCarthyite witch hunts
of the 1950s voiced opposition to the war early on and gave material
support for the antiwar movement. The Labor Leadership Assembly
for Peace was formed by a national meeting of 500 labor activists
in Chicago in 1967. Nevertheless, the conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy's
hostility to the movement intimidated many union officials from
speaking out, and a broader Labor for Peace and Justice wasn't
created until 1972-just a year before the U.S. troop withdrawal
George Meany's successor, Lane Kirkland,
was equally dedicated to the Cold War and U.S. imperial interventions.
In the 1980s Kirkland helped the Reagan administration give a
democratic gloss to its sponsorship of counterrevolution in Nicaragua
and the repressive government in neighboring El Salvador. This
proved unpopular with a number of union officials who had come
of age in the 1960s, and a pullback from the State Department
agenda became part of the agenda of Sweeney's New Voices slate,
which took office in late 1995.
There have been real changes, including
the formation of a Solidarity Center, which has carried out some
genuine internationalist outreach to unions in developing countries.
Nevertheless, the change is only partial. As journalist Tim Shorrock
points out, the AFL-CIO is still involved with the National Endowment
for Democracy, a government-run institute which provided much
of the funding and political cover for labor's involvement with
anti-democratic and counterrevolutionary forces in Latin America
and elsewhere, most recently in backing a coup in Venezuela.
After September 11, labor leaders assumed
their traditional stance of unquestioning support for the U.S.
war in Afghanistan. But the intensifying war has compelled Sweeney
to speak out against the way Corporate America has used 911 as
an excuse to impose layoffs.
The result is that when the war drive
against Iraq began, the modest labor antiwar forces that emerged
after 9-11- New York City Labor Against War and San Francisco
Labor for Peace and Justice-suddenly began to get a hearing. Antiwar
labor resolutions passed in union bodies not typically known for
left-wing causes, such as the central labor councils in upstate
New York. A watershed of sorts came in October 2002, when a membership
meeting of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, one of the largest
locals in the union, overwhelmingly passed a resolution unconditionally
opposing war on Iraq. This set the stage for the formation of
U.S. Labor Against the War in that union's hall on January 11,
2003. As of early March, more than 100 union bodies representing
more than 3.5 million members have passed resolutions opposing
or criticizing the war drive.
The passage of antiwar resolutions helped
to prod the AFL-CIO's Executive Council to take its unanimous
vote opposing a unilateral U.S. war on Iraq. But the bigger pressure
has come from the Bush White House and employers. Consider the
case of the IAM, whose leader, Thomas Buffenbarger, declared after
9-11 that "it is not simply justice we seek. It is vengeance,
pure and complete." Since then, the IAM has endured bitter
strikes at defense contractors Pratt & Whitney and Lockheed-Martin,
suffered thousands of layoffs at Boeing and concessions imposed
by a bankruptcy judge at United Airlines.
Samuel Gompers' deal with the devil-support
U.S. imperialism's agenda and gain jobs, prosperity and political
influence-was never really good for U.S. workers, who paid with
their lives in wars abroad and for the burden of war spending
at home. In any case, the deal is now off. The devil simply doesn't
need it any longer.
Why hasn't there been a fightback?
After 25 years of employers' offensive,
all the assumptions that the labor bureaucracy made in the 1950s
have been shattered. Corporate America is willing to accept partnership-
but only if labor assumes a totally subservient role and union
officials are capable of selling cuts to the rank and file. The
most aggressive phase of U.S. imperialism in decades doesn't offer
the prospect of more jobs, but is matched by an all-out assault
on unions. The Democrats give lip service to labor issues but
little else. Big Labor represents fewer than one in ten workers
in the private sector. The recession has given employers the leverage
to demand even more givebacks that could threaten the very existence
of some unions.
Given the pervasive sense of crisis in
the labor movement, why aren't union leaders carrying out a serious
fight to save their unions from catastrophic setbacks, or at least
sounding the alarm?
The highly entrenched character of the
union bureaucracy and its long record of class collaboration are
central to the explanation. The scandal over ULLICO highlights
the problem. In addition, despite the crisis, most unions quash
any serious debate either in meetings or in publications that
might give the rank and file a voice-a legacy of the McCarthyite
anticommunism when any dissenters were dismissed as "reds."
Nevertheless, conservative as they are,
the trade union bureaucracy is based on the rank and file and
therefore is subject to pressure from below.
As the late British revolutionary Duncan
Hallas put it:
The trade union leaders, right wing included,
play a dual role, because, along with the integration [into capitalism],
they retain (as a group) a vital interest in the preservation
of their organizations, working-class organizations, which are
the source of their importance in society, their incomes and their
prospects. It is this fact that makes possible, in some circumstances,
a degree of collaboration between revolutionary socialists and
officials. For we too have a viral interest in the preservation
of the unions. However this does not alter in the slightest the
fact that the bureaucracy as a whole is a conservative layer,
as are all bureaucracies.
So another question must be asked: Why
hasn't the rank and file been able to organize around the bitterness
of workers to push union leaders into action?
A critical reason is that the U.S. labor
movement is still paying for the destruction of the labor left
in the 1950s McCarthyist witch hunt, which led to the systematic
physical removal of socialist organization from the unions. The
Cold War provided a political and ideological roadblock that has
cut off the U.S. working class from its best, fighting and most
The rank-and-file rebellion that began
in the late 1960s and lasted until the mid-1970s provided an opportunity
for systematic and open socialist intervention in the labor movement
for the first time since the 1940s. However the scale of the rebellion
was not at all comparable to the upturn in struggle seen in countries
such as Britain, France and Italy, where the revolutionary left
could make real inroads. In the U.S., the hesitancy of the New
Left to relate to the working class, and the ferocity of the employers'
offensive by the late 1970s quickly closed down opportunities
for socialists in the unions.
Since then, the tremendous downsizing
held down hiring for more than a decade, cutting off a new generation
of workers from learning the fighting traditions of an already
greatly weakened union organization. The big industrial battles
of the mid-1990s, such as those at Staley and Bridgestone-Firestone
were led by workers in their late 40s and early 50s who had already
endured more than two decades of attacks. While they were willing
to stand up and fight, they didn't have the confidence and organization
to carry out the tasks needed to win-mass pickets to stop production,
defiance of the law and mobilizing wider solidarity. The willingness
to fight- and endure enormous sacrifice-was present. At the Accuride
auto parts plant in Kentucky, for example, workers who had organized
their union in a bitter strike in 1980 walked out in 1998. After
a four-year lockout, their spirit of union solidarity was so strong
that they still refused to accept a union-busting contract despite
incredible personal hardships-even after the UAW removed their
local charter and disowned them.
In recent months, union leaders' rhetoric
and mobilizations for struggle, however half-hearted, have shown
that they feel the heat from their memberships. Sooner or later,
the pressure from below-or even above-will reach a critical point,
and some union officials will feel the need to move into struggle.
While the battles of the ILWU on the docks and the TWU in the
subways ended without all-out confrontation, we need to remember
that they came very dose to strikes that would have had huge effects
on the U.S. economy and politics. And while it is too soon to
tell whether a new executive committee run by the big unions will
help labor move forward, it's clear that there will be no top-down
bureaucratic solution to labor's crisis. Renewal for the labor
movement will issue from the same source it always has-an upsurge
Lee Sustar is labor editor of Socialist
Worker newspaper and a regular contributor to the International