Blog post

Stanley Aronowitz's 10 points for a new labor movement

Sophia Hussain15 December 2014

Last week on Sam Seder's Majority Report, Stanley Aronowitz discussed the drop in American union membership and how unions have failed to respond to state-managed depression.  “There are no jobs in America any more,” he told Sam. “There are no good factory jobs. The public employment now is beginning to contract. The private sector is providing very, very minimum wages.”

Aronowitz calls for a guaranteed minimum income, a minimum wage of $15 an hour—which is still inadequate, he says, because based on 30 years ago, it should be $20 an hour—a six-hour work day, and 30-hour work week to create more jobs.

To read the rest of Stanley Aronowitz’s theses on building a new labor movement, read the manifesto below, extracted from The Death and Life of American Labor. Stanley’s interview with Sam Seder is available in the video from the 20:00 mark to 1:03:00.

Collective bargaining, the mainstream union solution, has fallen on hard times. The contract, once a compromise between workers and capital in the private sector and between public workers and the state, is a compromise no longer. Today, more often than not, it is a union's signed surrender. There is a place for bargaining; it will remain an important part of the arsenal of labor action, but the old formulas for it no longer work. It is time to move on. Here, then, are my ten theses, or ten-point manifesto, for a new labor movement, modestly offered:

1. Bargaining over wages, working conditions, and benefits need not culminate in a contract. If the workers' collective power is sufficient to avoid a formal agreement, they are better off without one. If they must sign one, it should not include a no-strike provision. And if the workers are not strong enough to impose a deal that does not prohibit strikes during the life of the agreement, then the life of the agreement should be short—say, one year—and the terms should specify exceptional conditions in which workers may withhold their labor, such as discriminatory discharge or an arbitrary change in the work process.

2. The fight for shorter hours is essential and should be waged as a prolonged two-pronged attack: a strong push for legislation that mandates a reduced workday and workweek and direct action in the form of marches, mass demonstrations, and strike activity. This battle must be fought by the new and old labor movements.

3. There must be a national campaign to enact a guaranteed income equal to the minimum wage and/or unemployment compensation, whichever is higher. The guaranteed wage should take regional conditions such as housing, transportation, and food prices into account.

4. More than 800 local unions have endorsed single-payer health care, and single-payer legislation has been introduced in Congress. The national unions and liberal center, instead of joining the fight to enact it, backed the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration's gift to the insurance companies. The fight for socialized medicine is not over, but it won't succeed until and unless a new labor movement and a large fraction of the old one take up the cudgel together. This ought to be a priority of radicals who hope to revive the labor movement.

5. Deindustrialization and deterioration of the food sold in supermarkets have given workers a clear reason to ally with community activist groups and start their own producer and consumer co-ops, which would provide not only higher-quality food but also good jobs. Instead of relying on institutions of finance capital, workers need to create credit unions dedicated, in part, to financing these ventures, determining the best approach by a thorough study of federal and state credit union regulations.

6. The rank and 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. The fight against racial, gender, and ethnic discrimination in hiring, especially in the skilled trades, has languished for too long. One of the most egregious illusions today is that all remaining decent jobs require post-secondary credentials; this is far from true. Many good semi-skilled factory jobs have disappeared, but there are actual shortages of several kinds of craft labor—tool and die makers, ironworkers, and wheelwrights, among others. There are jobs in these trades, but not for all comers; they remain largely the property of white males. In the 1960s and 1970s, when independent black workers' organizations fought through direct action and lawsuits for jobs in the skilled construction and goods production trades, there were some breakthroughs, as the craft unions sought to accommodate these movements. But the demonstrations, work-site disruptions, and legal challenges came to an end, and few further gains were made. It is time to resume the struggle.

8. Both new unions and old should demand and provoke organization of the vast and growing population of precarious workers, whether such unions are recognized by employers or not. If most of the old unions continue to slumber on this issue, new ones must rise and step in. Traditional labor leaders will scream bloody murder, or at least "Dual unionism!"—but if history is any guide, once the radicals take independent action, we can expect the estab- lishment to jump in too. Then the fun begins.

9. The long-standing struggle for union democracy must go on. But the rank-and-file caucuses need not assume union leadership under the present crumbling labor law. Both the original law and its Taft-Hartley amendment must be challenged. They are the key reason why the rank-and-file demand for "a decent contract" is antediluvian. Rank-and-file caucuses must direct their efforts to building alliances with the 247 existing workers' centers and organizations, such as the Taxi Workers Alliances, Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Our Walmart, the Restaurant Opportunities Center in New York. These are movements without contracts, yet they often take direct action and bargain with the state and private employers over their demands, and such organizations may be the right template for a new labor movement.

10. Many unions speak of the urgent need for a truly global labor movement. But even as Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Greek workers engage in mass strikes and job actions, and Mexican minority unions struggle for decent wages and working condi- tions, mainstream U.S. labor continues to sit on the sidelines. Only the small but spunky United Electrical Workers, the Steelworkers, and the Communications Workers of America have reached beyond our borders to assist these battles, and their efforts, except for UEW's, are sporadic. One of the major tasks of the new labor movement will be overcoming the implicit and explicit national- ism that afflicts workers and their unions. A globally divided workers' movement inevitably sinks into racism. Recall the loud labor-union cries against the Yellow Peril, not only in the nineteenth century but in the twentieth century as well. Lately, China has been largely exempt from such reaction because of the close ties between American business and Chinese entrepreneurs and their government sponsors. When these ties begin to unravel under pressure from insurgent Chinese workers' movements, the Yellow Peril fantasy will rear its ugly head again, unless steps are taken now to cement relations between U.S. labor and the Chinese and Indian insurgencies.

For more on The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Worker's Movementclick here.