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Stumbling in the Dark: American Labor's Failed Response

Kim Moody 1 December 2016

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After the US elections and Donald Trump's victory, Verso publishes the second in a series of pieces from our five-volume series produced in the eighties and nineties, 'The Year Left'. This article, by Kim Moody, provides an account of the strategic direction of US trade unions in the 1980s.

The 1984 elections were a test for America’s embattled labor movement. Many of the institutions upon which stable labor relations had rested in the U.S. lay in shambles. Union membership was shrinking in all but a few industries. The collective bargaining process was riddled with setbacks and organizing efforts were down for the count. Whether they believed it or not, the leadership of the AFL-CIO pinned all the blame on the Reagan administration and its policies. All hopes for a solution to labor’s decline were pinned on the return of the Democrats to power in Washington. The road to that objective lay in choosing a mainstream, centrist liberal who could rally and reconstitute the decomposing base of the Democratic Party. That candidate was Walter Mondale - a proven economic liberal, political centrist, and Cold Warrior. Union leaders who might have backed a more liberal Democrat, perhaps even Jesse Jackson, fell into line in the hope that unity and a moderate candidate could defeat the right and restore the ‘good old days’ before Reagan. The maneuver failed. For the long-run, however, what may be more important is that the whole idea upon which this strategy rested - that labor’s problems lay simply in the White House - embodied a misunderstanding of the situation, including of why the right was so powerful an electoral force in the first place.

The foundations of American industrial unionism and its political practice were built on a compromise with the capitalist state in the midst of World War II. As a mechanism for enforcing the new labor laws passed during the New Deal Years, the National Labor Relations Board was largely a failure in the late 1930s. Mass strikes, sit-ins, and later the irresistible draw of war orders were the forces that brought America’s industrial giants to heal before the CIO upheaval. But the top leaders of the CIO, men like John L. Lewis, Philip Murray and Sidney Hillman, never had it in mind to protect their new organizations with a permanent mobilization of the membership. They sought the sort of orderly system of bargaining that Hillman and the garment unions had reached with the clothing makers in the 1920s. When World War II arrived, these men turned to the Roosevelt administration and the state to find this stability. Historian Nelson Lichtenstein has summarized the process that focused largely on the War Labor Board:

For the next four years, these boards were instrumental in setting for the first time industry-wide wage patterns, fixing a system of ‘industrial jurisprudence’ on the shop floor, and influencing the internal structure of the new industrial unions. They were a powerful force in nationalizing a conception of routine and bureaucratic industrial relations that the Wagner Act and the NLRB had thus far filled to implement fully.[1]

With this system in place, the commitment of the postwar boom rendered the NLRB and related state institutions sufficient to both guarantee stability for both industry and labor.

Closely related to this new structure was the peculiarly American political alliance and organizational arrangement between the CIO and later most of the labor movement and the Democratic Party. This alliance was responsible for making necessary adjustments or fending off conservative attacks on the institutional basis of economic peace. It was unique to the United States because it did not include an independent political party of the working class. The formation of CIO-PAC in 1943 sealed the rejection of a class approach to the electoral arena in favor of a subordinate role within the Democratic Party as one of many allied, but also competing social groups. As Lichtenstein puts it: ‘In launching the new Political Action Committee, the CIO leadership specifically rejected any ‘ultraliberal political party in the name of the working man.’ Instead, they sought to discipline the unruly left wing by channeling its energy into a firmly controlled political action group that could function safely within the two-party system.’[2] The acceptance of this limited political role implied a rejection of the European model in which organized labor sees the political party as the vehicle for mobilizing non-union as well as union workers on the basis of a class appeal. In the postwar American arrangement, labor functions not as a party of broad mobilization, but as a pleader for the interests of unions within the party. The political program is not something designed to inspire, even demagogically, or increase class consciousness, but something to be lobbied for in the higher circles of the party or the legislature in coalition with, or opposition to, the other social and economic interest groups. While labor does often fight for the political goals of working-class people, in general its methods tend to reflect its bureaucratic style of bargaining with infrequent mobilizations: for example, Solidarity Day 1 in 1981, limited to its own members. With rare exception, the leaders of the AFL-CIO prefer to pursue their political objectives through negotiations and powerbrokering among allied and/or contending groups. The tactical change in the 1984 elections, when the AFL-CIO Executive Board endorsed Walter Mondale in the primaries, did not represent a departure from this practice so much as a public acknowledgement of it.

Both the industrial and political arrangements that emerged from World War II depended on more or less continuous economic growth and capital accumulation at competitive rates in return for the employers who dealt with unions. As the storm clouds of chronic economic crisis took shape in the second half of the 1960s, economic growth slowed down and falling rates of return led capital to seek new avenues of accumulation; the basis upon which the existing compromise rested thus began to change. The crisis of capital became labor’s crisis as well. Outer symptoms of this crisis can be seen in the decline of union membership, first as a proportion of the workforce, then in absolute numbers. While unions represented 34.7 percent of the civilian workforce in 1954, the year the AFL and the CIO merged, they could only claim 20.9 percent in 1980. This gradual decline became a plunge when the proportion of union members fell to 17.9 percent in 1982. That two-year nose dive represented a net loss of 2.6 million members.[3] But serious as this decline in the level of unionization is, it is only one of a number of trends undermining the strength of organized labor and the working class as a whole. Most of these trends result from changing strategies of accumulation adopted by American-based capital in response to the crisis of its system. These trends have largely undermined the institutional basis of labor’s industrial and political practice.

The last decade and a half have seen an accelerated restructuring and reorganization of U.S. industry that has produced ‘deindustrialization in the U.S. and much of Europe is part of a global transformation that has reduced the weight of traditional basic ‘smokestack’ industries in many of the more advanced capitalist economies as the locus of these industries shifts to a select number of Third World nations where labor is relatively cheap and thought to be under stable political control. Increasingly, the formerly industrial nations of the West have become service-based economies. In the U.S. during the decade of the 1970s, 13.4 million out of a total of 19.6 million new jobs were in the private service-producing sector.[4] The implications for highly unionized basic industry can be seen in Tables I and II. Alongside this development has been an almost continuous reorganization of corporate capital. Facing slumping profit rates in many traditional lines of production - the average rate of profit for non-financial corporations slumped from 16 percent in 1965 to 9 percent in 1970[5] - and an intensification of competition at home and abroad, many corporations sought to strengthen their position through mergers and acquisitions. Large corporations became diversified giants. In 1960, 28 corporations were worth $1 billion or more and controlled 27.6 percent of manufacturing assets. After the merger movement of the late 1960s, 102 billion-dollar corporations controlled 48.8 percent of assets by 1970. A second wave of mergers, again mostly conglomerate in nature, in the late 1970s produced 212 corporations worth $1 billion or more controlling 60 percent of manufacturing assets.[6] Even allowing for the effects of inflation, capital was precipitously concentrated during this period. This produced a shift in the balance of forces between capital and labor in the U.S.

For organized labor, the most obvious consequence of these changes was that unions with a shrinking membership and dues base faced employers who possessed far greater resources than the unions. But since the mergers were mostly along conglomerate lines, it also meant that the old match between union, corporation and industry established in the 30s and 40s was eliminated in many cases. New diversified corporations such as United Technologies dealt with a number of fragmented unions and with non-union workers as well. No single union had the leverage over a company that the CIO unions had previously achieved over firms like General Motors, Ford, General Electric or U.S. Steel. To make matters worse, as the 70s wore on, the merger movements turned into rapid-fire reshuffling as production units changed hands regularly. A number of bargaining units became, in effect, moving targets. Most recently, even the more conventional setups, like those in auto and steel, have altered, as companies like GM and U.S. Steel have begun to diversify. To these changes in power relations must be added the fact that most of the corporate giants had become international in scope and could draw on resources from abroad. Perhaps the most typical impact of these trends was exemplified by those unions dealing with small manufacturing firms that became targets of corporate acquisition. Struggles by workers in various unions against corporations like Gulf & Western, which tried to close its once independent Morse Tool plant, or Greyhound, which sold its Armor meat packing plants out from under the United Food and Commercial Workers, exemplify the problem.[7]

By the mid-1980s, the direction of corporate mergers and acquisitions took a turn away from diversification toward the strengthening of corporate positions in one line of production. Fortune magazine noted this change in its 1983 survey of the ‘Deals of the Year.’ Daniel Weiner wrote: ‘The movement away from conglomeration was evident in 1983’s grand-scale deals. Corporate acquirers tended to go for the industries they knew best - their own. Among the mergers and acquisitions in Fortune’s directory, same-industry deals predominated.’[8] In the early 80s this type of merger movement was particularly strong in oil refining and steel. The effects of these same-industry mergers on both employment and union membership for these industries can be seen in Tables I and II. According to the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, 25 unionized plants employing about 5,000 workers were closed in the early 80s.[9] An example in the steel industry is the merger of LTV and Republic which, they announced in 1984, would be accompanied by the combination of compatible operations and the elimination of duplicate ones.[10] Not even the recovery of 1983 buoyed employment and union membership levels in many industries. The AFL-CIO reported that in the 1981-83 period, 55 affiliated unions reported losses in per capita dues, while only 13 registered an increase.[11]

This changing balance of forces gave business the club it needed to obtain sizable contract concessions from unionized workers. The willingness of the United Auto Workers’ leadership to grant concessions three times as a result of the Chrysler bailout that began in 1979 was the signal that even the most powerful unions would give concessions if the company’s problems or the general economic conditions were bad enough. Once they gained momentum, however, concessions spread to healthy industries and firms as well. Average first-year wage increases in major contracts covering 1,000 or more workers fell from 10.2 percent in 1981, to 3.2 percent in 1982, and 3.4 percent in 1983, a recovery year. In manufacturing, where concessionary bargaining tended to be concentrated, the effect was even more dramatic. First-year wage increases in manufacturing fee from 7.2 percent in 1981, to 2.8 percent in 1982, and 0.4 percent in 1983.[12]

Concessionary bargaining had also altered working conditions and shop floor relations in manufacturing during the first half of the 1980s as management was granted great ‘flexibility’ in the workplace. Ironically, concessions, often made in the name of job security, provided funds for the introduction of new technology in many industries - another source of job elimination. In some industries the effects on productivity have been substantial. In auto, productivity rose 14.2 percent in 1983, in steel an unprecedented 27.7 percent, while several other ‘smokestack’ industries show gains of over 10 percent.[13] Productivity almost always increases during the first phase of a recovery, but these levels were unusual.

Many of the concessions that management demanded in the first half of the 80s, and continues to demand now, are meant to reintroduce or intensify competition among workers. By establishing uniform wage rates, working conditions and production standards, unions have attempted to eliminate or suppress competition, at least between members of the same union. Management, by introducing two-tier wage systems, undoing pattern-setting contracts, and even establishing job bidding between units within the same firm, attempts to undermine the foundation of union solidarity. Under the pressure of international competition, capital is also trying to shift the burden of this competition onto the shoulders of labor. Speaking about the impending 1985 negotiations, William Angell, chief negotiator for General Electric, told the Wall Street Journal: ‘The name of the game in 1985 negotiations is to negotiate contracts that will allow the company to be competitive.’[14] Mr. Angell is not alone in this approach, and it appears to have yielded results. Charles Lieberman, an economist for Shearson/American Express, said: ‘Unlike the major industrial economies of Europe, the U.S. labor market is becoming progressively more competitive. This development reflects the gradual erosion of the power of labor unions as well as the impact of deregulation.[15] The implications of this new situation were drawn out, in very polite language, by the Conference Board in its predictions for bargaining trends in 1984. They stated:

"Labor-market competition will affect bargaining... even during the recovery. Companies will be attempting to cut labor costs by hiring more part-time employees and more temporary employees. They will press for two-tier pay system in which new hires (or rehires) come on the payroll at far lower rates. And, finally, an abundant supply of                         labor makes it more possible than ever before to operate during a strike. This possibility constrains union demands. Moreover, the additional risk that the company may emerge without a union-represented work force is also a constraint on union leaders in the                  mid-80s."

Ironically, while many companies did turn the confrontational approach implied in the Conference Board’s predictions, another major weapon in management’s campaign to introduce competition among the workers was cooperation. This came to light in the General Motors management memo entitled, ‘Actions to Influence The Outcome of Bargaining.’ This memo was obtained and published by Local 160 of the UAW; it enumerated various demands that would increase competition among GM workers. Its approach to influencing the union was through ‘joint problem-solving,’ i.e., giving the union leadership the feeling of participation in solving the problems that confront the company. An aspect of that approach which reaches down to the shop floor is GM’s Quality of Work Life program; for higher ranking union officials a variety of joint committees were to be established. The goals of this cooperate approach, however, are identical to those sought by outright union busters like Phelps-Dodge: worker competition and ineffective unions.[17]

In spite of all the language of cooperation that clutters much of the literature on labor relations these days, the trend has been toward greater employer hostility to unions. This fact was detailed in a 1984 paper issued by the House Labor-Management Relations Subcommittee. In this paper, Professor Richard Freeman wrote: ‘managerial opposition to unionism has increased by leaps and bounds. In the 1950s many managements did relatively little to discourage their workers from unionizing - after all, did not law specify that the decision was the workers’ to make? In ensuing decades, however, management has come to contest hotly nearly every significant NLRB election.’[18] The results of this resistance show up clearly in the representation elections unions have won. During the 1960s, labor won, on average, 58-59 percent of NLRB conducted elections. By the end of the 70s, this declined to 45 percent, while in the early 80s it fluctuated between 43 and 47.7 percent. By 1984, however, the number of elections held had dropped to half the level of 1970, as labor became discouraged with the results.[19] Growing employer resistance also shows up in the figures for Unfair labor Practices, most of which cover unionized workers. The number of Unfair Labor Practices filed against employers rose from 7,723 in 1960, to 13,601 in 1970, and 31,281 in 1980.[20] These figures indicate management’s growing proclivity to play hardball on the shop floor.

The decline of the NLRB as an instrument of mediation between capital and labor means that, along with a number of other institutional arrangements such as pattern bargaining, the institutional foundation of the post-World War II system of labor relations has collapsed. The state could act as the guarantor of labor peace only so long as both sides agreed to play by the rules. As capital increasingly ceased to do so, the state lost - and under Reagan, freely abandoned - its ability to appear as the protector of the organizational stability of the labor movement as a whole. While this institutional collapse pre-dates the Reagan administration, it had accelerated under Reagan. The leadership of the AFL-CIO has interpreted this institutional transformation as simply of political will by the Republicans. Unable to conceive in any way of reversing the setbacks they have suffered in industry without the aid of the state, the leadership of the AFL-CIO has put it most concentrated effort into rebuilding the political unity and influence that have dwindled since the late 1960s. The model on which the new tactics and increased investment in politics have been based remain essentially that created in the 1940s.

In view of most labor leaders, the defeat of Ronald Reagan was a priority that justified new levels of political spending, directing staff efforts away from organizing and contract enforcement into the electoral arena for most of 1984, and a level of political conformity among the leadership not seen since the 1950s. The decision of the AFL-CIO Executive Board in October 1983 to endorse Walter Mondale in the primaries was meant not only to increase labor’s influence in the Democratic Party, but to avoid a repeat of the 1972 and 1980 debacles. The AFL-CIO leaders have always felt that the strength of the Democratic Party lies in its political center and organizational hierarchy. The ability of Lane Kirkland to convince the entire AFL-CIO leadership - plus the United Mine Workers, the National Education Association, and the National Organization of Women - to endorse Mondale was a coup for the political center of the labor leadership. Fear of a second Reagan administration was, of course, the force behind the unified endorsement of a candidate who had no clue about how to handle the economic crisis, who stood firmly in the hawk wing of the party, and who had been associated with the numerous disasters of the Carter administration. If the primary goal of this tactical innovation had been achieved and Reagan defeated, there would have been much for Kirkland and the AFL-CIO Executive Board to chortle about. It didn’t happen. Instead, the dismal political realities behind Reagan’s victory and the continued decomposition of the Democrats as a national party were buried in a sea of self-congratulation.

On 8 November 1984, the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Work, the leadership group charged with implementing the 1983-84 maneuver, met to assess the results. Bill Keller of the New York Times described the mood of the meeting as ‘one of determined self-congratulation.’[21] Victor Gottbaum, writing before the elections in a paid advertisement to be placed in the Times afterward, claimed that, regardless of the outcome, labor had taken ‘a quantum leap forward in American politics in 1984.’[22] The perception that the labor leadership had emerged victorious from electoral defeat was justified by the narrowest possible reading of the election results.

In the first issue of the AFL-CIO News to appear after the elections, Lane Kirkland voiced the official pride in labor’s role in the elections. This pride was justified by the fact that union households voted for Mondale-Ferraro by a 17-18 percent greater margin than the electorate as a whole. As interpreted by Kirkland, labor had clearly done its job. Pride in his own organization led him to point out that the AFL-CIO members voted 60-40 for Mondale-Ferraro, in comparison to a 57-41 split for union members generally.[23] Subsequent analysis of the union vote shows that AFL-CIO households voted 67 percent for Democratic House candidates, and 70 percent for Democratic Senatorial candidates.[24] In other words, as long as the figures for union members and families still looked respectable, the leaders of the AFL-CIO reasoned they had done their job. The fact that the percentage of union household members who voted for Reagan actually increase from 43 percent in 1980, to 45 percent in 1984, was ignored, as was the fact that 53 percent of blue collar workers voted for Reagan in 1984, compared to 47 percent in 1980. The fact that Mondale-Ferraro did better than Carter-Mondale is partly explained by the shift of those unionists (6 percent) who voted for John Anderson in 1980, to Mondale in 1984. The unspoken secret behind both the shift in blue collar votes toward Reagan and the improved turnout for Mondale-Ferraro is racial polarization. On the one hand, more whites voted for Reagan in 1984 than in 1980 - 68 percent of white men in ’84, compared to 59 percent in ’80, 64 percent of white women in ’84, compared to 52 percent in 1980.[25] On the other hand, the numerical increase in Black voters due to the registration drives associated with the Jackson campaign undoubtedly helped improve union household figures.

The fact of the matter is, labor’s efforts, which were intense in their own terms, did nothing to reverse the political trends that were undermining labor’s political influence. For example, in spite of vigorous efforts by labor - and probably more so by Black and women’s organizations - voter turnout remained at historically low levels. In 1984, 52.9 percent of those eligible voted in the Presidential election compared to 52.6 percent in 1980, and 62.8 percent in 1960.[26] In fact, of the 12 million people registered since 1980, only 4 million - one third - bothered to vote. Labor saw voter registration essentially as a technical question, not one of political content and inspiration. Jesse Jackson, during the primaries, and the political right throughout the elections, had shown that voters could be mobilized around a political vision - if not quite a program. But Jackson’s effort could not save the day for the Democrats. On the contrary, it appears that the Republicans may have beaten the registration drives of all those in the Democratic camp. Of the 4 million new registrants who did vote in 1984, 61 percent voted for Reagan and only 32 percent for Mondale-Ferraro.[27] Seeing its job as a technical one of halting the shrinkage of the union vote through registration and turning out the vote by means of phone banks and electronic mailings, labor eschewed any programmatic vision different from the vague and crumbling liberalism of the Democratic Party’s mainstream. To this failure, and no doubt related to it, may be added the fact that the whole strategy for 1984 was bureaucratic from start to finish. Except for a couple of unions that polled their membership, no pretense of membership involvement was made beyond enlisting them in phone banks or last minute voter turnout efforts. The AFL-CIO Executive Board attempted to slam the political momentum of the right with bureaucratic technique and failed.

The drift to the right in American politics, like the decline of organized labor and its sustaining institutions, has many roots in the global nature of the current economic crisis and its accompanying industrial restructuring. At the level of ideology, American liberalism is stuck with a Keynesian and Neo-Classical framework that analyzed and proposed policy in terms of a basically autonomous national economy. But the global nature of today’s markets, particularly capital and financial markets, has confounded the macro-economic policy options inherited from the New Deal and Kennedy-Johnson eras. For main mainstream liberals, including most of the AFL-CIO’s official theorists, the major updating of this body of theory consists in amendments, not real changes. The major amendment is protectionism, sometimes coupled with the sort of industrial policy advocated by financier Felix Rohatyn, and aimed at preserving as much of the basic industry as possible. For other liberals, and particularly for the more aggressive neo-liberals, the amendments are more sweeping - a supply-side version of industrial policy directed at improving America’s competitive position by accelerating the restructuring process away from ‘smokestack’ production to high tech, communications, and services.[28] Mainstream liberalism attempts to maintain an untenable position, while neo-liberalism represents an adaptation to the political initiative that the right has held for several years. Both represent a marked drift to the right within the Democratic Party.

The broader rightward drift in American politics is not primarily a result of ideological shifts within existing electoral constituencies, but of a complex interaction between the relative size of certain active constituencies and organizational/political changes within various class groups. Within the working class, for example, traditionally well-organized blue collar workers were shrinking as a group, while unorganized white collar and service workers were growing as a proportion of the class, as we noted earlier. One consequence was a decline in the percentage of working-class voter participation. As Walter Dean Burnham has noted: ‘Sociologically, this decline in the post-1960 participation levels has been particularly concentrated among working class Americans who already vote least. Thus by 1976 blue collar and service workers constituted only 48.5 percent of the active electorate, but fully three-quarters of the ‘party of non-voters.’[29] This is not only a reflection of the decline of unionism, but also of the collapse of the New Deal coalition. While this coalition is often depicted these days as a coalition of labor, Blacks, women and liberals, the fact is that the Democrats’ ability to mobilize a national majority rested on the organizational pillars of the old northern urban machines and the ‘Solid South,’ i.e., the white South. By 1960, both of these institutions were well into their decline. For half a century, the skeleton in the closet of labor’s national influence in politics was its dependence on the ability of an alliance between southern racism and northern machine politics - itself ethnically based and normally racist towards Blacks - to produce a national legislative majority and a favorable White House. While few progressives would mourn the passing of that setup, none has yet conjured up an alternative model for mobilizing a Democratic majority.

If the working-class vote has been on the decline for two and one-half decades, the participation of both old and new upper-income groups has been on the rise. One of the products of Imperial America’s position at the center of multi-national capital has been the growth of a well-heeled middle class. In 1978, for example, 15 percent of the American work force earned over $41,000 per year. By 1982, the proportion was 18 percent.[30] The growing number of self-employed, well-to-do mini-entrepreneurs whose new life-style is in part subsidized by the very growth of (non-voting) low-income service workers is also part of this trend toward economic polarization.[31] That these voting groups are not highly committed to the welfare state or organized labor is not surprising. For these largely professional people, the admonition to ‘vote your pocket-book’ is an invitation to vote for Ronald Reagan or, if they are Democrats, a Gary Hart. Given their view of their own economic self-interest, it is no surprise that 35 percent of those who voted for Gary Hart in the Democratic primaries voted for Reagan in the general election.[32] Furthermore, the turnout rate is much higher for upper-income groups than for working-class people. The percentage difference in the turnout rates of white collar professionals and blue collar operators, for example, grew from 24.2 percentage points in 1968, to 33.0 points in 1980. In the primaries, which are important in determining the political direction of the party, the results of this differential translate into even more disproportionate representation for middle-class voters.[33] Of course, middle-class voters may be liberals on a variety of questions, but the evidence points toward the rise of newer middle strata who are quite hostile to labor and willing to ‘vote their pocket-books’ even when it conflicts with some liberal values on social or foreign policy questions.

Shifts in electoral constituencies do not necessarily bring immediate or clear policy changes such as those that took place toward the end of the 1970s. But as was the case in investment, finance, technology and corporate organization, big business saw in politics an opportunity to open new avenues for capital accumulation. Long-standing policy goals of business like tax relief, deregulation, and the thwarting or reversal of pro-labor legislation appeared increasingly viable as liberal policies crumbled under Carter. During the 70s, business changed its mode of intervention in politics and the legislative process. As Thomas Byrne Edsall has put it: ‘During the 1970s, business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperative action in the legislative arena.’[34] So far as labor issues are concerned, the landmark event was the formation of the Business Roundtable in 1972. Other business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also modernized their political functioning during the 70s, but it was the Roundtable that spoke for the Fortune 500. To present the appearance of a unified, aggressive class, the Roundtable also set out to mobilize its smaller colleagues around specific campaigns.

The effect of the Roundtable-led campaigns on labor’s political agenda during the 1970s are well known. Most of the AFL-CIO’s important initiatives were either chewed to pieces, as was the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill, or defeated outright in spite of Democratic control of Congress and the White House, as was the Common Situs Bill in 1977, and the Labor Law Reform Bill in 1978. For a brief period, some labor leaders began to ask hard questions. Pointing to the failure of the Democrats to pass any of their major platform promises of 1976, UAW President Doug Fraser asked, ‘Why, with Democrats in control of more than two-thirds in the Congress and in the executive branch, has so little progress been made toward adoption of the Democratic platform the party worked so hard to develop?’[35] In a similar vein, the AFL-CIO leadership noted in its Memo from COPE: ‘If any more evidence were needed that the 2-1 Democratic majority in the U.S. House is a pure illusion, it was provided by a recent series of votes on minimum wage.’[36] The explanation went far beyond the usual presence of conservative southern Democrats; it lay in the rightward motion of more and more Democrats, including liberals and neo-liberals in the ‘class of 74,’ who composed the two-thirds majority. Symbolic of the shift on economic and labor policy was the Joint Economic Committee of Congress’ Report for 1979. This was the first time in history the Democrats and Republicans issued a bipartisan report. As JEC Chairman, Democrat Lloyd Bensten wrote in his introduction to the Report: ‘This year’s report illustrates an emerging consensus in the Committee and in the country that the federal government needs to put its financial house in order and that the major challenges today and for the foreseeable future are on the supply side of the economy.’[37] Few Democrats, and by no means all Republicans, would want to be stuck with the ‘supply side’ label anymore, but the underlying concept has carried the day.

The pressure tactic of organized business were one cause for this shift, as was the collapse of liberal theory as a policy guide. Big business money was another. Along with the growth of a unified business lobby, the 1970s saw the development of the corporate Political Action Committee. The importance of business PAC money has often been correlated with the rise of media politics. The enormous expense and strategic importance of TV time in particular has raised the cost of running for national office and created a greater dependence on those who are able to dispense funds. To be considered a viable candidate for a Congressional primary, one must demonstrate the ability to raise big money. Obviously, office seekers are influenced by those who finance their campaigns. In addition to this general effect, which works on both parties, there is a specific way in which PAC money has effected Democrats. Ironically, the Congressional reforms of the mid-70s, which produced a proliferation of committees and sub-committees, and therefore of influential committee chairs, encouraged business to target incumbent Democratic Committee heads and important members. The number of important Democrats who receive business PAC money grew in the 70s, as did the amounts they received. By 1978, the Wall Street Journal observed:

"Business PACs aren’t experiencing any difficulty in finding outstretched hands, and they seem to be getting their money’s worth from a growing contingent of Democrats. Many observers, looking at the pro-business tone of the current Congress, have concluded that PAC dollars have something to do with it. Says one Democratic member of the                   House Ways and Means Committee: ‘ These PACs are influencing a lot of Democrats. You’re seeing people from mainstream Democratic districts, elected with labor support, who are now voting with business."[38]

In the 1981/82 election cycle, after the Democrats lost control of the Senate, contributions to Democratic Senatorial incumbents fell considerably behind contributions to Republicans, $2.6 million to $4.2 million, respectively. But for House Democrats, business contributions remained high and much closer to Republican levels, $6.2 million to $8.5 million.[39] In the 1984 elections, while most of big business were rooting for Reagan’s re-election, business PACs increased their contributions to Democrats, nearly equalling what they gave to Republican congressional candidates. Business PACs gave Republicans $23.6 million and Democrats $20.7 million - three times what they gave the latter in 1981-82. In 1984, labor PACs gave Democratic Congressional candidates $14.7 million.[40] Much of this money went to the same people the business PACs were financing. Business was simply outbidding labor.

The combination of the ideological/theoretical collapse of traditional liberal economic policy with the growth of the affluent as a proportion of the electorate (particularly as a proportion of the Democrats’ active base), and the well-directed flow of corporate campaign money have been crucial to the shift to the right within the Democratic Party, particularly with regard to labor policy. Far from being a reversal of this trend, the Mondale-Ferraro campaign of 1984 presented itself as an endorsement of liberal retreat. Labor united in accepting this context. Far from being the mobilizer of the working class and oppressed, the AFL-CIO appeared on the field once more as the powerbrokering ‘special interest’ par excellence. Gone were the sweeping social programs that had formerly characterized labor’s platform, if not always its practice. It was not simply that the Democratic Party and its candidates had dropped such ideas as full employment or national health insurance in favor of budget-balancing and Cold War rhetoric. The labor leadership, almost to a man (and, more rarely, a woman), had ceased to demand those things from the party it regarded as its own.

The twin shocks of right-wing business political ascendency and the accelerated industrial restructuring that hit labor in the late 70s and early 80s led most of the labor leadership to abandon any real effort to implement its broader social program. The anti-corporate rhetoric that characterized Doug Fraser’s ‘one-sided class-war’ speech in 1978, when labor walked off the Carter administration’s Labor-Management Group, or the Progressive Alliance’s call to ‘implement new programs for achieving social, political and economic justice in America’[41] gave way to talk of a new era of labor-management cooperation, even as business intensified its economic and political attack on unionism. The sole culprit for all injustice became Ronald Reagan, while, except in specific cases where the immediate interests of a union were involved (for example, at J.P. Stevens, Litton, or Coors), big business was simply let off the hook. While the AFL-CIO still supported initiatives by other groups, like the campaign for the ERA, it ceased to exert pressure for any specific legislative goals that could inspire or mobilize working-class people. The AFL-CIO/COPE assessment of the 98th Congress was emblematic of this direction. Of the 13 votes named key in the House, where presumably the Democrats could still get their way in 1983-84, only one, the Jobs Bill, represented a positive program in the general social interest. Seven of the 13 dealt with narrow issues of trade protection or limitations on foreign workers and immigration. The others involved defensive votes against Republican initiatives.[42]

The future direction of the Democratic Party is almost certainly toward further compromise with the right. When the votes were in, the party pundits, who care about electoral majorities and not visionary programs, drew the lesson that the Democrats would have to regain the while male vote, north and south, if it were to regain its status as the majority party. The Black vote did not save the day. Among white voters, still the vast majority, the gender gap all but vanished in the Presidential race. Labor delivered only 60 percent of those among its dwindling membership who chose to vote, but was not able to stem the flow of blue collar votes to Reagan. The loyal groups - Blacks, dedicated unionists, liberal women - had nowhere else to go and would vote Democratic in any case. It was the white blue collar workers in the North, all kinds of whites in the South, and the affluent Democrats who won the attention of the party. Mainstream liberals of the old stamp were dead, defeated, or had resigned from politics. The future of the party was passing to people like Richard Gephardt, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus from the 99th Congress, and Tony Coehlo, Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Both are neo-liberals keenly aware of their middle-class base and anxious to garner corporate money for their party. Coelho, in fact, is credited with bringing in much of the business PAC money that Democratic House candidates got.[43] All signs point toward a bleak future for labor as long as it clings to its half-century old position of dependence inside the Democratic Party.

Democratic Party politics have been based on the cobbling together of majority coalitions on the basis of existing consciousness. It is painfully appropriate that in this era of electronic politics, the political pollster should take his place among the framers of party strategy. It should be evident, however, that a political strategy based on existing consciousness, rather than on the more difficult job of changing or raising consciousness, will not take labor or any other social movement beyond the rightward moving morass of American politics today. Indeed, it is this approach to politics that has created the ‘party of the non-voters.’ Viewing this phenomenon from the other side of the coin, Walter Dean Burnham notes: ‘It follows that a political system with no organized working-class left will be marked by heavy abstentions among the lower classes.’[44] As Burnham’s analysis generally suggests, the way out of this situation lies through the development of class-based politics. As he argues, the Democrats are incapable of such an approach by virtue of the social harmony themes of American welfare state liberalism.[45] Additionally, the Democratic Party is a capitalist party not only in the ideological sense, but also because it counts among its members, politicians, leaders, and financial supporters a significant section of America’s capitalist class.[46] A political realignment along class lines requires a new political organization and an approach to programs that challenge corporate prerogatives and power. Simply registering new voters, even millions of them, changes nothing so long as no clear alternative exists, as the 1984 elections demonstrated. Without a dramatic break toward an independent, class-based political organization and program, the balance of power within the U.S. will continue to shift in favor of capital. Indeed, by mid-decade, capital had achieved a latitude for unrestricted actions in the U.S. not enjoyed since the 1920s. The greatest barriers to accumulation facing American capital were its economic competitors and the rebellion building in the Third World.

‘Capital acts, labor reacts,’ goes the old saying. But taken as either a movement or an institution, American labor has yet to react on a scale commensurate with the problems it faces. The framework of a forty-year-old social contract has come apart in both the industrial and political arenas. As is always the case with a strategy based on class collaboration, both sides of the compact must agree to collaborate. When the deal ceased to be profitable in the late 1960s, business began withdrawing its cooperation. By the early 80s, it was on the rampage. While thrashing about for new techniques, organizational improvements, or tactical innovations, the American labor bureaucracy continues to cling to the old framework, even as its undoing pulls them down with it. With rare exceptions, these top union officials view any sort of innovation solely in the context of the bureaucratic hierarchy that characterizes most unions. In discussing some changes in union practice proposed by Harvard University economist James Medoff, for example, Murray Findley, President of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, said that any fundamental changes in labor’s practice would require ‘a strong consensus.’[47] But bureaucratic consensus is what stifles change. Ironically, bureaucratic resistance to real change may produce the forces that make change possible by provoking the sort of rank and file rebellion that began to appear in the late 60s and early 70s.

The American labor movement is not a monolith, nor, in spite of extensive bureaucratic restraints, is it the exclusive property of its leadership. While nothing that amounts to a rank and file rebellion is on the immediate horizon, an increasingly self-conscious, overlapping series of networks of militants, union reformers, and political leftists touches most of the major unions in the U.S. While organizational expressions are rare - the only existing national rank and file organization in the U.S. is the Teamsters for a Democratic Union - genuine debate and discussion about new directions exist among these networks. The activities of unionists involved in these debates vary. They can be seen in temporary caucuses at various international union conventions, in the new cross-union strike support committees that have sprung up in the wake of the PATCO and Greyhound strikes, in monthly meetings of organizers from different unions in the New York City area, in the unemployed committees, in the unique labor radicalism that has appeared in the steel-producing Mon Valley, in the national and regional conferences held by Labor Notes, and in the daily work of countless caucuses and groups in local unions that push for a new standard of militancy, democracy, and - at times - political consciousness. While these forces - essentially leadership groups in search of an active base - are small, they have captured a place in the American labor movement.

While no political consensus among these dissident forces currently exists - indeed, many would reject the title dissident - there is an implied agenda that points away from the framework in which the top leaders still tend to discuss things. Increasingly, the cooperative or ‘joint problem-solving’ approach embodied in QWL is being rejected as a false promise. Membership involvement and democracy are seen as essential elements in renewing labor. The organization of the unorganized is viewed as a priority that requires rank and file participation, a stress on social issues that can attract minority and women workers who compose the strategic core of non-union industries and occupations, and a willingness to operate outside the law when necessary. In terms of both organizing the unorganized and what might be called reorganizing the organized, there is a general commitment to the idea that labor’s ability to survive and grow depends on its willingness to become less an institution and more a crusade for social change that can inspire millions of unorganized working-class people. At least implied, if not always consciously accepted, is the notion of independent political action - the idea that labor has to act as a class movement and not a special interest, and that this would require an independent political organization and program: something like a labor party with a program well to the left of anything the Democrats could adopt. Taken together, these directions point towards the concept of class struggle unionism, although the term is not used outside of left circles. These simple, minimal ideas are strong stuff in today’s labor movement. They run counter to bureaucratic practice, to politics as usual, to non-adversarial unionism, and to any attempt to cling to the decaying framework of post-World War II labor relations. Whether the debate becomes a conflict, the conflict an upheaval, remains to be seen. The one thing certain is that the rules of the game have changed in industry and politics, and that unions are no longer to be allowed the luxury of business as usual. 


[1] Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (New York, 1982), p. 51.

[2] Lichtenstein, p. 173.

[3] Thomas Byrne Edsall, The New Politics of Inequality (New York, 1984); p. 142, Directory of Labor Organizations, 1984-85 Edition (Washington, D.C.), p.2.

[4] Mike Urquhart, ‘The Employment Shift to Services,’ Monthly Labor Review (April 1984), pp. 15-21.

[5] William D. Nordhaus, ‘The Falling Share of Profits,’ Brookings Papers on Economic Activity I (1974), p. 180.

[6] Federal Trade Commission Quarterly Financial Report for Manufacturing, Mining and Trade, 1977-79; Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington, DC, 1978), p. 578.

[7] See ‘Labor-Community Unity: The Morse Strike Against Disinvestment and Concessions,’ Labor Research Review (Fall 1982), pp. 5-17; and Labor Notes (20 December 1983.

[8] Daniel Weiner, ‘Deals of the Year,” Fortune (23 January 1984).

[9] Interviews with OCAW officials and members, 1984.

[10] Business Week (6 April 1984).

[11] Directory of Labor Organizations, p. 3.

[12] BLS, Survey of Current Wages (October 1984), p. 45.

[13] BNA, Labor Relations Reporter  (13 August 1984).

[14] Wall Street Journal (11 December 1984).

[15] WSJ (18 June 1984).

[16] Audrey Freeman et al., ‘Labor Outlook, 1984,’ The Conference Board Research Bulletin 150 (1983), p. 11.

[17] Tech Engineer, UAW Local 160 (January-February 1984).

[18] ‘Report By The House Labor-Management Subcommittee on Failure of Labor Law,’ Daily Labor Report (4 October 1984), p. D2.

[19] Edsall, New Politics of Inequality, pp. 151-4; ‘Report By House,’ pp D2-D6; Wall Street Journal (2 October 1984).

[20] ‘Report By House,’ p. D3.

[21] Bill Keller, ‘Labor Leaders Assess Their Drive For Mondale,’ New York Times (9 November 1984).

[22] New York Times (11 November 1984).

[23] AFL-CIO News (10 November 1984).

[24] AFL-CIO News (1 December 1984).

[25] New York Times/CBS Poll, New York Times (8 November 1984).

[26] ‘Elections Turnout Shows Slight Rise,’ New York Times (8 November 1984).

[27] AFL-CIO News (19 January 1985).

[28] Kim Moody, ‘Industrial Policy: Can It Capture the Workers Votes and The Bosses Hearts?’ Changes (January-February 1984), pp. 14-19.

[29] Walter Dean Burnham, The Current Crisis in American Politics (New York, 1983), p. 262.

[30] Harold Meyerson, ‘Labor’s Risky Plunge Into Politics,’ Dissent (Summer, 1984).

[31] See Mike Davis, ‘The Political Economy of Late Imperialist America,’ New Left Review 143 (January-February 1984).

[32] New York Times (8 November 1984).

[33] Edsall, New Politics of Inequality, pp. 179-87, 245-6.

[34] Edsall, p. 128.

[35] UAW Ammo 19, 6, (1978).

[36] AFL-CIO Memo from COPE (26 September 1977).

[37] Joint Economic Report, 1979, Report No. 96-44 (22 March 1979), p. 3.

[38] Wall Street Journal (11 September 1978).

[39] Edsall, p. 133.

[40] New York Times (6 November 1984).

[41] ‘Statement Adopted By The Progressive Alliance,’ (15 January 1979).

[42] AFL-CIO News (20 October 1984).

[43] New York Times (6 November 1984; 8 November 1984; 2 December 1984; 9 December 1984; 11 December 1984)

[44] Burnham, Current Crisis, p. 262.

[45] Burnham, passim.

[46] G. William Domhoff, Fat Cats and Democrats (New York, 1972), passim; Laurence H. Shoup, The Carter Presidency and Beyond (Palo Alto, CA. 1980), pp. 21-62.

[47] Business Week (17 December 1984), p. 35.

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