The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

United States:
The Organizing Campaign of the AFL-CIO

May 4, 1997

The new AFL-CIO Executive Council met February 17-20 in Los Angeles. To mark a departure from the previous 70 years, when the Council’s annual mid-winter meeting had been held at a Florida resort, the new leadership of the federation chose a site it called, "the center of union organizing today." Drawing attention to the aim of the meeting, the new leaders of the AFL-CIO took a trip to the strawberry fields of California, where the UFW is attempting to organize 20,000 strawberry pickers. They also led a demonstration in front of the New Otani Hotel in Los Angeles, which had fired workers trying to organize a union.

The new leadership of the AFL-CIO, headed by John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson, used this meeting to announce a series of programs aimed at renewing efforts of the unions to organize: a "Union Cities" program, whose goal is to transform local central labor councils into organizing centers; a "Changing to Organize" program, to help local unions shift their resources and focus into organizing; plans to use the AFL-CIO’s new Organizing Institute and its Research Department to support its member unions’ organizing efforts; an "Ask A Working Woman" campaign, aimed at reaching out to the part of the working class "more likely than men to believe in the power of collective action—and more likely to join unions"; another "Union Summer" campaign, aimed at attracting college students to work as interns for a union for five weeks during the summer; and a "Right to Organize" campaign, designed to bring community pressure to bear on anti-union employers.

Concretely, the Executive Council announced two target organizing campaigns, into which it would put its full financial and organizational support: that of the UFW, in the California strawberry fields; and the co-ordinated campaign by unions in Las Vegas to organize the hotels, hospitals and construction industry.

The Council also announced a series of "corporate campaigns" directed against companies targeted because of notorious anti-union activities: Sharp Health Care; the Kajima Corporation, owner of the New Otani Hotel; the American Red Cross, which had refused to bargain with unions which had won bargaining rights in NLRB elections; American President Lines; Knight-Ridder and Gannett, owners of the two Detroit newspapers which had employed scabs and strikebreakers since July of 1995; the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which had done the same thing since 1991; and GE, which seems intent on refusing to bargain for a new contract covering its 46,000 unionized workers.

Falling Further and Further Behind

It’s obvious that unions desperately need to rebuild their membership. Last year, the unions organized only 14.5% of the workforce, down from 14.9% in 1995. The percentage of the workforce organized in unions has been on a steady downward trend for almost half a century, going from 35% of the workforce in 1953 to 24% in 1979 to the current 14.5%. Today’s figure is the lowest rate of unionization since 1935, before the big organizing efforts spurred by the sit-downs of 1936-37. The rate in the private sector is even worse today: 10.2%, compared to the 37.7% of government employees who are organized. The higher level of public employees organized is accounted for in part by the need of Democrats to maintain their electoral base. In many cases, partial union rights—minus the right to strike or engage in other work actions—have been given in a direct exchange for electoral support.

For years, the unions’ rate of unionization decreased even while their numbers increased. They simply didn’t keep up with the growth of the work force. But for the past two decades, they haven’t even been able to maintain their numbers. In 1978, the number of union members hit its peak, at about 20.3 million. Today, membership is only 16.3 million. The decrease continued last year again, with unions suffering another loss of 100,000 members, coming on top of a loss of 388,000 members the year before. And these decreases come at a time when the economy has been in a recovery for six years, when unemployment has been decreasing, when the work force has been growing—all of which we might have expected to contribute to a growth in union membership.

According to figures released by the AFL-CIO itself, if the unions are simply to make up for losses to retirement and job eliminations and to keep pace with the growth in the population and the workforce, they would today have to organize 400,000 new members a year. If they are to get back to the level of unionization they enjoyed in the ’50s, they would have to organize one million new members a year for the next 20 years.

"Changing to Organize, Organizing to Change"

The new leaders of the AFL-CIO say this is what they intend to do. Obviously words are cheap, and fancy titles for campaigns that haven’t yet started are even cheaper.

But it’s true the new leadership of the AFL-CIO has made organizing a focus in a way that the AFL-CIO had not done in recent years. It has budgeted 30 million dollars for two years, and 20 million a year thereafter for organizing. In contrast to the 3% of annual budgets which unions had been spending on organizing, the AFL-CIO is committing 30%, and is calling on its member unions to do the same thing.

It seems to want to involve a much higher level of rank and file activity than what the unions are used to doing. In talking about the problem, the new leadership emphasizes the fact that union organizing campaigns are much more likely to be successful when they are based on the activity of rank and file members, not only at the workplace being organized, but also from other already existing unions. This is one reason the federation wants to engage already existing local unions in these campaigns—breaking them out of their habit of looking at themselves only as "servicing agents" for their own members. It has been waging a campaign to break down this view, arguing that the future wages and benefits of currently organized workers depend on whether other workers organize today.

It has certainly called for public support for different strikes and organizing activity going on. Of course, by "public support" the new leadership still means what the old one did, that is support by clergy, community leaders, friendly politicians, community organizations, etc. In the March issue of the federation’s new magazine, America@Work, they are happy to report that strikers in Syracuse New York were the beneficiaries of some "divine intervention" by clergy supporting their right to organize against an anti- union employer.

The new leadership has organized national demonstrations in support of workers whose local strikes or organizing campaigns have come under attack, and it has encouraged local labor councils to do the same thing. It has been ready to bring several thousand workers to a work site to make a protest.

What these demonstrations have not developed into are attempts really to use the power of a mobilized working class. For one day, several thousands or even tens of thousands of workers may surround a particular workplace or corporate headquarters; but nowhere have we seen the new leaders of the AFL-CIO propose that these thousands serve as a force to bring out more thousands. None of the campaigns which have been announced raise, even just as a possibility, the idea that workers might carry on their fights at the same time, that they might join their fights together, they might use their combined strength really to shut down not just the most offensive corporations, but all the corporations.

In fact, what has happened repeatedly, when the unions have decided to carry on wider activities, even just in support of an ongoing strike, is that they run up against all the laws and other legal impediments which make even support activities illegal. Moreover, they have more recently been threatened with being prosecuted under the RICO statutes which were supposed to have been directed against organized crime. Instead, it is the unions which are being threatened with multi-million dollar fines. The fact that in concert they do something illegal—for example, join a picket line which has been served with an injunction—is enough to make them "an organized criminal conspiracy."

The United Mine Workers already ran up against this in the Pittston strike; the UAW and other Detroit unions confronted the threat in the Detroit newspaper strike.

In the face of such threats, which certainly are sizeable, at least in monetary terms, the unions quickly pulled back from broad actions in support of strikers. That is what happened at an early stage of the Detroit newspaper strike. The subsequent lack of prospects, as the strike dragged on and on, thus deprived of a great deal of its militancy, eventually led to the decision the national heads of the striking unions made to suspend the strike—ironically, just three days before they went to Los Angeles to talk about how to organize more workers and give more support to strikers.

"Partners in a Good Marriage"

The unions continue to bank on what they have long banked on: the somewhat friendly relations they developed with "their own" corporations over the years. While their relations with "their corporation" might sometimes explode in a loud quarrel, eventually the union and the corporation would kiss and make up, the way "partners in a good marriage" do when the argument is over, to use the metaphor recently employed by a Chrysler official. Cooperation is still the goal of the unions.

Take Las Vegas, which AFL-CIO leaders are holding up as an example of what can be done when unions pool their resources to organize. They say that union cooperation has resulted in 10,000 new members being organized in the hotels and casinos in the last year alone. They say that it took a fight to get this result. And those things are true. But what is also true is that the unions fought in order to convince the big hotels that cooperation with the unions could be beneficial to the hotels. Business Week says that "the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union has forged cooperative relations with once hostile big hotels [in Las Vegas] by wiping out cumbersome work rules." It goes on to quote Arthur Goldberg, head of Hilton Hotels’ gaming unit: "They’ll tell us some of our problems before we even realize them and work to solve them."

In California, the AFL-CIO just concluded a deal with Kaiser Permanente. According to a statement made by AFL- CIO president, John Sweeney, "Our commitment is to promote Kaiser as a top-quality health-care provider with organized workers and a cost-effective program." The federation promises to encourage its member unions to take their health care business to Kaiser Permanente. The company promises to "remain neutral" when faced with union attempts to organize other of its facilities. The union says it also got promises of greater job security and increased involvement in management decision making.

This agreement was signed at the very moment that Kaiser and some of its unions, including the SEIU, Sweeney’s own union, signed an agreement lowering wages for current workers. Apparently this is what was meant by "cost-effective." It also comes just as Kaiser is closing down some of its biggest facilities, which are union organized, and contracting the work out to non-union employers. It’s difficult to see how this translates into "job security." Were the unions "involved" in this "decision-making"? Apparently, since they have done nothing to organize any opposition to moving the jobs out.

In other words, on the most basic level, the unions’ policy hasn’t changed with the change in leadership of the AFL-CIO: they still hope to be junior partners, helping the capitalists manage their affairs. And if they still retain some kind of responsibility toward the workers for their wages and conditions, they also are ready to continue being responsible toward the corporations, making sure the workers contribute to improve the "competitive position" of the corporation—and thus, its profitability.

Chavez-Thompson, in response to a question about whether the capitalist system should be overhauled, was ready to denounce the way that system is working today: "Well, the system we have is not working for working families. The stock market is way up. Productivity is rising significantly. Profits are going up and up. Executives salaries are soaring. But workers’ incomes are down and people are hurting." But what was she ready to propose? "The answer is that American workers need a raise. We don’t need to junk the capitalist system. We need to fix it. There’s plenty of money being generated. It just isn’t being distributed fairly."

It’s Not a Question of Fairness, But of Force

As the new leaders of the AFL-CIO surely know, the capitalist system has never distributed its proceeds fairly. The bourgeoisie always took the lion’s share of the wealth the working class produced. The capitalists never gave a "fair distribution" to the working class. They never "gave" anything. The closest the working class ever came to improving its situation in any marked fashion came in the late thirties and following decades because, in the thirties, the working class trampled on those laws which prohibited it from using its forces. The mass mobilizations of the thirties were against the law, just as the sit-downs were—just as the mass urban revolts of the ’60s were against the law. But it was precisely those massive actions of the working class in the ’30s which made the capitalist class open its purse strings. It was the threat that those mobilizations might be taken up again which extended protection to the working class for several decades after the struggle of the ’30s had died down. It was the massive mobilization of the black population, culminating in the urban revolts, which extended more possibilities to all parts of the working class and other poor layers of the population.

If the capitalist class did not, with a very few exceptions, openly express its aims during this long period, if it did not proclaim itself ready to crush the unions, that was because the working class had gone past the legal limits within which bourgeois society sought to contain it.

Eventually the threat from the working class dissipated. When it did, the offensive of the capitalist class resumed.

For more than two decades now, some corporations have been doing what might have been unthinkable in those earlier decades. They have been openly proclaiming their intention not to accept unions. Union organizers have been fired at a much faster rate. According to the Commission on the Future of Worker-Management relations, 1/4 to 1/3 of all unionizing efforts in the 1980s and ’90s resulted in significant numbers of firings, as opposed to less than 1/10 in the ’60s and early ’70s, and less than 1/20 in the ’50s. One in three corporations which confront a strike today are now using scabs and other strike-breaking means against the same unions they had so long accepted.

Of course, what the new leadership of the AFL-CIO is proposing to do today, if they find the way to change the functioning of their member unions enough to do it, may improve some things. But in no way can it bring in the million members needed every year just to give the working class back the organized strength it once had. Much less could it reestablish the relationship of forces which once existed between the unions and the bosses.