The Spark

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

United States:
The Unions' New Strategies for Organizing Disarm the Working Class

Apr 11, 1999

At the end of February, home-care aides in Los Angeles County voted by a better than eight to one margin to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), or more precisely to select the SEIU to represent them as their bargaining agent.

With 74,000 workers now to be represented by the SEIU, this is the largest in a series of similar victories which the SEIU has gained in recent years in California among home-care aides. The SEIU had won similar elections covering 6,100 home care-workers in Alameda County in 1994; 5,500 in San Francisco County in 1996; and 4,000 in Contra Costa County and 2,600 in Santa Clara County in 1997. Union sources says it is the single biggest gain since Ford recognized the UAW after the 1941 strike.

"I believe the history books will show that their triumph today will play as important a role in American history as the mass organizing drives in the 1930s," proclaimed John Sweeney, president of the national AFL-CIO.At a press conference held to announce the victory, David Rolf, general manager of SEIU Local 434B, which headed the campaign, said, "This campaign represents a new direction for the labor movement. It is a campaign where we reached out to low income, women workers, workers of color and immigrant workers. If you look at the demographic changes in Southern California, the labor movement has to figure out how to bring these workers in because they are the backbone of the new, low-wage service sector of the economy." Art Pulaski, executive secretary of the California AFL-CIO, called this campaign, "a classic example of the way the movement must go" if it is to resurrect itself.

It's certainly true that the labor movement faces a serious problem in its declining membership – serious enough that the new leadership which took over the AFL-CIO in 1995 has raised the specter of labor's possible demise if its member unions don't drastically increase their commitment to organizing new members.

The rate of unionization continues to decline, with union members representing only 13.9% of the whole work force in 1998. The rate for workers in private industry was even worse, standing at only 9.7%. Both of these figures have been on a steady decline since the high point reached in 1945, when union members accounted for 35.5% of the total work force. But not only has the decline continued, it has sped up again in recent years, after slowing in the two decades from 1960 to 1980. Even in absolute numbers the decline in union membership is enormous. Hitting a high of 20.2 million people in 1978, it is only 16.2 million today.

A Very Old "New" Strategy

In explaining the importance of this campaign, SEIU leaders assume the widely promulgated explanation for labor's decline: the economy has been transformed; manufacturing and allied industries, which were long the unions' stronghold, are being replaced by the service industries.

They insist that while there are problems inherent in reaching this "new, low-wage sector" who often work in very small workplaces, with a high-turnover, there are also "new strategies" which can overcome these problems.

The aides who just voted for the SEIU certainly illustrate the problems. They have practically no contact with each other. Not only was there no single workplace; in fact, the 74,000 aides worked in 80,000 different work sites. They work for disabled or elderly people who need assistance in order to remain in their homes and whose income is low enough to qualify them for government subsidies for this care. In almost one third of the cases, the aides were working in the home of a relative, paid by government sources to do so. Their numbers have increased rapidly in recent years, as government agencies seek to find alternatives to high-cost nursing home care for people on Medicaid.

Legally the aides had been considered not to be workers at all. Although they were paid by a combination of federal, state and local funds, each of the government agencies insisted that it wasn't the employer, since the aides are hired directly and individually by the person they assist. In 1987, the California courts strengthened the governments position by ruling that the aides were "independent contractors," working only for the client who had hired them.

The "new strategy" to organize such workers rested on what Action, the SEIU magazine, called "lobbying and political action," supposedly winning politicians, first in the state legislature, then at the local level, over to the workers' side. The SEIU, along with advocates for the disabled and for retirees, pushed for a bill which would allow counties to set up authorities to administer the home-care programs. One of the consequences of this bill, once it was made law, was that the counties became the aides' employers. Moreover, the counties were given the authority to recognize and bargain with unions. In exchange, the SEIU stipulated, in advance, that it would not challenge the provision that all strikes would be illegal, and that it would write that prohibition into every contract it signed. In 1993, the Democratic legislature passed and a Republican governor signed this bill into law.

In 1995, the SEIU sent in David Rolf to head up the Los Angeles campaign. His main experience in the union had not been in organizing drives, but rather in mobilizing political campaigns for Democrats whom the SEIU had supported in Georgia. This was also the direction his work took in California. The union began to carry out strong electoral campaigns for a number of Democratic candidates to the state legislature, and made links with a number of the county supervisors. The county supervisors voted to set up a home-care authority in 1997. They also adopted what the union called a "neutral" stance toward the union campaign to sign up the workers, offering no opposition to the effort.

There was still the question of the home-care aides, themselves. After the county gave over the lists of people so employed, SEIU sent out 40 staff organizers to reach them in their homes. The main axis of its campaign is that union representation will get you higher wages and benefits. The SEIU says it was able to reach 33,000 aides, and to get signed cards petitioning for a union representation election from 10,600 of them. This laid the groundwork for the election. Of the 74,000 ballots sent out, 20,000 were returned; 16,250 voted for the union, 1,925 voted against, the rest were blank or otherwise voided.

What Does this Vote Mean for Home Care Aides?

Maria Alvarez, spoke for herself and other home care aides at the union's press conference when she said: "I'm so happy about the union I feel like flying. They'll help us win benefits like health insurance and vacations. Right now, we have nothing."

On the day when it announced victory, the SEIU spoke to those hopes. It declared that it would begin to negotiate a new contract with county authorities right away, looking to push wages up to $7 an hour, and to gain some medical coverage. But it also indicated that it would devote more effort to lobbying state legislators to provide the funding county authorities would need to pay for the wage increases and benefits the union wants to negotiate.

Of course, it's possible the current legislature will put a little extra money in the pot – although there's nothing to say that it will either.

In 1998, the Democratic controlled legislature passed a bill increasing funding for home-care aides' wages. But it did so as a maneuver looking toward the upcoming elections, since it put the Republican governor in the position to veto the bill – or to take the money from someplace else.

But even if the governor and state legislature do grant the funds to increase the aides' wages to $7 an hour – which certainly isn't very much – this hasn't strengthened the workers own ability to mobilize themselves, or even their understanding of the need to do it. What the unions have done is reinforce the idea that the workers cannot move forward unless and until they get the Democrats, and maybe a few friendly Republicans, in their corner. They have fostered the idea that the workers themselves do not have the resources, nor the forces, to impose their own solution. The price the SEIU paid to get these "friends" in its corner, the stipulation that it will lead no strikes, is a formal statement to the same effect.

This supposedly "new strategy" is, in fact, nothing but the long-standing policy of the unions, put more baldly ever since the big defeats they suffered in the early 80s. Pointing to the losses the workers have suffered, whether in strikes or in organizing, the unions repeat the idea that the workers can't win today because the labor laws are weighted too much in the bosses' favor. But to change the laws, the "friends of labor" have to be put in office. Electing the Democrats is seen as a prerequisite for labor to have any prospects.

Not only is this not a new strategy, it's one which has demonstrated its complete worthlessness, above all, when the Democrats were in office.

A Friend of Labor Who Gives the Unions Bargaining Rights, but Forgets about Wage Increases for the Workers

A similar campaign was waged in Maryland a few years ago by a coalition of unions, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) at the front of it. They had made a very big effort supporting Parris Glendening, the Democratic candidate who had promised in his 1994 gubernatorial campaign to grant bargaining rights to unions representing state workers.

Coming up to the 1996 legislative elections, the Democrats had given the unions practically no way to campaign for them. Glendening's 1996 budget had frozen wages for state workers, and elminated almost a thousand jobs. Changes in his administration adopted personnel rules made it easier to discipline workers. This same budget included provisions for multimillion dollar special tax breaks and subsidies for a number of corporations including Northrop Grumman, Frito-Lay and the Baltimore Ravens; the usual tax breaks and subsidies to all corporations of course continued.

With these next elections just around the corner, Glendening finally issued an executive order committing the state to bargain with the unions and setting up procedures by which a union could be chosen as the exclusive bargaining agent for state workers. And – no surprise – the executive order also contained a prohibition on all strikes.

AFSCME itself, during this period, put out a leaflet pointing out that workers had lost almost 17% of their wages to inflation over the previous ten years. But they carefully avoided attacking Glendening. Were they worried, perhaps, that Glendening might withdraw his executive order if they mentioned anything so revealing as what he was actually doing; or did they just not want to embarrass their friend?

When the representation election took place, all nine units which had been set up were carried by the respective unions. The AFL- CIO announced a major step forward, with 40,000 workers newly enrolled under the banner of its member unions.

Looking toward the 1998 election, Glendening actually proposed a wage increase, but only a very modest one. Moreover, a good part of this increase was simply absorbed by a new requirement that workers begin to contribute part of their pay toward their pension.

In 1998, Glendening was re-elected, as was a Democratic- controlled legislature, again with strong union support, involving not only money, but hours of time spent by union activists to get out the vote. The axis of their campaign was that he had given collective bargaining to the workers.

After the 1998 election, Glendening's administration agreed to somewhat more substantial wage increases for high seniority state workers, but these increases are already being pared down in legislative committees looking at his new budget, committees dominated by members of his own party. And they came at the expense of lower wages for new workers. Obviously, for Glendening, support for collective bargaining does not translate into an adequate wage for state workers.

What Can a Union Do When It Represents Tens of Thousands of Workers, But Only A Few Thousand Pay Dues?

After his second election, Glendening submitted a new collective bargaining bill to the state legislature at the request of the unions. In its essentials, the bill replicates his executive order, with three main differences. Collective bargaining is to be extended to 18,000 more workers, those employed in the University of Maryland system. A mediation process is set up, involving a number of different steps and appeals, but the final decision on any issue which remains in dispute between the state and the unions is to be resolved by ... the governor! Of course, as before, all strikes are prohibited. Finally, the bill would have allowed the unions to establish an "agency fee."

This latter provision has already been amended out of the bill, but it's nonetheless indicative of the situation the unions find themselves in and their response to it.

The representation elections had established four unions as the exclusive bargaining representatives for 40,000 state workers. But after the elections, the unions, which already had counted some members among state workers, saw very little increase in their numbers. And in several units, dues-paying members actually declined.

We could speculate on some reasons for this. Very few workers were engaged in the whole process to get a union, other than in signing a card and voting in the election. Moreover, the promises of better wages and benefits didn't materialize. And the union continued to give effusive support to Glendening, the very man who was keeping the workers' wages practically frozen.

But whatever the reason, with neither numbers nor the collection of members' dues on the increase, the unions looked for an administrative solution: they asked that the state deduct an "agency fee" from the paychecks of all workers who chose not to belong to the union.

Interestingly enough, the day after the SEIU announced its victory in Los Angeles, it indicated that it intends to negotiate a contract with the Los Angeles county authority which would call for workers who joined the union to have $12 a month dues deducted from their paychecks; if they opted out of the union, they would have an "agency fee" deducted and sent to the union. This proposal came even before the SEIU had the time to begin enrolling members.

In Maryland, AFSCME recently put out a leaflet to state workers to defend the agency fee proposal. AFSCME's reasoning, which is implied in the name it gave the fee, a "fair-share fee" was as follows:

"Under the collective bargaining executive order, ... the elected union is required to represent and provide services to all employees, members and non-members alike. A fair-share fee...is only fair since union members otherwise are paying the full cost of representation for everyone while the non-member gets the full benefit of that representation without paying a dime. The fair-share fee rectifies that inequity while strengthening union representation for everyone."

Whatever question of "fairness" is involved, the reasoning made by the union is indicative of the way the unions today perceive their role: as a lawyer for the workers, who are, in turn, seen as clients, billed for the services the unions provide. When the leaflet speaks of "strengthening union representation for everyone," it clearly does not mean that more workers will be involved in organizing to impose their wishes on their employer, but that the union will have more money to hire more negotiators and specialists – not to mention lobbyists and people to run election campaigns for the "friends" of labor in the Democratic Party.

To the extent that the union did envision a role for the workers in such a campaign, it was only as a personal "lobbyist," who could visit, call or write his or her legislator. And not only has AFSCME accepted the no-strike provision of the bargaining order and bill, it presents this reduction as a good thing. In a tract intended to convince the state legislators to vote for the collective bargaining bill, AFSCME calls the prohibition on strikes a "protection!"

This is hardly a change in the way the unions perceive their role. In any case, it has nothing to do with transforming the labor movement into a "vital, social force," as the new leaders of the AFL-CIO proclaim it must become.

Dues Check-Off: Henry Ford the First Thought It Up!

For AFL-CIO President Sweeney, the vote of these aides for the SEIU compares favorably with what he himself calls the mass organizing drives of the 1930s.

What a comparison! For Sweeney, obviously, the criteria is numbers: 75,000 at Ford; 79,000 home care aides. But the organizing drives of the 1930s were mass not just in the numbers enrolled in the unions, but in the way the unions were won: by a massive social movement which challenged the authority of the state apparatus, occupying factories and spreading out into the streets. The current drives to organize, which the AFL-CIO is so proud of, have essentially been administrative affairs.

The unions have long explained the victories of the 1930s as essentially the result of administrative action, concretely, to the passing of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 (the Wagner Act), and they credit Roosevelt and the Democrats with giving workers the right to have a union.

No, the workers were not given their unions by the Democrats. And the Wagner Act was not a gift to the working class. It was a recognition of the fighting strength the workers had demonstrated and the fear this had caused in the bourgeoisie; at the same time, it was a trap, directing the growing militancy of the working class into calmer channels.

The Wagner Act was passed in 1935 and finally upheld in 1937. By that time, the working class had already produced the three general strikes of 1934, in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo, all led by communist militants. In that same year in the South, the massive strike of all textile workers came to a real confrontation of force not only with the state police, but also with the army. In Cleveland, workers at White Motor Company, led by communists, had already forced the company to accept the union, through a combination of strike activity and other job actions. In Akron, the workers, led by communists, had already occupied factories in 1936. This movement was beginning to enforce the workers' claims on the capitalists – even in the situations, as in San Francisco and textile, where the strike seemed to collapse. The GM sit-downs were completed and the Chrysler sit-downs in progress before the Supreme Court finally took up the matter of Wagner, overturning an earlier Supreme Court decision which had struck down a similar law. The Wagner Act was always a two-edged sword. While the Wagner Act and subsequent acts gave certain specified legal rights to the unions, they also established that the ground on which the class struggle would be played out would be that of the bosses. Unions could be certified – by going through time-consuming procedures which gave the means for lengthy delays to any boss who wanted to use them. Workers could legally strike – but only after following very precise, specified, and again, lengthy procedures. The effect of all these procedures, if the working class follows them, can be to drain the determination and fighting spirit of the workers.

Interestingly enough, it was not the social movement of the 1930s nor the unions as they were then constituted which pushed for the union shop (that is, the contractual provision that every worker in a workplace which is represented by a union must belong to that union) and for dues check-off (that is, having his or her dues automatically handed over by the company to the union). It was Henry Ford who, when faced with the workers who had done the unthinkable, shutting down his massive Rouge complex, proposed these items which became standard features in almost all big contracts. Ford proposed to make union membership obligatory for every worker and to deduct their union dues from their pay-checks, relieving the union not only of the obligation to organize its forces, but even to submit itself to the discipline of collecting dues from its members. (Agency shop, which came later, is simply an extension of these provisions in circumstances where workers decide individually whether or not to belong to the union, but have to pay a fee to the union if they don't belong.)

The unions say that today they are handcuffed by reactionary laws. That's true, but it's always been true. Are some laws and regulations more reactionary than others? Perhaps. But it's not really the point. The question is whether or not the workers allow themselves to be bound and hog-tied by any of those reactionary laws.

The procedures the unions complain about today have been there practically since the Wagner Act was passed. Sometimes, of course, the courts and the administrative agencies interpret them differently, but that's simply a reflection of the relationship of forces, of how much strength the workers have demonstrated, of how much the bourgeoisie fears the working class. As late as 1978, the unions were continuing to increase their total membership, if not the rate of unionization. So what changed between then and now? Not the laws. It's not the law which, in and of itself, makes it impossible for the workers to fight today, nor for the unions to extend their membership. It is the fact that the workers could not find the way to mobilize their forces in any widespread and determined fashion.

The Reasons for the Unions' Decline

Practically since the beginning of the crisis, the unions by their activity and their policies have helped the bosses and their government weaken the working class. Arguing for concessions, for the need to reinforce the profitability of each boss, they haven't given the workers a way to respond to the offensive the bosses have been carrying out for more than two decades now.

Is is the unions' own policy which has disarmed the working class, making it harder to carry on a fight. The decline of the unions themselves is a consequence of this.

Yes, of course, as the unions say, there are more people working in the service sector than ever before, and this sector, because of the usually isolated conditions of the work, is particularly hard to organize.

But if the unions had maintained their former stronghold in heavy industry, they would not be in the desperate situation where they find themselves today. Starting in 1978, at the unions' numerical highpoint, running up until today, they have undergone an actual loss of membership in their former stronghold. To take a few very telling examples: in 1997, only 45% of steelworkers, only 40% of motor vehicle assemblers and only 29% of miners were organized. In the early 1970s, these three occupations rolled up unionzation rates in the 80-95% range (U.S. Census Current Population Survey). Another revealing indicator of the problem is the changing proportion of government workers among the unions' total membership. As recently as 1978, government workers were one quarter of the total membership. Today, they make up 42% of that membership. And, among government workers, the most unionized occupations, other than postal workers, are firefighters, cops, prison guards and teachers!

In accepting speed-up and heavy overtime in their stronghold, the unions also accepted lay-offs, and thus helped themselves to get rid of their own members. Moreover, in accepting wage cuts and worsened conditions in union shops, they gave workers in non-union shops less and less reason to take the risks involved in forming a union.

The So-Called "New Strategy"

The unions, confronting a real decline in their membership, did not look for the ways to strenghten the working class and to reinforce its fighting capacities. They didn't look to see how to overcome the divisions which weaken the working class, nor how to reinforce the workers' morale and confidence. Above all, with very few exceptions, they did not propose to the workers to fight.

What they did propose to the workers was to rely on the good will of the politicians, essentially of the Democrats, and to get them to overturn bad laws.

But those Democrats are not neutral when it comes to the struggle between the capitalists and the workers, no more than are the Republicans. For more than twenty years now, the Democrats haven't even bothered to hide their allegiance and their concern to reinforce the position of the bourgeoisie, at the workers' expense. The Democrats are not going to change their policies in favor of the workers just because the unions deliver them votes at election time.

The unions don't arm the workers, helping them to see what role the Democrats play, in the service of the bosses, nor what the bourgeois state is. Not only that, the unions are more and more openly asking the workers to rely on the good will of the bosses, themselves.

In the November-December issue of American @ Work, the AFL-CIO spoke of negotiations which different unions had carried on with employers not to fight union efforts to extend to other plants or companies. It recounts the story of the Communication Workers, which, by the time it had "finished negotiating new contracts earlier this year with the nation's communications giants...each company had agreed to some combination of neutrality in organizing drives, expediting union elections or accepting card-check authorization recognizing union elections." It then goes on to generalize the problem: "Bargaining to organize – negotiating clauses in contracts that make it easier to organize new workers – is a strategy that more and more unions are putting to work.... Because labor laws give an advantage to employers in organizing campaigns, unions have to look for better ways to level the playing field until there are better laws on the books."

In recent years, the UAW has had nothing but praise for Ford, in part because Ford has publicly told its suppliers that it ought to, if not accept the UAW, at least be "neutral" when the UAW attempts to unionize their workers. For the union, looking to increase its membership base and dues money, this may offer a solution – a solution which hasn't increased UAW numbers up until now, however. But for the workers at Ford, it's meant the highest level of worker productivity in the auto industry, the highest amount of mandatory overtime, and the greatest amount of job loss – none of which the union has in any serious way contested.

If companies like Ford give a little encouragement to their suppliers to take a more favorable stance toward the unions, it's because the companies expect to get more out of it than what they would give up.

With good reason, since the unions in fact offer them their services. In explaining why unions are good for everyone, the AFL- CIO argued:

"Recent studies indicate that unions increase productivity. The voice that union members have on the job – which helps them share in decision-making about promotions and work and production standards – increases productivity and improves management practices." This appeared in a leaflet which the AFL-CIO asked its member unions to circulate last Labor Day!

Roy Murray, collective bargaining director for the Steelworkers Unions, explained, in an article in the AFL-CIO Journal entitled "If It's a Productive Workplace, It Must Be Union," that union workplaces have higher increases in productivity because "Unions bring organization to the table."

Workers suffering under the lash of speed-up, those who have lost their jobs to it – how attracted to the unions will they be when they hear that union membership will only subject them to more of the same?

Of course, the unions sometimes complain about the short- sightedness of the bosses.

The January 1999 issue of America @ Work, the AFL-CIO journal, for example, carries an article explaining that workers and bosses do have a common interest – if only the bosses would recognize it: "What's good for workers is good for business, but too often, big business forgets. Instead of creating stable job environments, respecting the dignity of workers, supporting workers' right to organize and ensuring diversity in hiring, much of the corporate aganda is marked by shortsighted greed and low-road policies that result in shifting the burdens of corporate citizenship to workers."

As if the only problem were short-sighted greed, and not the drive for profit on which the capitalist system is based.

When the unions promote the idea that there is a "win- win" situation if only both sides look for it, they make the workers believe they have interests in common with their mortal enemies.

To make the workers believe they can gain by helping their boss to gain only disarms the workers, leading them to more defeats and to greater demoralization.

It's true that today's union leaders may gain something out of this – although even this isn't sure. By agreeing not to strike, by pushing for higher productivity, by looking after the bosses' interests, the unions may hope that the bosses will give them the leeway to increase their membership, or at least give them the gift of an "agency fee" which will increase their treasuries. But even if the bosses and their politicians grant this, it will not lead to a real improvement of the workers' condition. Nor will it lead to a real reinforcement of the unions as fighting organizations of the working class. Nothing will be given to the workers by their bosses or by "friendly" politicians.

For the working class to be strengthened and reinforced, the workers must be told the truth about the class struggle and, first of all, that there is one.

The workers must be reinforced morally for the fights they need to make. They need to be told that it is not up to them to make the sacrifices, they shouldn't have to pay the cost for the crisis. The workers must be made conscious of the real forces they have, which are more than enough to let them throw back the bosses, refuse to give up any more of the gains they once made and resume fighting to improve their situation. As in the past, it will be the strength of the working class when it mobilizes its forces and the fear this causes in the bosses which will allow the workers to win what they want, including their unions.