The Spark

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

United States:
Does the Bourgeoisie Need the Unions Any More?

Nov 12, 1994

Three lengthy labor disputes are continuing in Decatur, Illinois. In each one, it appears that the companies may not only be trying to reduce wages, benefits and working conditions, but also to break any organized resistance of the workers to these reductions, and even to break the unions themselves.

The first of the three started at the Staley Corporation. Effectively refusing to negotiate a new contract when the old one expired in 1992, Staley allowed some time to pass to show that it had made a "good faith" effort to bargain, and then unilaterally imposed its own wage pattern and a series of severe work rule changes. The union counselled its members not to strike, for fear of being replaced, and instead they worked to rule inside the plant and organized demonstrations outside, continuing to work. Eventually, the company took its own action, locking out the 760 workers, members of the Allied Workers Industrial Union, in June of 1993. Almost immediately, it hired a new workforce, saying that the strikers had been "permanently replaced." Following all the prescriptions of labor law, the company now says there is nothing else left to settle, that it has a new workforce and is getting out the production it wants in Decatur.

The second dispute is at Caterpillar's Decatur plant, which was pulled out on strike this past June by the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Workers union (UAW). Two years before, a bitter five-and-a-half month strike at Caterpillar had collapsed after Caterpillar hired replacements, telling strikers they could keep their jobs, but only if they returned to work "soon". When the company set a precise date, past which the strikers would no longer have jobs, the union ordered them back. The company then unilaterally imposed the concessions it had demanded, and it began almost immediately to fire or otherwise discipline most of the strike activists and union militants. When the second strike started, Caterpillar did not wait as it had in the earlier strike, but immediately hired replacements for the strikers. The union insists that these replacements cannot be made "permanent" because the strike, not an "economic" strike, but rather one protesting "unfair labor practices," is protected by NLRB rules. Up until now, Caterpillar has said very little, but it continues to bring in new workers and run production. Whatever the reason, whether they have no confidence that their jobs are safe, or they just don't want to strike, at least a part of the UAW workers have trickled back to work, as they did in fact in the first strike after the company said they might be replaced.

This kind of thing, at a major company, with a strong union like the UAW, was practically unheard of until only a few years ago. Before that, "legal" strikes were followed 100%, even for long periods of time: the unions expected strike discipline, those who broke the strike faced ostracism; for the most part, the companies never even raised the question of continuing production.

The third dispute is at Bridgestone/Firestone's Decatur plant, which was pulled out by the United Rubber Workers (URW) in July of this year, when Bridgestone/Firestone demanded that 4,000 workers at three plants give up deep concessions, including reduced health care coverage, 12-hour shifts and the end to overtime pay. Bridgestone also began to hire replacement workers, telling the strikers that they could keep their jobs if they returned to work "soon". Up until now, it has refused to negotiate with the union.

Who Would Have Believed It?

At Staley, with the whole unionized workforce replaced, there is no union structure nor militants left inside the plant; effectively, the union has ceased to exist there. In fact, it doesn't need to, but if Staley does organize a move among its new workforce to petition for an NLRB election to decertify the union, that will simply give formal recognition to what has already been accomplished inside the workplace.

The process has not yet gone so far at Caterpillar and Bridgestone/Firestone, and it may never. But faced with a workforce which continued to resist once it went back into the plant after the last broken strike, Caterpillar stepped up the ante by getting rid of the union militants. The logic of the situation is taking it more and more to the brink of getting rid of the whole union structure, by one means or another. And, although Bridgestone is still further behind in this process, it also jumped over a few steps: when the union struck instead of giving the company all the really severe concessions it had demanded, Bridgestone immediately hired replacements, not even going through the little song-and-dance routine Caterpillar had followed in its first strike.

A company which takes a hard line with its unionized workers is certainly not a new thing these days. For the past decade, we have seen a number of broken strikes: Hormel, Phelps Dodge, Greyhound, USX, Wheeling-Pitt, etc.

The fact, even, that a company moves to get rid of a union after a strike is broken is not totally new. For example, International Paper in Maine provoked a strike in the second half of the 1980s, and then used the pretext of a lengthy strike to fire the workers and replace them. (Ironically, after Tate & Lyle took over Staley, one of its first actions was to hire the head of Labor Relations from International Paper. Obviously, given Tate & Lyle's intention to attack the workers, he came with good credentials.)

But what may be different, and this is symbolized by the situation in Decatur, is that today the same thing seems to be happening at some of the biggest companies, those which up until now have observed the bourgeoisie's traditional relationship with the unions.

Obviously, Staley is the kind of company which might have done this. But Caterpillar is something different. It is the predominant company in the earth moving and agricultural implements field, not only in the U.S., but also internationally. And this strike is going on not only in Decatur, but at 8 other Caterpillar plants, involving 14,000 workers, the large majority of Caterpillar's 16,000 workers. Bridgestone-Firestone is a major tire producer; its strike involves two other plants. And Pirelli Armstrong, another tire company, is also involved. It is demanding the same concessions from the union, and it immediately hired replacements when it was struck. These are major companies which historically have held long-standing arrangements with their unions. And the UAW and URW are among the strongest of industrial unions, long considered invincible, the real cornerstone of the modern union movement in this country.

Two decades ago, no one in the labor movement could have imagined such a situation.

Forty Years of Decline

And yet, this is the direction in which the labor movement has been heading for a number of decades now.

In 1991, the unionization rate of the workforce stood at 16%, just under half of what it had been in 1953, at its height, when it hit 33%. Excluding government workers, which so far have faced less opposition in their attempts to unionize, the rate in the private sector stood at 12% in 1991, that is, less than it was before Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) in 1935, which supposedly "gave" workers the right to have unions.

Obviously, there have been changes in the composition of the workforce, with a large and growing sector of professionals and management people, and that may account for some of this change. But a look at the areas which once were heavily unionized confirms that the decrease in unionization has hit in the center of the working class. For example, manufacturing, which in 1953 had been 42% unionized, by 1980 was 32%; and by 1991 only 21%; construction which had been 84%, was 14% by 1980, and only 6% by 1991; mining which had been 65% in 1953, was only 15% unionized by 1985; transportation went from 80% to 37% in the same period.

The same thing is true, not just in percentage terms, but also in absolute numbers of those unionized. Even as the working class grows larger, the numbers in unions grow smaller. This process has speeded up a great deal since 1975, when total trade union membership peaked at 22.2 million; by 1986, it had decreased to a little more than 18 million; by 1992, it was down to less than 17 million.

Almost every major union, other than those connected with public employees, has seen a big decrease in membership. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) went from 2.3 million in the late 1970s, to about 1.4 million today; the UAW went from about 1.6 million at the end of the '70s, to just under a million today; the USW (United Steel Workers) went from 1.2 million at the end of the 1970s to 570,000 today; IAM (International Association of Machinists) went from 665,000 at the end of the '70s, to under 500,000 today; the URW went from 166,000 at the end of the '60s to under 100,000 today ... and so on.

A Very Polite Hostility ...

But if the rate of unionization and even the actual number of unionized has gone down, that's not the same as saying that the corporations openly confronted the existing unions to destroy them. Rather, the level of unionization has been cut back by a series of less obvious measures.

Whereas in the 1950s and '60s, a large corporation like GM, for example, automatically extended union recognition to the UAW when it opened a new plant, by the 1970s and '80s, GM had begun to establish a whole series of subsidiaries which did not recognize the UAW. As the merger process heated up during the last decade, many large corporations bought up smaller, often non-unionized companies, and then in the consolidation process shifted production to them, cutting the workforce at their unionized plants. Or companies with strong unions simply closed down some of their own operations, and shifted the work out to smaller, non-unionized and lower-wage companies.

The corporations also gradually became less ready to accept the unorganized workers' petition for a union. Over the last 40 years, the unions have won fewer and fewer representation elections. In the mid 1950s, there were over 4500 such elections, and over 70% of them were successful. By the mid '70s, while the number of elections had increased to about 8000, these elections covered much smaller numbers of workers and less than 55% of them were successful; by the mid '80s, even the number of elections had suffered a big decrease to about 3000, with a still lower success rate of about 40%. At the same time, the number of "unfair labor practice" complaints that unions filed against the companies soared, from about 3,000 a year in the '50s to over 30,000 in the 1980s.

Whatever else these figures might imply, they certainly indicate that American corporations have become more resistant to unionization, or at least to the old arrangement whereby they conceded a certain number of things, including recognition of the union, almost automatically.

But resistant is one thing. Actually confronting the unions to break them is another. Certainly, there have always been attempts by corporations to get their unions decertified. But while that number has long been on the increase, moving from about 100 a year in the 1950s to over 800 a year already by the end of the '70s, there have been very few attempts by major corporations with sizeable workforces to decertify their unions.

And that's what makes the situation symbolized by Decatur significant. What is happening there may be a sign that the American bourgeoisie, or at least an important fraction of it, is considering this question very seriously. It's almost certain that Staley decided to provoke a strike in order to replace its workforce and, failing that, locked them out to do the same thing. It's unclear whether Caterpillar intended this kind of result from the beginning or, as is more likely, began to toy with the idea when the workers and the union continued to refuse to give up the concessions it wanted. In any case, it doesn't much matter how these three companies got there; the fact is, all three have come to the point of questioning the bourgeoisie's old arrangement with the unions.

50 Years of "Labor Peace"

For more than 50 years, the American bourgeoisie, as a class, has always seen more advantages in keeping the unions than in getting rid of them. Its most class conscious members, with Roosevelt as their spokesperson, had already decided on this by the mid-1930s. But that decision was widely accepted inside the bourgeoisie after the sitdowns in 1936-37 at GM, and it was engraved in stone in 1940, when the more conscious sections of the bourgeoisie, looking toward the coming war they knew they were going to enter, forced a recalcitrant Henry Ford to accept the UAW at his plants. The bargain that was cut then at Ford became the model for the rest of the country: Ford not only recognized the union, he went further, proposing to make employment conditional upon membership in the union, to collect the dues for the union apparatus and to offer released time from work for this apparatus.

The deal the big bourgeoisie cut then with the already incipient labor bureaucracy has been respected ever since. The bourgeoisie gave up a certain number of things, including slightly higher wages and benefits, at least for a section of the working class. In exchange they not only got "labor peace" most of the time with the sections of the working class that mattered, they also could predict exactly when this peace would be challenged, that is, only every 2, more commonly 3, or even 5 years when the contracts ran out; in between, they could expect that production would continue relatively unimpeded. Moreover, they did not really have to worry that a strike someplace might set one off somewhere else, that a few strikes might develop into a widespread action of the whole class, since by recognizing and helping establish the apparatus of the unions, they had at the same time created a police force which was used over and over again to prevent the workers from moving any place outside the straitjacket of the very narrow corporatist actions which might allow one group of workers to make a little progress, but never tied their progress to that of the rest of the working class. The same contract which gave certain benefits to the workers, thus reinforcing the deal, acted as a kind of insurance policy for the company. The union apparatus was commonly given the right to take dues from every worker in the workplace; often the company's payroll department took it for them. The members of that apparatus were given time in which they could carry out their "profession" as arbitrator and lawyer for the workers. And all these things separated the apparatus from the workers, and tied it more and more to management, at least to its way of perceiving the problems.

Whatever the big corporations gave up, they got much more back in return. And this has been all the more true over the past 15 years. From the point that Chrysler and the UAW renegotiated the 1979 contract, both agreeing that the workers should give back wages and benefits which their last contract had assured them, one company after another has expected and got concessions and other mechanisms for reducing wages and benefits; not to mention the fact that the unions have been among the chief proponents of the recent push for productivity increases, arguing that workers could thereby ensure their jobs. In the 15 years since, real weekly earnings of production workers have decreased from $444.18 to $389.76, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The actual earning power of the minimum wage has been almost cut in half. The number of people living in poverty has been increasing year after year. It is now higher than it's been anytime in the last 32 years. The enormous push for productivity throughout the economy has led to a serious deterioration of working conditions, not to mention the permanent loss of good-paying jobs to older workers and the virtual bar to such jobs for the younger generation of workers. According to testimony in front of the Reich/Dunlop Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, productivity in the auto industry increased by 105% between 1979 and 1989, and then climbed 14% a year each year from 1989 to 1991. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the injury rate in that same industry, which had stood at 5.3 serious injuries per 100 workers in 1980, increased to 28.3 per 100 workers by 1991. So long as the unions reined in their members, counselling them to identify their interests with the interests of their employers, the bourgeoisie had no reason to complain.

It still doesn't. And yet, it may be that some corporations have reached the point that their demands for continual wage and benefit concessions and increased productivity and work rule changes have pushed the unions into a corner. If they don't resist sooner or later, those workers who want to resist will push them – either to do something or maybe just to step aside. At the same time, the companies themselves continue to take back more of the privileges which they had once accorded the union apparatus. In effect, the unions, if they don't resist, could let themselves in one way or another be reduced to nothing. On the other hand, if the unions do organize a resistance, as in rubber and at Caterpillar, they themselves may become the target of the companies.

Of course, it's possible that the managements of both Caterpillar and Bridgestone are mavericks today, ready to go much further than the big bourgeoisie wants. But maverick or not, if these companies end up pushing the union aside in their attempt to change work rules and reduce benefits, if they find it subsequently even easier to take more from their workers, then their success may serve as an encouragement to other sections of the bourgeoisie to start down the same road.

It's certain that the different companies gauge what they can get away with by watching the successes of other companies. Today, for example, Deere & Co, a farm implement maker which had signed a 3-year contract with the UAW in 1991, the same contract which Caterpillar refused, has let that contract lapse without agreeing to a new one, and without agreeing to extend the old one. Deere now appears to be trying to use the situation at Caterpillar as a bargaining chip to change its 1991 contract, bringing it more in line with what Caterpillar was able to impose by refusing to deal with the union.

In any case, even if sections of the bourgeoisie have seriously begun to question the old arrangements they had with the unions, this changes very little for what the workers have to do to defend themselves, and what the unions themselves must do. On the one hand, the workers can throw back the demands for these extreme concessions, and, in so doing, also throw back the threat against their own organizations. On the other hand, each time the workers passively accept another concession, each time their unions encourage them to do so, this serves as a proof to the bourgeoisie that it can take back everything it wants and that, therefore, they don't even need the unions.

Neither the workers nor their unions will be able to defend themselves by sticking to the narrow corporatist policies which the unions have proposed up until now, including in Decatur. If there are so many people ready to scab today, it is a sign that the union movement has ignored the unemployed, the lowest paid, the most vulnerable section of the working class. The working class in the '30s was able to get past the threat of scabs destroying their strikes in great measure because the militants of that time were conscious that the unemployed were part of the working class, and needed to be organized as part of the working class.

Recently, for example, the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers Union) started a campaign in the Detroit area against a big new Super Kmart before it even opened. It passed out leaflets in front of the new shopping center, calling on other workers not to shop there, but instead to go shop at "their" stores. According to the UFCW:

"When the non-union Super Kmart Center opens its doors, the doors at union food stores may be closing. This means the loss of jobs and livelihoods for large numbers of union workers and their families.

"A new store doesn't mean more business or new jobs. The super Kmart Center can only take business — and jobs — away from existing union stores. Right now, jobs at union food stores in our community have decent pay and fully paid family health benefits. Good paying jobs mean more tax revenue to support our community and more purchasing power for workers to buy goods that other workers produce....

"Please shop at a union food store. The price for shopping at Kmart is too high."

What follows is then a list of the UFCW organized food stores, almost all of which have defeated the UFCW in bitter strikes which ended up by increasing the number of part-time, low paid workers with no benefits, leaving them without access to a permanent full-time position. That short-sightedness is bad enough. But what's worse is that this is a prescription, the typical corporatist prescription of the unions who see no possibilities in asking other workers to fight alongside of them. Instead, by attacking the jobs of the (mostly) young workers hired into the new Kmart store, they create a layer of workers who have every reason to be hostile to the union, ready even to scab, in the true sense of the word, when these unions call strikes at their own workplaces.

In fact, this is the typical stance of the unions when confronted by non-union workers, that is, asking someone — the government, the company, or other unionized workers — to deny the other workers jobs, at the same time accepting to see a whole section of them, even at their own company, being forced to work for lower wages and less benefits — all so that the workers already unionized can keep their "privileged" union jobs somewhat intact. This particular leaflet may be a little more crude in expressing the idea, but it is really nothing more than the logical conclusion of the long-term corporatist policies of the union bureaucracies.

The other traditional part of the unions' strategy for defending themselves has focussed on so-called political action. That is, the unions want Congress to pass a bill forbidding strikers from being permanently replaced and to reform existing labor law, making it easier to win union certification elections. Of course, that means the unions must convince the bourgeoisie's politicians to pass these bills. As shown by events of the past two years, when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the presidency, the Democrats were in no hurry to do so. The Republicans are now in Congress, and they certainly have no reason at all to pass this legislation.

The Wagner Act was finally passed in 1935 and upheld as constitutional in 1937, not because there was a Democrat in the White House. Roosevelt had been there, with large Democratic majorities in Congress ever since January 1933. The difference was the beginning of the sitdowns, which had started in 1936 and spread widely in the early months of 1937, following upon the three massive general strikes of 1934: the Minneapolis truckers' strikes, which became practically general strikes of the whole Minneapolis area; the West Coast shipping strike which turned into a general strike in San Francisco and other areas up and down the coast; and the Toledo AutoLite strike which found, through the auto workers' alliance with the unemployed, the way to break down the company's attempt to employ scabs against the strike.

The unions, in explaining the victories of the '30s, reverse the process; they say to the workers that because Roosevelt and the Democrats passed the Wagner Act, the workers got their unions, and the unions subsequently have protected the workers. By so doing, the unions have disarmed the workers, turning them away from the very kind of activity which won them their unions long ago, and which protected them for a very long time, for the simple reason the bourgeoisie did not want to return to the situation of class warfare which marked the '30s. While the bourgeoisie for several decades has not bothered to make use of that disarmament to carry out an all-out offensive on the working class and its unions, today it is may be thinking about doing so.

If this is the case, only the threat of a new class warfare could make the bourgeoisie back off. But hopefully, when the working class once again takes up class warfare, it will do so not only to keep the right to organize unions, but to reorganize the whole society ... and to get rid of the anti-union exploiters once and for all.