American Labor's Big Fall – It's Time to Leave Behind not Only Failed Practices but Also the Belief System Based in Progress and Liberalism
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American Labor's Big Fall – It's Time to Leave Behind not Only Failed Practices but Also the Belief System Based in Progress and Liberalism


It's no secret that American labor is in tatters.  There are certainly both internal and external factors, and some labor leaders and numerous labor historians and academics have accurately identified many of these. The external factors seem large, and to be fair, in many ways are determinative. The present external factors which do not favor organized labor, also in part have their origins in labor's internal dynamics and machinations. Likewise, labor's internal problems are a reflection of some rather problematic cultural phenomena in the US at large.

Therefore, a bifurcation of the internal and external problems plaguing labor is not easy. But what is easy is understanding what one has the power to change. Labor can't influence society if it cannot influence itself. It cannot wage this battle for society's soul if it has no soul of its own. Nevertheless, there is no debate within labor that labor has a big problem - this is the consensus view. The debate now rests upon this question of external and internal factors, and how labor should orient itself to the changed reality and the present moment.

The biggest problem, though, is in how this debate is framed. Labor takes for granted the basic ideological and 'normative' assumptions within American society. Of course there are dissenting voices, among labor academics and labor leaders. But in the final analysis, the narrow views of labor leaders, their narrow senses of self, and personalized aspirations. 

The labor studies departments of brand-name institutions like UCLA and Cornell University have championed what amounts to 'all the wrong ideas'. Every thinking person is aware that 'liberalism' today is in fact also some hybrid of both Marxism and fascism (corporatist) conceptions of social organization. This is also the case in the departments of labor studies.

The basic approach is this: they view the labor movement in certain stages, where in the first we had the illegal, heroic, romantic stage led by Marxists. The second was the New Deal and Cold War stage, where labor unions and the image of leaders was relatively sanitized, made respectable household words, had a place at the 'large conversation' in American media, and led by professional bureaucrats. These first two stages were similar enough to those found in Western Europe. The third stage, now, is the 'sui generis' stage, where the question of solving the problem of American labor is presented as already having inherited a set of factors very different from the rest of the 1st world. Therefore, it is - and probably rightly so - viewed as a stage not seen in the rest of the world, though Germany and the Anglophone world are catching up quickly with the American way in this regard.

The problem isn't in thinking that a third stage exists. The idea of stages is useful, and numbering them, even more so. The problem is in the solution set which they created, and how that subsists in a way that does not challenge the very social and ideological underpinnings of American society.

To summarize, they view the present stage as the reorientation towards the service economy, with the role of labor being similar to the role of 'the left' in general - to influence academic institutions and the culture of the intelligentsia at large - and to combine the organizing model of labor with the HR departments of synergistically created private-co-public institutions. How unions view the question of, for example, HMO's like Kaiser Permanente or the auto manufacturer, General Motors, is reflective of this view. There's something of a revolving door between SEIU leadership which represents Kaiser's staff, and Kaiser's own HR department. In the golden age of labor militancy, this was seen as betrayal, a conflict of interest, and represented a moral hazard. It was an argument against a professional labor bureaucracy which represented labor nominally, but had lifestyle and ideological commitments not too different from the very same corporate leaders whom they were supposed to combat at picket lines, and later sit across the bargaining table with.

In other words, it is a fascist (in the neutral, not pejorative sense) model of organizing society, where labor union leaders are integrated into a vertically modeled society, into the HR departments, as part of the managerial class, where also concurrently, the thinking goes, a meta-political and cultural struggle is waged over the attitude about labor and the role of the corporation in a democratic society at large. In short, to democratize the corporate institution.

Now, as a theory in the abstract, this is sound, but only if we forget one major factor: contemporary labor theory on this doesn't envisage any other societal form than the present one.

So, this means that the Marxist romantic rebels of the turn of the last century through Great Depression, the professional labor leaders of the New Deal and beyond, and today what we might call the vertically integrated 'progressive' HR department infiltration project, are all premised upon 1.) the legitimacy of the progressivist variant of liberalism and 2.) the position held by the US geopolitically throughout the 1990's and 00's.

In short, while there is a debate among labor leaders about how to solve the problem, the largest union federations - CTW (SEIU) and the AFL-CIO, are run directly by Democrat Party operatives with a revolving door for employment out of labor and into the HR department of corporate America, as we have explained.  Let's set aside the moral hazard involved here, and the obvious conflict of interest. Laws can exist, but there are always ways around them. The problem is deeper than laws, it's within the culture of labor itself. Therefore this debate is largely stifled by the vested interests running labor itself.

Each successive labor leader, who are at the local level appointed from up top by the chiefs of the AFL-CIO or the CTW, seems to be on a mission similar to the presidents of neo-liberally inclined countries, deans of western academic institutions, and the CEO's of corporations - to raze to the ground the institution which brought them in to lead it. A sort of 'self destruct mode' has been triggered. There are all sorts of reasons for this.

The standard way the problems are understood is going to shape how the solutions are formulated. The following are examples of the erroneous ways the problems have been identified, and how they have produced an erroneous solution set.

1. Problem: Federal and state laws solved some of what organized labor used to fight for. The government now handles the welfare of working people, even though this is much less the case when compared to a European style social democracy.

Solution: If unions can effectively tie in the role of unions into the distribution of work and welfare to the people, and if this can be done through the Democrat party, who in turn will pass pro-labor laws and place pro-labor judges on the bench, and a type of collective bargaining can be done legislatively, similar to France, much will be won.

2. Problem: The Democrat Party needs to better hear organized labor. Unions continue hand money to Democrat politicians, but Democrats continue to be put off by labor initiatives.

Solutions: Labor should tailor its demands to match those of the corporate and banking interests which predominate in the Democrat Party. Labor should increase its support for Democrats by being a precinct walking army that professionalizes the process of GOTV (Get Out the Vote) during the election cycle

3. Problem: Manufacturing jobs have been sent abroad. Because big-time manufacturing was once the gold-standard of organized labor, when those jobs left (not to avoid paying union wages, but to avoid paying American wages), the heart and soul of industrial unionism left with them. America will never re-industrialize given the production costs in the developing world.

Solution:  The service-sector and other work 'tied to the ground', such as distribution related work (trucking, etc.) should become the real focus.

4. Problem: Bourgeois propaganda. Labor’s enemies including the corporate owned media, have been able to convince people that unions are corrupt and sinister. Labor was associated with its first wave of militants, communists and anarchists. Anarchism is crazy, and communism is America's geopolitical rival, embodied in the USSR. Therefore, Labor is un-American, communist, and mafia based.

Solution: create an internal Union culture where labor leaders and bureaucrats are demure, bland, conformist, and look like the opposite of a Hollywood type-cast union 'thug' or anti-capitalist radical. The New York intellectual look was championed, followed by the 1990's era Berkeley University 'free thinker' trope.

5. Problem: American individuality is at odds with collectivism. Americans are self-sufficient and independent-minded people. That trait is both a strength and a weakness. The 19th and early 20th century U.S. labor movement  was largely led by European immigrants whose cultures embraced collectivism and proletarian rights. But those days are over. An every-man-for-himself philosophy now permeates the workplace, and is a reflection of the ideology of the corporate boardroom, which was an established ideological project in full bloom in the 1980's, characterized by films like 'Wall Street', 'Trading Places', and 'The Secret to My Success'.

Solution:  Create functional relationships between labor and all sorts of collectivist and activist spaces unrelated to labor, even those hostile to the beliefs of most working people, but especially those irrelevant to labor such as PETA or the Sierra Club. 

6. Problem: Union leaders are lazy and unimaginative. A number of these union leaders seem to care more about finishing out their careers than going toe-to-toe with management and reinvigorating the membership. Instead of the firebrands of old, they’ve become bureaucrats and glorified clerks.

Solution: Union leaders should be upper-middle class idealists who went to brand-name universities with 'prestigious' and 'intelligent' labor studies departments. This will make sure that union leaders are motivated and imaginative, so motivated and imaginative that they'll also convince corporate management of the soundness of their arguments, and come to lead the HR departments themselves.

7. Problem: People don’t want to be identified as “working class.” in a society that values the 'middle-class' as its base conception of citizenship and belonging within a civic and pluralist discourse.  A political movement led by the working class is a non-starter when there’s only a few self-avowed members of the working class willing to take up the right. Therefore, given what occurred in post-Reagan America, identifying as a member of the working class has come to mean the opposite of work, as the term was used by liberal 'progressive' politicians and activists to denote the unemployed, urban poor, and lumpen, even criminal elements of the society.

Solution: Re-brand as 'middle-class'.

All of the above represent misframed problems, and misframed solutions.

It's safe to say there's a direct connection between a society's culture and its distribution of power and resources among society's members. The role of organized labor - trade and industrial unions - in both shaping and reflecting that society's culture will, in turn, have a big impact on society's distribution of power and resources.

In our next installment, we'll reframe these problems, and then land on the correct solutions.

Author: Joaquin Flores