Kim Moody, longtime labor activist, works for Labor Notes in Detroit.
THE 20TH BIENNIAL CONVENTION OF THE AFL-CIO will probably go down in history as a turning point in the history of what has been for decades the shareholders' meeting of American business unionism. This year saw the first contested leadership election in the federation's 40-year history. This time resolutions on federation policy and functioning were fought over and actually made a difference. Unlike its early conventions from 1955 through 1960 where A. Philip Randolph was practically a lone voice for the recognition of black labor, or the many subsequent ones where the issue was ignored, this year saw a lot of talk about, and at least a little movement toward, diversity in the leadership. This year the usual few hundred time-servers, appointees, and elected officials who routinely attend were joined by hundreds of observers, many with a message for the new leaders.
A seldom mentioned but crucial difference this year was the presence of significant numbers of rank and file workers who came to be heard. For the most part they were strikers and locked out workers who had come to demand support and action from the new leadership. They came in jeans, strike T-shirts, and union jackets to make their cases heard. Not only were they allowed to speak, in contrast to past practice, but when they did they set the hall on fire. As one observer put it, when Dan Lane, a locked-out worker from A.E. Staley on his 53rd day of a hunger strike, called for confrontation with Staley-customer Pepsi, "the suits stood on their chairs, waving clenched fists in the air, and shouting boycott Pepsi." To be sure, in saner moments deals were cut in appropriate smoke-filled rooms. But the blue collars had put the suits on the spot and brought the new leaders face-to-face with struggles reflecting the enormous transition that has thrown organized labor into crisis.
AROUND THE MIDWEST TODAY THEY ARE CALLED AMERICA'S LABOR WARS. These are the strikes and struggles that have shattered the complaisance of many blue collar communities and begun to challenge a new production paradigm sometimes called "lean production." The class war label began in Illinois where activists in the prolonged struggles at A.E. Staley, Caterpillar, and Bridgestone/Firestone dubbed their state a War Zone. It burst onto T-shirts and leaflets in Detroit where hundreds of newspaper strikers and supporters from a dozen unions clashed with scabs and police week after week. But the concept applies as well to strikes by Teamsters at UPS and Ryder, UAW local unions at General Motors plants in Flint and Pontiac, Michigan, and at GM's quintessentially "lean" joint venture with Toyota, NUMMI, in Fremont, California. More recent conscripts from the coasts are those like the telephone workers at Bell Atlantic, where lean methods have invaded the "service" sector with a vengeance, and the Boeing workers, who have seen 48% of their work contracted out to low-wage shops the world around.
War Zones from Coast to Coast
In all of these struggles the central issue is the same: work -- its organization, its length, its intensity, and its future availability. For lean production brings with it not only work teams, quality programs, new technology, and just-in-time delivery; but downsizing, subcontracting, outsourcing, overwork, overtime, and overstressed workers. As workers are dumped, their jobs sent to low wage contractors, those who remain are expected to work a 57-second minute, 10 or 12 hour days, and a 50-plus hour week. At the other end of the new production chains, where the subcontracted and outsourced work ends up, are the millions of contract and temporary workers, runaway rural plants, new urban sweatshops, or overseas operations where low wages and few benefits are the rule.
The decade and a half since 1980 during which lean production took root and spread was accompanied by the first absolute decline in union membership since the end of World War II, mostly in the former bastions of integrated mass production. Private sector union density fell from about 25% in the 1970s to 10.9% in 1994. While there were many forces behind this drop, the downsizing and outsourcing that shaped the lean system were major contributors as work moved to non-union plants in the midwest, Sunbelt, or abroad. At first, it was hard to comprehend this process, which itself was often hit and miss. Various theorists saw it as "deindustrialization," "flexible specialization," or the rise of a new small-scale entrepreneurial class. Others called these trends the prelude to post-industrial society.
But as Bennett Harrison, a former deindustrialization theorist himself, has argued in Lean and Mean, what has emerged is a coherent system of industrial production in which giant multinational corporations dominate extended chains of suppliers and contractors through direct ownership, equity deals, joint ventures, and alliances of all sorts. In this system technology is a strong enabler, but not the primary shaper. The visible hand in this process is found in the same old corporate headquarters in the same old G-7 countries. The result, as Harrison puts it, is "decentralized activity with concentrated control over resources." While lean production was developed in manufacturing, its methods have spread to key service sectors like telecommunications, transportation, health care, retail trade, and the public sector.
This new system is partly an emulation of Japanese production methods forced on North American and European companies by intensified international competition. But the driving force behind the competition itself has been the quarter century old crisis of profitability that has increasingly pushed business abroad in search of better returns. The enormous intensification of work, the lengthening of the work day and week in much of industry, and the constant search for cost cutting, however, are responses to falling returns on investment in industries relatively isolated from global competition as well as those in its midst. What is clear, is that the combination of prolonged systemic economic crisis with the transformation of integrated mass production has thrown the unions on the defensive and disoriented traditional collective bargaining relations.
HAVING BATTERED DOZENS OF UNIONS FOR YEARS, the crisis of this historic transformation, or rather its results and symptoms, have now caught the attention of those at the very pinnacle of organized labor. The events that determined the timing of the palace rebellion led by John Sweeney of the Service Employees, Rich Trumka of the Mine workers, and Linda Chavez-Thompson of the State, County, and Municipal Employees were certainly those in the political realm, above all NAFTA. But it is the hemorrhaging of membership and loss of power that has created tensions within the consensus regime of the AFL-CIO. The Fortune 500 downsizing job massacre that began in 1990 and is still going on could not be ignored. It is this relentless decline in the private sector that has also given birth to the major panacea of recent years: general unionism through union mergers and random organizing outside the union's traditional jurisdiction.
The War Above
General unionism, the practice of recruiting anyone with the money for dues regardless of industry or occupation, is by now the unspoken faith of almost all labor leaders in the U.S. Mergers, which until recently reflected the trend toward general unionism and away from industrial unionism, have been the other major defensive response to decline for some time. Only with the merger of the two garment unions into UNITE and the announced merger of the Auto Workers, Steelworkers, and Machinists into one big metal workers union, has this trend taken a shaky and bureaucratic turn toward an industrial union strategy appropriate to the era of lean production.
Mergers with unions in decline and ruthless competition with others for random workers, however, were not enough to stem the decline in the private sector. Indeed, the drift toward general unionism was one of the symbols of the lack of focus that characterized the decade and a half of Lane Kirkland's reign as AFL-CIO chief. Random organizing failed to address the loss of bargaining power even where it alleviated the problem of shrinking finances. Organized labor simply could not avoid the need to organize the millions in their own or related industries right down to the "contingent" workers. As much as labor leaders might blame the decline of the institutions that provide their elevated life style and prestige on poor labor laws or free trade, it had become evident, even at the top, that someone has to organize the millions who have come into the workforce in the last decade or so. This, in turn, required the recognition that a large proportion of these newer workers were women or people of color. And that meant change.
And so, the contest between Sweeney's "New Voice for American Workers" slate and the old guard slate of former AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Tom Donahue and Communications Workers' secretary-treasurer Barbara Easterling was characterized by a debate over who would throw the most money at organizing and who was more serious about race and gender diversity. Despite the presence of Easterling and Chavez-Thompson on their respective slates, the question of diversity remained more a posture than a reality in the campaign up to the convention. As Leon Burris of the Postal Workers said on a New York radio labor talk show, the initial rebellion was "Eleven white guys plotting against another group of white guys." The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which stayed neutral in the contest, put forward an 11-point program for increasing diversity, including a focus on organizing industries with high proportions of people of color.
At the convention, however, the question of diversity in leadership came up in two counterposed proposals for changes in the Executive Council. Sixteen unions in the Donahue-Easterling camp, led by Morty Bahr of the Communications Workers, proposed that the presidents of the federation's 78 affiliated unions compose the Executive Council. This would have precluded any kind of election and meant that all but a couple of the council members would be white males. The Sweeney forces proposed to expand the Executive Council from 33 to 51 and that it continue to be elected by the convention. This proposal passed and a compromise slate, in which former Donahue supporters actually have a slight majority, was elected that included seven women and six people of color -- hardly a total transformation, but the most diverse leadership body the federation has ever seen.
There were also some real differences on other issues, at least in emphasis. Donahue puts faith in recruiting white collar professionals through associate membership, while Sweeney's emphasis is on organizing low-wage workers, including immigrants and people of color -- a position more in line with the CBTU's approach. This is no small difference given the realities of the new workforce being created by lean production and expanding service industries. Furthermore, Sweeney's SEIU has a track record on this in its Justice for Janitors campaign and its attempts to organize nursing homes.
While the new labor-management cooperation programs associated with lean production were not an issue in the Sweeney-Donahue contest, not all unions or their leaders endorsed Donahue's pet project, the AFL-CIO Committee on the Evolution of Work. In its 1994 report, "The New American Workplace," the Committee put forth a sweeping endorsement of "a new labor-management partnership." While most unions have embraced some form of labor-management cooperation program, not everyone is prepared to hand a blanket endorsement of the new system to management. A few, like the Teamsters and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers remain hostile to such "partnerships." Thus, shortly after "The New American Workplace" appeared in February 1994, the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department published its own statement on the future of unions which reflected a more traditional and adversarial role for unions.
Then there is the crucial matter of AFL-CIO foreign policy and specifically the Department of International Affairs (DIA). The DIA's far flung vintage Cold War labor espionage operations are primarily funded by Congress through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. But it also draws a $2 million annual headquarters budget and an undisclosed, but significant amount to cover the rest of its operations. Neither Sweeney nor Donahue so much as breathed the words "International Affairs," but it is known that many in the Sweeney camp want to cut it back and put the money elsewhere. Trumka, now the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, hinted at this during the campaign when he said, "the point is to make the AFL-CIO relevant again by converting it from a creaking old Cold War clock into a sleek fighting machine."
Furthermore, Sweeney promises to put a third of the federation's budget into organizing and more into new political action and leadership training institutes by shifting funds around. Donahue, who was a prime mover in DIA affairs, argued during the campaign that any new organizing funds must come from additional sources. The implication being, hands off the DIA. In all likelihood, the Sweeney victory will mean at least some reining in of the DIA.
Any shrinking or changing of the DIA and its related overseas institutes foreshadows a decline in the influence of America's most peculiar political sect, the Social Democrats-USA. Since the 1960s, SD-USA members populated the DIA and other federation departments by virtue of appointments from George Meany and Kirkland. The best known union leader associated with SD-USA is Albert Shanker, president of the AFT. Donahue, like Kirkland, was also closely associated with the SD-USA crowd and married to one of its leaders. SD-USA's glue as a political current was always its Cold War, State Department anti-Communism, which brought it into alliance with Reaganites such as Jeane Kirkpatrick. Clearly, both the ideological and historical basis of this foreign policy cult have withered. More importantly, SD-USA's Cold War mind-set and slavish devotion to the narrowest version of American business unionism run counter to the need for genuine international labor solidarity in this era of globalization, as some top union leaders now realize.
The degree to which the DIA is reduced in stature and the SD-USA in influence, however, remains to be seen. There are rumors that a deal was made behind the scenes to leave the DIA in its current hands. The Clinton Administration, despite all, still beloved by labor leaders on both sides of the leadership contest, has some use for a trade union evangelist for its aggressive international commercial policy. The AFL-CIO's Cold War overseas institutes could fill the bill with their emphasis of U.S.-style business unionism. Clinton's appointment of deposed AFL-CIO head Lane Kirkland as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations was certainly a message to the new leaders that he had confidence in the foreign policy of the ancien regime. The fact that a slight majority of the new Executive Council have been associated with the Kirkland-Donahue regime may also spell continued influence by the Shanker-led Cold Warriors turned global traveling salesmen. In addition, any drastic reorganization of the federation's headquarters structure was vetoed by the Building Trades Department, which threatened to pull its members out of AFL-CIO state and local bodies, reducing their dues base and political clout. In all likelihood, the struggle over the federation's international relations will be a prolonged one.
This year's leadership clash, after all, was a contest of seasoned bureaucrats who made precious few waves in the years that Lane Kirkland led the federation downhill. Donahue went right from college to union staff jobs -- his longest in Sweeney's home local SEIU 32B/32J. Sweeney worked as a grave digger in New York before becoming a local officer, but since becoming president of the SEIU in 1980 made up for lost time by continuing to draw his 32B/32J salary along with his hefty presidential salary of $210,00. Last year he reduced his 32B/32J salary from $79,000 to $10,000, perhaps in anticipation of his role as rebel. Now he will drop it. He continues, however, to support 32B/32J president Gus Bevona, a slimy character who received similar double salaries and who has recently been found spying on union reformers in his local. Barbara Easterling, Donahue's diversity partner, is one of the few women labor leaders who doesn't advocate reproductive choice. And so go the rather shabby records of old guard and rebels alike.
Although they debated on TV, distributed buttons and stickers, and outdid one another in appearances at the rallies that punctuate America's labor wars, they were campaigning union members with no votes. A few dozen international union officers cast most of the votes at the AFL-CIO convention. Indeed, once the Sweeney forces had lined up 58-60% of those votes over the summer, the election itself was a ritual. The "New Voice for American Workers," which finally won by 60%, will nonetheless now have its say.
THE GROWTH AND TRANSFORMATION OF ORGANIZED LABOR IN THE U.S. will not come simply from new leadership in the AFL-CIO's Washington, DC headquarters. But the rebellion at the top may itself encourage increased motion below. The spirit of rebellion, already abroad in many unions, is contagious. Sweeney himself already faces brushfires of opposition in the SEIU. Service Employees for Democratic Reform, a caucus of local officials and activists based mainly in the West, calls for a democratized SEIU and pushes for direct election of top officials -- something Sweeney vigorously opposes. Even more symbolic of the future is the rebellion in SEIU Local 399 in Los Angeles, birthplace of the most successful Justice for Janitors campaign. Here a unique alliance of rank and file African American health care workers and Latino janitors formed the Multicultural Slate in the union's 1995 elections. The slate won every position it challenged. When the new executive board tried to rein in the power of the incumbent president, who they didn't challenge, Sweeney imposed a trusteeship. Indeed, Sweeney recently summed up his views on democracy when he told the Wall Street Journal, "I'm very interested in union democracy and rank-and-file involvement, but it can't be accomplished overnight." At least not if he gets his way, it would seem.
The War Within
Despite Sweeney's views, the war within has been legitimatized by his own rebellion at the top. An even more powerful advertisement for change is the graphic example of the benefits of real union reform to be seen in the successful administration of Ron Carey, who swept the Teamsters' corrupt old guard from office in 1991. Carey's reform regime, with heavy participation from the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, has been responsible for a string of successful strikes at a time when these are still the exception in the labor wars. His high profile fight against old guard cipher James Hoffa, Jr. will broadcast throughout the labor movement the difference change can make.
Nowhere might the reverberations of Carey's example be felt more strongly than in the merger process opened by the Auto Workers, Steelworkers, and Machinists this June. While the three old bureaucratic machines will weigh heavily on this process, they must write a new constitution all can live with. According to Steelworkers president George Becker, the new union will have direct vote on top officers, as the Steelworkers and Machinists do now. While this is no guarantee of democracy in itself, it is a wide opening of the door for those forces prepared to fight for change, notably the UAW New Directions Movement and some smaller groupings in the Machinists. At its October conference in Detroit, New Directions voted to organize meetings of activists from the three unions to discuss the merger process.
Perhaps most important, the merger and the likely direct vote spell an end to the near monopoly of power the UAW's Administration Caucus has wielded for nearly half a century. Perhaps it was this realization that led new UAW president Steve Yokich to tell a gathering of 200 appointed officials recently that the UAW was a two-party system in which respect for dissent would be observed -- a distinct shift in official attitude toward New Directions. Whether sincere or not, it seems clear that the type of headquarters-to-workplace machine the Administration Caucus constituted cannot be extended to the new merged union.
Furthermore, deprived of the convention delegate system of electing top officers, it loses its power to intimidate the "voters" on the spot as it did at UAW conventions. While the Machinists and Steelworkers have powerful top-down structures that reinforce their respective leaderships (including the ability to nullify local union elections in the Machinists), neither possesses an organized political vehicle for perpetual rule as comprehensive and deeply rooted as the UAW's Administration Caucus. With the direct vote on officers, the mandatory retirement of Yokich by merger completion in 2000, and a lot of organizing in the next few years, the reform forces in the new union could mount a credible challenge just as Carey did in the Teamsters.
In general, the leadership change at the AFL-CIO reflects a broader leadership transition that is partly generational and partly political. Changes at the top have been common in the last several years throughout organized labor. Most of these were not accomplished by organized reform movements even when there was a contest. But most did involve the moving up of leaders whose experience is rooted in an era of crisis and industrial transformation, rather than in the period of growth and relative prosperity during which the Kirkland generation came to office. While this certainly doesn't guarantee a progressive or left outlook, there is more of a sense that the same old methods won't work. Trumka is in many ways representative of this generation of leaders and frequently makes this point himself. There are others, such as Bob Wages of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers and Ron Carey of the Teamsters who are more consistently progressive and militant. Probably more who are less consistent than Trumka, such as Yokich of the Auto Workers. Behind this generational layer is another now taking office in countless local unions whose life experience is even more affected by a sense of economic and social crisis. Some, like the New Directions caucus in Transit Workers Union Local 100 in New York's transit system, are both racially diverse and politically to the left.
The contest at the top is in many ways a reflection of this broader transition and of the disgruntled rank and file that is pushing the process along in more and more unions. With the lash of lean production and the more general decline in working class living standards forcing more people to take action, even when it is likely to end in one or another degree of defeat, the engine of political change within organized labor is likely to continue and even gain momentum in the next several years. The importance of the change at the AFL-CIO is not to be found in the personalities who now run the show, so much as in the overall process that propelled them to action -- a process that will continue driving them toward some approximation of their stated commitment to organize the unorganized. This alone would change the balance of forces in the U.S. for the better and open still greater political possibilities.
ASIDE FROM ORGANIZING THE UNORGANIZED, THE BIGGEST QUESTION that confronts organized labor is how it will respond to the continued transformation associated with the spread of lean production throughout the U.S. economy. Though this new production paradigm has a number of consistent characteristics, it is no more identical from country to country, company to company, or plant to plant than the "Fordist" version of mass production it modifies and replaces. Lean production will certainly retain the modified just-in-time inventory system of parts delivery, the reconfigured assembly lines, the high levels of technology, the extensive outsourcing and subcontracting, the hierarchical relationships between assemblers and suppliers, and the constant attempt to reduce labor input and job cycle time to the absolute minimum. But there is nothing inevitable about the specifics of worktime, production speed, degree of outsourcing, or the new 10-hour day "alternative work schedules" and flexibility schemes favored by management in more and more industries. Where there are unions all of these questions are open to negotiation and challenge, as the recent strikes and conflict at GM show.
Mean Jobs, Angry Workers
In fact, the limits of this system are already becoming apparent in Japan itself where modifications in just-in-time set-ups, the use of teams, the use of the andon board that allows workers to stop the line, levels of automation, and production configurations are increasingly introduced to become more "competitive" and to deal with profitability problems. Equally clear is the diversity of practices in newer lean plants across the U.S. and Europe. Even the teams and other structures of labor-management cooperation that give this system its appearance of employee participation or empowerment are expendable.
As Dave Robertson of the Canadian Auto Workers told a gathering of European auto workers in 1994:
Management can get to lean without collaborative appeals. It doesn't need teams. It doesn't even need continuous improvement groups. It can get to lean by changing production methods, process flows and the design of our jobs.
The reason for this, of course, is that the basic contours of the system, including such stressful aspects of work intensification as the "advance" from the 45-to 57-second work minute, and how to achieve them, are now clear. This is, no doubt, the heritage of two decades of experimentation in leaner methods, in which worker input was important. For this reason the structures of cooperation, the teams, etc., may well continue in industries or workplaces where lean methods are newer and the individual and collective knowledge of the workers is still needed or where the unions still needs to be tamed, but be phased-out where these tasks have already been accomplished. The new management tool of "benchmarking" the world's best practice and then applying to their own production set-up provides management with an allegedly objective standard for intensifying work. While teams might be the ideological conveyor belt for obtaining consent on a new best practice, they are clearly not needed to brainstorm or measure it.
While the system in its broad outlines is certainly the winning global paradigm, there remains a vast terrain of "detail" in production organization, standards, speed, work loads, etc. to be contested. As the incredibly sloppy measurements employed in the much-heralded hymn to lean production, The Machine That Changed the World, shows, the very notion of the system's efficiency is itself hard to pin down in a scientific way. Most of the work measurement techniques in lean production are those inherited from Taylorism. In effect, all the traditional issues of workplace conflict remain central to unionism under the new system once it becomes de-mystified in the eyes of the workers.
Moreover, due to the pressure of lean methods for constant productivity increases; the speed, intensity, length, and safety of work become ever more pressing issues. In auto assembly plants, where lean methods are most advanced in the U.S., injury and illness rates are running four to five times higher in the 1990s than they were in the 1980s. Exposure levels of toxic substances originally measured by OSHA on the basis of the eight-hour day become irrelevant as workers are exposed for ten or twelve hours. Questions of working time, staffing of work stations, line speed, outsourcing, subcontracting, and work schedules are at the root of most of the major strikes and struggles of the last few years.
The three War Zone struggles in Illinois at A.E. Staley, Caterpillar, and Bridgestone/Firestone all broke out at companies with elaborate labor-management cooperation or employee participation programs. The main issues in each were lengthened workdays and weeks (10 to 12-hour day schedules), workforce reductions coupled with increased output, and drastic deterioration of health and safety conditions. The Detroit newspaper strike was also about future reductions in staffing and flexibility in worktime, while the Teamster strikes fought various forms of subcontracting, part-timing, and work intensification. The 1995 strike by the Machinists at Boeing is over subcontracting. Dozens of smaller strikes around the U.S., often too small to make the official statistics, reveal a similar pattern of resistance to many of the contested aspects of lean methods as applied to different industries. Almost all of these struggles were defensive in character.
The 1994 strike of UAW Local 599 at GM's Buick City complex in Flint, Michigan was significant as the first offensive strike against the excesses of lean methods: understaffing, intensification of work, excessive overtime, etc. The union's central demand was simple: hire more workers to relieve overwork. This amounted to "de-leaning" many parts of the plant. Local 599 prepared its members by months of education on the issues and the "false promise of partnership," as local president Dave Yettaw put it, and by accumulating hundreds of grievances over which the UAW contract allowed a strike. The local won its central goal of more workers, 779 in all, by turning the lean system's just-in-time supplier chain on its head. Since Buick City was both a supplier and receiver of parts within the GM system, a strike was certain to close down several other plants in short order, with more going down each day of the strike. And so it was, with GM plants around the midwest closing down one after another, they won after four days.
As the workers in different industries learn the weak points of the new system as well as what is negotiable and what can be changed, they will learn how to fight it more effectively, as the members of Local 599 did. Just as it took years and even decades to develop the confidence to unionize and take on mass production and the corporate giants who shaped it, so it will take some time to invent a unionism appropriate to lean production that is not simply a surrender to it.
As they learn this lesson, workers are also learning that the new system is closely related to the social crisis they observe across the U.S. One hears at all the picket lines and rallies that it is the downsizing, the lengthening of the work day and week, the intensification of work that is killing high wage jobs, on the one hand, and all the outsourcing, subcontracting, part-timing that is creating low-wage jobs on the other. Increasingly, workers in the blue collar communities affected by these trends see them as part of the larger social crisis. The belief that corporations are attacking these communities and, indeed, future generations of working class people is now widely held in blue collar America.
Even much of what is seen as service sector growth is in reality a shift of jobs from the goods-producing to the service-producing columns via massive contracting of functions formerly performed in-house by industry. For example, at Boeing, where 32,000 workers went on strike in October against subcontracting, 48% of the work is performed by outside contractors, at home and abroad, whose workers will not show-up in the "manufacturing" category of official labor statistics. The largest creator of new jobs over the last five years were temporary labor agencies who now supply workers to factories and construction sites as well as offices.
The other side of the coin is that when workers resist this new system, they are fighting the social crisis as well. As Jerry Tucker put it at the New Directions conference, "when we demand shorter work time, staffing increases, a human pace of work, and livable pensions, we are also helping to create decent jobs." Another person pointed out that GM workers put in enough overtime in 1994 to create 88,000 auto jobs. Shave the overtime and shorten the basic work week across industry and you create jobs in even greater numbers. It is in this kind of thinking that the ideas of a new social movement unionism are being born.
AMONG THE ACTIVISTS IN LABOR TODAY, the links between resistance to new lean norms, the new militancy, union reform or transition at the top and within individual unions, and a new organizing and political agenda for labor are often quite direct. The strategy-wise leaders of UAW Local 599, for example, are New Directions leaders and members of Labor Party Advocates (LPA). In Decatur, the president of the UAW local at Caterpillar is New Directions. Along with the Staley and Bridgestone/Firestone local unions they put together an independent "friends of labor" slate in the last city elections, though they didn't win. Many are LPA members. The connection with the new Teamsters leaders and Teamsters for a Democratic Union is well known. Many of them are LPA as well. A successful rank and file rebellion in the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees is the reason that union is one of the four international unions endorsing LPA. Virtually all of these activists and leaders supported the Sweeney forces, despite the criticisms and doubts they might have had.
The Links of a New Social Unionism
Of course, it is not some neat progression of militancy, reform from below, change at the top that we are seeing. Things are out of order, partial, tendential at best, and reversals are possible. But there is a sort of core politics of a new unionism taking shape within the unions that is not unlike the left-leaning social unionism of the 1930s and 1940s. Workplace militancy, union democracy, a sense of social responsibility, and independent class politics figure in this emerging consciousness. It is coupled with an increasing rage over what is happening to the "American dream," as many still call it. This is not just the "angry white male" syndrome we read about, although it overlaps it with all the dangers that implies. It is a rage shared by working class women and people of color denied decent jobs after decades of affirmative action, by immigrants whose dreams are shattered in sweatshops and servile jobs, and by all the low-wage workers locked into the bottom of a highly competitive labor market with no hope of crawling up the occupational ladder, as well as by those blue collar workers currently fighting under the banner of the dream.
Can the new leaders of the AFL-CIO organize and direct this rage in a progressive direction? On their own, almost certainly not. They do not have the ideological equipment. As Jerry Tucker of UAW New Directions points out, their proposals for various institutes lack any ideological glue to give them coherence. Specifically, they talk confrontation out of one side of their mouths and "partnership" out of the other. In a similar vein, they talk of a new political effectiveness, while embracing the Clinton Administration and the decaying Democratic Party. Furthermore, with few exceptions, they are not risk takers. They are administrators and negotiators for the most part, not generals preparing for war.
It just might be, however, that they have opened a process they cannot control. They have raised expectations, for one thing. They have blessed confrontational struggles, for another. They have legitimized internal union debate and opposition. They have taken small steps toward recognizing the diverse reality of the American working class. Perhaps most important, they have committed money, personnel, and their reputations to do a serious job of organizing. This in itself might be enough to propel the process beyond their promises or wishes, and to begin to turn the tide of battle in America's labor wars.
Contents of No. 20