Means to Change: Labor Organizing

Posted: July 5, 2014 in Economics, Politics
Tags: , , , , ,

Anarchist Cookbook front cover(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)

 

When Americans think of means to change, labor organizing tends to be well down on the list, if it’s there at all. There are good reasons for this.

There have been no mass membership revolutionary unions in the U.S. for nearly a century, and the only type most Americans are familiar with are the business unions of the AFL-CIO. As “business” implies, these unions are purely in the business of selling their members’ labor. in other words, they serve as bulwarks of capitalism, not challengers to it.

As you’d expect, they’re run along traditional hierarchical lines, often quite undemocratically, with highly paid executives who are out of touch with those they supposedly represent. Also, as you’d expect, many of those executives have been markedly reactionary, two notable examples being former Teamster’s president and Nixon buddy Frank Fitzsimmons, and former AFL-CIO president George Meany, a supporter of the Viet Nam War who was completely indifferent to organizing the unorganized.

Given all this, how did the AFL-CIO become the face of labor? It did so with major assistance from the U.S. government. In the period 1905 through the early 1920s, the AFL faced a radical rival, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). (The CIO emerged in the 1930s and merged with the AFL in 1955.) While the AFL was a federation of craft unions, interested only in its own members’ wages, and always presented itself as being a partner with business–there are photos of AFL founder Samuel Gompers at an elegant dinner with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce–the IWW was practicing militant unionism, attempting to organize all workers, and had as its goal the elimination of capitalism and a democratically controlled worker takeover of the economy.

The government found this intolerable, and subjected the IWW to continual harrassment (often in the form of mass jailing of its members) in the years prior to World War I.

When Democrat Woodrow Wilson broke his campaign pledge and involved the U.S. in that war, the AFL supported U.S. involvement, and the IWW opposed it. As a result, repression of the IWW intensified, with many IWW members jailed for expressing opposition to the war, and many others jailed for refusing to be conscripted. In the red scare that followed the war, many states passed “criminal syndicalism” laws, which banned unionism of the IWW type. As a result of all this, thousands of IWW members were imprisoned, often for years, during World War I and its aftermath. And the government all but succeeded in totally destroying the IWW. (Today, the IWW survives with perhaps 5,000 members.)

The AFL (and its later partner, the CIO) stepped into this void and emerged as the only kind of union entity most Americans know, or can even conceive of.

The percentage of American workers represented by the AFL-CIO has plummeted from its high point of 34% of nongoverment workers in 1940 to under 7% today. And that percentage is still falling. (Today, the bulk of the AFL-CIO’s members are government workers, with its unions representing over 35% of them.)

Why has the percentage of nongoverment workers fallen so far? AFL-CIO backers would (correctly) point to the laws passed since World War II that hamstring the union movement (notably “right to work” laws and the Taft-Hartley and Sherman Acts–laws which among other things prohibit secondary boycotts and allow the government to order striking workers back to work.) AFL-CIO backers would also point to lack of enforcement of laws protecting workers who try to organize; because of that lack of enforcement, employers have fired organizers with impunity for decades.

But there’s another reason too: the very nature of the business unions (hierarchical, often undemocratic, often corrupt), and beyond that their utter lack of an inspiring vision. Many invite noninvolvement of members–just pay your dues and leave the rest to us. And having no goals beyond selling your members’ work lives for the highest amount you can get simply isn’t inspirational.

So, is labor organizing ineffective as a means to change? Not necessarily. In the 1930s in Spain, revolutionary unionism of the IWW type, as practiced by the anarchist Spanish Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), did lead to a genuine revolution and social transformation in approximately half of Spain, including Catalonia, its major industrial region. That social transformation lasted approximately two years, until it was crushed by the anarchists’  Communist “allies” and the combined military forces of Spanish, Italian, and German fascism. This, however, does not take away from the achievements of the Spanish anarchists. And it provides evidence that revolutionary labor organizing can lead to fundamental political, social, and economic change.

The hallmarks of such organizing are direct democratic  control by members, horizontal structure, decentralization, no paid officials, rotation of all offices, and immediate recallability of all (unpaid) officials. And, importantly, having a motivating vision. That of the CNT was elimination of capitalism, elimination of government, and direct democratic control of the economy by those who work.

In the United States there’s very little such organizing going on at present. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.

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