(From The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, scheduled for October 2015. This Cookbook will contain dozens of tasty vegan recipes, recipes for social change, and accurate information on anarchism. The following is from the “Recipes for Social Change: Approaches We Do Not Recommend” section of the book.)
Contrary to wishful thinking among progressives, the AFL-CIO unions are not a means to fundamental social and political change. Rather, they’re an obstacle to it. Their very nature ensures this, and their history amply demonstrates it. They’re hierarchical organizations with entrenched, often highly paid bureaucracies that are in the business of selling their members’ labor for top dollar (unless their hierarchies are only concerned with harvesting dues from their members, as sometimes happens).
The business unions have never challenged capitalism (or the state); rather they have always attempted to make themselves an integral part of it, ensuring “labor peace.” One needs only to look at the history of the American labor movement to confirm this. In the World War I and post-World War I period, when the largest genuinely revolutionary union in U.S. history, the Industrial Workers of the World, was being viciously persecuted and thousands of its members imprisoned (for opposing U.S. participation in the war, or for “criminal syndicalism”), the AFL unions sat on their hands. This complacent attitude was exemplified in a well known photo of AFL founder Samuel Gompers in formal attire dining at a banquet with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Over the coming decades, the business unions continued to sell out their members. One infamous example of this was AFL-CIO head George Meany’s support for the Vietnam War, which pointlessly killed over 50,000 working class Americans and several million Southeast Asians. A famous Meany statement from the period perfectly exemplifies the reactionary attitude of the business unions: “Why should we organize the unorganized?”
Today, AFL-CIO leaders mouth more progressive rhetoric, but the zebra hasn’t changed its stripes. The business unions are still hierarchically organized with well paid, out-of-touch executives, many are outright undemocratic, and they still are in the business of selling their members’ labor.
And they’re increasingly ineffective at even that. In 1940, 34% of the private sector workforce was organized; more than one in three workers belonged to unions. Things are different today: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 the percentage of unionized private-sector workers was down to 6.6%–one in 15.
Where the business unions are effective is in serving as bad examples. Most people think that the oft-times corrupt, hierarchical, undemocratic, accommodationist, uninspiring AFL-CIO unions are the only type possible, even the only type that ever existed. And so they look down on and are resistant to joining unions of any type. (And, yes, other types are possible. See the piece on Labor in the “Approaches We Recommend” section of the book.)
We’d be better off without the business unions. Don’t waste your time and energy on these dinosaurs.