Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Where is the American working class?

One of the most interesting meetings at the very well-attended Historical Materialism conference was that addressed by Kim Moody on the effects of crisis on labour. (I should mention that the meeting was also addressed by two Turkish comrades on the impact of recession on female labour but, alas, that is for another post). For, although organised labour threw its weight behind Obama's election, it has so far been unable to extract much advantage from it. The two key policies that labour was pressing for was healthcare, and the Employee Free Choice Act. But the union movement in America has been in crisis for upward of thirty years now, and it has yet to recover. All the major unions have experienced substantial declines in membership, all are experiencing a profound financial crisis in part because they had investments that have turned to ordure during the crisis, and all are trapped in an impossible model of 'business unionism' that has consistently crippled the American working class. American labour has thus lacked the ability to put enough pressure on Obama to see its key policies through. Obamacare is proving to be a corporate-driven shambles, and the EFCA will be seriously watered down.

Moody tracked the origins of this crisis to the late 1970s when, beginning in 1979, there was a sudden nosedive in membership, strike rate, NLRB negotiations and - as a consequence - wages. Part of the background for this sudden crisis of unionism in 1979-81 was that the union leadership had expended much of its energies combatting the rank and file insurgencies of the Sixties and Seventies that had challenged the norms of business unionism, thus evaporating activists energies on internal struggles. The dependence on the Democratic Party machinery was also fatal. The AFL-CIO helped Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford, with the promise of a labour-friendly bill, but it was filibustered and contained. And when Chrysler was going under, labour depended on Carter to organise a bail-out and thus engaged in its first, fatal, pre-Reaganite round of concessionary bargaining. Job losses were conceded and the union movement subsequently lost members and leverage. It was already ripe for plucking apart by the time Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers union.

This nosedive in unionism reached a plateau by 1982 and it facilitated a wave of restructuring and spatial re-organisation in American industry, including auto, steel, meatpacking, trucking, mining, telecommunications and building. The US steel industry alone lost a quarter of a million jobs by the end of the 1980s, as larger firms downsized and smaller groups such as Birmingham Steel and Oregon Steel pioneered new successful models of accumulation. As in Europe, the manufacturing sector shed jobs in bulk and waged a bitter but often successful war against shop floor organisation. Through intensified labour regimes and technical innovation, capital was able to raise productivity while wages remained static rather than rising with productivity gains as had been the case in previous decades. Between 1973 and 1998, productivity in US industry rose by 46.5%, but the median wage fell by 8%. (Figures from Harman's Zombie Economics). Notwithstanding a brief period of growth at the end of the 1990s, real wages continued to fall in the Bush years, and are still falling while productivity has soared during this crisis. (Though, typically, a number of US economists writing in the New York Times have taken the opportunity to argue that US wages are actually far too high and should be reduced to the global "market-clearing rate"). The intensification of work included a crude increase in the rate of exploitation by way of increased working hours, so that the average labourer in the US worked almost as many hours in 2004 as a Mexican worker (1,824 and 1,848, respectively). This process, technically known as 'class struggle from above', did facilitate a substantial recovery in aggregate profit rates until about 1997 - not to the levels of the post-war boom, but certainly above the troughs of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (For figures, see David McNally, 'From Finance Crisis to World-Slump: Accumulation, Financialisation and the Global Slow Down', Historical Materialism, 17.2).

The model of business unionism that persisted and still persists involves the acceptance of capitalism not just de facto but in explicit ideological terms - the language of class politics is specifically eschewed. It involves reliance on the Democratic Party which is, both in terms of its outlook and leading personnel, a capitalist party, not even a reformist party akin to European social democracy. It involves bureaucratic top-down methods of organising and growth in which the latter is the preserve of 'professionals', long-term sweetheart deals, no-strike agreements, and the exclusion of would-be members if they do not belong to existing bargaining units.

The effect of this depoliticised, professionalised model of unionism is not only to forestall struggles but to substantially weaken them where they arise. Moody gave the example of auto-workers striking at a BMW plant who met with European trade union delegates. They explained that they were not against the company - they liked the company - but they just wanted a voice, a seat at the table. The delegates said 'they're going to get beaten', and of course they were beaten, because they didn't understand that it was a class conflict not a family quarrel. Another problem facing US workers is the one I mentioned in a previous post - older forms of community-based workers' organisation have suffered because labour is much more mobile than before. American workers can travel a hundred miles to get a job now, whereas once it was common to live within walking distance of work. Moreover, they are unlikely to work at the same plant, where common union representation would signify a common struggle. They are atomised, fragmented, and dispersed. The only workers' constituency that resembles those old communities is among immigrants.

The formation of 'Change to Win', which was supposed to break with the more bureaucratic methods of the AFL-CIO, did not augur a new period of growth. This was in part because the split didn't involve any substantial political or tactical disagreement. It was entirely driven by the unions' respective leaderships. The Change to Win federation essentially accepted the same model of recruitment as the AFL-CIO, based on professionalised campaigns and economies of scale. The SEIU, one major constituent of the Change to Win coalition, was supposed to have recruited tens of thousands of new members, but its net growth after factoring in losses amounted to approx. 10,000 - not really that large given that the SEIU represents 1.8m workers. Its leadership has publicly eschewed any idea of class politics, instead vaunting that old shibboleth, 'partnership'. And it has increasingly resorted to carrying out raids on other, smaller unions - a nasty and rightly scorned tactic in the labour movement. The UAW and USWA unions experienced losses. Only the smaller unions have made gains. There are positive developments, however. Unions are changing their attitude to immigration and increasingly looking to organise the 12 million Mexican workers in the US. The SEIU, despite its commitment to business unionism, did take some pioneering steps in this direction with its famous janitors campaigns in the 1990s. (The campaigns featured in Ken Loach's Bread and Roses). But it has not organised a great deal in the South, which is ripe for a recruitment drive, and where tentative efforts in, eg, the meatpacking industry have met with success.

Moody has long advocated a version of 'social movement unionism' to combat the conservatism and limitations of the 'business unionism' model. Rather than reserved for members of bargaining units, unions should be thrown open to all - not least those many workers who regularly volunteer their time and efforts to help union recruitment drives, but are not union members themselves. The unions should campaign on broader issues and be integrated into larger campaigns rather than restrict themselves to narrowly 'economic' issues. We had a glimpse of this with Seattle and after, and with the massive organisation of immigrant workers in 2006, subsequently crushed under a wave of ICE raids and horrendous repression. But as yet the model of business unionism has not been broken with on a large scale and, as a result, recruitment still doesn't make up for lost members, and union density continues to decline. It will require a painstaking accumulation of forces before the necessary shift can take place, but it would also require an ideological break with the Democratic Party to be sustainable - now a much more delicate and difficult matter with the Obama executive. To the extent that white workers break with Obama, it may just as well be to the right as to the left.

(Yet another whinging, pessimistic post. Where is the Hope? Where is the change-you-can-believe-in? Tsk.)