The prospects and challenges currently facing not only organized labor but the working class in general are synthesized well in the below article from International Socialist Review no. 66, “US Labor in the crisis, Resistance or retreat?” authored by Lee Sustar.
Sustar, who relies to a certain extent on Kim Moody’s very solid 2007 book, US Labor in Trouble and Transition, paints a broad picture of contemporary labor as one that has faced a thirty-year employer assault that has destroyed its organizations, left workers with stagnant wages, and looted its social services, meanwhile the profits and power of capital soar. The result of this attack has not only left workers in the objectively worst position it has been in since the 1930s and before but has also created a general crisis of historical memory where a newer generation of workers lack the traditions of struggle of an older one.
This ruling class offensive which has been exacerbated by the economic crisis, has hurt people of color, women, and queer folks most acutely. Talks of the “he-cession” which depict the loss of those jobs that employ men disingenuously leave out how it affects the unpaid labor of women who both produce future workers and reproduce current workers’ ability to work. They forget how the recession affects queer folks who already are not entitled to domestic partner benefits. And they forget the already disproportionately unemployed and underemployed black working class who have suffered another round of job losses and concessions that have affected the industries where they are most concentrated, including public employment.
The union bureaucracy has undergone a change. Decades ago, they were reined in through the capital-labor social contract to help deflect working class self-activity into bureaucratic channels. The union structure became removed from the struggles of the shop floor and colluded with management to ensure labor’s productivity. Nowadays, these institutions are dead and dying as capital no longer needs them. The appearance of labor’s organized reup via Andy Stern’s SEIU is in fact appearance only, for in the name of organizing it has undercut labor conditions, bargained behind workers backs, attacked independent unions, and has partnered with management to ensure not only productivity, but capital growth. The UAW is another manifestation of this transition where it has gone from management partner to shareholder under American auto’s restructuring. Where previously it oversaw the destruction of union jobs and wage and benefit concessions, under its new position it is leading this process with the creation of a two-tier workforce.
The hopes for any labor renewal from above that came with either the election of John Sweeney to the AFL-CIO helm in 1995, the Change to Win split in 2005, or the election of President Obama have come crashing down every time. Instead, Sustar points to the 2006 immigrant general strike, the Republic Windows occupation, the Smithfield Strike, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers boycott, and the growth of workers centers as new forms of organization and activity as new possibilities for renewal. People of color have been central to each of these experiences and, at least with the CIW, the Smithfield Strike, and workers centers, have taken place within the US South.
Continue reading Lee Sustar on the Current State of US Labor