Labor's love lost

The rupture in the AFL-CIO, says Dennis Roddy, shows that without a coherent, overarching political ideology to guide them, America's workers now have labor unions without a labor movement

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Organized labor's disastrous schism could be foreseen the day in 1984 when Lane Kirkland, then head of the AFL-CIO, took the stage at the Pittsburgh Hilton and made fun of "microchip flakes."

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger version.

Walter Mondale, labor's preferred candidate, was having a bad time of it in the presidential primaries with Gary Hart.

Hart, the insurgent Democrat, was running as a neoliberal and drawing in the party's younger, entrepreneurial voters, people who remained Democrats either out of family tradition or an aversion to the rightward trend of the Republicans. Hart reached out to people in the new economy in Silicon Valley and was sometimes called an "Atari Democrat."

"Fritz Mondale is not some synthetic Masked Marvel or Mystery Man," Kirkland said, warming to his vision of Hart's foreignness. "He is not made of silicon and microchip flakes. He is made of flesh and blood and brains."

Microchip flakes.

In 1984 the term must have rung comically to men accustomed to pipe wrenches, cranes and the hiss of cooling steel. All I could think, standing at the periphery, waiting for Mondale to further lock himself into the past by embracing this rhetoric, was that the microchip flake people were the ones Kirkland ought to be organizing. They were the next industry, peopled by eccentrics who developed mysterious software codes, took the miniature and made it tinier, and whose workers embodied the flip side of liberalism: free-marketeers whose libertarianism on such matters as religion, race, gay rights and abortion ran crosswise with so many of the people in the union hall.

Enlist this cadre of new workers to the movement and labor would plant itself into the private workforce of the future. Instead, the chief of the largest labor group in the nation, thought microchip flakes a term of ridicule.

Mondale lost 49 states. Labor continued to lose members in the private sector. The high tech industry remains largely non-union, its manufacturing sector moving inexorably overseas. Kirkland lost his own job to an insurrection within the AFL-CIO led by the one of the only growing -- and least economically rational -- sector of labor: public employees.

Last week the revolution dined on its own. Kirkland's anguished successor, John Sweeney, watched as two of the AFL-CIO's largest members, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, fully a quarter of his members, cut their ties to the federation.

The rift mirrors much of the old-industry/new-industry divisions that rent labor in the 1930s. Sweeney wants to follow the federation's old policy of trying to influence labor policy at the government level. That is, he wants to elect the Congress and president, lobby the government and push laws much the way corporate lobbyists try to protect the interests of their institutions. That strategy has produced some strides for organized labor, but most of those strides came in the day nearly a third of the private work force was unionized. Today the figure is 8 percent.

The rebellious unions think the AFL-CIO should reverse labor's slide by, well, reversing labor's slide. That is to say, their solution to the decline of labor is obvious: Enlist more working people in the only growth sector in private employment, service jobs. Heavy industry has gone much the way of the old craft trades and the economy today is driven by underpaid clerks, cashiers and support staff at companies that don't even deign to call them employees anymore, preferring the more sterile and benefit-avoiding "associates."

Each side is right in its own way and each has missed the mark on several key points. The one each side has missed is the most important:

Without a coherent, overarching political ideology to guide them, America's workers now have labor unions without a labor movement.

"When the CIO unions organized in the 1930s, they stood for something that could make workers feel like they belonged to something bigger than themselves. It was like a church. It was evangelical," said Michael D. Yates, a labor economist and author of such books as "Why Unions Matter."

Even the unions that failed to show up at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago last week seem vague about what to do next.

James Hoffa Jr., head of the Teamsters, complained that the AFL-CIO has invested too deeply in the Democratic Party. This is true. After pouring $100 million in cash and volunteers into the 2004 campaign, labor was left with a candidate, John Kerry, who rarely, if ever, mentioned the word "union."

"We heard Hoffa say labor has to be more bipartisan. What does that mean?" Yates said. "The Republicans want to crush everything labor stands for."

Elected officials have a myriad of debts to pay to supporters of all stripes. The local union might be able to organize some voter turnout. Its members might contribute financially, as well as its PAC. But in office, when an issue of importance arises, a legislator is going to respond to an assortment of pressures, obligations and, who knows, maybe even conscience. Labor will be one of many of them.

To that end, organized labor has spent the last three decades herding cats. You can get some of them into a room at a given moment, but they're constantly bolting.

Organized labor's most important economic contribution is in spreading out the wealth of a market economy by driving up the standard of living for all working people. When the unionized plant up the street pays a dollar an hour more, the non-union competitor the next town over either raises his wages or loses out in the competition for workers.

Labor can only make this system work by organizing employees of private enterprise. It is all well and good to raise the standard of living for public employees, but it also has the effect of turning the government into its own lobbyist. Better to make certain that the real engine of a free-market economy is being maintained by union workers.

This is a point Sweeney has missed. Several years ago, after he spoke to a convention of the SEIU in Pittsburgh, I had the chance to ask him if it wasn't problematic for labor that its only growth sector was government workers rather than the private sector.

"I don't see that as a problem," he said. No amount of persuasion seems to have worked on the man to the extent that the federation he heads doesn't understand that it can't fight a war in Washington without troops outside the Beltway.

The problem is that the labor movement has been better fighting its own than its real foes, and has ignored entire segments of the population. How, for instance, can unions organize the Sun Belt states when the cadre of workers it must attract are the same black and Latino people the big unions have ignored for decades?

The CIO, or Congress of Industrial Organizations, grew out of a schism within the American Federation of Labor, an assemblage of craft unions which declined to organize what it viewed as unskilled and often foreign-born workers in what was the microchip flake industry of its time: heavy manufacturing.

Industrial labor winged itself in 1949 when, stampeded by the red scare, the CIO expelled unions representing 900,000 workers, saying they were dominated by leftists. The red scare of the late 1940s and early '50s provided a moment for some union leaders to eliminate rivals, consolidate power and, by doing so, turn themselves into little more than CEOs whose employees happened to work for somebody else.

One of the victims of this purge was the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, which was then the third-largest industrial union in the country, with 600,000 members. The CIO leadership promptly chartered another union, the International Union of Electrical Workers, which began raiding UE member plants.

Peter Gilmore, a UE official in Pittsburgh, watched last week's proceedings in Chicago with the bemused attachment of a member of a union that is exhibit A for the failure of organized labor's "mainstreaming" of politics.

"The debate we've heard out of Chicago has been fairly sterile and institutional," Gilmore said. "It's been about flow charts. There's nothing there that would get people excited, to want to go out and change the world. It's been a shuffling of chairs on the top deck."

That is as true of the insurgents as it is of the federation leadership they are defying. The Teamsters, for instance, are as top-down an operation as any transnational corporation and, with a long record of corruption investigations, not well situated to inspire a grass-roots movement.

It is a fitting irony that the AFL-CIO was falling apart on the 100th anniversary of another faded labor giant, which began, fittingly enough, in the same Chicago where John Sweeney watched his troops desert. The Industrial Workers of the World, the One Big Union, as much a social movement as a drive to organize the most put-upon members of American society, started out in 1905. One of its leaders, Joe Hill, was shot for murder and, according to wobbly legend, told his followers, "Don't waste time mourning. Organize!"

The labor movement, if there is to be one, must be, to borrow a phrase from Lane Kirkland, made of flesh, blood and brains. The microchip flake people are made of that. It remains for labor to remind them of it.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist, , 412-263-1965.


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