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International Socialist Review, Winter 1963


Milton Alvin

Unionism and its Critics


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.1, Winter 1963, pp.19-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The sins of the leaders are visited upon the ranks and a great movement staggers under the dead weight of a narrow, conservative and corrupting bureaucracy

* * *

THE bitterest critics of “the state of the unions” are to be found in the shops. The peppery judgments by militants on working conditions and the grievances of Negroes who resent continued inequalities of treatment would have to be expurgated before they could be put in print.

However, the complaints of working men and women rarely get extensive publicity in national publications.

Some magazines and research organizations have recently sponsored friendly critics of the labor movement who are exhibiting growing concern over its defaults and declining influence. These commentators write about labor’s future in a pessimistic tone and under lugubrious-sounding titles.

Typical are the following: The Decline of the Labor Movement, by Solomon Barkin, published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions; Labor’s Ebbing Strength, by George Kirstein, The Nation, Sept. 1, 1962; Is Labor on the Skids? by Thomas B. Morgan, Look magazine, Sept. 11, 1962.

These critics are not so much bothered by the speedup in the shops as by the failure of organized labor to provide support to middle-class elements looking for allies or leadership in the solution of vital political and social problems. Political differentiation has gone on within the large and heterogeneous middle classes in recent years. Some middle-class elements have moved to the right and have even become a reservoir of recruitment for John Birchism and similar ultra-reactionary trends. At the opposite pole, however, the primary movement has been to the left in support of the civil-rights struggle, civil liberties, and for peace. But to date this movement has developed without the unifying strength of the labor movement.

Consequently liberal spokesmen for middle-class opinion find themselves dangling in mid-air without significant backing from the unions. This has induced the more astute among them to try and find out what is wrong with the unions and what ought to be done about it.

To be sure, the liberal commentators hope to shake the union movement out of its lethargy so that it can provide more effective assistance to their political aims. But they at least have the merit of recognizing that organized labor is sick, that the causes of its sickness should be diagnosed, and some strong remedies prescribed.

It is no secret that labor’s influence and strength has been waning for the past fifteen years. The union movement has not only diminished in size but its membership has failed to keep pace with the general increase in population. Even more serious than this absolute and relative decline in numbers has been the erosion of its morale, its militancy and social idealism. This has not been wholly confined to the top echelons, although it is most conspicuous there.

Thus Thomas B. Morgan reports an interview with a union official “in a tastefully curtained and carpeted office in New York.” The official told him:

“Union leaders sit behind expensive desks with carpet under their feet, and most of them don’t know what they want, except to preserve the status quo inside their union and get themselves accepted by the community at large. Not all union leaders do this, but too many.

“And most of the members don’t know what they want from the union either, because they aren’t hungry any more. Between the leaders and the members, there is very little communication. Just cynicism, friend, and it’s growing all the time.

“And together they make a labor movement that’s got nothing to say about politics to the politicians. And nothing to say to the Negroes in the South or to the unorganized farm laborers in California. Nothing, really, to say about automation and unemployment. No purpose, nothing to communicate – that’s your story, friend.”

Unfortunately, this melancholy view gives an accurate picture of union life today. It highlights the tremendous transformation undergone by the trade union movement that was reborn in the great strike battles of the 1930s. The momentum which carried through the depression years, the second world war and into the first two years of the post-war period, has been exhausted.

The fighting spirit of that aggressive army mobilized to battle the bosses has been drained away; what remains is the outward organizational form. Over the last fifteen years this corrosion of the movement has been brought about partly by external pressures and partly by internal degeneration. This second factor has been weightier than the first in producing the broad and deep-going retrogression in the unions.

The external factors that have been pressing upon the union movement in an atmosphere of prolonged boom and political reaction may be divided into two main categories. First, there are the economic and technological changes that have eliminated workers from certain industries and reduced union membership. Second, there is the unremitting and growing effectiveness of employer opposition buttressed by government aid in the form of anti-union legislation and hostile labor boards and courts.

MANY industries such as coal mining, steel manufacturing and others have introduced technological changes that have thrown masses of workers into the ranks of permanently unemployed. However, this factor might have been offset by the over-all increase in the labor force which presented new opportunities for union growth. A healthy labor movement could have more than made up for its losses in the industries that have been automated or are economically sick.

On the other hand, the campaign of the employers and the government agencies acting at their behest to restrict the scope of union activity and make it more difficult to organize has been met by retreat on the part of the union leaders instead of a counter-attack or even an effective defense.

This retreat began in 1947 following the unprecedented strike wave of the post-war months. After union victories won in auto, steel, electrical and other industries in 1946 and 1947, the employers changed their tactics. The capitalists learned from their setbacks in these encounters that they could not crush the workers in head-on battle as they did after the first world war. They found it necessary to proceed more slowly, cautiously and in a roundabout manner in their main aim to drain the strength from the unions. They shifted the center of their anti-union activities to the legislative field.

The introduction of the Taft-Hartley Act in Congress and the ensuing nationwide debate became the battleground between the contending class forces chosen by the employers and their political representatives. In the long struggle over the Act, the union leadership gave a miserable account of itself.

The ranks showed willingness to support a call for a 24-hour general strike. The leaders depended instead upon their “friends” in Congress and the White House. The failure of the union leaders to mount an offensive against the Taft-Hartley Act assured its passage. This pattern has been followed every time new anti-labor legislation has been proposed in Washington and the state capitals. Instead of mobilizing the seventeen million unionists for direct action, the leaders come, cap in hand, and plead with their political masters not to be too harsh with them.

This policy has produced one defeat after another. The net result is that existing laws, including state “Right-to-Work” laws, make it extremely difficult and in many cases impossible to organize the unorganized workers.

Solomon Barkin reports that: “The anomaly of the day is that the opponents of trade unions are seeking to restrain the economic and political activities of unions at a time when their growth has been halted.” And George Kirstein observes: “Curiously enough, it is at this time of obvious weakness that a strident clamor is arising for further shackles to labor’s strength.”

This is entirely in accord with the logic of the capitalist offensive. The employers reason that a union movement debilitated by fifteen years of attrition is a setup for some harder blows. Having tasted blood, they are getting ready for the kill. A June 29, 1962 editorial in Life magazine is appropriately entitled, Let’s Put Teeth into the Labor Laws.

The union leadership has a no less woeful record with respect to the protection of the workers’ economic positions and job security. In industries that have introduced the largest amount of automation and consequent reduction of the labor force, those workers permanently displaced from their accustomed jobs have been left largely to shift for themselves with little or no aid from their unions. Where union leaders have made some effort to deal with this problem, it was not to protect the right of a worker to a job but rather to make his disemployment less painful. This course, followed by John L. Lewis of the coal miners and by Harry Bridges of the West Coast longshoremen, has set a pattern for other unions.

This policy accepts in principle the idea that workers thrown out of jobs because of technological changes no longer have the right to work in the industry where they have probably spent most of their lives. They must add to the permanent army of the unemployed. The workers who remain employed are then confronted with a situation where a smaller number must produce at least as much as the larger number formerly did while those discharged become a constant threat to their jobs. Under such conditions it becomes seemingly impossible to improve the conditions of those who retain their jobs. There is no surer way for the employer to squeeze more from his workers and discourage demands for improvements than by inviting them to look out of the window of the plant at the line in front of the employment office.

The permanently unemployed worker who has been separated from his job through no fault of his own first looks to the union to relieve his situation. When nothing happens and he is left to shift for himself, he can turn bitter and become a ready target for anti-union propaganda, including fascist demagogy.

In recent years the pressure of the employers and their political agents plus the cringing attitude of the union leaders have resulted in constantly diminishing benefits and gains by the workers as well as substantial worsening of conditions won in the past. As contracts in the large industries expire and new ones are negotiated the demands made by the union leaders for wage increases and better conditions keep dwindling.

PRESIDENT Kennedy has admonished the unions to limit themselves to asking for wage increases of about three per cent per year, a figure approximately equal to the annual increase in productivity of American industry. This has been taken as a guide by many union leaders. The pattern of the annual wage increase, set in the post-World War II years, has been abandoned in favor of asking for various “fringe” benefits, sometimes without any wage increase. At any rate, the wage demands of the unions upon the employers show a descending curve, and this is further reduced by what they actually get in the final settlement.

Even where unionism remains relatively strong, as in most of the mass production industries, the individual worker finds it harder to maintain his existing standard of living against inflation, while substantial improvement is out of the question.

The union leaders have taken exception to the administration over one key point. Although President Kennedy has announced opposition to any shortening of the work week, the AFL-CIO has recently gone on record for a thirty-five-hour week. Here again, the union leaders conceive of the shorter work week as something to be achieved for them by their political allies through federal legislation rather than through direct negotiation and coordinated strike action. Under present circumstances, it would be folly to expect the government in Washington to do anything towards shortening the work week. It would take an uprising against the monopolies by the entire union movement and a break with the administration to win this objective.

The union movement’s weakness is most starkly revealed in politics. Thomas B. Morgan reports: “For labor, the loss of political influence has depressing consequences, yet no relief is in sight. When the Democrats were selecting a running mate for John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1960, most labor leaders would have preferred almost any delegate in the Los Angeles Sports Arena to Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. Since many of them had been early Kennedy supporters (brought to camp by the Steelworkers’ general counsel, Arthur Goldberg, now Secretary of Labor) [and since promoted to Justice of the US Supreme Court for services rendered – M.A.] they thought they ought to have a voice in the selection of Kennedy’s Vice-President. But nobody asked them.”

Despite their loyal services the union leaders have less influence at the summit of the Democratic Party than they had twenty-five years ago. At the 1944 convention a movement to dump the incumbent Vice-President Henry Wallace and replace him with Harry Truman won ratification from Roosevelt only after the sponsors of the change had obtained approval from Sidney Hillman, head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and an appointed official in the administration.

“CLEAR it with Sidney,” Roosevelt told the group that supported Truman’s candidacy. This remark was later used by anti-labor elements to try and prove that the unions were really running the government. In its own way, it served to inflate the egos of the labor “statesmen” who began to imagine themselves a first-rate power in big-time politics. Roosevelt was smarter than they; he took them into the tow of his political machine and made the labor leaders serve his purposes, not those of the organized workers.

Morgan sets forth the extent of the loss of union influence from Roosevelt to Kennedy. “Today, talk of labor’s political power is received in and around the White House with a disinterest bordering on indifference. Secretary Goldberg told Look, ‘The Government has to be the Government. The labor movement has to be the labor movement. We don’t fall over backwards when they are critical of us.’” Truly, there is no gratitude in politics.

Since the Democratic politicians know they have the union leaders in their pockets, they can proceed without “clearing” anything important with them. The failure to organize a labor party in the US has led the unions into this enfeebled state. Samson has cut off his own hair.

In his analysis Solomon Barkin states:

“Union leaders know that an institution that does not grow tends to stagnate and atrophy, and the trade union movement cannot adequately serve its following if it is not expanding. Restrictions on the area of union organization necessarily circumscribe the movement’s economic power and political prestige even in the sectors where it is most powerful. It must constantly seek to capture the leadership of new unorganized groups in order to maintain the buoyancy of social leadership, the role of innovator in working conditions and employee benefits, and the position of social and industrial critic to which it is committed.”

This conclusion suffers from exaggerating the purely quantitative aspect of the problem. Barkin’s argument that the unions must constantly grow to be effective, would apply more to the movement of thirty years ago than that of today. The unions now total seventeen million members who represent, along with their families and supporters, the largest force in the nation.

The unions ought to be and could be bigger. But their ineffectiveness cannot be blamed only or even mainly upon stagnation in growth. The main reason for their impotence comes from an inner source: the conservative and corrupted leadership. Narrow-minded and in many cases woefully ignorant, obsequious before the imposing posture of big capital and still more to big goverment, these leaders have converted the unions from the fighting organizations they started out to be in the 1930s into dues-collecting bodies that do as little as possible for the members.

In fact, the key to growth among the unorganized now depends more than ever upon the ability of existing unions to demonstrate to workers outside the organization that they are capable of solving the problems of their present membership. This qualitative change will have to be brought about within the unions before they can make significant additions to their numbers. It is difficult to see how growth can be stimulated in any other way, given the present circumstances.

The truth is that the unions have announced all kinds of organizing campaigns in the last fifteen years from “Operation Dixie,” first approved at a 1941 CIO convention, to the drive to organize California’s agricultural workers. Unfortunately, every one has been aborted. The blame for this sorry record rests squarely upon the shoulders of the AFL-CIO leaders. They have proved themselves incapable of organizing anyone. Only the Teamsters under Hoffa, who are outside the AFL-CIO, have carried on energetic and partly successful organizing drives.

While Barkin sees the main source of the unions’ troubles in their failure to grow, George Kirstein locates the crux of the problem elsewhere. While favoring a shorter work week, he believes that will do no more than mitigate the problem. “For palliative is all that the shorter work week would be. Man and his hand labor are the basic surplus in the affluent society. With the mechanization of agriculture, surpluses rise year after year, although fewer and fewer farmers till less and less acreage. It takes little imagination to foresee that the country’s steel needs could be satisfied with one-tenth the present work force,” he writes.

KIRSTEIN thinks it possible that blue-collar unions will disappear altogether or be reduced to insignificant factors in American society. On the other hand, he is pessimistic about the possibility of organizing the white-collar workers whose numbers are increasing absolutely and relatively to the manual workers.

In our opinion, Kirstein’s analysis is weakened by an underlying presupposition: that the affluence and stability of American society and the trend of automation can be continued without profound economic and social crises. Nevertheless, Kirstein raises questions that go far deeper than numerical growth of the union movement, questions that raise social problems of the most fundamental character.

The outstanding anomaly in America today is not, as both Kirstein and Barkin state, that opponents of the unions are trying to further restrict their activities during a period when their growth has been halted. It is the gap between the possibilities that are before the unions and what they are actually doing and failing to do.

Kirstein mentions some of these. He says: “At this writing, organized labor is not participating in the progressive programs of our era. The peace movement, which is slowly gaining strength with the support of the intellectuals and women, has no labor support whatever ... Toward the other great progressive movement occupying the country’s attention, the crusade for equal rights for the Negroes, the labor movement is indifferent – although lip service is sometimes paid to the ultimate objective of racial equality, as long as no immediate action is required that might threaten the privileged position of white union members ... Labor for the most part is divorced from this struggle.”

The failure of the unions to take up and lead broad struggles of a social character noted by Kirstein is a primary reason for the loss in prestige and influence they have suffered. When the AFL and CIO merged forces in 1955 after a twenty-year split many thought this marriage would lead to a regeneration of the entire movement, that the unions would move out effectively into the field of organizing, take up progressive causes, and even begin to act independently of the old parties in politics. But nothing of that sort has come of the marriage and from time to time it looks as though it may again end up in the divorce court.

Some functionaries in the unions disappointingly talk of the AFL-CIO merger as really a “submerger.” They feel that the AFL leaders have imposed the leaden weight of their conservatism upon the formerly more militant CIO on top of a steady drift to the right by the CIO leaders themselves.

The stifling atmosphere in the unions keeps these critics from openly airing their dissenting views. Discussions among them are confined to infrequent griping sessions in homes where current problems are mulled over. The overwhelming majority of union office-holders fear to appear in opposition to authority, whether elected or appointed. Those who hold their posts by appointment from the top and not by election by the ranks are under special pressure from the top leaders.

There are occasional exceptions, such as the reported effort by Emil Mazey, Secretary-Treasurer of the United Automobile Workers, to get his union to adopt a resolution opposing testing of atomic bombs by both the United States and the Soviet Union. This initiative aroused considerable opposition from many of the appointed officials allied with Walter Reuther, president of the union, who does not want to embarrass Kennedy, especially on foreign policy.

Reuther’s machine is largely constructed of appointees to well-paying jobs who are expected to jump to his support in any and all circumstances. Similar machines operate in all the major unions. Consequently very little criticism comes from the professional layers of the union movement and very little initiative or even energy.

It becomes a noteworthy event when a figure like Mazey, who has national standing in the labor movement and is known to hold views somewhat less submissive than his colleagues, takes a public stand on questions like Cuba and atomic testing. However, up to the present time, neither Mazey nor others who occupy posts similar to his, have attempted to solicit support from the ranks of their unions for dissident views.

UNDER these circumstances the unions continue to be dominated by the most conservative figures who have led the movement from one failure to another.

The rottenness in the unions starts and spreads from its head. Thomas B. Morgan’s union official hit the nail on the head when he said: “Union leaders sit behind expensive desks with carpet under their feet, and most of them don’t know what they want, except to preserve the status quo inside their unions ...” Keeping the status quo means holding on to posts with salaries and expense accounts far above the wages earned by the highest paid workers in the ranks. How can the union leader whose pay is $25,000 or in some cases $50,000 a year and more be expected to understand the problems of workers who take home one-tenth as much?

To hold on to these immense privileges, this caste of labor bureaucrats has all but throttled democratic rights in their organizations. They look upon opponents, who challenge their policies, as the worst enemies because this might lead to a loss of their entrenched positions. They show more zeal and energy in combatting the few rebels in their organizations than in combating the corporations.

The labor bureaucracy looks upon the union as a business – their business. Most of the top leaders and those immediately below them in the hierarchy play the role of policemen and pacifiers of the ranks. Above all they want peace and quiet in their organizations and in their relations with the employers. The cynicism reported by Morgan’s union official is caused by the fact that most union members know it is usually a waste of time and effort to file a legitimate grievance. The official responsible for taking it up will more likely than not explain why he cannot win it rather than try to do something about it.

The negligible attendance at ordinary union meetings from one end of the country to the other is another sign of cynicism on the part of the ranks. Very few are willing to waste an evening listening to routine speeches that do not report any advance or advantages for them.

Most union officials, especially in the upper echelons, do not have a feeling of responsibility to a social organism whose members have placed them in posts of leadership for the benefit of all the members. They have a purely proprietary attitude.

The official guards his post and his right to re-election year after year just as a corporation president who owns the majority of the outstanding stock guards continuing control over his business. In both cases, challengers to their power and policies are dealt with on the assumption that they do not even have the right to try to replace the incumbents. Although this may be justified under the present order so far as corporations are concerned, there is no such perpetual writ given to union officials.

Some of the critics think and hope that the union leaders can be made to see the errors of their ways by an appeal to their good sense and through judicious re-education. They do not understand that the conduct and views of the AFL-CIO heads correspond to their narrow material interests.

Meany and his associates do not believe there is anything wrong with their business unionism, their collaboration with the corporations, their indifference to the Negro struggle for equality and their fanatical allegiance to the State Department’s cold war policies.

They can be forced to modify their current views only by extreme pressure from the ranks but even this would not fundamentally alter their methods, their goals, their way of life.

While the US and the world reel from crisis to crisis, from Mississippi to Berlin to Cuba to Algeria to Laos, the American union movement, potentially the most powerful of all social formations, has its hands tied and its voice stilled by this most conservative and dictatorial of all labor leadership. Even the voices of those union leaders of the secondary and local levels who stand to the left of the Meanys and Reuthers are heard in whispers, if at all.

The problems before the American trade union movement will begin to be solved only when a new formation within its ranks begins to come together around a program that is primarily designed to benefit the seventeen million members and the millions of others who should be organized. Such a development is not yet perceptible. But neither was the birth of the CIO on the eve of that event in the 1930s.

Such a new leadership would not only tackle the problems of the workers and of the Negro people who need the support of labor. It could also win to the side of labor significant numbers of middle-class elements who are repelled by the present drift of the country toward economic dislocations, growing unemployment and extreme belligerency in foreign affairs. These people are looking for help in their struggle to solve the burning problems of the atomic age. The labor movement could and must provide that help.

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