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American labor: a movement again?

Things are changing in the American labor movement and, at last, they are changing for the better. The most visible symbol of this change is the new leadership at the AFL-CIO. The energy and high profile displayed by the "New Voice" team of John Sweeney, Rich Trumka, and Linda Chavez Thompson is a welcome change. Even more important is the commitment of the new leaders to reverse labor's long decline by shifting enormous resources to organize the millions of low-wage workers that are the U.S. labor market's growth sector.

This was the major theme of the "New Voice" team and the new leaders have tackled this job forthrightly by pouring big bucks into the project. They proposed $20 million for their first year in office and $30 million for 1997. The Organizing Institute, a small side-show under predecessor Lane Kirkland, has become the federation's centerpiece. The "OI," as it is known, has recruited scores of young people and has helped kindle an interest in unions among the young and not-so-young of both working class and middle class backgrounds. Union Summer provided what the LA Weekly called "Class Struggle 101" for a thousand or so young people, many of whom say their lives were changed forever. The targets of the new organizing efforts taking shape in some of the AFL-CIO affiliates are low-wage workers, frequently women, people of color, and immigrants. This is a change that was almost unimaginable just a few years ago.

Delivering on this promise will not be easy. While the AFL-CIO claims a net gain for its affiliates of twelve thousand members in 1996, total union membership dropped another ninety one thousand last year. Many of the affiliated unions that must ultimately carry out the organizing are rusty at best. For example, despite the drop of union members from 75 percent of the country's auto parts industry in 1978 to 25 percent or less today, the United Auto Workers spend very little on organizing - and then it is usually among workers safely outside the globally challenged U.S. auto industry.

In addition to years of neglect, there has been an accelerating form of pseudo organizing. Mergers or, more typically, absorptions of smaller unions are the universal response of the labor bureaucracy. Of the 120 or so mergers and absorptions since 1956, half took place after 1980 and half of those since 1991. Until recently, much of what was called "organizing" was actually big unions swallowing little ones. Breaking this habit will not come easy, particularly since the AFL-CIO is, as one labor insider in Washington put it, "conducting a virtual auction" in the race to reduce the number and increase the size of affiliated unions.

The push from the top to recruit new workers, however, is encouraging change in some national and international unions. The Communications Workers of America (CWA), for example, voted last year to direct 10 percent of its budget toward new organizing. Other unions like the Teamsters, Laborers, and Sweeney's home union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have also up-graded their organizing programs. Last year the SEIU voted to raise the proportion of its budget it spends on organizing from 20 percent to 30 percent - the highest of any union. There is controversy over how best to organize, but few would question that any new organizing is better than none.

The new leaders have also dismantled that most shameful of U.S. labor's institutions, the government-funded, CIA-influenced, overseas institutes that carried the message of business unionism and anti-communism to the third world since the early 1960s. These cold-war relics have been collapsed into a single American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS). Barbara Shailor, a progressive from the Machinists Union, now heads the federation's Department of International Affairs, ending the thirty years of unaccountable, monopoly rule by the cold warriors of the Social Democrats-USA. Indeed, there is much "institute" remodeling and building down on 16th Street these days.

To their credit, the new AFL-CIO leaders show a certain flexibility in the way they manage change. For example, last year Rich Trumka casually suggested that since the good guys were in charge now, maybe the AFL-CIO no longer needed the semi-autonomous, action-oriented Jobs with Justice (JwJ) coalition. When this brought an uproar from JwJ activists, the federation leaders backed off and this year agreed to fund JwJ. Then, too, Sweeney et al. did not intervene to dissuade a few of his affiliated unions from founding the new Labor Party in June 1996. Sweeney simply said he thought the timing was bad - coming just as the Clinton-Dole duel loomed on the horizon.

The processes that are reshaping unions, however, run far deeper than leadership changes at the AFL-CIO, as important as those are. The roots of labor's reawakening lie first of all in the same trends that explain its downfall. All the forces routinely called on to explain labor's decline - industrial restructuring, downsizing, lean production, racial and gender recomposition, and, of course, the mother of all explanations, globalization - have forced workers and their organizations to seek new ways to act and organize.

Like all processes of change this one is messy and contradictory. Some of its overlapping features include: the toppling of national and local union leaderships; movements for greater union democracy; challenges to the regime of lean and mean production; and a return to militancy and direct action in several corners of the labor movement. In various ways these unfolding trends made the more visible changes at the top possible.

Layered Labor and the New Satanic Mill

Sometime between George Meany and John Sweeney, when most of today's top leaders took office, the brave new co-managed workplace of the future turned into a top-down, well-lit satanic mill. Whether you work in a hospital or an auto plant, a post office or post-industrial techno-office, more than likely your job is worse than it was a decade ago - if you were lucky to have one that long. It is certainly more stressful, probably harder, and definitely more dangerous. U.S. injury and illness rates in the first half of the 1990s are running anywhere from 90 percent to 100 percent higher than in the first half of the 1980s measured by the number of cases reported. Only construction workers and miners work at safer jobs.

When measured by the number of days lost for injury or illness the difference is even greater through the early 1990s, running as high as 500 percent in auto assembly plants. Not surprisingly, the Department of Labor stopped publishing the number of lost days in 1993. Contributing to this rise in occupational illness and injury are changing work time patterns. Chances are your work hours are drastically longer if you're full-time. If they are shorter it is because you are part of the precarious workforce that fills the country's growing number of part-time, temporary, or casual jobs.

What became equally evident by the mid-1990s was the decline of real wages, 18 percent since 1973, and the incredible redistribution of income in favor of the wealthy. This trend is well-known to readers of Monthly Review, but it is worth mentioning the recent Business Week cover story, "Two-Tier Marketing," that gave this rising inequality a practical twist. Calling it the "Tiffany/Wal-Mart" marketing strategy, they note that more retailers are targeting either well-to-do or low-income markets, by-passing the middle. It seems that America's merchants have discovered there is more money being spent by the top 20 percent these days, while the great middle class (read working class) is up to its eyeballs in debt. The denizens of the economic lowlands, on the other hand, may have poor and declining incomes, but there are more and more of them.

Even more visible these days is the blatant hold-up being carried out by American CEO's. The stick-up artist of the year is Sandy Weill, CEO of Traveller's Group insurance, who pulled down $94 million in 1996. This was the reward for cutting Traveller's workforce by a third since 1987. This sort of job-cutting not only brings outrageous executive salaries and bonuses but propels the Dow Jones to unparalleled heights. This financial space-shot, combined with stagnant wages and respectable productivity, has flooded company coffers. Business Week warns, "The worry is that many companies are taking in cash so fast they can't spend it efficiently." What was that about the efficiency of markets?

All of this has not gone unnoticed by the majority that compose both the shrinking middle-income and growing lower-income working class - and they are angry. Whatever glow may have accompanied the early days of partnership or participation faded rapidly for many workers as their jobs were cut and/or intensified to boost profits, stock prices, and top salaries. Contesting with this anger and disillusionment, however, is fear of job loss by the same forces: downsizing, outsourcing, facility closures, or scab hiring. As a Multinational Monitor editorial put it recently, "A ruthless employer class blends these multiple sources of job insecurity into a whole greater than the parts." Fear of job loss might well be the strongest emotion in most working class families these days. Its hold on the vast bottom layer of organized labor has been strong for almost two decades now. Strike figures have plummeted as a result. So, for a long time the mass of union members have been more or less passive. While there are plenty of exceptions to this, this fear-driven passivity has tended to reenforce the labor-management partnership agenda of the top officials. The members appear to accept the new workplace regime and go about their jobs silently, so all is right in this brave new world.

The other side of the downsized coin, however, is work intensification. If no one with power listened to the workers who complained about this, at least a few ears perked up when Wall Street insider Stephen Roach wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "the so-called productivity resurgence of recent years has been on the back of slash-and-burn restructuring strategies that have put extraordinary pressures on the workforce." Roach predicted a "worker backlash."

There comes a point, after all, when the pressures of intensified exploitation out-weigh the fear of job loss, as it did in the Great Depression. First one group, then another tests the waters, and open conflict returns to labor relations - despite the trimmings of company unionism (1930s) or labor-management cooperation schemes. That is the meaning of the bitter strikes of the last couple of years in the United States. Some lose, as at Caterpillar and A.E. Staley. Others win, as in the dozen or so local GM strikes of the last two-and-a-half years, the 69-day Boeing strike, the week-long general strike of Oregon state employees, the on-again-off-again strike at Yale, and the 54-day confrontational struggle at WCI Steel in Warren, Ohio. Still others drag on like the Wheeling-Pittsburgh strike and the Detroit newspaper lock-out.

Then there are the massive strikes of immigrant and Latino workers in California: janitors, drywallers, carpenters, and waterfront truckers. To these should be added the struggle to organize twenty thousand strawberry pickers in California and the smaller number of apple pickers and processors in Washington State. These and similar struggles of immigrant and Latino workers around the country also point to something new - the rise of Latinos not only in the workforce, but in the unions. While union membership continued to decline from 1992 through 1996, the number of Latino union members grew by 12 percent.

After dropping for a decade to an all-time low in 1995, strike statistics rose in 1996. The number of "major" strikes (one thousand or more workers) that started in 1996 rose to thirty-seven from thirty-one in 1995. The number of workers involved grew from 192,000 in 1995 to 273,000 in 1996. Only the total number of days spent on strike by all workers dropped. More important than the figures, which are still very low, is that these are not the routine wage and benefit strikes of 1950 through 1979. For the most part they are defensive struggles over issues associated with "lean production" and the workplace of the future: staffing levels, outsourcing and subcontracting, workload, health care and pensions. They are outbursts of accumulated anger. In some cases, they draw on support from other unions or the communities in which the workers live. The massive confrontations that took place at WCI and the Detroit newspaper strike in the beginning were symbols of a new consciousness.

So, in a different way, were the series of strikes at GM, Chrysler, and Johnson Controls in the auto industry. Here, workers long afraid to buck the company-union lovefest that was eroding jobs and conditions found their sea legs again. In a jujitsu-like flip of just-in-time production, these workers discovered you could close down much or all of a giant like GM or, in the case of supplier-firm Johnson, Ford, just by striking one or two plants. The 1996 strikes against GM alone cost that company $1.2 billion in lost production. As each of these strikes brought new hires into the plants, other local unions plucked up their courage for a shot at relief from leanness. In 1997, three new strikes hit GM with more UAW locals filing for a "five-day letter," the permission from the International Union to strike.

There are, then, signs that a leaner, meaner capitalism is bringing with it a new labor consciousness and militancy. But if the whole labor movement is changing, it's changing in complicated and uneven ways. Unions in the United States today resemble geological layers in motion, each moving at its own pace and in various directions. At the top of most unions are yesterday's modernizers, officials whose upward career paths ran through the 1970s and 1980s and whose ideas were formed in that era of quality circles, teams, joint programs, and labor-management partnerships designed to make the employer competitive. The public image of the labor leader as a cigar smoking pudge, a la George Meany, always an exaggeration, is way out of date. So too is yesteryear's opposite - the courtly social unionist in the Leonard Woodcock, Doug Fraser mold. Gone too are the last of the cranky, self-described "socialists," Williams Winpisinger of the Machinists and Bywater of the Electrical Workers (IUE).

For some time now the upper stratum of the unions has been the terrain of a slightly slimmer, though still largely male and white breed, speaking the lingo of human resources management, labor-management partnership, and worker participation. While they sound state-of-the-art, they are themselves already living in the past. There are some important exceptions, leaders with feet in the future, like Ron Carey of the Teamsters, Bob Wages of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, and the outsiders (that is, not AFL-CIO affiliated) at the United Electrical Workers who reject the partnership approach.

There is also a range of pro-partnership views. There are those like Morty Bahr of the Communications Workers and Steve Yokich of the Auto Workers who enthusiastically embrace elaborate top to bottom versions of "jointness." As Business Week recently reported (April 7, 1997), the Steelworkers, Machinists, Laborers, and the AFL-CIO itself have followed with elaborate training and consulting programs to help unions help companies in the race for market share. Others like SEIU's new president Andy Stern take the line that, "If we're going to be partners, we have to be equal partners." The problem with this is that employers have been seeking "partnership" schemes to weaken, not strengthen, unions. Overall, the picture is one of jilted jointness guys who sincerely committed to cooperation with management in the 1980s only to have their membership, contracts, and their unions downsized in the 1990s.

Most of the new consciousness and sometimes desperate militancy comes from the activists, the thin middle geological layer of the unions. These are workers, workplace representatives, and local level union officials who keep America's unions going from day to day. They work between the upper layer of career officials and staffers, on the one hand, and the majority of members on the other. Some are full-time, paid officials. Many are not. They are forced to confront the reality of the workplace, as opposed to its ideology, whether or not they bought into this ideology in whole or in part. A significant minority of this layer, however, rejects the labor-management ethos that comes from employers and career union officials alike. It is in this layer that the return of resistance has gathered the greatest force and, now and then, breaks through the passivity of the members and the backward-looking immobility of the top officials.

This geological look at labor sometimes has the feel of colliding tectonic plates, to mix geological metaphors a bit. Labor's three layers are linked institutionally so that the differing directions necessarily produce clashes. The forms of this clash may be many. Pressure from the activist layer to act is one, a major factor in the GM and Boeing strikes. Another is turnover at the top. The Association for Union Democracy (AUD) estimated that about a dozen union presidents were ousted in contested elections from the late 1980s through the 1991 victory of Ron Carey.

The Ferment Continues

Labor democracy attorney Paul Levy summarized the current ferment in a speech to the National Lawyers Guild in the Fall of 1996 when he said:

There is extensive intra-union activity in a large number of national unions, much more than ever before: in service unions such as the Food and Commercial Workers, the Service Employees and the Hotel Workers, construction unions such as the IBEW (Electricians) or the Bricklayers and the Carpenters and the Laborers, government unions like the Letter Carriers, the AFGE (Federal Employees) and the Treasury Employees, industrial unions like the Machinists and the Auto Workers.

To this list of challenges in national unions can be added similar movements in large local unions such as the New Directions caucus in the thirty thousand-member Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York's transit system, or the reform group in the similarly large union of New York City janitors and doormen, SEIU Local 32B/32J - John Sweeney's home local. Even the famous Justice for Janitors local union, SEIU 399 in Los Angles, saw a massive opposition movement of Latino and African American workers, called the Multicultural Alliance, replace the old guard executive committee - only to be placed in trusteeship. The split of the militant California Nurses Association from the more conservative American Nurses Association in 1996 represents another form of rebellion from below.

There are also rebellions that have not yet focused on leadership challenges. Delegates to the 1996 IBEW convention, for example, voted over their union leaders' objections to make the future elections of top offices by secret ballot of convention delegates. The membership of the Laborer Union went even farther, with a three to one referendum vote to elect top officers by a direct vote of the membership in the future, also against the opposition of top leaders. Then, there were the reformers in the Machinists union who went from successfully challenging restrictive candidate requirements in union elections to organizing a rejection of a settlement with Boeing recommended by the union leaders. The issue there was the massive outsourcing of work. The reformers forced the union and the company to return to the bargaining table and come back with an improved offer.

Nowhere was the challenge from below more successful or the process of union reform deeper than in the Teamsters. The reelection of Ron Carey over Jimmy Hoffa "Junior" in 1996 not only spelled the end of the corrupt old guard, it opened a new phase of transformation. As Ken Paff of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) explained, "We won the political battle over the value of a clean, democratic union. Hoffa had to adopt our program and promise to do even better at it. But we have not yet won the battle over the need for a new kind of union that derives its power from a mobilized and involved membership."

This was a major theme when 140 Teamsters activists gathered in Detroit this February to discuss the future of the reform movement that had brought Ron Carey back for a second term as reform leader of the AFL-CIO's biggest union. The meeting, called by TDU, reflected some of the ambiguities of success in the new "clean, democratic union." Among the activists were a few International Vice Presidents, some Teamster staffers, a significant number of local union officials, and a majority of rank and filers. This crowd, reflecting every level of the union, not only discussed what a "new kind of union" might look like and do, but how TDU officers would relate to rank and filers, and how TDU as a whole would relate to Carey and the International Union staff. If the built-in tensions between labor's different layers was not entirely absent, the fact that within this reform movement representatives of all three were pulling in the same direction presented a ray of hope. Of course, the high-level officers in TDU were among those who fought to eliminate multiple salaries and pensions that had made old guard teamster leaders wealthy men. Movements, after all, change not only institutional arrangements but people.

The dynamics of the Teamster revolution, as many at the meeting called it, had brought TDU a long way from fifteen years in the wilderness as a clear-cut opposition to five years on the front lines defending the reform regime and defeating the old guard - perhaps once and for all. Now the most difficult question of all was posed: how to go beyond the norms of "clean" American business unionism? Ideas ranged from the very practical to the highly visionary, but one theme ran throughout the entire meeting. The key to anything new was an informed, activated membership. Whether speaking of winning a possible strike at UPS this summer, organizing the unorganized, or building broader coalitions for bigger social goals, success would depend on mobilizing the tens of thousands of workers on whom the real power of the union rests.

This was no small task. More Teamsters voted in the 1996 election that kept Carey in office than in 1991, but it was still only 34 percent of the members - with Carey taking only 52 percent of those. For the majority of members, apathy and confusion remained the norm in the Teamsters as in other unions. While Carey's bargaining record was far better than anything the Teamsters had seen since the day's of the original Jimmy Hoffa, the reformed union was still fighting the uphill battle that all of labor faced. For many members change was too marginal to inspire. Though Carey had stopped and even reversed decades of downward motion in bargaining, he could not undo a thirty-year legacy or sweep aside the damage done by deregulation in five years.

The question that faces the Teamster reformers is essentially the same question that faces the entire labor movement: what kind of unions, what kind of movement can be built that is adequate to the challenges of corporate power, international competition, and the dominance of conservative politics? It is here that the limitations of change at the top of the AFL-CIO become most evident.

Pressure From Above

Although the changing of the guard at the Teamsters and some other unions made the challenge at the AFL-CIO possible, it would be stretching a point to say that the force behind the "New Voice" team was rank and file rebellion. The chain of causality was more indirect and occurred largely within the upper stratum. Probably more than anything the "New Voice" challenge was a belated response to inaction in the face of decline. Mergers might solve the financial problems of one or another union, but declining proportions of union members in industry after industry spelled lost bargaining power, while overall decline had seriously weakened labor's political clout.

While it is impossible to say precisely what set the rebels at the top in motion, the shocking retreat and subsequent defeat of the United Auto Workers at Caterpillar first in 1992 and then in 1995 certainly sounded alarms in some high quarters. Caterpillar was a classic example of jilted jointness (as were Staley, GM, Boeing, AT&T, etc.,). It had been a model of cooperation by the UAW since the late 1980s. But in 1991, CAT forced the UAW on strike with a list of concessionary "lean" demands that would have shattered the long established pattern for the industry. This, the union could not swallow in one gulp. The strike was on. Then in 1992 CAT threatened to bring in scabs. The UAW called off the strike in April 1992 in what most people saw as a serious (though some would say necessary) retreat for one of America's strongest unions. The strike was resumed in 1994, but called off in December 1995. The workers returned to work without a contract to face a vicious campaign of speed-up and repression that has not ended to this day.

Caterpillar not only represented the failure of "jointness," but the price to be paid for allowing a growing nonunion workforce. During the years of cooperation, the company had invested hundreds of millions in new nonunion facilities, among them thirty-one components plants, while closing many older unionized operations. The union made no real effort to organize these new plants. By the time the strike began in 1991, UAW members composed only about 25 percent of CAT's total workforce. With nonunion parts plants and a scab workforce in the unionized assembly plants, the company was well positioned to outlast the union. By the time the UAW ended the second strike in December 1995, of course, the "New Voice" team had already been elected. But the whole Caterpillar saga, from 1991 on, was a clear reminder that not even the strongest of unions could exist successfully in a nonunion sea.

Another rude awakening was the political lock-out of organized labor staged jointly by the reigning Democrats and Republicans. For nothing cushioned the half century-long Meany-Kirkland dynasty so much as the belief that "politics," that is, the Democrats, would save the day - some day. Can't organize? Get labor law reform from the Democrats. Can't strike? Get anti-scab legislation from our well-funded "friends." While this notion lingers on in the collective subconscious of the labor bureaucracy, it is no longer operable. Not only has the price of a White House luncheon or dinner been bid up since the Clintons took over the concession, but the menu for labor officials is thin gruel at best. The austerity triple play of Gingrich to Greenspan to Clinton is simply the latest eye-opening political slap in the face.

In the realm of politics, as in that of union affairs, the new leaders saw a wing of their own supporters go off in a new and different direction toward founding a Labor Party in the United States. Led by the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW), a coalition of small unions that included the United Electrical Workers (UE), the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), and later the United Mine Workers, and the American Federation of Government Employees took up this task. In addition, regional unions like the California Nurses and California Carpenters and dozens of locals of major unions endorsed the effort. In June 1996, the founding convention attended by 1350 delegates launched the new party. While the Labor Party was not to become an electoral challenger for the foreseeable future, its founding alone was a statement that some unions and many workers were prepared to go beyond the old AFL-CIO-Democratic Party bargain.

So, labor's more aware leaders had plenty of motivation for change quite apart from the rumblings below. This explains not only the why of the challenge at the top but the limits and problems inherent in the process of change in the first year and a half of the "New Voice" regime as well. Sweeney, for example, continues to plead for business-labor partnership and to genuflect before the alter of competitiveness. Speaking to the National Press Club, he said, "We can no longer afford the luxury of pretending that productivity, quality and competitiveness are not our business." This embrace of business' agenda du jour certainly compromises the crusade against corporate greed he also calls for at times.

While the new leaders correctly insist that "America Needs a Raise," some questions are simply not on their agenda: the brutal new workplace regimes and union democracy, to mention two. The significance of these last two unaddressed problems is that they are part of the more molecular process of change occurring beneath the surface. But these missing points also reflect both a lack of contact with the day-to-day issues of most working people and the low place on the lean production learning curve so common to the current generation of top labor leaders.

They also represent barriers to the central goal the Sweeney team has set for labor: the massive escalation of organizing. First of all, in industries from health care to cars, it is doubtful if unions that ignore working conditions will get very far. Building unionism on economic issues alone in the era of lean production, reengineering, casualization, and gender/race recomposition of the workforce is not likely to create the sort of momentum the leaders of the AFL-CIO talk about. Yet, very little has come from the "New Voice" team, or much of the rest of the labor bureaucracy, on these crucial issues beyond blanket condemnations of downsizing.

Somewhat more subtle, but no less important, is the relationship between union democracy and mass organizing. Organizing on the scale needed to make the labor movement grow again has never been done primarily by professional organizers. It has always been a matter of workers organizing other workers, as it was in the 1930s and when public sector workers joined unions in large numbers in the 1960s. Even today, as the results of a study done for (and suppressed by) the new AFL-CIO leadership shows, rank and file union members make better organizers than pros. The study showed that unions won representation elections in 73 percent of the union drives conducted by ordinary members, but only 27 percent of those organized by professional organizers. This would indicate that even spending $30 million a year and running hundreds of young people, many of them former students, through the OI will not pay off nearly as well as putting some of these resources toward the mobilization of union members to organize their counterparts.

Not surprisingly, the Teamsters have been using members to organize workers at nonunion Overnite Transportation, one of a number of nonunion freight and package firms that grew during the old guard regime. Whereas the old guard's attempt to organize Overnite using its little army of time-serving "International Organizers" was a bust, Carey's use of rank and filers is working. Now Carey is calling on the members to raise a volunteer "army of ten thousand member organizers." This will be hard enough for the reforming Teamsters. For unions where democracy, membership control, and leadership accountability are stifled, the likelihood of such a sustained mobilization is slim. Although the AFLCIO is experimenting with member organizers and several unions employ this approach to one degree or another, going beyond marginal experimentation to mass mobilization cannot be separated from the question of internal union regime.

To put it bluntly, members who have an influence on the objectives, strategies, and tactics of their organizations are far more likely to devote their scarce free time to organizing others. Unions, of course, can and do mobilize members for specific events or actions even where there is little or no democracy. But to sustain such mobilization over time requires rank and file involvement in decisions as well as specific actions. This kind of mobilization cannot be turned on and off like a water faucet or run by remote control from headquarters.

The debate over this question is often characterized as that between the "service model" of unionism versus the "organizing model." The "service model" is the classic American business union practice, bargaining for and representing the membership (well or badly) without demanding (or wanting) their participation in the union's business. It is a passive form of unionism that bears much of the responsibility for the passivity of workers in the United States. The "organizing model," by implication, calls on the members to play a direct role in defending their interests. In arguing for this approach, Michael Eisenscher makes the point that, "democracy is an instrument for building solidarity, for establishing accountability, and for determining appropriate strategies - all of which are critical for sustaining and advancing worker and union interests." As reformers in Transport Workers Local 100 in New York's Transit Authority put it, "democracy is power" in relation to both the union leadership and the employer.

The emerging practice today, however, is a sort of hybrid of the organizing and service models in which new members are recruited using radical mobilization techniques, but then subjected to a service model unionism once they have won a contract. Sweeney's SEIU is the exemplar of this hybrid: tactically radical in organizing, but staff driven and hierarchical in operation. Sweeney himself presents an almost colonialist view of democracy as something that is always down the road. He told the Wall Street Journal just before taking office, "I'm very interested in union democracy and rank-and-file involvement, but it can't be accomplished overnight." As though the unions only appeared the day he assumed the top place in the movement.

The "New Voice" team has at best an ambiguous record on matters of democracy. Sweeney's personal involvement in internal democracy is almost entirely negative. As a Board member of the notoriously top-down and corrupt SEIU Local 32B/32J he supported the hounding of dissident union reformers. He was still SEIU president when the national union placed Local 399 in trusteeship after the Multicultural Alliance beat the mainly anglo old guard.

Trumka represents something more complex. He can trace his roots to the Miners for Democracy, the rank and file reform group that beat the UMWA's old guard in 1971. The UMWA under his leadership has a well-deserved record of militancy and mobilization. For this reason some of the earliest AFL-CIO rebels pushed for him to be the presidential candidate. At the same time, Trumka has led the UMWA into a number of labor-management cooperation set-ups. Chavez-Thompson's State, County, and Municipal Employees union is neither a risk-taker like the SEIU and UMWA nor very democratic.

The views of Sweeney and many other labor leaders on the marginal importance of union democracy, on the one hand, and the continued relevance of labor-management partnership, on the other, are at odds with their own desire to organize the unorganized and tame the employers. The power to effect these goals must come from sustained mass mobilization, but distrust of the members runs deep at the pinnacle of labor's hierarchy.

Still, it seems clear that the changes taking place at various levels of the labor movement along with the pressures on working people are conspiring to bring about changes that may well be beyond the control of labor's managers of discontent. If a strategically placed union the size of the Teamsters really does unleash an army of several thousand member-organizers it is certain to be contagious. If rebellion continues to percolate at the base of many unions and new members with high expectations join in large numbers, there may just be a new social movement and a new unionism in our future.

Kim Moody is the director of Labor Notes, and the author of the forthcoming Verso book, Labor in a Lean World.
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Author:Moody, Kim
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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