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Trade unions mirror society in conflict between collectivism and individualism.

Trade unions mirror society in conflict between collectivism and individualism

Two competing ideas run through the labor movement, as they have run through the American past. The first is the notion of community--the sense that liberty is nurtured in an informal political environment where the voluntary and collective enterprise of people with common interests contributes to the solution of problems. Best characterized by the town meeting, collective solutions are echoed in the temperance, abolition, suffrage, and educational reform societies of the 19th century and have become a cliche of 20th-century political and social life. The collective impulse lends itself to egalitarian values in that all citizens are deemed equal in their capacity to participate in democratic decision-making processes. The second idea is that of individualism--a belief in the hard work and ingenuity characteristic of our Puritan forebears and of legendary frontiersmen and women; and faith in the capacity of people to rise by their own wills to the highest vistas of the American dream. Embodied in the notion of "free labor,' the ideal assured the dignity of honest toil and posited that its result would be economic success. Because in this conception, the rewards of earthly existence are earned by those who demonstrate initiative, thrift, and tenacity in the pursuit of a goal, its thrust is towards eliminating the constraints engendered by the collective impulse.

The evident tension in these two sets of ideas, characteristic of many American institutions, informs the structure and ideology of American trade unions as they developed in the post-Civil War period. It also tells us something of their impact. The conglomeration of unions that formed the National Labor Union and the 15,000 assemblies of the Knights of Labor responded to the onslaught of industrialism after the Civil War by searching for ways to reestablish the community of interest that was threatened by a new and rapidly spreading organization of work. In the view of the Knights, the successful operation of a democratic republic based on the full participation of all of its citizens required a recognition of the "dignity,' "autonomy,' or "independence' of the working person. That meant fighting for workplace conditions that respected the capacities of all toilers and permitted their moral and intellectual development.1 At bottom, the Knights believed that only the elimination of the wage system could guarantee such respect and ensure that manhood was equated with citizenship and some possibility for exercising it. In practice, protecting the dignity of the individual required what has come to be knwon as social unionism: collective activity in the community, the workplace, and above all in the political arena. Individual dignity was not the end product; it was the means for assuring social harmony.

AFL redefined relationship

Impatient with the visionary quality of the Knights' endeavors, the skilled craft workers who founded the American Federation of Labor redefined the relationship between collective and individual interests. For them, the restoration of social harmony would come when workers aggregated sufficient power to hold dominant industrialism in check. That could only be achieved by a tightly knit organization. So the American Federation of Labor adopted a class-based definition of community and set itself to secure "more, more now' in the cacaphonous phrase of the day. Within this form of unionism, sometimes called market unionism, dignity was defined not as participation in the polity, but as the reward of work. Progress was measured by the "economic betterment' of individual members. In the short term, at least, collective well-being was transformed from a vision of a better world to the immediate object of mutually self-interested societies. For the Knights, dignity for the individual worker resided in a conception of work that harbored the possibility of participation in a democratic society; it derived legitimacy from arguments for equality. For the AFL, dignity resided in a better life for the worker and derived legitimacy from arguments for individual possibility.

But the argument for equality had not been abandoned. If the craft-oriented AFL rejected the "sentimental' solutions generated by the Knights of Labor and later by the Industrial Workers of the World and by socialists and anarchists who tried to influence its course, if AFL leaders steered away from labor parties and from government intervention in the things that the power of labor could achieve, still they made one compromise. The pursuit of individualism for workers required collective action which, in turn, required an appeal to the egalitarian roots of America's past. To make this appeal, the AFL found common cause with the progressive movement.

In the progressive equation, the restoration of democratic possibility involved reconciling the interests of competing groups, a conviction that weighting the scales on behalf of ordinary workers would restore social balance--right the inequalities that had been introduced by a misplaced conception of individualism. The focus legitimized the collective body of labor, imbuing it with the capacity to bargain with employers in the service of an egalitarian ethic. Thus, labor's attack on the open shop was construed as a negation of the strident individualism of "freedom of contract' and placed the trade union movement in the ideological camp of progressivism.

In this relatively narrow, but very important, sense, the trade union movement committed itself to a collective struggle on behalf of all workers. If its immediate gains were to accrue only to those it represented, the existence of market unionism--the very possibility of organizing--was rooted in a rejection of rugged individualism and a concomitant defense of the egalitarian ethic. Social unionism became not merely a necessary balance to market unionism, but the node from which market unionism sprang. It provided the rationale for immediate gains and the inspiration from which unions have consistently struggled. In tension with prevailing individualism, it foreshadowed the resolution of conflict through collective bargaining; nurtured the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations; and provided the rationale for the shift into legislative strategies. To pursue its institutional purposes, the labor movement has consistently maintained a collective stance and an egalitarian vision. Whatever its obvious flaws, the pursuit of some sense of collectivity has enabled the labor movement to serve as an important piece of the Nation's social conscience, and as an effective weapon in the arsenal of economic democracy. It is worth looking at how this is manifested.

Providing a social function

First, economic democracy has been sustained by the struggle of unionists for workplace control. Following a long tradition, unionists sought to create and retain work rules that not only affirmed the dignity of workers but provided input into the pace of work, the rate of its accomplishment, and its organization. Adhering to what historian David Montgomery calls a code of "honorable behaviour,' union members protected each other from arbitrary abuse by creating and following their own standards of work. Some of the most skilled managed to regulate the entry of new workers into their trades, training apprentices and disciplining the "rats' who violated traditional customs. The strength of workplace egalitarianism can to some extent be measured by the ferocity of managements' installation of scientific management and efficiency techniques, as well as by the variety of techniques with which corporations attempted to shift loyalty from union to employer. Faced with the assaults, unions confronted management at every stage, resisting encroachments on traditional prerogatives and creating alternatives such as workers' education programs to enhance their members' understanding of the struggle at hand.

Though invocations of human relations and corporate welfare shifted the terrain of struggle in the 1920's, and weakened the union movement, informal work groups persisted and passed on the tradition of resistance. Emblematic of the collective roots of unionism, by the 1930's "industrial democracy,' "workers councils,' and "codetermination' had entered the unionism's vocabulary, only to disappear when the Wagner Act made collective bargaining respectable. If, as David Brody suggests, unions too readily traded off input into the managerial decision-making process for the more immediate gains of seniority and promotion ladders, of clear job descriptions, and of mediated grievances, still unions must be credited with continuing to curb managerial discretion and power by means of objective rules.

Second, in the area of economic security, unions have functioned in the public sphere as well as in their own work areas. Beginning with the 1930's, when the AFL abandoned its celebrated policy of "rewarding friends and punishing enemies' and the CIO added a tinge of urgency to the class struggle, the labor movement has provided the political impetus behind much of our social legislation. Old Age and Survivors' Insurance, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and unemployment insurance offered not only the possibility of broader organizational efforts, but of economic security for many nonunionized workers.

Third, collective action has contributed directly to egalitarianism by reducing for union members some of the inequalities of income that characterize the nonunion work force. The principle of equal pay for equal work has narrowed wage differentials among plants and regions.2 Blue-collar workers have benefited from rises in the lowest levels of pay and from access to fringe benefits that reduce economic differences between unionized blue-collar and white-collar workers. In industrial unions, belated sex- and race-blind organization has made inroads into social inequality. But there are limits to unionism's power to achieve egalitarian goals. These are set in part by the failure to expand the numbers of organized workers, and in part by the inability of unions to win some desirable benefits in marginal firms. So, as former Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser notes, we have created "two classes within the work force, within the labor movement.'3

Last, trade unions serve a crucial function for the society as a whole. The movement provides moral leadership and "voice' even where it negates the special interests of many of its constituents. Economist Theresa Wolfson pointed out in 1926 that the AFL could and did take positions on issues such as the admission of women and blacks that local unions persistently flouted.4 Several social scientists have described what are sometimes called the two faces of unionism. One of these may be exclusionary and monopolistic. The second is socially responsive.5 The first tries to expand the benefits of privileged groups of workers; the second seeks a voice in political and legislative councils on an array of social issues.

As these examples demonstrate, the exclusionary needs of the trade union movement have not inhibited its capacity to breathe life and continuity into social issues.6 Thus, the trade union movement's collectivist and egalitarian heritage continues to function as a social conscience that maintains a vision of collective possibility.

Individualism and the American dream

Just as the collective structure of the movement and its egalitarian vision have sometimes reflected broader social ideals, so the powerful forces of individualism have had their day. Creatures of their culture, workers have used the tactics of confrontation to gain access to the consumer society. Gompers, early on, made clear his commitment to the individualistic aspect of the American dream when he responded to Morris Hillquit's challenge to define the goals of the AFL with a now-classic statement of the instrumentalism that characterized union goals: "I say that the workers, as human beings, will never stop in any effort, nor stop at any point in the effort to secure greater improvement in their condition, a better life in all its phases.'7 The institutionalization of collective bargaining in the 1930's and labor's accord with employers was rooted in this shared value--a tradeoff between the employer's need for stability, order, and predictability in the labor market and labor's desire to increase the well-being of its membership. The accord provided organized labor with the capacity to raise the standards of living of its membership and enabled workers to engage in patterns of consumption characteristic of the middle class.

This had some unforeseen consequences for trade unions. The 1950's became the decade of suburban homes and of installment buying for workers: "the progressive accumulation of things,' as Eli Chinoy put it.8 Possessions brought identification with the middle class, as the wives of blue-collar workers in Bennett Berger's study of working class suburbia testified.9 Workers, whose lifestyles and aspirations changed, disassociated themselves from the collective spirit of unionism and encouraged its instrumental ends, giving birth to a generation of unionists who shared neither the culture nor the workplaces of the old. The trade union movement had helped to transform the American dream from a challenge to the individual to achieve a better world to a challenge to acquire possessions. The inevitable consequences included increased involvement in the home and family, social isolation, and attention to private rather than social issues.

Collectivity undermined

So emerged the fundamental contradiction of American trade unionism: its success at providing "economic betterment' undermined the collectivity from which that success had come. In the absence of a political party or broader social movement, workers who received ever-increasing paychecks began to see unions as instruments for satisfying their personal goals. By the 1950's and 1960's, they had turned from job interests to private interests, from collective to individual orientations. Divided among themselves, some attacked student was protesters, others attacked increasing military intervention. Some supported the civil rights movement, others continued to discriminate against blacks. John Diggins places the contradiction in a broader context: "The paradox of liberal America,' he writes, "is that the more egalitarian it becomes the more people scramble after wealth, and as they do so they legitimate the authority of the rich by deferring to the fame of the prestigious few and denying their own identity.'10

The twofold results are familiar to all of us. First, anxious to protect the jobs and living standards of their members, trade unions emphasize their exclusionary aspects. Craft unions try to reduce the numbers of new entrants and to keep out those, like women and minorities, who threaten their conceptions of self. When layoffs threaten, the large industrial unions cut off their least senior members to save the jobs and living standards of the rest. Issues of equity emerge within unions as women and blacks protest unfair treatment, while those excluded appear to suffer from the differential in pay between union and nonunion workers. The resulting bitterness and antagonism have undermined the labor movement's credibility as a voice for all workers and yielded the public image that it is merely the representative of special interest groups.

Second, the movement's heavy emphasis on the collective bargaining process to achieve economic and shop-floor goals leaves the trade union vulnerable in periods of slow growth, or in the event that management decides not to honor the implicit rules of the game. So, for example, the 1920's assault on labor, commonly called the "American Plan,' benefited from the capacity of employers in that age of prosperity to appeal to the self-interest or individualism of workers better than trade unions could. Intent on managing their own industrial relations, employers offered relatively high wages, pensions, and vacations with pay, and built an illusory sense of community through the use of sports teams, lunch rooms, company unions, and the new human relations. Trade unions competing for the self-interest of workers had no weapons with which to combat this assault and one result, as we all know, was the decline of union membership by some 30 percent of its 1920 total.

The future of unionism

In the current period, employers seem to have abrogated the truce of the 1930's. Faced with threats to their markets that reduce oligopolistic power (auto, steel, electronics, and so on) with increased possibilities for escaping unionism by moving shop, and sustained by ineffective or friendly government regulation, employers are choosing not to honor the implicit accords that have been in place since the 1950's. Private sector blue-collar unions have little power to resist. A steady decline in jobs in the manual and production sectors of the economy has yielded a surplus labor market that encourages employers to keep plants open through strikes. International competition firms the employer's resolve to demand concessions of workers. Mobility of capital creates an alternative for investment and makes disinvestment an attractive possibility.

Under these circumstances, the instrumental gains by which unions satisfied the needs of their members are no longer available. As long as employers identified their own interests with harmonious labor relationships, economic growth was shared by workers, and management and labor unions could use collective bargaining strategies to achieve the American dream for their members. In the new environment, concessions, givebacks, and wage reductions are the last lines of resistance. The result has been a steady decline in the ability of union contracts to deliver the goods and resulting doubts about unionism's efficacy.

Given the limits of instrumental alternatives, unions have little choice but to develop the social voice once again. As Douglas Fraser put it, "The only solution to this problem is to try to get basic protection not only under the collective bargaining agreement but under the laws of the land.' This goal is not far afield from the one offered by the recent report issued by the AFL-CIO Committee on the Evolution of Work that reminded organized labor of its mission to "bring about a broader sharing in the riches of the Nation.'11

Several strategies are available to meet that goal. Long ago, John Kenneth Galbraith called for a change in direction that reduces emphasis on private consumption and encourages the diversion of resources to the public arena.12 Some recent union initiatives have called political attention to that goal by publicizing support for public funding of programs such as child care, parental leave, national health care, maintenance of the elderly, educational incentives, and public housing. On the local level, helping to re-create community life would contribute to raising the moral stature of unionism and enable it to function as a voice for all working people. Other strategies that affirm the social mission of unionism include aggressively seeking political voice and an educational role in policy debates over income redistribution, corporate responsibility to communities, investment and tax policies, and opposing racial discrimination here and abroad. To do this requires political mobilization of members, retirees, and some representatives of the major parties.13

The historical record leaves little doubt that the protection of individual privilege for ordinary people is rooted in a common understanding of collective rights. In a period when the gains of unions are being eroded at every turn, and when that erosion is symptomatic of our loss of a commitment as a Nation to the collective enterprise, we need to look back once again at our past and try to adapt it to the needs of the present.

More than any other institution, the trade union movement in America has kept alive the spirit of social responsibility that constitutes an important thread of our national experience. As the AFL-CIO's Committee on the Evolution of Work put it, "no serious observer denies' that unions have played a "civilizing, humanizing, and democratizing role' in public life.

1 For summary and analysis see Leon Fink, Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (Urbana, IL, University of Illinois Press, 1982), ch. 1.

2 William Form, Divided We Stand: Working-Class Stratification in America (Urbana, IL, University of Illinois, 1985), ch. 8 and pp. 185-87.

3 Douglas Fraser, "Beyond Collective Bargaining: Interview,' Challenge, March/April, 1979, p. 35.

4 Theresa Wolfson, The Woman Worker and the Trade Union (New York, International Publishers, 1926).

5 Richard B. Freeman and James L. Medoff, What do Unions Do? (New York, Basic Books, 1984); see also Daniel Bell, "The Capitalism of the Proletariat: A Theory of American Trade Unionism,' The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Eifties (New York, The Free Press, 1962), pp. 211-26.

6 Robert Bellah, "Popullism and Individualism,' Social Policy, Fall 1985, pp. 30-33.

7 Auerbach, American Labor, p. 79.

8 Eli Chinoy, Automobile Workers and the American Dream (Boston, Beacon Press, 1955), p. 126.

9 Working-Class Suburb: A Study of Auto Workers in Suburbia (Berkeley, University of California, 1969).

10 John Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics (New York, Basic Books 1984), p. 340.

11 Fraser, "Beyond Collective Bargaining,' p. 35.

12 John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics and the Public Purpose (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

13 Richard Edwards and Michael Podgursky, "The Unraveling Accord: American Unions in Crisis,' in Richard Edwards, Paola Garonna, and Franz Todtling, eds., Unions in Crisis and Beyond: Perspectives from Six Countries (Dover, MA, Auburn House, 1986), pp. 50-53.
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Author:Kessler-Harris, Alice
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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