Getting Labor Off the Defensive

Submitted by George Friday on Tue, 02/12/2008 - 21:02.

By Jane Slaughter
Despite last year’s split in the labor movement, everyone agrees that unions need to increase their numbers drastically. Without more workers in unions, we can’t stop the employer attacks on wages and working conditions. And there’s an electoral benefit--union members are more likely to vote against right-wingers than are their non-union counterparts.

The next question becomes, then, what kind of unions, with what kind of power, are we trying to build? Simply building larger unions is not useful if those unions do not confront the employers. Today employers are forcing unions into givebacks, and resistance to those attacks is too often nonexistent or too little, too late. The United Auto Workers, for example, voluntarily opened their contracts with General Motors and Ford in order to cut retirees’ health benefits and rescind current workers’ raises. Mechanics and cleaners at Northwest Airlines struck against union-destroying concessions, but received little support from other airline unions and now have little hope of prevailing.

It is distressing, then, in the face of these bald-faced employer attacks, to see some union leaders recycling failed strategies from the last big round of concessions in the 1980s. Then, employers demanded big wage cuts at the same time they offered to give workers “a say” over their work lives through employee-involvement programs. Many union leaders jumped at the chance, and union publications were soon filled with accounts of touching epiphanies. Union officials who’d fought management all their lives, they said, suddenly awoke to the need to cooperate in order to beat the competition. “We have more in common than we have in conflict,” read the new hymnal.

But workers soon found that employers wanted their ideas only in order to get them to work harder—under the rubric of “lean production.” On the shop floor, disillusionment was swift, but many officers clung to the idea that the union’s new job was to facilitate labor-management cooperation.

Once the new programs had succeeded in discrediting the union leaders who pushed them, employers disbanded them. Instead management proceeded to make workplace changes unilaterally—outsourcing, deskilling--without bothering to ask the union to grease the skids.

In the face of this history, it’s dismaying that Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees union and architect of the Change to Win federation, should now be extolling the benefits of labor-management partnership. The difference is that this time Stern is making his pitch to employers, trying to convince them to recognize the union, in both sides’ mutual interest. “Employers need to recognize that the world has changed and that there are people who would like to help them provide solutions in ways that are new, modern, and that add value to companies,” Stern told McKinsey & Co.

It’s easy to pick on Stern because he’s so assertive about his desire to partner with employers. Many other union leaders are less ideological about it—they don’t claim to have a new philosophy of unionism, they just say “yes” when management asks for concessions. (And it should be noted that SEIU isn’t always so attentive to employers’ interests; Labor Notes’ Troublemaker’s Handbook 2 contains dozens of stories of SEIU activists who set good examples of defending workers’ rights.)

Union after union has embraced the notion that its job is to promote “competitiveness”—to help its particular employer compete with others. This is the essence of being on the defensive. UAW Local 600 at the historic Ford Rouge plant near Detroit has endorsed management’s dictate that drivers of non-Ford cars are banned from the plant parking lot. So now their sisters and brothers who build Chevys are chopped liver?

Going on the Offensive

To go on the offensive, unions need first to remember what they’ve learned so many, many times: that employers will not—cannot—make nice. Now more than ever, their interests are hostile to ours. How do union leaders inspire their members—or vice versa—for an offensive fight?

Pay attention to issues in the workplace. The workplace is where unions come from, and it’s where we learn either that we have power over our lives, or that we don’t. Unions that give the employer free rein in the workplace, in favor of lobbying or GOTV, leave their members deskilled, with little power, their jobs outsourced. If we decouple the union from the workplace, as Stern advocates, how is a union any different from the Sierra Club?
The union belongs to the members. No one stays involved in a top-down project for long. Members need to exercise the skills of running their own locals.
Learn from history—movements succeed when they mobilize thousands of people who are willing to sacrifice for their cause. The civil rights movement was built on brotherhood, sisterhood, and the ability to inspire, not on a technocratic fix.
Get fired-up members to organize new members. As someone put it, “Unions don’t organize workers. Workers organize unions.”
[Jane Slaughter works for Labor Notes, whose biennial national conference will be May 5-7 in Detroit. In 1983 she authored Concessions and How To Beat Them.]