Why History May be a Bad Guide to What's Happening this Week at the AFL-CIO Convention





Mr. Cowie is Associate Professor at Cornell University.

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Seventy years ago this October, the American Federation of Labor met in Atlantic City to resolve two years of brewing "discord, dissension, division, and disunion," in the words of historian Irving Bernstein. The tension was palpable at the Chelsea Hotel in 1935, where the forces demanding a massive push to organize basic industry—steel, auto, rubber, electrical—squared off with the lords of craft unionism who sought to defend craft skill, status, and skin privilege that had become the hallmarks of the AFL. While the dissident advocates of industrial unionism had the arc of justice on their side, the defenders of the status quo could point to the graveyard of labor history, which was strewn with the failures of industrial unionism from the Knights of Labor through Eugene Debs's railway workers and onto the failed massive strike wave of 1919.

The convention finally reached its dramatic peak when John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers, launched his famous right jab straight across the chops of Big Bill Hutcheson, President of the Carpenters' union. After Hutcheson crashed across a collapsing table, Lewis famously straightened his tie, lit a cigar, and walked out of the convention. Taking along key allies in the cause of industrial unionism, he went on to launch the CIO—an acronym that would forever be connected in to the unprecedented growth of membership, power, and mission of organized labor.

Although the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, the thirties CIO analogy is alive and well in the buzz about the AFL-CIO Convention in Chicago this week. There four key unions comprising one third of the federation are boycotting the convention in a move that will likely lead to another great division within the house of labor. Although both the rhetorical and, I suspect, pugilistic skills of the leaders of the "Change to Win" coalition lack the power of John L. Lewis's, the basics of the fight today seem similar to those seventy years ago. The fundamental rub is the same: the federation and its constituent union are not doing enough to organize the unorganized. The symbol of the labor movement's failure in 1935 was that the biggest employer in the nation, General Motors, remained unorganized. Today, that same symbol of failure is also the biggest employer in country—and the world—Wal Mart. Similarly, today's dissidents are being accused of sabotaging the labor movement, just as the CIO was back in the day.

The differences between our time and the Great Depression, however, may readily make the historical analogy useless—and even dangerous. The convergence of issues in the 1930s that led to "labor's giant step" may not only have been rare, they may have been unique in all of American history.

One of the most important differences is the legal context. The CIO enjoyed the recent passage of National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), which put federal force behind the right to organize for the first and only time in American history. The Change to Win coalition, in contrast, must face the more typical historical situation of a labor law framework that is more than useless—it is hostile—to workers. By any measure, as David Brody has recently put it, the Wagner Act today must be considered little more than a tool for management to be wielded against employers rather than a vehicle for their betterment.

Politically, of course, the eras could not be more different. FDR was no labor radical but he helped to create—and was created by—a national narrative that envisioned the citizenry fighting the Depression and climbing out of it together. Today, in contrast, we inhabit a remarkably fragmented political economy, in which the fact that wages have stagnated for working people since the 1970s is the untold story of the day. With the culture wars having eclipsed the class wars, the degradation of occupational life continues unchecked. As long as Wall Street is doing well, the presumption goes, so must the nation. The Democrats have become pale versions of their opponents, offering voters no substantive plans to ameliorate the economic savageness of the global economy nor a plausible narrative for an alternative vision. Even the realm of political ideas has become rather thin gruel compared to the thick boiling stew of the Great Depression with everything from the followers of Father Coughlin to the communists of the Popular Front long vying for voice. All beyond the confines of today's "Washington consensus" is lost.

On the surface, there would appear to be parallels with regard to immigrant labor between both eras. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, immigrants were becoming national economic citizens rather than solely members of their ethnic groups. Ethnic institutions had been weakened through mainstream commercial culture and the collapse of ethnic social safety networks. Fordism helped narrow the gap between the skilled and unskilled. All of this fostered what historian Lizabeth Cohen called the "culture of unity" in her Making a New Deal. Whatever we have today, with vigilantes rounding up immigrants on the border and aliens inhabiting an economic underground, it is certainly not unity. While the working class achieved a sort of economic citizenship under the New Deal, today we have management's dream of labor power without citizenship.

Perhaps the biggest difference between what's happening in Chicago and what happened in Atlantic City is in the workers themselves. In the mid thirties, the CIO could not hand out union cards fast enough. Workers were hungry for representation, voice, and a route out of economic misery. Armed with the new tool of the sit-down strike, the unions marched through major industry facing down goons, street battles, plant occupations, and court fights until they triumphed in nearly all of basic industry. Today's battles are clearly in the service sector, the hope is that similar upheavals might follow a breakthrough at the top of the labor hierarchy. Such a victory would, however, have to be a social movement of unimaginably gargantuan proportions that would have to overcome tremendous odds and work in close harmony with other social movements. The unions would have to enroll more than a million members a year in order to see a single percent up tick in union density. That would have to be achieved among workers who, however demonstrably unhappy they may be with the terms of their employment, seem only to have a modest interest in the vision put forth by the labor movement.

As historian Jack Metzgar recently put the comparison, sociologically the CIO was a spark that lit up an enormous drought in the 1930s; "whereas what we need today is a flamethrower in a rain forest." The urgency evident in the Change to Win coalition's move to secede from the AFL-CIO is very real. Labor needs to move quickly and dramatically in order to avoid irrelevancy and to retain its claim to be the most significant vehicle for economic justice in the last century. Whatever happens, however, it won't look like the historically unique coming of the CIO.


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Jamie Stone - 7/28/2005

i could not agree more with the above comments. afl-cio has become stale, just a muteable part of the political process. i see recent events as a reaction to our two party polotics which, as stated above, both ignore labor. while i think it is stretch to say this is the first move for a new american labor party, i am optimistic that these events will change the way the two parties view labor. or maybe they'll just say screw it and look over seas. ten year old tiwanese boys arent likely to strike for a better retirement fund


Jeremy Greene - 7/27/2005

I'd like to mention that many of the issues being discussed here about the movement of industry to cheaper labor markets is excellently discussed in Cowie's _Captal Moves: RCA's Seventy Year Quest for Cheap Labor_ which follows an RCA company from Newark, NJ to Indianapolis to Mexico.

My conclusion after reading the book: If the labor movement is to survive it will have to be as transnational as the companies themselves.

Second Conclusion: The biggest problem for labor in the U.S. could be that is often not taught at the high school level except for the big losses - Haymarket, Pullman, Homestead, etc. Thus ignorance and apathy, you could say the zeitgeist, will doom labor, but while there is time there is hope.

This should be a new post!


Jeremy Greene - 7/27/2005

I'd like to mention that many of the issues being discussed here about the movement of industry to cheaper labor markets is excellently discussed in Cowie's _Captal Moves: RCA's Seventy Year Quest for Cheap Labor_ which follows an RCA company from Newark, NJ to Indianapolis to Mexico.

My conclusion after reading the book: If the labor movement is to survive it will have to be as transnational as the companies themselves.

Second Conclusion: The biggest problem for labor in the U.S. could be that is often not taught at the high school level except for the big losses - Haymarket, Pullman, Homestead, etc. Thus ignorance and apathy, you could say the zeitgeist, will doom labor, but while there is time there is hope.


david little - 7/27/2005

It's a fundamental law of economics that money will find it's most efficient use for equivalent "widgets". Sure, there is "capital flight", but it's a round trip flight. Mercedes builds cars in the US for export back to Europe, which I'm sure the German version of the UAW doesn't like, but it's more efficient (ie: cheaper) to do it in the US. Government is a big problem here -- it treats a home-grown business as a cash machine while offering outsiders tax breaks. The supply of funds isn't unlimited as the govt. -- at all levels --seems to think.

I am kind of off-topic, but I don't think the lack of unionization is an indicator of social collaps, economic deterioration, or even dollar v. yen values. The real long-term problem for the US is education. We are turning out something like 50% fewer scientests/engineers/etc. than any other country, less then a quarter of what India turns out. That's the problem that needs a solution -- not how many people are in unions. It does no good to stand on the river bank and say the water's muddy. Anybody can do that, and you don't need a union to do it for you.

I know a guy in Louisiana who works for (some big chemical company that no longer uses union labor), and he said "we used to laugh when we'd need something welded and the union would send a welder, a helper, and a driver for a 10 minute welding job, but when the welder got all set up, we never had to worry about the kind of job he did. Now, we ask for a welder and they send one guy and then we have to order a radiology truck to come x-ray his weld."

There has to be a balance somewhere, but I don't think we're in any danger of social collapse...


Jeffery Ewener - 7/27/2005

Then what needs to be explained is why unionized workers on average make better wages and enjoy better benefits than unorganized workers. I don't have the stats at my disposal, but I suspect the gap between the two groups is a sizeable one. The stagnation of workers' wages since the '70s, alluded to in Cowie's article, coincides with a dramatic decline in union representation.

No, workers aren't stupid, and the problem of capital flight is a real one. In fact, it could be argued that making the option of moving abroad an easier one and a believable threat to workers, and not reduced tariffs or international dispute settlements or anything else, is the real goal behind the so-called "globalization" movement. No labour movement anywhere in the world -- and especially in the USA -- can achieve much for long without addressing this, and that can only mean linking up internationally to push for union rights around the world, and for binding labour rights and social legislation provisions in the so-called "free trade" treaties.

In short, what's needed is more organization, not less. The alternative is accelerating social collapse, economic deterioration, and a dollar worth less than the yen.


david little - 7/27/2005

Sorry, I didn't finish earlier...

In short, why would anybody even join a union? It just costs money that people don't have and does little or nothing that people can't do for themselves. It just seems to many to be an extortion racket, with the guys at the top living large on the dues while the regular guys get nothing.


david little - 7/27/2005

Despite all the "Us v. Them" and "the evil rich" rhetoric, most of the issues that began the labor movement have been solved. You don't need a union to help with discrimination, you have the courts (and any number of ambulance chasing lawyers to represent you). You don't need a union to fight for jobsite safety -- you have OSHA. What's the incentive to join a union today? More vacation days? Hardly. And what's the incentive for companies to hire union labor? Certainly not to find workers -- it's possible to find workers anywhere in the world.


Mike S. - 7/25/2005

Maybe....

To be blunt, we need to either have everyone in a union, or no one. It will never work when either the government (in the case of the air traffic controllers) or business simply bring in non-union labor to replace a unions membership.

As a result, unions have nothing to offer a worker. No matter what a union rep says, they cannot protect anyone's job (and they should be prevented from saying that in their organizing campaigns, by the way). A company can simply move or close and open in a more "friendly" environment or outside the country. Just like our government at times, union leadership thinks the average citizen/member is stupid. That we cannot see the reality of the situation or that we cannot think past our next paycheck.


John H. Lederer - 7/25/2005

"The failure of the labor movement to grow since the 50's is simply that our government has a vested interest in NOT allowing it to do so! It is really not a Democrat/Republican issue."

Which is why unions keep losing fair elections and workers have little interest in joining them --unless they work for the government?


Mike S. - 7/25/2005

The failure of the labor movement to grow since the 50's is simply that our government has a vested interest in NOT allowing it to do so! It is really not a Democrat/Republican issue. Neither party has raised a hand since the 1930's to aid labor, and at that time, it was a grudging hand at best and the only way to force economic change at the lowest levels (we now have a vast income tax structure to accomplish that). By aiding organized labor in the 30's the government forced big business and the rich to pry open the purse strings, essentially a very back handed redistribution of wealth.

The fact that labor unions in general are in the state of chaos they find themselves is through no fault of their own. They are at the whim of the government and are nothing more than a pawn that the political parties use to generate sympathy. They can't influence an election, they can only hand their money to the Democrats in the false hope they will get something in return. Again, I don't blame the unions, as they have no other recourse. They need to pick a side, and they chose the Democrats. The Republicans would return just as little with union donations as the Democrats have. Who wants to make big business or the rich angry by TRULY initiating or supporting legislation that would protect jobs and provide decent incomes and benefits?

It is far easier for a politician to simply claim "Free and Open Markets are Good for Everyone" than to take on the daunting task of coming up with an economic system that is "for the people".

To return to my initial statement, and by way of explanation, if labor succeeds and it's membership grows, and since there are far more people in the "labor" force than those who own or operate businesses or are independently wealthy, our government would be forced to be accountable to a new master, "THE PEOPLE" as opposed to the "BIG MONEY INTERESTS".

Unfortunately, I don't really believe there are any unions out there with a leadership that can truly serve its membership in the way it would need to be served. Money and power corrupt weak people, and we seem to have a tendency in this country to elect (to government or union leadership) weak individuals who happen to speak well or look impressive. Rarely are intellectual or philosophical attributes taken into consideration. Unions especially fall victim to this. It seems the biggest mouth or the friendliest member gets the vote. Rarely does a substantive platform win the day. Shame on us all around!