Did Anybody Say Working-Class Power?


This article is from the September/October 2005 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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This article is from the September/October 2005 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The recent debate within the AFL-CIO has been a peculiar one, radiating more heat than light. The debate started, and I daresay ended, with structure. Structure should, however, follow function. In thinking through the future of the U.S. trade union movement, we should have been asking ourselves questions like these before getting to structure:

  • What is our analysis of the domestic and international situation facing workers?
  • What changes in the economy are affecting workers and our abilities to organize, mobilize, and be effective?
  • How do we understand the evolution of the U.S. political state? What does this mean for workers and unions?
  • What do we mean when we speak of power for workers?
  • What other social movements--whether progressive or reactionary--are rising or declining?
  • How have U.S. unions practiced trade unionism over the last 50 years? Have there been changes since Sweeney took over in 1995?
  • What has worked and what has not in the last ten years? Do we have any idea why?
  • What do we need from a federation of unions? Specifically, how should it make decisions? Who should be included? What role should it have in electoral politics and legislation, organizing, and member education and mobilization?
  • How do we change power relations in the United States?
  • What is the nature of international working class solidarity in the 21st century?

But these questions have not been asked.

Why has such a mediocre debate evolved? I suggest that it has to do with the ideological premises of U.S. trade unionism, going back at least as far as Samuel Gompers. We have in the United States a movement that believes that the most that it can ever be is a junior partner to capital. Even the more "militant" of the oppositionists in today's so-called debate look to a special relationship with the enlightened wing of capital rather than any serious vision of working class power.

Gompers' views came to mean that the working class could not speak in its own name. Rather than class politics, unions adopted "special interest" politics; the task of the union was to defend the interests of its members.

Take one illustration. A few years ago I helped to arrange a visit by several SEIU leaders to South Africa. At one point during the trip, the SEIU leaders were discussing electoral politics with several South Africans from the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). One of the SEIU local union leaders said that "the fundamental role of the trade union leader is to represent the interests of our members."

Well, in the United States this would not have been a surprising statement, yet in South Africa there was an interesting response. The NEHAWU representatives said, "Not so fast, comrade. The job of the union leader is to represent the interests of the working class. Sometimes those interests are not identical to the interests of our members."

You could have heard a pin drop. The moment was striking precisely because the South Africans were challenging the traditional Gompers-ian framework of trade unionism. Now, SEIU is one of the more progressive unions in the United States. But it still operates within the paradigm established by Gompers. This has become all the more clear in the recent debate, where there was no hint of a unionism linked to social transformation--only one focused almost exclusively on collective bargaining power.

Let me be clear: at a time when trade unions are under attack by both capital and the U.S. state, and when we are losing collective bargaining power, not to mention the actual right to collectively bargain, rearticulating the need for collective bargaining power is important. But it is in no way revolutionary, and it is certainly not enough to address the crisis faced by the working class.

What needs to be done?

Let's have the real debate that we need, using questions such as the ones that I proposed earlier. Let us use those questions and a movement-wide debate--rather than simply a debate among the leaders--to identify the actual unities and differences within the movement.

Let us experiment with different forms in organizing the 21st century workforce.

And here is my priority: let us engage in a discussion that focuses on the question of working-class power in the United States. Technical changes in the existing trade union movement, even with the aim of increasing organizing and political action and with the best of intentions, will only result in a shinier version of an archaic machine.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and international activist and writer. He currently serves as president of the Washington, D.C.-based organizing and educational center TransAfrica Forum. This article is adapted from a presentation to the Canadian Auto Workers in July 2005.