Jacobin needs your help!

What's coming in 2014?

A book series with Verso
A nationwide series of reading groups
New audio and video content
...and much more

The Crisis in American Labor

Sam Gindin is a labor activist who spent more than 20 years as an economist and researcher for the Canadian Auto Workers. Currently he teaches at York University in Toronto along with Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and a remarkable array of radical scholars and intellectuals. He is also a frequent contributor to the indispensable Socialist Register, whose 2013 edition includes his excellent essay “Rethinking Unions, Registering Socialism.” It’s a must read for anyone concerned about the future of the labor movement in America. Gindin is also the co-author of The Making of Global Capitalism.

In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that U.S. union membership in 2012 shrunk to its lowest level in a century. Sam was gracious enough to agree to an email interview with Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano to discuss the ongoing crisis in American labor and possible paths to renewal.


Chris Maisano: Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that union membership in the US reached 11.3% in 2012, the lowest level since 1916. This is far below the level reached in the early 1950s, when about one third of American workers were union members. What happened?

Sam Gindin: To begin with, this is not just an American issue. Though the rate of decline has varied, the record in almost all the developed capitalist countries has followed a similar downward trend. So structural factors crossing countries seem crucial to the story (globalization, neoliberal’s ideological and material attacks on workers, the loss of manufacturing jobs). There are of course special elements in the U.S. You have deep state hostility to unionization, the capacity of the American state to attract cheap capital internationally and compensate workers’ lack of collective power with the individual “power” to consume through debt, the heavily non-union south (itself linked to historic racial divisions).

An especially critical factor in the U.S. has been the twin defeats suffered by labor since World War Two. First, the militancy of workers after the war was channeled towards ‘productivism’ – growing the pie and individual consumption. What was defeated was the tendency to any fundamental challenge to corporate power – such as radical redistribution of wealth, democratization of workplaces, control over investment and finance. In spite of this defeat of left impulses, workers remained economically strong in the context of relatively full employment and this created problems for capital in terms of not only barriers to productivity and profits, but to inflation and threats to the dollar. The counter-attack led to labor’s second defeat – the destruction of even the previous economic militancy.

This historical explanations still avoids the deeper question: What is it about the internal nature of unions that limits their capacity to adjust to the external shifts? And this is, I think, inseparable from another question: What is the relationship between the decline of unions as a social force and the more general defeat of the Left? I’d argue that we can’t understand the failures of unions without also addressing the failures of the Left.

CM: We’ve seen a number of mass mobilizations in the U.S. since the crisis hit in 2008 – the Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation, the Madison uprising against the attack on public sector workers, and Occupy Wall Street among others. Still, this ferment has yet to translate into a large-scale rejuvenation of the labor movement. Why? Is it possible to reinvigorate the unions as we have known them or are they simply a spent force historically?

SG: The ferment is widespread yet the response has been sporadic and localized. The movements have not yet been able to move from protest to building something cumulative for the long term. Absent a larger project it is not surprising that they have not, in general, seriously addressed how to develop an on-going base with union rank-and-file. Unions too have not seriously addressed their own failures and the need to think bigger – even to just hang on to what was once taken for granted.

The clearest expression of the defeat of unions, and the working class more generally, is the profound lowering of expectations. The need for unions is greater than it’s ever been yet unions are dying. And there is little reason for optimism that they might be transformed through some dynamic that is only internal to unions. That’s why I come back to the need for a left with feet inside and outside unions and new working class organizational forms that can supplement unions and contribute to their revival.

CM: When explaining labor’s decline, friends of the movement tend to focus on the long offensive by capital and the state against union power over the last three decades. While the external threats are obviously massive, as exemplified by the push for “right-to-work” legislation in Michigan, Indiana, and elsewhere, the internal contradictions of unions are often papered over or overlooked entirely. You’ve argued that the fundamental contradiction of unions in a capitalist society is that they are fundamentally sectional organizations. What do you mean by that, and how does this fact constrain the labor movement?

SG: Unions emerged out of the working class but they are not class organizations. They bring together a subset of workers with a common workplace who look to the union to represent their particular interests. During the postwar period of growth and near full-employment, the wage gains and private welfare state negotiated (pensions, health care) spread to other unionized workers (and a few more universal demands like Social Security spread even more generally). But – and this is the lesson of the past three decades – that period has ended. Sectional unionism, even when militant, was no match for the corporate/state counter-attack of the 80s and 90s.

The class war against workers demands a class response. Public sector unions must not only talk about the importance of social services but restructure everything they do, including their collective bargaining demands and strike tactics, to prove they are truly leading the fight for social services. Private sector workers need to confront the dilemma that the prime concern of their members is jobs while unions are only about the price of labor. And unless they begin to challenge their dependence on corporations for jobs – that is the sanctity of private ownership over production – they will keep getting dragged into collaboration with their bosses versus solidarity with other workers. Unions can’t become revolutionary organizations but if they don’t develop a class sensibility in developing their strategies and practices, the future will continue much like the recent demoralizing past.

This applies not only to bargaining and state policy but also to bringing new members into unions. The paradox is that new members may only be looking for traditional union gains but traditional union organizing won’t dramatically expand unionization. If unionization is primarily about “growing” unions and increasing the dues base some unions might make gains here and there (often with dangerous compromises) but we won’t see the breakthroughs in new sectors critical to union revival. Unless the goal is the broader one of building the working class as a social force (“deeper organizing” as Jane McAlevey puts it), it is unlikely that we’ll see the necessary commitments, energy, creativity and cooperation across unions.

CM: Some observers have argued that the focus on density as the primary measure of labor’s power is misguided. In other countries, density is roughly on the same level or even lower than in the US. In France, for example, union density is at 8% yet French unions have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to mobilize millions of members and non-members alike in working class struggles. Despite labor’s long decline, there are still tens of millions of union members in the US, many of whom are located in strategic positions in the political economy. How might unions succeed in mobilizing this still rather large membership base to win gains for workers in a post-density environment?

SG: The new barriers to unionization may seem overwhelming, but they are also contradictory for capital. The iconic large factory that seemed so vulnerable to unionization is less common, but there are growing numbers of workplaces in the service sector with large concentrations of workers and which can’t threaten to run from unions because they need to remain here to provide the service (Walmart, box stores, nursing homes). Restructuring does leave many workers insecure but it also brings more leverage to others: the outsourcing of work, for example, leaves corporations extremely vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain (components that can shut down multiple plants; dependency on the smooth flow from warehouses, truckers, ports). Trying to get collective bargaining rights from one fast food outlet at a time may seem impossible, but declaring that unions will service any fast food worker in a community can reveal pockets of support that might lead to collective agreements, or set the stage for city-wide standards, or simply make the good-will connections that might crop up again as workers move on to other non-union jobs. Homecare workers are among the most exploited workers but they are also the fastest growing occupation and organizing them may mean “unions” that aren’t focused on getting a contract but on political mobilization to raise standards.

Some of this overlaps with the old IWW strategy of organizing workers, not the job – that is, providing union membership to individuals even if there is no collective bargaining relationship. If such “open membership” is to be taken seriously, however, the question is why haven’t unions started by retaining ties with the large numbers of their laid-off former members? If unions aren’t organizing former members, what reason is there to expect them to be successful in organizing workers they have never had contact with? This gets us back to the internal crisis in unions. Even if unions got more members but once unionized they and their dues are taken for granted what is really being built?

CM: Workers’ centers and other “alt-labor” organizations have emerged as a potential focus of labor renewal in the US. Many of them have been involved in the wave of low-wage worker organizing we’ve witnessed in recent months, from the OUR Walmart campaign to the fast food workers’ strikes in New York City. What are the strengths and limitations of these organizations? Where do they fit into the project for labor renewal?

SG: Such initiatives vary so I hesitate to generalize. In most cases they clearly improved the lives of many low-paid workers. In some cases they have moved beyond simply servicing workers, as important as that is, and developed new skills and collective capacities. In the best cases, they have placed exciting new examples of organizing workers on the agenda.

On the other hand, many worker centers have been absorbed by simply reproducing themselves and like unions, have made few connections across the class. The question is – and it appears that some of these groups are already asking themselves is – how do they, like unions, become part of something more ambitious? If they can begin to move in this direction, then the experiences and skills they’ve developed will contribute a great deal to the building of a working class that can do more than just hope to hold back the tide.

CM: You’ve called for the formation of “intermediate institutions” such as workers’ assemblies to overcome the impasse of working class and socialist politics. How might these organizations supplement and go beyond the work currently being done by rank-and-file union members and left labor activists?

SG: Working only on union issues – even if militantly – and focusing on changing the leadership is not enough because of the inherent sectionalism of unions I raised earlier. On the other hand, calling for a party has its own limits because the depth of the defeat of the Left has been as profound as that of labor. This poses the question of an “intermediate” organization or set of regional assemblies that introduces a new layer of politics: one that stands between mass movements and unions centered on a specific group or issue and political parties focused on taking state power and transforming capitalism.

Such assemblies would set themselves three tasks. First, supporting (or helping establish) groups of workplace activists in bringing a class perspective and discussion into their unions. Second, facilitating broader class struggles by linking these workplace groups – cells, fight back committees – across workplaces and other dimensions of workers’ lives expressed in the community. Third, introducing an ideological perspective that escapes the stultifying logic of capital. This means working to make socialists and develop a socialist culture.

One final point. Working people generally know that things suck. The problem is that they don’t believe that things can change. The argument that there is no alternative is doing its job. To overcome this fatalism, some victories are essential but if they are temporary and quickly disappear then the original excitement can quickly fade into even greater demoralization. Organization helps overcome that by making any gains, or even lessons from defeats, add up to something. More generally, people need organizations that can give them some hope and confidence that working and struggling through them matters. And it is from that perspective that we should assess the potentials of these assemblies.


If you like this article, please subscribe.

Follow us