Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice

Bill Fletcher, Jr. & Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

In October 1995, organized labor in the US seemed poised to take a turn from its secular slide in membership and influence that began in 1955 and continued unabated nearly to the end of the century. Less than a year after the Democrats lost control over Congress and four years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many hopeful leftists viewed organized labor as the progressive force that would rebuild power for the US working class. But in the decade after John Sweeney and the New Voice took power over the AFL-CIO, enthusiasm and talking points transformed into hyperbole as union membership of the workforce slipped further from 15.5% to 12.5% in 2005. The US working class was further battered by corporate-led globalization, relocation of industry offshore, and the erosion of good jobs in a growing number of labor markets.

As organized labor’s influence was in freefall, internecine conflict and power struggles among national unions began permeating the discourse of labor leaders. The debate shifted from rebuilding the movement to saving it from complete irrelevance. Rather than building a strong and powerful working-class movement, the managers of organized labor were quarreling, say Fletcher and Gapasin, over who would preside over its decline and possible demise.

Solidarity Divided is the first major work to address seriously – without personal attacks and exaggeration – the 2005 crisis and split of organized labor. The departure of the national unions forming the Change to Win federation (CTW) from the AFL-CIO appears to represent the most significant shift in organized labor since the CIO split from the AFL in 1934. According to the authors, however, while a new direction is essential for the future of the US labor movement and working class, the split promoted by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was gratuitous and a step back for all workers, especially women and people of color.

Both union labor activists and scholars, Fletcher and Gapasin are reliable participant observers. While critical of the AFL-CIO leadership, the authors find greater fault among the unions that formed CTW, essentially under the political and ideological direction of Stern. It is ironic that Sweeney, after ascending to the presidency of the AFL-CIO from his perch as leader of the SEIU, would be attacked for ineptitude by his successor in the union that was growing rapidly, albeit in large part through mergers and other means. Without question, unlike many other unions the SEIU was earnestly devoting resources to unionizing or in some cases re-unionizing workers in old restructured labor markets such as building janitorial services. But while the SEIU was devoting more resources to organizing, some frequently question the lack of worker participation in organizing drives and in subsequent unions. Such criticisms were magnified by the fact that in many instances, working conditions were not appreciably improved by the unionization strategies implemented by SEIU, UNITE, and other CTW unions. Amassing members at the expense of democratic participation has not necessarily translated into increasing worker power.

Fletcher and Gapasin believe that strategy and leftist leadership are essential in gaining and consolidating working-class power. Thus, the focus of Solidarity Divided is less on the worker struggles than on the ideological and political character of unions. The authors identify three forms of unions: traditional business unions that are shaped by exclusivity and maintaining standards for elite workers, pragmatic unions concentrating on maintaining and expanding their membership, and progressive left-led unions that view the labor movement as part of a broader process of working-class struggle. Alluding to the South African labor movement, Fletcher and Gapasin argue that unions must represent the interests of the broader working class and not just their dues-paying members.

The authors contend that while Stern alternates between leftwing and neoliberal rhetoric, his policies augur back to the early AFL under Samuel Gompers, reflecting labor union exclusivity, failure to support social justice, indifference to racism and sexism, and silence on US imperialism. Without a doubt, the ascendancy of the AFL under Gompers led to the suppression of all unions dedicated to resisting capitalism and helped shape the future pattern of labor exclusivity, fragmentation, and frailty of the working class.

The pursuit of “what works” in the immediate term, and in the absence of a larger conceptual framework that questioned the structure of existing social relationships, resulted in capitulation to white supremacy and male supremacy. Regardless of rhetoric such as “an injury to one is an injury to all,” the evolution of the Gompers-led AFL reveals a blind spot, even a wall, to issues of race, gender, and ethnicity, which organizers saw as divisive.… In his view, the working class need not challenge the capitalists for state power. In simplistic terms, the state was open to influence by either organized labor or big business, so organized labor’s job was to gain the greater influence. Gompers thus abandoned the notion that the state has a class character
. (15)

Certainly, whenever left-led unions emerged they were eventually blocked by the major labor federations, even at the cost of membership. Thus from 1940 to 1950 the CIO expelled or forced out 16 left-led unions with 1.4 million members for their refusal to sign an anticommunist affidavit. The authors offer striking evidence that even in the post-Cold War era union leaders in the AFL-CIO and CTW remain highly conservative in their unwillingness to challenge US imperialism or global neoliberalism. This was shown in their hesitancy to support the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. The authors conclude that “The AFL-CIO and CTW leaderships appear to equate patriotism with support for US foreign policy and are clearly reluctant to entertain broad-based discussion of US foreign policy within the ranks of the union movement” (120).

In assessing labor’s failures from the 1990s to the present, Fletcher and Gapasin isolate perhaps the most crucial error that unions and their advocates in academia continue to make: practically mindless fetishization of organizational growth without application of a strategy. The AFL-CIO under Sweeney adopted a range of progressive position papers and sought to build organizationally through membership education and revitalized central labor councils. When this failed to yield results, the efforts of many national unions regressed largely into exercises in hypocrisy. Rather than crafting a strategy of worker resistance and empowerment, union leaders in the AFL-CIO before the split continued using tired talking points emphasizing the unfairness of the playing field between labor and capital.

Proponents of the organizing model focused, for either tactical or ideological reasons, on the symptoms of the larger problem—lack of organizing and the corresponding union decline—rather than the problem itself: the existing structure and function of US trade unionism and its Gompers-based ideology, which continues to be pervasive even today. (61)

Fletcher and Gapasin show that while CTW sought to portray the alternative as more progressive, the core of the SEIU and the handful of national unions that split from the AFL-CIO were no different. To reverse the decline in organized labor, they too were steeped in the “ideologizing of organizing” (128). The plan proffered by Steve Lerner, which eventually provided the main talking points of the CTW unions, held that unions must consolidate into fewer noncompetitive organizations through mergers and focusing on core labor market jurisdictions. While CTW member organizations sometimes violated these principles, such rationalization mostly redounded to the benefit of SEIU and some of the same unions. Privatization, which hurt public sector unions, sometimes benefited the private-sector members of CTW after good public-sector union jobs were eliminated.

As Fletcher and Gapasin demonstrate, for some union leaders in the CTW, organizing at any expense, even the loss of unionized public-sector jobs, did not matter as long as their membership expanded. To be sure, SEIU and other CTW unions pursued campaigns that were beneficial to members, but the dogmatization of organizing was all that really counted. Fletcher and Gapasin argue that the CTW split was likely inevitable even before the July 2005 AFL-CIO convention in Chicago. The authors conclude that rather than examining a new path to build union and working-class power, organized labor largely engaged in an “undebate” with a doctrinaire focus on who had the best plan to increase union membership.

Solidarity Divided offers a sweeping assessment of the multitude of union failures rooted in the history of business unionism that plagued organized labor and has all along supported the hegemony of capitalism over workers—a calamity that continued following the split in 2005. The most important assertion of Solidarity Divided is that the US labor movement must engage in class-struggle unionization. Fletcher and Gapasin point to the failure of the federations and the unions to seize on important campaigns, especially building regional power through central labor councils. They cite as a counter-example the militant struggle of the Charleston dockworkers (Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen of America) in 2001 that mobilized broad working-class support and offered the prospect of building a radical and militant anti-racist, working-class movement.

Fletcher and Gapasin argue that it is no longer possible to transform the existing union structures. They call for a new labor movement firmly founded on principles of class struggle, worker resistance to capital, advancing the rights of women and workers of color, and working-class internationalism. Reeducating the working class is vital to renovating the labor movement along oppositional lines that are the only means to resist capitalist power. While the agency of change remains unclear for the moment, the authors argue that unions must build community-labor alliances and solidarity with worldwide worker struggles.

Solidarity Divided argues compellingly that unions need to transform themselves into leftist forces, seeking not just to grow bigger and more powerful, but to seriously challenge capitalist oppression. The book is necessary reading for all students of US labor history and the Left and hopefully will spur a long overdue reevaluation of the path to a class-conscious and powerful working class.

Reviewed by Immanuel Ness
Brooklyn College
City University of New York

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