Posts tagged United Auto Workers

On Detroit, or: Cities don’t go bankrupt, city governments do.

If you have been reading news headlines over the past couple weeks, then I think it might be important to keep in mind that the city of Detroit has not been razed or destroyed in the past few days. The city of Detroit is not over; the city of Detroit has not failed; and the city of Detroit is not gone. It’s still right there, where it has been all these years; see, look, here it is:


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Here’s what has happened, over the past several days, and all that has happened: One institution, out of the millions of things going on in Detroit — specifically the single most confining and abusive and irresponsible institution within the city — the government which latched on to the city of Detroit and has tried to rule and exploit it for decades — has announced that it no longer intends to pay off the people and the institutions and the banks who paid it loans in advance of future tax revenues. That one institution, which claims, arrogantly and fraudulently, to speak for the whole city of Detroit, and which intends to force the whole city of Detroit to pay for its mistakes — the same city government which has bulldozed Detroit neighborhoods and tried to sell out the city to the auto cartel and to corporate developers at every opportunity — the same city government whose attitude towards the people of the city has over the years ranged from one of constant low-level antagonism and hectoring, to one of repression and open warfare against them — the same city government which is now run by an appointed Emergency Manager from the state government, installed in a last-ditch effort to loot the city without the normal political restraints, for the sake of institutional bondholders, before things came to this pass — that one institution within the city of Detroit has announced that it wants to default on debts that most of the city never were asked about and never agreed to take on. And this may mess up that institution’s budgeting process for some time to come. What’s happened is something notable, but it is also something far less important than it’s being treating as, and something with far more political fascination than human significance.

There is no threnody of grief to be had here, no punishment for hubris or failures or sins, no final unraveling to reveal, no long-coming tragedy of decline or death for the city, if the city is supposed to mean anything at all other than the government. That government has taken over and inserted itself into so many parts of the city of Detroit that this may make things rough. Perhaps it will even make things rougher than they already were — although the reasons that are usually given for thinking that always seem to me to depend on some assumptions about the role of government in Detroit which I think are probably false. (If it is hard for the city government to allocate more money to the Detroit police department, is that going to make life worse in the city? It probably depends on what end of the stick you find yourself on.)

But the important thing is this. Detroit is not the crisis of a handful of elected, appointed and installed government officials. Detroit is not its most abusive institutions; it’s not a political project; it’s not a single institution at all, no matter how dominating its intent or arrogant its claims. It’s something much bigger, much better, and much more important than that. Detroit is the Ujamaa Food Coop and the Masonic Temple, UAW Local 174 and the Reuther Library. Detroit is the Tigers, Friday fish-fries and Paczki Day, the Red Wings and the Pistons, the Movement Electronic Music Festival and John King Books, the giant tire on I-94, the Eastern Market and the Afro-American Music Festival. the People’s Pierogi Collective and Joe Louis’s arm.

Here is a photo of the cast bronze statue of Joe Louis's arm and fist
Jefferson & Woodward, downtown Detroit

Detroit is fresh kielbasa and original Coney Islands (whichever one you think deserves the title); barbecue pork, and felafel and fries with a fruit smoothie; blind pigs and warehouse raves, Arabic signs[1] and pointing to the knuckle of your thumb to show where you’re from. Detroit is 19 year olds making the pilgrimmage to Windsor for booze[2] and to Royal Oak for coffee. Detroit is the home of Rosa Parks and of Grace Lee Boggs. Detroit is the Michigan Citizen and the Metro Times. Detroit is the Rouge plant and Fifth Estate. And Detroit is the long history of displacement, homecoming, work, music, food, culture, strife, love and building that the city grows up out of. Detroit is bigger, stronger, more resilient and much more important than the government’s budget.

Detroit did not cause this crisis. The city government and the state government and the bankers they deal with, who dominate and exploit Detroit, did that. And though Detroit will be forced to pay much of the bill, Detroit is not threatened by this crisis and will not be ended or killed, because Detroit never depended on the city government or the state government or the institutions they deal with for what it is or what it has done. To grow, and to survive, and to thrive, Detroit depends on its people, on the collision and the seeping-together of its many cultures and subcultures and neighborhoods and scenes, on those people’s work and their industry and their craft and their experiments and their interconnection and solidarity and mutual aid. The city of Detroit is its people, not its politics, and it will live on in those people over, above, beyond, and in spite of, the ongoing efforts of local governments and state-appointed emergency governments and corporate-political managers to somehow bail out and save government’s place within Detroit. Everyone would be better off if the austerity government, along with all other local governments, just took this as an opportunity to pack it in and leave the city entirely alone — rather than attempt to somehow auction off, bail out, and save the essential command-posts for its political takeover of people’s space and public life. But even without that, the city continues, and lives, no matter how much the politics falls apart.

Also.

  1. [1] These are of course mostly in and around Dearborn. But Dearborn is of course part of Detroit. Detroit is its communities, not its municipal administrations or the lines that they draw on maps.
  2. [2] Yeah, that’s in Canada. It’s the part of Detroit that happens to be across the Canadian border. Detroit is all its communities, not its municipal governments. Or its national ones.

Countereconomics on the shopfloor

So lately I’ve been reading through a cache of syndicalist and autonomist booklets that I picked up a couple years ago from a NEFACker friend of mine who was soon to move out of Vegas. Partly for my own edutainment, but also because I am doing some prep work for possibly introducing a sort of Little Libertarian Labor Library to the ALL Distro.[1] Anyway, here’s a really interest passage I ran across in a booklet edition of Shopfloor Struggles of American Workers — a talk by the Detroit auto-worker and autonomist Marxist Martin Glaberman — on the difference between asking workers to vote on an issue and asking them to strike over it, taking as an example the internal conflicts over the union bosses’ no-strike pledge during World War II.

One of the things I want to start with, because it does provide a framework, and is not simply an event from the past, is something I did some work on a number of years ago about auto workers in the United States during World War II, the kinds of struggles that went on on the shop floor, within the union, between the workers and the government, a complex reality. What it revolved around was the struggle against the no-strike pledge in the UAW When the United States entered World War II, virtually all of America’s labor leaders graciously granted in the name of their members a pledge not to strike at all during the war.

In the first months of the war, the first year, there was an actual drop off in strikes. The end of 1941 through 1942 was a period that put a finish to the late thirties, the massive organizational drives, the sit-down strikes, the violence, all the things that created the big industrial unions. The job hadn’t been entirely done. Ford wasn’t organized until early 1941. Little Steel wasn’t organized, unionized, until the war was well under way, and so on.

Gradually, however, as the war went on, the number of strikes, (by definition all of them were wildcats, all of them were illegal under union contracts and under union constitutions) began to escalate until by the end of the war, the number of workers on strike exceeded anything in past American labor history. What was distinct about the UAW wasn’t just that the wildcat strikes were larger in number and more militant, but the fact that something took place which made it possible to make a certain kind of record. It was the only union in which, because there were still two competing caucuses, leaving rank and file workers a certain amount of democratic leeway to press for their point of view, an actual formal debate and vote took place on the question of the no-strike pledge.

A small, so-called rank and file, caucus was organized late in 1943 and early 1944, to begin a campaign around a number of issues, but the central issue was the repeal of the no-strike pledge. … So[2] they proceeded to have a referendum. This referendum was in some respects the classic sociological survey. Everyone got a postcard ballot. Errors, cheating, etc. were really kept to a minimum. Everyone on the commission thought that it was as fair as you get in an organization of a million or more members. It took several months to do. When the vote was finally in, the membership of the UAW had voted about two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge.

The conclusion any decent sociologist would draw is that autoworkers on the whole thought that patriotism was a little bit more important than class interests, that they supported the war rather than class struggle and strikes, etc. There was a little problem, however, and this is why this is such a fascinating historical experience. The problem was that at the very same time that the vote was going on, in which workers voted two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge, a majority of autoworkers struck ….

To visualize it is fairly simple: you’re not voting on the shop floor; you get this postcard, you’re sitting at the kitchen table, you’re listening to the radio news with the casualty reports from Europe and the Pacific and you think, yes, we really should have a no-strike pledge, we’ve got to support our boys. Then you go to work the next day and your machine breaks down and the foreman says, Don’t stand around, grab a broom and sweep up, and you tell him to go to hell because it’s not your job and the foreman says he’s going to give you time off and the next thing you know, the department walks out. … The reality is that in a war which was probably the most popular war that America took part in, workers in fact, if not in their minds or in theory, said that given the choice between supporting the war or supporting our interests and class struggle, we take class struggle.

— Martin Glaberman, Shopfloor Struggles of American Workers (1993?)

Glaberman puts this out as a distinction between what workers say in their minds or in theory and what they say or do in fact. I’m not sure that’s right — doesn’t the story about the foreman involve the workers’ mind and beliefs just as much as the story about the kitchen table? — but I think the most important thing here is Glaberman’s attention to the context at the point of decision, and how that shapes what kind of decision a worker thinks of herself as making. Not just the outcome of the choice, but really the topic, whether the worker is asked to make some kind of political choice about what she ought, in some general and detached sense, she ought to value (isn’t Patriotism important?), or she finds herself making an engaged, personal choice about what’s happening — what’s being done — to her and her fellow workers right now, on the margin. There is a lesson here for counter-economists.

Freedom is not something you vote on. It’s something you struggle for. And what’s far more important than trying to figure out how to get people to endorse the right ideology, or, worse, the least-bad set of policies and candidates to each other across the kitchen table, is figuring out how you and your neighbors can best cooperate with each other, practice solidarity and withdraw from maintaining and collaborating with the state. People who would never respond to a smaller-government candidate or a libertarian ideological pitch often will act very differently when you open up opportunities to support grassroots alternatives and withdraw from the day-to-day inhumanities of war taxes, regulations, police, prisons, borders, and the state-supported and state-supporting corporate capitalist economy. Meanwhile, those who talk all day about changing votes, and building parties to more effectively capture a few more votes here and there, and have nothing else to offer, are wasting time, resources, and organizing energy on efforts that are not merely futile, but in fact actively lethal to any hope of motivating and coordinating effective practical action.

See also:

  1. [1] The basic idea: L4 would encompass some of the material we already have (Chaplin’s General Strike, Carson’s Ethics of Labor Struggle) and a lot of new and classic material, with new titles published at regular intervals, all with the basic underlying goal of (1) providing some decent labor-oriented materials for ALL locals, and (2) providing a decent source (mostly, currently, lacking) for IWW local organizing committees and other radical labor efforts to find some decently produced, low-cost booklet-style materials for lit drops and outreach tables, beyond just the IW, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, and the relatively expensive books you can purchase through GHQ.
  2. [2] [After an inconclusive floor debate in convention. —RG]

A brief history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the “Friend of Labor”

Because of the late unpleasantness, there’s been a lot of debate among a certain kind of Leftist as to what attitude the Left ought to take towards the Democratic Party’s big win at the polls, and the grassroots efforts by eager young Obamarchists to help bring it about. In the name of critical support, many state Leftists — particularly those who fancy themselves Progressives — urge other Leftists to hop on board the Democratic Party train; those who are a bit more skeptical, point out that, for people seriously concerned with peace, civil liberties, labor radicalism, anti-racism, ending bail-out capitalism,and so on, an Obama Presidency is an extremely limited victory at best, and those who know a bit of history point out that the Democratic Party has been the graveyard of social movements for over a century now, with one movement after another being diverted from grassroots action on behalf of their primary goals into the secondary or tertiary goals of bureaucratic maneuvering, party politicking, canvassing, fund-raising, or shamelessly apologizing for Democratic Party politicians. And once they go in, movements more or less never come out.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the current economic crisis, in discussions like these a lot of electoralist Progressives very quickly dig up the decaying corpse of Franklin Roosevelt, apparently in order to demonstrate a case where so-called critical support from the Left worked — that is, it supposedly worked because it supposedly got us the New Deal, and the New Deal supposedly represents a series of victories that Leftists should feel good about. The problem is that this picture is false in just about every detail. The New Deal was achieved in spite of the grassroots efforts of the American Left, not because of them. It was, in fact, put through largely as a means to co-opt or stifle the American Left. And what was put through ought to be considered a travesty by anyone for whom economic Leftism is supposed to mean an increase in workers’ power to control the conditions of their own lives and labor, rather than an increase in government’s power to make businessmen do what politicians want them to do.

So here is a brief history, contributed by a member of the Movement for a Democratic Society listserv (in response to a series of uncritical critical support apologetics and name-drops to Roosevelt), of the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the friend of labor and patron saint of the American Progressive Left.

From: bob
To: MDS-Announce
Date: 5 November 2008 7:51 PM

Oct. 1933, 4 strikers killed in Pixley Ca. textile strike.

Early 1934, Roosevelt intervenes in the auto industry on behalf of company unions as opposed to worker organized unions.

In 1934, General Strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis began to threaten the capitalist order.

IN 1935, the Wagner Act was passed to regularize labor relations. The NLRB was set up to mediate between labor and capital ending the surge of general strikes.

In 1936-7, workers began to use the sit down strike to great advantage. In 1937, the Roosevelt appointed National Labor Relations Board declared them to be illegal. Later the Supreme Court in 1939, dominated by pro-Roosevelt judges, declared sit-down strikes to be illegal, taking the wind out of the sails of the labor movement.

When labor leaders tried to gain Roosevelt’s support in critiquing the killing of 18 peaceful workers in the steel strikes of ‘37, Roosevelt refused, thus condoning the killings.

IN 1938 and 39 with rising unemployment, Roosevelt cut programs for the poor and unemployed.

The passing of the Social Security Act institutionalized the incredibly regressive payroll tax while postponing and benefits and establishing a retirement age beyond the life expectancy of workers so that payments would be minimal. Additionally, most women and Afro-Americans were purposefully not covered by the Act. At the time it was established the NAACP protested the racism inherent in the exclusions of most job categories employing blacks. The original act was also blamed for contributing to the economic downturn of 1937 because the government collected taxes from workers but paid no benefits to workers during this time period. Initially, no benefits whatsoever were to be paid until at least 1942. Amendments in 1939 changed that to 1940 but only encompassed a tiny minority.

Friend of Labor Roosevelt in 1940 signed the Smith Act which had been proposed by a Democrat and passed by a Democratic Congress. The first prosecutions were ordered by Roosevelt’s Attorney General Francis Biddle. Unfortunately, the split between the orthodox communists and the Trotskyists resulted in the persecution of the Trotskyists.

When the Federal Theater Project planned a musical production in 1937 attacking corporate greed, Roosevelt shut it down. He then had the theatre padlocked and surrounded by armed soldiers.

So much for the concept of political space under the Democrats.

One mistake rather consistently made by a good chunk of progressives is to frame an analysis based on the paranoia of the extreme right wing, taking their statements as if they were facts.

So if Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and their ilk criticize some facet of American life or history (for example FDR as being some sort of left enabler), the progressives then want to disagree completely with Hannity et al and thus accept whatever BS he put forward but take the opposite point of view on it. So we then have progressives defending Roosevelt’s supposed progressive leanings or opening political space for the left or whatever phrasing suits their purposes. It’s not helpful to let the extreme right thereby define the nature of political discourse. It leads to an incredibly false and warped view of society and history.

Rather than helping to create an opening for the left in the 1930s, Roosevelt did what he could to shut off all openings that had been created by the workers themselves. He ended the surge of general strikes, then he ended the surge of sit down strikes. He put a stop to progressive artists. Clamped down on the radicals of the time period. Condoned the police and national guard killing of protesting workers. Collected regressive taxes from workers while promising them pension benefits at a point in the future for those fortunate enough to survive their employment and avoid an early death.. He continued racist and sexist policies especially relating to employment, government sanctioned discrimination and unfair dispersal of social benefits.

The main thing I would want to add to the analysis is that, unfortunately, I don’t think that the veneration of St. Franklin is solely due to the rush to take an equal-but-opposite reaction to the vilification of Roosevelt by plutocratic Right-wing hacks like Limbaugh or Hannity. The attitude is much older than Right-wing hate radio, and I think it is deeply rooted in the historical narratives and the self-conception of the Progressive wing of the Left. At the time Roosevelt went on a full-bore attack against the radical Left but enjoyed the support of the professional-class Progressive Left — whose influence he dramatically increased, and whose fortunes he subsidized on the taxpayer’s dime, with his massive expansion of the civil service and government planning bureaucracy. And he is venerated today by so many on the Left because so many on the Left continue allow their message to be set by the agendas of the political parties and by the nostrums of mid-20th century vital center corporate liberal politics. The counter-historical hagiography isn’t just a way of reacting to the Right; it’s also a way that the Establishmentarian Left keeps the radical Left in line, diverts all too many of us into the failed strategy of increasing workers’ power by increasing government power, and blinds all too many to the fact that their efforts within or on behalf of the Democratic Party are failing repeatedly, or when they succeed, inevitably succeed in increasing the power of professional government planners, without any significant gains for ordinary workers.

So it is really refreshing, at this historical moment, to see some folks challenging St. Franklin from the Left. And it’s deeply unfortunate, but not surprising, that it is refreshing to see that. It ought to be easy and common to make the Leftist case against a millionaire dynastic politician who officially kicked off his administration with a series of massive bank bail-outs, systematically attacked labor radicals, created a bureaucratic apparatus intended to buy off and domesticate labor moderates and conservatives, while sidelining or criminalizing labor’s most effective tactics, and presided over repeated physical attacks on organized workers. A millionaire dynastic politician who, in 1936, ordered J. Edgar Hoover to ramp up federal surveillance of questionable domestic political groups, and who aggressively dispensed with traditional restraints on unilateral executive power in order to pack the courts in favor of his own policies and to elevate himself to President-for-Life. A President-for-Life who conscripted millions of workers in the United States’ first ever peacetime military draft, who then spent a couple years deliberately wangling his way into a position where he could throw his new conscript army into the largest and most destructive war in the history of the world, who then, using the exigencies of a global war on tyranny as his excuse, drove Congress to create the House Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned war protesters and political opponents on sedition and espionage charges, extracted no-strike agreements from the now-politically-controlled labor unions, commandeered virtually every good and imposed massive rationing and government-mandated wage freezes on American workers, created the modern military-industrial complex, ordered the firebombing of hundreds of German and Japanese cities, and, with a series of unilateral executive orders and military proclamations, summarily seized the property of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans, imposed arbitrary curfews on them based solely on their nationality, and finally sent in the military to roust them out of their homes and march them into concentration camps scattered across the American West.

Unfortunately, that kind of talk doesn’t square with the preferred historical narrative of Democratic Party politicians, and (therefore) it doesn’t much suit those who have ambitions that depend on currying favor with Democratic Party politicians. So it’s not the sort of thing that you hear much about. But it is the sort of thing that we can remember, and that we can talk about, whether they want us to or not.

See also:

King Ludd’s throne

Over at LewRockwell.com Blog, Karen De Coster recently posted about Ford’s Camaçari assembly plant in Brazil, taking it as an opportunity to complain about the way union thugs [sic] run Ford’s business in Estadounidense assembly plants, and how Ford may have trouble introducing a similar manufacturing model in U.S. plants because the UAW is hesitant. Other than noting that the stories are little more than a couple of glorified Ford Motor Company press releases, passed off as journalism by the Detroit News, I don’t have anything in particular to say about the set-up Camaçari, or for that matter about Ford Motor Company or the UAW. (I consider the both of them to be brontosaurs of state capitalism — massive, slow, stupid, and probably doomed to extinction.) But I do want to mention De Coster’s boilerplate complaints against labor unions, and what they presuppose.

De Coster, like lots of other anti-union libertarians, claims that unions are economically harmful because they’re toxic to efficiency and flexibility. The idea is that organized workers will tend to use their organization to oppose advances like automation, technological upgrades, flexible job duties, and reorganization of processes for greater efficiency. Partly because union contracts tend to preserve old job descriptions in amber, to better mark off each worker’s turf, and partly because organized workers will use their coordinated bargaining power to oppose anything that reduces organized workers’ hours or introduces new, not-yet-unionized (or differently-unionized) jobs into the shop. I don’t necessarily find this complaint very persuasive. But. hell, let’s grant most of it, for the sake of argument. Suppose that a union like the UAW does tend to block upgrades for greater efficiency and flexibility. If that’s true, why is it true? Because the unionized workers don’t own the means of production.

It’s no surprise that there would be conflicts between the interests of the workers and the interests of the boss and board when it comes to innovation in shop-floor technology or processes. For a wage laborer, sometimes new technology and new processes mean easier and better work to do; often they mean that your hours will be cut or you’ll lose your job entirely. In any case they will be deployed and integrated into the flow of work according to what the boss finds most useful; they may very well result in you, as a wage laborer, getting stuck with speed-ups or harder work.

None of this is a decisive argument against innovations in shop-floor technology or processes; sometimes things have to change, and change can be hard. But it is a natural source of conflicts between labor and capital. When workers are organized — and when the goals of the organized workers are limited to eking out the highest hourly wages and benefits, the most reliable hours, and the easiest conditions, that they can get within the existing ownership structure and business model of the corporation, through stage-managed labor actions, back-room negotiations with the boss, and multiyear fixed contracts, while the boss and the board keep ahold of final control over conditions on the shop-floor and most or all of the residual profits from any efficiency improvements, what you’ll tend to see is a perpetual collision between a small but powerful coterie of managers and owners, who have every reason to try to shove new processes and technologies down their employees’ throats, to the extent that they can get away with it, and a consolidated mass of workers who have little reason to care about starving themselves lean in order to fatten profits that don’t go to them. Why should workers want to do more work faster, or to take on more flexible job descriptions, if they only stand to lose hours or subjected to speed-ups for their trouble? Both workers’ livelihoods and process efficiency get caught in the crossfire.

But the business model offered by that small coterie, and the union organizing model offered by that consolidated mass aren’t the only business models or union organizing models on offer, and the fact that they are so prevalent in American heavy industry today is the direct result of a series of political decisions and a system of government economic regimentation that allowed that business model and that organizing model to shove alternatives out of the way. Alternatives like that offered by the Industrial Workers of the World and other state-free wildcat unions, which called not for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, but rather for abolishing the wage system, and replacing it with worker ownership of the means of production, coordinated through decentralized, participatory unions.

If the workers themselves jointly own the means of production, then the union has no reason to sandbag efficiency upgrades: if organized workers keep most or all of the residual profits then they have every reason to want more flexible job descriptions, more efficient processes, and greater integration of labor-saving technology. Maybe it’ll mean fewer hours of labor; but since the worker keeps the increased profits, the reduction of hours is a net gain rather than an economic blow. And if workers make agreements amongst themselves as to the conditions of their own labor, they have little reason to want their specific role in the shop written on tablets of stone, and little reason to fear new processes or technology which they are free to take up or not to take up on their own terms and at their own pace, rather than as dictated by a chain of command.

De Coster trashes the UAW for responding to the incentives that the wage system presents for their workers; but rather than getting rid of the UAW, the better solution would be to quit the griping and change the incentives. There is no natural connection between labor organizing, on the one hand, and Luddism or labor-contract sclerosis, on the other. It’s a matter of the artificially rigidified economics of state-subsidized corporate capitalism, and the artificially narrowed vision of the state-patronized establishmentarian labor movement. The only reason that centralized, state capitalist corporations like Ford find themselves confronting top-heavy establishmentarian unions like the UAW over efficiency upgrades is that the both of them have conspired — with the active patronage and regulatory encouragement of the United States federal government — to sustain a business model in which the vast majority of workers have no stake in, and thus little or no natural interest in, the efficiency of the shop, and little or no control over how new processes or new technology, if implemented, will affect the hours and conditions of their labor.

The solution isn’t more ruthless corporate union busting; the solution is to strike at the root of the problem, by abolishing the government economic regimentation that sustains both establishmentarian unionism and state capitalism. If the UAW is cut free from the smothering patronage of the State, and becomes what union so often were before the Wagner/Taft-Hartley era — a wildcat industrial union, free to play hardball and free to set its sights not just on negotiated wage and benefits settlements, but on the unionized workers themselves owning the shop, the machine and the tools — then King Ludd’s throne will crumble out from under him, and you’ll soon start to see unions that not only accept, but champion innovations in technology and industrial processes. If workers own the shop, why wouldn’t they want to increase their own efficiency? After all, they get to keep the difference.

See also:

Over My Shoulder #41: Paul Buhle on establishmentarian unionism, the decline of labor organizing, and the rise of Labor PAC. From Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor.

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. These are a couple of passages from the final chapters of Paul Buhle’s book, Taking Care of Business: Sam Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. They have a lot to say on the logical end-point of establishmentarian unionism and how, within the tripartite planning system of Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor—particularly after the corporate merger and consolidation known as the AFL-CIO—the top union bosses tacked further and further away from industrial organization towards political organization — in effect, ceasing to be workers’ unions, and instead operating as an enormously wealthy but crumbling and increasingly irrelevant sort of Labor PAC.

The departure of Reuther and the UAW from the AFL-CIO in 1964 not only meant no charismatic personality was left combat meaning but also no block of aggressive unionists to offer significant, concerted resistance to rightward-drifting union leadership and social policies. The executive committee functioned as a glorified rubberstamping agency rather than a representative body. Seen in retrospect, centralization of power was the inner logic of the subsequent institutional consolidation. Neither William Green nor Walter Reuther nor even Samuel Gompers, an expert autocratic manipulator in his day, wielded as much personal control is to Meany and his entourage. One traditional labor historian, admiring the advance of the bureaucracy, put it most politely: labor evidently no longer had any great need for services beyond negotiation and enforcement of existing contracts. Everything else could more safely and efficiently be handled better from above. In December 1977 at the last national convention where Meany played an active role, the only names offered in nomination for president and secretary were Meany and Lane Kirkland. Neither was resistance offered to any of the nominees for the thirty-three vice presidencies. A lone dissident of sorts who did manage to get onto the council, the socialistic machinists’ president, William Winpisinger, was widely regarded as window-dressing for the steady rightward drift. Carefully directing his political views toward the public sphere, Winpisinger restrained his personal criticisms of Meany, much as some socialist craft unionists of the 1910s insisted that Gompers was a symptom and not the cause of labor conservatism, better endured than combated. Meany responded by savaging Winpisinger’s favorite views without mentioning Winpisinger himself.

By the 1970s, Meany grew more candid—or perhaps merely more arrogant. He held his ground proudly against his internal enemies and gleefully watched the mass social movements of the 1960s fade away. Admittedly, he also saw power within the Democratic Party slipped further from his potential grasp and the AFL-CIO fall precipitously by any measurement of size and influence. Asked in 1972 why AFL-CIO membership was thinking as a percentage of the workforce, he responded, I don’t know, I don’t care. When a reporter pressed the issue, Would you prefer to have a larger proportion? Meany snapped, not necessarily. We’ve done quite well without it. Why should we worry about organizing groups of people who do not appear to want to be organized? If they prefer to have others speak for them and make the decisions which affect their lives… that is their right. Asked whether he expected labor’s influence to be reduced, he responded, I used to worry about the… size of the membership…. I stopped worrying because to me it doesn’t make any difference… The organized fellow is the fellow that counts. This is just human nature. Unorganized and lower-paid workers were less-than-irrelevant to Meany; they were unwanted.

Never particularly supportive of strikes except those protecting jurisdictions, Meany became steadily more hostile to walkouts as time went on. (He made one key exception urging political strikes by merit time workers against, of all things, we being loaded onto Russian ships.) In 1970, he observed, where you have a well-established industry and a well-established union, you are getting more and more to the point where strike doesn’t make sense. Rather than strikes and organizing, Meany put his eggs into the basket of electoral campaigns, legislative activity, and involvement in a panoply of government-management-labor commissions and agencies in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. In some circles these activities actually reinforce the myth of the powerful Meany, labor statesmen and public figure. They did demonstrably little for labor. And no amount of them could quite dispel the image of the narrow-minded unabashedly feminist-baiting and gay-baiting labor boss eating at four-star restaurants and puffing a high-priced class of cigars once restricted to capitalists and mobsters.

The AFL-CIO politicked actively for Jimmy Carter in 1976, after its leaders have expressed their real preference for Scoop Jackson. Ironically, the Georgia Democrat’s narrow margin of victory actually made the support of labor, the African-American community, and feminists, among others, the crucial margin between defeat in victory. Once more, given a different approach, it might have been a moment for the labor movement to flex very real muscles and work for legislative assistance and breaking down barriers to organizing the unorganized, just as the women’s movement reached in early apex and as assorted movements among people of color looked to advances within the mainstream. For that kind of enterprise, however, Meany had no stomach whatever.

Once in office, Carter offered symbols instead of substance: a modest assortment of anti-poverty pilot programs amid a generalized retreat from the Great Society promises. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall would be remembered not for his speeches saluting labor but because he was the last labor secretary who apparently believed the unions were necessary for working people. As so often, labor had rewarded its friends, gaining little in return. Meany soon let it be known that he was giving Carter a C- as president. Did he wish to see anyone else in the race for 1980? Yes, he shot back, Harry Truman. I wish he were here. To be fair, the old strike-breaking Give ‘Em Hell Harry could not likely have accelerated the growth of American weaponry any faster than Carter did after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He might have bombed Iran into oblivion, and he surely would have sounded tougher. That kind of rhetoric, joined perhaps with robust new liberal-led red-scare against peaceniks, feminists, and radicals at large, would surely have had more appeal to the frustrated, aging bully that Meany had become.

The AFL-CIO issued dire warnings before and after the crucial 1980 election. Union activists worked although with less enthusiasm than anxiety for Carter’s re-election. The aftermath of Reagan’s triumph (by a relatively small margin, it should be remembered, and due to the Iran crisis and the economy rather than any great public fondness for the former California Governor) quickly justified the forebodings. As the new president broke the air controllers’ strike and sent a message to the labor movement both Reagan’s rhetoric and policies proved brutal. The Republican administrations appointees to the National Labor Relations Board notoriously slanted against unions, moved quickly to remove restraints upon opposition to unionization and to all but encourage fresh efforts at decertification. Especially for people of color, disproportionately poor and barely-working class, the prospect of factory shutdowns and worsening health care with few resources was aggravated by their being depicted as the ungrateful recipients of various undue privileges and taxpayer largesse. Union membership fell for an assortment of other reasons as well, but heightened employer resistance stood near the head of the pack. And yet, if labor leaders distrusted or even despise Reagan’s allies, many experienced an unanticipated degree of self realization and hating Reagan’s enemies, those feminists, peaceniks, and assorted left-liberals to assistant to become radio host Rush Limbaugh’s favorite targets.

Besides, labor did have an elusive, thoroughly institutional fallback on the national political stage. In 1981, in the wake of Reagan’s victory, a hard-pressed Democratic National Committee granted the AFL-CIO 25 at-large seats and four out of 35 seats on its executive body. Within a diminished party suffering an early bout of Reaganism (and whose congressional delegation would indeed vote for so many of Reagan’s programs), the AFL-CIO became in return the largest single Democratic financial donor, supplying the DNC with more than a third of its annual budget. The defeat of a modest labor reform bill in Congress in 1978 showed that the conservative counteroffensive had begun in earnest with simultaneous Democratic president and Congress for the last time in at least a generation. Wall Street analysts warned that a new era of militant labor leadership might emerge a political defeat.

Instead, defeat bred timidity and an eagerness to shift foreign of rightward to recuperate the Reagan Democrats. As along with an increasingly unrealistic hope for a major change of labor laws, the specter of protectionism—which labor’s top leaders did not themselves particularly desire—offer the only popular fight-back issue imaginable. In the absence of a real internationalist program of protecting working people across borders, the new protectionism mainly added us mean-spiritedness to organized labor’s perennial self-concern. The downward spiral of labor’s claim to special protection within the liberal coalition thereby lead further and further to its isolation.

— Paul Buhle (1999), Taking Care of Business: Sam Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor, pp. 195–198, 219–220.