by Susan Rosenthal
BOOK REVIEW: Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice, by Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin (2008)
What is the purpose of a union? How should unions respond to the oppression of Blacks, women, immigrants and gays? How should unions relate to the rest of the working class, the employer, and the State? Should existing unions be reformed, or is more fundamental change required?
In Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice,¹ Fletcher and Gapasin insist that we need new answers to these questions if we hope to reverse “the crisis facing organized labor – indeed the crisis facing the entire US working class.” This crisis is marked by declining unionization, inter-union conflict, falling living standards, rising unemployment, growing poverty and deepening oppression.
Solidarity Divided is essential reading. For a summary of the contents, I recommend Immanuel Ness’s thoughtful review.² I will address the strategic questions that Fletcher and Gapasin raise because they are key to our organizing efforts.
What is the purpose of a union?
Since Samuel Gompers took the Presidency of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886, the official answer to the question of what is the purpose of a union has been – to promote the economic interests of those fortunate enough to be union members.(15) Fletcher and Gapasin argue that this narrow focus on economic self-interest (economic unionism) has been a colossal failure for unions and for the working class as a whole.
Unions are the most organized section of the working class. They could win mass support if they championed the unity, rights and standard-of-living of the entire class, that is, if they addressed social and political issues.
When unions don’t support the class, they cannot count on the class to support them. And without mass support, unions cannot prevail against an employers’ offensive that pits groups of workers against one another.
How can union supporters argue that unions fight for everyone, when unions themselves refuse to make this argument?
Polls show that most workers want union jobs, so there is potential for majority support for unions. However, a narrow union focus on economic self-interest does not invite mass support. On the contrary, it generates resentment among non-union workers. The authors insist that, by refusing to fight the political class war, unions are losing the economic battle.
To reverse this situation, Fletcher and Gapasin argue that the union movement must undergo a political transformation and champion the economic and social interests of the entire working class: union and non-union, employed and unemployed, all races, genders, sexual orientations, native-born and immigrant. However, the authors never tell us how this can be achieved.
Employers use racism, nationalism, sexism and homophobia to divide workers and weaken their collective power, so unions would benefit from fighting these oppressions. However, most unions go along with workplace and social divisions, and their structure reflects this – most top union officials are straight White males.
When unions do address matters of oppression, these are not considered central to the union’s function. Instead, they are usually delegated to separate union departments or caucuses, so that Black members are left to fight racism, women to fight sexism, gays to fight homophobia, etc. The implication is that straight White male workers have nothing to gain from fighting oppression. The question of whether they do or not divides society, the workplace, the unions and the left.
Capitalism is built on lies
Class inequality increases over time because employers pay workers less than the value of what they produce. However, this exploitative relationship is hidden by the lies that a) employers create jobs and b) workers are lucky to have them. In fact, labor creates all wealth, and capitalists are lucky that workers keep producing it for them.
Lies are also used to divide workers. We are taught that workers who are better off have achieved this position at the expense of workers who are worse off — that men benefit from the oppression of women, that Whites benefit from the oppression of Blacks, that straights benefit from the oppression of gays, that workers in richer nations benefit from the exploitation of workers in poorer nations, and so on.³ If this were true, then class solidarity would be impossible. Fortunately, it’s not true at all.
Only employers benefit when workers are divided. The differences in wages and benefits between various sections of the working class go to the employers. When workers unite, they raise the living standards of all workers. The purpose of pitting workers against one another is to prevent that unity.
Solidarity Divided accepts the lie that some workers benefit from the oppression of others, so it promotes cross-class alliances of the oppressed. This strategy does not serve the need of the oppressed to end their oppression, nor does it serve the need of the working class to unite. On the contrary, it feeds the employers’ strategy of divide and rule. The presumed beneficiaries of oppression feel guilty around their oppressed co-workers who, in turn, feel resentful toward their more ‘privileged’ brothers and sisters.
This issue must be resolved if we hope to build an effective fight against oppression. As the authors state,
[Either] oppressions such as racism and sexism become battlegrounds to unite workers in the larger challenge for power, or they become battlegrounds in the intra-class struggle over resources. (181)
How should unions relate to employers?
Fletcher and Gapasin describe how American unions embraced a social contract with employers after World War II. By the late 1970’s, employers were clearly on the warpath, demanding concession contracts to roll back wages and benefits. Both Republican and Democratic administrations backed the capitalist class.
In the wake of President Carter’s firing of postal workers after the 1978 wildcat strike and then the dramatic firing of the PATCO workers by President Reagan, organized labor had no sense of how to build a massive social movement that was anything more than a lobbying effort. Organized labor made excuses for its inaction rather than reflectively and self-critically acknowledging that labor’s “Pearl Harbor” had taken place and that a new form of class warfare was unfolding on the national level. (46-7)
Despite escalating assaults, most union leaders accepted employers’ demands for concessions, no matter how deep, in the hope that once profitability was restored, they could regain lost ground. However, even as the economy boomed during the 1980s and 1990s, the demand for concessions continued.
Fletcher and Gapasin argue that the organizational strategy of acquiring more members and building bigger unions cannot succeed unless it is matched with a political strategy that acknowledges the fundamental conflict between labor and capital, challenges the supremacy of capital, and fights for working-class power.
I would argue that the problem is not simply one of wrong strategies or wrong-headed union leaders, but the fact that the union bureaucracy is a class apart from the workers it professes to represent. As long as the bureaucracy is more invested in protecting its material assets than defending its members, it will never challenge the labor laws that prevent effective strike action. The authors warn,
As long as unions operate solidly within capitalism, accepting its basic rules and premises as permanent, they may be marching to their doom. (214)
How should unions relate to the State?
Samuel Gompers believed that the interests of American workers were linked with the interests of American corporations and the American Empire. So the AFL allied itself with US capital and the US State in their program of world domination, even though this partnership put the AFL in direct conflict with the interests of workers in America and around the world.
With the notable exception of US Labor Against the War (USLAW), most US unions continue to back US foreign policy, supporting imperial wars and military aid to foreign governments that attack workers’ rights (ie. Columbia, Indonesia, Israel). As the authors state,
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)
Fletcher and Gapasin argue that unions must take a stand against US imperialism, because class solidarity means nothing if American workers back their State to dominate and destroy the lives of workers in other lands.
Similarly, unions must oppose domestic anti-worker policies, including racist immigration measures, a privatized medical system and neoliberal economics that force workers to pay the cost of bailing out failing corporations.
Solidarity Divided challenges the myth that government represents “we the people” (as in, we the people now own shares of GM and Chrysler), when it actually represents the collective interests of the capitalist class (as in, we the capitalist class are using public money to float GM and Chrysler until it can be returned to profitability). As they point out, the State serves the employers by consistently suppressing independent working-class activity.
The authors call for independent political action, but they do not support political independence from the Democratic Party. Instead, they call for a neo-Rainbow approach – building organizations that can work both inside and outside of the Democratic Party.4 This is a trap.
The American electoral system is designed to prevent independent mass organizations from developing. Bi-yearly electoral races pressure all social movements to back particular candidates and tone down their demands in order to get those candidates elected.
The Democratic Party has been exceptionally successful in absorbing and derailing social movements, the campaign to elect President Obama being the most recent example. Fletcher signed the founding statement of “Progressives for Obama” which states,
We intend to join and engage with our brothers and sisters in the vast rainbow of social movements to come together in support of Obama’s unprecedented campaign and candidacy. Even though it is candidate-centered, there is no doubt that the campaign is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined.5
This is how social movements are seduced into supporting a capitalist party that serves the capitalist class.
The inevitable betrayals of the Democratic Party are always followed by demobilization.6 An independent workers’ party is the only real alternative.
Despite their warning that the State is not a class-neutral machine, Fletcher and Gapasin fall into Gompers’ trap of viewing the State as
“an empty vessel that could be filled by any sort of politics or political or economic influence… [so that] the working class need not challenge the capitalists for state power.” (15)
Unions are organizations of economic defense, not political struggle. A union must represent all workers in the bargaining unit, regardless of their political views. (And capitalism is very effective at convincing workers to adopt views that conflict with their class interests.) Also, unions divide workers by workplace, job description, industry, nation, etc. That’s why there are so many unions.
Only an independent political organization of workers can promote the interests of the working class as a whole.
Can unions be reformed?
Fletcher and Gapasin rightly argue that existing unions cannot be reformed because they are structured to prevent democratic control from the base. (165-6)
For those attempting to build independent unions, Fletcher and Gapasin warn that capitalism creates the conditions under which undemocratic business unions are reproduced and by which even the most well-intentioned leaders are co-opted. Preventing such corruption requires stringent counter-measures that make sure members keep collective and democratic control of the union. As the authors put it,
members must be active participants in the change process rather than recipients of someone else’s work, even if that work is conducted on their behalf. (66)
This is a huge challenge in a society that dominates workers to keep them passive.
Fletcher and Gapasin describe how the ascension of rank-and-file workers to union officialdom “marks the beginning of a transition from one class to another.”(58) They also describe the revolving door between union officials and local politicians. (102,159) But instead of attributing the conservative politics of union officials to their position as middle-class professionals, the authors attribute these politics to “old-style thinking.” (108)
If the problem of union strategy is simply one of ideology, then the unions could be reformed. If the problem is a class divide within the unions, then a revolution-from-below would be needed to turf out the union professionals and put the worker-members in power. The same would hold true for social movements dominated by professionals.
Unions and social movements that joined forces to advance working-class concerns would be a mighty force. However, there is huge resistance to acknowledging the existence of any class divide within unions and social reform coalitions.7
Solidarity Divided argues that the struggle against oppression must transcend the boundaries of workplace, union and nation.
The authors criticize unions for paying lip service to social issues, for failing to organize a real fight against unemployment, for women’s reproductive rights, for affirmative action, for immigrant rights, for gay marriage, etc. At best, resolutions are passed, and money is donated.
Instead, unions should promote internal political discussion with the aim of mobilizing members to actively fight for the rights of the oppressed of all classes and for the working class as a whole. (168-9) The authors do not explain how this could be done without a) challenging the mistaken belief that some workers benefit from the oppression of others, and b) challenging corporate power.
Solidarity Divided sidesteps the central question of how to rebuild the power of the working class at the point of production – the workplace. Instead, it calls for building geographically-based unions and workers’ councils that include union and non-union members.
During the highest points of class struggle, such formations have broadened the base for working-class power. Unfortunately, we are in a very different period today, one of working-class defeat and retreat.
Social unionism cannot substitute for class power in the workplace – it flows out of that power.
Lacking the leverage of economic power in the workplace, social formations have no alternative but to pressure governments for reform, governments that repeatedly side with the employing class.
The authors acknowledge that unions are currently too weak to challenge the employers, let alone lead a more general class uprising. However, they argue that other sections of the class could revitalize the unions. The 2006 million-strong general strikes in defense of immigrants’ rights were fed by the rising unionization of immigrant workers. They also fed into that unionization.
We should build mutually supportive relationships between unions and social movements. However, the authors do not explain how this can be accomplished, given the conservatism of the union bureaucracy and the domination of most social movements by middle-class professionals.
Solidarity Divided calls for a return to the class-struggle politics that originally built the unions. However, these politics did not come from the unions, but from the socialists who were active inside of them. These socialist were purged from the unions during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.
The American working class is losing ground, not because union leaders have a wrong-headed strategy, but because the link between the labor movement and the struggle for socialism has not been rebuilt.
Workers join unions to put more bread on the table. Until unions can prove their ability to do this, why would anyone join?
Bogged down by conservative bureaucracies, today’s unions are incapable of advancing their members’ economic demands, let alone championing the political rights of workers and the oppressed.
We must remember what it takes to win – fighting as a class and using our power to stop production.8 We must prepare to defy any bureaucracy that protects its assets more than its members. We must be willing to shed the union superstructure in order to rediscover and reclaim our power as a class.
The questions raised in this book deserve serious consideration, widespread discussion and further development. As Fletcher and Gapasin point out,
“Class struggle is built into the fabric of all societies that have classes.”
Our challenge is to rebuild a fighting labor movement that can end the class-division of society and all the oppressions that go with it.
1. Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice, by Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin (2008). University of California Press. The numbers in parentheses indicate page numbers from the book.
2. Book Review: Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice, by Immanuel Ness. First published in Socialism and Democracy, No. 49, March 2009. Read it online.
3. “The politics of identity,” by Sharon Smith. International Socialism Review, Issue 57, January-February 2008.
4. “Visualizing a Neo-Rainbow” by Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher Jr. The Nation, Feb 14, 2005.
5. Barack Is Our Best Option – And You’re Needed Now! by Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, and Danny Glover. Progressives for Obama, March 24th, 2008
6. The Democrats: A Critical History, by Lance Selfa (2008). Haymarket Books. Chicago.
7. Professional Poison: How Professionals Sabotage Social Movements, and Why Workers Should Lead Our Fight, by Susan Rosenthal (2009).
8. Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, by Joe Burns, Haymarket (2011)