Big Picture Trade Unionism – a Discussion on the Next Steps for the Labor Movement

BY: Scott Marshall| May 1, 2016
Big Picture Trade Unionism – a Discussion on the Next Steps for the Labor Movement

The labor movement is changing. Technology is changing how we work and produce. Capitalist globalization is creating new international divisions of labor. Global corporate power is restructuring class relations between labor and capital nationally and internationally.

Labor is changing its structures and methods to cope with all these changes. That process is already well under way. No small tinkering around the edges will fit the times. There are no quick fixes. The “Big Picture” shifts labor needs to make are on a scale equal to those that took labor from craft unionism to industrial unionism in our country. Such change requires not only a lot of trial and error. It also requires a conscious discussion in the labor movement.

The need for change is widely accepted in the US labor movement today. The AFL-CIO has announced a major discussion throughout the federation on what changes labor and the unions need to make under these conditions. They have agreed to take these questions not only to union members, but also to the whole progressive movement and to labor allies. This follows on what has really been a number of years of change efforts and discussion of the need for change in labor.

What’s Going On?

It’s tempting to start with a description of all the remarkable things going on in the labor movement. Truly, in the face of tremendous odds and incredible political attack, the labor movement is fighting back with growing creativity and perseverance.

How can we not be inspired by the uprisings in Wisconsin, in Ohio, and in Indiana? How can we not be enthused by the teachers’ strike in Chicago, the Verizon workers, the BP oil strike? These critical events are reflected in many discussions going on in local unions executive boards, central labor councils, rank and file gatherings and conferences across the country. Labor is experimenting with new strategy and tactics in action, combined with thoughtful discussion in a search for solutions.

Union Density

The economic crisis continues to take a heavy toll on union membership. Overall union density has dropped to only 11.3% of the workforce. In the private sector, where most of the industrial unions and manufacturing are based, it is down to 6.6%. (It is important to note that this tiny percentage of unionization applies to the main wealth-producing sector of the economy.) In the public sector, particularly in government jobs, union density is 35.9%.

These numbers for union density are the lowest they have been since these figures began being calculated in 1983. The steady decline underscores the ferocious attack on labor of the last 30+ years. Ten new states have passed right-to-work laws since 1983, several in the last couple of years. This brings the number of right-to-work states to 26, more than half the states.

The big corporations used the economic crisis to go on the offensive, attacking union wages, working conditions and labor rights. In particular the corporations and the right wing have targeted union retirement and pension plans along with collective bargaining rights. In addition the overall global economic crisis has meant a global attack on labor throughout the world led by the giant transnational corporations and finance capital.

In the last few years the attack on labor in the US has become increasingly political. There is no doubt that since the elections of Pres. Obama, right-wing Republicans and their corporate sponsors have increasingly turned their sights on public worker unions. Not only because of the higher union density in that sector, but also to cripple rising union political action. They have always understood that the private sector industrial unions have been the base that makes public worker unions possible. The incredible low unions density in the private sector allows them to turn full force on the public and service worker unions.

Inequality, Racism and the Crisis

Many note that the attack on public workers has a particularly sharp edge against African-American, Latino and other communities of color. The sharp attack on public workers, teachers, government workers, and service workers falls disproportionately on workers who already face discrimination based on race, immigrant status, and gender. Whole communities are driven even further into poverty by these attacks. What is not so often talked about is the racist and sexist impact of the decline of union density in the private sector. Historically the industrial unions have been a critical factor in moving some families in these communities out of poverty. Industrial unions in manufacturing have been centers of struggle themselves for equality.

Here African American, Latino, women and others who have suffered discrimination have fought and won the right to learn skilled trades, to have more equal access to training and higher education through programs developed by the unions. More than that, good paying union jobs in the basic manufacturing industries have helped strengthen families and whole communities. In conjunction with civil rights, immigrant rights and women’s equality struggles, union jobs have provided additional resources and opportunities. For example well-paid union jobs in these communities have meant more children able to go to college. Conversely the 30+ years of attack on labor has had a devastating effect on equality, not just in the work place, but also for whole communities. This is why combining the struggle for labor with the fight for equality and against racism is critical to any significant change in labor to meet the times.

The Fightback and New Features of Labor

In recent years almost every succeeding election cycle has seen a dramatic increase in independent political action by the nation’s unions. 2012 continued the trend. In fact it is hard to overstate the incredible role of labor in the 2012 and 2014 elections. 2008 marked a qualitative change in labor’s independent political action. Not only did it mobilize a much larger boots-on-the-ground force, but it also created its own political action infrastructure. Labor campaigned out of its own union halls with its own messages on its own issues. In particular, union leaders and activists took the struggle against racism to a new level in the labor movement in the course of fighting to elect the first African-American President of the United States. Labor’s message combined the struggle for union rights with the struggle for equality and democracy.

At the same time, labor is bringing to life new forms of struggle. Back in November 2012, 1200 demonstrations and picket lines took action in front of Walmart stores in every state of the union. Tens of thousands of Walmart worker supporters, including some Walmart “associates” took part. It was a great coalition uniting union and nonunion supporters of economic justice. The coordination and mobilization for the 1200 actions is one of the largest and broadest labor-led activities in many years.

The efforts at Walmart are an innovation for today’s labor movement. Rather than focusing on union recognition in individual stores, Walmart workers are establishing workers committees uniting workers in action at the shop floor level. These are not unions; instead they are workers committees ready to fight for their needs on a day-to-day basis. Given the current state of labor law, these are modern versions of the Steel Workers Organizing Committees of the ’30’s and ’40’s who also faced the challenge of organizing without the support of effective national labor law.

Innovative strategies are being used to organize other low-wage workers too. Some unions are experimenting with what is known as “minority union” strategies. This refers to a focus on getting as many workers as possible to unite for collective action rather than getting a majority in an NLRB election.

(Here “minority” does not refer to racially or nationally oppressed workers.) It should be noted that this strategy very often results in bringing large numbers of racially and nationally oppressed workers, and women into the efforts of the labor movement.

Let’s be clear, this is a strategy to get around existing labor law stacked against unions. Simultaneously the fight must be for labor law reform that gives every worker the right to organize and ends corporate domination and interference in the right of workers to free association. This includes repealing the Citizens United Supreme Court discussion.

There are other exciting nontraditional campaigns or efforts. In Los Angeles, car wash workers, mostly immigrants, now have a union contract in the city. In Las Vegas, taxicab drivers have a union. In Immokalee Florida agricultural workers are winning higher prices for their produce from big-box and fast food stores in order to raise their living standards.

In workplaces with traditional union contracts new ways of fighting are being tried. In the current economic crisis, as corporations play hardball and refuse to negotiate new contracts without huge cuts. Some unions are experimenting with what we might call “no contract” unionism. That is rather than agree to huge cuts and takeaways; the membership elects to fight their issues on a day-to-day basis without a contract, reserving the right to job actions.

Other unions are discussing and beginning to think about co-ops as a way to organize workers. The experiences of the Mondragon co-ops in Spain are gaining attention in the labor movement. Worker co-ops have a long history in our country. In the Great Depression the co-op movement was a vital part of working class survival. In addition those movements led to the establishment of important public projects that not only put people to work, but also provided better and cheaper services and products. One that endures to this day is the publicly, state owned Bank of North Dakota, one of the very few banks not harmed by the 2008 banking crisis.

A defining feature of labor today is a commitment to coalition building. The uprisings in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, were vast coalitions, led by labor, uniting union and non-union workers in defense of labor rights. The 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike victory resulted from a powerful labor-community coalition that united parents, teachers and communities into a powerful force. The teachers struck not only for their work place demands, but also for the students, for the schools and for the communities.

Increasingly, in rebuilding the labor movement, the unions fight for the common good, for the whole of the working class, every bit as hard as they fight for their own interests. This is illustrated in the priorities set by the national AFL-CIO for this year’s work. Two of their top legislative goals include immigration reform with a path to citizenship rights and protection and expansion of voting rights.

Further the AFL-CIO is making tremendous efforts to build broad united coalitions with all kinds of working class organizations. They are hosting numerous meetings and conferences with all kinds of allied working class organizations, like those fighting for immigrant rights, civil rights, economic and social justice and more. They are very serious about not just consulting but also giving allies, including non-union workers, a voice in developing the future of the labor movement. They fully expect to have more delegates to their coming national convention from allied organizations, than from AFL-CIO affiliates.

Class-consciousness is on the rise. Five years ago, how many union members were talking about the Koch brothers? How many knew about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and its role? Realizing that it is the banks, the big corporations, and big money that sponsor the right-wing attacks on labor is a giant step in class-consciousness for American workers.

A Changing Working Class

Big changes in the work force are an important factor driving changes in the labor movement. By the year 2020 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the US economy will add 20.5 million new jobs. The fastest growth will be in healthcare and construction. Jobs requiring Masters Degrees will see the fastest growth, while jobs that require only a high school diploma will see the slowest growth.

The BLS predicts that professional, scientific, and technical jobs will grow by 29% through 2020. Further, the number of computer systems designers will grow by 47% in that same period. The BLS also predicts that construction jobs will increase by 33%. Much of this growth will be to replace jobs lost in the current economic crisis. Construction skilled trades jobs will add about 1.1 million new jobs to the economy by 2020.

Learning From History

The change from craft unionism to industrial unionism did not come about merely because it was a “great idea.” The change happened because the working class changed and production changed. Before 1920 most manufacturing work was done by individual craftspeople, who organized trade by trade. When modern mass production took over, craft unionism couldn’t stand up to corporations like GM and US steel. It took decades to win over the labor movement to the idea that all workers in the given factory had to be in the same union to have real bargaining power. Only after that idea was severely tested and prevailed did the mass industrial union drives of the CIO sweep the nation in the 1930s and 40s. The change took decades, mirroring the processes of changing production and production relationships. When we study the history of this period, certain historic events and great proponents of industrial unionism standout. We read accounts of Big Bill Haywood and the theories of the IWW, for example, or Eugene Debs and the great Pullman strike. But the CIO developed out of many streams of labor struggle, including many false starts and defeats. Decisive in making such a big change is an ongoing conscious discussion of the need for change. Our party played an important role throughout those decades of change in labor in the last century. At one point, mistakenly, we even set out to establish our own versions of industrial unionism. While these sectarian efforts were only partially successful and only for a short time, they nevertheless contributed to industrial unionism. The limitation of those efforts showed everyone that fighting for industrial unionism required broader unity. They taught us much about the perils of dual unionism, of marginalizing ourselves, of getting out of the mainstream. Moreover our greatest influence came later as we fully participated in the trade union struggles of the day.

“Big picture Unionism” is just a phrase to use in encouraging this discussion. It is meant to project the idea that trade unionism today must find ways too work more broadly and on many different levels.

Let’s look at what might be three main components of big picture unionism.

1) First is international trade union organization and solidarity. There are many important efforts underway in this direction. Mostly international trade federations no longer just exchange information and report on their own struggles. Now many have morphed more into coordinating committees for joint action and solidarity in various industries. We can all remember how the International Transport Workers Federation united longshoremen from around the globe to defeat the West Coast longshore workers lockout in 2002.

Or take the establishment of IndustriALL: last year 140 industrial unions from around the world joined together to form this new global federation. The United Steelworkers union played a major role in its founding. A quick glance at its website shows the range of struggles and solidarity they engage. For example, the Federation is building support for Mexican workers fired for trying to organize a union at a Finnish owned auto-parts plant. It is also bringing pressure on the Nigerian government to allow oil and gas workers the right to organize unions.

Another great example is the efforts to organize Nissan in Mississippi. Nissan workers around the world that have unions are standing in solidarity with the Mississippi workers. Nissan workers in Russia and Switzerland and many other countries have taken action in support. Former Brazilian President Lula also went to Mississippi to stand in solidarity. And the United Auto Workers union recognizes and supports the leading role that community, civil rights and faith-based organizations and leaders are playing to organize Nissan in Mississippi.

There is much for US workers to learn from labor around the world. Many unions rely more on direct action and legislative labor parties to defend worker’s wages and conditions. Many negotiate industry wide contracts that affect all workers in an industry, union or non-union. We need to think about how to establish global industry agreements that match up with global corporations – how about a global General Motors contract that guarantees minimum standards for all GM workers? Not just union leadership, but workplace rank and file union members need to hear much more about global labor and actions for international solidarity.

We also need to learn much more about the international labor trade federations and try and build strong links with US unions. For example the Building and Woodworkers International federations is helping to pioneer the fight sustainable and green standards in forestry construction materials.

Another challenge is fighting for a genuine seat at the table of international affairs like trade agreements. Some have demanded that the International Labor Organization, that brings labor, business and governments to the table, should take charge of setting standards for international trade agreements. This should include veto rights for labor to guarantee labor important conditions like an international minimum wage, living and health and safety standards.

2) A second component of big picture unionism in the US is the ongoing drive to organize low-wage workers. This organizing speaks directly to the burning question of working-class unity. Every racially and nationally oppressed minority is projected to increase its numbers in the civilian workforce.

Because racially and nationally oppressed workers and women workers are highly represented in low-wage jobs, all of the creative and innovative organizing going on among low-wage workers will boost participation of these workers in the overall labor movement. Through the actions at Walmart, in the Chicago teachers strike, and in the carwash organizing campaigns numbers of dynamic African-American, Latino, and women workers are moving into leadership of the labor movement. These drives to organize low-wage workers have helped elevate the struggle against racism and for full equality in the labor movement.

3) Big picture Unionism must take a fresh look at highly skilled workers. It is clear that science and technology, automation and computerization are radically restructuring the production process and all work. Years ago we began to discuss the chips and robot revolution in production. Today that revolution is accelerating and changing production in ways that we could not have dreamed of those years ago. The BLS report shows that engineers, technical workers and computer workers have become central players in the production process. Such high tech workers are beginning to outnumber the older skills like machinists and tool and die makers. Engineers and computer analysts have been in the industrial workplace for many years, but not in the numbers, and not in the critical chokepoints of production that they are in today. (Chokepoints are critical places in production where a strike or other action can halt the whole process.) The large-scale introduction of robots and other automations have moved these workers even more to the fore.

The corporations have always tried to divide more highly skilled workers from other workers. Labeling them as “professionals,” or even independent contractors. In the days of organizing the industrial unions the companies fought to exempt skilled workers like machinist and electricians. They were even glad to recognize craft unions for these workers in order to separate them from the rest of the work force. Any approach to big picture unionism has to include a far-reaching approach to recruiting these new categories of highly skilled workers.

Some More Programmatic Questions

Of course big picture unionism has to get into some questions of program besides the big general themes mentioned above. Program is a question for all levels of labor, local, national and international. Some quickly arise in this discussion:

The 30+ years of assault on labor has a strong political and legislative thrust. Labor law is very much stacked against labor. As Debs famously said, “The class that has the power to rob on a large scale has also the power to control the government and legalize their robbery.” One question is at what point does political independence move toward a labor party. And equally important is not only fighting for real labor law reform and, for example, the Employee Free Choice Act, but also thinking about how to ignore and challenge existing bad labor law in a massive, non-violent but militant way. Many lessons here can be learned from the early CIO days and the civil rights movement.

There are two big picture conversion questions that demand labor and the lefts attention. There are many points of engagement between labor and the environmental movements. But one that needs special attention right now comes to light around the struggle to stop the XL pipeline. Conversion from dirty energy to clean energy demands a full conversion program that protects all the workers in the energy industries. The destruction of whole regional economies and working families cannot be a “gee that really is too bad” moment.

The livelihood and survival of miners and oil workers, their families and their communities has to have the same urgency as stopping climate change. The solutions have to come at the giant energy corporation’s expense. Conversion has to mean a united labor and environmental movement fight for converting dirty energy jobs to clean energy jobs, not some time in the future, but immediately. For instance massive federal and state programs to weatherize public buildings and homes can immediately conserve energy, cut carbon emissions, and put thousands of the displaced to work. These and other conservation projects also stimulate industries that provide the needed materials.

Likewise a real peacetime conversion from wasteful military spending is needed. Again the jobs of workers in defense industries have to be converted to infrastructure jobs and jobs producing socially useful goods and services. Good and socially useful jobs also have to be guaranteed for returning GI’s and military personnel. And again this conversion has to be at the expense of the giant defense industries.

Another area is the “you didn’t build that” question. This is not just a question of workers tax dollars being spent to subsidize corporate needs for infrastructure, or for food stamps and medical care for workers not paid enough to live on, or for tax breaks for the 1% corporate powers. Rather it raises the question of everything that workers do to build and service the economy. It raises the question of social capital versus private capital.

Nothing is built under capitalism that does not involve workers not getting paid for everything they produce. But even short of socialism, the idea that what workers make should be more equitably distributed is powerful. It raises the fundamental question of the public good versus private profit. They really didn’t build it, the working class did and the working class has the democratic right to a much larger voice in setting public priorities and the public share of the wealth created by them.

Big Questions for Big Picture Trade Unionism

Perhaps one of the most important questions is how does big picture unionism affect how we struggle at the local level and in the work place? Here’s an example that has come up in the course of our discussions. At the same time that 1200 Walmart actions were taking place around the country, 112 women garment workers died in a horrible factory fire in Bangladesh. The factory in Bangladesh, a part of Walmart’s supply chain, violated safety rules by chaining fire escape doors shut and ignoring flammable hazards in the plant. In the big picture, the Walmart that constantly violates the rights of its workers in the US is the same company largely responsible for those deaths. Those two sides of Walmart need to be exposed together. They must be two sides of the same struggle. In no way can big picture unionism be an excuse for not fighting as hard as possible at the local level and on the shop floor. The question is how to show the connections between every local struggle, every national struggle, and every global labor struggle.

We also have to ask what kinds of new structures and organization are required by big picture unionism? Should more unions be looking at international mergers of national unions into global unions? Or how can the international trade federations become bigger players in national and local union fights? How do rank and file trade unionists and activists become more engaged with international labor bodies?

The struggle for labor rights is always also a struggle for democracy. How can big picture unionism become central to struggles for democracy locally, nationally, and internationally? For example let’s take a look at trade issues. How can big picture Unionism help make the case for enforceable minimum labor standards, working conditions, and labor rights everywhere as the basis for fair trade instead of free trade?

How do we work at the local, national, and international level to curb transnational corporate power? Can we find a way to have international labor agreements with giant corporations like General Motors? Can we have global industry agreements to cover all workers at a particular multinational

How can all of labor be more helpful in organizing low-wage workers and highly skilled workers? How do the building trade unions need to evolve to meet the times including the increased introduction of new technology?

Again to stress that this is only the beginning of a discussion. This is not meant to be a rounded program for labor. This document raises more questions than it can possibly answer. It is not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with the things that are raised; it is a question of looking for ways to build the labor movement in numbers, in unity, and in strength for the working class. Most of the truly important questions will be answered in struggle.

To end where we began: No small tinkering around the edges will fit the times. There are no quick fixes. The “Big Picture” shifts labor needs to make are on a scale equal to those that took labor from craft unionism to industrial unionism in our country. Such change requires not only a lot of trial and error. It also requires a conscious discussion in the labor movement.



    Scott Marshall is a vice chair of the Communist Party and chair of its Labor Commission. Scott grew up in Virginia where he first became active in the civil rights movement in high school, working on voter registration and anti-Klan projects in rural Southern Virginia and Tennessee. He was also active against the war in Vietnam.

    Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s.

    Scott has worked for the Communist Party since 1987 when he became the district organizer for the party in Illinois, a post he held until he was elected chair of the National Labor Commission in 1997. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.

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