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Big Labor's Little Problem | The Nation

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Big Labor's Little Problem

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The second way union members experience the workings of their international unions is the response they get when they try to make changes beyond the level of the local. It is here that, too often, they run into the "autocrat" with a staff paid to contain dissent through co-optation or threats. A single example: At the United Auto Workers convention in 1992, a reform caucus called New Directions put up a presidential candidate, Jerry Tucker. It was clear that Tucker would receive only a tiny percentage of the delegates' votes (5, as it turned out), yet president Owen Bieber found the challenge so insulting that he instructed international representatives to work the floor to intimidate voters. One delegate from a GM parts plant in Wisconsin was surrounded by these staffers. She had intended to vote for Tucker, but the reps warned that GM might decide to close her plant. Could she live with ruining her members' lives? You may scoff, correctly, at the notion that GM would base its investment decisions on the symbolic action of one union delegate far off in San Diego. But the reps--some of them former militants themselves, now placated with staff jobs--earned big brownie points with their "boss" for delivering the vote.

About the Author

Jane Slaughter
Jane Slaughter is a labor journalist in Detroit.

Also by the Author

Jeremy Rifkin wants to rock the world of the jaded reader: He predicts that we're entering a completely new--the final--stage of capitalism.

This determination to hold on to power by any means necessary--the 1969 murder of Mine Workers reformer Jock Yablonski is the extreme case--has been a central fact of the union bureaucracy since Gompers's day. Buhle touches on democracy when he mentions Kirkland's attempts to keep city-level AFL-CIOs in line on El Salvador and Nicaragua--no solidarity with the "wrong" unions in Central America was allowed. But to discuss the barriers to democracy within the unions themselves is outside his task. The book's jacket claim to be "the first comprehensive history of American labor leadership" is thus overreaching.

Buhle does accomplish the more limited job he sets himself with a wealth of detail and a clear politics. His argument is that AFL and AFL-CIO leaders cast their fate with those whom they perceived to be society's winners--the bosses. They sacrificed members' larger interests to the hope for "a share of the promised imperial benefits and to the shared psychological satisfactions of personal superiority...over all the lowly, whether 'foreign,' female, or non-white." In doing so, labor leaders measured themselves by the business class they opposed but also admired.

That the AFL's racist, exclusionary policies weakened the labor movement immeasurably is not a novel point. But Buhle rolls out the effects, decade by decade, of Gompers's early strategic choice between an all-inclusive movement and an effort to preserve skilled jobs for those who already had them. Gompers co-wrote a 1906 pamphlet that posed the choice as he saw it: Meat vs Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolies, Which Shall Survive? Skill per se was often only a blind; Gompers notes in his autobiography that immigrant Chinese had already become skilled cigar-makers--which was precisely why they must be barred from the trade (and the country), preserving "white men's work done under white men's standards." Gompers's stand prefigured George Meany's seven decades later, when he told a reporter that the AFL-CIO wasn't necessarily interested in a larger membership. "I stopped worrying because...the organized fellow is the fellow that counts," he said. Meany was likewise clear on affirmative action; the best jobs belonged to his brothers by right: It was "nuts...to say that we've got to sacrifice our kids and our rights to take care of people who merely say that we've got to be employed because our skin is black."

When the Wagner Act went to Congress, the AFL argued, successfully, against a clause forbidding unions to discriminate. Labor should rule its own house, it contended, rather than be subject to government regulation. But when the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, the new federation adopted no enforceable antidiscrimination mechanism. This time, Meany argued autonomy: that the federation could not force a union to clean up its internal problems. He claimed with a straight face that "there are very, very few small and minute spots [of discrimination] that have to be cleaned up." Buhle notes that the autonomy principle was conveniently set aside when the CIO and the AFL-CIO expelled unions for communist and mob influence, respectively. Those who protested the federation's tolerance of racism were dealt with harshly. Meany himself moved to censure A. Philip Randolph for denouncing union segregation.

Buhle notes that even labor leaders who put on a better public face about race than Meany were shy of change within their own industries and unions. Walter Reuther is the prime example: He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. but squelched more than one movement of black auto workers. Buhle writes, "Actual black unionists, who demanded better jobs and higher union offices, proved less attractive to Meany and Reuther alike than did distant causes involving dignified black ministers and other prominent leaders."

When Lane Kirkland died in August, the New York Times obit noted his close friendship with Henry Kissinger. That nearly says it all. The involvement of the AFL-CIO with the CIA has long been known ("AFL-CIA" is its opponents' epithet of choice). Buhle details the Marshall Plan's $800 million spent by AFL operatives on attempts to wreck Communist-led unions in Europe and set up pro-US unions there. Their best successes were in Greece and Germany, where they heavily funded a break in the German federation. But in general, despite the top priority placed on such efforts by the Meany and Kirkland administrations, from Central America to Asia to Eastern Europe the federation's spymasters have failed in their attempts to set up lasting unions that follow the US pro-corporate line--that is, to spread unionism in their own image around the globe. This is, Buhle contends, partly because making the world safe for American investment was the AFL-CIO's real goal, with the health of US-friendly unions an afterthought. Even the CIA's own labor creations were valued only when they were needed to support a regime against left-wing opponents.

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