Big Labor's Little Problem | The Nation


Big Labor's Little Problem

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Buhle assiduously traces the influence of members of Social Democrats USA, a left-wing group turned right, on AFL-CIO foreign policy and every other policy. Sometimes, however, the link between SDUSA operatives, other unsavory types and the AFL-CIO itself is not clear. It's not enough to say that the American Friends of Vietnam, an early CIA front, was "run by Cold War liberals close to the labor leadership." Similarly, to write that the Anti-Defamation League sent spies into King's inner circle and that the ADL was "close to AFL-CIO leading lights" is not on the face of it evidence of AFL-CIO perfidy.

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Jane Slaughter
Jane Slaughter is a labor journalist in Detroit.

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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.

Buhle could also be more careful about what he assumes the reader knows. If you're familiar with New Leader and New America and the New York City teachers' strike of 1968, fine; if you aren't, you may be left scratching your head. Buhle's end-of-book inventory of hopeful signs of rank-and-file motion in the unions is also idiosyncratic and will prove hard to follow for those not already well versed in the subject.

Buhle's bottom line is that union leaders go wrong when they embrace capitalism, as Gompers, Meany and Kirkland did zealously. Once they accept the right of capital to exploit labor, the game is set. His trio went much further, of course, equating American capitalism with democracy and posing it as the only alternative to "authoritarianism."

Buhle points instead to the examples of the Knights of Labor and the Wobblies, which "proclaimed the universality of their emancipatory cause"--that is, they eschewed racism (mostly)--and "rebutted the claim of capital and government to set the standards for civilization." He notes, sadly, that even the best of today's union reformers have only begun to point in that direction.

Using that measure, Buhle is not optimistic that Meany's and Kirkland's successor, John Sweeney, will mobilize workers to challenge capital's prerogatives. Although Buhle does not remark on it, Sweeney has been quite clear that he sees business, once workers have won bargaining rights, as a partner. In October 1996 he told members of Business for Social Responsibility, "We want to help American business compete in the world and create new wealth for your shareholders and your employees. We want to work with you to bake a larger pie which all Americans can share, and not just argue with you about how to divide the existing pie." Last year Sweeney pursued a formal "dialogue" between corporate execs and union officials, with himself and Jack Welch of General Electric proposed as co-chairmen. "Neutron Jack" presides over a company that in 1998 alone made five major plant closings or transfers of work to nonunion or Mexican plants, and from 1991 to 1998 shrank the union share of its US employment from 39 to 25 percent. But, said Ed Fire, president of GE's largest union, citing reasons for Sweeney and Welch's "mutual respect": "Let's face it: GE made $8.2 billion a year profit. He's got to be doing something right."

Just as important a limit on Sweeney's potential as his respect for capital and capitalists is the top-down nature of his reforms. Buhle notes that Sweeney's 1995 upset was initiated at the top. "The new leaders did not stand at the head of--or invite...antibureaucratic unrest or Wobbly manners.... It remained to be seen...how leadership could rebuild the labor movement without tapping vast unreleased energies and hidden talents from below." And the AFL-CIO still displays "obeisance to almost anything that the Democrats have to offer." With Democrats pushing free-trade legislation, gutting welfare and looking to privatize Social Security, Sweeney's boast that his phone banks are turning out a larger union-member vote becomes hollow. Nor has the distance between the bureaucracy and ordinary members lessened.

Although the initial euphoria among many left unionists has faded some since 1995, the Sweeney victory has been positive for the labor movement in one respect. It opened up the chance to talk about what the labor movement needs--not an option under the old regime. In the book publishing boom that has followed, it's been instructive to see which topics supporters of labor have felt free to debate. Race and sex discrimination have come under fire, and labor-management cooperation and organizing strategies. But most writers have sidestepped the question of democracy--member control of unions. Students of today's labor movement, then, will be well served by Buhle's historical view, which is crystal clear about the consequences of a monopoly of power from above. Today as ever, salvation for the working stiff will not be handed down from on high.

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