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Big Labor's Little Problem | The Nation

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Big Labor's Little Problem

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At a "Lean Workplace School" for union members, sponsored by the monthly magazine Labor Notes in 1996, the discussion centered around how to fight employers' speed-up and worker-management cooperation schemes with real unionism. In the middle of it all, a mail handler from Colorado raised his hand and asked simply, "Why are all the internationals so awful?"

About the Author

Jane Slaughter
Jane Slaughter is a labor journalist in Detroit.

Also by the Author

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Everyone had a story to tell. The participants--from the Service Employees, AFSCME, Auto Workers, building trades--chimed in with a host of cases where the national or international levels of their unions had sided with management and screwed the members. Their answers to the mail handler's question ranged from "individual evil" to "power corrupts" to "money corrupts" to "bigness is bad."

Scholars have generated dozens of books--most of them laudatory--about the semi-unique phenomenon of the business-unionist US labor bureaucracy. Traditionally, they have seen the formation of a professional caste atop the labor movement as a natural and welcome consequence of maturation. As the passion of the early organizing days gives way to the administration of highly technical contracts, the "fervent idealist" and "democrat" give way to the "cold materialist" and "conscious autocrat," in the words of German theorist Robert Michels (who later became a supporter of Mussolini).

Paul Buhle's aptly named Taking Care of Business comes at the question of bureaucracy from the angle of the AFL-CIO's relationship to race and to empire. He argues that early AFL leaders, and some of those to follow, began with the goal of universal emancipation. But sooner or later they settled on a different goal: more money for certain categories of white male workers, enabled by US economic and military power around the world. Buhle calls this approach "cynical expectations to win abroad what has been given away at home." "No other modern empire," he writes, "showed the same capacity to shape...its labor leaders to such uniform purpose.... The steady commitment to imperial aims has demanded...rules and practices against functioning labor democracy."

A prolific writer of labor and left histories (a dozen-plus books in the nineties, including last year's gorgeous coffee-table compendium, Images of American Radicalism), Buhle is well suited to such an overarching task. He chooses to focus on the apex of the officialdom: three of the four men who were president of the American Federation of Labor or the AFL-CIO through 1995. As he details the presidencies of Samuel Gompers (1883-1926), George Meany (1952-79) and Lane Kirkland (1979-95), the reader is struck by how faithfully the varieties of betrayal or bureaucratic maneuver are repeated over and over from the earliest years. For example, leaders of the United Auto Workers today argue against holding a direct membership vote for top officers on the grounds that white members would not vote for blacks. John L. Lewis used the same argument in 1919.

Because of Buhle's focus--labor's relation to US imperialism, top leaders of the federation--his book leaves out two parts of the bureaucratic elephant that American workers have felt more immediately. Those are union relations with employers and internal union democracy. The AFL-CIO itself does not bargain contracts with employers. When companies began demanding contract givebacks in the eighties, it was up to the AFL-CIO's autonomous constituent unions to say yes or no (they said yes). Lane Kirkland was not officially in charge of deciding whether the labor movement would capitulate to employer demands (in hopes of saving jobs) or organize members to resist--although the presumed leader of the working class could have, in theory, tried to lead on the question. Breaking with tradition, John Sweeney, elected AFL-CIO president in 1995 in an unprecedented challenge to the incumbent, has tried to do just that on a different question: organizing the unorganized, using political persuasion and some financial incentives to get the affiliates off the dime.

Almost to a man (the word is used advisedly), international union leaders went along with concessions on wages, benefits and working conditions, agreeing to them in national contracts, pressuring locals to sign local agreements or providing no support when locals wanted to resist. Again with almost no dissenters at the top levels, they signed on to labor-management cooperation programs such as "team concept" and "Quality of Work Life" that, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, invariably left rank-and-filers disgusted and cynical about the next "flavor of the month." It was as if they had rewritten the line in labor's anthem, "Solidarity Forever"--"There is naught we have in common with the greedy parasite"--to say, "There's a lot...." Buhle doesn't address this central fact of unionism in the eighties and nineties, because AFL-CIO leaders didn't. The federation made no detailed statement on labor-management cooperation (they're for it) until 1994, long after the damage had been done.

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