Midway through his new book on corruption in the American labor movement, Solidarity for Sale, Robert Fitch tells the story of one of the most famous anticorruption crusaders of all time: Martin Luther. It was, after all, outrage at corruption–priests who charged parishioners for indulgences, living large while making sinners pay for false redemption–that prompted Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg. His critics charged him with harping on petty sins, insisting that the priests he assailed were exceptions to the rule. But Luther knew better. As Fitch puts it, “Neither the sale of indulgences nor the commerce in Church offices served as Luther’s ultimate target. These were not ‘abuses'; they were inevitable expressions of an institution that he charged was corrupt in its essence.” His real target, in the end, was not a few bad pennies but the entire structure of the church. And the result was no piecemeal change but the Reformation.
Solidarity for Sale aims, in a way, to be Ninety-Five Theses for the American labor movement. The book is not so much a history as an exposé. Virtually every page contains revelations of vote fraud, election theft, payoffs, sweetheart deals, Mafia infiltration, pension fund looting and political betrayal, and it is populated by characters with nicknames like Diamond Joe, Dago Mike and Big Jim. But Fitch is a social critic as well as an investigative journalist, and his target is larger than a few wiseguys: He seeks to demonstrate that, like the church before the Reformation, American unions are rotten at the core, and that with few exceptions they have been this way virtually since birth. The crisis of American labor today reflects the corruption at the heart of the movement, if not its original sin; to rebuild unions, Fitch suggests, we must start all over again.
Fitch has a long career as a political reporter, going back to the late 1960s, when he worked for Ramparts magazine. Unlike his fellow Ramparts alum David Horowitz, who today denounces his former comrades as terrorist sympathizers, Fitch has consistently defined himself as a man of the left. He never went into academia full time, instead pursuing a career as a freelance journalist; the body of Solidarity for Sale is based on reporting he did at the Village Voice. (Full disclosure: He is also an old acquaintance of mine, although we haven’t spoken for years.)
The question driving Fitch is the same one famously posed in 1906 by Werner Sombart: Why is there no socialism in the United States? The answer, for Fitch, is corruption–no other labor movement has been as infested with corruption as that of the United States. As a muckraking reporter, Fitch has always highlighted the role of individual elites and institutions in making history, as opposed to the grand, sweeping trends favored by academics. His analysis of the deindustrialization of New York City, for example, in his book The Assassination of New York, emphasized the role of Rockefeller real estate interests in seeking to remake downtown Manhattan as a playground for consumerism, over more abstract invocations of globalization and technological change. Similarly, in Solidarity for Sale, he blames the weakness and impotence of today’s American labor movement not on political backlash, global capital or international competition but on the choices, actions and structures of unions. “The fundamental actors in American labor are institutions–the unions themselves,” he writes.
The end of American labor, Fitch argues, lies in its beginning: the birth of the American Federation of Labor in 1886. The rise of craft unionism in the late nineteenth century meant the development of a unionism that was inherently exclusionary, as the crafts refused to organize unskilled (or black, or female) workers. Labor leaders like the AFL’s Samuel Gompers opposed public health insurance plans and even eight-hour-day legislation. “If we can get an eight-hour law for the working people, then you will find that the working people themselves will fail to have any interest in your economic organization,” he predicted in 1914.