A ‘Post-Political’ Labor Movement

Stanley Aronowitz on how the labor movement falters and how it might recover.

David Moberg October 15, 2014

Stanley Aronowitz argues in a new book that unions can't survive without reversing decades of timidity and bureaucratization.

After the Brook­lyn Col­lege admin­is­tra­tion tem­porar­i­ly sus­pend­ed Stan­ley Aronowitz from school in 1950 for tak­ing part in a protest, he dropped out to fol­low a much more unortho­dox route to an aca­d­e­m­ic career. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Aronowitz — a life­time New York­er in spir­it even when tem­porar­i­ly absent — was a fac­to­ry work­er, union orga­niz­er, civ­il rights advo­cate, influ­en­tial con­trib­u­tor to New Left orga­ni­za­tions, and a vivid, often flam­boy­ant debater in a tumul­tuous polit­i­cal period.

'By still relying on elections and on contracts and grievance procedures rather than engaging in direct action, unions are on the road to doom.'

Since 1983, how­ev­er, he has been a pro­lif­ic soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, writ­ing or edit­ing 25 books. His lat­est, The Death and Life of Amer­i­can Labor: Toward a New Work­ers’ Move­ment, out from Ver­so this fall, expands his decades-long argu­ment that unions need big­ger goals and more direct action to suc­ceed, or even sur­vive. Aronowitz spoke with In These Times Senior Edi­tor David Moberg about his strate­gies for reviv­ing the labor movement.

You say in your book that the labor move­ment has become part of the estab­lish­ment. In what way?

In the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, unions con­tributed $141 mil­lion to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, one of the two estab­lish­ment par­ties. Their main strat­e­gy for mov­ing labor for­ward is elec­toral pol­i­tics, yet they have not formed a labor par­ty. Mean­while, they have vir­tu­al­ly giv­en up the strike and any kind of harsh crit­i­cism of the cap­i­tal­ist system.

There is almost no orga­nized anti-cap­i­tal­ist polit­i­cal move­ment in the Unit­ed States. Can we expect the labor move­ment to be anti-capitalist?

We can’t, under the cur­rent cir­cum­stances. But agi­ta­tion for an anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics can’t wait for some kind of apoc­a­lypse. With the liv­ing stan­dards of the Amer­i­can peo­ple stag­nat­ing as tremen­dous rich­es accu­mu­late at the top, this is the time that anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics can res­onate with the larg­er pub­lic. I call for anoth­er polit­i­cal for­ma­tion linked to the labor move­ment, like the Trade Union Edu­ca­tion League (the Com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tion of the 1920s), and for a par­ty out­side of the two major parties.

You crit­i­cize union con­tracts because they ham­per direct action and chan­nel dis­con­tent into bureau­crat­ic griev­ance pro­ce­dures. Is the con­tract itself a bad goal, or is the prob­lem that most con­tracts pre­clude strikes and guar­an­tee man­age­ment broad power? 

The big issue is the long-term con­tract, because that pre­vents work­ers from tak­ing direct action as prob­lems arise in the work­place or the econ­o­my changes. I don’t think that pow­er­ful unions need con­tracts. I would set­tle for a one-year con­tract that did not have the strike pro­hi­bi­tion and did not include man­age­ment prerogatives.

You write that the biggest prob­lem the labor move­ment faces is not declin­ing num­bers but declin­ing pow­er. But don’t num­bers con­tribute to power?

The num­bers are impor­tant, espe­cial­ly for work­ers who need orga­ni­za­tions to be able to fight their bat­tles [with employ­ers]. But unions in the Unit­ed States do not rec­og­nize that a mil­i­tant minor­i­ty can have a tremen­dous effect if it engages in direct action — as unions do in France, and as the Ser­vice Employ­ees [Inter­na­tion­al Union] (SEIU) has done with fast-food work­ers and the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) has at Wal­mart, in con­duct­ing elec­tive one-day strikes in sev­er­al cities.

You advo­cate a labor move­ment that is post-polit­i­cal.” What do you mean by that?

Post-polit­i­cal means that the union move­ment may endorse can­di­dates or run its own, but essen­tial­ly does not rely on elec­toral pol­i­tics and pub­lic offi­cials — that is, the state — to ful­fill its goals. Instead, unions should rely on their own resources, on their own mem­bers and on their own imag­i­na­tions to cre­ate con­di­tions to make their mem­bers’ lives bet­ter, in the way that unions, espe­cial­ly in the ear­ly-to-mid-20th cen­tu­ry, once estab­lished and ran very good, mod­er­ate-cost coop­er­a­tive housing.

We’ve been rely­ing for so long on politi­cians to solve prob­lems that the union mem­ber­ship no longer real­ly relies on its own pow­er. The prop­er word is real­ly post-elec­toral” or post-state,” and it once had a tremen­dous res­o­nance among large num­bers of workers.

Are elec­toral pol­i­tics no longer important?

No, unfor­tu­nate­ly, they still are. But I do think they have been hor­ren­dous­ly over-empha­sized at the expense of orga­niz­ing and issues such as edu­ca­tion, hous­ing and pub­lic trans­porta­tion. Unions have become sup­pli­cants of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and depend on the elec­toral sys­tem to resolve work­ers’ problems.

You men­tion Occu­py as a mod­el. But its main achieve­ment was mak­ing com­mon polit­i­cal cur­ren­cy out of the clash between the 99% and the 1%. 

Occu­py refused to be pro­gram­mat­ic, and it has vir­tu­al­ly dis­ap­peared. But Occu­py revived the old tac­tics of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence and direct action. And by still rely­ing on elec­tions and on con­tracts and griev­ance pro­ce­dures rather than engag­ing in direct action, unions are on the road to doom.

You write that much of the prob­lem of the Amer­i­can labor move­ment stems from weak lead­ers. What led to that sit­u­a­tion? Do con­ser­v­a­tive mem­ber­ships elect con­ser­v­a­tive leaders?

I don’t think that union lead­er­ship actu­al­ly reflects the views of the mem­bers. Many of these unions have become gen­er­al work­ers’ unions. They do not orga­nize in one spe­cif­ic indus­try. And it’s very dif­fi­cult for that diverse mem­ber­ship to cre­ate an inter­nal demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­si­tion that can win. There is no demo­c­ra­t­ic edu­ca­tion pro­gram to expose them to new ideas and infor­ma­tion. So mem­bers are vot­ing for lead­ers to be cus­to­di­ans of an insur­ance com­pa­ny that pro­vides ben­e­fits. But work­ers don’t real­ly expect them to be seri­ous­ly involved in their day-to-day strug­gles, which are often led by the shop stew­ard sys­tem — if the shop stew­ards are still there — and not by the nation­al leaders.

You see some hope in move­ments on the out­skirts of the labor move­ment and strate­gies such as minor­i­ty union­ism, which the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers pur­sued after its orga­niz­ing loss at Volk­swa­gen.

I was very sur­prised and pleased by that. The only mis­take is that the UAW is not going to charge dues until they have a con­tract. I think work­ers who join unions should pay their own way.

Do you see encour­ag­ing signs in unions work­ing with com­mu­ni­ty groups on hous­ing and bank­ing issues, or of AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka recent­ly speak­ing out strong­ly on racism?

It’s a great sign, but Trum­ka does not have much influ­ence over the inter­na­tion­al unions that real­ly have the pow­er. It will take much more than the state­ments by Trum­ka to get the labor move­ment to become a labor move­ment again. The impe­tus to change is going to have to come from both inside and out­side of the union movement.

Some of what SEIU and UFCW have done to orga­nize low-wage work­ers is very impor­tant. Unions have also reached out to many of the more than 200 work­er cen­ters, even though the amount of assis­tance that cen­ters get from unions is still sparse. Also, many unions showed up at the cli­mate change demon­stra­tion in Sep­tem­ber in New York City (though the AFL-CIO sup­port for the Key­stone pipeline is regres­sive). They see the need to form alliances with oth­er social move­ments, as they have done with the Black Free­dom Move­ment and the fem­i­nist movement.

You acknowl­edge that a major prob­lem fac­ing work­ers and the labor move­ment is inse­cu­ri­ty cre­at­ed by glob­al­iza­tion and new tech­nol­o­gy. What is the best way to respond to that? 

Two things need to hap­pen, or I don’t see much hope. First, there have to be actions, even if they’re incon­clu­sive, like the fast food and Wal­mart demon­stra­tions — actions that give peo­ple some sense of pow­er and of hope. Sec­ond, inside and out­side of the unions, peo­ple need to be edu­cat­ed about their own his­to­ry and the degree to which the sys­tem is no longer work­ing for them. And they have to begin to think about a dif­fer­ent way of life.

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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