By Kim Moody
This book analyzes the decline of organized labour in the US, in terms of both membership and militancy, and evaluates the efforts of major union federations like SEIU to overcome their embattled state in the face of powerful globalized capital and pro-business government policies.
The author Kim Moody draws the focus away from ‘blaming capital’ and rather attributes union decline and consequent worsened wage and work conditions for American workers on fatal flaws in organized union leadership. To begin with, the environment in which unions must function has already vastly changed—capital has turned to increasing productivity through increased pressure on output per person/hour and inter-firm and inter-country competition. Yet the major US unions, such as AFL-CIO and SEIU, have failed to adapt to this new and far more hostile environment. Moody argues that in large part, this failure is not due to having exhausted all strategies and power of labour, and being defeated by the overwhelming capacity of capital; rather, unions have failed to demand in militant terms what they could have demanded.
Workers have taken less mass actions (strikes), and made less gains. Why? Often, the membership was willing but the union leadership was not; potential gains were lost, and instead, more and more concessions were made to employers. In times and places where unions were more militant, they brought home the bacon. ‘Partnership’ invites union leadership to be comfortable with the business employer, and to distance themselves from union masses and avoid mass resistance or rebellion that could disrupt the business-like relation of union leader to employer. Yet this has been a major mode of union leadership’s interaction with employers.
This, Moody blames in large part on major unions’ continuing pattern of bureaucratic business unionism. In the old form of this, which is dying out, the union leadership has basically ‘surrendered the workplace to management, despite continuing resistance from members.’ Unions also have in the past devoted precious resources to political campaigns, which turned out to backfire and also weakened organizing efforts. On the other hand, a new form has arisen in the form of ‘bureaucratic corporate unionism’—exemplified by SEIU.
SEIU is the largest US union and apparently quite successful; it has nearly doubled its membership between 1996 and 2006, to 1.8 million. Yet it relies on a very centralized and top-down leadership which operates very much like a corporation, hiring upper-level staff from outside, and neglects workplace democracy and training up leadership from the rank and file. SEIU also focuses, industry-wise, on ‘landlocked’ industries like hospitals, services and construction, which are less affected by globalization and offshoring. Moody argues that to truly challenge capital in the US, the labour movement must be present in the means of production and distribution of goods—strategically, the movement should target those industries critical to the economy overall. He ends by highlighting areas of organizing occurring ‘without waiting’ for the larger unions—organizing among immigrants, in worker and community centres, and among workers below the required majority to form a union yet active in struggling for their work rights nonetheless. And he stresses the importance of true union democracy as the major task before the major unions like SEIU and the AFL-CIO, to turn the fate of the overall US labour movement in the right direction.
For Asian workers’ movements, it is true that the structure of the US mainstream labour movement is older and different, but the message may be to distinguish between unions that are more truly democratic and in touch with grassroots workers’ concerned, and those in which leadership has become remote from grassroot sentiments and not militant enough to extract potential gains for labour.