Labor Must Regain Its Cause


No one can deny the sorry state of affairs unions and the American labor movement are in. Low membership numbers not seen since the 1920s and the legal regulatory system designed to protect workers’ First Amendment rights of association is totally dysfunctional. It has taken 60 years but it seems the labor bureaucrats at the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) have finally noticed as well.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has figured out that what the unions have been doing has not been working and he thinks “we have to change.” Duh!

Apparently Trumka just discovered this. I figured it out six months after I went to work as an union organizer in 1973! Trumka’s recent insight is nothing new. In fact, labor’s current decline started back in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of President Truman, who called it the “Slave Labor Act.” Taft-Hartley was the first of many warnings labor should have paid attention to. They should have learned from it – seen what was coming down the road and devised a plan for the future. They didn’t, and many would argue, despite Trumka’s recent pronouncement, they still haven’t.

Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1938, unions have attempted to build and maintain power by imitating American capitalist business with money and lobbying. Only one problem here. Unions are not businesses and their power does not come from money. Unions are people organizations and communal in nature and that is what the labor bureaucrats fail to understand. A communal people/member organization cannot operate the same way a dog eat dog greedy business system does.

Unions must go out to the general public and as the radicals in the Industrial Workers of World attempted to tell them a century ago – “Educate – Agitate and Organize!” No way around it! The AFL-CIO simply has not done that and they are reaping what they have sowed.

To say organized labor has lacked enthusiasm for organizing would be an understatement. Let me give you an example. At various times during my 30 years on union staffs, I would play a little game or maybe “conducted a test” might be a better term. I often found myself in the office after 6 pm at night. This would make it past 9 pm in Washington, D.C., where the AFL-CIO is located, and I would call them,

I would inform the AFL-CIO answering machine I was an organizer and I had a large group of workers who wanted to organize but they worked in a business I was unfamiliar with. “Could someone in your organizing office give me a call back – I would like to ask if they could suggest resources or materials?” I would do this at least once a year, sometimes twice, and … never ...never in 30 years did I get a call back from the “organizing” department at the AFL-CIO.

Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post interviewed AFL-CIO President George Meany in 1970 for his book The Unions and asked him about union organizing. Meany basically dismissed Johnson’s question as not important. We have organized workers who are important to organize, he told Johnson. Organizing was not a priority for the AFL-CIO. Meany saw himself and labor as power brokers wheeling and dealing with presidents, senators and congressmen – no time for the the working class!

This is the attitude that has got organized labor into the deep hole they have dug for themselves. While Trumka seems to recognize the unenviable position he is in today, his recent declaration is just a continuation down the same wrong road labor has been on for over fifty years. Rather than make organizing and workers their priority the AFL-CIO is going to bring “large grass-roots groups ... under the federation’s umbrella.” Not people but organizations! These will include the NAACP, National Council of LaRaza and the Sierra Club — mostly centralized organizations whose “members” send money but do little else.

These are all terrific organizations and I belong to some of them but they are not “labor” organizations! They represent issues — not the working class! The labor movement is not an issue, it is a cause. To reclaim its position of power in American politics, economics and our culture, the AFL-CIO must reclaim the cause.

What is the cause? The concept was outlined superbly by Jerry Wurf, a national union president during the ’70s and ’80s, when he said, “Union organizers think they are peddling better wages and working conditions, but essentially they’re offering dignity. And sometimes the worker who doesn’t articulate this very easily has more awareness than the professional organizer. The civil rights struggle, the equality struggle or whatever you want to call it, is just one part of this continuing struggle for dignity.”

George Meany when asked about the declining numbers of union members during his interview in 1970 answered, “It doesn’t mean a thing to me. I have no concern about it.” Forty-three years later, few would question this is one of the most ignorant and clueless short-sighted perspectives in the history of the American labor movement — a philosophy leading a narcissistic leadership down the path to labor’s organizational disintegration.

Bill Johnston is a retired staff organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. He is a member of the National Writers Union (Pacific Northwest Chapter). Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2013

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2013 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652