Unions Need to Get Back to Organizing


During my 30 years on the staff of various unions I used to play a little game. A test actually!

I always worked on the West Coast. Evenings I often found myself working in the office and on the East Coast, where all of organized labor’s main offices were located, it was three hours later. Six o’clock was nine at night in the offices of the AFL-CIO located across the street from the White House in Washington, D.C.

About twice a year I would give them a call. Understand, the AFL-CIO is the coordinating organization for most of the unions in the US. I always got an answering machine. I would identify myself as a union organizer and explain I was organizing a company with 500 employees and since it was in a rather unusual business I was hoping their organizing or research department could give me some helpful information. Could someone call me back?

How many call backs do you suppose I got in 30 years? None – Zero – Zilch ! Not a word!

Organized labor and union membership has plunged to dismal levels. My “test” example only points to part of the problem organized labor has on Labor Day 2017 but not all of it. It has taken a long time for the unions to paint themselves into this corner. A situation many labor scholars are asking themselves if the unions can recover from. At least structured as organized labor is now.

A failure to plan is a plan for failure and organized labor has not developed a plan or strategy over the past 50 years. Business, on the other hand , put together a plan to destroy unions in 1971 with the infamous “Powell Memo,” written by Lewis Powell for the US Chamber of Commerce before Powell was named to the US Supreme Court. Corporate America has – unlike labor – planned and carried out organized labor’s near total destruction in a most effective manner.

“Pie card” business unionism with the help of the US government in the 1950s purged progressive and left-wing union leadership in favor of the comity of an “all too cautious and collaborationist set of top labor leaders, the bureaucratic character of the big trade unions, and indeed, the whole structure of collective bargaining ...” as pointed out by Nelson Lichtenstein in his insightful book, The State of the Union.

Interviewed in 1970, George Meany, the President of the AFL-CIO said of organizing new members in the face of declining numbers — “I have no concern about it. To me it doesn’t mean a thing” — which could explain the total lack of interest in my “test” phone calls to the AFL-CIO. Basically for the AFL-CIO — “organizing? — we don’t give diddly-squat.” When Meany made this statement the labor federation represented about 30% of American workers — today it is less than a third of that.

Politically Labor has adopted the Democratic Party’s market based identity politics philosophy. But unions must be built on class not individual fetishism. Unions are community organizations that must look at all workers as equals united in a common effort. Too split workers up into groups based on race or sex and not as a united unit is a prescription for decline and disaster.

Corporations and the political right wing believe the decline has already taken place and organized labor has reached at point of insignificance. But perhaps a bigger lesson can be drawn from history – a history untaught in our “free market” education system.

The pyramids were built by union workers. The workers in the Valley of the Kings were union. At the beginning of the First Century A.D., there were more than one hundred unions in Rome. From election posters preserved on the walls at Pompeii we know they were politically active. The iron workers in the forge at Jamestown in 1610 were union. Andrew Jackson was our first pro-union president.

Workers have organized for centuries and will continue to do so. Americans are discovering many short comings and failings in our government institutions – our fraternal organizations are disappearing; churches struggle to maintain their congregations and unions their numbers in the workforce. The time has come for American unions to look at their outdated 1880s organizations and ask if in 2017 it is time to build new organizational structures and seriously analyze what labor’s future role is in American society, politics and culture.

Currently the future is dim.

Bill Johnston is a retired staff organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. He spent 30 as an organizer, local union president, international trustee and district council president for five Northwestern States. He is a member of the National Writers Union (Pacific Northwest Chapter). Email wfjohnstonehs@wamail.net.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2017


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