Two recent images of the labor movement in this time of crisis stand out for their stark contrast.
One is a photograph of UAW President Ron Gettlefinger sitting at the witness table before a Congressional committee with the heads of the Big 3 auto makers, pleading for help. The other is a photo of jubilant workers celebrating their victory after a six day sit-in at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago.
It is not stretching things to say that these images crystallize the problems and possibilities of organized labor today.
Gettlefinger’s testimony was a sad coda to an era in US industrial relations that actually ended in September 2007 when the UAW reached a concession packed agreement with GM following a two day strike, and similar agreements later that year with the other auto makers. The agreements froze wages for production workers; reclassified and placed “non-production” workers on a lower wage scale; and set a new hire rate at about $14.00 an hour—about half what incumbent workers earn—with inferior benefits. A buyout program was designed to push as many senior workers out the door as possible to make room for the new hires. The union promoted the contract as a way to buy time for the companies to reorganize and retool.
Nothing much happened. The restructuring took the form of plant closures. The retooling remained a promise by the Big 3 to produce more energy efficient cars. But all the while the companies kept up their incessant advertisements for SUVs, pick-ups, and other gas guzzlers. And they continued to pursue their lobbying and lawsuits against tougher mileage standards. The spike in gas prices and the credit crunch provided the coup de grace to a dying industry.
In October 2007, we asked on this blog, whether the UAW could turn its collective bargaining defeat into a strategic retreat by regrouping and developing an independent survival plan for the industry? Now we know the answer: they could not. Tragically, the UAW kept marching in lock step with the very companies that were destroying the US industry. The union even supported the companies’ opposition to tougher mileage standards because, they argued, it would unfairly hurt sales of light trucks and SUVs and imperil many jobs.
Had the union taken an independent course things might now be different. They might have been able to mobilize popular opinion behind a plan to produce greener cars and new vehicles for public transportation, preserving the jobs and the economies of the communities that depend on them. Instead, there is no plan to rally around, only a demoralized plea for a bailout.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
It is not just the UAW that seems out of touch with the moment. In the run-up to this year’s election organized labor made a plan to pour its resources into electing a Democratic President and Congress and then to push for the enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which is designed to make organizing easier. They did a terrific job during the election; in some key areas labor was the difference between victory and defeat for the Democrats.
Then with unexpected abruptness September’s financial collapse provided the accelerant for a general economic crisis that had been smoldering for more than a year. Since then, labor has been unable to adapt to the changed circumstances. Right-wing politicians and corporate executives have called for government bailouts and the partial nationalization of whole industries, abandoning decades of market fundamentalism, but labor is sticking to the plan it hatched in what now seems like another era. With the exception of a few public pronouncements on the crisis, labor leaders have retained an almost single minded focus on passage of EFCA. Meanwhile people are losing their jobs and getting kicked out of their homes in record numbers, while others—from the high skilled to the low skilled, white collar and blue collar—walk a financial tightrope, in high anxiety, without a net.
And no matter what one thinks of EFCA or the possibility of its passage in a meaningful form, it is not an adequate response to the current crisis. In the most wildly optimistic scenario, any benefits from EFCA—and we think they will be modest, but important—are a year or two down the road. And while passage could ratchet up union density a notch or two, it is worth remembering that to raise union density one percentage point labor must hold on to all its existing members and organize well over one million additional workers per year—a formidable task to say the least. Also worth noting is that the two industries with among the highest union densities—autos and airlines—are both basket cases where collective bargaining is strictly a give-back game. That’s because the global forces transforming the industrial landscape, are far beyond the ability of traditional collective bargaining to influence.
The labor movement historically has two functions: to represent workers in the workplace through collective bargaining, and, to be the socially sanctioned representatives of the general economic interests of workers in public discourse. It is this second role—as a representative of all workers—that labor now needs to assume. What is needed at this moment of crisis is a new spirit in the labor movement and a new kind of unionism that addresses the needs of all workers and combines the mass mobilizing and protest techniques of modern social movements with an alternative vision of economic reconstruction from the bottom up.
The spirit of the times
The 250 workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago provided a glimpse of what this kind of unionism might look like, and how it could transform labor. Faced with the prospect of losing pay and benefits owed them when management announced that the plant was closing immediately and workers would not be receiving the severance pay or accrued vacation pay owed them by law, the workers—and the scrappy, independent, United Electrical Workers Union (UE) that represents them—took matters into their own hands and refused to leave the factory. They did not wait to plead their case to politicians or file law suits, they took direct action.
The sit-in at Republic Windows lasted 6 days. It was well planned and well executed. As early as mid-November, when workers noticed machinery being trucked away—a classic harbinger of a plant closing—the union began planning for an occupation should it become necessary. When the announcement came they were ready. “We knew keeping the windows in the warehouse was a bargaining chip,” said one worker. The occupation was accompanied by a brilliant outside campaign that targeted not only Republic Windows, but the Bank of America, which had refused to extend a new line of credit to the company after it exhausted its old one, forcing it into bankruptcy. Bank of America is a recent recipient of billions of dollars in bailout money and a perfect target for public shaming.
class media campaign clearly presented the issues to the public. In a manner
reminiscent of the highly popular UPS strike of 1997 that portrayed that
company’s shift to part time workers as an attack on all workers, the UE called
the Republic occupation “….a win for all working men and women who face
uncertainty, unfairness and job loss in a troubled economy.” Help poured in
from everywhere in the form of demonstrations, on-site support, and material
help for the workers. President-elect Obama, state and local officials, other
unions and social justice movements from around the country all joined in
The press treated the occupation as a major event and the reporting was generally very good, and on occasion, outstanding. In the end, the workers won the 60 days severance pay due them, along with accrued vacation time. They forced Bank of America to lend the company $1.35 million, and got J.P. Morgan, which owned a stake in the company, to come up with additional money. The union also began a “Window of Opportunity Fund” to explore ways to keep the plant open under worker control.
New realities require new directions
The UAW’s decades old sectoral alliance with the auto companies has been an abject failure. While management drove the industry into a ditch, the UAW sat quietly in the passenger seat. Now, without independence or ideas, the union seems incapable of mobilizing its members or their communities—mobilize for what?—and it garners little public sympathy. Instead, the UAW is reduced to offering more concessions, if only the Administration or Congress will come up with some cash. It now appears that the bailout package will force the UAW to cut wages, and match the work rules, of the non-union transplants in the South. The idea of government mandated wages and work rules pegged to non-union employers adds a whole new dimension to the race to the bottom.
In contrast, the UE’s direct action, bottoms up approach at Republic Windows and the overwhelmingly positive response it received, tapped into the public’s anger and desire for change and points the way to another avenue for labor. New strategies and tactics are now on the table. It is no accident that the occupation came on the heels of Obama’s election victory, widely perceived as a mandate for change. The spirit, strategy, and participatory ethos of the strike signal the possibility of a new kind of social movement unionism that could renew labor.
is another profound lesson in these two events. In the end, despite their
militancy and brilliant tactics, the workers at Republic still lost their jobs.
In the coming months millions of other workers are likely to lose their
jobs. The global economic forces at work are far beyond the capacity of
the biggest or most militant unions to address. That will take thousands of
actions like the one at Republic, not just at the workplace but in all corners
of the economy and society, linked together and clamoring for an alternative to
the failed economy. And it will take a labor movement that is willing to
step into its role as the people’s voice.