Building workplace organizations anew

Workplace solidarity in the face of the neoliberal onslaught is as crucial as ever, yet present-day unions become ever more fearful. How do we build solidarity in an era when the tools of the past have lost their effectiveness?

New types of organizations are not only necessary, it is essential to look at past upsurges in union activity, particularly those of the 1930s, with clear eyes rather than romanticization, argues Staughton Lynd in Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below.* A new re-issue and updating of a classic work, the book has lost none of its timeliness. Critical to understanding how unions lost their way, becoming too cozy with the corporate managements they are supposed to challenge, is the stifling of rank-and-file activity, particularly of militant tactics, by Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) unions in the 1930s.

Self-activity from below in the mid-1930s catalyzed a big upsurge in union membership; solidarity through striking was a critical component. When the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, was moving toward enactment in the 1930s, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) opposed it because they foresaw the National Labor Relations Board that would be formed to arbitrate disputes would hinder the right to strike. The board would inevitably aid capital, not labor, they believed.

Solidarity Unionism coverThe Wagner Act was passed, the board came to be, and although specific decisions have favored one side or the other at different times, those fears have come to pass. Mr. Lynd argues that the CIO opposed and suppressed rank-and-file and independent activity, opposed an independent labor political party and agreed to no-strike clauses that would be in force the entirely of contracts, thereby handing all power to company management. And although Mr. Lynd doesn’t discuss it, many of the gains that were achieved in the Wagner Act were taken back a decade later with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which further restricted union activity, including prohibiting sympathy strikes, a serious blow to solidarity.

In U.S. labor mythology, the CIO is the “radical” union umbrella organization, infusing new life into Great Depression organizing after the slow pace of unionization under the guidance of American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions. But CIO contracts ceded decision-making to management in all aspects of operations from the start, while union leaders promoted themselves as guarantors of labor peace. Going back to the CIO of 1936 or 1945 is useless, Mr. Lynd argues, because it set out to suppress independent activity from the start.

Democracy is the essential ingredient

Interestingly, he also argues that the dues-checkoff system is another factor contributing to the undemocratic and collaborationist tendencies of unions, because it makes union leaderships unaccountable to the rank-and-file. New worker organizations must be democratic to have any chance of being effective. Building new labor organizations of a different kind, that demonstrate their usefulness in responding to problems, is the way forward. Mr. Lynd writes that democracy is the starting point:

“Trade unions are among the most undemocratic institutions in the United States. Far from prefiguring a new society, they are institutional dinosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the corporations we are striving to replace. … Democracy means, at a minimum, the freedom to criticize frankly and fully. Union bureaucrats have a tendency to view criticism as treason. But rank-and-file members must be able to criticize, not just the policies of incumbent union officers, but the structural shortcomings of the labor movement. For instance, CIO contracts have always contained no-strike and management-prerogative clauses, but if we think (as I do) that these clauses are wrong and should be abolished, we should be free to say so.” [page 21]

From such democracy arise the conditions to begin moving toward a better world, instead of the defensive retreats of recent decades.

“Working people believe in solidarity, not because they are better than other people, but because the power of the boss forces workers to reach out to each other for help. Because of the vision and practice of solidarity, the labor movement with all its shortcomings does prefigure a new kind of society within the shell of the old. And by building organizations based on solidarity, rather than on bureaucratic chain-of-command, we build organizations that by their very existence help to bring a new kind of society into being.” [page 24]

The author gives three local examples from the area around Youngstown, Ohio. One was a solidarity club consisting of workers from several unions that organized united actions in defense of strikers and other workers facing layoffs or other unfair labor practices; one was a group of retirees that defended pension benefits, especially since, as retirees, they were not allowed to vote on contract changes; and the third organized in defense of workers suffering health problems due to working with toxic chemicals.

Solidarity, not bureaucracy

Although each of these three groups won victories, the author acknowledges that they did not have far-reaching impacts. They did, however, demonstrate what is possible with different kinds of labor organizations that are democratic and based on direct action. Mr. Lynd writes:

“I want to suggest that trade unions as they now exist in the United States are structurally incapable of changing the corporate economy, so that simply electing new officers to head these organizations will not solve our problems. I argue that the internationalization of capital, far from proving that such centralized unions are needed more than ever, has, on the contrary, demonstrated their impotence and the need for something qualitatively new.” [page 47]

Putting life into the concept of “an injury to one is an injury to all” by striking on behalf of workers in other enterprises in one form of this necessary solidarity. Shop-floor committees that organize around grievances and problems rather than negotiating contracts and that use direct action, even in opposition to their union leaders, and “parallel central labor bodies” that organize workers in a geographic region, across industries, are two alternative forms the author advocates. As an example, he recounts a 1916 incident where the 2,000 workers of a factory walked out when an organizer was dismissed; within a couple of days, 36,000 workers across the region walked out in an organized show of strength.

Militancy is what is needed:

“The critical analytical error … of established unions about their current crisis is the assumption that labor and management have the same or mutually consistent interests. … It is the assumption that underlies business unionism, because it induces trade unions to leave investment decisions to management while directing their own attention to wages, hours, and working conditions, and to surrender the right to strike (for the duration of the collective bargaining agreements) in the belief that workers no longer need the strike to protect their day-to-day interests.” [page 78]

By ceding all decision-making to capitalists, negotiating over wages, hours and working conditions will always be defensive because unions are bargaining the extent of their members’ exploitation and can do nothing more. Staughton Lynd has given us a concise guide to thinking about workplace organization differently. (At barely a hundred pages in compact form, I was able to read Solidarity Unionism in a single evening.)

And once we realize we don’t need capitalists to make decisions for us, and learn to organize collective self-defense, getting rid of bosses and running enterprises ourselves enters our imagination.

* Staughton Lynd, Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below [PM Press, Oakland, California, USA 2015]

17 comments on “Building workplace organizations anew

  1. axelz00 says:

    I have a lot of respect for Lynd, but this book is for the historian not the labor activist in today’s world. I suggest Guy Standing’s A Precariat Charter. And instead of a so-called progressive union like SEIU running media blitzes that pass as union organizing (Fight for 15) what about all minimum wage workers in a city forming their own organizations across specific sectors? And how about demanding a Basic Income and a rise in wages to the equivalent 70s min. wage which would put that wage in today’s $$$’s at $21?

    • I would argue that the Fight For 15 is an initiative of low-wage workers organizing and building their own organizations. Traditional unions like the SEIU are scrambling to tail a movement not of their making. It could also be argued that the Fight for 15 movement could become a stepping stone toward the sort of demands that you suggest.

      The blurb for A Precariat Charter summarizes the book this way:

      “A Precariat Charter discusses how rights — political, civil, social and economic — have been denied to the Precariat, and argues for the importance of redefining our social contract around notions of associational freedom, agency and the commons.”

      I don’t think that argument is any different than that of Staughton Lynd. I agree that the ideas in Solidarity Unionism are not a blueprint and that new tactics and demands geared for today’s needs are necessary, but I would also argue that understanding the past, including grasping the mistakes of union organizing of the past so that we have a better understanding of why organizing is in such pitiable shape today, are steps that can’t be avoided.

      • The big obstacle to reforming unions is the fact that they still run Stalinist elections for their officers, with convention delegates, not the rank-and-file, doing the job.

        Meanwhile, as to the Precariat Charter, this question: “our social contract”? What social contract would that be? There is none, and never has been. In fact, the triumph of business unionism after 1945 ensured that outcome, as what remained of unions (after their leftist leaders were evicted) traded away the very possibility of social bargaining in exchange for a temporary semi-cease-fire on paycheck bargaining within core industries.

        Starting with fundamental errors is no way to build resistance. We are still working toward our first social contract. To get it, we need a big, coherent, workers-first social movement.

      • RDS says:

        “Fight For 15 is an initiative of low-wage workers organizing and building their own organizations. Traditional unions like the SEIU are scrambling to tail a movement not of their making.”

        Huh? SEIU (and other existing unions) are the ones who started, bankrolled, and organized fast food workers and the fight for $15.

        SEIU controls the overall movement, although it gives local leadership autonomy and flexibility so that they can adjust their tactics to local conditions.

        • There were grassroots groups, such as Socialist Alternative, active in the struggle for a $15 minimum wage early on. Such groups are in no way “controlled” by the SEIU. The successful campaign of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant did much to put the issue out front.

          Unions stand behind Democrats, not socialists like her. The Democratic Party, you might have noticed, is no supporter of this fight.

          Unions like SEIU have organizational muscle and money behind these movements, true, but they wouldn’t have done so unless there was a viable grassroots movement already in existence. Those unions that are doing so realize they have to do something to revitalize themselves, but remain exceptions.

          • RDS says:

            “There were grassroots groups, such as Socialist Alternative, active in the struggle for a $15 minimum wage early on. Such groups are in no way “controlled” by the SEIU. The successful campaign of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant did much to put the issue out front.”

            If you’re referring to 15Now, that was a party front controlled from above by the Socialist Alternative leadership. See

            “Unions stand behind Democrats, not socialists like her. The Democratic Party, you might have noticed, is no supporter of this fight.”

            Unions endorse(d) Sawant:

            “Unions like SEIU have organizational muscle and money behind these movements, true, but they wouldn’t have done so unless there was a viable grassroots movement already in existence.”

            Again, you write as if SEIU didn’t launch the fight for $15 and Fast Food Forward to begin with. The In These Times article I linked previously proves conclusively that SEIU spearheaded the movement you continually pretend is “grassroots.” I have no problem with SEIU spearheading these initiatives, but I’m not going to lie to myself or to anyone else about their leading role in the fight.

            • I have no problem with SEIU playing a role in these movements, either. But I also see no point in denying the role of grassroots groups, including socialist parties. And groups like Socialist Alternative are grassroots organizations, no matter how much they scare you. If unions get more behind movements like this, all the better.

              But while you or anyone else can point to this or that union local that endorses a socialist candidate, the fact remains that the U.S. union apparatus, as a whole, continues with business unionism despite the tactic’s decades of failure and continues to grovel at the feet of a Democratic Party that repeatedly kicks working people in the teeth, as we saw yet again this week with the approval of fast track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

              • RDS says:

                Scare me? lol The issue with Socialist Alternative — despite the good work that they do do — is that they are a sect and the sect form has inhibited the development of a mass-based socialist movement in this country for more than a century.

              • “Sects” do exist, but Socialist Alternative is not one of them. I’ve done work with one of their branches and they go good work, in the open and willing to work with other groups.

                I think we tend to have it backward: It is often argued that the Left is in bad shape because it has too many small groupings, but it really is the other way around. The Left has so many small, competing groups because we are in such bad shape. If there were a major upsurge in consciousness, concomitant with a rising Left, a lot of the small groups would merge or dissolve as a smaller number of major groups or coalitions coalesce.

                We of course are far from this in almost every country of the North, excepting Greece and Spain. When there is very little to fight over, the tendency is for determined fighting to occur over that very little. (In a different context, one can think of the past several years at the Pacifica Radio network.) When there is something real to struggle about, there would be more unity — Syriza in Greece, for its contradictions and difficulties right now, is one example of a successful coalition with many parts.

              • RDS says:

                A sect is not defined by its good or bad behavior, its sectarianism or anti-sectarianism, but by the fact that they are organized on the basis of particular shibboleths and dogmas (why CWI is right and IMT is wrong, for example).

              • There is all the difference in the world between sectarianism and dogmatism, on the one hand, and a well-developed political understanding based on study and analysis, on the other hand. You are using the term “sect” indiscriminately. But it is much easier to throw rocks at those who are doing activist work than to do that work oneself.

              • RDS says:

                Stay away from books like the Critique of the Gotha Program if you think Marxist analysis is “throwing rocks.”

              • The works of Marx are not a bible. Although Marx will long be one of the world’s most important philosophers and social scientists thanks to his pioneering work on de-mystifying capitalism, we do ourselves no favors by quoting something written 140 years ago and declaring we have nothing else to learn or say. If we don’t adapt to present conditions, and build upon more recent experiences, we will never be able to synthesize practice with theory and thus will go nowhere.

  2. I think the decline of American unions was inevitable once the Taft Hartley Act was passed. The Democratic Party has numerous congressional majorities after 1948 but chose not to repeal Taft Hartley. This should have been our first indication that they had abandoned working people.

    • You certainly are correct to point to Taft-Hartley, which could not have passed without Democratic support, but it could be said that the decline of U.S. unions can be sourced earlier, when union leaders pledged there would be no labor unrest during World War II and then joined the right wing in a witch hunt against Communist-affiliated union leaders immediately following the war, even though the C.P. was 100 percent behind the war effort and backed the wartime no-strike pledge.

      In my mind Staughton Lynd makes a good case for why the decline of unions was inevitable from the 1930s because of the CIO cozying up to corporate bosses. Nonetheless, the most important reason is allowing labor militancy to die out in the late 1930s, a militancy that has never returned. If working people go into the streets, and walk out, in the millions, no union misleadership or political office-holder can stop them. We have to stop being afraid.

  3. Ciliga says:

    Trusting SEIU is a fool’s game. The mainstream labor movement showed its hand in Wisconsin. Where was the national leadership when their own affiliates were getting mowed down by a two bit thug politician? Fearful they would embarrass the White House? Now public sector unions are up against it as the labor establishment gets behind corrupt and narrow minded politicians like Sanders whose best days are long behind them as he demonstrated so blatantly in his mishandling of the BLM issue at Netroots.

    • What happened to the Wisconsin fightback movement against Scott Walker is a lesson we should all take seriously. In Madison, there was a strong grassroots movement that was co-opted by union leaders and turned into an electoral campaign for the Democratic Party. The movement withered thanks to this, and Walker survived to win another term and continue his wrecking-ball offensive against working people.

      The establishment has nothing to fear from Bernie Sanders. He’ll steer his supporters into supporting Hillary Clinton, or whichever corporate candidate gets the Democratic nomination, once he his campaign falters, just as Dennis Kucinich did in his presidential runs. And Senator Sanders is not the consistent progressive his supporters believe he is; he has supported many U.S. bombing campaigns. One would think it would not be that difficult to grasp the necessary connections between U.S. foreign policy offensives and the neoliberal onslaught at home.

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