Sunday, February 24, 2008

Remaking Labor - From The Top-Down? Bottom-Up ? or Both?

From Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society,
March, 2008 Vol 11. Issue #1 (For subscription info, contact:

Review of:

Milkman, Ruth. L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement. New York, NY:
Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 244 pp.$24.95 (paperback).

Moody, Kim. U.S. Labor In Trouble And Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above and the Promise of Revival
from Below. New York, NY: Verso, 2007. 289 pp.$29.95 (paperback).

By Steve Early

The veterans of Sixties radicalism who became union activists in the 1970s belonged to a variety of left-wing groups. Regardless of other political differences, most of them shared one common belief - namely, that union transformation and working class radicalization was a bottom up process. As Stanley Aronowitz observed in Socialist Review (nee Socialist Revolution) in 1979 - when Ruth Milkman, author of L.A. Story, belonged to its "Bay Area Collective" - young radicals usually became "organizers of rank-and-file movements" and builders of opposition caucuses. They immersed themselves in "day-to-day union struggles on the shop floor" and the politics of local unions, often displaying in the latter arena "almost total antipathy toward the union officialdom." Because "union revitalization" also required organizing the unorganized, rather than just proselytizing among existing union members, Aronowitz approved, "under some circumstances," leftists becoming ""professional paid organizers." But he encouraged those who took this path to "see their task as building the active rank and file, even where not connected to caucus movements."

Three decades later, the shrinkage of organized labor - and the left within it - has produced more than a few deviations from the shining path of "revival from below." Kim Moody, author of U.S. Labor In Trouble and Transition, remains a true
believer in the transformative potential of rank-
and-file movements. A founder of Labor Notes and
author of several previous books on contemporary
trade unionism, Moody was a leading theoretician of
the International Socialists when it sent college
educated cadres into the auto, steel, telecom, and
trucking industries during the 1970s. What Moody
and his comrades contributed to the workplace
organizing debates of that era (and more recent
decades as well) is "the rank and file strategy" -
the idea, simply put, that radicals should orient
themselves toward the strata of worker activists,
at the base of unions, who are most engaged in
shop-floor militancy and resistance to management,
rather than "attempt to gain influence by sidling
up to the incumbent bureaucracy or its alleged
progressive wing." Moody's newest volume is a wide-
ranging account of the economic forces, domestic
and international, which have eroded American
unions, since their last, turbulent period of
grassroots insurgency from 1966-78. As in the past,
he agues that "rank and file rebellion" - despite
its many setbacks and defeats in recent years - is
the only proven method of projecting a genuine
"alternative view of unionism, to force changes on
reluctant labor leaders, and challenge the top-down
culture of business unionism...[which] provides
little or no education and leadership training for
rank-and-file workers."

Both Moody and Milkman, in L.A. Story, see great
potential in the immigrant worker organizing and strike
activity of the last several years. Based on her case
studies of Latinos in construction, building services,
garment manufacturing, and port trucking, Milkman
believes that these newcomers can "take the lead in
rebuilding the nation's labor movement." Moody even
discerns "the beginnings of an upsurge in direct action
in workplaces and communities by a variety of groups" -
both unions and allied "workers centers"--- that could
lay "the basis for a new class politics" in America.
Unlike Moody, however, the author of L.A. Story
downplays rank-and-file initiatives as a catalyst for
institutional change.

Now a professor of sociology at UCLA and director of
its Institute of Industrial Relations, Milkman has
watched how the Service Employees International Union
(SEIU), United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), and
Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) have revitalized
themselves and/or the L.A. County Labor Federation. In
her view, looking to union members to rebel against
corrupt, ineffective, or undemocratic unions and
refashion them into something better is an exercise in
wishful thinking and existential frustration - "Waiting
For Lefty" reborn as "Waiting For Godot." According to
Milkman, proponents of the rank and file approach long
championed by Moody naively assume "that if only the
legions of top union brass would step aside and allow
the rank and file's natural leaders to take command,
labor would no longer be so impotent." In reality, she
writes, "this approach glosses over the complex and
multi-layered character of union leadership and various
political configurations that are possible across those

Milkman believes "that, when International leadership
is progressive, it can be a powerful force for
promoting innovation at the local union level" and
rooting out "business unionism."

"As is now well documented, many of the most
successful initiatives of the SEIU [and other
Change to Win affiliates] have actually been `top
down' efforts, engineered not by the rank and file
but by paid staff in the upper reaches of the
union bureaucracy...The recent ascension of
leaders with both extensive formal education and
activist experience in other movements to high-
level positions in key unions has injected
dynamism into the labor movement....The most
vibrant and innovative unions are those that
combine social movement- style mobilization, with
carefully calibrated strategies that leverage the
expertise of creative, professional leaders."

Moody is far less impressed by what Milkman
characterizes as the "daring, intrepid character" of
Change To Win (CTW). Nor is he similarly inclined to
drape the new labor federation with the mantle of
"social movement unionism." Moody makes a more nuanced
three-way distinction between "business unionism"
(which everyone on the left agrees is bad),"democratic
social movement unionism" - born of real "struggle with
the employers" here and abroad-- and what he calls "the
new corporate unionism." He argues that the on-going
internal reorganization of SEIU and the Carpenters
into "huge administrative units" represents " a step
beyond business unionism in its centralization and
shift of power upward in their structure away from the
members, locals, and workplace." Providing a detailed
analysis and critique of the undemocratic "corporate
side of SEIU's culture," Moody concludes that the
union's much-envied gains in "market share" are too
often the product of "shallow power" or partnership
deals. According to Moody, SEIU has achieved "a
density suspended from above by a layer of `talent'
recruited mainly from outside the union rather than
upheld from below by deep roots in the workplace and
local unions."

In contrast, Milkman regards SEIU's Justice for
Janitors (JfJ) campaigns to be an unqualified success
and model for union-builders everywhere. "Justice For
Janitors originated as part of a strategic union
rebuilding effort," she explains." It was conceived by
SEIU's national leadership and relied heavily on
research and other staff-intensive means of exerting
pressure on employers." To their credit, JfJ
organizers helped pioneer comprehensive, community-
based campaigns that by-passed the NLRB to win union
recognition via card check and neutrality - by
targeting building owners who were the real power
behind cleaning service contractors. SEIU employed
direct action tactics, including civil disobedience,
built strong ties with immigrant communities, and
presented the workers' cause in a way that elicited
sympathy and support from that part of the broader
public concerned about social justice and better
treatment of oppressed minorities.

According to Milkman, in the original JfJ struggle in
Los Angeles in 1988-90--plus subsequent efforts in many
other cities--"rank-and-file mobilization played a
critical role in its success." Nevertheless, as Moody
notes, this "mobilization" has rarely translated into a
leading role for immigrant janitors in managing the
affairs of their own SEIU locals. By the mid-1990s, JfJ
activists in Los Angeles were complaining about Local
399's out-of-touch leadership, its neglect of day-to-
day workplace issues, and the lack of rank-and-file
participation in union decision-making. Many supported
a successful electoral insurgency, led by the
"Multiracial Alliance Slate." But, in 1995, the SEIU
national leadership quickly nullified the Alliance's
election victory by throwing the local into trusteeship
and later moving L.A. janitors into a much larger,
regional building services local. In L.A. Story.
Milkman barely acknowledges that there was "widespread
criticism" of SEIU over this pivotal development. She
dismisses "Multiracial Alliance" organizing activity as
an unfortunate "outbreak of factionalism" that, only
"on the surface, appeared to involve rank and file
rebellion against the local SEIU officialdom."

Moody, on the other hand, takes the 399 matter very
seriously. He believes the trusteeship and transfer of
LA janitors into a "mega-local" beyond their effective
control had a negative impact on subsequent collective
bargaining, which produced wage gains of 12.3 per cent
between 1990 and 1995 and only another 6 per cent
between 1995 and 2000 for downtown LA janitors. Thus,
in the decade after their 1990 victory:

"LA janitors with the best conditions saw their
real wages fall 10%. In this same period, 1990
through 2000, average real hourly wages in the
U.S. rose by 4.8%. It is just possible that had
the LA janitors been in their own local instead of
statewide Local 1877, with its low wages, minimal
benefits, and long contracts, they could have
pressured the industry for more and set a better
pattern for others."

Where Moody sees troubling continuity with conservative
union practices of the past, Milkman waxes enthusiastic
about "AFL organizational legacies" that she finds
uniquely empowering. A major thesis of her book is that
Change To Win unions have paradoxically proven more
"adept at crafting new survival strategies for labor in
the post-industrial economy" because of their past
experience taking "wages out of competition in
unregulated, highly competitive labors markets" and
winning union recognition in pre-New Deal fashion,
without utilizing the National Labor Relations Board.
In L.A. Story, the allegedly superior "strategic and
tactical repertoire" of CTW affiliates--and resulting
"organizing successes" - are attributed to their roots
as "old AFL craft and occupational unions." According
to Milkman:

"As the L.A. janitors campaign and other recent
organizing successes illustrate, this repertoire is
highly adaptable to contemporary economic conditions,
which in many ways resemble those of the pre-New Deal
era. By contrast, many of the CIO's strategies and
tactics were tailored to the historical conditions of
the 1930s and 1940s - conditions that have been largely
swept aside over the past three decades by
deindustrialization, deregulation, and
deunionization.....That unions - once seen as bastions
of conservatism and corruption - have emerged in the
vanguard of current labor revitalization efforts is a
powerful testimony to the renewed relevance of the
AFL's historical legacy."

Unfortunately for the credibility of her book, there is
little evidence to support Milkman's sweeping claim
that CTW unions - with the exception of SEIU and
perhaps HERE-- have responded better to damaging
"political and economic transformations" than any other
battered labor survivors of the last thirty years. As
Moody shows, in the five-year period prior to the AFL-
CIO'S 2005 split, the International Brotherhood of
Teamsters (IBT), United Food and Commercial Workers
(UFCW), and Laborers International Union (LIUNA) all
lost members (while the Carpenters registered only 1.4%
growth) - a record inferior to that of CWA, AFSCME,
AFT, and the independent NEA. Only SEIU had membership
gains of twenty percent or more - but, percentage-wise,
the AFT's growth during the same period was nearly as
great. The smallest of CTW's seven affiliates - the
still struggling United Farm Workers - remains only a
fifth of its peak size twenty-five years ago.

Far from just decimating former CIO unions,
"deindustrialization" has also been a major cause of
membership shrinkage within Change to Win (particularly
in affiliates with a mixed craft and industrial union
heritage). The three unions - Textile Workers,
Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and Ladies' Garment
Workers - which merged over time to form UNITE lost
hundreds of thousands of dues payers in plant shut-
downs prior to UNITE's 2004 marriage with HERE. These
factory job losses were so devastating that, even
today, the combined membership of UNITE and HERE - a
claimed 450,000--is less than ACTWU's alone in 1976!

The notion that the Teamsters somehow dodged the bullet
of "deregulation" is even more far fetched. The IBT
today is one third smaller than it was before the
Carter Administration introduced trucking deregulation
in the late 1970s. As Moody notes, "by 1985, the number
of workers covered by the Teamsters' National Master
Freight Agreement had dropped from over 300,000 in 1970
to as low as 160,000" - and it's now half that number.
Non-union competition, including the growth of a huge
owner-operator sector, undermined national bargaining
and led to what Moody calls "a long string of
concessionary contracts."

Likewise, CTW's third largest affiliate - the United
Food and Commercial Workers - has hardly been in "the
vanguard" of thwarting "deunionization." While its on-
going campaign for organizing rights at Smithfield
Foods is well deserving of praise, UFCW's record
generally in meatpacking is one of failing to maintain
wage standards and unionization levels. Meanwhile, non-
union "big box" chains like Wal-Mart have grabbed a
huge share of total retail sales in recent decades;
their much lower labor costs have led to similar
management pressure for union give-backs in the
shrinking organized sector of the industry. The UFCW's
disastrous 2003 walkout by 60,000 Southern California
grocery workers was a case study in un-successful
resistance to this trend. As Moody observes, "the
UFCW's record of lost strikes and failed organizing
drives is too consistent and too visible to make this
union the likely David to Wal-Mart's Goliath."

Finally, "conservatism and corruption" also remain very
much a part of the negative "AFL organizational
legacies" of CTW that Milkman glosses over or ignores
entirely. For example, the IBT and UFCW are both guilty
of wasting membership dues money in a manner quite
inconsistent with being a "mean, lean organizing
machine" or part of a "new union reform movement."
Thanks to Teamster President James Hoffa's undoing of
real reforms dating from the Ron Carey era, the IBT now
squanders more than $8.5 million a year on extra pay-
checks for 175 of the Teamster officials throughout the
country who get multiple salaries.

As The Detroit News reported last August (2007), UFCW
local officials "are among the highest paid in the
United States with 33 making more than $200,000 in base
salary in 2006 and many earning thousands more by
drawing additional paychecks from the union's
international headquarters. Meanwhile, the average UFCW
member earns between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, with
many at Michigan grocery stores earning less." In a not
atypical profile of an individual UFCW regional leader
- Local 588 president Jack Loveall--The Sacramento
(California) Bee reported that Loveall's total
compensation for 2003 was more than $565,000 (in a
23,000- member local that has two of his sons on the
payroll, plus a twin-engine jet for the officers'

Nevertheless, when the AFL-CIO split was still brewing
in 2005, Milkman insisted that the IBT, UFCW, et al had
embraced the "reform agenda" of SEIU President Andy
Stern, including the latter's call "for a one-union-
per-industry model" that would curb inter-union
competition for unorganized workers. Meanwhile, Hoffa
declared that his multi-jurisdictional amalgamated
union had no intention - then or now - of concentrating
only on certain "core industries" and ceding workers in
any other field to labor organizations, CTW or AFL-CIO,
with more relevant experience! In L.A. Story, Milkman
likewise depicts CTW unions as advocates of "extensive
structural changes in the labor movement," including "a
strengthened central body that would have the power to
enforce its policies with the affiliates..." The new
federation's actual practice over the last two years
has been quite different, of course.

Even with only seven affiliates (as opposed to fifty-
five in the AFL-CIO), CTW has found policy unanimity to
be elusive - and certainly doesn't have any
"strengthened central body" with the power to impose
it. As promised, CTW has launched some laudable joint
organizing projects. Yet CTW unions have been unable to
agree on the war in Iraq, trade or immigration issues,
which Democratic primary candidate to endorse for
president (even SEIU was split internally on that one),
or the appropriateness of working with Wal-Mart for
"health care reform." A disagreement between Stern and
UFCW President Joe Hansen over this last issue led to a
public spat in 2007, followed by UFCW picketing of a
joint appearance by Stern and Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott.
In another display of disunity, Doug McCarron's
Carpenters didn't even bother to show up for the CTW's
second anniversary convention last November. As was the
case before the UBC's defection from the AFL-CIO, the
Carpenters have apparently stopped paying dues to CTW;
according to In These Times, "rumors persist that the
union will soon leave the group" as well.

None of this messy organizational reality - most of it
well known or quite predictable, prior to publication--
intrudes on Milkman's upbeat narrative in L.A. Story.
On some subjects covered in the book - for example,
SEIU's doubling of its membership to 1.9 million in the
last ten years - the author's boosterism is certainly
more warranted. But, unlike Moody, she never addresses
the serious concern--now being raised by union insiders
like Sal Rosselli--that SEIU growth has been achieved,
in some sectors, at the expense of contract standards,
community allies, workers' rights, membership
participation, and leadership accountability. Milkman's
infatuation with the vanguard role of the union's
"innovators" - college educated organizers,
researchers, strategic campaign coordinators, local
officers and trustees - also leaves little room for
examining more incisively how SEIU operatives actually
interact with the working members who nominally employ
- and, more rarely, elect - them.

To Moody falls the task of imagining how the rank-and-
file can rise again, in SEIU or any other union in need
of a different, more democratic form of organizational
"dynamism." This challenge is particularly daunting in
light of developments like home-based workers becoming
the largest source of union membership growth.
Brokering deals with labor-friendly public officials
around the country, SEIU (and now other unions as
well) have created collective bargaining units
comprised of 500,000 or more home-based workers
previously regarded as "independent contractors." When
SEIU was certified as the representative of one such
unit--74,000 home health aides in Southern California--
it described this 1999 victory as the biggest for labor
since the Flint sit-down strike. In reality, many home-
based workers are imprisoned in the post-Clinton system
of "workfare," that replaced welfare. Largely female,
non-white and/or foreign born, this workforce cares for
the young, old, sick, and disabled, while struggling to
survive on poverty-level incomes, even when union-
represented. One of the usual quid pro quos for union
recognition is continued exclusion of these workers
from standard public employee health care or retirement

Unlike the Teamsters, Transit Workers, or other more
traditional union members (whose past assertions of
"rank-and-file" power are lionized by Moody), these
workers have atomized, high-turn-over, part-time jobs -
in a setting quite unlike the large industrial
workplaces of the past. The fact that their "non-
traditional workplace" is their own or someone else's
home increases the likelihood that unions won't help
them build real organizations or a functioning steward
system. Already, many such workers remain "agency fee
payers" or members with little consciousness of or
connection to their union. (According to Moody's
research, SEIU nationally has more agency fee payers -
over 200,000 - than CWA, AFSCME, and AFT combined.)
Home-based workers' experience of collective action--if
any--comes from initial community-based mobilizations
for bargaining rights and better pay. The poor and/or
immigrant neighborhood-- not the "shop floor"--is the
only possible nexus for solidarity among "co-workers."

If one of the continuing shortcomings of organized
labor today - as noted by both Moody and Milkman-- is
that it's still too pale, male, and stale, what better
way to achieve greater diversity than by developing the
leadership potential of this vast "new rank-and-file"?
Can such workers - or the immigrant janitors and hotel
workers who've also been a big part of other Change To
Win recruitment drives - ever succeed in becoming
leading actors in their own organizations, rather than
bit-players in union-orchestrated street pageantry or
political campaigns? It won't be easy in a staff-run
"mega-local" like SEIU's 190,000-member United Long
Term Care Workers Union in California - for all the
reasons identified by Moody.

But, as he concludes hopefully, the initiatives of
rank-and-file oriented radicals and reformers "can help
lay the basis for better things to come, just as
inaction, timidity, bureaucracy, or `more of the same'
can stifle them."

[Steve Early spent 27 years as an organizer and
international representative for the Communications
Workers of America. He writes frequently for Labor
Notes and many other publications. He is currently
working on a book for Cornell ILR Press on the role of
Sixties radicals in American unions. He can be reached

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