The Year in Labor

Pretty bloody awful, at least according to Ned Resnikoff. The exception was the Chicago Teachers Union strike. As Ned states:

If there’s a common theme to the labor movement’s recent victories, it’s that they occurred outside of the American unionism model which has persisted since the second half of the twentieth century. The CTU strike was the closest thing to a mainstream labor negotiation, since it involved collective bargaining over a contract; but strikes are exceedingly rare in modern America, and CTU is an unusually democratic and community-based union. The fast food and Wal-Mart strikes resembled labor actions of the Gilded Age and the thirties more closely than any major union campaigns in recent American history. Even UNITE HERE’s explicitly electoral campaign focused on consolidating a permanent base of power within the state instead of rallying behind a single candidate.

For the large unions operating within America’s post-World War II status quo, the past year was a nearly unmitigated disaster. However, in low-wage service and retail workplaces—arguably America’s new economic center of gravity—labor was able to make some small but significant gains by reverting back to an older, more militant for of unionism.

I would generally agree with this analysis.

27 comments on this post.
  1. James E Powell:

    It’s hard to imagine what it would take to turn around organized labor’s decline. One might have thought that when the bosses went to brazen and merciless attacks on paychecks and job security that people would wake up, but that’s not what happened. Far too many Americans still believe that their lives will be better if only they can lower their neighbors’ income.

    I’m guessing it will take a long and nasty strike by a union large enough and desperate enough to make things uncomfortable for a lot of people.

  2. Linnaeus:

    Or it will take a lot of small scale actions that add up over time.

  3. L.M.:

    Like coal miners or air traffic controllers.

    (I don’t disagree with you. I’m just depressed.)

  4. James E Powell:

    I, too, am depressed. When the economy went in the toilet, I expected the ruling class to pit various sections of the working class against each other. But I didn’t expect the various sections to engage so viciously and enthusiastically.

  5. bradP:

    The fast food and Wal-Mart strikes resembled labor actions of the Gilded Age and the thirties more closely than any major union campaigns in recent American history.

    Does Mr. Resnikoff have any peices that get into the similarities he references here? I would like your interpretation as well.

  6. J. Otto Pohl:

    What ever happened to the international solidarity of labor unions? I see nothing here on any labor movements outside the US. The IWW and even the AFL-CIO were never so parochial. I think it would put it in a better perspective if you examined labor from a more international perspective. Unions in Ghana have doing pretty well recently.

  7. DrDick:

    I suspect that, given the Gilded Age policies adopted by business, that Labor will have to resort to the kind of militant activism they did during that era. Much of the current problem I think comes from a false complacency promoted by the 30 year truce between labor and management after WWII.

  8. DrDick:

    The Cold War and Red Baiting is what happened.

  9. Anonymous:

    And the molding of labor unions to suit corporate and giant industry.

    It was simply assumed over the last 150 years by all sides that that is the way the economy is going, that that is the best possible organization of business and industry, and that unions need to establish their position in the model.

    The model, however, is necessarily hostile to the value of labor against capital and becoming increasingly obsolete.

  10. Linnaeus:

    True, and I think that the mobility of capital also had something to do with it as well.

  11. J. Otto Pohl:

    There was plenty of support for non-communist unions abroad by the AFL-CIO during the Cold War as part of a US Cold War strategy. The strategy reaching a peak when they started openly backing Solidarity in Poland. Now there is a lot to criticize about some of the overseas cooperation of the AFL-CIO and the CIA. But, there was never a complete isolation from labor movements outside the US. Now in the post-Cold War era there do seem to be no connections.

  12. Murc:

    Much of the current problem I think comes from a false complacency promoted by the 30 year truce between labor and management after WWII.

    The one-sided truce.

    Let’s be clear; capital spent those three decades slow-poisoning labor in preparation for renewing its assault once the older, militant generation finally died off.

  13. Murc:

    There was plenty of support for non-communist unions abroad by the AFL-CIO during the Cold War as part of a US Cold War strategy.

    Practically speaking, this meant token support for relatively powerless trade unionist organizations in already communist countries. Unions in non-communist countries, especially our allies, were regarded one and all as communist stooges and the major american labor movements were gently ‘encouraged’ to distance themselves from them, just as they’d been ‘encouraged’ to purge themselves of radicals and socialists.

  14. Hogan:

    There was plenty of support for non-communist unions abroad by the AFL-CIO during the Cold War as part of a US Cold War strategy.

    I think you mean the US government funneled covert support to anti-communist labor unions through the AFL-CIO. (My own union used their CIA-sponsored connections to public employee unions in Guyana to help out with a US-backed coup there in the early ’60s.) And it didn’t “reach a peak” in the ’80s; it was bottoming out through the ’70s and made a brief comeback with Solidarity.


    Now in the post-Cold War era there do seem to be no connections.

    Because Erik doesn’t write about unions in Ghana?

  15. J. Otto Pohl:

    Solidarity was not powerless in the 1980s and even its predecessor in the 1970s KOR was able to put some real pressure on Warsaw. Independent labor unions in socialist countries outside Poland were considerably weaker. In fact Poland was the only socialist country where labor rather was at the center of dissent and opposition to the regime.

  16. J. Otto Pohl:

    There was support for anti-communist labor unions yes. There was also in the 1950s participation in the ILO by the AFL-CIO to condemn the practice of forced labor by the USSR, China, and other socialist states. I would say that Solidarity was the most significant anti-communist labor union ever because they actually helped topple a communist regime. No other labor movement can say the same. So even if the 1970s was a nadir for AFL-CIO and US government support for unions abroad, support for Solidarity is definitely a crowning peak of the strategy.

  17. DrDick:

    I would not disagree, but they adopted a more conciliatory approach to labor issues than in the past in order to do that.

  18. DrDick:

    Also Ghana is not exactly what I would call a workers’ paradise. More like hell on earth. If this is what you call “doing pretty well,” you need to lay down that crack pipe.

  19. DrDick:

    There are actually quite a few international labor organizations. Mostly they are active in the third world trying to improve the appalling working conditions in places like Ghana. American organized labor has supported these efforts, though the growth of offshoring by US manufacturers has cooled much of their ardor in this regard.

  20. DrDick:

    Jotto seems unclear on the fact that Erik is an American historian of the American labor movement. Pretty much nobody here knows much of anything about Ghana or Africa, except him, so it is a bit unreasonable to ask them to write about it. It is also the case that Ghana is one of the major centers for child force labor (modern slavery).

  21. J. Otto Pohl:

    Dr. Dick,

    I said Unions were doing well here. Compared to most countries in Africa, Ghana has a very strong union movement. This is particularly true at the university. Last year the university had successful strikes by both staff and faculty. This month as a result of that union action I got an extra month’s salary in back pay plus a 250% increase in my pay for teaching at the Workers’ College in Accra which is separate from my normal pay. Since I have started working here the union has increased our main monthly salaries by over 35%. I do not know of any US university unions that have been so successful recently.

    I am well aware of the continued existence of slavery in the fishing industry. I have written about it a couple of times on my blog. But, obviously slaves are not unionized. They are also a small minority of the total work force in Ghana.

    Conditions in mines are not nice anywhere as Dr. Loomis can attest. But, the Ghanaian mining industry, particular gold, attracts illegal immigrants as far away as China. So my guess is that conditions are considerably better in Ghanaian than in Chinese mines. But, taking the dirtiest and most dangerous job in the country as being comparable to those where unions have been highly successful is not really fair. Shall we judge all American labor conditions on the basis of the coal mining industry?

    I don’t think anybody who has not actually lived in Ghana for more than a few months or better yet years can actually appreciate how well the country has been doing. The growth in the standard of living of much of the population is quite real and quite rapid. The news coverage of Africa in the White world is awful. It would be like if the images and stories about the US dealt with meth heads living in trailers, gangs in South Central LA, prisons, and the homeless. Of course the media in the US concentrates on the worst aspects of all African countries. They have a vested ideological interest in showing Africa as permanently poor and dysfunctional and never able to develop on it own. But, it is not an accurate depiction.

  22. J. Otto Pohl:

    Have you ever been to Ghana? Focusing on child labor in the Volta Lake fishing industry as representing all of Ghanaian labor is ludicrous. It would be like holding up Alabama chain gangs or agricultural workers in Angola (Louisiana not Africa) as representative of all of US labor. A lot of Ghanaian labor is well represented by quite active unions. Both the faculty and staff unions at the university have been quite successful in improving pay here in recent years.

  23. DrDick:

    It is not just fishing. It is, in fact, most common in cacao production. I am not picking on Ghana here (except to take exception to your statement about the position of unions and labor there), as the problem is quite widespread in Africa, Asia (especially India and Pakistan), and parts of Latin America. The statistics for Ghana (and most of Africa) do not paint a very rosy picture either.

  24. J. Otto Pohl:

    Economic statistics in Ghana are generally unreliable. A couple years ago they had to adjust the GDP upward by 65%. Which means that by the government’s own admission they were missing over half the economy of the country.

    We could just as easily focus on US prison labor, exploitation of illegal immigrants, and other examples to make US labor conditions look just as bad as anything existing in Africa. The fact is the media in the White world deliberately concentrates on negative aspects of Africa to the total exclusion of anything positive. Workers in IT, telecommunications, retail, higher education, medicine, and even the military all do very well in Ghana compared to most African countries. They do much, much better than they did a few decades ago here when Ghana really was poor. Life is substantially improving for a lot of people here at a fairly rapid rate. The leftist and racist trope that Africans are incapable of prospering because colonialism permanently crippled them is simply not true.

  25. DrDick:

    US prison labor is relatively insignificant and prisoners are actually paid for their labor. By contrast, Ghana is the second largest exporter of cacao and it is their second largest export, accounting for 30% of export revenues. According to the US State Department, “Over 30,000 children [in lsavery]
    are believed to be working as porters, or Kayaye, in Accra
    alone.”

    I do talk about exploitation of immigrant workers and other abuses here, when appropriate, but you are the one who raised the issue of working conditions in Ghana. I commend your defense of your adopted country, but let’s face reality here.

  26. DrDick:

    I would add that the reason I know about this is because of a lecture sequence I do on neo-colonialism and its effects. The primary beneficiaries of this (or prison labor in China) are large first world companies like Hershey or Nestle.

  27. J. Otto Pohl:

    Prison labor in the US might only be a small percentage of the US economy, but given the size of the population I am guessing it is quite significant compared to the economy of a place like Ghana. But, the big difference here is that all forms of slavery are illegal in Ghana unlike prison labor in the US. Since at least 2001 there has been a concerted effort to eliminate child and forced labor in cocoa and other sectors of the economy. In Ghana things are improving. I don’t get that sense looking at the status of labor in the US.

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