Report on the Labor Movement in the U.S.

This paper was delivered at the 1998 May Day conference hosted by the Workers Party of Belgium, which is an annual conference that brings together socialists and communists from around the world. This document and others from the conference are also available at the website of the Workers Party of Belgium at the following address:  The Workers Party of Belgium has also made available a French translation of this document.  Click here to see this document in French.

Report on the U.S. Labor Movement 

by Joe Iosbaker, FRSO Labor Commission Chair


When we read the pages of the business press, we see that the US is in a period of unprecedented profitability. Rarely do they mention the realities of life for the growing section of the working class that is being driven into desperate poverty. So when they report on the recent developments in the labor movement, it seems to come out of nowhere. Why did 185,000 workers strike at UPS (United Parcel Service), and why did the majority of the American people support their strike? Why is there a tide of new organizing? Why aren't workers enjoying the opportunities of this era? The ruling class has no way to explain all this, given their account of recent economic life.

How do we, as communists, sum up what is happening in the workers movement? The U.S. working class has been badly battered by a long, bourgeois offensive. Twenty five years of attacks on working and living conditions have produced a number of responses, including workers fightbacks, the founding of the Labor Party, and the New Voices leadership of the AFL-CIO. Together with the UPS strike, these things add up to a changed period that we need to grasp – to best unite with the motion, to best contribute to building things up, to effectively strike blows against the enemy, and to prepare ourselves and the workers for the far greater struggles that await us.

Decline in US imperialism: 25 Years of Attacks

As early as the 1970's, we recognized that the class truce the capitalist class had with organized labor had been pitched out by the companies. They couldn't afford it anymore as US imperialism went into long term decline. They also didn't need it, as the export of capital made it more and more possible for the capitalists to produce outside of the country what used to be produced here.

The US will never regain the position of world domination it occupied following World War II. The capitalists won't accept a deal with organized labor like that which existed from the late 1940s until 1970. Instead, the last 25 years have been witness to one long effort by them to shift the profit crisis they found themselves in from their backs onto ours. The methods used in their drive are very familiar to comrades: They have shifted manufacturing from the Rust Belt of the Northeast and Midwest, to the Sun Belt (Southwest), the South, and/or the Third World. They have replaced large capacity with technologically reengineered small capacity; a largely unionized workforce is now little unionized.

Millions of workers were left without jobs. New industrial and service jobs were eventually created, but paid much less. When the ruling class needed to wring more from the employed workers, they resorted to wholesale union busting. Ronald Reagan's first act as president was a declaration of war on the Air Traffic Controllers – PATCO – when he ordered in scabs. The attacks were experienced hardest by the workers of the oppressed nationalities – African Americans, Chicanos, Mexicanos, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Chinese and other Asian immigrants. Superexploitation is accomplished by the denial of rights – such as the right to unionization, and the positive changes that come with it. We will always remember the 25 workers of Hamlet, North Carolina, who died in a fire in a chicken processing plant in 1991. They died because their employer had padlocked the factory from the outside, because of alleged but unproven theft of product. The safety violations in that plant are typical of the conditions millions of workers suffer under in the non-union South.

From PATCO through the current period we have seen the workers/union movement on the defensive. The gains for minorities and women from the Civil Rights era have been rolled back, and while a few from the petit-bourgeoisie continue to benefit, for minority and women workers conditions are worsening. We now have the greatest disparity of wealth in the US of any industrialized nation. While profits and productivity have increased wages and benefits for workers have fallen. The eight hour day has given way to 12 hour rotating shifts, workers pushed into forced overtime with smaller workforces, downsizing to bare bones leaving workers exhausted, workers laid off only to be hired back as temporary with no benefits. Manpower, a temporary labor company, is the largest employer in the US.

The capitalists have employed numerous measures to realize their goals of profitability. The latest major assault has been the gutting of welfare. In a bill signed by Clinton in August of '97, millions of unemployed workers, disproportionately women, and especially children, will now be denied Food Stamps and General Assistance funds. These workers are being forced to take any job they can find, no matter how part time, poorly paid, with no regard for the resulting deprivations of their families. This is the latest and biggest blow in 20 years of attacks on and dismantling of the New Deal type programs. While falling hardest on the unemployed workers and their families, all of Labor has been impacted by the full scale attacks on the system of welfare. Unfortunately, the response of the Unions has been one of weakness, and at times collaboration. Currently, we are seeing the beginnings of an attack unthinkable up to this point: the privatization of Social Security.

Role of trade union bureaucracy in the class struggle

The view of the labor bureaucracy is that labor and management have common interests. Given that, when the rulers' profits dived starting in the 70's, the unions went along to the point of offering concessions in wages. And when job loss resulted from plant closings, the result was the absolute decline in union membership. A fighting union movement would have responded at least with new organizing, but the moribund leadership of the AFL-CIO did not. They didn't even mount a credible fight to save the jobs being eliminated.

It would have been bad enough for Lane Kirkland, past president of the AFL-CIO, to have no fighting plan. They did worse. When a fight did emerge, like PATCO, the bureaucrats sabotaged it, opposed efforts at support, and sometimes resorted to absolute betrayal, becoming an open handmaiden of the company. This is what happened in the Hormel Strike of 1984. An inspirational battle by meatpackers in Austin, Minnesota, the workers' saw their fight sabotaged by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Oppression Breeds Resistance

Throughout the years of attacks, of course, there was resistance. There are three features of the workers' movement that stand out.

First, the proletariat of the oppressed nationalities has been the basis for much of the new motion in the labor movement. This is related to the general attack on labor. As the higher paying jobs were destroyed by the loss of industrial plants or the busting of unions, the role of the lower sector of the working class became more and more prominent. This lower sector is made up disproportionately of workers from oppressed nationality backgrounds. Within the boundaries of the US, there are 2 oppressed nations, African Americans in the South, and Chicanos in the Southwest. There is also a substantial number of smaller, indigenous First Nations. Plus, there are other oppressed nationalities – Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, Asians, notably Filipinos, and Native Americans.

The Chicano nation of the Southwest United States, as well as other Latino workers, have seen a number of developments in response to the intensified attacks on workers. This includes a rise in the Chicano/Mexicano proletariat in the union movement: the UFW (United Farm Workers) organizing strawberry workers is the best known. There are smaller struggles that have been fought as well, especially in Los Angeles, which has become the most industrial city in the U.S. L.A. had a succesful drywallers strike and a truck drivers strike of tortilla producers.

More generally, workers of the oppressed nationalities have shown a greater reception to joining unions than have white workers. The last great wave of unionization was the public employee organizing of the 60's, much of which was African American workers. Today, the new organizing is disproportionately happening among these workers.

In response to the treacherous role played by the labor bureaucrats, union reform efforts emerged. The most important in the Teamsters (International Brotherhood of Teamsters, or IBT). In the 1970's, an rank and file opposition developed called Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). When Ron Carey was elected in '91, largely on the organizing of the TDU opposition, it threw the leadership of the largest US union from the hands of the stone reactionaries and mobsters, into the hands of progressives and reformers.

With these, emerging in the 80s were new tactics and union strategies for organizing the unorganized, using the labor-community alliance, building on the movement experiences that reside with community forces, primarily oppressed nationalities. These include the Justice for Janitors campaigns; or the workers centers, including the BWFJ (Black Workers for Justice) experience; or the Jobs with Justice coalition.

Thirdly, there were class on class battles. The best known include the Hormel strike of the mid-80's, the Staley workers struggle of the early 90's, followed by the Detroit News Strike. There were some victories over time, such as the Pittston Coal strike, and later the American Airlines Flight Attendants, or the California Drywallers fight. These inspirational battles, while mainly local in character, helped kindle a solidarity unionism. Built up over a period of a decade, and mainly concentrated in the Midwest, from strike to strike, tens of thousands rallied, boycotted, contributed money, and were inspired. A layer of broad trade union consciousness was reborn, in sharp contrast to the class collaborationist, business unionism of the AFL-CIO since the 1950's. The sparks that spread throughout the class in the course of these has helped stoke the fire that is starting to blaze brighter now, as in the UPS strike. Solidarity unionism also contributed to the dissatisfaction with the bureaucrats leadership.

A labor left emerged throughout this period, fed by these three currents: new organizing, union reform efforts, and the solidarity movement. The bulk of this is the rank and file elements that emerges in opposition to sell outs by the bureaucrats. It involves a layer of local officers, some staff people and academics. It is not organized, but has some influence on the decisions of the reform leadership of the AFL CIO and its various internationals. For example, at the AFL-CIO convention where Sweeney was elected, he gave a Staley worker, Dan Lane, the stage for a inspirational speech. Lane, at that point on a 50 day hunger strike, was a symbol of class struggle unionism.

New Conditions: Reform Leadership of the AFL-CIO, Labor Party, UPS Strike

For 12 years, the line of the AFL-CIO leaders had been, Give us back the White House (to the Democrats), and we'll start to make progress. But in Clinton's 1st term, with a Democratic majority in Congress, he backed out on his promises again and again. His $60 billion jobs bill was reduced to zero. His striker replacement bill died in committee.

But the biggest insult to the AFL-CIO was NAFTA. Clinton used all the muscle of the White House to force treaty through. In doing so, not only did he demonstrate his service to the needs of the multinational corporations. He also showed just how little influence organized labor had on his decisions.

All of this, together with the persistent drop in the ranks of organized workers, exposed that Kirkland's leadership was bankrupt. A Democrat in the White House was clearly not sufficient. The stage was being set for the reformers, via John Sweeney's "New Voices," slate to emerge and overthrow Kirkland. 

Sweeney's coming to power has meant some important changes for the trade union movement. There is an opening for the rank and file to participate in the struggle against the bosses. The leadership now endorses solidarity mobilizations. Likewise, there is room for ideas of different kinds of unionism to be expressed.

Growing dissatisfaction with Clinton also caused another new development. Particularly after he rammed NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) through Congress, a section of the labor unions, most notably the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, called for the creation of a Labor Party. While most of the unions involved want to pressure the Democrats, the importance of this development should not be missed.

An entire section of the unions now recognizes that, as the slogan says, "The bosses have two parties, we need one of our own." There is growing anger and disenchantment with politicians in general, but within the ranks of organized labor, this has been sharpened up.The Labor Party captures best that new sentiment.

The Labor Party will only grow in importance as the continuing polarization in society is accompanied by political polarization.

Teamsters Strike at UPS: The Workers' Movement Takes a Giant Step

When 185,000 workers went out on strike at UPS, it wasn't just the largest nationwide strike in 14 years in the U.S. It was that, and a lot more. 

The main issue in the strike was part time work. Over 110,000 of these workers are part time, making less than half of what the full timers make. Nearly one in five workers in the country are working part time. And many more of us are struggling to get by.

As always, increased exploitation affects the oppressed nationalities to a greater degree. Nationally, the part-timers are disproportionately African American and Latino, concentrated in the jobs where the work is the hardest, the level of oppression is the most intense, with fewer benefits.

With these factors, plus the tremendous profits made by UPS the previous year, it's no wonder that 95% of the workers voted to strike, or that the majority of Americans supported the strike – something not seen in many years.

The Strike's Lessons for Unionists across the Country 

This strike was a test of the leadership of the Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO. Many strikes have been lost in recent years because the leaders of the unions had more in common with the bosses than with the workers. The reform leadership under Carey had the task of unleashing the workers to fight for a real victory over UPS. The test was passed.

The victory in this, the largest strike in 2 decades, challenged the juggernaut corporate offensive that we have endured without pause all these years. This strike has the weight of the PATCO of the 90's, not as a tombstone for the workers movement, but as a bellwether of what is to come.

The workers movement has been on the defensive for the past 25 years. But the UPS strike was a major offensive of the workers' movement. It is a symbol of a new period. Over almost twenty years, we have had a series of defensive but inspirational struggles. We are entering a period in which we can foresee a big upturn in the workers movement. The objective conditions have already been laid for this. The level of struggle lags behind these conditions, but will certainly rise.

Government and Right Wing Counter Attack on Labor: The Carey Decision

Ron Carey, the head of the reform slate that wrested control of the Teamsters Union from the mob, has been banned from participation in the re-run of the election he won in 1996. The capitalists are seizing on Carey's ouster to gear up for an all-out offensive against the labor movement. They are going after leaders of the reform New Voice slate – AFL-CIO leader Rich Trumka and Service Employees' president Andrew Stern have been named as Carey accomplices. Already the drive to limit or deny unions the right to contribute to political campaigns is being revived. 

How do we respond to these attacks? First, Carey is a genuine reformer and he came to the fore as representative of a strong, seasoned mass movement for democracy and an end to sellouts in his union. The leadership team he headed had made profound changes in the union. Women were trained and promoted as leaders. The African-American, Chicano and other oppressed nationality workers who make up an increasing part of the Teamsters membership and of the workforce as a whole were also encouraged to step forward. The Carey leadership emphasized that only through struggle can the members make gains. All this bore fruit in the magnificent strike against UPS.

But Carey's campaign manager has pled guilty to the charges and so have the high-priced consultants Carey hired to run a fancy, money-driven race. It should be said that what Carey is accused of is penny ante stuff compared with much union corruption in this country. But the damage that has been done is far worse than a simple election defeat for Carey would have been.

The Teamsters and the trade union movement need to break with the Democratic Party. Union dollars and votes can have good effects, as shown by the defeat of Clinton's drive to push "fast track" (a proposal to rapidly expand NAFTA) through Congress. But we are seeing with painful clarity how much grief reliance on Democratic Party politicking and sleazy maneuvers can create. We must work to build the Labor Party and support other independent alternatives to the capitalists two party duopoly.

United Front

Among progressives, there is a debate on how to view the reform leadership of John Sweeny, Richard Trumka, and Gloria Chavez-Thompson. While it is true that they do not represent a break with business unionism, in our view there is an objective united front between the interests of the workers and the recently elected top officers.

Under Sweeney, there is a section of the AFL-CIO that is applying efforts to reverse the loss of union membership (something like 15 of the 78 internationals are making serious new organizing efforts). It is now recognized by this element that it is the lower sector of the working class that is most likely to respond to their call for rebuilding that ranks of organized labor. These correspond to the interests of the workers movement.

There are criticisms to be made of the organizing efforts going on. The principle one is summed up in the question, "Organize into what"? The existing unions are still dominated by trade union bureaucrats with more in common with the CEOs of the corporations than with the low wage workers they are attempting to represent. And while some of the new AFL programs seem to offer change, much of it has been coined "remote control organizing" – mobilizing great numbers of people without really building any thing. But some programs like Union Cities for the Central Labor Councils offer us a framework for building struggle and building organization to go beyond the limits placed by the reformist leadership.

Overall, unity with the reformers is the correct policy at this time. Besides the new conditions mentioned above, the openings for rank and file participation in struggle and other opportunities, the correctness of maintaining unity with the reformers in the AFL-CIO was shown by Sweeney's role in the UPS strike. He stepped in early with financial support and public statements. These helped convince the company that the strike would go on.

Of course, as Marxist Leninists, we are keenly aware that the main dividing line in the unions is between class collaborationist and class fighters. And the Trade Union bureaucracy is the main basis for class collaborationism. We are uniting with forces that have a different class interest than our own. We have to use the principles of the united front, meaning we unite where we agree and struggle where we don't.

Prepare for greater struggles

The new conditions are producing struggle from all sectors of the working class. We are all one working class in this country. Every worker knows that part of the working class is living in poverty. And each of us knows that we could end up there, if we stumble or are driven down.

We affirm the basic elements of our labor strategy:

  • Class struggle unionism that holds the struggle against national oppression as a central concern for the class.
  • We seek to transform the unions, and create a new model of unionism that trains workers as fighters.
  • We take advantage of the improved conditions in the AFL-CIO, utilize the United Front with the reform leadership.
  • Our main tactic is to take up jobs within an industry and build struggle from the bottom up.
  • We put special emphasis on building/supporting the advanced struggles and take up lower sector struggles.
  • We also support the independent political action of the workers movement.
  • We recognize that the struggle against the oppression of women needs to be a consistent part of our work.

Workers know that times are hard and getting harder. We can't fail them. We must get ready for bigger battles that lay just ahead. While the situation in this country has not changed completely, there are many developments on the labor side of the contradiction. The capitalist aspect is primary because it is causing the changes in our side of the contradiction. And the recent developments are signals of what could be the beginning of a truly different relationship between workers and capitalists.