posted September 27, 2006
Reorganizing American Labor: A Reunification Proposal

Reorganizing American Labor:
A Reunification Proposal
Jack Rasmus

At no time in the past seventy years have American workers and unions been under more direct and intense attack by Corporate America. Moreover, that attack continues to show signs of becoming increasingly virulent and bold.

In the heartland of American unionism, the auto industry, a hundred thousand union jobs will soon be lost in a second major wave of offshoring to China and Asia, textile union membership reels under the effects of the last year’s passage of CAFTA, construction jobs plummet with the emerging collapse of the housing industry, airline and railroad employment falls as management cost-cutting continues unabated, while regular full time jobs constrict in the manufacturing sector of the economy despite the quadrupling of profits in that sector since 2002.

Beyond manufacturing, for the US economy as a whole, government data released this past June revealed that profits rose 123% since the end of the Bush recession in 2001 to the start of 2006, from $714 billion to $1.59 trillion. Measured in terms of national income, that is equivalent to the growth of profits as a share of national income from 7% in 2001 to 12.2% at the start of 2006—the fastest rate of growth since records were first kept in 1947—according to the international business source, the Financial Times.

In the midst of union membership loss and the obscene growth of corporate profits, companies across the board continue to accelerate their abandonment of pension plans, health care costs continue to shift from employers to workers at a growing rate, a new model to undermine public employee unionism and bargaining takes shape in the Midwest, the hiring of temporary and contract workers outside bargaining units at lower pay and fewer benefits becomes increasingly the norm, while employers everywhere watch intensely the outcome of bankruptcy courts’ pending decisions to legitimize wage cuts of 50%, eliminate pensions altogether, and cut remaining benefits to the bone at Delphi corporation and elsewhere.

Today more than ever before workers and unions in America need to take a hard look in the wake of last year’s split in the AFL-CIO and begin debating seriously what new strategies, new creative grass roots and shop floor tactics, as well as what new forms of organization, are necessary to directly confront the intensifying corporate offensive—an offensive that is moving inexorably toward more overt forms of union busting and restrictions on fundamental rights to bargain, form unions, and take collective action than ever before.

The following is a contribution to that discussion, focusing in particular on the question of what kind of new union organizational structures might be better able to confront the growing corporate offensive. It concludes with a specific proposal for restructuring both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions that might also eventually serve as a basis for the future reunification of the two separate labor groups.

The Historic Collapse of Union Membership

Had the union movement today been able to maintain the 22% membership level that it had in 1980 it would now have approximately 27 million members instead of today’s 14 million. That’s 13 million more members.

The contributing factors to the decline of union membership have been many. At the top of the list have been the Free Trade policies and practices of government and corporations and the consequent exporting of millions of jobs as a result of those policies and practices. More than 7 million jobs have been lost in manufacturing since 1980. More than 4.6 million of those union jobs. NAFTA free trade has cost the U.S. more than a million jobs. China free trade another 2 million. With trade deficits running $700 billion a year further losses in manufacturing jobs and union membership are imminent. According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, every $1 billion in trade deficit causes a loss of 13,000 jobs in the U.S. Other major contributing factors to the loss of union jobs in America have been the restructuring of jobs in the U.S. from full time permanent union jobs to part time, temporary and contract non-union jobs; the institutionalization of unchecked outsourcing; employer widespread redefinition of bargaining units with the support and assistance of the NLRB and the courts; aggressive union decertification and union avoidance efforts by an increasing number of companies; the expansion of offshoring from manufacturing to additional sectors of the economy such as technology and business professional services; and deregulation driven destruction of once unionized entire industries, including court ordered destruction of union contracts and de-unionization in industries such as Airlines and the federal government. Moreover, looming large on the horizon is the de-unionization drive now beginning to take shape targeting public employees in several states, as politicians seek to return to the days or archaic ‘civil service’ rules determined wages, benefits and the rights of public workers.

The Cost of Union Membership Decline

The historic decline in union membership from the 22% since the launching of the current Corporate Offensive in 1980 has been accompanied by a decline in the American worker’s real wages, earnings, benefits, hours and working conditions unequaled anytime since the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The following are just some of the more noteworthy results of what has happened in parallel with the rapid decline in union membership in America:

· The real median take home pay of the American worker is around $1 an hour
less today than in 1982.

· The real average hourly wage for more than a 100 million wage and salary workers has risen by only 31 cents since 1980. That’s an average wage increase of 1.2 cents a year!

· The real value of the minimum wage has fallen approximately 40%, leaving 19 million workers and their families below poverty level wages.

· Nearly 12 million quality jobs have been permanently eliminated in the U.S. since 1980, more than 7 million of those well-paid and mostly union manufacturing jobs.

· The effective unemployment rate in the U.S. in 2005 was 12.6%, when those unofficially unemployed and involuntarily underemployed are added to official government totals. A total of 19 million without work.

· There are more than 60 million workers in the U.S. today without a regular, permanent, full time job. Nearly half of the total employed workforce.

· The American worker works the longest hours today by far compared to workers in any other industrial nation—1,978 hours on average a year compared 1400 to 1700 a year in Europe and 1800 in Canada.

· More than 46 million U.S. citizens have no health insurance coverage at all, including more than 31 million who are working and employed.

· In the past five years workers’ share of health care costs have rise from 26% to 32% while employers’ share has declined by the same 8% points.

· Since 1985 more than 97,000 defined benefit pension plans, mostly union, have been dismantled in the U.S., leaving workers with a fraction of what their retirement otherwise would have been.

· From 1984 to 2004 more than $1.68 trillion in workers’ payroll tax contributions to social security (plus $ trillions more in interest) were permanently diverted from the Social Security Trust Fund to cover general U.S. budget deficits.

· From 1980 to 2002 the median working family’s total federal tax burden (income and payroll tax) has risen from 23% to 30%, while the tax burden for the wealthiest 1% of households has fallen from 31% to 21%.

· George W. Bush’s cumulative tax cuts from 2001 through 2004 will amount to $11 trillion when made permanent, 80% of which will go the wealthiest 20% of households and corporations.

· More than $900 billion every year is transferred from working class Americans to the wealthiest 10% of households as a result of the above.

The central organizational question facing American Labor today is what kind of organizational restructuring is necessary to restore union membership to what it once was in 1980, at the time of the launching of the current Corporate Offensive? What new organizational forms are necessary to achieve a more effective division of labor—i.e. between coordinated labor action at the point of production (e.g. organizing, bargaining coordination, strike support, boycotts, corporate campaigns, defense of community struggles, etc.) and political action at the legislative-executive level? But the crisis faced by the trade union movement today is more than a matter of organizational structure. It is just as much a matter of membership mobilization. And for this mobilization a fundamental change in how organized Labor operates at a local grass roots level is just as necessary, and must be a central element of any organizational restructuring. Indeed, the two—organizational restructuring and membership mobilization—are fundamentally related.

Creating An Effective Membership Base

To begin to restore union membership levels to the 22% level that existed at the start of the 1980s, AFL-CIO and CTW unions will need to nearly double their current combined membership, adding more than 10 million employed members over the coming decade—one million new members a year—and do so at a time during which corporations are accelerating the exporting and offshoring of jobs at an even greater pace than before. How then to add 1 million more members a year for the next ten years?

Organizing 1 million new union members a year requires creating a new layer, a critical mass of union members at the local grass roots level who are available and willing to participate in organizing as well as in inter-union and union-community solidarity actions in general. That means a new kind of effective membership: a cross-union membership core that is mobilized to participate in new forms of solidarity activity involving multiple unions and union-community support activities. Effective membership means members that are active and committed beyond more than just their immediate workplace group. Creating that kind of active membership will in turn will require the creation of new kinds of ‘centers of solidarity activity’ for membership involvement, in addition to and apart from the typical and limited steward roles at the workplace or the miscellaneous organizational projects in local unions that most members find boring at best. I’m referring to a new kind of ‘Labor Movement Membership’ apart from, in addition to, and not in lieu of, membership in a specific union. The best, most selfless, most committed would become members both of their respective industry union, and members of the American Labor Movement itself as well. Their task is to build solidarity actions.

What is also envisioned here is a new organizational structure that will enable and facilitate new forms of activity—within and between unions, between unions and community organizations, and between the unionized and the unorganized. A structure and activities that will mobilize union members, friends, and allies at the local level. That will create a new critical mass necessary for non-institutional approaches to organizing (i.e. outside the NLRB) that will be required in order to organize 1 million new members a year. Without both a new structure and a new kind of mobilized membership at the local level, successful organizing drives at Wal-Mart and similar companies will not be possible. Nor will growth anywhere near 1 million a year be remotely attainable.

The following graphic represents an initial proposal for restructuring to permit a refocusing on both organizing and on other point of production activity in general, to create a new layer of mobilized membership, a new kind of tighter relationship with local community interests, and to do so without abandoning political action. A further explanation of the graphic follows.

(For graphic request via email to ‘’.

Let’s begin in the ‘middle’ of the above graphic. The current AFL-CIO would divide into two co-equal structures: an American Council of Unions with a primary mission at the point of production and an American Federation of Unions with a primary mission addressing political action, job training and search, and other traditional administrative activity.

Parallel Co-Equal Structures

The American Federation of Unions would look much like the current AFL-CIO in both tasks and functions, with one important new functional task added. The AFU would focus mainly on those activities the AFL-CIO has tended to do in the past: namely, political action, international affairs, and traditional staff administrative support functions. Added to these traditional functions, however, would be the new mission of developing job training and job search programs for the unorganized.

Job training and search are two critical benefits that can serve to attract unorganized workers to the union movement and develop a sense of loyalty to unions that could be leveraged in numerous ways in subsequent organizing campaigns. The union as the avenue to getting jobs was once a powerful benefit provided by organized Labor. Until the late 1940s in many industries jobs could only be gotten through the union hiring hall. The closed shop and hiring hall were the path to work. They were also a critical source of union loyalty and solidarity. That path and source of loyalty and solidarity was consciously eliminated by the corporate elite with the passage of the Taft-Hartley law in 1947. Labor now needs to find new ways and new forms to provide job benefits to workers once again. Developing those forms and ways would be a major mission task of the American Federation of Unions, the AFU.

Parallel to the new AFU would be another totally new structure, a new American Council of Unions, or ACU. There is no need to end the current AFL-CIO and replace it altogether with a new organization. Let it do what it has been doing as a revitalized AFU. There is a definite need, however, to create a new organization in parallel to the AFU that is able to do those tasks the current AFL-CIO has proved unable or unwilling to undertake; namely tasks at the point of production like organizing coordination, strike and bargaining cooperation between unions, implementation of boycotts and corporation campaigns, mobilizing members and organizing local protest actions on behalf of community struggles, effective resolution of union jurisdictional disputes, implementation of mergers between unions, and other actions to bring about greater union density and to help re-establish industry-wide bargaining once again.

The American Council of Unions is not the old Industrial Union Council of the AFL-CIO but something quite different. It will have complete authority to carry out a broadly defined mission at the point of production. The Council would also serve as the primary organizational form for achieving a closer integration of Labor and community solidarity actions at the local level. It would be the workplace action and mobilization arm of the Union movement, in contrast to the political-administrative arm, the American Federation of Unions.

Just as the American Federation of Union’s task is to work toward achieving political density, the American Council of Unions’ task is to expand union density by leading and coordinating organizing drives, inter-union bargaining and strike activity, and in general mobilizing current union members, the unorganized, and community allies around concrete events and struggles. The AFL-CIO as structured today is incapable of effectively pursuing both objectives of political and union density at the same time. It tends to opt and fall back to the pursuit of the former at the expense of the latter. The tasks must therefore be divided and the AFL-CIO today restructured into two co-equal parallel bodies to enable the effective pursuit of both tasks. The American Council of Unions mission is to focus on mobilizing workers around workplace and community issues and struggles.

The Council and the Federation would be co-equal in other ways. Both would provide a co-chair for each of the State Federations of Labor. This latter organizational structure exists today and would thus continue, but now with additional tasks and under a dual leadership structure. Each State Fed would provide two delegates, one from the American Council of Unions and one from the American Federation of Unions to the new Parliamentary policy body, the American Workers Congress.

American Workers Congress

This is a new organizational body. A ‘Parliament of Labor’ that would meet quarterly and set general policy directions. It would have no executive authority whatsoever. That would reside solely with the American Council of Unions and the American Federation of Unions, in areas of their respective distinct missions. The current structure of the AFL-CIO has a fundamental conservative bias that renders it unable to make major strategic or policy changes quickly enough in crises situations. Its many small unions become dependent on a few in the AFL-CIO in leadership roles, who then rely on that highly fragmented support to stay in office for extended periods. Only a major rebellion from time to time by a significant faction of unions is able to unseat the leadership and change policies. This is a very ineffective ‘succession process’ and is harmful to Labor in times of crisis when a more rapid change and response is necessary. In addition, a greater role in the determination of policy needs to come from the field, from below. Even the Democratic Party has a more dispersed policy making body comprised of representatives from the field, its central committee. Labor needs a broad-based policy making body more closely reflecting the voice of its members in ‘the field’. The American Workers Congress idea represents a shift in that direction, toward opening organizational policy making ‘to the field and from below’. State level representatives, two each from each State, would constitute delegates to the American Workers Congress, with the proviso that one representative from each State would come from the new American Council of Unions and one from the American Federation of Unions.

Local Mobilization Committees

The key to successfully organizing 10 million new union members in the future is what happens at the local level. As noted previously, structural organizational change at the top will not lead to the successful organizing of 10 million new union members. To achieve that level of union growth will require a mobilized effective membership base as well as the broad involvement of community forces and organizations in the organizing process. In turn, to achieve that kind of effective membership and community involvement requires extending AFL-CIO restructuring and re-organization down to the local grass roots level. Thus the key to organizing the 10 million lies fundamentally in the creation of the new American Council of Unions focusing on the workplace and the local community, and in particular with new Local Mobilization Committees reporting to that Council.

The current Central Labor Councils of today’s AFL-CIO at the local level would continue to exist and would report to the new American Federation of Unions. They would continue their work in the area of local politics and in the new task of developing job training, job search and placement services for the unorganized. But alongside the Central Labor Councils locally a separate local organization would take form and would report directly to the Council of American Unions structure. This new organizational form is the Local Mobilization Committee.

The Local Mobilizing Committee would be staffed by two full time paid local organizers. The two LMC co-organizers would have the task of coordinating organizing campaigns, boycotts, community protest actions, strike support assistance, corporate campaigns implementation, etc., at the local level under the direction of the regional American Council of Unions. This is the level where the creation of the idea of effective membership would begin, engaging union members as well as community and unorganized workers in common support activities and struggles. Here is where new centers of solidarity activity would develop and emerge, bringing together union members, the unorganized, and members of community groups in joint activities across organizations and respective membership bases. Only out of such real actions and struggles can the idea of a new effective union membership take form. But this kind of cross-union membership itself cannot develop without a formal local structure to enable it or without resources provided to those who may lead it.

It is important as well that the LMCs are local bodies staffed and supported ‘from below’ and not appointed ‘from above’. The LMCs would also work closely with the local Central Labor Councils and their affiliated unions when mobilizing support for point of production activities for a particular union such as organizing drives, boycotts, strike support, etc. In turn, the CLCs would provide job training and job search support for the unorganized. The LMC union co-organizer would be elected from among union delegates to the local Central Labor Council. The community co-organizer would be elected according to an appropriate process agreed upon by those organizations and endorsed by the regional ACU. Both co-organizers would be paid by and report to the regional body of the American Council of Unions, which would prioritize and assign their activities, as well as coordinate those activities with other regional ACUs when appropriate (e.g. a nation wide organizing drive at Wal-Mart, mass protests against the destruction of union pension plans, elimination of funding for section 10 public housing, closing of public schools in communities, etc.).

Summary Comments on Organizational Change

The above organizational proposals are only initial suggestions. There are many unanswered and other critical questions not addressed by these proposals. And the proposals in turn raise other important organizational questions requiring further consideration and discussion. .

The revitalization of American Labor must be based on a massive organizing campaign that will have to employ new strategies and tactics based on a new organizational structure for the labor movement if Labor is to succeed bringing in 10 million new members over the next decade. Certainly organizing via the NLRB won’t do it. Nor even will organizing via neutrality agreements and card checks. But whatever the new approaches, they can only be successful if a real mobilization of the union base occurs and if this mobilization at its core includes uniting Labor with community allies in ways and structures not previously developed. New organization forms at all levels should seek, moreover, to promote a new concept of rank and file union membership and new forms of cross-union solidarity activities that generate solidarity across unions as well as between unions and community organizations. Without such new organizational structures there is virtually no possibility of organizing 10 million new members, restoring union bargaining and political density, or having the slightest chance that workers may yet check the current Corporate Offensive now raging against workers and their unions in America today—an offensive about to intensify still further in the months immediately ahead.

Jack Rasmus

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