Is There a Global Future for Unions?

Yves here. This personal account of the rise and fall (and hopeful rebirth) of unions correctly gives prominent play to the right-wing anti-labor effort whose strategy was set forth in the 1971 Powell Memo.

By Leo W. Gerard, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

In March 2010, a rally by thousands of striking USW workers at the Vale mine and smelter in Sudbury, Canada, was joined by allies from Brazil, Australia and countries around the world. Photo courtesy of United Steelworkers

I was raised in a company house in a company town where the miners had to buy their own oilers—that is, rubber coveralls—drill bits and other tools at the company store.

That company, Inco Limited, the world’s leading producer of nickel for most of the 20th century, controlled the town of Sudbury, Ontario, but never succeeded in owning the souls of the men and women who lived and worked there.

That’s because these were union men and women, self-possessed, a little rowdy and well aware that puny pleas from individual workers fall on deaf corporate ears.

As I prepare to retire in a couple of days, 54 years after starting work as a copper puncher at the Inco smelter, the relationship between massive, multinational corporations and workers is different.

Unions represent a much smaller percentage of workers now, so few that some don’t even know what a labor organization is—or what organized labor can accomplish. That is the result of deliberate, decades-long attacks on unions by corporations and the rich. They intend to own not only workers’ time and production but their very souls.

I’d like to tell you the story of Inco because it illustrates the arc of labor union ascendance and attenuation over the past 72 years since I was born in Sudbury.

When I was a boy, the Inco workers, about 19,000 of them, were represented by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. The union was gathering strength. My dad, Wilfred Gerard, was among the rabble-rousers. We lived just a few miles from the mine, and workers would gather at the house. Someone would bring a case of beer, and my mom would make egg salad or bologna sandwiches.

Conditions in the mine were terrible, and these workers were organizing to achieve change. I recall them talking about a work stoppage over safety glasses. I was amazed that they would have to take action like that to get essential work equipment. The company, I thought, should voluntarily take this simple step to ensure workers were not unnecessarily injured on the job.

I learned two important lessons from sitting on the steps and listening to those meetings. One was that the company would do nothing for the workers unless forced by collective action. The other was that labor unions were instruments of both economic and social justice.

I started work in the smelter at age 18 after graduating high school. My mother told my girlfriend, Susan, my future wife, not to let me get involved in the union because if I did, I would be gone all of the time. For a few years, I resisted union activism. Still, I carried a copy of the labor contract in my pocket, pulled out just high enough so the boss could see it. I knew what it said, and I wanted him to know I knew.

In 1967, when I was 20, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers merged with the United Steelworkers (USW), and I became a USW member.

It didn’t take long for the guys at the smelter to see that I had a big mouth. And in 1969, they petitioned for me to become a shop steward. That was the beginning. My mom was right. It did mean I was gone much of the time.

I got myself demoted so I could work day shifts and attend college at night. On day shift, I noticed the company was using a bunch of contractors. Many were performing work that was supposed to be done by union members. Other contractors sat in their trucks parked behind the warehouse doing nothing. So I got about six guys to help me track and record the violations every day.

Then we would file grievances against the company. We could not win because the contract language was weak at that point, but we took it through all the stages of grieving, and it cost Inco money. That made the bosses furious.

So they took it out on me. You have to be prepared for that if you are going to be an activist. They made me rake rocks that had fallen off the mine trucks onto the road. They made me pick up trash in the parking lot. They tried to humiliate me. But I always found a way to comply without bowing to them.

The advantage we had in those days was that they thought they were smarter than us. They didn’t understand that we were a team and we stuck together, so there was no way they were going to own us.

That was the 1960s, a different time. Union membership in the United States rose through 1965, when nearly one in three workers belonged. In Canada, the rise continued through 1985, when the rate was 38 percent. The drop-off in the United States was fairly slow until 1980, when it plummeted to 23.2 percent. It has now fallen to 10.5 percent. In Canada, the decline was steady, but much slower. The rate there remains 30.1 percent, close to the all-time high in the United States.

The difference is that in the United States, corporations and conservatives engaged in a successful campaign, beginning in 1971, to seize power from workers and propagandize for what they euphemistically called free enterprise. Really, it’s cutthroat capitalism. The upshot is that U.S. workers have more difficulty forming unions than Canadians, and U.S. corporations can more easily lock workers out of their jobs and hire strikebreakers. The intent is to enable corporations to own their workers, lock, stock and soul.

Lewis Powell, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, launched this drive to crush labor, the left and environmentalists in the United States with a memo he wrote in 1971 for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and distributed to corporate leaders.

Powell told the Chamber that it had to organize businesses into a political force because, he claimed, corporations and the free market system were “under broad attack,” and in “deep trouble.” He inveighed against regulations sought by car safety activist Ralph Nader, by environmentalists petitioning for clean air and water and by unions demanding less deadly mines and manufacturing. He castigated those on the left pursuing a fairer, safer and more humane society.

Businesses must cultivate political power, and wield it, Powell said, to secure “free market” advantages, such as tax breaks and loopholes specifically for corporations and the rich.

Powell also told the Chamber: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

That is exactly what the Chamber achieved. It catalyzed a business movement, funded by wealthy conservative family and corporate foundations, including those of Coors, Olin, Scaife and Koch, to name a few. The foundations sponsored conservative professors at universities and right-wing “non-profits” such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which provides junkets for right-wing lawmakers at which it encourages them to champion anti-union and anti-worker legislation. These groups bankrolled conservative candidates and secured appointments of conservative judges.

Between the end of World War II and 1970, during the rise of unions, workers’ incomes rose with productivity. Income inequality declined, and North America became home to the largest middle class in history. After 1970 and the Chamber effort to implement the Powell manifesto, unions declined and workers’ wages stagnated. Virtually all new income and profits went to CEOs, stockholders and the already rich. The middle class dwindled as income inequality rose to Gilded Age levels.

This occurred at the same time that corporations expanded, becoming massive multinationals, with facilities sprawled across the world and without allegiance to any country. This happened to Inco. Vale, a Brazilian corporation, bought it in 2006, and now Vale is a true multinational with facilities worldwide.

Multinationals spurned their obligation to serve workers, consumers, communities and shareholders. Instead, they focused only on shareholders, the rest be damned. They closed factories in the United States and Canada and moved them to places like Mexico and China, with low wages and lax environmental laws. They exploited foreign workers and destroyed North American workers’ lives and communities.

As far back as the 1970s, the USW, the AFL-CIO, as well as the textile, shoe, steel and other industry leaders, warned Congress about what this trend, combined with increasing imports, meant for American workers and their neighborhoods. In 1973, after the United States experienced its first two years of trade deficits in a century, I.W. Abel, then president of the USW, urged Congress “to slow the massive flood of imports that are sweeping away jobs and industries in wholesale lots.”

Congress’ failure to heed this alarm resulted in the collapse of the U.S. textile and shoe industries and many others. It very nearly killed the steel industry, which has suffered tsunami after tsunami of bankruptcies, gunpoint mergers and mill closures. Tens of thousands of family-supporting jobs were lost and communities across both the United States and Canada hollowed out. In 1971 and 1972, the trade deficit totaled $8.4 billion. Last year it was $621 billion. Every imported toy, shoe, bolt of cloth and ingot of steel means fewer U.S. factories and jobs and more struggling towns.

The USW presidents who followed Abel—Lloyd McBride and Lynn R. Williams—escalated the battle against offshored factories and unfairly traded imports. The USW even filed suit to try to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because Williams, like independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, saw that it would suck Canadian and U.S. factories and jobs south of the Mexican border.

The late USW President George Becker and I agitated for change, confronting and cajoling presidents and prime ministers and members of Congress and Parliament. The USW martialed all of its forces, including activists in its Women of Steel and NextGen programs, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, and its Rapid Response coordinators. Tens of thousands of workers rallied, camped out in Washington, D.C., harangued lawmakers and sent postcards.

Working with allies in the community, such as environmental and human rights groups, faith and food safety organizations, together we have won some short-term relief measures. These include the tariffs on imported steel and aluminum imposed last year and the defeat of the proposed new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have extended NAFTA problems across Pacific Rim countries.

In the decades that the USW battled bad trade, I moved through the ranks, from staff representative, to District Director to Canadian National Director to USW Secretary-Treasurer. Among my goals was to forge international workers’ alliances to combat the corporate cabals that always got seats at the table to write the trade deals that worked against workers. When I was elected USW president in 2001, one of my top priorities was expanding the union’s coalitions.

Now the USW participates in three global unions, which together represent more than 82 million workers in more than 150 countries worldwide. The USW and partner unions also created more than two dozen global councils of workers, including those for workers at ArcelorMittal, BASF, Bridgestone, DowDuPont and Gerdau. These employers quickly learned that taking on workers at one factory meant taking on workers at all of their workplaces internationally.

In 2005, the USW and the Mexican miners’ union known as Los Mineros formed a strategic alliance. And the USW gave Los Mineros General Secretary Napoleon Gomez sanctuary in Canada when he was unjustly accused of wrongdoing by a Mexican government intent on shutting him up after a mine disaster.

In 2008, the USW joined with Unite the Union, the second largest union in the UK and Ireland, forming Workers Uniting to fight exploitation and injustice globally. And the USW formed alliances with union federations in Australia and Brazil, where the organization is known as the CUT.

This international brotherhood and sisterhood stood with Canadian mine and smelter workers for a year beginning in July 2009.

During its first negotiations with the USW, Vale, the Brazilian corporation that bought Inco, demanded harsh concessions from its thousands of Canadian workers. Though Vale was highly profitable, it said it wouldn’t even bargain with the USW unless the workers first accepted the cuts. That forced them out on strike.

I started talking regularly with the head of the CUT in Brazil to strategize and plan joint actions. Brazilian workers and community groups wholeheartedly supported their Canadian brothers and sisters. They demonstrated in front of the Vale headquarters and threw red paint—symbolizing blood—on the building. They shut down traffic with all sorts of street actions. They protested at the Vale shareholders meeting, inside and out.

They also traveled to Canada, in force with flags, for a rally in Sudbury in March of 2010, when the strike was eight months old and banks were repossessing some workers’ cars and foreclosing on homes. By then, Vale had 100,000 workers in mines and smelters across the world. Supporters from many of those communities—in Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia—joined thousands of Canadians who marched through the streets that cold day.

Vale could see that its Canadian workers, in Sudbury, Port Colborne, and Voisey’s Bay, were not alone. They had allies from around the world willing to stand up to the giant multinational.

The strike ended 12 long months after it started. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we certainly didn’t accept Vale’s concessionary demands. Vale failed to accomplish its mission, which was to spread to all of its operations worldwide the authoritarian, top-down, nasty management practices that it had honed in Brazil. The proof of that is the next round of negotiations with Vale went fairly well, and we got an honorable settlement.

Now, for labor to secure gains, in the United States or Canada or anywhere, workers must mobilize. We have to bring everyone together, women, men, poor people, people of color, gay people—all working people.  None of us is big enough or developed enough to win this fight alone.

If we fight together, I can’t guarantee we will win. But if we don’t fight for justice, I can guarantee we will lose.

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37 comments

    1. n

      Union leaders like Leo Gerard is one of the reasons unions are so terrible nowadays.

      His union endorsed Obama twice and then endorsed Hillary.

      He is a neoliberal who has made a fortune compared to the rank and file members he has continually screwed over!

      Reply
      1. Unsympathetic

        Please show your proof of Gerard’s “fortune.” His salary makes him barely upper-middle-class.

        Until you respond in the form of accurate links, your amusing trolling isn’t worth responding to.

        How much are the Koch brothers paying you to post here?

        Reply
  1. Arizona Slim

    Unions shouldn’t just be for employees. Workers in the frig, er, gig economy also need them.

    And why do I call it the frig economy? Because it keeps frigging us over!

    Reply
    1. Jane

      Yes. Unions made a mistake in the 70s and 80s, they blamed contractors for taking their jobs, failing to recognize contract labour as a corporate strategy to break unions. In the early years contractors tended to make more, not less, than the average worker, had more control over their hours, etc., in other words the same come-on you hear for todays gig workers.

      Unions need to stand up for all workers, unionized or not, especially given that corporate money, over the years, has turned the word union into a curse word. People in the US and Canada tend to think unions are corrupt or useless or both. Unions need to show common cause with all working people, and not just union shops, before union participation is down to 0% in both countries.

      Reply
      1. Inode_buddha

        My experience is that unions have a *lot* of reforming to do in the US and Canada, else they die out completely. I’ve spent the last 30 years in both union shops and nonunion shops, and my experience is that the union guys have no more ethics than the bosses they purport to loathe so much. And a good many of them (UAW) had such large heads you wondered how they got thru the door in the morning. To summarize, criticism for the unions is warranted, and the situation will not improve until they do.

        Reply
        1. Arthur Dent

          I agree. My son works in a union plant where the union and the company have a good relationship and smart work rules. The company can hire temps for short-term assignments but after a certain period, they need to become part of the union or the position is terminated. That provides a stable core work force with the ability to scale up for peak demand.

          My wife works for a teacher union. On the whole its not bad, but you simply cannot get rid of bad teachers. That is a major problem.

          Some unions have been bastions of corruption, crime, and/or incompetence. An example going through Congress right now is the multi-employer pension fund issues. As a taxpayer who is not eligible for a pension and with my spouse’s teacher pension in a nearly fully funded status using local and state taxes in a high tax state, I am baffled by why my federal taxes would be used to fund private pensions for private union members living in low tax states. Things like PBGC should be funded by the pension participants and the unions should be negotiating this instead of allowing things to get to a failure point.

          Reply
          1. H. Alexander Ivey

            On the whole its not bad, but you simply cannot get rid of bad teachers. That is a major problem.

            What? Being able to fire someone is a main feature? I think you are missing the picture.We are all in this together; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Be aware of thinking you are the boss and start being aware of supporting your team.

            Reply
          2. cnchal

            > . . . My son works in a union plant where the union and the company have a good relationship and smart work rules. . .

            So far so good.

            What happens when a public sector union, such as your wife’s, which has been getting it’s funds through your son’s and his fellow coworker’s taxes, hands the funds to Pirate Equity for a “shoot for the stars investment return”, which then does the usual, drowns the company in debt so the Pirates can take hundreds of millions in fees for themselves, and strip out any company pension money and convert that to yachts and mansions?

            Not so good anymore.

            I am not baffled why my taxes go to pay for even one bullet for the military. The government takes it at gunpoint and spends it on what it’s corrupt self wants.

            Reply
  2. John A

    I grew up just outside Trafford Park, Manchester, for a long time the largest industrial park in Europe. I remember the stories of accidents, crushes, deaths and in particular, one factory a friend’s father worked at, which had a reputation of ‘a hand a week’ ie. that was crushed, chopped off or similar.
    Whenever I hear some right wing politician or media personality talking about cutting ‘red tape’ and making ‘life easier for businesses, I think this ‘red tape’ was actually the kind of legislation that helped reduce deaths and maimings in factories. In other words, they want to go back in the direction of Dickensian work conditions where profits count and hands don’t.
    As a student, I worked a couple of summers at a famous breakfast cereal manufacturer. A couple of times, joining the union kept me safe from management bullying. The whole debate in Britain was totally poisoned by media and Thatcher claiming unions were too strong and had to be defeated. Well, Thatcher, by vastly increasing police pay etc, and wasting the North Sea oil bounty to this end, managed to do that, now Britain is more or less bankrupt, the unions more or less dead and the country on a race to the bottom to compete with the far east. Needless to say, Trafford Park has barely any industry today.

    Reply
  3. Michael Fiorillo

    Wait, improving wages and laboring conditions for the working class (which just happens to include the overwhelming majority of the human race) is “social justice?”

    Who would have ever known?

    Reply
  4. Jake

    Unless employees address the fundamental problem that they dont own the company, I dont think the massive power imbalance, as a result, will be resolved. Unions can only go so far. We need employee owned companies which are highly competitive.

    Reply
  5. notabanktoadie

    Labor cartels to fight the results of a government-privileged usury cartel seem doomed to failure.

    Why? Because of job destroying automation financed with what is then, in essence, the PUBLIC’S CREDIT but for private gain.

    Reply
    1. John Wright

      Automation is encouraged when wages are high and discouraged when wages are low.

      I place little blame on automation.

      Globalization has tended to level wages around the world, resulting in wage pressure downward in the developed nations.

      When one sees the efforts in the USA, supported by the left and right, to bring in more low wage workers and H1-B tech workers, move factories overseas or move service work overseas via the internet, it is difficult, for me, to imagine that unions can ever forcefully arise again in the USA.

      Unions can be strong when the supply of labor is restricted and companies are forced to deal with a union.

      I worked in the Northern CA electronics industry for 30+ years and watched high tech overseas manufacturing grow from the 1990’s onward.

      And all USA employers, including the US military that makes it less risky to do business overseas, look at labor cost as something to be minimized.

      I simply do not see how unions can flourish in the current “wage labor to the world wide mean” environment encouraged by both Republicans and Democrats (and their donors).

      Reply
      1. notabanktoadie

        I place little blame on automation. John Wright

        Automation or outsourcing or anything else to lower wage costs would be considered “prudent” credit risks for banks. Which is one reason why banks, etc. should be 100% private with 100% voluntary depositors – so as not to use the PUBLIC’S CREDIT to dis-employ the public!

        Reply
  6. Andreas

    Union membership in the U.S. peaked in 1955 at 35% and remained strong until the late 1960s. In 1970, the membership rate stood at 29% and since them has continued to fall. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a nationwide membership rate of 11%.

    After a century of strike breaking, Pinkertons, and sometimes all but outright war against unions, capital and concentrated power hit upon the most devastating action against unions.

    While ostensibly passed to protect pension funds, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) has had a significant affect of the decline of Union membership and economic power in the United States. ERISA prohibitions against Union Pension Funds making direct investments that support Union owned businesses or business interests have created an uneven playing field in the U.S. economy. Private Capital does not face such restrictions. Corporate Capital does not face such restrictions. Private & Corporate Capital supported ERISA to block and diminish Union economic power.

    Reply
  7. Norb

    This is a great post that captures the history and struggles of working people very well. However, I’m left feeling that the author is making a call to arms in order to fight the last war- the war that is already lost.

    Unless the corporate elites that own just about everything have some sort of moral revelation and realize that they are cutting their own throats due to their unrelenting greed and feelings of entitlement to rule over the rest of humankind- and the Natural world for that matter- unions in and of themselves won’t change the trajectory of human development. More focus must be brought on ownership of production- and the purpose of production.

    Union membership is one small component in a larger struggle of National or State economic organization. People need to start thinking more radically because fundamental change is needed, and every day the time frame for adjustment seems to be getting shorter. The duality between owners of production and workers- class conflict- needs to be reconciled in some workable manner. Rekindling the confrontational nature of competitive capitalism is the wrong way to go.

    Unionism failed in the US because it turned into a system upon itself, and lost track of being a means to bring about social transformation. Union power couldn’t rise to take over production- which must be the goal in a confrontational system. The broader political purpose of unions was lost, and morphed into narrow self-interest.

    The Powell memo was so powerful and successful because it was a political manifesto- a political call to arms heeded by its intended audience. The opposition to corporate capitalists must come up with their own, succinct manifesto.

    The opposition to corporate capitalists must become much more specific and with, simple, concrete, immediate steps people can take to bring about resolution to crisis.

    People must come together to form cooperative systems, not focus on building competitive, confrontational entities. In the long term, such organizations fall to corruption and bribery.

    Reply
  8. James E Keenan

    Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.

    True for capital and (with perhaps quibble about “financing”) true for labor as well.

    I confess that I was ignorant about the trans-national labor organizing efforts which Mr Gerard describes. So this post was informative as well as inspiring.

    Reply
  9. Bill H

    The writer is my kind of person. You don’t win by asking government to declare you the winner, you don’t win by having power and not using it, you win by exercising the power that you possess.

    In the early sixties I was one among many standing outside the gate of a steel plant with an axe handle in my hand facing an armed police force attempting to make us stand down. They were threatening to fire on us, and I remember clearly our leader’s reply. “Go ahead,” he yelled, “you’ll kill some of us, but we’ll kill all of you.” They did not fire and we did not stand down.

    Today a strike consists of, what, one day strolling down Main Street and not making demands on the employer, but begging government to raise the minimum wage and back to work the next day. How hard is it for management and government to utterly ignore that?

    There are 535 federal legislators in this nation, and 162 million workers, and we let them pass laws that are against our interests. They will quit doing that only if it is in their best interest to quit doing it, and that means if they are afraid of what will happen to them. How is it that, outnumbered by 303,000:1, they are not afraid of us?

    Reply
    1. Carla

      They are not afraid of us because we do not stand together.

      Well aware that you asked a rhetorical question, but still, I think this needs to be stated over and over again.

      Reply
  10. Hepativore

    One thing that I would also like to see are unions for white collar/”professional” positions. Many people in the “STEM” sector have litte to no leverage over their employer when it comes to wages and working conditions. Plus, these areas are rife with employer abuses as many STEM workplaces are little more than glorified “bodyshops” as their employees are often “permatemps” with no benefits or job stability. Also, look at all of the ways that H1-B visa workers are used to keep wages down and how miserably they are treated by employers.

    Finally, a lot of office workers have to contend with things like unpaid overtime, and having to be on call for 24 hours a day. Unpaid internships have also become a common practice in many white collar fields as have things like “rank-and-yank” annual performance reviews or arbitrary layoffs.

    I know that unions have been traditionally thought of as a protection for blue collar workers, but I think that there should also be unions in the white collar workplace as well. This is because employers in the “professional” sector are just as prone to take advantage of their employees as their blue collar counterparts.

    Reply
    1. nothing but the truth

      it goes both ways.

      Anyone in a STEM job (except healthcare, and it basically means a coding job), knows very well that he is a glorified high wage disposable worker like mexicans working in the farms.

      Layoffs are common, and employees have very little loyalty to employers as a result. Worse, the recruitment process seems to be getting nepotism-ised as these are practically the last high paying jobs for “normal people” left in the country outside of the govt sector (which is another mouth-watering gravy train).

      40+ workers are really in a tough spot. The clever ones have bought a small biz / gas station etc to stabilize incomes.

      I personally prefer a consultant’s job – there is no expectation from either side of stability or loyalty. It is a purely mercenary attitude, which is where in reality the companies, the media with its STEM touting articles and the recruiting “industry” have got us.

      Reply
  11. KLG

    As the child of a union household (UAW and later Chemical Workers), thank you!

    One minor consideration, though. Words matter. These companies are transnational, not simply multinational. The former determines the latter but also is a better descriptor. Nothing, neither law nor morality, deters a transnational firm. And that is the point, explained well by Quinn Slobodian in his Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018). The only effective response is to fight them, at every turn.

    Reply
  12. Eugene

    Hope is eternal, or so it’s said. If corruption can ever be eliminated – that “if” may be “impossible” – then rebirth is “possible”. Looking back on everything I’ve been associated with, “Union” wise, there were good & bad. The retirement for those lucky enough to still have such, that wasn’t robbed/looted by the Executives & or Union leaders, definitely comes in handy today. The example that TRUMP & Cohorts have given to the country, is the same as a game of chance, the odds are against anyone being a winner.

    Reply
  13. marku52

    The bigger problem (and I think this will come due before unions have a chance at recovery) is that capitalism as a form of social organization, has no future.

    What can you say for a system so obtuse that it can’t even react (in fact is forced to not react by internal design) to the fact that it is destroying the ecosystem (and planet) that it depends on.

    That is mindlessly hopeless.

    Reply
  14. Ander Pierce

    An extremely engaging piece, thanks Mr. Gerard!

    My money’s on a serious resurgence of union membership in the US, just from what I’ve seen at the teacher’s strikes, and as I work alongside UNITE HERE to organize my own shop (check out Airportstrikealert.org).

    Can we succeed in the face of organized reaction, globalization, and climate change? Hell if I know, but we’re all bound to find out!

    Reply
  15. chuck roast

    A great post. The carnage has been over-whelming and absolute. However, the wide-ranging and continuous bloodshed has never deterred US based unions from giving moral support, endorsements, labor and money to the Democrats who have had a decades-long strategy of supplying band-aides and hari-kari to swords organized labor.

    Now perhaps a psychiatrist will weigh in and explain why there was never so much as a failed attempt to form a political party of unionists. Political “scientists” need not apply.

    And maybe somebody will ask Biden why “card-check” wasn’t the very first initiative of him and his boy Barack.

    Reply
  16. N

    The author left out the part where the unions sold out the working class and the people running the unions ended up just as corrupt as the company bosses

    The USW endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012, and endorsed Hillary in 2016.

    If that doesn’t show people what a farce the USW is then I don’t know what will…

    Reply
  17. Amfortas the hippie

    they didn’t teach us much about Labor in highschool(mid to late 80’s, in Texas), so i had to go to the library.
    still don’t, per my regular perusal of my kids’ history books.
    most of the people i’ve worked with(in kitchens and on farms, and numerous “service industry” places) have little idea what a union is…unless they reflexively “don’t like them”, due to wall to wall propaganda and Mind%uck.
    I’ve considered myself an unofficial Wobbly for most of my thinking life(https://www.iww.org/ ), and figure that if Capital is Free, Unions should be also…and that if Capital is Borderless, so should Unions be…and that if strikes are illegal(like with Texas Teachers), we should do them anyway….as many of us as possible…and across sectors.
    all for one and one for all, and cetera.
    in my feedstore and produce aisle symposia…and even in talking to the little bosses I know…when i get knee-jerk guff about “bad unions”…I point to the Chamber of Commerce on the square….that’s a union…for the Bosses.(also NAM, the other NRA, and the various unions of pharma and health insurance, and on and on—Powell effectively unionised the Bosses)
    if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.
    the scrooge mcducks of the world have had a good run. It’s high time they were reined in.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4DCbOXOimY

    Reply
  18. Susan Mulloy

    Thank you for this article, Yves. I was encouraged by the international solidarity referenced herein. I think there are several paths that can be pursued by working people. All is not lost if unions ally with Democrats or if they don’t focus on remaking capitalism into workplace democracy. Maybe the latter is not within reach at this time and the effort to pursue this path could be better employed in starting with simpler goals. Maybe the new Democrats like AOC, Jeff Merkley, Gabbard, Castro, et al will keep class conflict in a wiser perspective. And act productively on the support they get from labor. And as far as +200k salaries for union leaders, well that’s just in line with today’s MBAs, RN’s, police officers, and local government officials.

    Reply
    1. Susan Mulloy

      I wonder if the bankruptcy tool was outlined in the Powell memo. I remember in 1984 when it was used for the first time to abrogate union contracts. I was shocked at the time. Maybe it can’t be used so effectively now since the hollowing out of union ranks.

      I also remember this period because I interned at the DC research office of the UFCW, the United Food and Commercial Workers Int’l Union. I was in the summer between my two years in the MBA program at UCLA. I remember trying to use what I learned in my finance classes for the report I did on Safeway Stores, Inc. How to use the dogma of “maximizing shareholder returns” to inform an analysis of this corporation for the benefit of union leaders and members. It was probably beyond my pay grade to suggest effective strategies. But I was able to lift quotes from the CEO’s conferences to securities analysts. He admitted that Safeway did not close stores because of union actions but because the company would earn more by focusing resources where population, income, and other growth variables were strongest.

      Reply
  19. JCC

    An observation from a member of the (non-union) ranks:

    I have always been, overall, a Union Supporter and I know that The Powell Memo was a back door method to unionize Capital against the employees through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufaturers. I also understand that money talks when it comes to Federal and State laws that intentionally reduce or eliminate Union power.

    As for this being an embarrassing “propaganda piece”, I don’t buy it. One of the supposedly negative points made by a commenter above is that Mr. Gerard makes $200,000.00+/yr managing an organization that stretches across the U.S.and Canada and 1.2M members. That’s pretty small potatoes compared to the salary of Mario Longhi’s $10.5M/yr salary, the CEO of US Steel with approx 29,000 “members”/employees (that number does not include his powerful Institutional Shareholders). As for the commenters link to the embarrassing “propaganda piece” at the WSWS site, the final “solution” paragraph is exactly what Mr.Gerard is doing, as he clearly explains in this post.

    But Unions do have some problems in this country, I believe, even if not all of their making. Obviously organization of employees is one very serious problem, a problem intentionally generated by the organization of NAM and the USCoC and all their powerful lobbyists. The other is the antagonism between Unions and Management that spill over into public perceptions of Unions. Perceptions that Managenment seems to do a better job of leveraging than Unions do. And this antagonism causes problems on shop floors that don’t help anyone, including Unions.

    An example: although I don’t know how the USW acts in situations like this, I do know what it was like to go into Auto Plants as a macine tool manufacturer employee to install things like CNC lathes with barfeeders. When walking into a small company, with or without Union employees, I could install and give cursory instructions on the operation of this combination in 2 to 2.5 days. When going into a GM or Ford plant, this would, far more often than not, take 5 very boring, long days that cost everyone too much money through wasted time. I had to hurry up and wait, all day long, for the electricians to show up and screw 4 wires into transformers, wiring that was already in place and ready to go and something I normally did everywhere else. Then I would have to wait another 4 hours or more waiting for the air supply people to show up and plug a ready and waiting air supply into the system. And then, another 2 to 4 hours or more, I would have to stand around and wait for the hydraulic oil person to come over and verify the self-contained hydraulic systems parameters, even though I had the necessary tools to do all this myself.

    It often left a very bad taste in my mouth when it came to Union Rules (not to mention harassment from my company blaming me for taking to long), and I’m not the only one that has seen this sort of situation. And unfortunately many in the public sphere have seen multiple articles about these types of situations, articles promoted by Management ever since I can remember. Of course these BS articles focused on this being the prime reason for the unnecessary high cost of retail goods we all saw constantly during the ’70s and ’80s, the era of the surge in union-busting, and it worked well. But if true, why did prices continue to rise anyway?

    Personally, as another commenter mentioned above, employee owned enterprises are a good, but relatively impractical solution in today’s world for these types of large enterprises.

    I wish I knew the knew good solutions, though I know that better organization is the prime solution. But organization towards what is the question. More antagonism? More often-senseless rules that slow things down and increase costs for no apparent, realistic, reason?

    Maybe Unions should start negotiating direct ownership (additional payment) of share ownership by employees, not necessarily managed by Union Management – unless those Unions can guarantee in stone a fully transparent management of those individually -owned shares, of course – but managed by individual small groups within each enterprise, also guaranteed in stone to be fully transparent management. That might lessen the antagonism that is so obviously prevalent between Unions and Management.

    And Unions in general really need to do a better job solving these rules issues as well as improve the PR regarding all of the above to counteract articles like the above mentioned WSWS article.

    This post is one step in the right direction.

    Reply
  20. Luke

    Freedom of Association could IMO solve every issue related to unions in this country.
    Let every worker that wants to be free to form or join unions — and let every company employ, or not employ them, as they see fit, just as workers can refuse to work at any given company.

    Reply
  21. eg

    This is very good for the era that it describes. I would add to it that we got universal male suffrage primarily because of the UK trade union movement of the 19th century. Unions historically have been important to the health of democracy in addition to their important work improving working conditions.

    Reply

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