The American unions have been in the news often lately. The decision by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and several other unions to split from the AFL-CIO and set-up the new “Change to Win Federation” has many commentators predicting a new burst of union activism, as the split will supposedly force both sides to compete with one another and thus organize more workers and step-up their political activity.
Whatever the results of this split, it is clear that it will not benefit the working class at all. While trade unions were originally working-class institutions as they emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries to win concrete reforms from a still expanding capitalist system, this is not the case today. Ever since capitalism became a decadent social system in the early part of the 20th century, the unions everywhere have been integrated into the state apparatus as the capitalist system’s shop-floor police against the working class. This is true no matter what policy, focus or direction the union’s leaders claim to embody. Whatever ideological gleam they use to mask their role as capitalist institutions, there is no mistaking the fact that today the unions serve the interests of the ruling class.
As the unions’ role in the architecture of the capitalist state is to “speak the language of the working class” in order to prevent the proletariat from developing its own critique of the capitalist system, confronting their lies and exposing their nature is one of the most important tasks revolutionaries face today. The attempt to rehabilitate the image of the unions comes at a time when the deepening economic crisis and growing attacks on the working class standard of living are pushing workers to defend themselves. Recent strikes at Northwest Airlines, Boeing, and Philadelphia transit, and the current strike threat in New York City transit are notable examples of this trend. This revival in class struggle makes it all the more important that workers are clear on the nature of the unions.
As Marx pointed out, “the ideas of the ruling class tend to be the ruling ideas of the epoch.” It is thus very difficult for workers and even many revolutionaries to consciously articulate the reality of unions today. Nevertheless, many workers, even if they do not yet openly identify the unions as part of the enemy class, express a certain intuitive indifference, suspicion or even hostility towards the very institutions that are supposed to speak in their name. This is not surprising when one considers the nearly century long record the unions have of sabotaging workers’ independent struggles, mobilizing society for war, and forcing austerity on the working class.
Despite the recent political audacity of union figures like SEIU president Andy Stern or Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., today the unions face the same crisis of legitimacy with their members that politicians suffer with the public as a whole. Just as voter turnout reaches record lows, participation and activity levels for union members are bottoming out. While there may always be a hard-core of “union activists,” members either who are enrolled behind the union ideology or who covet a possibly lucrative career in the union’s bureaucracy themselves, the majority of union members do not participate in union activities and many ignore its political recommendations.
As a result, the unions have been spending boatloads of members’ dues money on member opinion research, ostensibly to figure out how to best reach to members, get them “involved” and mobilize them for politics. While the unions paint these efforts as attempts to learn how best to mobilize workers, in reality they are just seeking more effective ways to sell the myth of bourgeois democracy and the idea that unions are the workers’ voice in that system.
Not surprisingly, the results of these studies are usually the same. Workers tend to reject the idea of the union as a political entity and tend only to look at it as a source of peripheral benefits such as health insurance and retirement benefits. Like the population as a whole, union members are growing more and more indifferent towards bourgeois politics and many have long given up on the idea that the unions are a real vehicle for change. Therefore, to the extent that members pay dues, many of them without choice, they tend to see fringe benefits as the only real advantage to union membership. Alas, for the unions, most members tend to rate the union’s performance in delivering these benefits less than satisfactory.
All this indicates that underneath all the rhetoric and confusions, workers are growing increasingly disillusioned with the unions. While this is generally not expressed in a very conscious way right now, there is clearly a certain subterranean maturation of class-consciousness taking place, evidenced by the growing tendency among workers to reject unionism as a source of social and political change.
Due in part to the erosion of their legitimacy, but also due to the increasing tendency towards “every man for himself” in the arena of bourgeois politics, some unions have launched broad campaigns to “organize” more workers and bring them into the union fold. A chief example of this is the SEIU’s campaigns to organize more service sector workers. In fact, in the last decade, SEIU has won National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections to represent such peripheral sectors of the labor force as childcare and homecare workers in a number of states. SEIU has painted these campaigns as part of a broad strategy to “organize the unorganized” and gain recognition for workers that have previously been ignored and even regarded as not part of the working class.
In reality though, the unions’ efforts have accomplished little other than increase it dues base. It has generally been able to win these elections as NLRB rules state that it only needs to win a majority of votes cast to represent these workers in collective bargaining negotiations. As generally only the most ideologically mobilized workers cast ballots, the unions have generally walked away with these elections. However, once the elections are over, the unions then claim the right to collect dues from all workers in that sector, many of whom do not even know they are now in a union.
As many of these workers receive payment from the state to care for family members as an alternative to the expense of putting them in nursing homes or day care centers, the unions have generally been able to negotiate modest raises in the first contract. However, imagine the surprise these workers have when they receive their paychecks only to learn that the raise has been cancelled out by mandatory dues reductions.
In reality then, the recent campaigns by SEIU and other unions to “organize the unorganized” has been of no benefit to the workers themselves. Most still work for close to minimum wage, receive few if any benefits and work more hours than they are actually paid for. On top of all this, they now have to pay dues to a union few recognize as their own and many find illegitimate. While there is generally an initial upsurge in “appreciation” for the union after the initial contract, the unions generally find themselves in a rut shortly afterwards unable to communicate with its “members” or mobilize them for political action.
Therefore, far from the recent bourgeois propaganda regarding the revival of unionism today and all the academic chatter about “increasing union density” as a prerequisite for progressive change, what we are really witnessing is a subterranean maturation of class-consciousness, whereby many workers are slowly and subtly but clearly coming to reject the unions as a vehicle of political change. While many continue to look to the unions as a source of fringe benefits, they are increasingly tending to look to them only for that reason, and many do not like what they find. In the period ahead, as capitalism’s economic crisis deepens, it is likely the unions will be increasingly unable to offer these benefits, accelerating their crisis of legitimacy and making them ever less relevant in more and more workers’ eyes.
Nevertheless, exposing the unions for what they are - institutions of capitalist discipline- will remain a priority for revolutionaries in the period ahead. As they claim to “speak the language of the working-class” while in reality seeking to sabotage its independent struggle, exposing their lies will be more important than ever in a context where the historic course is open to more and more decisive class confrontations and in which the unions will likely radicalize their discourse in an attempt to keep more workers under their sway.
Moreover, as the decomposition of the capitalist system increases, and the bourgeois political structure fractures, it is likely that we will see more and more radical sounding talk from certain unions. Revolutionaries must be on guard for this and continue to patiently, but clearly, expose the nature of unions today. Nothing less than the success of the proletariat’s struggle to build a truly human community is at stake.