If I were a magician or a Inquisitor and could magically remove the tongues and fingers of those who think they can key-broad warrior to revolution (ignoring that outside of cyber-security threats, pens may be mightier than the sword, but they are tend to be a be weaker than tank division) or take their long march through academia into the streets instead of out of it, I would ban people trying to invoke 19th and early 20th century discussions about Unions and Labor Parties as answers to contemporary political problems from the face of the North America.
This lame necromancy of trying to talk with words about Unions from pre-Taft Hartley or like the legal structures of either the US or Canada even remotely reflected that of North Europe needs to be dropped. This isn’t just a case of rebranding, although I will make an argument for that in a minute. This cuts deeper than this. I used to call it LARPing, but this metaphor has blossomed on the inter like red algae in the Mexican gulf killing the fish of thought in droves. It is, frankly, trying to be pretend a lot of the 20th century just didn’t happen in the US.
Not that I don’t want people to read labor history, know the writings of Eugene Debs and history of the IWW, or even know debates about Unionism in the Soviet Union. People can be benefited by this history, but what you aren’t going to do is raise the dead. No amount of blood rites to Trotskyist newspapers or kickstarters or canvasing factory is going to be enough to have labor unions have significant power in the even OECD as a whole, much less the United States.
To quote the source of all easy knowledge:
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed the histories of union membership rates in industrialized countries from 1970 to 2003, and found that of 20 advanced economies which had union density statistics going back to 1970, 16 of them had experienced drops in union density from 1970 to 2003. Over the same period during which union density in the US declined from 23.5 percent to 12.4 percent, some counties saw even steeper drops. Australian unionization fell from 50.2 percent in 1970 to 22.9 percent in 2003, in New Zealand it dropped from 55.2 percent to 22.1 percent, and in Austria union participation fell from 62.8 percent down to 35.4 percent. All the English-speaking countries studied saw union membership decline to some degree. In the United Kingdom, union participation fell from 44.8 percent in 1970 to 29.3 percent in 2003. In Ireland the decline was from 53.7 percent down to 35.3 percent. Canada had one of the smallest declines over the period, going from 31.6 percent in 1970 to 28.4 percent in 2003. Most of the countries studied started in 1970 with higher participation rates than the US, but France, which in 1970 had a union participation rate of 21.7 percent, by 2003 had fallen to 8.3 percent. The remaining four countries which had gained in union density were Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium.
IF there is a magic rule of political revolutions, they require the participation of the 1/3 of the population. Even in the vaulted mystical realm of Western Europe, where left-liberals often seem to the think promised land is prototyped, you don’t reach those numbers. Furthermore, large scale industrial and social change actually is harder than a political revolution and generally requires closer to 50% of social mobilization. Agrarian capitalism and the transition to industrial capital in England took place over a 200 year period and involved most of the mobilization of society, fundamentally changing the nature of English class structure. It wasn’t planned–it was a confluence of Protestant reformations, limits of nobility to use extra-economic force inside of England, seizure of church poverty by the state, enclosures of the commons, and end of both the peasant and the yeoman class throughout. It also was aided by a revolution of religious zealous land holders, and then some Kings coming back and making concessions to them. Much harder than taking control of a state house or enforcing a constitution.
What does that have to do with Unions? Well, even in France and Germany, Union membership is approaching less than 35%. In the US and UK, where many of these Unions were born, it is down below 20%. Furthermore, it gets worse when you look at the composition of Unions:
▪ Management, professional: 11.9%
▪ Service: 9.2%
▪ Sales and office: 6.5%
▪ Natural resources, construction, and
▪ Production, transportation, and
material moving: 14.8%
Services and trucking are two largest sectors of the US economy. The largest private employer is Walmart and out of the top 10 private employers–eight of them are retail services. These workers do not make commodities and do have the same pull overproduction, so striking is not as effective. Furthermore, they make up on 9.2% of all Union membership in the US. Trucking is the largest employing field, and while it does have 15% union membership, a large portion of the trucking work force is
Parsing the numbers though, the bad news doesn’t end there. The military and police are huge sectors of the US employment, and police unions have been a bane of Liberals for a long time. Military is not unionized as they do not have civilian rights, and a military welfare state reduces the need for anyway. Left Liberals like teacher unions, although they are illegal or highly limited in many US states–in Georgia, they are technically illegal and have no right to strike–but most of their money goes to lobbying anyway.
Most of the operational budget of AFL-CIO goes to lobbying, mostly to Democrats, who generally betray them anyway because they are seen as a locked in patronage. Although the rise of Trump may have complicated that, it seems to continue. Meanwhile, stocks make up an increasing amount of Unions income, and Union leadership tend to make up words of 200,000 a year.
Lastly, trade unions are one of few types of unions allowed largely in the Southern US: contractors Unions, writers unions, electrician unions. These, however, do not function like industrial unions as they largely work to provide insurance for the members and to help with state licensing regimes. This means they operate more like medieval and early modern guilds than our picture of industrial unions.
This doesn’t even include Taft-Hartley, which gutted a lot of what we think of Unions being able to do in a labor movement: it outlawed closed shops, helped AFL-CIO kill dual unionism limiting the ability to work across various industries, killed the Wagner Acts provision on employer neutrality, had explicit anti-communist and anti-socialist clauses, made cross coordinated strikes illegal.
All this does not include the historical ambivalence of Unions on race and immigration in the work force, which has also damaged reputations of unions in some of the most marginalized communities.
Why do you think appealing to strikes in the 1930s and ignoring things like the lost of the battle of Matewon and the end of the Wagner act can just make this history magically go away?
When we talk about US labor, we aren’t talking about a unionized work force. In fact, only in four Nordic countries have unions made some gains and even here there have been relative declines partly over immigration.
Words don’t fix that. They aren’t spells to resurrect a corpse.
This also means that a labor party that could access “dual power”–see my discussion with Doug Lain on this concept--and not just work for vote funneling like most modern political parties can’t depend on that model either. No matter how much Bernie Sanders or even someone I deeply respect like Adolph Reed wants it too. In fact, as I discussed in with Tom O’Brian a few years back, this notions of a Leninist or even Kautskyist vanguard party are dependent on fundamentally different notions about what a party is than what contemporary people believe they are. The political organizations that have been successful at dual power strategies in the modern period: religious groups and religious-ethnic political parties. Hamas builds schools as does the Southern Baptist convention. These groups function like older political groups that Marxists seem to think are looming somewhere in reading groups, college dorm roads, and meet-ups with the 10 local 20-somethings who are in labor unions.
The first step to admitting fixing a problem is admitting the scale of the problem. The second step is to stop magic thinking. Let the dead bury themselves and quit trying to keep those zombies going. It’s time to think differently about political organization. We are in the midst of watching a political realignment happen over two decades and finally begin to manifest in the US. The Overton window has moved in both directions in such a way that makes even contemporary taxonomies feel vaguely like necrophilia of old ideas. Forms of organization from before world war 2?
Those skeletons are seeping calcium at this point.