Monday, 14 April 2008

Kim Moody book Review: US Labor in Trouble & Transition (2007, Verso), Price £19.99 paperback.

by Dave Welsh

This book is an ABC of US labor history. It deserves to be read by all serious trade union activists in Britain. Kim Moody is a veteran of US labor movement struggles, and helped to found the hugely influential Labor Notes magazine.

I came across Labor Notes in the 1980s through activists on the New York subway working around the Hell on Wheels rank & file group (later New Directions). At that time, militants on London Transport were beginning to organize around unofficial newsletters like ‘Picc Up on the East’, ‘Close Encounters on the District Line’ and ‘Busworker’. The history of these kinds of initiative lay in the many new responses to working class recomposition in earlier decades. What they had in common was the aim to build an independent rank & file politics based on autonomous working class organizations and that’s why Kim’s book is a very timely account of what has happened in the USA.

Importantly, the book is built on the key notion of analyzing the US workplace and the trade union movement. Kim does well to remind us of the industrial nature of US capitalism. His book chronicles the ebbing of the wave of militancy that had emerged from below in the 1950s, after the battering of two recessions. But this history is focused on the rank & file of the labor movement which had consistently come up against ‘the bureaucratized & conservatized’ trade union leadership (p. 107). Here is a key thread: that there is a rank & file in the workplace (wherever that workplace is located), not a set of ‘service- users’ who wait passively for their union to represent them. That rank & file may be divided (as racism had divided the US movement), it may be fragmented & politically conservative at times but it is out there.

Kim outlines the management offensive that was to follow in the 1990s: the ‘team concept’, ‘partnership’, ‘lean production’. Labor- management programs & ‘jointness’ came in at General Motors, Ford & Chrysler bringing armies of ‘clipboard’ people into the workplace and spreading like wildfire across US industry. All this meant one thing: undermining the idea that unions were in the business of class conflict. Here again, he takes apart the union response: mergers, business unionism and reform from above. On mergers, for example, he shows that many mergers actually made no sense, can fragment their members and are, above all, top- down affairs.

Mergers, he notes, became ‘a substitute for new organizing in the period of retreat’ (p119). He notes the Change to Win Coalition of SEIU, UNITE-HERE, the Teamsters and others as one model that has faults but is different to the old AFL- CIO business unionism. Change to Win came out of the split in the AFL- CIO over the issue of organizing the unorganized, not surprising when you remember that the unions had shrunk to 12.5% of the workforce by 2005.

Thirdly, Kim discusses the many campaigns & initiatives that have emerged in recent years as an alternative to the business unionism model. He describes the worker- centers, non- majority unions, union reform and democracy movements, worker- based organizing drives & ‘deeply- rooted’ workplace unions. Usefully, he points out that a democratic social unionism can only emerge from struggle with the employers. The recent failures of union reform suggest that change at the top of a union is never enough- we must change the relationship of leaders to members and that between leaders & the employer. He relates a number of specific resistance points in the movement like the 1997 UPS strike, the ILWU contract fight in 2002 and the TWU Local 100 strike on New York’s transit system in 2005.

So what does this add up to? Well, you can learn a lot about the US labor movement. But it also contains a number of points of discussion for British trade union activists. It’s a book that will challenge you to think about rank & file movements, organizing & political interventions. What is the role of the rank & file today in Britain? Is the concept outdated? Should we be building rank & file organizations? If so, how do we build them? Are they viable in a period of retreat? But do not read this book if you’re seeking the ‘Halleluyah it’s a strike!’ strategy for class struggle. Most British groups/ parties still persist in adopting the most shameless ‘strike- chasing’ mode. And don’t bother if you think the current leadership of Britain’s trade unions is ‘doing a good job’, that is, if you think that tail-ending the current bureaucracy and ignoring the rank & file is tactically necessary or whatever bizarre variant your party has dreamed up.

Just think of the fate of the former NATFHE (UCU) Rank & File that had aimed to build a broad coalition of activists linked closely to the rank & file membership. It was hi- jacked by a party and turned into a fan- club for the leadership (first Paul Mackney, now Sally Hunt). Don’t read it if you subscribe to the notion that all the workers need is your party- line because the book asks its readers to think, discuss & debate in an open & democratic manner. If you do read it (order it from your college, university or local library) you’ll note the many similarities between the US & British experiences. There’s the merger- mania, the Blairite business unionism model, the sidelining of internal dissent and stifling of democracy by union bureaucrats and the current challenges of building a new rank & file unionism. That’s plenty to be going on with.

SEIU Service Employees International Union
AFL- CIO American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations
ILWU International Longshore & Warehouse Union
TWU Transport Workers Union

Dave Welsh (part- time lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London)

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