Workers need unions. Unionized workers are more likely to have medical coverage, pension benefits, and protection from sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal. Unions also raise living standards. Areas with more unions offer higher wages, higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, better education, and less poverty.
American unions were so strong in the 1930s that Washington backed employers to crush them. By 2005, the percentage of private-sector workers in unions had dropped to less than eight percent, the lowest rate in more than a century. The remaining unions have been transformed from fighting organizations controlled by workers to bureaucratic organizations dominated by middle-class managers.
Today’s unions are cross-class organizations. They are working-class organizations of self-defense and part of the management system of capitalism. While most ordinary union members (the rank and file) are working-class, most union officials are middle-class managers who help employers control the labor force.
Union bureaucrats and employers have the same goal – to keep the company in business. And that means keeping it competitive.
The AFL-CIO boasts that “Unions Are Good for Productivity.” However, productivity can be raised only by making people work harder for less.
Instead of opposing increased exploitation, union bureaucrats lower their members’ expectations of what can be achieved. At times, union officials will talk tough and even lead struggles for workers’ rights. However, they inevitably sell out because they are afraid to unleash the power of the rank and file. When workers organize wild-cat strikes, union officials side with employers and governments to push them back to work.
Just as union bureaucrats partner with bosses to manage the workplace, America’s top union bureaucrats partner with the American State to manage the world. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told one top labor executive meeting,
“When you undertook your lives as labor leaders…becoming a part of the U.S. Government may have not have been something that you intended…but I do think it has been a very important partnership. I think that is the best way to describe it.”
Without the awareness or consent of their members, AFL-CIO executives have helped Washington overthrow democratically-elected governments, prop up anti-union dictators, and support right-wing unions against progressive governments.
When the AFL-CIO backed an attempted coup against Venezuela’s democratically-elected President, Hugo Chávez, many rank-and-file workers were outraged. As the South Bay (California) Labor Council protested,
“There’s no solidarity when labor becomes a go-between, laundering funds and resources from the Bush administration and passing them to groups abroad. That role is more appropriate for government agents – agents of empire…We believe that international labor solidarity must come from the heart of the workers in one country to the heart of workers in another country – a…reciprocal relationship.”
Because unions are cross-class organizations, they have conflicting goals. This explains the enduring conflict between bureaucrats and members and the, at times, ferocious competition between unions.
Rank-and-file struggles for union democracy are essential to transform unions into fighting organizations that defend workers’ rights on the job and advance their liberation as a class.