Monday, February 11, 2013
Union density measures the percentage of the work force that is unionized. Recently, new figures came out which indicate that union density in the United States recently reached a 95-year low point. It would be easy to hastily conclude from this (admittedly depressing) statistic that things are getting progressively worse for the workers movement in the US.
As Chris Maisano at Jacobin has convincingly argued, however, that would be a grave mistake. Increasing union density does not necessarily translate into increasing workers power, and declining union membership does not entail a one-to-one decline in workers power. After all, much depends upon the extent to which rank-and-file workers are organized and activated within the union, among other factors (both subjective and objective).
Consider the example of the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU has had tens of thousands of members for decades. But only recently has the union been transformed by its members into a rank-and-file-led vehicle that can wield the strike weapon to defend public education. In fact, during the last 10 years, the city of Chicago has closed a number of schools and I would wager that the CTU’s membership declined as a result. But in this case, figures about declining membership hardly mean that the CTU was on the road to decline, veering ever closer to disaster. The result is this: despite the fact that union density in Chicago public education fallen over the last 10 years, the prospect today for a upsurge in rank-and-file-led, social movement unionism among teachers is favorable.
Or, consider an example that Maisano discusses in his piece, namely the fact that union density in France is only 8%---much lower than in the United States. Despite this fact, the French workers movement is in many ways ahead of its American counterpart. The French left has greater implantation in the trade union movement and workers there are often more likely to employ militant tactics, disruptive forms of protest, and so on. But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from keeping tabs on union density figures.
Consider another of Maisano's examples: New York State, which has extremely high union density figures---23% overall and more than 70% in the public sector. Despite these impressive figures, public sector workers have been forced by Gov. Cuomo (D) to accept concession after concession. This should lead us to ask: what will it take to transform these unions into organs of struggle for their workers and what role can we play in making that a reality? I fail to see how a schematic narrative about terminal decline---grounded on a faulty interpretation of the significance of union density figures---gives us any traction here. A far more fruitful approach would be to look at what militant teachers in the CTU did and try to generalize lessons for the left and for the labor movement writ large.
One more example. As Steve Early discusses in his excellent book Civil Wars in US Labor (Haymarket Books: 2011), SEIU added thousands upon thousands of members in the 1990s and early 2000’s. Now you might think that this entailed a general upswing in workers power and class consciousness. You’d be wrong. As Early shows in the book, much of that growth in union density was built on an edifice top-down business-unionism and aggressive pro-Democrat electioneering.
Yet, in spite of declining union density because of public sector layoffs, the prospects today for a working-class fightback are far greater than they were during the early 2000’s. Again, we see that the meaning of union density statistics is hardly as obvious as some leftists would have us believe. The real problems are more complex and abstract hand-wringing about declining union membership does little more than paper over them and encourage an unjustifiable pessimism about what's possible today.
Without struggle the labor movement withers on the vine. There are no irreversible gains in the class struggle. When militant action from below declines, so does the energy that enables the labor movement to tread water (let alone advance forward). Conditions today are making workers more and more open to militant, disruptive tactics (such as illegal strikes and sit-downs and all the rest) as well as radical politics. That won't erase overnight the lacerations of 40 years of class war from above. But it's reason to think that there is more possibility today for working class struggle than there has been in decades.
Posted by t at 4:55 PM