Before the tragic discovery that she has a brain tumour, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, the public figurehead of the CTU’s 2012 strike against the city’s Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, was preparing a mayoral campaign for the 2015 election. Lewis’s national union, the American Federation of Teachers (the country’s biggest), had pledged $1 million. A Chicago Tribune poll from August 2014 put her ahead of Emanuel by 43 to 39%. Her victory, or even, perhaps, her campaign, would have been the most significant act of self-assertion by US labour in the political sphere for decades.
In a September 2014 article in Salon, Edward McClelland argues that Lewis typifies the contemporary US labour movement, which, since the 1970s, has become “feminised, professionalised, politicised and regionalised.” McClelland writes: “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most unionised job category is ‘education, training and library occupations’ at 35.4 percent. That’s a field dominated by women, many with master’s degrees. (In fact, the Center for Economic and Policy Research predicts that by 2020, a majority of union members will be women.)”.
He argues that deindustrialisation, and the relocation of heavy industrial manufacturing to America’s south, “a region hostile to unionism”, has meant that the archetypal unionist of yesteryear – a white man working a “blue-collar” industrial job – is now more likely to be anti-union. The archetypal trade unionist of 2014 -15 is a graduate, a woman, probably black (unionisation rates amongst black workers are higher than those amongst whites), and in a “white-collar”, “professional” job.
McClelland also cites a political shift and realignment from the 1970s onwards; where unionised, working-class voters in America’s industrial heartland provided a base of support for Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory (in which he ran what he called a “blue-collar strategy”), now membership of and support for unions is “just another blue state [Democratic] trait”.
The statistics in McClelland’s article are stark. In early 2014, in a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the United Auto Workers (UAW) lost a ballot for something akin to union recognition by 712 votes to 626. In a separate campaign amongst graduate workers in administrative jobs at New York University, UAW won the ballot 620-10. McClelland’s article is an observation extrapolated from those statistics, and not a comprehensive study. But even as an observational sketch, there are some important details missing from the picture. If there is a “New Labor” in contemporary America, it must surely include not just the graduate white-collar employees but also the precariously-employed workers in industries like cleaning, hospitality, retail, and fast-food, whose recent strikes for higher wages have won both material victories and widespread media interest.
Many of these workers don’t have college degrees, and working for McDonald’s can hardly be considered a “white-collar”, “professional” job. Their employment is unstable, in some ways more similar to the precarious, piecemeal employment of migrant garment workers whose mass strikes were the highpoint of the early 20th century American labour movement. That instability, and the vastly smaller workplaces, have meant that the fast food workers’ campaigns have not resulted in mass increases in union membership in the way an organising drive in a large industrial plant might once have done. But “New Labor” is adaptive, and has developed a range of organisational forms – workers’ committees, community organising caucuses, labour-movement NGOs, and others – to attempt, sometimes to imperfectly, to address that very issue.
The “Fight for $15” has perhaps been strongest and most successful in “blue” areas – New York, Chicago, Seattle – but it has by no means been limited to them. So, while the black or Latin American, precariously-employed McDonald’s worker is perhaps not as likely as the graduate “white-collar” professional to be a member of a union, their struggles are key to the development of the contemporary American labour movement and its relationship to the wider working class. It’s curious that they don’t appear in McClelland’s sketch. But even notwithstanding this, the central problem he identifies still remains. The defeat at Chattanooga was a huge blow for US labour, and for anyone interested in building working-class power in America, the question of how to break through anti-union hostility amongst industrial workers in the South is a real one.
Racism, and racial privilege, looms large here. White workers are still much better off than black workers in America – a 2011 study found that “in 2008, the median hourly wage for black male full-time workers was $14.90, while the median for white male full-time workers was $20.84, nearly $6 higher”.
When unions failed to fight, or even supported, racism, exclusion, and segregation, white workers could see them as defenders of the racial privilege that guaranteed them better wages and conditions than their black counterparts. As official racism, exclusion, and segregation have been pushed back, and as battles against them have been won in the labour movement, that relationship of unions to white workers’ racial privilege has shifted. But McClelland’s framework and chronology is, ultimately, a little too simplistic. To paraphrase it: “Once, ‘Old Labor’ was strong in the industrial heartlands in the south. Workers were union members even if they supported the Republicans on social issues. Then free-trade agreements and deindustrialisation by both Republican and Democrat governments ‘vanquished Old Labor as a political force’, and now ‘white men hate unions’”.
Much is elided. As Meredith Kleykamp and Jake Rosenfeld show in their Democracy article, “How the Decline of Unions Has Increased Racial Inequality”, black workers were more likely to be unionised than white workers as early as the mid-1970s. This was before the US labour movement’s historic peak, in terms of membership, in 1978 (its peak as a percentage of the workforce was much earlier, 26.9% in 1953). And, as McClelland himself concedes, it is far from clear-cut that white, southern hostility to unions is entirely new. He writes: “When I heard a Sheet Metal Workers business agent from Syracuse theorise that Southerners dislike unions because ‘the name reminds them of the Union Army,’ I thought he was nuts. Since Chattanooga, I think he may have been on to something.”
Elsewhere, Harold Meyerson wrote: “In much of the white South, particularly among the Scotch-Irish descendants of Appalachia, the very logic of collective bargaining runs counter to the individualist ethos […] It was no great challenge for UAW opponents to depict the union as the latest in a long line of Northern invaders.” “Native” Southern American workers have, at various times, exploded that identity. In 1929, a strike wave of textile workers in Tennessee and North and South Carolina prompted James P Cannon to write: “The present strike wave helps to demolish a popular capitalist myth, proclaimed in a million dollars’ worth of advertisements, a myth not without influence even in the ranks of the left wing of the labour movement—about the docility of the 100 percent American workers of the South and their immunity from strikes and labour unionism.”
But those moments of explosion have been relatively rare, and the “popular capitalist myth”, backed from that day to this by millions of dollars of advertising money (starkly so in the anti-union campaign at Chattanooga), has deep roots, and many believers.
The fractured, contradictory, and often racialised identities of workers in the American South have always presented a challenge, and often a barrier, to class politics. The challenge cannot be met, except politically. US labour needs to assert itself confidently in both the political and industrial spheres, winning workers to a progressive, anti-racist, class identity that confronts and rejects both aspirational-middle-class “American Dream” liberalism and various social conservatisms.
US labour needs a party – both in the “big P” sense of a formal political organisation based on and accountable to the movement, but also in the “small P” sense of seeing itself as a tendency, a force, in society that is both of and for itself, with a political programme of its own, independent of the political agendas of other classes. Currently, the leadership of the US labour movement is wedded politically to a thoroughly ruling-class party, the Democrats, which, at best, offers scraps from capital’s table.
On the other hand, and without an assertive class identity to contend with, it is relatively easy for US capital’s other wing, the Republicans, to confiscate white working-class political allegiance for a politics of hostility to black and Latino workers, particularly immigrants. A Karen Lewis challenge to Rahm Emmanuel would have contributed hugely to the repositioning of labour as a force of and for itself in American society. Similar opportunities should be looked for.
The ongoing struggles of fast food workers are another contribution. And so, too, are campaigns like the UAW’s at Chattanooga. Even when such campaigns end in defeat, they will leave behind memories and experiences that can be put to use in coming battles and struggles. There will be future explosions the “demolish capitalist myths”: if revolutionaries in the US labour movement can help develop, prepare, and win hegemony for that independent working-class political identity, a future moment of demolition can be made permanent.
Sources Edward McClelland, “Why white men hate unions: The South, the new workforce and the GOP war on your self-interest” Salon, 1 September 2014
Mike Elk, “After Historic UAW Defeat at Tennessee Volkswagen Plant, Theories Abound”, Working In These Times, 15 February 2014
Mike Elk, “The Battle for Chattanooga: Southern Masculinity and the Anti-Union Campaign at Volkswagen”, Working In These Times, 13 March 2014
Harold Meyerson, “When Culture Eclipses Class”, Prospect, 17 February 2014
Darrick Hamilton, Algernon Austin, and William Darity Jr, “Whiter Jobs, Higher Wages”, Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper No. 288, 28 February 2011
James P. Cannon, “The Labor Revolt in the South”, The Militant, 15 April 1929
Meredith Kleykamp and Jake Rosenfeld, “How the Decline of Unions Has Increased Racial Inequality”, Democracy, 30 August 2013
Alan Flippen, “When Union Membership was Rising”, New York Times, 29 May 2014