Another go-round on Unions as Consciousness Builders – Part 2: Hello & Goodbye with Far too little In Between

By Nick Unger

Why would one expect American unions to foster a broad insurgent culture?  The legal framework, political and organizational for today’s unions goes back almost 80 years.  It has always encouraged a culture of accommodation with the needs of production, output and efficiency and discouraged a broad insurgent culture of conflict, turmoil and disruption.

The Wagner Act strictures were not imposed on labor but rather demanded by it.  The AFL in the 1930’s was not looking for social conflict and industrial strife but for stabilization.  The CIO was looking for the same thing, institutional standing for unions, though they were willing to use disruption as a tactic to get it.  The New Deal gave labor what it asked for, institutional protection.  Labor gave the New Deal leaders what they needed in return; relatively stable production. 

Unions viewed the Wagner Act as a fundamental pillar of American society, almost on the level of the Bill of Rights, like Social Security.  Unions were here to stay this time.  Public sector unionism’s growth comes from the post-World War 2 expansion of America’s version of a welfare state. Unions treated both the welfare state and the unions of workers who administer it as permanent features of American society more than as contested terrain.  Union structures made responding to the growing contest over the terrain more difficult.

Almost all labor education efforts, especially after World War 2, equipped a cadre of union members to defend the new rules.  Capital however was moving to attack both the new rules and the newly empowered unions even before the build-up to World War 2.

I would argue that only that war followed by the Cold War halted a full-scale assault on unions as social and political institutions 75 years ago.  There are no equivalent restraints today, nor have there been for many years.

Labor saw unions as part of the new natural order of things, liberal democratic capitalism.  It had demanded admission and recognition in the 1930’s, and accepted all the strings attached even as they turned into chains.  It built structures and trained unionists to defend that regime long after almost all sectors of capital, and both political parties, had abandoned it.  

Unions under this version of democratic liberal capitalism do not build broad insurgent cultures or develop an insurgent narrative for future generations of union members.  

How does a new member learn about unions? 

 Let’s look at a few important “union life passages.”  First things first, in this case how the soon-to-be-union member meets the union and the boss.  Does the order matter?  I think so.

  • In craft unions first you join the union and then you get work.  The worker encounters the union before meeting the boss.  Craft unions by virtue of their exclusivity always paid attention to developing a strong sense of “us” through apprenticeship programs and hiring halls.  A strong case could be made that the AFL was inherently more concerned about developing consciousness among its members than the CIO, though it was by no means insurgent class consciousness.  
  • The typical industrial union model shifts the order.  First you get a job, and then you might join the union.  The worker goes through the company to encounter the union.  All workers hired after the original fight to organize the union inherited the improved conditions, but not the advanced consciousness that comes with a real fight.  Public sectors unions follow this model.  The government agency does the hiring, which can trigger a decision on joining the union.  
  • The big industrial and public sector unions do not have apprentice programs to pass along culture and consciousness to the next generation.  The union might have a half hour to introduce itself in a non-threatening manner as part of an HR orientation.  At some point somebody gives the new worker a contractually mandated form to fill out to guarantee the union gets its due, that is dues or their equivalent.  The worker will always get the company rulebook but rarely the contract.  
  • Gene Carroll referenced Janice Fine, “labor unions are difficult to join.”  Craft unions, perhaps.  Industrial unions?  I would say too easy.  Fill out the card you got from Labor Relations and you’re in.  No baptism ceremony, secret handshake, and usually not even a union card any more.  And no demands on you once you are in.  
  • Industrial and public sector union education programs did not turn out to be an adequate replacement for an apprentice program.  These unions, representing the majority of union members, do not have any “instrumentality” to effectively transmit progressive consciousness.  

Which brings us from hello to goodbye, or how today’s unions handle the “exit interview.”

  • Again, the craft unions have a residual, pre-Wagner Act structure while the industrial and public sector unions do not.  When a job is finished construction workers go to the union hall to pay their dues and get the next one. They stay union even when they are not on the job.
  • For perhaps two generations after World War 2 the big industrial unions, especially at big employers like GM, US Steel, AT&T, Boeing had an unstated lifetime job agreement with management.  There might be seasonal layoffs, but always followed by a callback.  So the workers stayed in the industry, the company, the union.  
  • That is until things changed.  Capital found the ways to leave the union behind in every heavily unionized industry.  The Wagner Act structure protected what was, not what was coming, the past not the future.  
  • When a steel mill or auto plant downsizes, the “extra” workers are almost always no longer formally connected to their union.  The company no longer takes out union dues.  The industrial union hall is not a hiring hall.  The CIO union structure encompassed two possibilities, working or retired.  It had no structures for “used to be” members looking for a job someplace else.
  • Jack Hustwit observed “… that union organization was the most fertile when workers had union roots in their family. That seems to have been the case even when the local industry left the area or became obsolete as in textiles and Anthracite Coal. When I walked into a home where a father, mother or grand parents were Union members, they got it on the spot. Not that they were all pro-union, but they understood the concept.”  
  • Them days are long gone.  First, the new union members today are not the children or grandchildren of the white industrial working class of the Rust Belt.  More importantly, the families of the growing number of former industrial union members likely do not “get it on the spot.”   
  • How do the hundreds of thousands, even millions of former industrial union members discarded by plant closings and public sector workers eliminated by cutbacks view unions?  Is their loss of connection with the union not as powerful a lesson as working side-by-side with thousands of other workers on the assembly line? What do their children and grandchildren learn about unions at home?
  • This is not just idle curiosity.  People often remember breakups more vividly than hookups.  Are the former union members the core of the next union drive or the personal stories putting a human face on the well-funded anti-union campaign?  This is an area calling out for serious research.

A discussion of what union members learn from contact with the union, or lack of it, every day on the job and in the provision of negotiated benefits deserves its own discussion.  Aren’t today’s unions much more enforcers of the labor peace treaty that is a contract than purveyors of insurgent culture?  And doesn’t this make the functioning of the union overwhelmingly defensive, and therefore ideologically conservative?  Unions try to hold on tight to what our predecessors have won over generations. 

Labor Education for SWAT Teams or Squad Leaders?

Most recent union education efforts appear to be a form of cadre education, a focus on a small advanced group.  Call it the CWA Stewards Army, or the USW Rapid Response Network, or the Volunteer Organizer (VO) and Volunteer Political Organizer (VPO) programs many unions use. This looks more like a continuation of the left “militant minority” approach of the 1930’s than the broader consciousness focus of the IWW and even the old AFL.  

But what does this advanced, conscious, educated minority do?  Are they more education squad leaders, responsible for spreading the cultural word among the rest of the union membership or more like SWAT Teams, ready to act against any foe wherever and whenever needed?  Is the model a cadre of political educators tasked with reaching every last rank and file member, as in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War or a union version of Navy SEALS skilled at pressuring management and elected officials.  

It looks to me that unions mainly provide education and training for those who ask for it, and aim them more outward than to the membership.  This holds for the building trades as well as for industrial and public sector unions.  After apprenticeship, their focus is mainly on training stewards and other committed activists who will mainly be used to project union strength on picket lines, at rallies and around elections and lobbying.  

In 1775, George Washington called on his top officers to “… impress upon the mind of every man, from the first to the lowest, the importance of the cause, and what it is they are contending for.”  Twelve score and nine years later America’s unions seem to settle for training a select few, and for a cause too often described as “rebuilding the middle class.”  

How should we look back at those few golden decades when unions were treated with some level of respect?  Here’s some good advice from the late literary critic Louis D Rubin: Nostalgia is an impoverishing emotion; it robs our memory of all its complexity. 

Some questions for further discussion:

  • Is this rather dark assessment accurate?
  • What if anything can be done about creating an insurgent culture among union members?  Will it mainly come from broader societal forces or from union programs?
  • What can college labor education programs do to help?

Coming soon: Glimpses of new possibilities that might make one less forlorn 

Please send all responses to this post to submissions<at>murphyinstituteblog<dot>org.

Nick Unger is a veteran trade unionist and labor educator who has worked with and for every kind of union. Many of these questions come from examining the efforts to save the giant Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans for a book he is working on.

Photo by Matt Baran via flickr (CC-BY-SA).