Which way forward for union growth?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Jan. 23 that the number of U.S. workers in unions fell by 400,000 during 2012. This large drop brought the rate of unionization nationwide to only 11.3 percent of the workforce, which reportedly grew by 2.4 million jobs.

One bright spot was California, where workers successfully bucked the trend. Union membership grew in that state by 100,000 to 18 percent of the workforce, after organizing drives led largely by Latinos/as and nurses showed that militant struggle is the way forward.

For the country as a whole, however, the private sector saw union membership drop from 6.9 percent to just 6.6 percent. This is a continuation of decades of decline, from a high point of about 35 percent in the 1950s. Public sector workers in unions dropped from 37 percent in 2011 to 35.9 percent last year, a total of 234,000 jobs lost.

Public sector layoffs, anti-union laws

Much of this drop is due to the widespread elimination of public workers in municipal, state and federal jobs affected by the continuing economic crisis. In addition, a significant number of public workers are estimated to have dropped out of public unions in Wisconsin and Indiana, two states that adopted laws stripping unions of much of their rights.

A number of factors have contributed to the steady erosion of workers in unions over the years. U.S. industry has been outsourcing manufacturing jobs overseas for a long time. The computer revolution has reduced the number of workers needed and allowed some jobs to be done abroad. The loss of relatively high paid union jobs has led to a situation where a large percentage of workers change jobs many times in their lifetimes.

Of course, major factors keeping workers from joining unions are vicious anti-union campaigns and terror tactics practiced by many employers. They are aided by labor laws in the U.S. that make unionizing a long and difficult process.

Many unions have been grappling with declining membership for years. More funds have been directed into organizing drives and pro-union advertising campaigns. But these have failed to stem the tide.

While big business media constantly attack unions as increasingly irrelevant, the Labor Bureau reported that union workers had average weekly pay of $943 compared to nonunion workers, who averaged $742. That amounts to a 27 percent pay advantage for organized workers, even without counting issues of health and safety, benefits and dignity on the job.

Narrow interests vs. broad social goals

Within the labor movement itself, many are critical of the weaknesses of the unions. For a long time, unions were seen as concerned only with protecting their own membership’s standard of living. This was not the case in the decade of the founding of the big mass unions, the 1930s. At that time unions were identified with broad social goals like fighting for jobs programs, social security, welfare and unemployment benefits.

But even during the massive Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, it was a rarity for unions to be deeply involved. Many unions then and later continued policies of racism and exclusion toward minorities and women.

Most of the modern unions came of age in the post-World War II era, which saw the expansion of the U.S. around the world as chief imperialist power. The period 1950 to 1970 saw a significant rise in the average standard of living in the U.S. as the capitalist class grudgingly conceded wage and benefit increases as crumbs off their bountiful table as they sought to buy labor peace during the anti-communist cold war.

A long string of capitalist crises, recessions and depressions, starting in the late 1970s, challenged the unions as the capitalists demanded more and more concessions. Union leaders who had developed in the more prosperous period lacked the social vision and the political understanding to stand up to these demands or craft strategies to protect jobs and wages in this new period of capitalist decline. By and large the unions have caved in with the mantra that workers must help the capitalists stay profitable.

Chasing after Democratic Party

In the political arena, the union leadership has bet everything on electing Democratic Party politicians to office, although the union officials often complain about the lack of support from those they helped elect. After all, Democrats have controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress many times since 1947, yet the “friends of labor” have made no serious attempt to overturn the hated Taft-Hartley Act, which hamstrings unions in many ways.

In Wisconsin, a mass uprising took place in February 2011 as a Republican governor and state Legislature stripped public unions of their rights. The occupation of the state Capitol became an international symbol of the fighting spirit of the workers and their unions. Mass protests repeatedly drew hundreds of thousands. Some Wisconsin unions were floating the idea for a general strike.

A real classwide battle was shaping up when top Wisconsin and national union leaders diverted the struggle into the electoral arena of a recall against the governor. It was no surprise that the capitalist elections, with hundreds of millions of dollars of Wall Street money flowing in, ended in a defeat for the workers. Meanwhile, the militant momentum of mass struggle was lost, at least temporarily.

Indiana followed suit in early 2012 and in December 2012 a right-wing governor and Legislature made Michigan the 24th “right to work” state in the nation. With 17,000 angry workers surrounding the Capitol in Lansing as the vote was taken, top union officials from the UAW, the teachers and the state AFL-CIO could only project their “plan” of voting out the right-wingers in 2014.

A group of rank-and-file workers raised an alternative — that every union local immediately begin voting to authorize a general strike to use Labor’s strength on the shop floor to overturn this unprecedented attack right in the birthplace of the UAW and many other unions. While no labor “leader” would call for this, the Rev. Jesse Jackson took the podium and added his support by calling for a one-day general strike.

Class struggle is inevitable

The decline of the U.S. union movement is only an episode in the centuries-long struggle between capital and labor. The exploitation of labor by capital inevitably leads to class struggle. The revival of the unions in the U.S. cannot and will not be carried out separately from the evolving struggle of the broad masses of nonunion workers, tens of millions of unemployed, oppressed nationalities, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities, women and all others who are victims of the capitalist system, which puts profits before people.

Union leaders must use the strength of 14.4 million workers who are still in unions, plus the union treasuries, union staffs, offices and news media to provide a center of opposition to the growing poverty, increasing militarism, racism and repression.

A good start was made with organized labor’s support for the Occupy Wall Street movement last year. What is most irrelevant to the vast majority of people in the U.S. is Wall Street’s vision of profits above all else. Unions allied with community organizations can form the bedrock from which to challenge the bankers and corporate bosses in order to take hold of the vast wealth and resources of this country for the benefit of humanity.

Sole spent years as an autoworker and UAW militant in Detroit.