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Business Unionism and its discontents: reflections on “Social Movement Unionism” and the Union Leadership in the U.S.

By Matt Noyes

(English version of an article written in Winter 2005 for the Center for Transnational Labor Studies. Slight edits made in April 2009)

A previous version of this article appeared in two editions of the Labor Law Semi-monthly Bulletin “Rodo Horitsu Junpo” No. 1594, Tokyo, February, 2005.

Thanks for their generous and thoughtful assistance to Hideo Totsuka, Seiichi Yamasaki, Jane Slaughter, Charley MacMartin and Sakiko Ishitsubo. Thanks too to Kent Wong for the provocative and articulate presentations that got me started. None of them is responsible, of course, for any errors (well maybe one or two!).

I. Introduction: a new union movement?

Union activists and their supporters have been laboring for decades to transform US unions, not just to replace one set of leaders or adopt one tactic or another, but to alter the basic orientation, structures, and practices of the union movement, to bring to birth a new union movement "from the ashes of the old," as the old song Solidarity Forever has it.

According to some in the US union movement, the long-awaited day has come. The new union movement has been born and is walking, talking, and growing like a weed.

I first encountered this very optimistic assessment at a series of seminars given by Kent Wong for the Center for Transnational Labour Studies in Tokyo in 2003. Wong described a new leadership in the US unions that is politically progressive and seeks to empower workers of color, women, immigrants and other groups US union leaders has historically excluded or marginalized. These leaders are organizing to build union density (increase the percentage of union members in particular industries or markets) and are willing to use militant tactics and confront employers. They are "changing to organize" shifting the priorities and structures of their unions to focus on recruiting new members. Above all, said Wong, these leaders have rejected "the status quo and business unionism." In its place, they are building "social movement unionism." (Wong 2004)

Social movement unionism, according to Wong,

  • "challenges union members to take leadership and to build the union,
  • "redefines the union agenda... [it] is no longer just confined to workplace issues and to the economic interest of members only...[it] looks at broader issues like the unjust war in Iraq... growing economic inequality and corporate policies of neo-liberalism and,
  • "aggressively looks at allies of the union movement including community organizations, immigrants , racial minorities, women's organizations, religious groups that forge a common agenda."
  • (Wong, 2004)

The leader who best represents this trend is Andy Stern, president of SEIU, the largest union in the US. Stern is also the initiator of the New Unity Partnership and its successor, the coalition of unions built around SEIU's "New Strength Unity" program. 1

Kent Wong is well placed to assess the union movement; labor attorney, former staff member of SEIU, and a founder of APALA, Wong is now director of the UCLA Labor Resource Center and writes widely on developments in the union movement. 2 Nor is he the only person holding these views. In their recent book Hard Work, Kim Voss and Rick Fantasia use the same terms — Business Unionism, Social Movement Unionism -- to make a very similar argument. If anything, their assessment is more bold: "The [US labor movement] is now positioning itself to become what it never has been before -- a genuine counterweight to the power of US capital." (Fantasia, Voss, 2005)

The struggle underway in the AFL-CIO leadership would seem to confirm the idea that the labor movement is at a crossroads, with "the ways of the past and the ways of the future... locked in bitter conflict." (Wong 2004) At the time of Wong's talks in Japan, the existence of the New Unity Partnership had only recently been exposed and the discussion among union leaders about the future of the AFL-CIO and the union movement had only just begun. That discussion has since exploded into a very public battle (at least at the level of union leaders, it probably remains unknown to most rank-and-file workers). As I write this, the conflict seems to have come to a head, with SEIU threatening to leave the AFL-CIO and create a new federation if their reform proposals are rejected, and the IAM (Machinists) threatening to leave if they are adopted.

If what Wong and Fantasia and Voss are describing is true, if the leadership of the US unions -- or even just a substantial segment of that leadership — has rejected BU, embraced SMU and is transforming the union movement, it is a development of huge proportions, a real watershed in US labor history with obvious repercussions for politics, economics, and society both in the US and globally. It would also be a powerful model that unionists in Japan and other countries should study and emulate. 3

This new social movement unionism "brought into being by union leaders and staff, rather than the grassroots insurgencies long seen as the likely source of Labor's renewal" would also represent a fundamental challenge to the existing union reform movement, and the strategies for transforming and rebuilding the union movement that workers have pursued, often at great cost.4 Such a new union movement would mean the end not just of BU but also of union reform as we have known it: why continue struggling against BU if there is a new union movement to join and build?

And, even if, as I will argue, the claims for a new social movement unionism of the type described by Wong and others are not supported by the facts, they leave two residual questions that must be answered:

If the union leadership has not abandoned business unionism in favor of social movement unionism, then what are they doing? What has changed in the union leadership and how do we account for it?

Is there a new unionism being built in the US? Where is it to be found and what is its relation to the changes at the leadership level? How can the forces of transformation be supported and strengthened?

These are big questions. This essay will assess the claim that a new social movement unionism is being built by the leadership of the US union movement and address the first of the two questions above. I can only treat the second question in a superficial manner here, but I hope to provide some useful directions and landmarks for future exploration.

II. Sweeney and the New Voices

It may be helpful to go back to the beginning, the election of John Sweeney and the "New Voices" candidates to the leadership of the AFL-CIO, in 1995. Just ten years later, it is becoming harder to recall the atmosphere of that time and the initial impact of that election.

For decades, critics of the AFL-CIO leadership and its business unionism had held little hope that the AFL-CIO might change. Activists and academics interested in transformation of the union movement had focused on the efforts of union reformers, rank-and-file movements, and the growing activism outside the official union movement. The federation was considered to be at best irrelevant to the task of Labor's renewal, at worst, an obstacle.

Reformers and their supporters looked for inspiration to reform groups in unions, to major strikes, to independent unions, and, here and there a "good local" where reformers had taken office and were trying to pursue a reform agenda. Magazines and organizations like Labor Notes and the Association for Union Democracy, and independent labor-community groups like Jobs with Justice were another source of hope, as were campaigns for labor rights, living wages, or international solidarity and new organizing efforts by independent workers centers. 5

And then, suddenly it seemed, there was a contested election in the AFL-CIO (something unheard of) with a slate called "New Voices" promising dramatic change and a new agenda for the AFL-CIO and the union movement. For many unionists and observers, the New Voices "insurgency" was disorienting. What did it mean to have a new AFL-CIO leadership that promised far-reaching change to labor's policies and priorities, a leadership that championed new organizing, endorsed militant tactics, and was open to independent labor groups and new organizing initiatives -- all things that had long been endorsed by reformers? Critics struggled to assess the significance and implications of Sweeney's election. How big was this change? Where might it lead? Was the new union movement at hand?

III. Alternative paths for Labor

In a 1996 article titled "A New Labor Movement in the Shell of the Old?" Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello tried to make sense of the Sweeney regime and its implications. (Brecher Costello 1996) They were writing in Z a radical magazine that reports on the range of social movements to an activist readership, and wanted to help activists think about how the changes in the AFL-CIO affect the long term struggle for a militant, progressive, grassroots unionism. What should activists expect and how should they relate to the new forces in the labor bureaucracy?

In order to clarify the issues and stakes, Brecher and Costello laid out six possible paths for the US Labor Movement:

1. Continued stagnation and decline, partially concealed by a new rhetoric,

2. Resurgence of the conservative forces represented by prior AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, culminating in the replacement of the New Voice leadership at a future AFL-CIO convention,

3. Endemic conflict within the AFL-CIO moving toward dissolution of the organization into its constituent units,

4. Militant business unionism, continuing current union structures and practices but with vigorous organizing and a greater willingness to strike,

5. Militant progressive trade unionism, following the same internal union practices but expressing a progressive political viewpoint,

6. Social movement unionism, in which the rigid, top-down bureaucratic character typical of American trade unions changes to a form and style based on grass-roots activism.
(Brecher Costello 1996)

Not satisfied with the position that Sweeney represented nothing new, but also unwilling to jump on the New Voices bandwagon, Brecher and Costello were willing to consider the possibilities of positive change coming from the union leadership -- "even bureaucrats, faced with extinction, have been known to change their spots." (Brecher Costello 1996)

At the same time, Brecher and Costello noted that, "the new AFL-CIO Executive Council is composed primarily of the same officials who have presided over the last two decades of the labor movement’s decline... fought oppositions which have advocated the very changes that New Voice now promotes...silenced rank-and-file initiatives and even broken strikes of their own members..." (Brecher Costello 1996)

They feared that independent efforts and organizations might be coopted and subsumed under a refurbished but ultimately unchanged union hierarchy. Vigorous organizing campaigns might be conducted, militant tactics used, and progressive political positions taken, but the shell of the old movement could prove capable of absorbing the new movement and turning it to old ends.

"The unfortunate result could be official coalitions dominated by the unions with only paper participation by allies; international linkages limited to top union officials; union solidarity that mobilizes more staff than rank-and-file; limitation on experimentation with new forms of organization; and isolation of progressives from the struggle for grassroots democracy within the labor movement." (Brecher Costello 1996)

Brecher and Costello did not abandon all hope. They knew that the future would be determined not just by the union leadership but also by rank-and-file workers, by the reform movements, by independent organizations like workers centers, and by the interaction with social movements. If only to help establish the criteria for real transformation, they posited a sixth path for US Labor -- social movement unionism. Just how high they were setting the bar is seen in their suggestion that SMU would mean not just moving beyond both militant business unionism and progressive trade unionism, and making Labor "a broader constellation of allied forces and institutions," i.e., a social movement, but even supporting "grassroots democracy" and "rank-and-file insurgencies." (Brecher Costello 1996)

IV. Where we stand today

Ten years later, we can look back over the paths taken and see where Labor's leadership is headed.

1. Decline
No word better sums up ten years of John Sweeney's administration. Despite ten years of initiatives and efforts, there has been a steady decline in union membership, in union political influence, and in bargaining strength, so much so in fact, that top union officials talk openly about the possibility of the collapse of unionism in the US. 6 "Stagnation" -- maintaining current levels of union membership“ -- is no longer feared, it is one of the union leadership's goals.

The decline has not been hidden by the rhetoric of New Voices leaders, as Brecher and Costello thought it might. On the contrary, by championing, and thus raising expectations about new organizing and political influence, the New Voices AFL-CIO leadership helped make the decline of union membership the key issue facing the union leadership today.

2. No more Lane Kirkland
Despite some grumbling in the first few years after Sweeney's election, the resurgence of "Lane Kirkland forces" that Brecher and Costello feared never materialized. In the upcoming AFL-CIO election, there is every likelihood that Sweeney will face a challenger, and a good chance that his slate will lose. But, the threat is from a very different source.

3. A different AFL-CIO split
The AFL-CIO is the scene of bitter conflict, with the real possibility of dissolution of the organization into two rival federations. On one side are forces led by John Sweeney, his fellow New Voice officers, and leaders of AFSCME, the AFT, the IAM, and the CWA, on the other side SEIU's Andy Stern leads a coalition that includes the Laborers, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite-Here. Stern has led the charge, blaming Sweeney and the AFL-CIO leadership for the failure to stop Labor's decline, and proposing reforms to the AFL-CIO and a restructuring of the entire union movement.

New Strength, Unity: in a nutshell, the SEIU program, based on a document titled "New Strength, Unity" calls for reducing the number of unions in the US and creating new, larger unions that are each focused on their "core industries." Unions would also be required to participate in AFL-CIO programs and devote significant resources to new organizing in their appropriate sector.

In order to enforce these changes, the Stern forces would dramatically reduce the size of the AFL-CIO leadership body, and give the leaders broad new powers to enforce federation policies, including the power to force unions to merge. It is not said, but presumably a union that refused the merger order would not only be expelled from the federation but face raids on its units from AFL-CIO unions.

The two sides are about evenly matched: in the 2004 meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council in Las Vegas, the Stern forces ended up carrying 40% of the votes on the issues at hand, including the two biggest unions in the AFL-CIO: SEIU and the IBT.

One major union, the Carpenters, has already left the AFL-CIO. Stern and Wilhelm and Raynor of UNITE-HERE have repeatedly stated their intention to leave the AFL-CIO and build something better, if their proposals are not adopted. A split in the federation would almost inevitably lead to an increase in raiding and jurisdictional strife as the two federations go after the same workers. (While avoiding direct confrontation, the Carpenters and the Laborers, both NUP unions, have been gradually broadening their jurisdiction to include other construction trades.) 7

Before we go further into the strife among the union leaders, we should see how Brecher and Costello's remaining predictions fared.

The last three paths laid out by Brecher and Costello are more complicated, and overlap, so let us take them bit by bit. To begin with, all three paths of unionism imply vigorous organizing and greater militancy.

Vigorous Organizing: Sweeney came in calling for a dramatic shift in focus for the union movement, making new organizing labor's chief task. AFL-CIO leaders called on all unions to devote at least 30% of their resources to new organizing and launched several new projects to help support campaigns and train new organizers.

There has been a substantial shift of resources toward organizing, particularly in unions like SEIU, CWA, and UNITE-HERE. Important campaigns have been run, and widely reported on, particularly the Justice for Janitors campaigns by SEIU. Not only have some unions put more money into organizing, they have restructured their organizations to make organizing the central priority of the union. According to the officers of the AFL-CIO, though, not all unions have met the standard advocated by the AFL-CIO leadership.

"Although more unions are investing resources in organizing than ever before, too few are investing at the target level of 30 percent or more of their overall budgets. And too few are investing sufficiently in growth within their core industries or in ways that build strategic power for workers in specific markets or states." (Sweeney 2005)

Finally, some union leaders, particularly SEIU's Stern, have said that not only must unions bring in new members, the unions themselves need to be restructured on industrial lines, so that new members are organized into a structure that matches that of the employers. All health care workers, for example, should be in a common health care workers union, autoworkers in an autoworkers union, etc. This may seem like an old discussion, but in the US the decline of manufacturing and the steady fall in union power has led unions of all types to organize as general unions, taking members where they can get them. 8

Advocates of the "organize or die" view see new organizing as the key to Labor's survival, but, as research by Richard Hurd suggests the results have been disappointing.

"Although the pace of decline has slowed a bit for some industry groups (and even turned around for the hospital industry), contraction has accelerated for others. Even in those industries and occupations where recruitment efforts have been most obvious and where there have been notable major victories, the results are extraordinarily disappointing. Clearly the heightened level of organizing activity has not been sufficient to overcome either the difficult environment for unions in the U.S., or the institutional inertia inherent in the labor movement." (Hurd 2004)

A greater willingness to strike: hand in hand with vigorous organizing, there has been a new willingness among union leaders to use militant tactics. Not only strikes, but a range of very visible street actions and pressure tactics. It makes sense that unions would be forced to turn to more militant and creative actions, given the increasing focus on new organizing (which has always been more militant than ongoing representation), harsh employer opposition to union organizing, and the increasingly employer-friendly legal system.

But willingness to use militant tactics, or trying to win recognition through direct pressure on employers rather than using the long and ineffective NLRB procedure are not what distinguishes the organizing approach of SEIU and other unions. Those tactics have been used for many years.9

What is distinctive, I think, is the mix of mass mobilization and militant tactics with an equally aggressive pursuit of labor-management cooperation. SEIU may use "street heat" but they would prefer the "High Road" of non-adversarial, win-win, unionism. As Andy Stern recently wrote,

"This past Sunday, I shared the stage with Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, at the PC Forum, a major gathering of high tech executives…I talked with these information technology leaders about a new “community” or “partnership” or yes even a “union” that could [help] create an industry wide platform with applications for rewarding work, portable benefits, training and retraining, bridging jobs, and preserving intellectual property." (Stern 2005) 10

This trend is larger than SEIU, most unions remained mired in partnership and concessionary bargaining. UNITE-HERE boasts that its "leaders have participated in groundbreaking labor-management partnerships, working together with employers to resolve issues in the workplace and in the... industry… Both Unions can boast excellent working relationships with several major companies." (UNITE-HERE 2005)

So, the new militancy is tactical and flexible, a response to changed circumstances and new priorities, but should not be read as a change in strategic orientation. Quite the opposite: as Sweeney said soon after he was elected, union leaders only block bridges in demonstrations because they have to do that in order to build bridges to management. On this point, Sweeney and his critics in the union leadership agree. 11

4. Business unionism

Before we see whether the Sweeney victory led to the rise of "militant business unionism," we need to clarify our terms. For several decades, business unionism has been the term used by most critics to describe and criticize the dominant form of unionism in the US in the post-WWII era. In recent years, it has become increasingly wide-spread and attenuated, at times used simply as an equivalent for the "status quo" or "the old ways of doing things."

Coined by Sidney Lens in the 1950s, definitions of business unionism have included various features, but I think it is fair to say that there are five main elements (at least as the term was commonly used at the time Sweeney came to office):

1. A service model of unionism in which union members are seen as passive consumers of goods and services, such as wages, health insurance, vacation days, a complaint (grievance) procedure. The union staff are seen as service providers and the leaders are executives, running the business. The language of modern unionism in the US reflects this conception: "business agents" are the paid staff who "service" the members. (Note, this is not to be confused with the more recent argument that unions should shift resources away from "servicing" toward "organizing.")

2. A focus by union leaders on narrow contractual issues, particularly wages and benefits: "bread and butter." The approach to workplace problems is correspondingly narrow: worker complaints are often discouraged, job actions are repressed. Union representatives are trained to take only those complaints where there is a clear contract violation. Above all, the "grievance machinery" as it is called is used to prevent individual problems from becoming shared issues that lead to worker unrest.

Externally, business union leaders are reluctant to get involved in struggles whose impact on winning recognition or bargaining contracts is not clear. Thus, they are often seen as pursuing an institutional self-interest rather than the interests of workers in general or of their communities.

3. An underlying ideology of collaboration with management, based on an assumed harmony of fundamental interests -- for the business unionist, Labor and Management are partners, (even if Management is constantly trying to break up).

Union leaders recognize and support the employer's need to be profitable, and their own responsibility to help ensure stability and productivity. In exchange, they expect management to give them enough in the way of wages and benefits to demonstrate the value of the union to the workforce and to ensure the stability of the union and its leadership, as well.

The employer offensive that has continued unabated for over two decades now has led union leaders to offer more and more concessions in the hopes of preserving their status as collaborators with management. Two-tier contracts, broad no-strike clauses, weakened seniority and work rules, pension cuts and more. And, perhaps more damaging, union leaders have "surrendered the shopfloor" to management, leaving workers exposed to arbitrary discipline, speed-up, and workplace hazards. (Richardson 2004)

Where employers refuse to recognize the union leaders or to bargain with them, union leaders may have to resort to pressure tactics, but the objective of business unionism is always the same: labor-management peace, based on shared interests. Sweeney and his supporters called this the "Social Compact" between Labor and Management.

4. Business unionism assumes an institutional structure in which union leaders at the head of a large bureaucracy, with layers of professional staff separating them from their rank-and-file clients. Often modeled on corporate hierarchies, business unions operate largely independently of the rank-and-file, and workers are asked to do little other than receive benefits and at best to participate in events or campaigns planned by the union leaders or staff.

Business unions take full advantage of the "one party state" character of US unions, where the ruling officers are also in control of the union apparatus and thus in a good position to ensure their continued rule. (Summers 1984) They fiercely oppose efforts at democratic reform, and rank-and-file insurgencies.

Business unionism can bleed into corruption: both hard corruption, where union officers unaccountable to the membership steal union money and use violence or intimidation to suppress critics, and the softer variety, where officers load up on multiple salaries and pensions, plush offices, lavish conventions and abundant perks, often with the cooperation of management. (Fitch 2006)

5. "The political coloration of American business unionism may range from conservative to liberal," as Kim Moody once observed, but its political priorities are guided by its fundamental commitment to collaboration with capital. (Moody 1988) This explains why business unionist leaders consistently avoid strategies that tend toward long-term conflict with capital, even though they may engage in episodic campaigns with rhetoric that denounces "corporate greed" and calls for worker solidarity.

Now, compare the five features of business unionism above with the way Kent Wong used the term,

"Unions are run just like any other business... members of unions are like clients of a business. [U]nion staff and leaders ...make all decisions and take care of members... negotiate contracts and represent them in grievance proceedings. There is no commensurate organizing and there are no commensurate interests in expanding the scope of union activities... as long as workers are union members and getting decent wages and benefits, everything is fine." (Wong 2004)

It is easy to see the similarity -- the criticism of the service model and the narrow scope of union activities -- but by including the lack of organizing in the definition of business unionism Wong is able to argue that unions that have developed vigorous organizing programs "commensurate" with their servicing activities have overcome business unionism, at least in large part. Leaving out the ideology of collaboration also makes it easier to argue that business unionism has been transcended. It is just this type of evasion that JB and TC were trying to capture with the term "militant business unionism."

The "service model" is often criticized and there is evidence of a substantial commitment to new organizing by unions like SEIU, and a broadening of the scope of union activities in the context of organizing campaigns, e.g., by building coalitions and joint campaigns with community groups. But there is little evidence of a "commensurate" effort to overcome either the service model within already unionized workplaces, or to broaden the narrow scope of union activity.

As Richard Hurd puts it,

"Instead of addressing the representation of current members, these unions direct attention outside to the more exotic realm of new organizing, where struggles with the boss and the corporate power structure dominate staff attention and stimulate militance. This nearly single minded focus on external organizing potentially relegates current members to substandard representation and disenchantment. Even newly recruited members face this fate once the first contract is signed. The problems inherent in the much maligned servicing model, namely a disengaged apathetic membership, are thereby exacerbated. Only the small militant fraction of members who get drawn into external campaigns as volunteer organizers share in the fervor." (Hurd 2004)

This is not an argument against prioritizing new organizing in a time of union decline, but against the suggestion that by doing so a union leadership is going beyond business unionism and its service model.

Is business unionism being overcome, or just upgraded? This can be seen most clearly in the arenas of political action and union governance.

5. Progressive trade unionism?

Given their emphasis on political ideology, Brecher and Costello imagined a split between conservatives and progressives and the emergence of a new model: "Progressive Trade Unionism." But, just as their fear of a return of Kirklandism proved unfounded, the distinction between business unionism and progressive trade unionism turned out to be misplaced.

While it is possible to identify particular unions that have a conservative or progressive leadership (think of the Carpenters and the ILWU), it is not at all clear that there are two distinct forms of unionism, one "progressive" the other "conservative." 12 The union leadership has not polarized on political lines, and the unions that are touted as the exemplars of social movement unionism do not make their political decisions on that ideological basis.

While the Sweeney leadership has been broadly progressive, especially when compared to its "cold warrior" predecessors, in the last presidential election, union leaders were all over the map. Some, like the Carpenters and at one point the Teamsters, leaned towards the Republicans, others supported one or another of the various Democratic hopefuls.

Likewise, the divide in the AFL-CIO does not fall on ideological lines -- there are political conservatives and progressives on both sides, in about equal proportion. The formation of the New Unity Partnership by unions that covered the spectrum of political ideology, was a clear sign that the driving force behind the struggle in the union leadership is not political ideology.

Some things have changed, though. Like Sweeney, SEIU's Stern places a high priority on union political action and wants to see more of the kind of massive field mobilization that unions used in the Kerry campaign of 2004. In fact, both sides propose to maintain permanent field mobilization for political campaigns in between presidential elections. 13

Stern's "innovation" -- so far carried out at the level of state politics -- is to abandon Labor's traditional alliance to the Democratic Party and endorse political candidates or back/oppose legislation based on their usefulness to SEIU's particular organizing objectives. Unions have often exercised this option, but few progressive union leaders would admit to it. As Stern has said, SEIU has "no permanent loyalties, only permanent interests."

This strategy reaches all the way back to the AFL's founding president, Samuel Gompers, who said that Labor needed no political strategy beyond "rewarding friends and punishing enemies." It is also a return to the "narrow self-interest" that has often earned Labor the enmity of other social movements. The same Republican governor who backs an issue of high priority to one union's leadership, likely also backs a range of issues that are bitterly opposed by other unions, community organizations, people of color, immigrants and other progressive constituencies.

To take a recent case, in April 2005, in a certification election in the State of Illinois, SEIU won the right to represent 49,000 childcare workers; the election came about because of the union's decision to back the Republican candidate for Governor in exchange for his enactment of a policy making these workers employees of the state and granting them the right to join a union. The union made a compromise: the workers would not be granted the same rights to health benefits and pensions as other public employees, a move harshly criticized by SEIU's main public sector rival, AFSCME, whose leaders accused SEIU leadership of undercutting standards. There have been several such endorsements of Republicans by SEIU leaders in exchange for gains for the union or its members -- even when those Republicans were strongly opposed by the rest of the labor movement and social movements for their generally anti-worker, anti-labor, and anti-poor people actions.

More drastic is the SEIU's collaboration with Nursing Home Employers to defeat a patients rights bill that would have mandated staffing levels higher than those maintained by the employers -- a gain for both patients and workers. According to a recent piece on the SF Weekly website titled "The Politics of Cynicism" SEIU helped defeat this measure in exchange for a promise of neutrality from the employers in the union's attempt to organize nursing home workers into the union. (Smith 2005)

On the one hand, SEIU insiders defend this as "real politik" and see the aggressive approach to politics as a strength, not a weakness. After all, the unquestioning loyalty union leaders have shown to Democrats has produced little of benefit to unions or workers. On the other, SEIU talks about the need for an independent, pro-worker politics and has run SEIU members for public office. (While doing little to support existing pro-worker independent political parties.)

The question of politics is particularly important because in the US, "progressive" refers to support for a range of struggles: against racism, sexism and other forms of exclusion and oppression, for global justice, and against war. Shifts in AFL-CIO policy on immigration and support for constituency groups like Pride at Work and APALA, and the major efforts by SEIU and other unions to organize among low wage workers, many of them women and immigrants, have rightly been seen as evidence of a shift in the unions' progressive politics. 14 The free use of the "rhetoric of social justice" (Fantasia/Voss 2004) and the willingness to work in coalition with social movements are also taken as signs of a new progressivism. It is precisely because these developments suggest real change that the return to the old school pragmatism of "permanent interests" is so problematic. 15

End result: Brecher and Costello's business unionism/progressive trade unionism distinction, based on a left/right framework inherited from the New Left, has not held up. There are political differences among union leaders, but those differences do not explain the divisions among the leadership of the AFL-CIO, nor the strategy of the Stern and Sweeney forces. Even if the distinction did hold, to characterize SEIU's practice as "progressive trade unionism" would be inaccurate and indeed miss what is new.

6. Social Movement Unionism

At this point, it should be clear why I feel that the first part of Kent Wong's argument -- that US union leaders ahve rejected business unionism -- is wrong.

There are other important aspects of a true alternative to business unionism that I have not considered, for example solidarity (in labor struggles and with social movement struggles); inclusion and equality; and global solidarity. 16 There is no space here to examine each one, I will simply assert that if we look at the actual practice of the US union leadership (including those leaders said to have rejected business unionism), in each of these areas, we may find improvement over the past several decades, much as we did when it comes to the increasing commitment to new organizing, but we will not find a break from business unionism, and in some cases we may find backward motion instead of progress.

So it may seem pointless to ask, "have US union leaders embraced social movement unionism?" But I think the question is meaningful. It is not enough to stress that union leaders have not abandoned business unionism. The question is what are the specific features of social movement unionism, and to what extent have they been embraced?

"Social movement unionism" has many stamps in its passport. Coined by Peter Waterman in the late 1980's, the term was widely used in analyses of the resurgent union movements in South Africa, Brazil, and Korea. For Waterman, social movement unionism was the name for both a utopian program for a new unionism and a description of the new politically militant and aggressive unionism in countries like South Africa, Brazil and Korea. Those movements, typically growing out of reform or independent union activism, made demands for radical political and social change and made unions an integral part of a broader social movement with many demands and constituencies. Waterman also saw social movement unionism as a path to a new radical democratic political strategy that would go beyond both business unionism and traditional forms of left-wing trade unionism. (Waterman 2004)

The idea of social movement unionism was spread in the US primarily through the writings of Kim Moody, whose Workers in a Lean World analyzed changes in the global economy, especially the adoption of "lean" production methods in the workplace and the political strategy of neoliberalism in government, and described the growth of new movements for labor rights and economic and social justice. (Moody, 1997) 17

The US in the 1990s was nothing like South Africa of the 1980s. Moody used "social movement unionism" as a lens to enable activists to see seemingly disparate struggles for union democracy and reform, for workers rights, for independent politics, for social and economic equality, global justice, safety and health, independent politics, etc. as elements of an emerging movement that could resist the corporate and political offensive against workers, and even begin to make gains for workers inside and out of the Labor movement. On the other hand, because the US workers movement was dominated by business unionism; Moody's social movement unionism was very much tied to a critique of business unionism. 18

As for Waterman, for Moody social movement unionism depended on "bottom-up" organizing for union reform and social change and called for supporting union insurgencies and helping rank-and-file workers develop the capacity for collective action, organization, and control. It would take a movement that was democratic and participatory both in its methods and its goals to keep the power and capacity of workers and their communities growing in the face of bureaucratic opposition. 19

Moody's use of social movement unionism did not spread much beyond the academic world. In an informal poll of labor activists I found that even among those who have read Moody's work, "social movement unionism" is not a term they use much, and when they do it is mostly to describe the invovlement of unions in labor-community coalitions or joint campaigns with social movement groups ("Teamsters and Turtles"), and the creative, militant tactics borrowed by union organizers from social movement activists: street theater, creative protest actions, civil disobedience.

So, it is possible to say that union leaders have embraced social movement unionism, but it is misleading. In fact, union leaders have been more willing to experiment with "social movement" tactics (in large part because social movement groups have turned to class and worker issues, creating openings for greater collaboration, e.g. student labor activism). Social movement unionism, though, suggests not just tactics, but an alternative model of unionism; this distinction is worth maintaining if we are interested in understanding the place of these tactics in the larger context of union transformation. And, as we have seen with militancy, the same union may deploy "social movement unionist" tactics on one context and practice narrow trade unionism in another. The question is what is the underlying strategy? "Social movement unionism," if the term is helpful, should provide an answer.

For Brecher and Costello, for Waterman, for Moody, there is one key element that is utterly absent in the "social movement unionism" promoted by Wong and other supporters of the "new union movement." It is perhaps the clearest line that divides US union leaders today from social movement unionism: the question of union democracy.

V. Union Democracy and the great divide

"The most important challenge for labor and society in the twenty-first century is the question of democracy... we need to resist and transform authoritarian institutions ... especially corporations... and reclaim democracy.. on the shop floor, in our communities, at the union hall.." -- Elaine Bernard (Slaughter 2005)

Brecher and Costello did not treat the question of union democracy separately, but it is one of the key markers of their vision of an alternative unionism. It is fair to say that they overestimated the importance of political ideology and failed to anticipate how central to the debate about labor's future union democracy would become. Democracy is now the great divide in US unionism, separating the forces of business unionism (old and new alike) from the emerging social movement unionism.

What is union democracy? Herman Benson has argued for a common sense definition of democracy -- rights like free speech and assembly, due process, free and fair elections, fair hiring, equality, protections from corruption and violence. 20 To some extent these rights are protected by federal law, but there are important rights that depend on union constitutions: right to vote on contracts, for example, or direct election of top union officers.

Why does democracy matter? In "Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers: how insurgents transformed the labor movement," Benson talks about "three faces of union democracy:"

1) "the power of democracy in mobilizing workers under the banner of unionism…calling on workers to stand up, speak out, to act together, to demand respect."

2) "union democracy as a weapon for union members to control their own officialdom, to criticize, even to replace them."

3) "union democracy as a means of releasing the power of workers in the cause of democracy and social justice in the nation (creating)... a new moral force capable of moving the conscience of the nation (and)... a people's movement for social justice..."(Benson 2005)

Most union leaders "welcome [the first] aspect of union democracy with enthusiasm," he notes, but when it comes to the second point "the ardor of even progressive leaders often cools." 21 Few union leaders ever think of moving from the practice of internal democracy to the practice of democratic unionism as a people's movement. But this is the road to social movement unionism.

The worker participation or "empowerment" needed in organizing or other union directed campaigns often leads workers to challenge their leadership. This participatiion can help build and maintain the bureaucracy and the power of the leadership, but when it evolves into a demand for more participation in union governance, it becomes a threat to bureaucracy. 22

Union democracy offers some protection for unionists who challenge the status quo in their unions, and provides tools for changing the unions' policies and leadership. Democracy is also a tool for transforming the union's structures and practices -- undoing the bureaucratization that is so favorable to business unionism -- and building a more participatory and grassroots alternative. 23 To paraphrase Ira Shor, an educator and activist, "the practice of democracy in organizing is the organizing of democracy in practice."

And yet, union democracy is the element of union reform that the leaders of the would-be new union movement have rejected most firmly, both in practice and in rhetoric.

At the center of the proposals made by SEIU and its allies is an extreme centralization of power in unions and in the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO's executive committee would be reduced from its current twenty-one union leaders and four constituency group representatives to something like ten (it is unclear who those ten would be or how they would be chosen), its composition would shift and AFL-CIO leaders would have broad new powers to enforce "standards and accountability." Whereas the AFL-CIO has relied on a combination of exhortation and incentives to convince union leaders to spend more on organizing, for example, or to join central labor councils, the officers would now be able to order unions to comply. 24 The plan calls for the merger of existing unions to create at most two or three unions for each "core industry." How would the AFL-CIO enforce all this? Uncooperative unions would face expulsion from the AFL-CIO and raids of their members by the remaining AFL-CIO unions.

As Herman Benson observed, writing in late 2003,

"The vision of a highly centralized labor movement which restrains membership initiative in an authoritarian straitjacket is no mere bad dream, no reverse utopia. The model is already in operation. The Carpenters union has already been reorganized to show the way." (Benson 2003)

Over the past ten years, the Carpenters union -- a founding union of the New Unity Partnership and the first major union to leave the AFL-CIO since the Sweeney victory -- has centralized power by shifting all authority from the union locals to the Regional Councils. Control of the council is in hands of an "Executive Secretary Treasurer"(EST) who is not elected by union members, but by delegates to the council. Among the EST's powers is the authority to hire (and fire) delegates as union staff organizers or representatives, thus creating a conflict of interest that has been a problem before in other unions. 25 In the New England council, members initially lost their right to vote on contracts, but, after a groundswell of activism won it back. 26

SEIU has taken another tack. 27 Instead of moving power from locals to a regional council, they have merged locals into new mega-locals encompassing tens of thousands of members, often spread out over several states. In order to accomplish this plan of mergers, and overcome opposition from local officers and members, the SEIU has made frequent use of the tool of trusteeship. The international union takes over the local union, removes its officers, installs a new leadership team, typically consisting of staff members loyal to the international officers, and proceeds to reorganize the local, and merge it. The effect on membership control is immediate. It becomes harder for members to get to meetings, harder to run for union office, harder to even communicate with the rest of the local membership. 28

"Union democracy as an abstract idea has been legitimized inside the labor movement," writes Herman Benson, "but the practice still falls far short." Stern, McCarron and their supporters have not only centralized power and created bureaucracies that are harder to reform, they have tried to de-legitimize union democracy. 29 Unions are in crisis, they say; democracy is a luxury unions can't afford. Bold action and military-style command are needed to save Labor. The AFL-CIO can't rely on the voluntary adoption of policies by its members unions. "Voluntary" (as in voluntary mergers or voluntary compliance with organizing targets) means nothing will change. Anyway, the argument goes, you can't have real democracy if only 9% of the workforce is in unions. And, workers "don't care" about democracy. They want contracts and wages. 30 Even if they did care, as an SEIU staff person once told me, union democracy doesn't work because workers can't be trusted to make the right decisions. There are more variations on this tune, but the overall approach is clear: union democracy is not only not a part of the New Unity Partnership/Unite to Win strategy, it is a threat that must be de-legitimized.

Ironically, their view of democracy puts them at odds not just with union members, but also with social movements, for many of which, especially in the present period, democracy is both a central demand and a powerful organizing method. ("This is what democracy looks like!" as the slogan goes.) For example, when the United Students Against Sweatshops adopted a resolution supporting union democracy and reform, they explained their position this way:

"Union democracy activists promote member participation, freedom of speech, and free elections so that union members can shape and steer the direction of their unions. USAS recognizes that the labor movement will be stronger when it is democratically controlled by workers." (Piascik 2003) 31

It is safe to say that more unionists and social movement activists understand and are sympathetic to union democracy today than at any time in the postwar era. 32 Many see union democracy as a vehicle for transformation of unions, and understand union transformation to include transforming the social role of unions, workers, and their communities. Union democracy is no "silver bullet," Benson writes, but it is "preparation for the long haul."

VI. Conclusion

Contrary to some reports, US union leaders have not rejected business unionism and embraced social movement unionism. In making this argument, I have focused almost exclusively on the ideas and actions of the top union officers. This creates, of course, a very incomplete picture of the workers movement, and it also distorts the ideas and actions of the leaders themselves, who are often responding to or anticipating pressures from the lower level leaders and union members, rather than following well thought out strategies.

Though I have not discussed their efforts here, there are people who are uprooting business unionism and building a strategic alternative that better deserves the name social movement unionism. This social movement unionism is still an emerging movement whose actors and organizations are still mostly disconnected and working in isolation, much as it was when Kim Moody optimistically introduced the term into US discussions of Labor's future, but it is widespread and active. 33

My hope is that taking apart the claim that US union leaders are creating a new unionism, will help refocus the discussion about the future of the working class movement, clearing the way for a new subject: the struggle to reclaim democracy, "on the job, in our communities, and at the union hall." If there is a social movement unionism being built in the US workers movement, we will find it on the democratic side of Labor's great divide.

1. Formed in September, 2003 and dissolved in January, 2005, the NUP was an informal coalition of the top officers of SEIU, UBC, UNITE, HERE, and LIUNA who met to develop a plan for restructuring the AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions. SEIU's coalition partners now include the original NUP unions plus the IBT.
2. See [WONG's chapter in the book], also (Wong 2004) and (Wong 2003).
3. Stern's supporters often compare recent developments to the formation of the CIO (COSATU or CUT are more recent examples, and would be more relevant especially in terms of the adoption of a broader social movement unionism approach).
4. See, for example, Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers (Benson 2005); Workers in a Lean World (Moody 1997); The New Rank and File (Lynd 2000); Strike! (Brecher 1997); and The Transformation of US Unions (Tillman 1999).
5. The first edition of the Troublemaker's Handbook, published by Labor Notes in 1992, remains the best survey of these various efforts. (LaBotz 1992)
6. A list of the initiatives and accomplishments of the Sweeney administration is appended to (Sweeney 2005)
7. For more on the New Unity Partnership and the New Strength, Unity movement, see the collections of articles on the websites of Labor Notes and AUD. The best resource is the remarkable Unite to Win website hosted by SEIU. See (Noyes 2004)
8. For example, my membership in the National Writers Union makes me a member of the UAW.
9. What is more innovative is the use of very thorough corporate and political research to create a multi-faceted pressure campaign.
10. See the summary of the SEIU position paper on the High Road, and responses, in Labor Notes, December 1999
11. Business union leaders have long favored the "faucet approach" to militancy, turning the pressure on, then turning it off. The increasing employer hostility has led some union leaders to strengthen their capacity for mass mobilization (more staff organizers, more training for volunteer organizers) as well their own ability to control its application (greater centralization of decision-making).
12. Possible, but not easy: union leaders may support abortion rights but oppose gun control, for example.
13. Despite the AFL-CIO's extraordinary efforts to get out the vote for John Kerry, George Bush was reelected. Even more indicative of Labor's declining political impact was the failure of SEIU and AFSCME's all-out campaign to help Howard Dean win the New Hampshire primary. (Union Democracy Review 2004)
14. The proposals from SEIU include a point on diversity, but the plan to create a smaller AFL-CIO executive committee prompted the six AFL-CIO constituency groups to write a Unity Statement expressing their concern that the reforms might marginalize people of color, LGBT unionists, women and other groups. (Unity Statement 2005)
15. The willingness to take progressive positions is also crucial to the ability of the union leadership to co-opt an activist base in the unions and social movement groups that is driven by political ideology. It should be added however, that pragmatism is what drives these decisions, and it is unlikely that the Republican Party will offer many more opportunities for an "old school" Labor politics.
16. This list is derived from Moody, 1997
17. The fact that social movement unionism described a potential movement, rather than an existing one, probably explains why, unlike "business unionism," "social movement unionism" has not become widely used among activists and workers.
18. See The Transformation of US Unions for examples from various unions (Tillman, 1997).
19. The rights listed themselves suggest the kinds of problems US union members face. "It would be misleading to suggest that all these malpractices are widespread in all unions... But, almost everywhere, at one time or another, one or another... has been imposed..." (Benson 2005)
20. As Kent Wong acknowledged in the discussion following his talk at Hosei University, SEIU's "organizing campaigns are not democratic, they are top-down." (Recall that in his description of business unionism, "Union staff and leaders ...make all decisions and take care of members...") (Wong 2004)
21. The classic case of this conflict took place when, after the successful Justice for Janitors organizing drive in Los Angeles, CA, an insurgent slate challenged the union officers in Local 399 and won. SEIU trusteed the local, and merged it with a much larger local, thus removing the newly elected leadership.
22. One specific example is the use of stewards councils, such as the one in IBT local 901 in Puerto Rico, which has, under the local bylaws, veto power over decisions made by the union's executive board.
23. Stern is very critical of proposals which rely on voluntary cooperation, "[the Sweeney proposals] provide for continuing current practices on the same old “voluntary” basis — meaning they don’t happen" (Stern, 2005)
24. See the history of stolen money and fraudulent elections in New York's AFSCME DC37, for example.
25. To accomplish this centralization of power, the Carpenters took advantage of a legal loophole in the LMRDA which does not require direct secret-ballot elections of officers of "intermediate bodies." (Union Democracy Review 2004)
26. SEIU is not alone in using this tactic. IAM and AFSCME have used it as have several other unions.
27. The trusteeship and merger approach takes advantage of another weak spot in the federal law: the low threshold a union has to meet in order to impose a trusteeship on and/or merge locals.
28. In a 1998 essay, Steve Fraser asked "Is Democracy Good for Unions?" He was quickly forced to backtrack. (Fraser, 1998) Among the responses he provoked was one from Herman Benson entitled, "Is Democracy Good for Intellectuals?" (Benson, 1999)
29. "Workers want their lives to be changed. They want strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual, historical, mythical democracy." (Stern, 2004)
30. "We resolve to make efforts to build stronger alliances with those organizations fighting for a more democratic labor movement…such as, but not limited to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, [UAW]New Directions, Labor Notes, the Association for Union Democracy, etc. We will aim to give these and other organizations greater opportunities to participate in USAS conferences and gatherings with the hope of forging lasting bonds between our organization and the union democracy movement." (Piascik 2003)
31. This probably reflects in part the worsening conditions of existing union members and their lack of confidence in the union leadership, not just an embrace of democratic ideology.
32. The single best overview of this emerging movement is the new edition of the Troublemaker's Handbook (Slaughter 2005). Dan Clawson's The Next Upsurge provides a useful theoretical framework for understanding social movement unionism as a movement that has not yet arrived.

AFL-CIO Constituency Groups. "Unity Statement." Unite to Win.

Benson, Herman. Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers: how Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement. The Association for Union Democracy, 2005.
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Brecher, Jeremy and Tim Costello. "A New Labor Movement in the Shell of the Old" Z Magazine, Part I, April, 1996, Part II May, 1996, Part III June, 1996
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Waterman, Peter. "Whatever is the Global Justice Movement Doing to the New International Social Movement Unionism?" Social Movements International Secretariat, World Social Forum. 2004.

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–[biographical and bibliographical information] Center for Transnational Labour Studies, Tokyo. 2003.

"Divided appeals court denies Carpenters direct elections," Union Democracy Review, September/October 2004

"What happened in Iowa and New Hampshire?" Union Democracy Review, January/February, 2004

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