Historical Materialism 2014: Reversing the decline

In the third of three articles, UNITE union activist Ian Allinson reports from four very useful sessions[i] learning from the North American Labour movement at this year’s Historical Materialism conference.

Several speakers presented evidence of the serious decline in union membership density (the proportion of workers in a union), collective bargaining coverage (the proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining) and strikes. I won’t dwell on this as I think these problems are generally acknowledged.

Myths of Decline

Charles Post used a detailed analysis of the US Tire industry[ii] to debunk some of the explanations often given for union decline (in many industries) – “globalisation” (work moving offshore), “foreign ownership” (supposedly more hostile to unions) and “regionalisation” (moving from the relatively unionised north to anti-union southern US states).

Charlie found that the overall numbers of US tire workers had in fact been stable since the early 1980s and that while the number of tires produced in the US has declined from its peak in the late 1990, it remains higher than in the 1960s. The jobs are still there despite any moves offshore. Though the threat of jobs scattering to the lowest cost locations has been used to extract concessions, this had not actually happened to an extent that reduced US employment.[iii]

Jeff Goodwin’s talk backed this up, showing that union density had fallen particularly sharply in US manufacturing and construction. If the issue was simply loss of jobs, density would have stayed high while numbers fell.


Kim Moody[iv] argued that globalisation had intensified competition, putting pressure on companies to reorganise. The USA now has fewer manufacturing workers, but their productivity has risen so they produce more than before. Union density in manufacturing has declined (from 40% in the 1970s to 10% now) as membership has fallen faster than employment.

There was a period stretching from the recession of 1975 to the double-dip recession of 1983 when competition from French, German and Japanese companies establishing tire plants in the USA forced US firms to restructure and shed capacity. “Foreign” ownership of US tire plants did increase. Charlie argued that while chauvinist unions portrayed foreign companies as resisting unionisation, exactly the same was true of US owned companies. He referred to research showing that transnational companies don’t particularly favour workers in their “home” countries.

Charlie described the shift of production towards the southern US states as a process taking place from the 1920s rather than being a new phenomenon. Up until the 1970s all new plants were successfully unionised, but since 1976 this had been the exception. Failure to unionise new plants isn’t restricted to southern states with anti-union “right to work” legislation – the first example was in Canada.

Job restructuring made people nervous, but Sam Gindin gave example after example where making concessions had not saved jobs. On the other hand, being militant wasn’t enough – workers needed a political response and class consciousness.

Kim challenged the idea that the cause of union decline was the growth of precarious labour. He recognised that “precarity” (unstable jobs) was real and had grown, including amongst migrant workers. However, he explained that about 90% of US workers are still in a traditional employee relationship, even if many do not have a job for life. Since the recession the number of temps has actually declined in the USA, as they were the easiest to get rid of.

If it was impossible to organise precarious workers, there would be no labour movement. In the 19th century, everyone was precarious. Unions managed to organise groups such as dockers. They did not achieve majority membership and there were lots of problems with their approach, which often excluded many workers. But they did organise. More recently, unions have successfully organised in hospitals (which are private sector in the USA) despite a high proportion of precarious workers.

Michael Goldfield referred to the success of socialists in the Indian city of Puna who had organised large numbers of precarious workers such as truck drivers and head carriers across the city around issues such as setting up healthcare and cafes. The organisation had spread to even include “untouchables” picking rags and had succeeded in raising wages. This struck me as a striking example of organising in ways which reflected the types of power different workers have – in this case what Beverly Silver would call “associational” rather than “workplace” power.

Responding to a suggestion during the discussion that changes in work process had eliminated small work groups that were the molecular basis of organising, Charlie acknowledged that there had been changes, but suggested that the decline in unionisation had already begun before these took hold. Automation had still left key skilled workers with considerable power.

A Crisis of Bureaucratic Business Unionism

Michael Goldfield argued that the problems in the US began in the 1930s, where the unions ceased being willing to mobilise on a broad scale and failed to consistently deliver solidarity over race[v].

Kim Moody and Charles Post describe the dominant model of US trade unionism since the inter-war period as “bureaucratic business unionism”. Charlie explained some key features of this model. It was based on long multi-year contracts with employers. During the contracts, issues are dealt with through grievance procedures with little worker involvement. There were sometimes “set piece” strikes around contract renewal time, but unions found it hard to mobilise after years of passivity. The focus of organising new workplaces was on NLRB elections[vi]. Unions were politically allied with the Democrats.

Kim and Charlie argued that bureaucratic business unionism did deliver gains for some members between the 1940s and 1970s, it never worked for others. Since the 1970s crisis of profitability, employers had become more aggressive, wiping out those gains and creating a “crisis of bureaucratic business trade unionism” which was the main cause of union decline, disorganising rank and file and union leaderships alike. Michael stressed that business unionism isn’t just a problem within the bureaucracy, but as an ideology affecting workers too.

Simon Joyce argued that the change in the unions had been through “coercive pacification” after the end of the long post-war boom which undermined their bargaining position. He thought that even workplaces which had stayed in the north had faced the threat of relocation in order to extract concessions. He drew a parallel with unions in the 1970s being able to win by threatening strikes but not necessarily needing to strike. The character of unions had changed during this period.

Martin Upchurch and Charlie said that the “safe space” for union leaders through institutionalised bargaining had closed. There was also increased competition between workers or units within workplaces. Charlie sees socialists as the key to building the “militant minority” because they have the vision to organise and fight. Charlie thinks the militant minority in the USA had been disorganised from the 1930s and rebuilding it is the key task.

Kim explained that a common approach from unions was “don’t fight – cooperate”. After a while US capital got bored with this, once they had extracted concessions on wages, established two-tier workforces, cut medical benefits (a life and death issue in the US) etc. Employers basically told unions to get lost – employers no longer needed cooperation. A similar process happened at a lower level, where employers used team-working to extract knowledge from the workforce. They then had little use for teams and the aspects that workers had seen as positive were scrapped.

Unions adopted labour-management cooperation, giving up even the symbolic strikes at contract renewal. The NLRB process became less helpful. The Democrats embraced right wing neoliberalism. Union density dropped and inter-worker competition increased. Unions got into a downward spiral.

Kim argues that union leaderships contributed to the decline in a variety of ways. Through the 1980s and 90s their slogan might have been “don’t organise – merge”. The result was fewer but bigger unions which were not “general” unions but what Kim calls “conglomerates” comprised of multiple departments (which in UK terms might be sectors, regions etc). The departments have different priorities and agendas and compete for the resources of the union. In order for conglomerate unions to achieve coherence, power has to be centralised in the top level leadership, making the union more bureaucratic, authoritarian and less member controlled.

Kim argued that even after cooperation with employers stopped delivering gains, the mentality didn’t go away in union leaderships, or among sections of the membership. The result was to get union members fighting with each other about how to respond.

Jeff Goodwin presented a startling graph showing how productivity and real hourly wages had sharply diverged since the early 1970s. This fits closely with the view Kim set out in “In Solidarity” that business shifted from investing in technology to raise productivity, allowing workers’ living standards to rise, to increasing productivity though longer and more intense work while holding down wages.


Kim felt US union leaders had convinced members that they are “middle class” and created an ideological problem, dividing them from poorer workers. Sam echoed this point, arguing that “middle class” also excludes blacks. It creates a view of class not based on the relationship to capital and is dangerous.

Kim and others said it was as if the left didn’t like the working class much and ridiculed the lack of discussion on class at events like HM, but congratulated Socialist Register for devoting a lot of attention to it recently.

Union Responses

Some unions have adopted a strategy of focusing only on organising jobs which are “landlocked” (cannot be moved offshore), leading to abandoning manufacturing. Kim argued strongly that this was a mistake. Manufacturing remains key to a country’s GDP and failing to organise it meant abandoning social power. It is vital that unions take on organising manufacturing in the southern states.

Another key area Kim argues unions should target is logistics and the supply chain. The move south of US manufacturing has made it very dependent on this industry, which is also vital to many service industries. The industry now has three giant warehousing centres in Los Angeles, Chicago and New Jersey. It is a growing industry in importance and number of workers. These three centres employ hundreds of thousands of workers and there are 4 million across the country. Just In Time (JIT) production gives workers enormous potential power to disrupt the supply chain and production.

There are efforts to organise the great logistics centres, which are having some success. Kim described how they had moved away from a focus on securing neutrality agreements with employers and winning NLRB elections. The focus is on organising the workers first, then unionising them. There have already been some short symbolic strikes, including wildcat action.

Charlie said it is essential to build real strength in workplaces, not just stage theatrical actions aimed at winning elections.

Kim reminded us about the success of the Minneapolis Teamsters in the 1930s, using the strongest and best organised groups of workers to organise the rest.

Kim gave a vision of how to respond to the fragmentation of employers within a workplace with subcontracting and agencies. Rather than organising along company lines, we should organise the workforce wall-to-wall irrespective of who the employer is. We should take action and say to the employers “you sort it out”. He felt effective organising is a real possibility if we get the issues of gender, race etc right.

Along with a “wall to wall” approach[vii], Michael was arguing that unions had to be prepared to mobilise on a wide scale. This could mean looking wider than a single workplace or employer, and must mean more than token action (e.g. one day strikes).

Paul Kellogg argued that it was important to break from just looking at workplace issues. Unionisation in Quebec gets part of its strength from the national question. The old southern US slave states have weaker unions because of what he called the war on African American labour, which includes incarceration and the death penalty.

Kim argued for explicit opposition to capital, rather than cooperation. Avoiding antagonising the boss was not an effective way to save jobs. Direct action, including strikes, was needed. Grievance procedures were burying activists in casework. Issues need to be collectivised and turned into direct action. Reps should “take a mob” with them.

Sustaining Success, the Militant Minority and the Left

Kim argued socialists should put a heavy emphasis on workplace organisation. Leaders of most unions had abandoned the idea of strong and dense union organisation providing workplace power.

Kim talked about how in the 1980s US union density had been growing in services such as hospitals. The unions decided it would be easier to organise smaller units and pushed for hospitals to be divided into multiple bargaining units. This approach had ended up helping the employers divide the workers and cut against the wall-to-wall approach. Michael Goldfield made similar points.

Sam Gindin argued that while there had been various great examples of organising and campaigns, sustaining that required a radical transformation of the unions. He reminded people of the limitations of unions – their tendency to be sectional, their bias towards instrumentalism, and their tendency to become institutionalised after fights. The unions developed skills during boom years that aren’t that useful now, and they need to change in every way. He raised the question of whether this was a problem of the left – how could the unions transform without left organisation. Without left organisation there would be rebellions but they couldn’t be sustained. He felt the left was almost in the position of “starting over”, having not focussed on the working class.

Michael referred to a fight in Vancouver against Tory attacks on health in 2004 which saw large numbers of women and ethnic minority workers striking against outsourcing and a 2-tier workforce. They won huge sympathy and there were calls for a general strike. Union leaders got scared about the electoral impact and held secret negotiations which led to a sell out. Michael thought struggles needed revolutionary leadership which didn’t worry about the impact on elections or the threat of jail.

Kim talked about union “reform movements”. He distinguishes these movements of rank and file union members and activists from individuals running for office. He described how they often start with people organising around workplace issues, not electorally. Kim talked about there being a new wave of such movements, with over half-a-million workers in union locals (branches) or national unions taken over by these movements. He acknowledged that they don’t always succeed when they take over. Kim saw the Chicago teachers local as one of the best examples – they had struck against the city mayor, not just over wages but over working conditions, social issues and against neoliberal education.

Sam pointed to a series of important wins such as Republic Windows and the Chicago Teachers, but pointed out that their victories weren’t generalised and they were later defeated. Successes were not sustained, and Sam argued that this would require a wholesale transformation of the unions as there are limits to what individual socialists can do to help. He summarised the conundrum for the left as the need for an organisation to build the fight, but the need for a fight to build the organisation.

Some union reform movements in the US have been led by socialists, though many are not. However, Kim felt the movement always looks to the Democratic Party, which has embraced neoliberalism. The result is very low voter turnout. In the recent elections it was just 33-36% of registered voters. Even in Ferguson, rocked by huge political issues, it was only around 40%. Within those low percentages, working class people were far less likely to vote, so the turnout from workers is extremely low. Despite the huge size of unions, they can’t usually mobilise politically, and there is low turnout from working class people. Kim argued that unions needed political independence. This didn’t necessarily mean running their own candidates for President, but rather making political breaks when necessary.

Michael pointed out that some countries do still have a militant layer, and put this down to their ties to political parties.

Kim stressed that ignoring the question of race would be a disaster, and that this was a key question for organising in the US south. In the warehousing/logistics sector, 90% of the workforce in the mid-west is African American. In Los Angeles and New Jersey there is a high proportion of Latino workers. There are 40 million migrants in the USA, 25 million of whom have jobs. Kim described this as “our Quebec” (referring to Paul Kellogg’s earlier point) because these migrants are more pro-union and more militant. A third of US union members are non-white and half are women. White males are a minority.

For socialists, Kim saw union democracy as a key issue. A culture shift was needed to encourage, not just tolerate, dissent. The process of rank and file workers organising in various groupings in pursuit of different approaches helps educate members.

Kim pointed out that union growth comes in spurts. He argued that these don’t come from nowhere, and echoed Jane McAlevey in suggesting that the key task was to develop the layer of organic worker leaders. Jane stressed that the “militant minority” is not the same as the organic worker leaders[viii] – who could be anti-union or undecided. She argued that developing the organic worker leaders was more sustainable than relying on staff and activists. She also argued for entrenching open and democratic practice (e.g. openness about staff salaries, open bargaining) in union rules to help sustain activism. She saw short contracts, frequent battles and “floor fights” as more effective than grievances.


[i] The four HM conference sessions covered in this series of reports were:

  • “Explaining the Decline of Organized Labour in the US: Is Globalization to Blame”: Charles Post “What’s Globalisation Got To Do With It? The Decline of Industrial Unionism in the US Tire Industry 1966-2008”; Kim Moody “Is Globalisation to Blame? An Examination of the Data for the US”; Comments by Michael Goldfield
  • “The Crisis of Labour in the United States”: Jeff Goodwin “The Crisis in Numbers”; Jame McAlevey “The Crisis of New Labor”; Sam Gindin “Crisis of Labor; Crisis of the Left”
  • “Left Strategy and the US Working Classes”: Jane McAlevey “Wall to Wall Organizing: Health and Education Workers”; Kim Moody & Charles Post “The Politics of US Labour: Paralysis and Possibilities”; Sam Gindin
  • “Transforming Classes”: Hugo Radice “Class Theory and Class Politics Today”; Susan Ferguson & David McNally “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of the Working Class”

[ii] Simon Joyce questioned the empirical information, arguing that the magazine reports used didn’t match the 40% decline in the workforce.

[iii] This fits with OECD figures showing that most investment is within developed countries in the “global north”, and that most transnational investment is between countries in the global north. Only 5-10% is from countries in the north to the south.

[iv] Kim Moody was one of the key figures behind the setting up of Labor Notes. There is a review of his book “In Solidarity” on the rs21 web site.

[v] For more detail on what he argued around race, see the second article in this series.

[vi] The National Labour Relations Board has a legally regulated process for winning union recognition.

[vii] “Wall to wall” organising is the term for organising everyone in a workplace, irrespective of occupation, employer or employment status. For more explanation see the first article in this series.

[viii] See the first article in this series. Jane McAlevey sees “organic worker leaders” as key to the “1199 model” of organising.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here