January 3, 2024
The calendar has now turned over into 2024. Working people and the U.S. trade unions are like-it-or-not now pushed into another “new year.” As is the annual exercise, we routinely find ourselves looking ahead, by looking backwards over the events of the previous year.
The trade unions themselves mostly issue very brief end-of-year web site reports that amount to little more than standard holiday chit chat. They might regale readers with the alleged great deeds of their top leaders over the past year, and most of the time there is nothing great about those deeds. Members are assured that in the coming year the union leaders will diligently look after them, just like they did last year. The increasingly fragmented liberal and left media overwhelmingly work hard to spin last year’s events involving unions and workers, always promoting the positive developments and trying to stretch every single event into a broad trend.
In December of each year, we are bombarded with articles claiming labor “breakthroughs” and “upsurges,” most of which do not even remotely exist. Few of these articles are written by participants in any of the events they write about, although many are sincere in their efforts. We are also subjected to plenty of academics who are sought out for their opinions on labor and trade union developments – whether they possess any credentials on the matter or not. Almost no actual union members or workers will ever get to offer their opinions. They are, after all, “not qualified.”
Here I will instead point out a few events or situations that were missed or ignored by these writers. See if you saw any of the following in your end-of-year reading on the state of the labor movement as we enter 2024:
U.S. TRADE UNION MOVEMENT CONTINUES TO BE DESTROYED
Virtually all U.S. unions ended the year with fewer dues-paying members than they had at the start. The rampant employer union-busting that crushes the organizing of new members, federal government ambivalence about this crime wave, the refusal of most unions to seriously organize and recruit new members, layoffs, and widespread workplace closings continue to erode the base of the trade unions. No matter how you slice it unions represent less than 10% of the U.S. workforce today. It’s far less than 10% in the private sector, bigger in the public sector. Shrinking on both sides. Do we fully appreciate the depth of the crisis we face regarding union membership and are we charting a serious course of action to reverse this in the coming year?
FLORIDA PUBLIC UNION EXTERMINATION
The Florida assault on the existence of unions in Florida’s public sector proceeds without letup and in virtual secrecy. Many thousands of union members are being lost as anti-union bigot Governor DeSantis unleashes his program of mass union decertification. The unions appear to be retreating on all fronts. One of the few articles published so far to expose this disaster appeared on this web site, offered by a participant in the battle. Florida Public Sector Unions Facing Destruction – MLToday Are we taking stock of this attack, planning a counterattack, and bolstering defenses in the several other states where this Republican attack will fall?
UE SWIMS AGAINST TIDE
The independent and left-wing United Electrical Workers Union (UE) organized more than 25,000 workers in 2023. They also won several other notable victories in the past year. Top Five UE NEWS Stories of 2023. Are we studying and examining how this remarkable small union won these new members while facing the same steep odds as every other union?
“LEADERS” ASLEEP ON STARBUCKS
The labor “leaders” and even most of our left have proven themselves incapable – really uninterested – in grasping the historic significance of the Starbucks organizing eruption. For the first time in 75 years, we see that large scale union organizing is possible. There are other smaller but similar union upsurges underway at other employers. Starbucks workers have now pushed forward to more than 380 union wins around the country, yet there are still no plans to expand dramatically this amazing moment. What are we doing to shove the labor “leaders” out of their comfortable and profitable slumber to support mass campaigns of new organization like Starbucks?
BIDEN REGIME STRIKE-BREAKING
Most of the labor “leaders” and a lot of the left seem to have forgotten – or never noticed – that the Biden regime ruthlessly and cynically smashed the railroad strike that would have unfolded in early 2023 were it not for his contemptible actions. Every one of the union contract settlements that were the result of strike or near-strike action this past year exceeded by tenfold the crumbs that found their way down to the railroad workers in the wake of Biden’s strikebreaking. These same leadership forces were silent when the AFL-CIO union bigs endorsed Biden for re-election 17 months ahead of the election – with only one dissenting vote. What are we doing to confront this deplorable and disastrous situation that has crippled labor’s political action for decades?
‘GENOCIDIN’ WITH BIDEN
The labor “leaders”, true believers, and all those who refused to seriously consider the real content of the Biden regime before October now find themselves flummoxed as the bombs fall on Gaza and the death toll of innocents skyrockets. Through his entire career Biden has supported U.S. aggression and imperialism without fail. And his self-awarded title of “the most pro-union President in U.S. history” is so unhinged as to not even require response. Are we challenging the labor “leaders” and others who continue to uncritically embrace this President and demand they account for their complicity in his strikebreaking and now outright genocide?
UNFORGIVABLE SIN OF 2023
On December 21, an unspecified number of labor “leaders” dutifully went to the Biden White House for the annual labor holiday party. Although this affair seems to have been kept under wraps, photos held by this author show in order of union size the leaders of the AFL-CIO, IBT, AFSCME, IBEW, UAW, ATU, and AFA. There were others, but the White House will not release the attendee list for several months as is the procedure. Can anyone imagine going to THIS White House, to make nice with THIS President, and do it at THIS exact moment while Biden piles up the bodies of children and families in Gaza?
Who? Jared Bernstein is the chair of the hand-picked White House Council of Economic Advisors. This is Biden’s brain trust on all matters of the economy, and they dutifully generate copy and sound bites for the trade unions who want to parrot the Biden line with their members. You probably heard this guy in the media during 2023 trying to spin the economic situation and give Biden credit for just about everything. Another college professor, this poor guy gives it his all but there is just not much to work with. His claims of dramatic improvements for working people are just not convincing. That’s because they are not true. It’s hard to win the hearts and minds of the working class when, among other things, the White House is trying to stall the economy and increase unemployment with huge interest rate hikes. Might it occur to Biden or his White House economic experts to talk to workers about what they think about the state of things for them?
THANK THE CRIMINAL PROSECUTIONS
Allow the record to show that the two biggest strike wins of the past year were the UPS win of the Teamsters Union (IBT), and the Auto Workers Union (UAW) win at the Big 3 auto companies. Lest we forget, both of these unions had sunk into endemic and out of control criminal corruption – which led to massive federal criminal prosecutions. This is what led to direct member election of the current leaders, not the success of rank-and-file movements. The sclerotic, undemocratic, and likely reform-proof situation in union after union is a key component of labor’s crisis today. Members desiring real democratic processes and clean elections in their unions face enormous obstacles. We owe these forces for change across the labor movement our complete support. And we had better ask ourselves, where is the left wing in these movements for structural change in the unions?
HEALTH CARE AND PENSIONS
Even a cursory review of the end-of-year summaries would reveal that organized labor has apparently dropped any significant health care or retirement pension goals. Both at the bargaining table and on the political action battlefield. An entire new wave of young workers now entering the workforce find themselves at best with grossly over-priced, confusing, and inadequate health insurance. A growing number of unions are opting to try to dump their own retired members into the privatized Medicare abyss despite the consequences. See: Whipping Egg-Whips: Retirees Are Winning Battles against Medicare Advantage – MLToday. The once significant movement within labor for a national health care program or “Single Payer” continues to recede with ominous future consequences. So far as real pensions, coverage continues to decline as several generations now flow through their working lives with no prospects of retirement whatsoever. Might our labor “leaders” spend less time praising Joe Biden, and do a little more work to see to it that the working class have a shot at affordable health care and retirement security – as opposed to working until they drop and dying prematurely?
Since its start 45 years ago, the Labor Notes publication has gone through several political phases, several stages of growth, and today they find themselves in the leadership seat of much of the labor left. I commend the Labor Notes network for its dogged perseverance at improving the caliber of the labor movement. Their last national conference tripled the attendance of the AFL-CIO Convention, and the conference approaching in Chicago will be even larger. Labor Notes plays a larger and more credible role than all of the left organizations combined, a fact that must be faced. How do we support and expand Labor Notes, and convince the not insubstantial left organizations to seriously address their disastrous near-total lack of a trade union base?
When writing later in his life about his involvement and survival in the Paris Commune uprising, Prosper Lissagaray had some wise words of caution for his readers. His written work was met initially with some left criticism by those who demanded a more positive and upbeat analysis of the experiment. Lissagaray responded to these critics in the second edition of the history by offering that, “He who tells the people revolutionary legends, he who amuses therewith sensational stories, is as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators.” –History of the Paris Commune of 1871. (marxists.org)
I trust that I have refrained from telling “legends” and spouting “sensational stories”, all of which I might have used here to convince you that organized labor was today walking upright, moving forward or even climbing, unencumbered by internal defects, and successfully resisting the blows of the employers and government. But none of that would be true, and to repeat such false nonsense would do nothing to encourage a new approach or a strengthened left-wing response to these crises. I will not “draw up false charts” and you should stop believing the writers who do.
I dedicate this article starting the 2024 year to the life and work of William Z. Foster, Art Shields, James Matles, George Morris, Frank Donner, Lewie Aderson, Harry Kelber, and countless others. All struggled relentlessly for a better labor movement and waged a determined struggle against the destructive effects of business unionism.
I have reviewed here a number of aspects of labor’s 2023 experiences and reality that you might not have thought of previously. If you agree, and find this useful and informative, please take the time to forward this and other articles from Marxism-Leninism Today to your friends and contacts. Encourage them to sign up for our e-mail alerts, visit M-L Today on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter/X. See the main page for links to all of these.
-Chris Townsend is a 45-year union member and leader. He was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org