By Greg Godels
Labor leader Leo Gerard recently wrote an article, The Untold Story of Trump’s ‘Booming’ Economy, that circulated widely on the Internet. Gerard is the President of the United Steel Workers of America, an industrial union once a leading force in the pre-Cold War, center-left CIO, the last major expression of labor militancy in the US.
In many ways, Gerard’s article is a notable compendium of indicators that track the status of US working people over the last half century. His essay lists many telling facts and figures that document the economic decline of the millions who constitute the working majority of the population.
Gerard shows that workers labor longer and make less with fewer perks and greater insecurity. They are stressed, unhealthy, and commanding fewer rights. At the same time, the wealthy are growing more prosperous. In a word, one that Gerard cannot seem to find in his vocabulary, workers suffer growing “exploitation.”
Certainly, President Gerard’s “untold” story has been told many times before. But as a concise, authoritative chronicler of the dire straits of most working people, Gerard may be without peer. However, as a leader of the struggles of working people, Gerard is without answers.
Just as he cannot utter the word “exploitation,” the Steelworkers President cannot pronounce the word “capitalism.” The enemies of the people are, in his words, “…the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the president… [I]t is the system, the American system, that has conspired to crush them [workers].”
But Gerard does not mean to indict the system as an institution, as an institution corrupted, and chronically aligned against workers. He does not charge that corporations, capital, or capitalism own these institutions.
Rather, he means that a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, a Republican Congress, and a Republican President have conspired to keep the workers down.
Of course, this flies in the face of the history of the last five decades that has seen Democratic Congresses and Democratic Presidents join the cause of eviscerating the social gains and material conditions of US workers.
To acknowledge this fact would require Gerard to look beyond the Republican Party as arch-villain and recognize that the Democratic Party also contributes to the anti-worker trend. He would need to challenge the facile, deceptive Democratic Party claim of partisanship for the cause of labor. This he cannot do.
Instead, it’s the fault of the right-wingers. If only we could return to a non-existent age when institutions were friendly to labor. “Just like the administration and the Supreme Court, right-wingers in Congress grovel before corporations and the rich,” Gerard exclaims.
It’s hard to square Gerard’s disdain for corporations with the fact that USW recently mobilized busloads to defend the US Steel Corporation against indignant citizens facing life-threatening pollution. When the corporation’s pollution-control equipment was damaged in a fire, allowing dangerous pollution to spew forth in the environs of the company’s Clairton works, Gerard’s union brought counter-demonstrators to confront the angry neighbors forced to choke on the pollutants. Indeed, the union has sought partnership over confrontation since it surrendered to Cold War imperatives.
The union also joined “right-wingers” in the Trump administration to defend corporate interests in last year’s tariff battles. They unhesitatingly joined steel corporations in their racist attacks on Chinese competition and, before that, competition with Japanese steel makers. So much for “grovel[ing] before corporations.”
Nowhere in his essay does Gerard mention the role of workers’ solidarity, union militancy, or activism in defending the gains of workers. Nowhere does he mention the workers’ greatest weapon against corporate power and for improving their conditions, the strike. Nowhere does he address the responsibility of union leaders to rally workers and their friends and neighbors to directly confront corporate power in the workplace and in communities, as well as in the courts and in the election booths.
After the Cold War purge of the left in the labor movement, labor leaders — sanitized of the militancy and partisanship that Communists and Socialists brought to the movement — made an unholy pact with capital. They traded class confrontation, international solidarity, and democratic demands for class collaboration, international betrayal, and a junior corporate partnership. As the Cold War drew to a close, capital discarded the partnership and mounted an unbridled offensive against workers. With a complacent union leadership, allergic to confronting their corporate “partners” and with no taste for a fight, the result was the rout that Gerard documents so well.
Of course it didn’t have to go this way. To imagine a different outcome one only has to study the history of the old left-led industrial unions of the CIO. When the USW, the ILWU, the UE, the UAW, the UMW, and the other CIO unions embraced class struggle unionism, they organized millions, energized their members, mounted relentless assaults on their employers, and won unprecedented gains. That history is ably recounted in the still eminently relevant, Labor’s Untold Story.
When Trump is gone, capital and rapacious corporations will remain. The promise of change will be hollow if unions fail to return to the fighting legacy of their forebears. That is the “untold” story that union leaders need to embrace.