By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Beacon Press: Boston
$10.95 paperback; $8.25 Kindle edition
If the subtitle And 20 Other Myths about Unions makes you think "They're Bankrupting Us!" will be a straightforward affair, offering a few statistics and stories to counter each of its 20 myths, think again. Bill Fletcher, Jr. writes that the genesis of this book was in a conversation he had with a woman on a plane who capped a conversation about the labor-related book he was reading with the question "what's a union?" But this is not Unions for Dummies. Rather, it's a nuanced presentation of, yes, 20 myths about unions and rejoinders to them, but rejoinders that often represent sophisticated efforts at reframing the views implicit in anti-union myths.
Many works in the "this many myths about X" genre aim primarily at arming you with two killer facts per myth, suitable for winning Thanksgiving dinner battle with your conservative uncle. While Fletcher will give you some ammunition for that debate, he'll leave you equally if not more equipped for intense conversation with a political ally on the place of unions and other worker organizing in history and in today's workplace and politics. It's for that—for the response to the myth that union demands are unreasonable that doesn't just say "no and here's why" but rather asks us to consider what we mean by "unreasonable" within the context of the different interests of workers and bosses, for example—that this book should be read.
In the conservative-uncle vein, myth 16, "unions and corporations are both too big and don't really care about the worker," punctures the idea communicated by the term "big labor" that unions and corporations are in any way equivalent in size and sway by pointing out that "SEIU's assets represent a shocking .05 percent of ExxonMobil's market value." It's a number that exposes just how cynical it is to talk about "big labor" in an effort to suggest that unions are somehow too dominant in our economy.
But more typical of the book, Fletcher's discussion of myth 12, "unions are all racist and people of color need not apply," opens like so:
Communities of color have a complicated relationship with organized labor—one that stems from a history that includes examples of courageous interracial/interethnic solidarity on the one hand and intense racial/ethnic antagonism on the other.(Continue reading below the fold.)
To address this charge, It’s critical to appreciate three underlying problems: the character of the United States as a political entity, the implications of competition among workers, and social control over workers by the employer class.
Next, he offers a brief history of the construction of race in American history; as "a sociopolitical concept rather than a matter of either biology or imagination." It’s in this context that he then discusses the history of racial competition and exclusion in union history—and the often ignored history of labor organizing and activism by workers of color, from the 1600s on.
Neither does Fletcher leave his discussion of racial competition and exclusion in the past. He notes that "the percentage of African American union members (that is, as a percentage of African Americans) has consistently outpaced other racial/ethnic groups for years" and points to increasing diversity in union leadership, but does not at all absolve unions of the need for a continuing shift in power relationships.
As this suggests, Fletcher's pro-union discussion of anti-union myths critiques unions from the left, always seeking to identify ways unions could be more democratic, more inclusive, offer a broader social justice agenda both internally and in national and global politics. Unlike some who criticize unions from the left, though, Fletcher, a former union organizer and high-level staffer at the SEIU and AFL-CIO, writes with awareness of the challenges unions face in an economic and political environment so dominated by corporations (remember that .05 percent of a single corporation that the SEIU’s assets represent). "They’re Bankrupting Us!" analyzes unions' successes and failures within that framework, never letting the reader lose sight of the fact that employer opposition to unions is at base about opposition to worker power, never getting overly involved with grudges against specific union leaders or actions.
There's an immense amount to appreciate in these sophisticated discussions of 21 myths about unions. At times, though, they're a little too indirect as responses to concrete charges often leveled against unions, heading off on tangents that, while interesting, might leave you flipping back a few pages to remind yourself what exactly we’re talking about here. In large part this seems to stem from Fletcher’s admirable determination not to absolve unions of their failings; he gets caught between offering the historical or political context in which unions have been racist or sexist (or at least not anti-racist and anti-sexist enough), pointing to examples in which unions have transcended systems of oppression, and assessing where they stand today, and loses the thread of the specific myth he’s discussing.
Nonetheless, "They’re Bankrupting Us!" And 20 Other Myths about Unions provides a rich picture of where unions fit in the American and world economies, their promise and their successes, the challenges they do offer to corporate capitalism and the challenges they should offer. If you’re familiar with Unions 101 and looking for a more in-depth treatment of some of the same territory, this is a good choice.