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This is the second of a series of blogs written by Stewart Acuff titled The Future of the American Labor Movement.

A couple of days ago, I started offering a few humble suggestions regarding the future of the American labor movement. You can read my first blog in the series by CLICKING HERE.

Unorganized Workers

I believe we must reach out to and connect to unorganized workers. One of the most important ways we can do this is to be the leading edge of the struggle for progressive immigration reform that puts families, workers, and communities ahead of corporate interests who just want to exploit this large pool of workers.

The labor movement was built by immigrant workers: mineworkers, steelworkers, other industrial workers, the needle trades all were built by immigrants.

Raise the Minimum Wage

We must escalate our fight to raise the minimum wage and index it to the cost of living so that in the future, the minimum wage will be what it was meant to be – a livable wage floor beneath which no worker can fall. The point is livable. Today’s minimum wage is not a livable wage. Raising wages at the bottom will raise living standards throughout the economy and national labor markets.

Single Payer Healthcare

Just as importantly, we must continue to push for single payer healthcare. When we get single payer healthcare, every worker in America will get a wage raise worth hundreds of dollars a week and thousands of dollars a year.

Renewable & Sustainable Energy

It is in the best interests of all union members and the whole labor movement to continue to push for the development of renewable and sustainable energy. Just now the labor movement does not have internal consensus about what to do with fossil fuels such as coal and shale oil. But we all can agree on the necessity of developing wind, solar power, and to rebuild our electricity grid. Our nation is falling dangerously behind our global competitors in renewable energy. The development of renewable energy – wind and solar farms, new transmission lines, the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels here in the United States with American steel and glass would produce hundreds of thousands of new jobs, lessen our dependence on foreign oil and other fossil fuels. We in America are wasting massive renewable resources with a natural wind tunnel all across the middle of our country and deserts where the sun never stops shining. A massive investment in renewable energy is good for our economy today and into the future. It is also good for our planet and our health.


We must expand and accelerate the opportunities and leadership within our movement for workers of color and female workers. For a decade or two, organizers have said we need women and organizers of color so that those we are organizing can see themselves in our unions. That is true.


© Creative Commons Copyright 2013


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Stewart Acuff is the former organizing Director of the AFL-CIO. Acuff has also written two books: Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life in Organizing, and Getting America Back to Work.
Get the e-book edition of Playing Bigger Than You Are for $2.99 by clicking here!

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Comment Preferences

  •  from my diary series on history of corporations (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    IT Professional

    A discussion of the labor movement and its failures:

    The Labor-Union/Corporate Partnership

    The tiny remnant of the American labor union movement that still remains has, of course, been staunchly protectionist since the late 1970’s, when they joined with the steel and auto corporations in “Buy American” campaigns that targeted Japanese corporations. That effort failed spectacularly—the American corporations used the threat of “foreign workers” to extract wage and benefit concessions in exchange for not moving the factories overseas, and then moved most of them anyway.

    Despite that utter failure, however, the remaining remnants of the American labor movement still maintain their alliance with their employers, still put all their faith in protectionism and “Buy American” strategies, and, unlike the environmentalist and social justice groups who view the overseas victims of multinational corporations as their natural allies, still treat “foreign workers” as enemies and opponents. In effect, the American labor movement is now nothing more than a junior partner to a handful of declining corporations who preach patriotism and nationalism in a desperate effort to maintain their own narrow economic interests.

    The Labor Movement’s Failed Strategies

    The AFL-CIO has attempted to argue in favor of several different protectionist strategies to shield itself from cheaper foreign labor and to help defend American companies from foreign corporations. Some of these strategies have also been advocated or used by other progressives and anti-corporate activists to try and curb corporate power. All of them, alas, have been failures.


    Nearly all of the protectionist “solutions” offered by the labor movement appeal, in one way or another, to someone’s patriotism, whether it’s asking employers to voluntarily pay higher wages to American workers and patriotically refuse to relocate their jobs to low-wage havens like China, or asking American consumers to voluntarily pay higher prices for American-manufactured products than for cheaper imports. As President Obama summed up the argument, “Look, people don’t want a cheaper T-shirt if they’re losing a job in the process. They would rather have the job and pay a little bit more for a T-shirt. And I think that’s something that all Americans could agree to.” Reality, however, demonstrates conclusively that Obama is wrong—people do indeed want the cheaper T-shirt. Any time that either employers or consumers have been asked to choose between their wallet and their patriotism, the wallet always wins.

    There are many reasons why “Buy American” campaigns that appeal to patriotic nationalism have failed every time they have been attempted.

    In the United States, real wages have declined steadily for the past 30 years, the wealth held by the lowest 80% of the population has decreased drastically, and unemployment levels are at their highest in many decades. Under those conditions, consumers are forced to stretch as much value as they can out of every scarce dollar—and asking them to patriotically (and voluntarily) pay higher prices to protect someone else’s job, is unrealistic at best.

    Any attempt to appeal to the “patriotism” of the multinational corporations is also unrealistic. They have no patriotism; they belong to no country.

    It was, after all, American-owned corporations who began the global rush to relocate their plants to Mexico and China, and the reason for that is simple—the corporations will always go where the costs are lowest. It was not the Chinese or Mexican or American governments who forced all those corporations to move their plants or outsource their jobs—the American business owners did that all by themselves, for their own selfish motives. The corporate owners don’t care about patriotism or national interest—all they care about is their bank account, and their bank account likes being able to pay workers in Mexico one-tenth as much as workers in the US. American corporations don’t mind putting thousands of workers out of work by moving their jobs overseas; they don’t even mind relocating their factories inside a single-party Communist police state like China, as long as they can make a ton of money doing it.

    And of course there is the simple fact that there is no “American” to buy anymore.  It is no longer the 1970’s, when Hondas were all made in Japan and Fords were all made in Detroit. All of the large corporations are now global, and none of them have any loyalty whatsoever to any national government anywhere. General Motors is no more or less “American” than BP or Toyota. Which is the “American” car?—the GM (which is partially foreign-owned) that is made in Canada, or the Toyota (which is partially American-owned) that is made in Tennessee? What happens when you have an electronics device that is made from material mined in South Africa and plastic from Germany, using semiconductors from Ireland that were designed in Costa Rica, whose parts were shipped here on a Swedish ship that's financed by an Icelandic bank, then assembled in Mexico and sold in an electronics chain store in Boston that is owned by the Japanese?

    In one surreal scene, US Steel and the Steelworkers Union jointly organized a “Rally to Restore American Manufacturing” in Illinois to protest the use of “foreign steel” to build a Canadian-American oil pipeline—while at the very same time US Steel itself owned manufacturing plants in England, China, Mexico, Canada, Slovakia, Brazil and Serbia. Even as US corporations were busily outsourcing American jobs all over the globe, unions were appealing to the patriotism of those same corporate bosses: at a meeting to discuss AT&T’s outsourcing of jobs to India, one American union official declared, “In this time of high unemployment, the company could be a leader and bring these jobs back here and be patriotic.” The steel company Nucor helped form the Domestic Manufacturing Group, which, in partnership with the Steelworkers Union, lobbies for trade sanctions and tariffs against China to “protect American jobs”—while at the same time Nucor itself negotiated a deal with the Chinese Shougang steel company to build a joint operation in Australia.

    That is why “Buy American” campaigns always fail. There is simply no way to force business owners to continue to pay workers in America higher wages when they can easily move the entire plant somewhere else and make lots more money—and any attempt to entice the boss to voluntarily keep his factory in places where wages are higher, out of pure benevolent patriotism, is the height of idiocy.

    And yet that is precisely the strategy that most labor unions practice, because they have fallen into the trap of believing that the employers and employees are partners with similar interests, and that one of the goals of the corporation is to give us all good-paying jobs.  It’s not. The corporations aren’t in business to give us jobs. They’re in business to make as much money as possible—for themselves, not for us.

    That is why, despite all the noise we make in the US about opposing sweatshops and supporting human rights and democracy, not a single multinational corporation in China has ever pressured the Chinese government to pass minimum wage laws or workplace safety laws or consumer protection laws or child labor laws. The simple fact is that the corporations don’t want any of those things. That’s why they all moved to China in the first place.

    Indeed, the very idea of a “national economy”, or even a    “nation-state”, is now dead; the supra-national corporations have killed it. Economically, there is no longer any sovereign nation anywhere on earth.  Economic decision-making power is no longer exercised by national governments--it is exercised by supra-national corporations who owe loyalty to no national government, and by the international bodies (like the WTO and IMF) that those corporations have set up. No nation, not even the “only remaining superpower”, holds its economic destiny in its own hands anymore. Indeed, the WTO and the rest of the multinational economic structure was set up specifically so that no “nation” can stand against the corporations.

  •  and my proposed solution for the labor unions: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    IT Professional
    A necessarily crucial part of any effective global movement to beat the supra-national corporations must be the international labor union. The ultimate source of all corporate profits (from which they derive all their power) is the workplace—and every workplace has workers whose interests necessarily conflict with those of corporate profits. Workplace safety, the right to organize, better pay and conditions—all of these things can only be effectively fought for from inside the workplace. And that is the role of the labor union.

    As we have seen, the American labor movement threw its lot in with an alliance with the corporations, to defend corporate profits through protectionism and hostile opposition to “foreigners”. The result has been utter disaster.

    It is easy to see the root of the American labor movement’s mistake. The AFL-CIO is still wedded to its patriotic flag-waving for “American workers” at the expense of all the rest of the workers in the world, and has ignored a basic truth about the wage-based market economy—the owners are in business to make money for themselves, not for their workers. Boss will always go where it is cheapest. If workers in the United States are paid X for a job, and workers in Indonesia or China are paid one-tenth X, then Boss will move his factory there every time. Any wage gains we are able to make within the US will disappear promptly, as the corporations simply move those jobs to low-wage havens like China or Mexico. If we want to keep our jobs here, therefore, we are reduced to two choices—either we raise their wages to match ours, or we lower our wages to match theirs.

    The American unions tried a third way—they wanted to use protectionist measures to both keep our wages high and keep foreign wages low. It was an abject (and predictable) failure.

    The American labor movement forgot completely what the word “solidarity” means.  Or at least what the word “whipsawing” means.

    There is only one way to prevent whipsawing, and that is to organize the workers everywhere. The entire idea of a nation-based labor movement is now outmoded, ineffective and obsolete. In a corporate world, we must instead become company-based rather than geographically-based. In a world made up of multi-national companies who owe loyalty to no government and have no nation, there simply is no such thing anymore as an “American worker” or a “Chinese worker” or a “Somali worker”. There are only “Ford workers” or “Honda workers” or “British Petroleum workers”—and they all do the same work for the same employer and have the same interests, whether their factory happens to be located in Tennessee, Tibet or Timbuktu. And if a Ford worker in Detroit gets X dollars an hour to do a job, then a Ford worker in China or Thailand had better be getting the same X dollars an hour for doing the same job—because if he's not, then guess where the factory will be going?

    It’s an elementary lesson that the American unions ignored. Instead of organizing all Ford or US Steel workers across the world to face their common employer, the unions have ignored foreign employees completely or even treated them as enemies; instead of raising the foreign wages to match ours, the AFL-CIO preferred to work with its corporate “partners” to pass protectionist laws to keep them away. So the American labor movement bears a large part of the blame for its current situation. By fighting for “American workers” and allowing workers in other countries to be reduced to virtual slavery, the AFL-CIO guaranteed that every boss in the US would move his factories overseas to the cheap labor.

    What the labor movement must do instead is to follow the companies wherever they go, to any country, and organize all the workers there. One company, one union, one contract, one wage scale—no matter where you are. That cannot happen until American workers give up their attachment to outdated nationalism. The only way the corporate bosses can be beaten is if all their workers stick together, organize together, and fight together, no matter what country they happen to be located in. That is what “solidarity” means.

    It used to be that “workers of the world, unite!” was just an idealistic political slogan.  Today, it is our only survival strategy.

    To beat a global corporation we must be global too. We MUST develop the ability to shut it down completely, globally, everywhere, and to cut off its flow of money until we get what we want.  Only one group of people on the entire planet has that ability---the corporation's own workers.  And since those workers are scattered all over the globe, we MUST have an international union that includes all of them, no matter where they are, and gives all of them the ability to work together to shut down the entire corporation's global operations, for as long as we need to, until ALL the company's workers get what they want.

    Until the labor movement is willing to do THAT, all else is just arm-waving and living in the past.

  •  Working America (0+ / 0-)

    There is an AFL-CIO community union called Working America and the dues are free. All anyone has to do is go on the AFL-CIO website, go to Working America and sign up.

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