Labor Under Fire

a review by Bob Roman

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Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979 by Timothy J. Minchin. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2017. 414 pages $39.95

There’s a major problem with the subject of this book and Timothy Minchin runs slam bang into it: The topic is too damned big for a book of a mere 414 pages. Oh yes, Minchin does try to narrow the topic, pointing out and so excluding bodies of other work that deal with various historical aspects, such as the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy, and many of the externalities that affect organizing. In fact, Minchin himself has written extensively about Labor’s campaigns to organize in the South. Even so, he still ends up beginning this account not in 1979 but at the beginning, at the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. And sensibly so as it is impossible to discuss the organization’s history post-Meany without some idea how its origins set the stage for that subsequent history.

But what promises to be a history of the AFL-CIO ends up with a primary focus on the leaders of the labor federation: George Meany, Lane Kirkland, Thomas Donahue, John Sweeney and Richard Trumka. Maybe there’s no other way to compress the subject into the space available, but it’s a limited window on to a very big subject.

History’s judgement on the AFL-CIO leadership is one Minchin’s main interests anyway. He feels that the labor federation’s presidents have gotten something of an unfair reputation as being backward looking and unreceptive to new strategies, particularly in the case of Lane Kirkland. He makes an good case for it. Unfortunately the main reason so many scholars and historians have it in for union leadership is that those leaders make such convenient stones upon which ideological axes can be sharpened. Under those circumstances, counterfactuals drift like ticker tape and no broom will contain them. Nonetheless, Minchin brings considerable research to this account, including numerous interviews with the players and access to the AFL-CIO’s own archives.

As the title, Labor Under Fire, implies, the book intends to be a history of the AFL-CIO’s attempts to deal with the labor movement’s decline. The second half of the Twentieth Century has not been kind to unions anywhere in the world; the United States is not unique in seeing a decline in membership and in union density. Here in the States, Minchin feels there were two especially rough patches: the Ronald Reagan administration / PATCO strike and the George W. Bush administration / 9-11 attacks.

The PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike has long been identified as a turning point in U.S. labor history, but Minchin’s account provided me with useful context. The Reagan administration was something almost unprecedented in Twentieth Century politics: The near total exclusion of organized labor from any contact with the White House, at least at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. As far as the Reaganistas were concerned, unions had nothing to say that they were at all interested in even pretending to hear. This, as much as any of the details of the strike itself and Lane Kirkland’s responses to it, is important.

Likewise, the turn of the millennium found an optimistic Labor movement in the process of building powerful coalitions outside the union movement. The infamous attacks on 9-11 in 2001 took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, an administration every bit as hostile to unions as the Reagan Administration. A malevolent Federal government and a public stampeded by fear and war is not an advantageous environment for organizing or for progressive public policy.

With respect to the Reagan administration, unions took a while to figure out that they were dealing with something new. They were not unique. In 1981, Chicago DSA (DSOC/NAM) was a part of the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics and we found that part of our task was convincing liberals and unions they were facing an existential threat. It took a while. It took years for some liberals.

In comparison, unions did respond and relatively quickly. One of the AFL-CIO’s responses under Kirkland was the September, 1981, Solidarity Day march on Washington. Minchin goes for the reasonably conservative crowd size estimate of 400,000, but it may have been twice that. (I was there.) The march also wasn’t a one-off event but was followed by a series of similarly branded local events including, ultimately, a tenth anniversary march on Washington in 1991. Minchin reports that the original 1981 event did make the political atmosphere in Congress more favorable to union priorities yet it certainly did not halt the erosion of union organizations. At best (it seems to me, as Minchin doesn’t argue this) Solidarity Day made conservatives a bit more cautious about directly confronting the union movement… until George W. Bush.

This speaks to a problem I had with the book generally. Minchin describes any number of interesting and innovative AFL-CIO responses to the crisis in union organization. Sometimes he will judge the initiative to be successful (for example the Strategic Approaches Committee established in 1989), but there’s never enough information to allow the reader to come to their own conclusion. I strongly suspect most unions, including the AFL-CIO federation, are not strong on metrics with which to judge political and educational projects. This allows leaders and staff to make their own, sometimes self-serving judgements. For example, how many of the “follow-ups” to the Solidarity Day march were simply rebrandings of activities local unions were going to do anyway? I remember a follow-up rally here in Chicago that was attended by dozens — hardly a turnout to encourage Labor’s friends or to worry Labor’s enemies. My prejudice (and unfortunately nothing in the book argues against this) is: If a union program does not contribute immediately to that union’s ability to serve and expand its membership then that program is optional and expendable, even if it might pay off in the long run. Marxists may regard that as a symptom of false consciousness, but unions survive, sorta, and marxists not so much.

Minchin ends his account just before the end of the Obama administration. I don’t feel he deals with the AFL-CIO in the Twenty-First Century in as much detail as he does its history in the Twentieth nor with John Sweeney and Richard Trumka as much as he does with Lane Kirkland. This may be prejudice on my part; I’m not so much interested in bettering Kirkland’s place in history. Or it may be how material was triaged for space.

As a small example, Minchin does not mention that John Sweeney was a member of my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), but he does mention that Lane Kirkland was not a member of the old Social Democrats USA (SDUSA). SDUSA membership is an odd sort of issue to simply mention in passing; very few people have even heard of SDUSA. Thus it seems to me to be a truncated thread in Minchin’s narrative. Street gossip in 1995 was that Sweeney had joined DSA specifically to irritate Kirkland and his supporters; SDUSA and DSA, for many years, did not much get along: If you were known as a DSA member (aka “a friend of Harrington”), you’d have no luck being hired at the AFL-CIO HQ. Kirkland also did his best to sabotage Michael Harrington’s “Eurosocialism in America” conference held in Washington in the early 1980s. Until 1989, Kirkland’s assistant was Tom Kahn, a leading member of SDUSA. While one of Kahn’s main tasks, even in the early 1980s, was foreign policy (one of Kirkland’s pet priorities), it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Kahn was one of the early promoters of the 1981 Solidarity Day march idea within the AFL-CIO. Kahn had been deeply involved in organizing the 1963 March on Washington so for all that I know, Solidarity Day may even have been Kahn’s idea. There is a story to tell but arguably tangential to the main narrative and the SDUSA observation looks like a stub that may have been intended to lead toward it.

A maybe more important thing that Minchin does not deal with at all is the role of contract negotiations in forming the political culture within unions. Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a union. (My Dad, however, was a member of NAGE, currently a part of SEIU.) That’s the way it is here in the States. But as a member and (for a time) a leader in Chicago DSA, I’ve spent a good bit of time with union staff and officials. The war stories unionists share focus on the adversarial and transactional process of bargaining, whether for a formal contract or for an individual grievance or even for candidates for public office. It seems to me that this experience has informed much of their behavior with respect to other organizations, other unions, and even other players within their own union. In some circumstances, this confrontational behavior and game playing is productive but other times not so much — it can be a handicap. It may very well be a partial explanation of why some of Labor’s efforts have yielded less than optimal harvests. But this criticism speaks more to my questions about labor history generally than it does regarding what Minchin intended to accomplish in this book.

So is Labor Under Fire a significant contribution to the historiography of Labor in the United States? Go ask someone else; I’m not an academic. Yeah, that’s a cop-out answer. But here is what I’m comfortable saying. If Timothy Minchin wanted to set the record a bit straighter for Kirkland, he makes a good but probably futile argument. On the other hand, for most people with a layman’s interest in the union movement, this is a useful introduction to the AFL-CIO’s history even if the focus ends up on the top leadership. In particular, I think it is useful in illustrating the nature of the AFL-CIO as a federation of independent unions. During the Meany years and during much of the Kirkland years, this awareness of being a federation was as much a part of the organization’s ideology as it was a political fact. It informed what Kirkland was willing to undertake and had a similarly big impact on the success and failure of various programs in the Sweeney years. You might nod your head when told that the AFL-CIO is not a union but a federation of unions, but Minchin’s account makes it real. In a federation, “solidarity” is often only the title to a song no one remembers the lyrics to.

For people with an interest in unions, it’s certainly worth your time to read and, depending upon your wallet, your money too.